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.

Etch Out A Future Of Your Own Design (Well Tailored To Your Needs)

Penned upon the 20th of June, 2010

As I write this, Katherine Wilson’s article “Steampunk”, included as part of the Meanjin of Winter ’10 (as I eagerly anticipated here) is published and available – and is, and the rest of the journal with it, a cracking good read and certainly recommended.

Wilson offers a critical look at the Australian steampunk scene and its participants. Some fascinating clever-clogses offering their ideas, as well as one small-town nincompoop (yes – I make an appearance.) Examining the rhetoric employed, and the history of like movements – Luddism and labourism across the years – she asks: “how revolutionary is a movement whose ‘inventors’ buy stuff, take it apart, and replace it with other stuff bought at Bunnings and Reece Plumbing?” Some thought-provoking answers are provided by her interviewees, as well as some utter bosh (me again,) but it remains a pertinent question. Is there anything deeper to steampunk than some pretty clothes, toys, and a touch of bluster?

Now, I’m not one to talk – I’m a grandiloquent fop with zero engineering experience. But – how many steampunk gadgets actually do something? One in a hundred? A thousand? Less if you count objects which were practical before they were steampunked – casemods and decorations. More if you count goggles, which presumably work admirably to keep foreign bodies out of the eyes. Still: how many are actually machines, and how many are costume parts?

Nothing wrong with pretty accessories – or with cosplay, for that matter. Do they warrant the title ‘steampunk,’ though? Punk implies real-world relevance, social commentary – even, as developed in the original punk movement, serious effort at putting radical ideals into practice. That’s not to say that steampunk has nothing like a Dial House of its own – there are some brilliant serious steamy sorts, including our own Antipodean League. Perhaps if they weren’t setting the bar high and showing what potential the genre has, we wouldn’t even be talking about this. In any case, the vast bulk of the movement is becoming, like gothdom, an aesthetic with no underlying philosophy or practical application. A shame and a damn waste.

Where there isn’t a philosophy, there is a budding mythology – a grand alternate universe of Victoriana, of aether-hackers and sky-pirates. Stories of zeppelin-navies and ray-gun tyrants, well, they’re jolly good fun – I’ve told a few in my time – but they’re more, to borrow the excellent Foglios’ phrase, gaslamp fantasy than steampunk. Nine times out of ten, what they have to say is more universal-human-spirit than techno-punk. Their stories (good stories! I’m not doubting their merit) could as easily be told with wizards, warriors or more conventional navies and pirates. Such stories are timeless, perhaps, where steampunk is temporal – tied so closely to Progress, and its children Development and Disorder.

The daft thing is, there’s so much room for expansion where steampunk is already most prolific – Victorian fashions and greater geekery. I’m always reminded of an example from, appropriately enough, William Gibson’s Idoru – a near-future story which includes a technologist commune who produce beautiful and infinitely-recyclable hand-crafted modular computer cases. Steampunk creators should be leading the market in making available such low-waste alternatives – the internet’s brought the buying public to the artisan’s door.

In fact, here are some ideas – accessories which combine old-fashioned style enough for the most hardened Victorian-goth with radical environmental applications. For one, self-winding automatic watches are about as old as watches themselves, but the relatively modern kinetic technology has not yet, as far as I’m aware, been brought to pocket-watches. Gadget canes, too – everyone knows sword-canes and flask-canes, but barring duellists and alcoholics, they wouldn’t be of much use to most of us. Thing is, though, there have been canes for most every pursuit and profession – technical or hobbyist’s tools built right into one’s favourite accessory/movement aid. I’ve seen measuring devices, writing kits, game sets, medical models and hiking equipment. For something of use to almost anybody, why not a cane which includes a device ingenious in itself; the shake torch? Batteryless, human-powered lights; one could easily be fitted to screw into a stick or fit in a pocket, as per one’s needs.

In short, I don’t mean to denigrate anyone’s creations, but steampunk as a whole needs to be more Bauhaus or Arts & Crafts Movement – it needs to get into the workshop and the college and get some serious experiments going. And, yes, I say this as one who couldn’t invent the toothpaste lid back onto the tube, but we’ve all seen enough pop fashion fads. I’m all for the aesthetic – of course I am, vainglorious clotheshorse that I am – but without a solid core, it’s a bubble, and it will burst.

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Commentary upon “Etch Out A Future Of Your Own Design (Well Tailored To Your Needs)”

  1. Nathan was heard to remark,

    Upon the 20th of June, 2010 at 7:23 pm,

    DUUUDE. Now you’re talking my language. :D I’ve always thought of Punk Punk as in part an interpretation of modern scientific and engineering application to the cultural settings of the past. The idea of steampunk devices and constructions that fulfil a purpose has a great deal of appeal to me.

    For example, relating more to my field, the basic principles of aerodynamics and flight have been known for a considerable period of time before the 20th century. It took the development of new materials and propulsion, as well as the refinement of practical designs before engineers like the Wright Brothers could get their designs off the ground, pardon the pun.

    However, the question then becomes, what would an aircraft look like in previous eras? In terms of steampunk, the answer is probably ‘nothing’ sadly; steam engines do not make for good propulsion methods for powered flight, as Hiram Maxim (yes, that Maxim) found out. He built an aircraft powered by two 360 horsepower steam engines that could technically achieve flight, but would have been so unstable that it would have killed anyone trying to sit in it.

    Of course, unpowered flight is certainly a possibility. Da Vinci had an opinion on that subject of course, although his glider designs were limited by a lack of specific aerodynamics knowledge and lack of materials; wood and canvas is all well and good, but carbon fibre composites and aluminium are better. Still, modified versions of the original design with authentic materials have succeeded, so he wasn’t too far off.

    Anyway, this post has gone for longer than I expected. So… yeah.

  2. Ermyntrude Millais was heard to remark,

    Upon the 21st of June, 2010 at 7:45 am,

    Thanks so very much for the shout-out, my good chap!

    I feel that where Steampunk will really come into its own is the inevitable result of our current societal phase of excess, enjoyable though it may be for us to choose this lifestyle for now, and steampunk in this context can indeed appear frivolous and meaningless. But when we are required not by self restraint (which is admittedly gosh-darned difficult) but by physical limiations, to consume less and become more frugal, the familiarity with these choices will be a head-start. Steampunk teaches us the value of repurposing, recycling, and re-imagining. It makes beauty and utility from the discarded and the forgotten, and allows us to see things we may formerly have regarded as useless or ugly as useful and beautiful. We just probably have a little way to go before what to us is currently a choice, becomes a need – but Steampunks will be well prepared, more fulfilled, and happier in times of frugality which I believe may lie ahead.


    Mme E. Millais

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