Steampunkology: The Anachronistic Fantastic

Bell, Alice R. (2009). The anachronistic fantastic: Science, progress and the child in ‘post-nostalgic’ culture. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 12(1), 5-22.

Steampunk and children have already been discussed in two previous posts, one analyzing an article by Pike (“Buried Pleasure”) and the other by Nevins (“Boy-Inventor”). It seems appropriate to continue the theme with a discussion of this article, which analyzes three types of contemporary children’s literature, described as “going forward into the past,” mixing science and myth, and “technostalgic.” It is the latter, technostalgic, section which we’ll address in this discussion.
Steampunk, an offshoot of the cyberpunk movement, is a significant example of what we might call ‘technostalgia.’ It revels in mechanical aesthetics associated with the Industrial Revolution and the ‘white heat’ of post-war technological change.
(p. 15)
Bell’s interest is specifically in children’s steampunk; she refers to, in particular, Steamboy, Larklight and Starcross, and Dr. Who, and mentions the film version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Some other works that have occasionally received a steampunk nod, such as Pullman’s His Dark Materials, fall into different categories within her article.

What factors contribute to technostalgia? Bell, drawing on others’ insights, suggests that postmodern society has created in people a nostalgia for authenticity that manifests materially as a desire for handicrafted, well-used, and/or mechanical objects. Steampunk, she says, returns the reader to a time in which handicraft and technology existed side-by-side and in which machines were things that could be grasped and understood in a way that today’s digital technologies cannot.

This seems to me to be a succinct statement of the steampunk aesthetic and is particularly relevant to the Creator/Maker community’s work. However, we also see this fascination with the unique, the hand-crafted, the well-worn, and the mechanical in steampunk literature and, to some extent, steampunk music (although an analysis of what makes music “steampunk” is outside the scope of this essay). I have previously suggested that recycling and DIY are both important aspe..., and this passage underscores that assumption with a particular eye toward literary characterizations of nostalgia-inducing technology.

Because Bell is looking at children’s literature, her conclusions about steampunk contrast oddly with those of other writers looking at the genre. YA steampunk, she says, presents wide-eyed, morally innocent children capable of taking apart and putting back together steampunk’s machinery; one might say the literature draws a parallel between child and machine, both straightforward, unsophisticated, and genuine. This is very different from much of what has been written by others about steampunk’s social critique of technology and science and might make a good jumping-off point for a dedicated scholarly study of adult vs. children’s steampunk. On the other hand, her comment describes much of the steampunk aesthetic we see in steampulp or gaslight fiction, in which Victorian/esque technology appears as background decor or provides a convenient prop rather than serves as a focal or pivotal aspect of the story’s social critique.

Bell concludes that technostalgic stories “show a love for technologies of the past but some insecurities towards those of our present, and recast images of the child as innocent (this time to support, rather than critique science)” (p. 18). Again, this is quite different from what others have said about steampunk. I encourage a scholar looking for a paper idea to consider examining the depiction of children in adult steampunk and comparing to that in children’s steampunk. Does Bell’s allegory hold in adult steampunk fiction in which technology is dystopic, or does the narrative revert to the child-as-natural/good, technology-as-artificial/bad, binary that Bell describes as part of “forward into the past” literature? (It occurs to me that I remember relatively few depictions of preadolescent children in “adult” steampunk at all, which in itself might be telling.)

In sum, Bell’s article will be most useful to a steampunk scholar interested in writing about children’s literature. However, I think its insight into why the steampunk community experiences technostalgia — that is, what it desires from or considers “authentic” about technology — is worth keeping in mind for future attempts to describe the values of the steampunk community.

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Comment by Lia Keyes on June 15, 2011 at 7:14pm
This is a truly fascinating subject to explore, particularly your question about the possible differences in depiction of children in adult versus children's steampunk, and their relationship with technology in each. Do you have a link to Bell's article? I'd love to read more about this!

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