Dear Coppélia,


How you must think me primitive for wanting to write this using pen and paper instead of typing this up on a typwriter to enjoy the rhythms of clinks and clacks it makes, but I hesitate not to remind you that Leonardo da Vinci the Renaissance man, the Italian polymath and genius inventor, penned all his designs and sketches personally with his own hand. After all, is writing not a form of technology? Thomas Hobbs in Leviathan (1651) revealed that writing could be considered as an invention based on speech. Historians of technology and human evolution tend to agree with him. Writing can be considered as an alternate 'extra-somatic information store', or if you would have it, a prosthetic memory tool which works as an 'artificial subsitute for a function that was previously performed in the the chromosomes of the germ cells'. However, let us not quarrel over terminology. I must update you on my recent whereabouts before I begin detailing my recent discoveries.


As a proud member of the Legion of Floating Libraries, I was informed last week that all floating libraries must convene at the sky island Tillimayne in a month's time. And ever since my team of mechanics perfected the clockwork dragonflies that deliver mails over long-distance, I've been waiting for an opportunity to test them out. After I finish writing this I will send a swarm your way. If you feel any refinement is necessary, you know I trust your creative mind enough to do as you please to my progenies.


Now, concerning what I have been reading and pondering over in my floating library onboard of your cousin's dirigible 'Flight of Icarus', have you come across Jonathan Sawday's Engines of the Imagination? The majority of steampunks consider the Victorian era to be the primary source of inspiration, an idea that seems rather viable in most cases. Yet can we not also turn to the Renaissance period to find instant inspiration in the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci or their attempt in producing moving, groaning machines of irreproachable artistic integrity and beauty? Here are some quotes that have given me much to muse over. For example, why the obsession with machines?

'It is this curious sense of fascination more than the wish to build something useful or the hope for material rewards that makes men devote their lives to machinery. Constructing, operating, even watching machines provide satisfactions and delights that can be intense enough to become ends in themselves. Such delights are purely aesthetic...the fascinations and delights of machinery are a historical force, insufficiently appreciated perhaps because of a cultural bias, but nevertheless real, a force that has affected not only our technology, but also philosophy, science, literature, or in short, our culture at large.' (Otto Myr qtd 49)


I've also noticed that alchemy, an outdated if not paganistic mode of science, is found quite prevalently in steampunk novels. For a while that seems to puzzle me endlessly. Sawday, however, is able to offer a rather intriguing explanation using John Donne's fascination with the potential restlessness of the morphology of metals. I particularly enjoyed this emphasis on metal rather than the use of metal. It is easy for steampunk writers to imagine what Donne and W. B. Yeats have articulated in their poetry--"a transformation into some better version of humanity by surrendering to the prospect of artificiality" (169). In steampunk novels the significance metal as the malleable material for the producion of all machines can be so easily overlooked.


"This potential for change was related to the language and metaphors of alchemy that were so popular in the period, in which the adept was transformed into some better or more refined state...Metal could be imagined as the ‘soul’ or essence of the metallic ore, wrestled from its loamy matrix by miners. New artificial forms were forged out of these natural substances in a process that was akin to parturition – ‘the great work’ as it was sometimes known among alchemists – while they were also the product of obscure alchemical reactions that might, of course, always prove fruitless or even fraudulent" (168)


In other words, the alchemy of metal offers the chance to be reborn and restored, and is thus part of that larger vision of machines that promised an optimistic restitution of the fallen human state. In Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia the automaton must perform the stone alchemy to fuse the opposing elements together to create a future for her individually and her society collectively. It is an ability that allows society to move forward with their past still intact. Similarly in Fullmetal Alchemist we see alchemy as a kind of power that opens up portals between worlds, or realms of life and death if you will. And while it is a power that can disrupt the balance, it is also a power that can restore the world to its equilibrium. The very fact that it is a power that is mutable is what allows it to restore the world to its state of constancy.


It is late and as I'm crossing leaving one timezone for another I feel like a cup of tea is exactly what I need to equalise all this time-traveling dizziness.


Until next time,




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Comment by Lia Keyes on April 3, 2011 at 8:38am
Thank you for the reminder to read Engines of the Imagination, Lexi, which I've been meaning to do for some time! I also love the connection between the work of alchemists and metals with machines made of metal. It got my mind working in interesting directions!


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