Steampunkology: The Transcendent Steam Engine

Sakamoto, Michaela (2009). “The Transcendent Steam Engine: Industry, Nostalgia, and the Romance of Steampunk.” In Wright, Will & Kaplan, Steven (Eds.) The Image of Technology in Literature, Media, and Society: Proceedings from the 2009 Conference of the Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery (pp. 124-131).

 

In this essay I will lay out the ways in which nostalgia has reinvented the Industrial Revolution through Steampunk science fiction. In this reinvention, Steampunk both retains the traditions of Romanticism and addresses contemporary social issues. (p. 124)

 

Sakamoto’s article addresses a wider variety of steampunk works than Rose’s, which I examined last week, mentioning steampunk-esque books such as The Difference Engine, Homunculus, and A Series of Unfortunate Events; comics/manga such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Steam Detectives; movies such as Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Steamboy, and Spirited Away; and anime such as Fullmetal Alchemist; as well as giving a nod to the steampunk musical genre.

 

Her main intention is to place steampunk within the Romantic literary movement, although she notes that as with much “social science fiction,” steampunk addresses current social controversies and concerns within its speculative storytelling.

 

Steampunk, as Sakamoto describes it, is typically set in Victorian England and the Industrial Revolution, capturing the sense of hope and wonder that greeted many technological advances of the day. She mentions the proto-steampunk authors Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells, all of whom were partially or wholly writing within the Romantic movement of the time, which lends credence to her argument. However, she adds, as speculative fiction, steampunk includes more advanced steam-powered technology than actually existed at that time and, often, an element of fantasy, such as working alchemy or nonhuman creatures, at the same time that it ignores the existence at such time of such materials as plastics. She dicusses steampunk’s origins as a backlash against cyberpunk’s dark, dystopian views of the future and notes its recognition as a distinct genre in the 1980s and 1990s, when the term “steampunk” was coined by K. W. Jeter.

 

Her introductory overview of the genre won’t offer any particularly new insights for those familiar with steampunk already, although newcomers to the genre might find it of interest. Newcomers should note, however, that although many of the works she names contain a steampunk aesthetic, they are not all clear examples of the genre — for example, Fullmetal Alchemist wouldn’t spring to most people’s minds as a quintessentially steampunk work.

 

However, the later sections of her work, which discuss steampunk’s sense of nostalgia and link it to the Romantic movement, offer some interesting ways to consider the genre.

 

 "Nostalgia and the longing for a simpler age are central players in the production and appeal of Steampunk," (p. 126), she writes, characterizing steampunk as a self-conscious “charmed reenactment” that attempts to capture the spirit of the age while not seeking historical accuracy.  She situates steampunk within a longer, thirty-year historical fascination with the Victorian period in fiction and decor, arguing that this fascination arises in part because of the sense that the Victorians were in the same position we are now, living in a time of rapid technological growth and social change that promised great things while also creating a gnawing sense of social anxiety. However, she notes, nostalgia works because it ignores or erases the unpleasant. This erasure of the unpleasant, a romanticizing of the urban space and industry, was carried out by the Victorians themselves in their fiction and aids modern nostalgic reinterpretations of the time.

 

The tension between technological advancement and human sensibility and ethics is one of the central themes Sakamoto picks out as typical of steampunk — “the battle between ideals” (p. 127). She also identifies several other themes:

 

•            the tension between Victorian ideals of sexual purity, emergent feminism, and sexual liberation

•            concerns over social equality, e.g. with regard to the growing middle class and its displacement of those in the lower classes, whom are often depicted as simple, kindly, and wise factory workers

•            a sense of anti-colonialism and respect for ancient tribal people’s knowledge, especially as found in remote, exotic parts of the world

•            the possible ramifications of artifical intelligence.

 

As an aside, it might be useful for steampunk writers to compare these themes with Rose’s, which are broader in scope but generally link to Sakamoto’s “battle between ideals” theme:

 

•            The danger of social progress being defined as the imposition of “one’s own order upon others” or mastering the world.

•            The danger of scientific and technological advances being made without thought for the human toll they may take

•            The danger of  “getting it wrong” — the ways in which our observations, filtered through our cultural assumptions, may lead us to make incorrect conclusions about the world and/or the people around us.

 

Sakamoto continues,

 

“Steampunk worlds are nearly Utopian, but only on the verge of Utopia, not in it. The tension of these narratives derives from the potential for evil within humanity and how that potential can assert itself.” (p. 128)

 

She places steampunk within Romanticism, a literary movement known for depicting heroic and misunderstood individualists pursuing their creative or revolutionary dreams despite the pressures or scorn of society. Romanticism emphasizes strong emotions and “the inexpressible,” pitting the natural versus the industrial and favoring the imagination and passion over reason and law. It also, often, contains an appeal for social reform, which is key for steampunk, as well. 

 

In many steampunk works, she points out, the “[v]illains are little more than capitalists,” (p. 128), striving to maximize profits from the damaging or misused technologies they are inventing, stealing, or selling. She suggests that steampunk, despite its fascination with the mechanical, has a certain Luddite air to it with its nostalgia for the Age of Reason.

 

She then grapples with the question of whether Romanticism can still exist in the modern world, made cynical by modern warfare. Yes, she argues, Romantic works are clearly still being written, although they are more subversive than they were in Victorian times. She  argues that Romantic works do not serve merely as escapism and entertainment, but offer the reader opportunities to come to grips with the world’s horrors and tragedies.  For Sakamoto, the -punk in steampunk refers to its revolutionary messages.

 

Finally, and a little anticlimactically, Sakamoto addresses the intercultural nature of steampunk fiction, especially looking at Japanese steampunk works. She argues that Japanese steampunk subverts a national ideology that combines Western concept of Utopia/Arcadia with Confucianism and ideas of social hierarchy and order. She particularly notes Hayao Miyazaki’s works, which “show a sophisticated sense of the idea of physical paradises and the threats of social destruction of those Arcadias through human greed and ambition” (p. 130).

 

The robot, in particular, symbolizes steampunk’s Romanticism, with “its depiction of humanity attempting to create life in our own image” (p. 130), and provides an opportunity to compare and contrast Western and Japanese steampunk. In Japan, Sakamoto says, robots are depicted as emotional and sophisticated, capable of falling in love and possessing a soul. Even the evil robots are often simply responding to mistreatment by humans. She compares these Japanese robots to Western robots, which are typically depicted as inhuman, malevolant killing machines, as in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. The robot, she says, provides “a circumspect depiction of a society’s hopes and fears.” (p. 130) — as does steampunk as a whole.

 

This concept of steampunk’s nostalgia will be addressed in the future when I get around to covering the relevant sections of Noam S. Cohen’s 2008 dissertation “Speculative Nostalgias: Metafiction, Science Fiction and the Putative Death of the Novel,” among other works. But current and prospective steampunk scholars might wish to extend this line of research to investigate nostalgia in nonliterary manifestations of the steampunk movement — I can imagine some very interesting work done on nostalgic/Romantic use of folk instruments and sampling in steampunk music, for example, or in the reinvention of “steampunk” laptops, mobile homes, and other examples of material design, or in steampunk costuming. (My own dissertation was on the historical Anglo-European laws, regulations, and rules of etiquette that controlled clothing display as a form of symbolic communication — any academics game for a cowritten paper on steampunk gender displays?)  It might also be interesting to see whether steampunk can be extended beyond the West and Japan; how is it being conceived of in other countries? What cultural manifestations might be particular to that country's conception of the genre — what particular social anxieties does it address there?

 

The next article I’d like to review here will be more popular than academic, although it has points of interest to scholars — The New York Review of Science Fiction’s 2009 article on “The Nineteenth Century Roots of Steampunk” by Jess Nevins.  See you here again!

 

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