The Psychology of Steampunk

I plan on writing a steampunk novel in the coming year, so lately I’ve been thinking about the genre, catching up on what’s been done with it, and brainstorming an idea I have for a tale in that vein. There’s  something fun and unfettered about imagining what the future would look like if it had happened in the past. I love paradoxes, and starting a story with that one gives you a strong shot of anything goes juice.

But I do wonder about why people are attracted to Victorian futurism at this moment in history. Why does it resonate with an emerging subculture in 2011?

The most popular explanation is that as we move into a world defined by the touch screens of the iphone/ipad/ipod, and toward other forms of transparent and subtle technology like voice recognition and devices that will be built into our clothing, walls and bodies, we are already getting nostalgic for tactile and overt technology. We want our dials, gears and knobs back. We crave artfully crafted technology that looks innovative and lovingly built to last, not molded from Chinese plastic, disposable and mass produced.

Okay, fair enough. As someone who loves vintage vacuum tube guitar amps with powerlights that look like faceted jewels, I get it. Despite some impressive efforts, there will never really be a satisfying app for that.

But all of that is at the surface level of the steampunk movenent, and I think there’s also something deeper in the genre’s appeal. Deeper than the affinity we now feel for the British Empire after almost a decade of our own Afghan adventure, deeper than the thrill of combining corsets with raygun dildos.

William Gibson and others have pointed out how unfeasible interstellar travel may be after all. And dystopian urban fiction is enjoying a big comeback in the YA market. Of all the miracles that sci-fi once promised us by some date surely earlier than 2011, all we got to show for our optimism was the handheld communicator from Star Trek. Instead of a gleaming world of rocket ships and robots, a united Earth, and bold explorations to rival the great ocean crossings, we have increasing terrorism, nuclear proliferation, environmental crises and the looming threat of peak oil.

It’s now easier to imagine civilization collapsing than reaching dazzling new heights. For a generation of young readers, the suspension of disbelief isn’t about the details of a future technology, it’s about the whole notion of a future.

I don’t mean to be a bummer, because I still believe in the power of the human imagination to surprise and save us when we’re backed into a corner. But I’m not at all surprised that at this moment in history, people feel more comfortable imagining the future in the past than they do imagining a future. It seems like these days, if you want to have fun with the future and not take it too seriously, you have to start by saying, “A long time ago… “

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4 thoughts on “The Psychology of Steampunk

  1. Jill Sweeney-Bosa says:

    Another great post, Doug! I’m pretty new to the genre, but think your insights are spot on. I just introduced my son to Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan: think British Darwinist beasts vs. German steam-powered war machines. Whee!

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