Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 27 May 2013


I'm going to have a midlife crisis.

I deserve one. I've played by the rules so far.

My late teens were dedicated to sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. Well drug and rock anyway - I was a Physics undergrad.. My twenties were my years of radical political activism. Then in my thirties I found myself with a job, a wife and a family.

So I deserve a crisis, and I know what I'm going to do.

I'm going to become a Goth.

I've already made a start, having seen Inkubus Sukkubus a few times. However as I've always been wearing a Paisley shirt I didn't quite fit in, being the only person not wearing black - apart from the band.

But I don't just want to be any old Goth, I'm going to go Steampunk.

Now mainly this is so I can hang around with women dressed like Bellatrix Lestrange.

Partly it's because I really like Whitby.

But also it's because Steampunk represents the collision of two things I'm really interested in; Science Fiction and Victoriana.

However there may also be a few elements in the mix that don't sit so neatly with me.

But first, where did this steampunk thing spring from?

It's difficult to find the exact origins. The name originated in the mid-eighties after a cluster of science fiction books appeared that harked back to an earlier age. My favourite was The Anubis Gates,  a menagerie of weird and wacky ideas including sinister stilt walking clowns and an attempt to catch a body-swapping werewolf by opening a hair removal clinic. Terry Gilliam's Brazil came out about this time, heavily influenced by Orwell's 1984 (blatant rip-off would be another way of putting it) and the film that gave us all those retro-computer that are part of the steampunk look.

By 1990 the genre was firmly established, with the father of cyberpunk, William Gibson, producing his own steampunk book The Difference Engine, and the last of the Back to the Future films being set in the Old West.

That film itself in many ways harked back to a TV series that could also be considered the first manifestations of steampunk, The Wild, Wild West. I would disagree as that show was obviously a collision of two other genres, namely the Western and Spy-Fi, a sub-genre of Science Fiction.

Looking further back Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis is another possible precursor, although I have a problem with putting the origins of steampunk before 1939. It's not just that Metropolis is obviously a Modernist piece, but when it was made H G Wells was still alive and writing. If steampunk is a tribute to the glories of Victorian sci-fi, then it can't have started whilst the greatest sci-fi writer of that time (if not all time) was alive and well.

And so as we've got to Wells, lets have a little look at the era that has most influenced steampunk.

The Victorians invented lots of things, including science fiction. Probably this was because for the first time technology was advancing at such a rate that people were able to start to see the world changing almost beyond recognition in their own lifetimes. The advance from small cottage industries to huge factories, from the horse and cart to the steam train, from the muzzle loading musket to the machine gun, was so rapid that by the end of the century it was easy to imagine that in fifty years time we would all be living in cities the size of small countries, traveling at the speed of sound and with the power to destroy all life on earth. And they were right.

But the Victorian world was changing in other ways that weren't reflected in Wells's books.

His heroes, such as the unnamed time traveler in his debut novel, to Cavor and Bedford on their way to the moon, are in the British tradition if talented amateurs. But the day of the amateur was pretty much over.

By the dawn of the Edwardian the world was in the grip of a second Industrial Revolution. New chemicals, electricity and the internal combustion engined car and aeroplane were appearing. The new hero of the day was Thomas Edison. Not an inventor as such, but the head of the world's first, modern scientific research establishment. Science was now a team sport. 

And unlike the first Industrial Revolution, this time Britain wasn't in the lead. We were still in the
running, but it was becoming increasingly clear that Germany and the USA were the new industrial giants. So if the Ether Propeller really had been invented in 1896, it was unlikely to have been the product of a reclusive physicist in Kent, but of a research facility on the Ruhr or in New Jersey.

What we did have by the bucket load though was good, old fashioned, First Industrial Revolution heavy industry. More Dark Satanic Mills than you can shake a swordcane at. The odd green thinker like John Ruskin railed against them, and even considered whether all those smoking chimneys might be damaging the weather, but they remained a part of British life until the 1950s.

Then there was the Empire, obviously. 400 plus million people held in thrall because, amongst other things "we have got: The Maxim gun, and they have not". This asymmetric warfare inspired H G Wells when he wrote War of the Worlds, where the Martian heat-ray is just their version of the Maxim Gun. He also satirised this muscular Imperialism in The First Men In The Moon, but then in The Shape of Things to Come  his 'Dictatorship of the Air', who run the world from an air base in Iraq, engage in just this sort of 'liberal interventionism'.

Perhaps Wells should have paid more attention to George Orwell who, after chucking in a safe job in the Burmese police, decided that life in the Empire was just "one long struggle not to be laughed at". The chap on the left shows why.

Of course there was another side to the Victorians. They were sexually liberated, invented modern socialism (in all its forms), banished the Georgian slums and cared deeply about the environment - at least some of them did. But I don't see much reference to any of that in steampunk.

Instead it does seem to celebrate the alleged British genius for invention and the dominance of technology over Nature and Johnny Foreigner.

Only with style.

So if you can convince me William Morris would have been piloting a floral-pattern Sky Galleon, and not belaboring the government's answer to the Selenite Question, or that George Orwell would have been happy as a Cloud Captain and not given it all up to write Down And Out On Venus and Mars, then I'm there.

Otherwise, I'll regard them as I would people who, one hundred years hence, dress up in a  mixture of City Slickers suits and Iraq War gear, pretend their neural net interface is an iPad, and imagine the world if Climate Change and the Credit Crunch hadn't happened.

So you may not be seeing me drinking snakebite in Whitby too soon.

I'll just have to go to Plan B and buy a VW camper.

No comments: