Art by Adam on 2007-09-08 12:47

Steampunk is something of a rising genre of fictional works. Or perhaps it’s better called an aesthetic, one that shows up in many fictional works. It combines the edgy, bad-ass, rough-and-tumble feel of cyberpunk with the fantastical feel of conventional high fantasy, all set in a world which typically feels like the early Industrial revolution.

Steampunk works tend to contain elements like flying machines, mechanical creatures (typically golems or mounts for riding), computation engines ala computers but built of clockwork parts, and projectile weapons; but these devices are built of what we would consider low-tech components, like pistons, pulleys, iron, wood, and of course steam engines as the power source. On one hand these devices seem plausible, but on the other they could never be built in practice - hence, the fantastical element.

I only became aware of this term less than a year ago, but it describes the feel I was always going for in my multiplayer online game, Blood Dusk. Players of the game know that, although it appears to be fantasy-themed at first, there are many industrial-age elements, such as the Clocktower, Mutant Mansion (where the end “boss” is a mix of the mad scientist and evil wizard stereotypes; and where I poke fun at mythical creatures by having him try to create them from “real” animals surgically); and the Artificer’s Tower. The most steampunkish is certainly the Machine God template, where advanced players can have crude surgery done to attach metal components such as an exoskeleton or a piston-driven pummeling arm.

Steampunk goes beyond just the mechanical devices, though. Set in worlds that are poised on the brink of the Age of Reason, it was a time when science had only just begun to split off from magic. For example, Issac Newton founded modern physics (hard science if there ever was one), but spent more of his life pursuing alchemy. Alchemy was the artifact of the previous age, where understanding the universe had more to do with magic and superstition than empirical evidence or testable hypothesis.

Perdido Street Station plays this up very well; the main character is a scientist, but his works often seem more like that of a sorcerer. In some cases the magic-science crossover is quite explicit, such as the bio-thamauturges. My favorite chapter in the book is 26, where a group of of vodyanoi (a race of creatures who can shape water as a sculptor would clay) dock workers are on strike. The government sends in the militia, riding giant man-o-wars (floating creatures with stinging tentacles) to disperse the crowd and kill the strike leaders. I especially love this passage:

“Three militiamen knelt at the very edge of the river. They were surrounded by a thicket of their colleagues, a protective skin. Quickly the three at the centre pulled target-rifles from their backs. Each man had two, loaded and primed with powder, one of which they set beside them. Moving very fast, they sighted along the shafts into the miasma of grey smoke. An officer in the peculiar silver epaulettes of a captain-thaumaturge stood behind them, muttering quickly and inaudibly, his voice muffled. He touched each marksman’s temples, then jerked his hands away.

Behind their masks, the men’s eyes watered and cleared, suddenly seeing register of light and radiation that rendered the smoke virtually invisible.

Each man knew the bodyshape and movement patterns of his target perfectly. The sharpshooters tracked quickly through the fog of gas and saw their targets. There was a rapid crackle, three shots in a quick tempo.

Two of the vodyanoi fell. The third looked round in panic, seeing nothing but the swirl of that vicious gas. He raced to the water walling him in, scooped a handful from it and began to croon to it, moving his hand in fast and esoteric passes. One of the riverside marksmen dropped his rifle quickly and picked up his second weapon. The target was a shaman, he realized, and if given time he might invoke an undine. The officer raised the gun to his shoulder, aimed and fired in one brisk movement. The hammer with its clamped shard of flint slid down the serrated edge of the pan cover and snapped, sparking, into the pan.”

The combination of pseduo-modern weapons technology and military with magic - watercraefting shamans and vision-enhancing mages - is just awesome. It’s better read in context, of course, but even now reviewing the passage makes me smile with child-like glee.

The steampunk aesthetic encompasses even more than mechanical devices and a science/magic constrast. It also pulls in other elements from an industrial world: conflict between labor, tycoons, and government; political upheaval; drug use; urban areas overcrowded and suffering from waves of disease due to the tight quarters and poor sanitation. Steampunk worlds are always on the verge, or on a series of verges: the transition between ancient concepts and the first glimmerings of modern ones. Compare this to the highly static worlds found in traditional fantasy, which depict a timeless world; or perhaps one where time is cyclical, reflecting the view of time held by most ancient cultures in the real world.

So, where can you find steampunk? It seems to be in short supply so far, though it appears to be rapidly getting more popular. Here are a few examples I’ve spotted over the years.

Finally, it seems to me that steampunk is making a showing in Burning Man artwork. The combination of new and old, fantastical and industrial, and of course lots and lots of bad-ass looking metal seems to fit very naturally with burner culture. I hope this is a trend that continues to grow.

One comment per 'Steampunk'

  1. Adam @ Dusk » The Destruction of Sennacherib says:

    […] ;ve heard before. Good stuff. Sidebar: this story is steampunk to the gills. A year ago I called steampunk “a rising genre.” Aparently I underestimated that by quite a bit, since the New York […]

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