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Does Steampunk Really Humanize Our Gadgets?

Bill Cherepy (and a couple of others since) sent me an interesting link to a piece on Boing Boing arguing (I think) that steampunk makes our gadgets more human. It’s a headscratcher, since I don’t think the article text supports the author’s contention. However, it’s an idea worth some thought. I actually agree, if for different reasons:

  • Steampunk gadgets are comprehensible. Most of the tech in our modern phones and computers is black art, even to guys like me with considerable background in electronics. Electric, mechanical, and chemical tech circa 1900 was accessible to anyone with an ounce of brains and some willingness to study.
  • Steampunk gadgets are reproduceable. At home. In your basement. Sure, it would take a little research and pratice, but with nothing more exotic than a lathe and basic chemistry gear you could build most of what we connect with steampunking. Dare you to do that with an iPad.
  • Steampunk gadgets are personal. This is going to earn me some heat, but I think it’s true: Steampunk thingies are in-your-face, not on-your-friends-ist. One of the charms of the steampunk idea is that people interact face-to-face. This keeps trolling to a minimum and fosters at least superficial courtesy, which certainly beats the slobbering hatred that now dominates Facebook.

All that said, I admit that the majority of what I see under the heading “Steampunk” is a species of fantasy, be it of the supernatural (vampires and zombies) or just wildly off-the-edge assumptions of what 1900 technology could accomplish.

The big turn-off I found in cyberpunk was its coldness. Granted this was cultural and not really necessary, but when I played at the edges of cyberpunk years ago it stopped me in my tracks. Cyberpunk was cynicism writ large, and steampunk is optimism gone nuts. Given that cynicism is cowardice (it is, in fact, the fear and loathing of all things human) you can guess where I’m much more likely to tell my tales.


  1. I suspect you’re spot on that one of the factors of steampunk /stuff/ is that it’s real and personal, and that it’s polite. I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that steampunk was a way for manners to creep back into our civilization, after having been thoroughly excised over the last few decades. (See also: the late election.) One thing you become acutely aware of as you write steampunk is that profanity /matters/ and one does not cuss around one’s betters, or ladies whose company one might like to enjoy further. With notable exceptions.

    Where I disagree is that cynicism is cowardice and misanthropy. Certainly those can be the results of cynicism, but it seems to me that a healthy suspicion of ideology (which often translates to follow the money and the broads, to quote Chandler) is neither cowardly nor misanthropic if one does not let it sour one on the whole of human endeavor. Yes, things are corrupt. No, this does not mean there is nothing good, nor that one should stop striving.

    Of course, reviewing the definition of cynicism in wikipedia, I find that this belief makes me, in fact, not a cynic at all. Go figure.


    1. No. I don’t think you’re anything even close to a cynic. By your definition, I’m a cynic too, because I loathe ideology of all sorts. (This loathing is part of what it means to be a contrarian.) You’re certainly a skeptic, which is a good thing and a banner mostly abandoned in these tribal days. So am I. Cautious, as well…just like you.

      Cynicism as I define it is despair without any cause for despair, embraced because hope is a scary thing. Back in 1974, I had a third-shelf philosophy prof who actually believed there was merit in that hokey Camus-ism, “Why not commit suicide?” I wanted to answer, Because it’s the coward’s way out… but I’d almost been thrown out of a class earlier that year for asking embarrassing questions of a theology prof, and by then I just wanted my A and my diploma so I could get the hell out of there.

      He called himself a cynic, and I took him at his word.

      In the past few years I’ve begun to think that I define the word differently than most people. I’ve looked for other words without much success. Fatalism isn’t it; fatalism is a belief that there are no choices and no free will. Nor is pessimism; it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Cynics choose despair because it’s a way to avoid engagement with the world, a prospect that terrifies them. What would the word be for that? I’m still looking. In the meantime, “cynicism” holds the place for me.

      I’ve heard from a number of writers more connected to the writing world than I that despairing fiction is going out of style. Let us pray; it’s probably this insane optimist’s only chance at a spot on the bookstore shelves.

  2. Lee Hart says:

    “Cyberpunk is cynicism writ large, and steampunk is optimism gone nuts.” Well said, Jeff! By that measure, I’d say that science fiction is optimism with a healthy dose of sanity. That’s a combination we could certainly use more of in our cynical society.

    What I like about steampunk gadgets is that they include a great deal of art along with their inventiveness. Too much of our modern tech consists of sterile little plastic boxes. They aren’t things you love to look at, or long to touch. They have no “soul”.

    In contrast, a steam engine almost seems alive. It moves, it breathes, it throbs with power. You can see why they capture people’s imagination.

    I’d rather see more devices with the esthetic appearance of a pocket watch than an iPod.

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