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Steampunk and its Relation to History

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Recently, I procured a copy of the Sept. 2010 Locus Magazine which carried interviews on steampunk with famous authors in the field – Sterling, Blaylock, Moorcock, Lake, et alia.  Now, it’s a great set of interviews with lots of insight on the genre and its history.  New to the scene this year, I am fascinated to study the movement-cum-literary-genre.  I’m trained as a literary analyst (I don’t like the term “critic”).   Loads of information and insight into the authorial big wigs.  Highly recommend it and all that.

However, reading the remarks of the esteamed Mr. Bruce Sterling, I was struck by several statements. Mr. Sterling cites K. W. Jeter’s letter to Locus (April 1987) in which Mr. Jeter introduced the term “steampunk” as a tongue-in-cheek term for the “gonzo-historical manner” of his own writing along with that of Tim Powers and James Blaylock.  This letter to the editor is cited as the inception of the word “steampunk.”  Mr. Sterling remarks flatly, “No Locus, no steampunk.  That simple.”

I hardly think that it is that simple.  Perhaps without the books the whole thing might not have happened.   But a movement stopped dead in its historical tracks because a magazine neglected to publish a letter to the editor, or the author never wrote it?

What is most interesting in this statement is that it represents a view of history that is a common aspect of the steampunk genre and also of the western world’s take on history.  It is often called the “great man” approach to history and was prevalent in the nineteenth century itself.  You know:  Great Men do things that change the world.  In Mr. Sterling’s statement the great men are Mr. Jeter, and, metaphorically speaking, Locus Magazine.

We tend to look back on history and say, “Wow!  What if Isaac Newton had stuck to Alchemy and never invented calculus or the theory of gravity?”  Or, what if Napoleon had not been defeated at Waterloo?  Or, what if the American civil war had gone on for twenty years instead of four?  These “what ifs” focusing on inventions or events tend to assume that, for example, if Newton had not invented calculus, it might not have been invented at all, or at least not until much later.  Steampunk often goes the other way, saying “What if Newton’s alchemy paid off in terms of inventing aetheric light bulbs and weapons?  Or what if dirigibles never went out of style.”

Such a take on historical changes seems logical, of course, but that is because we live within a western ideology of individualism.  Centuries of reading “great man” history books from the Romans on has led us to believe that the future would be changed completely if it were not for the actions of certain individuals.  Maybe yes, maybe no.

Great Minds Change the Times

We love that theory of history because it makes each one of us feel potentially important.  We all can read about Tesla or Edison or Brunel or Zeppelin and aspire to be someone who counts, someone who does something that changes the course of the world.   That idea of being Someone is maybe the driving desire behind all adventure fiction.  It is also the root of most religions – a Great Man.

SF time travel stories have often played with the idea that some small action taken by a time traveler in the past could change the whole future in dramatic ways.  Little men can become Great Men because of a sort of butterfly effect of the actions of ever unknown common man.  I am gendering the discussion on purpose because in the old history books and SF time travel stories it is almost always men.

No Marx, no Lenin.  No Lenin, no Communism. Presumably, No George Washington, no United States too.  It’s that simple.

Marxists theory, by contrast tends to think of history as an ocean in which currents of economic and social change drive us into the future.  If there hadn’t been a Lenin, someone else would have led the Russian Revolution.  If Newton had not published Principia Mathematica, someone else would have.  Maybe not at the same chronological moment but sometime, because the thoughts of individuals is driven by social, economic, and historical forces that made certain ideas ripe at a certain point in the development of a culture.   It is harder to say that, for instance, dirigibles would have become a worldwide transportation revolution and airplanes remained the tools of warfare if the Hindenburg had not exploded.  Can accidents occur because of historical forces?  Of course, if it was a bomb, as some think, then the bomber would have been motivated by historical forces – presumably anti-Nazi sentiments.

And when the explosion of the Hindenburg had occurred was it inevitable that the public would turn against airship travel?  That is a plausible hypothesis based on social psychology.  But we might also ask: Could a great man have stepped in and calmed people’s fears and restored the airship to its noble place?  In airship history it was to some extent the lack of a Great Man in America that prevented the United States from moving forward with an airship program of its own.  Lagging behind the Germans in that technology, the Americans found themselves unable to build airships fast enough to compete.  The military toyed with them, but no big capitalist stepped up to do what the Count von Zeppelin did in Germany – commercially develop airships as a mode of transport to compete with steamships.

Because steampunk is something like traveling back in time and changing history, the whole genre is serving as a thought experiment (often not very serious) into the way technological changes can alter the development of society.  If the French and English had calculating engines to make their artillery more precise, would they have prevented Germany from ever uniting?  That is one of the questions raised in Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine.  (I wonder if the authors intended a  reference to Derrida and the idea of différance – the infinite deferral of meaning in signifiers.)

The Roots of Victorianism

As for whether steampunk started in the moment Mr. Jeter coined the work, I don’t think anyone really believes it is that simple.  Steampunk, it seems to me was nascent before the 1970s.  I was there.  I didn’t read any of the three supposed founders of the genre in my teens, but I was a retro-Victorian dressing up in very slap-dash DIY imitations of a Victorian gentleman’s costume.  I assumed the manners of a gentleman as a sophomore in high school (1976) much to the delight of the bullies at my school who spent the entire year trying to flap my unflappability.  Why?  Because I was a fan of Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle.  The Sherlockian culture was alive, well, and actually quite old by the time I discovered the Baker Street Journal.  I was also a huge fan of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books.  The admiration for the heroes of Victorian science fiction (and I include Sherlock Holmes in this genre), go back a long way.

It was in the 1960s that the seminal film adaptations of the novels of Jules Verne were made.  In days without the Internet — What do we call it?  The analog age? – movies in theaters were the biggest influences on popular culture.  Most of the current steampunks know hardly anything about the 1960s culturally.  They cannot imagine a world in which one had to see a movie in the theater and then watch vigilantly for its appearance in the television schedules.  No videos, no CDs, no Netflix or Hulu.  Indeed, it is far easier today to watch your favorite SF movie from the ‘60s than it was in the ‘60s.

It might seem anachronistic to call the Disney film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea “steampunk” or to say that Sherlockians dressing up and having high tea in their clubs were “steampunk.”  They didn’t evolve out of teenage Goths or punk rock, or even cyberpunk.  In the ‘60s, “punk” meant something like a young smartass, or juvenile delinquent.  Sixties “punks” were not making a post-modern social statement.  They were just shoplifting cigarettes and wearing their hair long to annoy their fathers.  It was not punks, but hippies that everyone was worried about in the ‘60s.  Free love and blue jeans and living in communes smoking pot – that sort of thing.

To the Establishment, the hippies were breaking down traditional Christian rules about pre-marital sex and the Puritan work ethic, not to mention getting high with a drug other than alcohol.  “Countercultural” sounded dangerous and was not trendy within academia.  On the contrary.  Twenty years later, post-modernism and the culture war were all over academia and professors found themselves in the position of having to take sides over issues like feminism, racism, and even the possibility of fixed meanings for words.  Subversive thought had become mainstream, and that angered a lot of conservatives outside of academia.  The war started rumbling in the sixties as American values lost their homogeneity.

Against this cultural background, the oddball kid who was a Sherlockian and dressed up in a pith helmet, tall boots, and a riding crop, or an Inverness coat and deerstalker, a kid whose fondest dream was to have a real top hat – this sort of kid was a real rebel.   Being a Victorian was practically the opposite of being a hippie, but it was also not conforming to the Modernist idiom of the man in the gray flannel suit working in a skyscraper and living in the suburbs.

A  kid who pretended to be Captain Nemo or Phileas Fogg, was traveling back in time to the world of his grandparents, or even great-grandparents.  Reactionary?  Maybe, but it is hard to call a ten-year-old boy a reactionary.  Nostalgia?   Sort of, except that the longing for the past, for “going home” (as the original Greek suggested), was not about returning to one’s own past.  It was about “going home” to a fictionalized period of history where one was sure one would fit in better.  In that respect it was non-conformist.

But more than this.  As Midwestern American kids — my friends and I in our mock frock coats and fancy dresses (yes there were ladies) — were not in fact imitating the world of our own grand and great-grandparents.  Our ancestors were all farmers and merchants in the pioneer world of nineteenth-century Minnesota.  We were imitating the British ladies and gentlemen of the world of Victorian England and her Empire.  This world we knew not through the study of history but through Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and H. Rider Haggard.  And more often than not, through movie adaptations of their works and Hollywood interpretations of costumes and the ethos of an age.  Victorianism wasn’t about imitating real people of the nineteenth century.  It was about entering a fantasy world based on the literature of the nineteenth century.

Was that ethos one of post-apocalyptic nihilism and despair?  Did we think we were all doomed to be assimilated (and maybe improved) into the Machine, like cyborgs?  Not at all.  Victorianism took H.G. Wells’ Time Machine and used it to escape those looming threats of the “population bomb,” nuclear war, and Totalitarianism.   It is true that while I was watching Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Time Machine, I was also watching The Six Million Dollar Man, which suggested that bionic limbs and eyes and so forth would be nice enhancements.  But the Bionic Man and his female sequel were just a little like Frankenstein’s monster, and to get those bionic limbs you had to become quadriplegic and almost dead.  They were heroes, but they were also unique.  Everyone wasn’t becoming a cyborg, or merging their brains into the matrix, and the cyborgs weren’t taking over the world.  (Well, only in Dr. Who.)

Victorianism in the 1960s and ‘70s was optimistic and Romantic.  It valued the human individual.  It exalted the cultured, well-bred, and intellectual man and woman in a way that mainstream society did not (in the Midwestern United States especially). Elegant clothing was emphasized instead of tee shirts and nudity.  Which is not to say that anyone intended to adopt the legendary prudery of Queen Victoria and the British middle class.  We didn’t even know about that.

We were attracted to a fictional world in which exploration and science did not pollute the air and water, or lead to nuclear annihilation.  We knew that in reality the nineteenth century was the beginning of all the pollution and destruction of the natural world.  But we were after a fictional world where all of those issues were simply bracketed and did not enter into the story.   Oppression of the working classes, destruction of the old artisanal world of creation, disruption of rural life — none of this was part of that fantasy world.    The world of Sherlock Holmes, Phileas Fogg, and Prof. Aronnax, was a world of class.  As American kids, we didn’t understand the British class system as a present form of alienation.  By “class” we meant that a man was cool and a woman refined — classy.  If you were a gentleman you knew it, and you had a valet to help you keep well-dressed and clean.   There was no oppression, racism, or sexism because, the movies mostly ignored those things.  Imperialism had its bad points, to be sure, but it really didn’t enter into the story very directly.  And anyway, the British Empire was a good empire, not like some.  The old British Empire of the nineteenth century became a kind of metaphor pointing to the new 20th century American Empire, and saying “See we are like that – a superior culture spreading our goodness to sad, starving people in Asia and Africa.

The good side of the British Empire, taken up in films and books,  was that it put the British into contact with cultures all over the world – especially Asia.  There was still plenty of adventure and terra incognita then.  In the 1960’s and ‘70s, as a boy, I had the feeling that everything had been discovered.  There was no place to go as an explorer of the old school, except into space or under the sea like Jacques Cousteau.  The best you could hope for was to become a writer for National Geographic Magazine, or to become a naturalist and study wildlife.  The world was mapped. There were no more wildernesses that had not been visited and studied.  Sure, there was more studying to do, but that wasn’t the same as the romance and excitement of discovering King Solomon’s mines or even the source of the Nile.  A middle-class, midwestern teenager had little understanding of the adult business of career and earning a living.  Which is perhaps why we could identify with British aristocrats and engineering geniuses.  They just had all the money they needed in the movies and this was kind of our experience too when we were being raised and cared for by our parents.

For years, in college and graduate school, I lived the gentlemanly ideal as punk rock and cyberpunk passed me by almost unnoticed.  My head was in the literature and music and culture of the past, in ancient and medieval history, in Dickens and Jane Austen, Keats and Tennyson, Mozart and Beethoven.  As a result there just isn’t any  “punk” in my steampunk.  Cyberpunk seemed simply paranoid and bizarre – founded, it seemed to me on the belief that computers actually worked.  With the Apple II and the early Macintoshes, that was hardly my experience.  Far from growing up with computers and the Internet, I grew up with books and libraries.  There wasn’t any Internet, so far as I was aware until I was quite well established in my ways.  It came as a welcome improvement over the sort of laborious library searching and photocopying I had to do in grad school, but I never have seen the Internet as something that could possibly get inside my head and occupy all of my time.  Machines were inherently unreliable.  My Dad made a career out of fixing computers that failed to work.

The love of technology attached to Victorianism (for me) did not include computers or even automobiles.  It was definitely not a love of steam-powered factories and coal mines, capitalism, empires or armies (except the cool pith helmets).  Perhaps it should not even be called Victorianism at all.  It was more like Verneism because it had nothing to do with who sat on the throne in London.  This Vernean dream was a love of trains and balloons, gaslight, horses and hansom cabs.  It was the immediacy of friendships made not on Facebook but on board a steamship, or in a gentleman’s club in London.  It was a love of fountain pens and hand-written letters instead of phone calls.     It was a love of the smell of a burning oil lamp, and the soft light it produced.  A pipe, a cigar, with male friends, the smell of tobacco.  It was the wish for a day before electric lights.  It was a love of mystery expressed in fog and manly adventure that tested one’s mettle and gave one a chance to be heroic.  The technology was in the background for the most part except in those cases when the hero of a story was an engineering genius.

Captain Nemo is the best example of such a technician-hero.  Some critics read Nemo as a mad scientist, but he is far more complicated than that.  He is a political exile who has escaped colonial tyranny and built a marvelous machine-home that provides for all his needs and the needs of his crew.  Captain and crew have a very dynamic similar to that of gentleman and valet.  The loyalty of servants is assumed and given freely in exchange for good treatment and even friendship.  Yes, it might be considered a romantic reading of the class system, but it is also an ideal in which those who serve others (the majority of humankind) do so without being mistreated, and actually have fun adventures while serving.  It is as much a romantic ideal of servitude as it is a romantic ideal of the gentleman-scientist.  And it may be more historically accurate than a lot of Marxist literary critics think.

Mr. Sterling remarks in the Locus interview that steampunk is not “inherently literary” but rather owes its existence to network cyberculture.  I understand what he means but do not entirely agree.  I do think that steampunk, so far as it evolved out of earlier Victorianism in the Verne-Wells-Haggard-Burroughs resurgence in films and comic books is born of “literature” in its broad sense.  Born of these cultural texts, as Derrida might say.   It just took another ten years for the works of Sterling, Blaylock, Powers, and Jeter to emerge as the effect of this earlier cultural cause.

I do agree that the movement  owes its present proliferation and diversity to the net.  But I do not fully agree that steampunk required the net.  Indeed, for pre-steampunk Victorians like me, sending letters written with fountain pens was much more fun.  It was the new way to “meet” people and “talk” via the new telegraph system that allowed the eccentricity of scattered individuals or groups of friends to become a movement.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered steampunk.  I had missed the cyberpunk fad and was busy writing a doctoral dissertation when the Goth scene emerged.  I was pretty isolated from pop culture because I was not that interested in TV and movies or bars and clubs.  But by 2010 steampunk had filtered through even to me, and I discovered to my wonder that it had become a fashion and trend to don top hats and emulate the explorers and inventors of the Vernean dream of my childhood.  The teenagers and twenty-somethings who have built the movement came at it when they were much more free to wear strange clothes.  Cosplay emerged as a term in the 1980s, and as a practice earlier in Japan and at science-fiction conventions.  I had been working at the local Renaissance Festival and donning my druid robes at Stonehenge without ever having heard the word cosplay.  How different to be born into that world now!  Perhaps that makes me a “born-again steampunk.”

Bruce Sterling attempts to define steampunk to be neither “about the future” nor “about the past” but rather as a “cybercultural, countercultural venture whose reason for being is to blur, subvert, erase or transcend those temporal differences. …[S]teampunk is a twenty-first century cultural space where the strictures of analog text can no longer define our relationship to the passage of time.”

Hi falutin’ talk.  Maybe some Steamers today think they are subverting something, or sit around saying to their friends “Boy, I am sooooo glad our relationship to the passage of time is no longer defined by the strictures of analog text.”  For me, steampunk is not about subversion and I never did think my relationship to the past was dictated by “analog” narrative structure.  I was trained to be a literary critic, but didn’t like the gobbledygook.  I went into literature because I liked books and stories and history and romance.  It is the sensual, aesthetic, inward, imaginative pleasure of a fictional world that is orderly, has beautiful machines, and daring men and women who can engineer such wonders.  Of course we don’t think about the awful working conditions of the lower classes or even the awful state of public sanitation.  They are not part of the fiction.  They are part of real history.  Some like their entertainment gritty and full of vice and sadness.   I like mine full of beauty, wonder, optimism, discovery, and dauntless courage.  In sum, I prefer fictions about the human spirit working through technology, not technology replacing the human spirit.

But I sure am glad my relationship to time is no longer defined by the strictures of analog text.






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