Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

We’ll All Be The Commissioners Of Lunacy

Penned upon the 21st of March, 2008

My old chum Theridion Grallator, not too long ago, penned a piercingly true little piece called “Why I Loathe (And Adore) Steampunk” – a version without the pretty pictures but with some comments and commentary exists here.

Steampunk, as all forms of punk literature, was born in reaction to the soul-destroying effects of decades of social technologisation, industrialisation, urbanisation and commercialisation. The historical setting is simply a literary tool: the Victorian era as a metaphor for the ideologies which were on everyone’s lips then but are more subtle in their potency today. Steampunk must have relevance – if it becomes too fantastical, it simply fails.

Which is more or less what it has done. The genre has turned in on itself. There are steampunk casemods, steampunk iPods, steampunk travel pods and more goggles than you could poke with a sharp stick. And what makes them steampunk, exactly? Lots of shiny metal. Lots of polished wood. Gears everywhere. Top hats on everyone. The aesthetic is actually rather gritty and modern, by and large. And there’s a lot of self-congratulation all round.

Now, these criticisms are far from universal. The genre does let some truly talented people create some truly beautiful items in a very punky DIY style. A lot of serious writing and thinking does back it up, in some quarters. But overall, it’s a bit shallow. It’s just ‘steam’. And when specific figures from history are honoured, they’re generally the scientists and engineers – the people who are really part of the problem. Actual 19th century social critics and reformers don’t get a look in. Even the legendary William Gibson does rather badly in this regard; The Difference Engine does a rather unconvincing job of presenting Lord Byron, of all people, as a symbol of middle-class ascendancy, and tries to turn Marx into a postmodernist. Forget all the big names – what about the little figures, the original thinkers, the actual punks of the era? The badge-wearers and pamphlet-printers and rabble-rousers – like the Sheehy-Skeffingtons, rebels in long socks. Their legacy is just as fun and twice as relevant.

There’s another influence, this time a modern one, which I fear is being neglected. There’s an entire Neo-Victorian music scene now, and while there are many genuinely brilliant performers about, I fear the whole thing is a bit of a false messiah – the short-lived Rise and Fall of Dark Cabaret. And that’s because we already have music for punk – it’s called punk. Alright, punk is more minimal, it doesn’t immediately present itself as having that lush Victorian sound, it doesn’t always wear shirt-sleeves and cravats. But where else will you find beautiful, poetic wails to the plight of the labourer, Blakean celebration of the infinite creative self agonising in a deadened finite world?

I mentioned not long ago that the real-life body responsible for asylums, the Commissioners of Lunacy, would make a great band name – well, it occurred to me that there’s already a band which is exactly what that band would be, and that’s the Doctors of Madness. I re-rediscovered them recently; they had a formative effect on me in my tender years. “And there on the wall in words eight feet tall they’re advising you all to join parties and watch the TV”, “we’ll end up in gutters or on marble altars, either way monuments to what’s going wrong” – powerful condemnations of power, technology and social division and control, without any need to be weighed down in fantasy, and all to electric violin. And if you’re not convinced, here’s frontman Kid Strange as Oscar Wilde.

Just one band, naturally, but my point is that there’s no need to reinvent everything, especially when your entire genre is centred around learning from the past. (For that matter, why is everyone in steampunk gear apparently a techno-aristo? There’s such a thing as too many top hats, corsets and coats. Where are the worker’s jackets and neckerchiefs? Or is it just because those aren’t the parts of the Victorian image which fit neatly into the modern memory?) And, sure, I’m as guilty of it all as anyone; I’ll admit to that. I do think steampunk needs a shot in the arm, a reminder of what it’s about in itself, some fresh damnable content. It needs a return to basic principles: people might be able to build a marvelous double-size uni-osci-travellator, but they haven’t quite got anything to with it except show it to other steampunks. So why did they make it in the first place? The urge comes from somewhere, some reaction to a social issue. There lies the greater challenge.

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