The Steampunk Movement Is Good And Important

Thoughts on the meaning and cultural importance of Steampunk

Nick Harkaway
Jun 10, 2013 · 8 min read

Let’s start with a simple observation: it’s not hard to find steampunk which is crap. You can find badly written steampunk novels, badly crafted steampunk items, ugly steampunk fashion, and people who live a steampunk life who are nonetheless arseholes. That is not a miracle. It’s not even a surprise, even if everything I’m about to say is absolutely spot on. Like the man said: 95% of everything is crap.

It is also unquestionable that the Victorian age, the definitive Age of Steam which Steampunk must inevitably own as part of its spiritual origin, was colonialist and racist, both systematically and unashamedly. Victorian theorists competed to identify how many biologically differentiated races lived on Earth, and proposed inherent characteristics for them, formulated explanations for these presumed variations in humanity. They engaged, consciously or not, in a massive project of justification for various acts of commercially and politically motivated conquest and for the slaughter of many non-white populations around the world. It’s also true that the position of women during this period was essentially serfdom: they could not vote, own property, or sue. British society was stratified by birth and wealth, mobility was limited and prejudice considerable.

The Steampunk ethos, according to some, glamourises the sins of the Victorians. Damian Walter, kicking off this post, wrote on Twitter that ‘steampunk looks like people who have lost their colonial privilege playing it out in fantasy’. In doing so, it takes on the guilt for those sins and promulgates an obnoxious stink of unacknowledged but conceptually inescapable racism, classism, and noxious gender politics.

So what’s to like?

Quite a lot.

In the first place, that indictment is not a bad description of the modern age in Britain, rather than of Steampunk in particular. Our attitude to sports, geopolitics, and to English language culture is almost exactly this. We decline to fade away into a dignified Northern European retirement of high tax, high standard of living, high level of happiness and education, low social inequality, low emissions and low crime. Instead we pay huge money for a significant ability to project power into far flung corners of the world - that’s what aircraft carriers and a submarine-based strategic nuclear weapons capability are for - and we somehow can’t afford mass state-funded tertiary education any more. Our infrastructure declines, our roads and our rails are pitted and rusted, our hospitals are being privatised, but we can still bomb Tehran and we still have a vote on the UN Security Council, so that’s fine. We measure greatness against the time when the map of the world belonged to London.

By the same logic which insists that literature touched by Victoriana is neo-colonialist, so too is everything else we do. Why pick out Steampunk for special disaffection on that basis?

Then, too, the vision of the Victorians I presented at the beginning is one-sided. That upsetting discussion of race came in part out of the growing - if incomplete - adoption of the scientific method as an explanatory tool. Charles Darwin’s publication of the theory of evolution in the middle of the 19th century added to the ferment, and it bore fruit in both the obnoxious eugenics movement and the modern understanding of biology and genetics which unseats the notion of race. Even as wrongheaded polygenist notions were finding shape, they were being challenged by those - including Darwin himself - who insisted on the shared ancestry of humankind. Were the Victorians racist by modern standards? Of course. So was everyone until about 1930, or maybe 1990. Or, to be honest: we still are - it’s not as if that discussion is anything like over even now. But they were also the people who created the tools which allow us to know that racism is baseless and odious, and who began groping blindly towards that realisation which seems so obvious from the far side.

Similarly, while (and because) women were unquestionably second class citizens, this was the period which saw the systematic formulation of a notion of feminism. A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published forty years before in 1792, but the Women’s Suffrage movement grew under Victoria through the work and determination of campaigners for education and empowerment - Marion Reed published her plea for women in 1843, the Ladies of Langham Place started meeting in the 1850s. Victorian women were the vanguard of the feminist movement, and the Isle of Man gave the vote to women in 1881 with New Zealand following in 1893. Britain followed piecemeal in 1918 and 1928. The Victorian period was the transition, and to some extent the engine, of gender equality - though again, the work is incomplete to this day. The same point applies to class, of course, with Karl Marx living in London from 1849 until 1883. The entire discussion of class in this country - in the world - owes its shape to dialogues which took place in London in the Victorian period.

From 150 years in its future, Victoria’s reign looks like a hellhole. But that’s because the battles fought during the period are part of what defines who we are now.

And that isn’t even why Steampunk is good or important. That’s just why the critique is a bit broad-brush.

The reason Steampunk is important is not what it says about the Victorian Age, or even what that age was. What’s important is why people like it now. It’s not some kind of subrosa fascist movement people flock to because it provides a covert sexual fix of jackboots and imperial pagentry. There are other clubs for that, whether they identify as being bondage clubs or political parties which want to “defend Englishness”. The appeal of the Steampunk movement is simpler than that. The reason Steampunk attracts people is that it is premised on a technology which is visible and pleasing to the naked eye, and whose moving parts are comprehensible on a human scale.

To unpack that: steam technology is blunt-force industrial, superficially uncomplex, intuitive technology. Nothing in its operation is mysterious. Expanding steam pushes pistons, power is delivered by mechanical driveshafts. Every aspect of it is open to anyone with even a very basic knowledge of physics, or just a curious mind, because the logic of its function is visible.

The sophisticated technologies with which we live now - cellular phones, laptops, even radio and television - require an understanding or at least an acceptance of objects we can never apprehend directly in any way. It’s not that any sufficiently advanced technology is magic, it’s that any technology taking place beyond the threshold of our senses is. Modern devices require that we embrace a world of weird, tiny particles and rare earths, a world whose precise composition is so far from what we can perceive that even now it is a matter of debate whether the theories underlying tools we use on a daily basis should be taken literally, or whether they are simply the best predictive models we have, but bear no resemblance to what actually exists - just as Ptolemaic cosmology accurately predicted the movement of the planets, despite being utterly and bizarrely mistaken.

John Ruskin - a Victorian, whose writings formed the basis of the Arts & Crafts movement which stressed artisanal making over mass production - argued that industrial design was unwholesome because the perfection of it denied the human. Many of the technologies we have can be understood only cognitively, never through our senses, and in this way if no other Ruskin was on the money: on some level, modern technology asserts a universe beyond the limited reach of our bodies, and from that universe come the wonders of our age. The non-cognitive part of us, the bit which does our seeing, tasting, hearing, touching, smelling, proprioception and various other things, is a valid and real part of who we are - but it appears, in a world of the sub-atomic and the invisible, impoverished.

Just as it would be tragic to ignore the advantages and consolations of the cognitive - and those who denigrate it in favour of a romanticised understanding of the instinctual or the mystical slander themselves - so equally it is idle and spurious to contend that we are cognitive entities riding around in bony control centres in our skulls, peeping out through windows in the face. We are not just brains with mobile life support. The emerging understanding of embodied cognition is the last nail in the coffin of that idea. We are bodies which think, and we’re at home with Steampunk because it is an ethos of design and creativity which acknowledges the humanly physical, that which we can understand with our fingers. It values our bounded selves, whose world is the middle earth between the flea and the horizon line in which objects obey Newton and relativity is barely more than an academic interest. It is a cognitively limited and incomplete sort of place. In terms of our senses, though, it’s all there is, and Steampunk is about being able to have the wonders of technology while still valuing, acknowledging and respecting that restricted view.

From that one central aspect of its identity, Steampunk mounts a challenge to grey-black plastic industrial design, to the faux-sanitised world of consumer technology and to techno-/neo-colonialism. It insistently re-makes technology as something friendly and even quasi-biological by producing things that owe more to Rube Goldberg than to the Filippo Marinetti-style “faster, harder” culture of Sony and Microsoft or the endless iterations of Apple and Samsung. The ethos admits of failure: Steampunk devices almost are not working properly if they don’t have leaks, if they don’t require maintenance and the occasional thump. That’s where they get character and animation, identities of their own which reflect their owners, while every iPhone can be seen as Apple’s endlessly replicated identity given passage into your every waking moment, a tiny and instantly replaceable cloned shopfront: what role is conferred or imposed by such a device on the person carrying it? It’s not that Jonathan Ive’s designs are poor, it’s that they are profoundly truthful: an iPhone is a vector, not an object, valued by its creator for its purpose and interchangeability, not individuality. Steampunk, on the other hand, repurposes, scavenges, remakes and embellishes in an arena where embellishment is seen as decadence, never mind the inherent decadence of creating the sheer amount of computing power our society now possesses in order that most of it should sit idle or be used for email and occasional games of Plants vs Zombies. Steampunk appeals to the idea of uniqueness, to the one-off item, while every mainstream consumer technology of recent years is about putting human beings into ever more granular, packageable and mass-produced identities so that they can be sold or sold to, perfectly mapped and understood.

Is the movement imperfect? Of course. Does it produce some bad art? By the bucketload - but so do Marxism, Modernism, and Post-Modernism, so did Impressionism and every other way of doing things. Do many of its proponents and practitioners ignore the issues inherent in its origins? Yes - though no more than most people do the issues inherent in the formulations of their lives. Does it, in turn, get commodified and packaged and sold back to itself as product? Of course - absent the collapse of capitalism, that’s how our world works. Will it bring about the downfall of the things it resists? Not likely.

Steampunk is flawed, and its flaws are the flaws of the society in which we live, neither more nor less than anything else we do. But along with those flaws, and not compensating for them but coming as their inevitable complement, it contains within it as art and sub-cultural movements should a critique of the mainstream which is valuable and hopeful and points to a better way of doing parts of our world, and that makes it both good and important.

[Image of the London Science Museum’s replica Difference Engine by Carsten Ulrich under CC Share-Alike Generic 2.5 - via Wikipedia]

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    Nick Harkaway

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    Essays and non-fiction

    Things which are not fiction, about stuff which is not fictional.

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