This post is courtesy of R.T. Edwins.
When I offered to write a post on steampunk I felt a little daunted by the task, to be honest. As an author of a Space Opera series dealing with alien civilizations holding advanced, almost magic like technology I felt extraordinarily out of my element when considering steampunk. Not because I didn’t know what it was, or didn’t enjoy it but because it was almost alien to me (see what I did there?)
So I started to wrack my brain for anything I’d experienced that could be classified as steampunk and what I found was astonishing. So many of the elements of various books, movies and video games that I enjoyed immensely could easily be considered steampunk, but what intrigued me most wasn’t the steampunk elements themselves, but the phenomena of humans being interested in it at all. In the modern era, so many of us are plugged into electronics, whether it be smartphones or computers, that we rarely think about the kind of “technology” typically seen in steampunk fiction.
So why are we fascinated with it? What about it draws us in and captures our imagination? Isn’t there something just completely awesome about a time travel machine run on “old timey” technology? The spinning of metal parts and the use of steam to power it? But what makes it interesting? What draws us in to willingly suspend our disbelief that such a contraption could exist?
As I considered these questions I couldn’t help but draw on my studies in sociology and anthropology to look for the reason. In a world filled with tiny handheld devices that are more or less magic before our eyes, I believe that humans have a deep seeded desire to be able to understand how things work. Now most of us don’t really strive to learn how our smartphones work, because the math and engineering behind them is too complex and honestly boring. But if the phone was powered by metal, gears and levers, and steam then wouldn’t you be so much more interested? I honestly believe the reason steampunk has such an alluring appeal in our 21st century society is because it allows us to pull the curtain back a little and see the components moving.
When we watch “Back to the Future 3” and see Doc build an immense contraption of gears, levers, moving parts, and steam all in order to make an ice cube, something inside of us is tickled. We know that such a device is completely impractical and maybe even impossible to build, but there is something in our psyche that latches onto the idea of the massive machine and just loves it. I think it is because we can see how it works with our eyes. It isn’t a mysterious chemical reaction powered by moving electrons like our technology of today. It’s easy to understand, even if it would be impossibly complicated to build. We can see the parts moving, working in tandem with each other while they create a desired effect, and it seems real, almost more real than our 21st century version.
Airplane with space age technology? BORING! Steam powered air ship?? Awesome!! Reason? There isn’t the disconnect between how the contraption works and what it does. You know that the reason you are flying is because that airship has moving parts that clink and chug. You can see the exhaust coming out and know that it’s the thing powering it. You can feel the vibrations of the machine at work and see the individual parts moving, and know on a deep level that humans made it do that. There is a certain pride that comes from steampunk technology, the idea that we can build contraptions from raw materials that create a futuristic product, unlike today.
We cannot see the chemicals and processing of how things work today. I can’t see the 1’s and 0’s being processed by the computer I’m writing this post on, and honestly don’t understand how they even exist. There is a disconnect between me and the machine. It works and does its’ thing and I have no real idea how it does it. We don’t watch our car engines work, they are hidden beneath a hood, burning a fuel you probably never actually see. The icemaker in your fridge is probably truly innovative, efficient and amazing, but compared to Doc’s complicated and inefficient monstrosity it’s amazingly boring and goes completely without notice (until it breaks).
Steampunk reaches into us to excite our imagination of a world without electronics, which is a theory supported by the history of steampunk. Many agree that Fritz Lang’s 1927 film “Metropolis” was one of the first important works to bring steampunk to the forefront of style. As Humans started evolving past the industrial era there was a reaching back for something familiar. As inventions continued to come out, making things easier but also harder to understand, we craved the “simplicity” that steampunk offered as a literary/cinematographic escape. We got to experience the futuristic solutions of the time while not having to sacrifice the simplicity of the contraptions that gave it to us. We long to live in a world powered by devices and machines that are easy to understand but give us a modern solution.
So as you enjoy the Clockwork Carnival here on Once Upon a Time, I hope your imagination is sparked and you enjoy it even more now that you better understand its’ appeal. We like it, not because we are weird or dorks, but because our complex minds desire the beauty and simplicity of a world connected with kick-ass steam powered tech! So excuse me while I go try to build an airship in my garage! =)