Sunday, February 13, 2011

Red Steam: Ripping Steampunk Apart (fiction and essay)

Julian Dollop looked at the intricacies of the mechanical device in which he found himself suspended. He wondered who had come up with the idea for the cogs to have so many individual teeth as they pinched together, biting into him, pulling him together like a zipper. He screamed to get out of the machine, but his cries went unheard in the cacophonous din of the factory. It was silenced further as the cogs crushed his ribcage with a sick, wet crunch. 
He fell down through the machinery, onto the conveyor belt. His breaths were shallow, but full of soot. He crumbled and coughed, clawing at the conveyor to escape the stamping mold. His leg slipped into one of the hydraulic presses, twisting and breaking it, sending a jet of blood into the unfazed machine. His other leg was in the cooling red iron in the mold, and he scampered away on bruised and bleeding arms, only to get a lungful of that hateful steam.
He opened his mouth, eager to exhale the burning vapor, attempting to scream but managing only a weak crack of voice, feeling his throat blistered, his eyes opaque with blood and soot. The conveyor belt spat him in a heap in the balmy, midsummer afternoon at Lady Hensington Farley's estate.
Lady Farley flicked her goggles up and glanced away from her brass jet-turbine.
"I say, Charles are my fan blades out?"
Her butler picked up the combined form of Julian Dollop and iron alloy fanblades. "Miss Farley, it would appear another boy got gummed in the works."
She observed the crumbled, twitching corpse.
"Bloody hell. Now we've got to get another one."
"I shall send to the workhouses at once, ma'am."

Steampunk is a movement that is gaining popularity; specifically by bootstrapping modern technologies into a victorian era (translated as covering them in brass, wood and cogs, basically). It has tentative (and almost entirely illusory) ties to cyberpunk- the only real similarity being that a) the alternate history novel The Difference Engine (sometimes considered  a steampunk novel) is co-authored by William Gibson, notable writer of cyberpunk fiction and b) they both contain the word 'punk'.

This is where the similarities end. Cyberpunk is a science fiction genre that extrapolates how technology is not on our side, and how it can be used as a tool of control, and that it doesn't necessarily make our lives better. It's a world of heartless mega corporations and amoral antiheroes.

Steampunk, on the other hand is whimsical nostalgia for the industrial revolution mixed with an arts and crafts class at JoAnn's fabrics and some junk you picked up out of a smashed clock.

Miners have to mine the coal to power the steam engines. These miners work in hellish conditions. In turn, the coal will be burned in factories which are likely staffed by child labor. This is how you provide the steam. Unless you go in and mine it yourself, the steampunk world is essentially one built on the concept of being a gentrified dilletante who doesn't have to care about the plight of the working poor because that's not part of your fantasy land of dirigibles and useless machines with lots of cogs that ultimately do nothing.

To me it's like feeling nostalgic and writing fantasy stories about the antebellum south. You can defend it all you want, but you're still fantasizing about an ugly time in human history and you being at the top of the heap, able to mince around freely while other, less worthy people do all the grunt work for you.

So yeah, enjoy your brass-accented computer. Just remember that realistically, had that existed in the late 1800s it would have been an investment in some poor kid's blood and sweat. So think of that- think of Tiny Tim Cratchit's fingers being smashed in a hydraulic press. 

And honestly I don't think anyone would be more appalled by people's nostalgia for the industrial revolution era than Charles Dickens.