Steampunk: should we be worried?

For those of you who don’t know what Steampunk is, here is Urban Dictionary’s definition:

Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.

Essentially, anything that looks like it has cogs and airships added for no reason. The entry goes on to list Steampunk films including Wild Wild West and Van Helsing (though, strangely, it misses League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).

Let’s be clear here, steampunk is counter-factual history par excellence. It’s what would happen if you took the past, cherry picked the bits that appealed to you, and left the rest behind. Take, for example, Phillip Pullman’s best selling ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. The only film that came out of it managed to massively miss its estimated target audience, explaining why the next two books didn’t follow (and you just know that third one would have been split into *at least* two more films).

Golden Compass's take on London

The still above is from that film, ‘The Golden Compass’. It is modern-day London (yes, there is a brass zeppelin and a steam train – you’re beginning to get the point). The whole story was so in love with the idea of steampunk that it invented an alternate steampunk universe, and spent the entirety of the first book there. The second book went a step further and got a normal lad from Earth Prime and gives him a magical knife so that he can cut his way into steampunk universe any time he damn well pleases.

As someone whose friends include a guy who regularly wears a top hat just because it’s a Wednesday (I’m looking at you, Spindles!), I am wary of pissing off the steampunk community. So let’s not pick on the ones that are beyond our remit and set in the ‘modern’ world.

…just randomly spinning the roulette wheel of rage here…

…one moment…

Wild Wild West!

Wild Wild West Spider

What’s that? It’s too easy to be scornful of a film with a giant mechanical spider set in the American west? Well screw you. I’m not going to go easy on a subculture that emphasises visual aesthetics over… let’s be honest, it just straight raises two fingers to functionality. On Earth Prime, giant mechanical spiders wouldn’t exist, not because they were impossible to build, but because the logistics of refueling, or just coordinating the movement of eight limbs is not worth the effort.

So, is steampunk a threat to the portrayal of history?


To a lesser extent, this is because steampunk has had its moment (for now at least). The late 90s and early 00s were the heyday of the trend, with Hellboy: The Golden Army being the last high water mark. And if that’s not a screaming indictment, I don’t know what is.

But more importantly, the steampunk community isn’t really interested in history for its own sake. Yes, they may be some of the most well-read people you’ve met, but that’s predominantly because they want to have cool historical things to Show and Tell.

Steampunk is a distraction, but a harmless one, and for that we can forgive it its willful ignorance of basic engineering.

*That* Downton Abbey photo

Downton Abbey water bottle photo
Hunt the incongruous object! Downton Abbey is getting hell because it accidentally included a modern water bottle in a supposedly-1920s photo shoot. Suspension of disbelief came crashing down. Personally, I liked the show best that one time I dreamed they were doing a vampire-themed Christmas special…

Why historians hate anachronisms

Way back in this blog post about population growth, I casually mentioned something I called the ‘tragedy of the antiquarian’. I used this term to refer to the fact that historians love stories, but hate any factual inaccuracies. Sound like you? Congratulations, you are a history geek, in my eyes at least. If you aren’t bothered by this, well done for achieving spiritual enlightenment. This particular post isn’t really relevant to you, but it might help you to understand what the rest of us go through.

Imagine that you are watching a film, or playing a game set in your favourite time period. You hear or see something that doesn’t fit in with what you know about the era. It’s probably something that was accidentally left in, rather than something that was intentionally added. Whatever the case it grates and, even if it’s only for a moment, you stop enjoying the immersion, and remember that this is a product, made in modern times by people who are probably still out there somewhere, and one of them made a booboo.

You are not alone

Every kind of nerd has to stomach a similar reaction when they see an adaptation of their interest with details that are not cannon. It’s all about suspension of disbelief. If you have invested time learning about a subject, then there will almost inevitably an emotional investment as well. No-one wants to think that they have wasted their time. (Nerd reassurance: Your time was not wasted; you exercised logic and indulged your imagination, and both of those are essential tools in modern life).

To err is human

As I have noted elsewhere on this blog, media products are not usually made by people who know that particular time period in depth. They are made by media companies who know how to make good products. They are (sometimes) advised by historians who know the period. Most of the time, media professionals take the world they know and extrapolate from it, carrying out research as and when they need to. Even historical consultants can’t catch every mistake, but as we only spot the ones that slip through, this is what we judge them by.

Attention to detail is expensive

Yes, you could pay a blacksmith armourer to make all the metalwork in your film using techniques that were available at the time, but it would probably be a helluva lot more expensive, and take way longer. If only 1% of your target audience is going to notice the difference, why would you take the harder option. Historical consultants are expensive, and so are re-shoots and update patches. Historical accuracy is a low priority compared to whether the product will work. It may be your life’s work to tell the truth about the past, but it isn’t theirs.

Some inaccuracies are needed for the story to make sense

I get that you are really upset that Alexander has an Irish accent, and Leonidas has a Scottish one, but I don’t hear you complaining that they are speaking English. In a similar way, there are some tropes in games that you expect, because the world would feel strange without them. This is why there are guards walking around acting like policemen, and signs written in modern English. Exposition is boring; and immersion is easiest when the world is couched in terms that the public understands. To ignore this fact and still complain about the accidental mistakes is a bit of a double standard.

We are the problem

Historians are usually story tellers, even if it’s just ‘You’ll never guess what Caligula got up to in his spare time’. We love to tell stories, but we lose patience when someone else gets one slightly wrong. The only way to truly overcome this crippling drawback is to let go of the importance of historical accuracy. Only then can you admire the storytelling.

Unless it’s godawful; then you can gripe all you like.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the one where I look at the eras that Hollywood neglects, the one where I become an apologist for ‘300 Rise of an Empire’, or the one where I get hung up on the food factual inaccuracies in the Lord of the Rings.