Bruce Sterling on Steampunk

2190665242_608efe473d_o.jpgFull essay is here.

Steampunk’s key lessons are not about the past. They are about the instability and obsolescence of our own times. A host of objects and services that we see each day all around us are not sustainable. They will surely vanish. Once they’re gone, they’ll seem every bit as weird and archaic as top hats, crinolines, magic lanterns, clockwork automatons, absinthe, walking-sticks and paper-scrolled player pianos.
We are a technological society. When we trifle, in our sly, Gothic, grave-robbing fashion, with archaic and eclipsed technologies, we are secretly preparing ourselves for the death of our own tech. Steampunk is popular now because people are unconsciously realizing that the way that we live has already died. We are sleepwalking. We are ruled by rapacious, dogmatic, heavily-armed fossil-moguls who rob us and force us to live like corpses. Steampunk is a pretty way of coping with this truth.

It’s a really interesting insight into the movement and, thinking about it, I probably agree… though at the same time I still just plain like stuff like zeppelins because they’re cool.
But when I think about the story I’m writing in Humorless, and the steampunk/clockpunk tech that shows up, a lot of it (with the exception of the story’s namesake) has corollaries in today’s technology, and each example has something wrong with it — flaws that also have a modern corollary.
Is that what I’m writing about? No. 1 However, I think it’s fascinating that, in introducing steampunk elements into the story, my mind naturally bestowed these relics of a technological path-not-taken with the same points of failure as the technology we have today.
Doing that sort of thing is, according to this essay, a kind of definitive part of the steampunk ‘thing’, and one assumes that that commentary is a conscious effort on the part of the participants. The fact that the same sort of deconstruction happened in my own story without my being aware of this alleged underpinning of the genre implies something even more important: that this knowledge of the oncoming failure of our current technological culture and the way we can/could reflect it in the Brass Mirror of pseudo-Victorian tech-that-never-was is something deeply ingrained in the subconscious.

1 – Truth be told, I probably won’t know exactly or even generally what I’m writing about until I’m done, or probably well after that — I know that brothers and sisters seem to be figuring fairly prominently, and that’s about it.

One Reply to “Bruce Sterling on Steampunk”

  1. More thoughts, this time on how my characters in the story interact with the extant technology:
    Two of them are almost willfully ignorant of technology. One of them knows about enough to make a phone call, if pressed; the other knows only how to circumvent the tech — he doesn’t understand it. Both of these characters are paired-up in some way with hyper-techy people, and both of them are very good at being a “people person”.
    The two three hyper-techy people are both socially… antagonistic, to different degrees. One of them is awkward, one of them is simply a disagreeable ass, and the third — the mathematician — simply doesn’t seem to think about people very much.
    ((God, these are all such horribly stereotypes. I need to adjust this.))
    Three characters (one minor) are reasonably well-adjusted – they deal well with people, are empathic to different degrees, and use technology comfortably. They’re also, as a group, the most aware of what’s going on around them. (Everything, that is, not just one aspect of what’s going on.)
    Wow. That’s… hmm.
    Interesting. I thought I was just writing a funny story.

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