December 22, 2011

When Steampunk is too Fantastical...

Unlike my long but mild interest in Goth or my recent but great fascination with Lolita, Steampunk captured my fancy the Autumn of 2006 when I first picked up Neil Stephenson's The Diamond Age and became entranced with the Neo-Victorians. Read this book even if Steampunk is not your aesthetic for the superbly visioned future, nanotech wizardry and brilliant characters.

The Neo-Victorians were a phyle of individuals who had recreated the ethics and aesthetics of the Victorian Era in an age of Nanotech. Where the lower classes had The Feed create food, clothing, and shelter on the atomic level, the Neo-Victorians had their necessities handmade. Where the other Phyles spent a good deal of their time tapped into immersion video games or gang warfare, the Neo-Victorians embraced the disciplined, intellectual rigor of  the bygone era. They had the exquisite clothing, the perfect manners, the strong moral system and my complete admiration.

Subsequent searches for 'Neo-Victorian' necessarily led to the subculture of Steampunk, the wonderful Steampunk Magazine, various steampunk messageboards, forums, fashion sites, and more. My writing soon abounded with fantastical tales of airship captains, living automatons, brass goggles and dashing pirates. The margins of my school pages were rarely without some design of crudely drawn gears or poor sketches of my airship 'The Element.' (Long story for why such a brilliant ship has such a poor name.)

I still love Steampunk today. I'll happily devour the plethora of contemporary steampunk literature. My highschool friends still call each other by the titles and characters spewed out by the Steampunk Name Generator. I still sigh over the beautiful corsets, accessories, and dresses from online stories and steampunk meetings. Many of my day dreams include standing at the prow of my ship and feeling the wind whistle through my hair and nip at my nose. I love Steampunk.

But Steampunk isn't real. Thus my love will never move beyond a distant fascination. How can I love something that takes no part in this real world? One of the catch phrases for steampunk is 'a history that never was.' This image contains the core of the problem: Steampunk is a 'history that never was' not a 'future that might be.' We have moved past the age of steam two hundred years ago and won't go back unless an Apocalypse occurs. If such a calamity does come to pass, we won't invent air ships or automatons, because the struggle for life will be too great.

Steampunk is not life-applicable. Yes, it is possible to decorate one's home to look more industrial or Neo-Victorian or like the inside of an Airship. Yes, it is possible to dress as you think your character in a Steampunk world would dress. Yes, it is possible to modify your every modern device into an antique equivalent, but these are real.

The competnacy and capability that I admire so much in Steampunk are for items or situations which do not exist in this world. The adventures I read about or problems I see characters overcome are not adventures or problems I will face. Yes, Steampunk still glorifies the spectacular, the great, the wonderful and capable, but it offers me no insight into how I imbue the ordinary, non airship worthy aspects of my life with the same spirit.

One of the appeals of Steampunk is the ability to fix the machines with which we live. It seems everyone can throw open the back of their personal automaton, reveal the whirring, clicking gears and springs, bang a few with a wrench and fix the problem. That technique is impossible with today's technology. Open up the back of a computer or a phone and, unless you have a very specialized skill set, it is impossible to physically fix the problem. We can barely fix our cars any more with all the advanced technology.

I am not anti-technology. But Steampunk hearkens back to a simpler, more comprehensible world where the average man or woman could become a hero or create a marvelous new invention. This is no longer possible today but Steampunk does not encourage or embrace the aesthetic that would make us so capable in this world. It looks towards past accomplishments rather than future our of an understandable anxiety and confusion about the complexities we face today. But looking back to a history that never was will not help us succeed or overcome the present that is today.

This is why Steampunk will always be more costume than culture and why I call myself a Neo-Aristocrat rather than a Neo-Victorian.

(As always, I welcome questions, comments, or outright disagreement over the ideas presented. This post represents a slight break from the more rigorous, structural critiques of Goth or Lolita. Does it work? Do the Ideas make sense? Happy Solstice!)

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