A while ago as I was catching up on my steampunk blog readings and drying my hair at the same time I came across an post with a title that caught my attention like flying magnets, "Steampunk Tech and Teens." Oh. Fabulous. Exactly what I need for my thesis. Yippee.
However, the article turned out to be little more than an outline of her own fictional world that ended with an appeal for further comments and inspiring suggestions of what steampunk tech for teens actually is. I was, admittedly, underwhelmed. Still it got me thinking, and remembering.
The last time I met with my supervisor to discuss the section on the definition of steampunk, I made it clear that I wanted to avoid using steampunk tech as a metaphor for adolescence because that was way too predictable. My supervisor simply smiled and sipped her coffee quite calmly, then turned to me and said, "Well, why can't it be?" So I quickly added, oh yes, it probably was.
Back up a second.
Steampunk technology as a metaphor for adolescence? Do I believe that? Actually that's the wrong question. What I really should be asking is, can I shamelessly declare that it is? The only reason that is holding me back from furthering this argument is that it seems just too obvious. And with things that are too obvious, there's usually a catch. And so before I figure out what the catch is, I'm not saying it.
That's how I function. Not very wise, but definitely contrary and fickle.
But before I completely discard the idea out of this perverse tendency to resist the transparent, let's take a look at some aspects that I feel are relevant to teens today. And as I get started I want to stress that since I'm no longer a teen (though I still feel and think like one quite instinctively) the ideas I express are invariably going to be coloured and affected by,
1) My personal and society's view of what a teen is. In recent years the inventionist view of adolescence as a cultural product has become more widely recognised in humanities and sciences. It is, in short, the idea that adolescence is the creation of the society of its time, how the media portrays it and how we selectively perceive certain aspects of adolescence such as physical aggression, obssession with sex, emotional turmoils, and rebellious tendencies.
2) On the steampunk panel, the librarian (sorry but the name escapes me) mentions that one time a teenager told her steampunk seemed like the kind of thing that people in their twenties thought teens would like. OH SNAP. Still Scott Westerfeld and Cherie Priest make a convincing argument about the importance of play and how the boundaries of adolescence are becoming more blurring and dependent on self-evaluation and self-definition.
So after that brief introduction of the relationship between teens and society, let's move on to what I really want to talk about. Technology and teens.
How do the dynamics between the inventionist view of adolescence and the emphasis on creativity and re-invention work in young adult steampunk novels in a way that is not didactic or pedagogic?
I'd like to think that steampunk technology allows the adolescent to believe in the possibility as well as the fallibility of the individual, the collective society, and humanity as a whole. For too long YA science fiction has avoided this dual dynamic of optimism and pessimism at work, and instead focuses on the dystopian, corrupting nature of modern technology. Steampunk technology allows us to rethink how is it exactly what we define ourselves using technology, literally and metaphorically. If modern technology is doomed, then aren't we doomed as well? But if we start looking at technology in a more organic and thus complex way then the possibility for humanity is infinite. Sure machines can fail, but we can always recycle the pieces and build it into something new. It is, more or less, confronting the past, the possibility of failure, and the possibility of a more hopeful future.
Strange enough, most YA steampunk novels still draw on the tradition of dystopian science fiction that depicts technology as evil and nature/children as the redeemer. Well, the problem here is, YA fiction can't help but moralise just a little. I'm thinking of The Hunchback Assignment and Mortal Engines. It is the inherent quality of YA fiction that sets it apart from its adult counterpart. True that when it comes to genres like fantasy and science fiction, as Madeleine L'Engle once said, reading fantasy has more to do with the state of mind rather than the age boundaries. But just as adolescence is a cultural product of our time, YA fiction that is directed by our perception of what an adolescent is is going to be equally restrained and manipulative, thus difficult to work out.
But deep down I know that steampunk technology and protagonists are different. In SF more often than not the protagonist discovers that he/she possesses superpowers due to circumstances that involve scientific experiments or gene pool accidents, which means, the abilities that the protagonist uses are not earned, but given to him/her. The narrative usually follows the protagonist as he/she learns to develop and grow into his/her superpowers in order to save the world.
What about steampunk? Well. They work for it. It is rare, very rare, to see a steampunk protagonist with some sort of superability that involves zero effort input. Sure one or two has a natural flair for things, but they don't substract from and undermine the protagonist's attempts to better him/herself as he/she rises to the trials. I read this article on BBC the other day that talks about how these researchers have found that by telling the child, "You've gotten an excellent mark because you've worked hard for it!" is more encouraging and effective in the long term than telling him/her, "You've done well because you're such a gifted child!" What does mean? I think this means that finally science fiction is catching up with reality. Sure it is exciting to imagine that we're inexpicably talented in something just because we are, but in the long run it doesn't help. It's about building resilience. It's about knowing your limit. It's about surviving in a world where natural talent is appreciated but hard work pays of more.
Last of all, here's an exerpt from Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life by Gaby Wood that I feel sums up a lot of what the steampunk automaton is capable of:
“It didn’t matter if the chess player was an authentic automaton; it was, as its history shows so clearly, less an admirable piece of mechanism than a philosophical game. Audiences could be titillated by the possibility of automaton; they could, to their mind’s content, tempt fate and fear with the idea that machines could be like humans, without ever having to deal with the reality. It was like playing with machinery, or playing with what was human, the way that one might play with fire. The new label ‘a new Prometheus’ was both an honour and a warning, since the truly Promethean territory was this: it was not mechanical ingenuity, the giving of imitated life, that had earned Kempelen his moniker, but rather the act of playing with life, and the dangerous thrill of the riddle his new invention proposed.”