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Modern Genres: Five Characteristics of Successful Steampunk

Modern Genres: Five Characteristics of Successful Steampunk

steampunk hero gunslinger clockworkSteampunk has been described as “Victorian science fiction,” a futuristic version of a world long past—but never far from our hearts. It’s characterized by a solid industrial setting, advanced steam-powered technology, defunct scientific theories, Victorian English aesthetics, and (frequently) alternative history; it is worth noting, however, that—unlike cyberpunk, which is usually set in the urban landscape of near-future Earth—steampunk regularly departs from real-world settings completely.

Steampunk may also incorporate metaphysical themes, of the sort more commonly associated with fantasy than science fiction: there may be a great clock tower, in which there lies imprisoned a figure who is the embodiment of all the world’s sorrows. There might be a massive engine of unknown origin at the center of the world, which drives the life-force of an entire race of living machines, inevitably leading to a conflict of interests whereby its function would seem to endanger humanity. Steampunk grew, in part, out of early twentieth-century pulp fiction set within the Victorian era, and ethical questions of human progress and advancement were a common thematic element in Victorian writing.

In honor of Peter Jackson’s upcoming feature film, based upon Philip Reeve’s steampunk novel Mortal Engines, let’s explore five of the characteristics which successful steampunk novels have in common.

Creative Anachronism

steampunk hat goggles steam-powered technology Victorian fashion

Steampunk features advanced technologies, often with abilities which would be incredible even by modern standards. At the same time, there is a strong element of retro-futurism; these technologies are anachronistic, as they may have been imagined by a fiction writer living in Victorian times. The steampunk writer must take the forward-thinking but still fundamentally limited prescience of the modern science fiction author, and imagine what the same individual might have written about 150 years ago—give or take a few decades.

Common technological elements of the steampunk genre include steam power, early experiments with wireless and electrical technology (which are often presented as being both powerful and uncontrollable, save perhaps by a few gifted individuals), complex mechanics driven by clockwork mechanisms, hydraulics, orreries, and automatons. Steampunk automatons are frequently represented as true artificial intelligences—either the unfortunate victims of uncaring men, or the monstrous offspring of a botched experiment. They are often cast as either the casual hero, striving to be human, or the tragic villain, whose responsibility for their own actions is deliberately debatable.

Meanwhile, the feats which such devices are capable of achieving may include such noteworthy accomplishments as the replication of solid matter, teleportation, the generation of free energy, travel beyond “the spheres” of the known universe (during a time when even the concept of the galaxy and the composition of stars were unknowns), and the reanimation of dead matter.

The Ambiguity of Power

Steampunk incorporates contrasting views. On the one hand, the nature of scientific progress and human achievement is placed under a critical microscope—but this is not to say that such ideas are presented as inherently bad. Rather, the suggestion is more that careful thought needs to be put into such concepts, lest we make ill-considered decisions—with potentially cataclysmic consequences.

In fact, steampunk embraces the concept of scientific advancement and achievement. Anything which is unknown or “outside” the laws of science is, if not invariably bad, certain to be sinister and suspect. Extra-dimensional powers and spiritual entities, where they are present, have ulterior motives and agendas that are at worst malevolent; at best, their plans take on such a long view that most characters can simply sidestep any scrutiny of their ethical considerations.

If a character in a steampunk story is fiddling with alchemy, researching sorcery, or dabbling in the occult, the powers with which they are contending are portrayed as dark and ill-advised influences. Magic and technology mix and react in uncertain ways, with magic (where it exists; it’s not a universal element) being portrayed as the essence of chaos. Its very use may serve to break down the natural order of things, and—if it is even successful—there are always unanticipated consequences.

Steampunk DIY: Do-It-Yourself

The Victorian era—the actual Victorian era—was a time of almost steampunk-clockwork-deviceunprecedented invention and technological innovation, as compared to all the rest of human history. It also saw the growing frequency of large corporations, railroad barons, and captains of industry, and introduced (at least to the popular perception) the widespread idea of intellectual property theft as a damaging, criminal enterprise.

In modern times, for example, we recognize the frequent theft of ideas perpetrated by Thomas A. Edison, as well as his propensity for ruining the livelihoods and careers of his competitors so thoroughly that some died in relative anonymity many years after Edison himself was long gone.

The steampunk genre pays underlying tribute to the more genuine side of the spirit of Victorian innovation. Large organizations and powerful individuals are usually presented as having stolen their ideas, often for dark and sinister ends. The most remarkable innovations are the prerogative of individual, independent craftsmen and innovators, often unrecognized for the true extent of their genius, who are forced to assemble their gadgetry more or less single-handedly from secondhand materials. Time and again, the day is saved thanks to the life-long efforts of an unsung “do-it-yourselfer.”

A Motley Aesthetic

steampunk soldier officer steam-powered prostheticThe appearance of steampunk settings has a lot in common with the era on which they are based. The average individual is not clean and well-kept, save perhaps in higher echelons of society—which are invariably keeping the majority of the population oppressed. Technology is functional first, and neat second: neatness, where it occurs, is one of several traits that tends to be characteristic of the corporate presence, the inner circle, and other parties with sinister or suspect motives.

Patchwork riveting, scavenged materials, and dirty streets intermingle with other cobbled-together visual elements, such as clothing and personal accessories which incorporate bits of the steampunk aesthetic. They may be functional, such as a steampunk or a clockwork-driven prosthetic limb, or they may be purely decorative, serving no apparent use—except to make an individual stand out as being a character in a steampunk setting.

Steampunk is a gritty, hard, and visceral setting, one that is based profoundly on visual imagery and readily recognizable components. The profound nature of its underlying themes is manifested directly in the way everything else is presented. Things look a certain way—right or wrong, benevolent or dangerous, friendly or hostile. There is, of course, a meta element to such a presentation: the visual nature of the genre is for the reader’s benefit, leading to the dramatic tension of a character interacting with something we know to be dark and sinister—even if we don’t quite understand why.

A Disenfranchised Society

Steampunk, like the other ‘punk genres, embraces the lone and asocial hero. Sometimes, a small group of these may be forced to work together, and might even find some common ground, but there is always a maverick streak—a sense of rebelliousness, which encourages them to rise up and work against a corrupt and inadequate system. The system, after all, is something that most people simply accept, for the sake of the greater good or simply not rocking the boat. As a result, there is a certain amount of ambiguity in the main characters’ actions; some part of why they’re fighting, or working against the system, is based on their own internal dissatisfaction—or other needs that must be reconciled.

They might be doing the right thing, but not entirely for the right reasons—and they may not be going about what they’re doing in the best way. That’s not to say that the steampunk hero can’t be a clearly right-minded individual, only that they frequently aren’t, and the latter seems to be the ingredient of more highly-praised and critically-acclaimed steampunk. One of the great forebears of the genre, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—while not a work of steampunk in itself—features two primary characters: Victor Frankenstein, an obsessed man who follows blind ambition to a result that was dark and ill-advised from the beginning, and his creation, a creature who is at once terrible and innocent, as tragic a villain as any in the last two centuries of modern fiction.

In steampunk, nobody is perfect. The people in power are corrupt and uncaring; the do-gooders are naïve—and often obsessed—and the common people are either bitter, broken, or angry, reduced to the dog-eat-dog state of doing what it takes to survive. The villain may have the best of intentions, but fail utterly in their realization, and the hero might use the absolute darkest methods. In the end, steampunk is about upsetting a carefully constructed balance, often one that is stressed as having stood the test of time for most of human history up to that point, in response to the growing need for individual recognition and personal satisfaction. It is not a genre for the faint-hearted, or the unusually reserved.

It is, however, a lot of fun to read.

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Cyberpunk and the Sci-Fi Curve

Cyberpunk and the Sci-Fi Curve

Cyberpunk is a fan favorite literary, film, and gaming niche within science fiction, which has long since turned into a “supergenre;” sci-fi plays host to many popular subgenres (among them steampunk, alternate history, and post-apocalyptic survival). What sets cyberpunk apart from the rest, in addition to its recent rise in popularity, is the fact that it seems poised to fall in line with the sci-fi curve—in ways which its progenitors probably weren’t expecting.

This attribution is something which is normally associated with classic, mainstream science fiction, often of the “harder” (more realistically detailed) variety. It is frequently associated with names like Arthur C. Clarke, Gene Roddenberry, and Isaac Asimov, and even with such venerable writers as Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Thousands of terrified radio listeners would certainly attest to the all-too-horrifying detail of Wells’ War of the Worlds.

The Science Fiction Curve: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Smartphone

The sci-fi curve is a famous idea, and is often referenced by authors. This happens in the same way that normal people—people who aren’t inspired to write fiction by the sight of an odd-looking shrubbery—tend to quote old sayings and popular expressions.

The curve references the seemingly prescient abilities of classic science fiction creators, whereby they appear to predict near-future feats of human invention. It can reference an idea or a trend, but is almost exclusively used to refer to technological achievement.

Here’s one famous example: back when futurists were talking about computers being “as small as a single room” by the year 2000, Gene Roddenberry was already envisioning the modern laptop computer and the smartphone (along with numerous other innovations). Yes, he placed them several centuries into the future, but that was in the face of some of the leading minds of the day not daring to go there at all.

Many people doubted that some of those ideas which we now take for granted would ever be possible, even within the time frame that Star Trek was invoking.

As a side note, some of the most far-fetched of Star Trek’s ideas may be forever impossible (or not), but they do present us with profound existential questions: watch CGP Grey’s most bodacious video, The Trouble with Transporters, just in case that accident from The Motion Picture has stopped giving you nightmares after almost forty years. Also, click here for nightmares, because I’m a helper.

The Deal with Cyberpunkcyberpunk sci-fi science fiction writing literature

If you’re familiar with cyberpunk already, go ahead and skip to the next section if you’d like. If you choose to continue, please understand that this is only meant to be a light, topical overview of the subgenre, not a thorough and comprehensive examination.

The seminal, classic work of cyberpunk with which the greatest number of people are most familiar—dedicated fans of the subgenre aside—is most likely the 1982 film Blade Runner. There are other works of film and literature (as well as a variety of games, songs, and other popular media) which are more outstanding in terms of the genre’s attributes, and there are other, equivalently famous works which include the odd cyberpunk-themed element, but Blade Runner brings it all together.

The story of Blade Runner is easy to follow, although its underlying themes are profound. A former cop, played by Harrison Ford, is extorted by his old superior into taking up his specialty one last time. He’s to track down and “retire” four replicants who stole a shuttle, killed the people on board, and came to Earth illegally. Replicants are genetically engineered bio-mechanical androids, so like unto humans that specialized training and psychological examinations are required to ferret them out. Over the course of the film, Ford (as Rick Deckard) comes to question the rightfulness of his mission, and the viewer is exposed—not only to the violence of the replicants—but to the monstrous actions of those who created them.

The film exhibits several major aspects of cyberpunk. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The Alienated Loner: The hero is a solitary, brooding and asocial figure, who is extorted by an autocratic authority into doing a distasteful job with which he’s long become disenchanted. He lives alone, and is unaccustomed to friendship.
  • The Megacorp: More powerful than governments, the world of the cyberpunk subgenre is dominated by global-spanning corporations. They operate their own police forces, wage urban war against their competition, oppress the people who work for them, and follow only their own rules—with impunity.
  • “High Tech Low Life:” Genetic engineering has reached a point where animals—and people—can be designed and grown to exacting specifications. Technology is extremely advanced, but we’re also shown a society that is fractured and crumbling. Crime and poverty are rampant. The world is filthy—almost as messy and disgusting as the people who live in it.
  • Terra Firma: The cyberpunk setting is almost always an overcrowded, resource-stretched, near-future Earth—the better to confront issues like social disenfranchisement. Cities consist of enormous, towering buildings, with increasingly unsuccessful and unfortunate people living lower down in the superstructure.
  • Film Noir: Cyberpunk is dark, brooding, suspenseful, and atmospheric. It makes heavy use of narration (which is still present in some versions of Blade Runner) and often follows a structure similar to that of a classic detective story.

How Cyberpunk is Setting the Curve

Science fiction has always mirrored social and political issues relevant to its time. Small wonder, then, that cyberpunk is becoming more relevant: our technological advancement is outpacing our growth as a society. Cyberpunk reflects a setting of advancing technology, which is often used in strange and unintended ways: people aren’t sure what to do with all of the capabilities at hand. It mirrors social unrest, complaints about oppression, and a strong feeling of disenfranchisement: you’re on your own, and nobody is out there pushing for your better interests. Major characters are often connected to a computer network twenty-four-seven—sometimes literally; even the most functional are barely getting by.

That, in itself, isn’t enough to make it dominate the sci-fi curve, but consider the following:

The Latest in AI: Autonomic Function

We have been making huge leaps in artificial intelligence, and many of these strides are going unnoticed and unappreciated: we forget that there is much more to intelligence than problem-solving and holding a conversation. Everything that we take for granted about how our brains work is part of our “intelligence,” from controlling our heart rate to regulating our body temperature.

Fifteen years ago, we had the technology to perform complex brain surgery and study a person’s genes, but creating a robot that could walk upright was still virtually impossible. The power, complexity, and autonomic function required for something like walking is taken for granted by many people.

Today, we’re on the verge of creating robots that can perform brain surgery. Part of the development of AI technology has been research into things like perception, and autonomous functions: a truly intelligent robot should be able to delegate walking and other basic functions to its background processes, just as we do. Scientists have built two- and four-legged robots which can recover their balance after being struck by a stout kick, or with a sledgehammer. The way they maneuver is smooth and organic, to the point where it triggers a creepy “machines aren’t supposed to do that” vibe in many who witness it for the first time.

Cybernetics: Personal Enhancement

We’re developing prosthetics with autonomous functions that react to our muscle movements—or are directly connected to our brains. A man with two artificial legs can walk, run, sprint, and jog up and down stairs.

One of the major components of cyberpunk has always been cybernetic enhancement. People deliberately have limbs, organs, and other parts of their body augmented artificially—or replaced, with alternatives of superior design, whether biological or mechanical. This is very much mirrored by current endeavors—and not only with prosthetics. Consider the ongoing effort to help transplant victims avoid rejection by literally growing replacement organs from their own cells.

At present, this is done for medical reasons. There is a neurological disorder which causes those who suffer from it to crave the amputation of specific limbs, but in general, people don’t get body modification of this magnitude for purely voluntary reasons—certainly not legitimately. That seems likely to change, however, when prosthetic limbs inevitably pass beyond the point of being relatively delicate and fragile, and begin to surpass our biological counterparts in function.

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