Refining the Steampunk Ethos

Of course, it’s steampunk that’s bringing me back for my second post in as many years. Not that I’m a huge fan of the genre. I am writing what I hope turns out to be my first published/-able novel, which I think I’m describing as a “comic-historical-adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones meets Code of the Woosters.” Not very steampunky at all, as it’s set in the 20-21st centuries on the one hand and the sixth on the other.

But what sets me off about it is a happy coincidence of several events:

1. I’m finally reading Perdido Street Station.
2. The SyFy channel is airing a new, somewhat interesting new show, Warehouse 13.
3. A friend is planning a Halloween party on the theme of “archaeologists vs. mummies,” and I’m determined to come as Sir Henry Morton Stanley (he of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame). I need a pith helmet and convincing handlebar mustache.
4. I like brass.

Note that no. 4 above is not so much an “event” as it is a realization that there is a strong aesthetic appeal in a material so hard and shiny, yet also warm and inviting. And outside of the steampunk milieu, it is almost unseen in modern design and architecture.

China Miéville’s seminal novel got me thinking about cities and their design, as the book is set in the decrepit metropolis of New Crobuzon, set on the planet of Bas Lag, a place where alien races, Victorian-era technology, some kinds of magical forces (although more as background powers to be researched and tapped, rather than the skill-based combat magic systems that populate most swords-and-sorcery fiction these days.)

New Crobuzon is probably one of the best fictional cities I’ve ever read about, whether in fantastic fiction or in the mainstream. It ranks up there with the very real metropolises in the real world that seem to have tapped their inner chaos and come to life on their own, Istanbul being one of my favorites. As an example of sprawl, decomposition, pollution, corruption and general unpleasantness, New Crobuzon is a bit over the top, perhaps, but coupled with a darn good story, it stands out. It makes me want to read his new one, The City and the City, which takes as its inspiration two very different cities, perhaps analogous to Prague and, yes, Istanbul. (I suspect a kindred spirit here).

The new SyFy (née SciFi) series Warehouse 13 (not to be confused with Warehouse 23, which, if you know anything at all about it, makes you an irredeemable geek for life) isn’t near as deep, but it’s a fun romp through X-Files¬-style mysteries of the occult, alien, obscure artifacts and relics stored in a vast government warehouse in South Dakota because… well, let’s say if you have the Ark of the Covenant, and can’t figure out what to do with it without causing unleashing its face-melting bad-assery on the local population, wouldn’t you want to put it away somewhere to make sure no-one else gets to it?

The storylines are fairly simple: two federal agents investigate weird and paranormal events, primarily to find whatever mysterious object is behind the events, to then retrieve said object and return it safely to the warehouse where it will presumably do no more harm. The steampunk elements come into play in the design of the warehouse and some of the tools the characters use: two-way video communicators that look like brass cigarette cases with a magnifying lens stuck in them (why they aren’t using iPhones with Skype, I don’t know), the warehouse administrator Artie’s machine-tooled brass PC, probably modeled on the very real “Steampunk Keyboard” mod that made the rounds on the net a year or two ago, and various other little design elements that make the sets look just plain cool.

Thus steampunk creeps ever further into the mainstream, with more and more authors delving into the Victorian era (less a steampunk offshoot than a renewed interest in the 19th century romance as a form of art). Can we expect a remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (the Disney movie, not the book) sometime soon? Hold on, I’ll check the internets… yes. And just in time for a steampunk renaissance to hit us full blast around mid-2010, maybe.

Is that a prediction? Maybe. I’m new at this, so the crystal ball isn’t so clear. But, as a former editor of mine once put it, I detect a trend.

Back to the original thought: what is appealing? The 2008 New York Times article I originally linked to (in danger of disappearing behind a pay wall any day now, or never, depending on how panicky the newspaper industry gets) treated steampunk as a design movement rather than a literary genre, but cited a source or two talking about a desire to connect with a world where quality workmanship drove technological innovation, and to get out of the current one of mass-produced consumer products, whether it’s crappy computers running a crappy operating system or those gol-darned kids and their backwards baseball caps and their shorts pulled down to their knees.

It is true that refinement is a concept notably lacking in modern life (except when it comes to petroleum), but to romanticize the Victorians is a little bit silly via vaccinated time travel, and a little bit disingenuous, because who wouldn’t want to live in Victorian England, say, so long as you could be 1) immune to smallpox, 2) located far away from nasty coal-fired factories, and 3) a lady or gentleman of society. There were plenty of pox-ridden peasants and miners with black lung around then, but those aren’t the people we want to remember from the era. They didn’t have neat brass fittings in their houses. They didn’t wear nice clothes.

Class is indeed at the heart of the steampunk ethos, as it was at the heart of the conflicts of the Industrial Revolution (the second one, especially) as labor grew to become more and more exploited by industry and led to the rise of the union movement. For that, the literature and aesthetics are less Victorian/steampunk as they are A Hazard of New Fortunes. The upper class had their vices. They drank, screwed, farted with the rest of humanity. But they created for themselves a conceit that they never experienced such banal reminders of being alive, simply by virtue of their station. They could probably be understood as the first (and not last) modern sufferers of a mass denial of their own humanity.

Which is why Perdido Street Station stands out. It delves into the underclass with relish, rolling in the filth that clogs the sewers of New Crobuzon, lovingly detailing its characters’ malformations and injuries (at one point in the book, most of the main characters lose an ear), and never flinching from a landscape scarred and blighted by industry, chemistry, magic and science run amok. Rather than polished brass, devices are cobbled together out of whatever scrap is handy. Metal rusts. Brick crumbles. Pipes corrode and foul liquids spew forth. Everything smells. Such is life, and that’s why China Miéville’s New Crobuzon is more real a city than many others.

And New Crobuzon reflects more accurately the cities of this world. Many places I’ve lived and traveled in share elements, whether it’s the crumbling infrastructure visible in any modern American city (Seattle’s and Boston’s collapsing roadways come to mind, as does the New York metropolitan power grid), the exposed pipes, wires and supports of Budapest where the masonry still shows the scars of the 1956 uprising, to the urban chaos of Istanbul, the nightmare industrial zone of Copsa Mica (Romania), industrial accidents on the Tisza River (Hungary), plus countless places in Russia, China, Ukraine and elsewhere, where I’ve only seen photos or read reports. This is the real world that Perdido Street Station draws from. Shiny brass and intricate workmanship can probably be found in many of those places, but it is still just one fragment of the whole, living, breathing city.

Despite this, I still like brass. More thoughts on this later. Perhaps next year.

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