It’s about Time: Reading Steampunk’s Rise and Roots
In Like Clockwork: Steampunk Pasts, Presents, and Futures , Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall present a lively, engaging collection of essays about the past, present, future (and alternate versions thereof) of steampunk culture, literature and meaning, ranging from disability and queerness to ethos and digital humanities. We're proud to present this long excerpt from the book's introduction.
Every Labor Day weekend, more than 70,000 fans of science fiction, fantasy, comic books, and more descend on Atlanta, Georgia, for Dragon*Con. One of the highlights of the convention each year is the parade that features attendees marching down Peachtree Street, dressed in their best costumes to cheering throngs of observers—around 75,000 of them in 2015, and the numbers keep growing. A group of high elves from The Lord of the Rings will be followed by Disney princesses and villains who are in turn followed by twenty different Doctor Whos, each of them dressing as their personal favorite of the twelve different incarnations of the Doctor. Throughout the parade one sees Indiana Jones, Han Solo, Captain Jack Sparrow, and Edward Scissorhands, often walking next to one another. There are fairies, dwarves, storm troopers, and zombies—literal hordes of them. And there are steampunks. Men, women, and even some children march by in Victorian topcoats, spats, cravats, bowlers, bustles, crinolines, and lace gloves. But along with the period clothing, they carry fantastic armaments and adornments that feature exposed gears and rivets, ornate embellishments, and rich woods, materials ranging from brass to leather to copper. Most of the steampunks wear goggles of one sort or another; some pairs are pulled down over their eyes, while others are shoved up onto the brim of a hat in what could only be described as jaunty nonchalance. Alongside those marching, some ride boneshakers, some drive modified wheelchairs, and some walk their steampunk-attired pets. In recent years at the Dragon*Con parade, these steampunk cosplayers have made up a sizable percentage of the fan costumes, surpassing every other form of fandom except Star Wars.
It hasn’t always been this way. When we first began attending the Dragon*Con parade in 2005, there really wasn’t any steampunk to speak of. By 2008, approximately twenty people joined the parade with their goggles, parasols, and waistcoats. In 2010, there were easily five times as many steampunk fans marching in the parade, and the costumes had improved significantly, with one gentleman in a pith helmet carrying a blunderbuss with a gramophone-horn muzzle. By 2013, steampunk had become so familiar that when a group five people dressed as cogged and riveted versions of the blocks from a classic puzzle game walked by, Brian’s daughter immediately identified it as steampunk.
"But what," she asked, "is Tetris?"
Steampunk: Why Now?
In the second decade of this new millennium, steampunk has arrived—and in a big way. Steampunk, the mode that finds imaginative ways to combine everything from steam technology and gene splicing to Tetris and brass cogs, has advanced well beyond its Victorian and literary roots. Comic and fan conventions taking place across the country regularly see large numbers of steampunk participants. Indeed, steampunk is now enough of a cultural phenomenon that it gets its own conventions.
Literary steampunk has kept pace with this growth trend. The steampunk enthusiast or novice can now delve into the genre via any number of anthologies, long fiction, and, of course, erotica, while the proliferation of steampunk fan fiction and self-published texts in Amazon’s Kindle store evidences the DIY ethos so important to its fans. Meanwhile, the steampunk elements of Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (2006) testify to the genre’s shift away from the margins to venues more likely to be considered as canonical literature.
Similarly, steampunk has made inroads not just within its fan community but also with the general public. Prada’s fall/winter 2012 campaign featured four Hollywood actors, Gary Oldman, Garrett Hedlund, Jamie Bell, and Willem Dafoe, in what the company termed "a subtle parody of power and role-play" that was explicitly reminiscent of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Instead of using these period-specific terms, however, most of the press coverage for the campaign simply described the clothing as "steampunk."
In January 2013, just six months after Prada’s campaign, major media outlets began reporting that steampunk was poised to become a new retail trend. A largely below-the-radar movement that had begun to make inroads into boutique merchandisers or influencers like Prada, "steampunk styling" would, according to the reports, show up by 2014 "in mainstream clothing, furnishings, and accessories." What was most interesting about this forecast of fashion was that it didn’t come from established fashion channels like Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar. Instead, it was a prediction from IBM. The organization analyzed the traffic of social media networks and online forums and concluded that conversations about steampunk online increased elevenfold from 2009 to 2012 and had leaped across several "cultural domains (such as fiction, visual arts, etc.)." IBM predicted that these this vanguard of awareness about steampunk will influence others to make purchases as steampunk-inflected objects become more readily available through mass market retailers. The proliferation of steampunk-themed videogames and Etsy shops bears out the prediction.
But why now, and why not before? When the first seminal novel—Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air—in steampunk was written in 1971 (see Mike Perschon’s essay in this volume); when the term was coined in 1987 by K. W. Jeter; when the role-playing game Space: 1889 made use of a neo-Victorian setting on Mars in 1988; when that same role-playing scenario was adapted into a video game in 1990; when William Gibson and Bruce Sterling published The Difference Engine in 1990; when the incredibly popular video game series Final Fantasy departed from its medieval setting to a steampunk world in 1994’s Final Fantasy VI; and when Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill published the first volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in 1999, the same year that the Will Smith steampunk film Wild, Wild West appeared, one must ask, halfway through the second decade of the twenty-first century, "Why is steampunk finally happening now?" Is the current momentum of steampunk somehow operating like clockwork, a sort of fantastic machine that was wound forty years ago and is only now beginning to move appreciably? Or is there something more that is motivating the rise of steampunk in the last five to ten years that mark it differently than the previous thirty? Ironic as it might be to consider the timeliness of a genre or a movement that defines itself precisely on its atemporality and anachronism, the question of steampunk at the present moment lies at the heart of this volume.
In our efforts to consider this "why now," we want to first turn backwards to consider, in part, "why then?"
Steampunk: Why Then?
In our previous work on steampunk, we considered the particular Victorian antecedent of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830–33), which revolutionized conceptions of time by insisting there has been no great catastrophe or massive geological rupture in Earth’s history. We find ourselves interested in forging a connection to another of the nineteenth-century’s titans of science as we approach this volume. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) changed the imaginative possibilities for his Victorian readers and, enabled by Lyell’s insights about geological epochs, instantiated a new paradigm for thinking about time. Lyell’s uniformitarianism—which we have argued can be understood as the temporal paradigm that undergirds the steampunk’s imagination—catalyzed Darwin’s inquiry into the explanation for biodiversity.
While much of the revolutionary significance of Origin of Species has to do with common ancestry, much of the actual text is devoted to establishing the Earth’s vast biodiversity. Darwin uses this frame to illustrate the surprising number of features that diverse populations share. He writes, "All the members of whole classes can be connected together by ‘chains of affinities,’" and then methodically traces out those chains through a broad range of species and kingdoms. Homologies among different animals are the foundation of Darwin’s argument for natural selection. The ability to apprehend affinities among diverse organisms—for example similarities in skeletal systems—is Darwin’s key imaginative insight: "The framework of bones being the same in the hand of man, wing of a bat, fin of a porpoise, and leg of a horse, the same number of vertebrae forming the neck of the giraffe and of the elephant, and innumerable other such facts, at once explain themselves on the theory of descent with slow and successive modifications." The "slow and successive modifications" insight is supplied by Lyell’s Principles of Geology, but the uniformity (and incredible length) of the geologic timeline is not enough to explain where all the Earth’s variety comes from; one must also have a keen vision for shared features in order to apprehend the possibility of common descent.
Like Lyell’s uniformitarianism, Darwin’s homologies give us a metaphor for the imaginative insight that mobilizes steampunk. The chains of affinities between centuries, technologies, and ideologies enable the mash-ups, alternate histories, and recombinations that so frequently characterize steampunk. The surprising exposure of these affinities is often what makes steampunk so compelling.
To turn to a literary example, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy (2009–11) literalizes the Darwinian metaphor we are using to help think about steampunk’s informing ethos. Westerfeld’s alternative history of World War I replaces the Allies and the Central Powers with Darwinists and Clankers, respectively. While the Clankers respond to the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand by mobilizing steam-driven industrial war machines, the Darwinists rely on fabricated animals that combine the features of "naturally" occurring species. As the moniker might imply, these novels are set in a speculative world in which Darwin discovered the secrets of DNA (or "life threads," in the novel’s terms) and gene splicing. In Westerfeld’s nineteenth century, the first stage of the Industrial Revolution may have seen machines replacing humans, but the next step saw fabricated animal hybrids replacing machines. For the Darwinists in Westerfeld’s dazzlingly imaginative universe, steampunk is ironically made by replacing London’s steam engines with hybrid animals.
The animalistic machines and fabricated creatures in Westerfeld’s novels all have practical functions, as is the case with the "Huxley ascender," a hybrid creature "made from the life chains of medusae—jellyfish and other sea creatures" that serves as a personal zeppelin for aerial scouting. In Leviathan’s world, Darwin’s recognition of interspecies homologies supplies the explanation for the world’s biodiversity while simultaneously enabling the utility of creatures built upon those homologies. It is a profoundly generative insight, one that seems to allow the Darwinists’ hybrid creatures to function as metaphors for the hybrid literary and cultural genre their novel inhabits. Indeed, the eponymous Leviathan is introduced in language that the editors of this volume, at the very least, cannot help but associate with the features of the broader steampunk genre: "The Leviathan’s body was made from the life threads of a whale, but a hundred other species were tangled into its design, countless creatures fitted together like the gears of a stopwatch."
The whole of the Leviathan trilogy provides an exemplary valorization of hybridity, with Westerfeld’s fabricated creatures serving as an especially on-the-nose example. But hybrid creations are, of course, all over the steampunk universe, always showing us unexpected affinities. We might think of the spaceship/pirate vessel hybrids in Philip Reeve’s Larklight trilogy (2006–9) or the newt/human monarch in Paul di Filippo’s story "Victoria" (1995). The brass-fitted iPods and cog-laden laptops of steampunk’s material culture also come to mind, along with the surprising recognition that nineteenth-century gears and studs look well suited to Tetris blocks. Within steampunk texts and communities, these hybrids are often created by individuals who are tinkering, fiddling around with available, compatible materials to make a better . . . something—or maybe just a more interesting something. Steampunks, according to SteamPunk Magazine, insist on "using what is available." Amateur enthusiasts, whether in steampunk fiction, film, and material culture, find themselves deploying the tools and pieces at hand, a fundamental trait of the tinkerer. The specific version of tinkering at play in steampunk seems to involve not just a practical application of available pieces but also an aesthetic delight in the homologies uncovered by the ensuing combinations. This recourse to the materials at hand produces unexpected combinations and emphasizes the chains of affinities among so many of steampunk’s—and steampunks enthusiasts’ creations—constitutive parts.
Steampunk’s Shared Structures and Adaptations
The figure of the tinkerer is useful here not only because it is so often associated with steampunk but also because it has been instrumentally associated with Darwin and the mechanism of natural selection. In a seminal and beautiful essay published in Science in 1977, François Jacob argues that tinkering is the best metaphor for describing the mechanism of natural selection:
[Natural selection] works like a tinkerer—a tinkerer who does not know exactly what he is going to produce, but uses whatever he finds around him, whether it be pieces of string, fragments of wood, or old cardboards . . . In contrast with the engineer’s tools, those of the tinkerer cannot be defined by a project. What these objects have in common is "it might well be of some use." For what? That depends on the opportunities.
Jacob’s elegant explication of natural selection here may as easily be a description of the steampunk impulse. The objects at the disposal of tinkering steampunks may have initially looked like the improbable combination of Victorian and twenty-first-century science fiction but has now expanded to invoke much broader recombinations and alternate histories. This tinkering impulse has consequently broadened our imagination about the homologies we may find. As Jacob writes (and as Westerfeld likely agrees), "Novelties come from previously unseen association of old material. To create is to recombine."
The figure of the tinkerer invites us to think about recombined pieces that are enabled by affinities and perhaps reinforces our sense that the explanatory power of homologies for Darwin might be the same explanatory and liberatory power that steampunks find in their hybrids. What’s more, the tinkerer gives us a way to consider the question we began with. Beyond the "what" and the "how" of steampunk, we are interested in the "why" and the "why now." As tinkerers, steampunks use "whatever [they] find" around them. To what end? As Jacob puts it, it "depends on the opportunities."
Tinkering is inevitably a response to a particular environment. Natural selection tinkers with the available physiological features to produce adaptations well suited to environmental conditions. Steampunk’s recombinant DIY ethos, in its commitment to using what is there, has hybridized centuries, technologies, and generic conventions as products of its tinkering impulse. But why the impulse in the first place? If tinkering, as a figure, invokes a relationship to an external environment and an awareness of opportunities, what opportunity are steampunks responding to?
Here, we turn one last time to Origin of Species, for the surprising answer that steampunk might be responding to an opportunity—and a need—to feel comfort. The discovery of these similarities radiates through Darwin’s prose as a profoundly inspirational insight:
As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those which lived long before . . . , we may feel certain that the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has destroyed the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of equally inappreciable length.
The connections between creatures, the fact of their parts being so compatible and their thus having similar origins, assures us of resilience and of their ability to respond and adapt to a volatile and often hostile environment. We can contend, then, that much of the work and the appeal of steampunk—a genre characterized by blending—is its assurance that we not only share common roots and respond to common narrative but also that we are likely to carry on, through catastrophe and cataclysm. The mashing up of genres, centuries, apparel, and technologies highlights the commonalities that comfort us and trigger a sense of persistence and adaptability. In other words, it is not only the plot of steampunk texts or the features of retrofitted objects and fabricated creatures that thematize adaptation; instead, it is the nature of the mode itself.
This is not to suggest that steampunk is a Pollyanna genre, all sunshine and rainbows and optimism about the resilient future of civilization. Certainly the content of many steampunk novels and films is apocalyptic enough to dissuade us from that. Indeed, steampunk seems often to expose paradigmatic problems within social structures without imagining alternatives.
But the ethos of steampunk, with its insistence on hybrids and tinkering, seems oriented toward adapting to a changing environment, even sometimes a cataclysmic environment. If we want to push on to the "why now?" of the genre, we certainly must consider the "now" of its rise, and, given our focus to this point, the cataclysms associated with that "now." Before turning to our contributors, who answer this question in their own varied ways, we want to gesture toward one line for future exploration, one that considers 9/11, the form of trauma, and steampunk as a recursive genre.
Steampunk and 9/11, or Fort-Da in Brass
At the risk of sounding trite, it’s fair to say that the attacks of September 11, 2001, changed everything. Such a statement is certainly true for the thousands who lost their lives or were injured in the attacks, as well as their families and friends. The extent of the destruction makes it clear why so many have described the events as "traumatic," and the term is a productive way to understand the attacks and their effects. Psychological trauma can occur when a person "directly experience[s]" or "witness[es]" "actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence." The events of 9/11 certainly provided ample opportunity for individuals in New York City and Washington, D.C., to be traumatized. Unsurprisingly, the New York Times reports that more than "10,000 firefighters, police officers and civilians" in New York City were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, after the attacks and "at least 3,600 of them still have symptoms" ten years later. Other estimates put the number of New Yorkers traumatized by the attacks and their aftermath at more than 60,000.
It is clear from these numbers that the attacks of 9/11 affected a larger group of people than, for lack of a better term, "ordinary" trauma. But the several thousands in New York and Washington who were directly affected by the terrorist attacks are just the beginning of the story. Thanks to twenty-first-century communications networks, the news of the first plane’s impact at the World Trade Center was reported almost immediately—indeed, so quickly that live television caught the second plane hitting the second tower. Audio and video of the destruction at both locations traveled almost instantaneously around the world. While those who saw the attacks on television, heard about them on the radio or via cell phone, or read about them on the Internet weren’t on the ground, they were still witnesses and therefore are also susceptible to traumatic stress. Indeed, as E. Ann Kaplan recounts in Trauma Culture, "most people encounter trauma through the media." Although those who experienced mediatized trauma did not have the same experience as those in lower Manhattan, their trauma is still real. Spectators to the attacks of 9/11—across the country or across the world—were confronted with images that could return to haunt them.
No one who lived through this period will be surprised to read of such high levels of stress. At the time, one could not avoid imagery and rhetoric that kept the attacks at the fore of one’s mind. Flags and ribbons in support of victims and first-responders, enhanced security in public spaces, and merchandise urging us to "never forget" ensured that the impact of 9/11 was never far from sight. That impact of course extended far beyond the United States, in both geopolitical time and space. The swift terrorist strikes, compressed within a space of ninety minutes, produced long-lasting effects, including the military’s entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan in the pursuit of terrorists (and its concomitant distance, even a decade on, from other armed conflicts that are not connected explicitly with terrorism, such as Syria or Ukraine) to the proliferation of an NSA-powered surveillance state/theater legislatively enabled by the Patriot Act to prevent subsequent terrorist assaults. The actions of the United States and its allies has served as a multipronged reminder of international connectedness and vulnerability.
Because of the wide circulation and ubiquity of images related to the 9/11 attacks; because of the heightened awareness of danger suggested by the now-defunct Homeland Security Advisory System; because of the response from the international community that legitimated the attacks as something beyond the pale; because of the dramatic changes in domestic and foreign policy that visibly and invisibly alter everyday interactions and thought patterns; and because of the ubiquitous and significant residue of the attacks, we might consider them as a source of cultural—in addition to individual—trauma. Such collective trauma, a relatively new concept in sociological and political discourse, is succinctly defined by Jeffrey C. Alexander: "Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways." Certainly this description applies to the events and sociopolitical aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. To this end, Neil J. Smelser specifically addresses the status of 9/11 as cultural trauma. Smelser begins by remarking, "If the screen industry’s most talented scriptwriter had been asked to draft a scenario for the quintessential cultural drama, that script could not have surpassed the actual drama of September 11, 2001." He goes on to discuss the features of this trauma, including the nation’s initial reaction of shock and disbelief; widespread collective mourning; an immediate sense of the permanence of the trauma; and "a culminating sense that American identity had been altered fundamentally."
In their discussions of cultural trauma, Smelser and his coauthors return frequently to the haunting return of memories. In a large population, this irruption of the past often looks like a compulsive need to relive and re-experience the original event. The editors discuss memorials, reenactments, and the circulation of witness testimonies as examples of such re-experiencing. Although these events are understood as remembrance, they are often closer to what Freud identified as "acting out," a form of repetition that, as a result of resistance on the part of the patient, actually replaces remembrance. Such acting out takes place in cultural trauma as well as individual trauma, reinforcing the notion that the master trope of such disruption is recursivity or the uncontrollable cycle of repetition.
Just as we are drawn to the similarities of homology in Darwin’s theories and hybridity in steampunk, so are we struck by the resonance between trauma’s structure of recursive return and steampunk’s cycling and recycling of time. If a genre of literature/culture can be said to resemble Freudian figures of trauma, steampunk is it. Steampunk traffics in startling anachronism, the sudden displacement of cultural and technological markers that interrupt history. The nineteenth century intrudes on the twenty-first—or vice versa—without warning, and the narratives that are produced depend precisely on the problems created by these temporal ruptures. In both cases, the past and the present are connected in a manner that occludes the specificity of each and in a way that frequently resembles a haunting. In its looping of time, steampunk cycles and recycles tropes that are unexpected and surprisingly out of place. In this way, steampunk functions as a model for trauma. It encapsulates the temporal oddities and juxtapositions spurred by an event that happens too soon. This, then, might explain why steampunk has finally risen to prominence in the twenty-first century, after three decades of slow growth. It is a mode that speaks to our moment of cultural trauma in its presentation of time buckling in on itself, of a cultural revisiting past and present.
That said, another appeal of steampunk is that for many it is simply fun. While its content often includes post-apocalyptic paradigms or tinkered-with World War I scenarios, it does not, as a matter of course, meditate on historical tragedy or contemporary violence. No one who has read a handful of steampunk novels or attended a convention would call it a mournful movement. We would not suggest that steampunk is acting out trauma in its every instance. Nor would we want to mount an argument that steampunk is only a direct response to 9/11.
But we do, to loop back on ourselves, locate the vast majority of steampunk’s increasingly mainstream, meteoric rise within the twenty-first century, and we do agree with the scholars who regard one of the early events of that century to be a cultural trauma. Further, we see the tropes of trauma and steampunk overlapping in their recursive return. For us, this raises questions about the mode of reading/participation steampunk solicits and what it promises its enthusiasts. In answer, we return briefly to our readings of its nineteenth-century antecedents.
At the same time that steampunk appears to be about discontinuities of time, it also revels in homologies and affinities. As such, it points to the persistence of life and the recovery from catastrophes. Darwin’s comfort in the overlapping features he found throughout the ecosystem may also be our comfort when steampunk highlights compatibilities and similarities. Despite the sense of rupture—the feeling that a catastrophe like 9/11 represents an indelible change in the wake of which culture is fundamentally altered—homologies and affinities between features and moments remind us that "no cataclysm has destroyed the whole world." Steampunk’s looping through time, its literalized Darwinian hybrids functioning as war technology, its grafting of Victorian aesthetics on new technologies, its overlaying the Industrial Revolution with a nanotechnology explosion—these imaginative recombinants entertain and intrigue us, but perhaps they also comfort us. Perhaps they remind us of compatibilities, of how ideologies and technologies have persisted through time, of the shared imaginative endeavors our makers and writers invest in. Perhaps steampunk appeals to so many at the moment it does because it promises to bridge gaps, to reassure us of the possibility of recovery from catastrophe.
Thus, though we may be immediately struck by the ways steampunk is structured like an acting out in response to trauma, we are ultimately persuaded to think of it more as a "working-through." Freud understood working-through as what happens when a patient overcomes resistance to treatment by harnessing the pattern of remembering and repeating to move toward a goal of integration and acceptance. Steampunk seems anything but resistant to its repetitions; it feels celebratory, reveling in history’s cycles and in the compatible structures among ages. Steampunk may, then, feel like a cultural salve in the wake of tragedies that are experienced as catastrophic ruptures. It speaks to those ruptures through its structure, but it also promises that they can be overcome through ingenuity and persistence. Indeed, if steampunk is the genre of ultimate tinkering, and if tinkering, as we noted above, is always and fundamentally a response to environment—making use of what’s available—then we could not ignore the cultural trauma of 9/11, so prominent in the environment during steampunk’s rise to prominence.
It’s important to be clear: steampunk was not birthed by the tragedies of the twenty-first century; after all, steampunk as we know it today has existed since the early 1970s in literature and the term came into existence in 1987. Nor is the rise of steampunk anywhere near the most important effect or outcome from the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States or the ones that followed elsewhere in the world. Yet when one begins to wonder, "Why steampunk now?", it is certainly worth considering that the decade that opens the twenty-first century begins not with a whimper but with a bang.
Like Clockwork: Steampunk Pasts, Presents, and Futures [Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall/Univ Of Minnesota Press]
(Image: dsc_0554 by Nico Kempe. 2014. CC BY-SA 2.0)
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