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Feb 21 2014

Steampunk planet

I enjoyed a nice week off, during which time the Earth swung one more time past my day of birth. One of the places I visited during hiatus was a Steampunk lounge. The premise is built on the idea that Charles Babbage, or someone else, completed an analytical engine around 1840. It was by some accounts the first full-blown computer with the capacity to carry forward and store answers, i.e., memory. The idea, so the story goes, led to better and more compact designs eventually bordering on near nano-tech like breakthroughs enabling all sorts of interesting robotic and cybernetic devices. Eventually, with the invention of telegraph and telephones, and the lines to carry complex signals, the Info Age dawned in 1890 or so, a full century early. This first-wave sci-fi genre remained fairly obscure throughout the reality of the 1990s. But a lot of the people who read it were also into programming, some went on to develop video games, or contribute to movies and series, so the fashion and art influence grew and evolved in different ways in a second wave.

That alternative history is called Steampunk, a play on Cyberpunk. But it struck me that in some ways, we do live in a steamy-punkish world. True, the technology that is the most ubiquitous is Wi-Fi and iPads and social media. But what still drives it, the underlying industrial infrastructure mostly unseen by today’s cell phone addict, is gears and wheels, powered by burning gas, oil and coal, turning water into steam to produce electricity.

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  1. 1
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    My story world is somewhat Steampunk. It’s Steampunk with some magic, though.

    While sword and sorcery do exist, there are more modern weaponry and tools – guns for example (though these are your old-fashioned, Victorian Era stuff.)

  2. 2
    Artor

    LOL! Your description of Steampunk is… quaint.

  3. 3
    Gregory in Seattle

    The reason why steampunk is a play on cyberpunk is because first-wave steampunk was dystopic. It looked at the many problems of the second half of the 19th century — the extremes of classism, racism, cultural elitism and misogyny, the massive deforestation followed by strip mining coal to fuel industry, the resulting toxic pollution, the huge gap between rich and poor, the work houses, and so much more — and used them as parables to show the start of modern problems and how little those problems have improved. Cyberpunk, in contrast, takes today’s problems and projects them into the future to show what might happen if things continue as they are. Both genres are political and can be pretty subversive.

    Second-wave steampunk, which is the culture celebrated by most people, really has nothing at all to do with first wave. It celebrates innovation and exploration and generally ignores the heavy costs they impose. It’s fun in an escapist way, and I even have some neo-Victorian outfits I wear to SF/F conventions. I just wish it wasn’t called “steampunk”: it has nothing whatsoever to do with actual steampunk.

  4. 4
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    BTW for anyone who’s new here: if you notice the main post changing as people chime in with ideas and refinements in comments, that’s kinda how this works. It’s sometimes a group collaborative process, in this case I may use a steampunk intro derived from the one above for a piece on Keystone that will be prominently posted; it’s useful to put that out here first and have people with more experience weigh in.

  5. 5
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    @Gregory:

    I’d argue what most people like nowadays (the kind of neo-Victorian genre) is more a return to the 0th-wave. Jules Verne, after all, was the first steampunk author.

  6. 6
    Trebuchet

    I’m not going to click on the video because right there in the still shot is a blatant example of what I hate most about steampunk: Gears That Don’t Work. The four gears on the right-hand side of the mask constitute a locked train. They will not, can not, rotate. Even if the two larger ones were separated, the differing ratios to the two smaller ones would prevent rotation. At least the tooth pitch is pretty much the same. Usually it’s not.

    Why yes, I am a mechanical engineer. How did you guess?

  7. 7
    Gregory in Seattle

    @Kevin #5 – There is a difference between being a writer in Victorian times describing contemporary science fiction, and a writer from much later who uses the Victorian era as a setting. Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs… they did not write steampunk by any definition. And the vast majority of people I see wearing neo-Victorian outfits are either steampunk aficionados or goths, with a few historical recreationists or Dickensian Christmas carolers thrown into the mix. I can’t recall every seeing someone dressed in costume to honor Jules Verne.

  8. 8
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    @Gregory:

    That’s why I used 0th. It’s not technically steampunk as much as it is Victorian-era science fiction. But the modern steampunk arguably pulls significantly from those writers.

  9. 9
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    Click on the link, Tre! Just think of it as an art form. Victorian era based art. Like showing a sparkplug icon on a PC desktop for a power application, or a decal on a kitchen device, that doesn’t actually have or use a sparkplug.

  10. 10
    Gregory in Seattle

    @Kevin #8 – I will concede the point, then :-D

  11. 11
    jimbaerg

    For a similar notion see
    http://www.rocketpunk-manifesto.com/
    1950s SF would be 0th wave rocketpunk.
    especially the 1st real entry
    http://www.rocketpunk-manifesto.com/2007/04/on-rocketpunk.html

    Some of the entries in this
    http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/
    have a somewhat steampunk feel.

    The authors of this
    http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/
    prefer the term ‘gaslamp fantasy’.

  12. 12
    DonDueed

    Trebuchet, it’s a parking brake.

  13. 13
    Ray Beauvais

    Don’t forget the Tens of thousands of miles of fiber optic cable and Millions of miles of copper wire needed.

    Lots of stuff under the hood.

  1. 14
    This week in science: Planet of Ignorance - Online Political Blog

    […] all the microchips and wireless devices, we still ultimately rely on a steampunk-like energy infrastructure. If a 100 million electric cars start going on the grid, we’re going to […]

  2. 15
    This week in science: Planet of Ignorance | PROGRESSIVE VOICES

    […] all the microchips and wireless devices, we still ultimately rely on a steampunk-like energy infrastructure. If a 100 million electric cars start going on the grid, we’re going to […]

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