Victoria Day: Notes on Steampunk

May 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm (Uncategorized) ()

It’s Victoria Day in Canada today (well, English Canada – in Quebec it’s Patriot’s Day). The statutory holiday has been celebrated in Canada in some form or other since 1845, and has been law since Victoria’s death in 1901.

Today, outside of monarchist circles, it’s pretty much recognized as the first long weekend of summer: Victoria’s actual birthday is May 24, so informally it became the May 2-4 weekend (Huh? Oh sorry, you can buy beer in a 24 bottle case here, and for some reason it’s known as a two-four. No, I don’t know why).

The other fun thing is fireworks. Last night onne of our neighbours organized a small firework display at a local park. My family along with some of the other families with children on our block ooo-ed and ahh-ed and I eve got to play with sparklers. That brought back some childhood memories or Guy Fawkes night.

Which in a roundabout way brings me to my topic, Steampunk.

Steampunk. I have to say, I like the idea. On paper. It contains a lot of great elements:

  • Classic Victorian science fiction (Wells, Verne etc.)
  • An imaginative revisionist premise (steam and clocks driving a new technological revolution)
  • Cool clothing
  • subtle insertions into other genres

And it really is a mainstream genre now. From video games to TV and movies (even Halloween costumes), the Victorian era is back. (If you’re in Canada, contact the Steampunk Society of Canada

So, yeah, I was down with the idea – I loved William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s “The Difference Engine” and I owned a pocket watch before Looper came out ( bought it at Fan Expo last summer along with a nice pair of goggles which fit over my own glasses from Lady Lilleigh’s Little Luxuries.(Also a fan of the bowler hat, but another time)

The trouble is, that, the delivery has been less than satisfying. I liked Gibson’s book, but I’m not really sure that’s a fair test, as I’ve read and enjoyed many of his works.

I heard Moorlock Night by KW Jeter was a good place to begin, as it was Jeter who coined the phrase steam punk. Imagine this, the moorlocks from Wells’ time machine were not the only branch of their species. There were also super-intelligent moorlocks who copy the Time Traveller’s design and use it to invade the past. OK. Now, I found the story a little clunky, but half way through the story abruptly shifts into an Arthurian legend story. Dreadful.

I recently read Kevin Angerson’s Clockwork Angels, which was  based on a short story and later album by Neil Pert, the drummer from Rush. It started off promisingly,  although instead of Victorian England, it was a future society. featuring characters like the Watchwatcher, the Anarchist and the Wreckers. However, about two-thirds of the way through, the novel abruptly switched gears into a Candide-style journey (one of the characters is called Pangloss – admiral not doctor though) laced with Objectivist style lessons (Pert is a fan of Ayn Rand).

And if you’ll forgive me a small digression, I can’t stand Ms. Rand. When I was in university, inspired by the number of times I saw Rand’s volumes on student shelves, I did dip into her works; turgid and didactic as they were. I guess I’ll use this opportunity to quote the famous assessment of her work

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

John Rogers, Kung Fu Monkey blog

But, back to reality, sort of. Even as I have yet to read what I consider to be the great steampunk novel (and please correct my ignorance!)n check out the editorial from Steampunk Magazine

Steampunk is a re-envisioning of the past with the hypertechnological perceptions of the present.

Unfortunately, most so-called “steampunk” is simply dressed-up, recreationary nostalgia: the stifling tea-rooms of Victorian

imperialists and faded maps of colonial hubris. This kind of sepia-toned yesteryear is more appropriate for Disney and suburban

grandparents than it is for a vibrant and viable philosophy or culture.

First and foremost, steampunk is a non-luddite critique of technology. It rejects the ultra-hip dystopia of the cyberpunks—

black rain and nihilistic posturing—while simultaneously forfeiting the “noble savage” fantasy of the pre-technological era.

It revels in the concrete reality of technology instead of the over-analytical abstractness of cybernetics. Steam technology is the

difference between the nerd and the mad scientist; steampunk machines are real, breathing, coughing, struggling and rumbling

parts of the world. They are not the airy intellectual fairies of algorithmic mathematics but the hulking manifestations of

muscle and mind, the progeny of sweat, blood, tears and delusions. The technology of steampunk is natural; it moves,

lives, ages and even dies.

Steampunk, that mad scientist, refuses to be fenced in by the ever-growing cages of specialization. Leonardo DaVinci is the

steampunker touchstone; a blurring of lines between engineering and art, rendering fashion and function mutually dependent.

Authentic steampunk seeks to take the levers of technology from those technocrats who drain it of both its artistic and real

qualities, who turn the living monsters of technology into the simpering servants of meaningless commodity.

Authentic Steampunk is not an artistic movement but an aesthetic technological movement. The machine must be liberated from efficiency and designed by desire and dreams.

The sleekness of optimal engineering is to be replaced with the necessary ornamentation of true function. Imperfection, chaos,

chance and obsolescence are not to be seen as faults, but as ways of allowing spontaneous liberation from the predictability of


Steampunk overthrows the factory of consciousness by means of beautiful entropy, creating a seamless paradox between

the practical and the fanciful. This living dream of technology is neither slave nor master, but partner in the exploration of

otherwise unknowable territories of both art and science.

Steampunk rejects the myopic, nostalgia-drenched politics so common among “alternative” cultures. Ours is not the culture of Neo-Victorianism and stupefying etiquette, not remotely an escape to gentleman’s clubs and classist rhetoric.

It is the green fairy of delusion and passion unleashed from her bottle, stretched across the glimmering gears of rage.

We seek inspiration in the smog-choked alleys of Victoria’s duskless Empire. We find solidarity and inspiration in the mad

bombers with ink stained cuffs, in whip-wielding women that yield to none, in coughing chimney sweeps who have escaped

the rooftops and joined the circus, and in mutineers who have gone native and have handed the tools of the masters to those

most ready to use them.

We are inflamed by the dockworkers of the Doglands as they set Prince Albert’s Hall ablaze and impassioned by the dark

rituals of the Ordo Templi Orientis. We stand with the traitors of the past as we hatch impossible treasons against our present.

Too much of what passes as steampunk denies the punk, in all of its guises. Punk—the fuse used for lighting cannons.

Punk—the downtrodden and dirty. Punk—the aggressive, do-it-yourself ethic. We stand on the shaky shoulders of opium-

addicts, aesthete dandies, inventors of perpetual motion machines, mutineers, hucksters, gamblers, explorers, madmen

and bluestockings. We laugh at experts and consult moth-eaten tomes of forgotten possibilities. We sneer at utopias

while awaiting the new ruins to reveal themselves. We are a community of mechanical magicians enchanted by the real

world and beholden to the mystery of possibility. We do not have the luxury of niceties or the possession of politeness; we are

rebuilding yesterday to ensure our tomorrow. Our corsets are stitched with safety pins and our top hats hide vicious mohawks.

We are fashion’s jackals running wild in the tailor shop.

It lives! Steampunk lives in the reincarnated collective past of shadows and ignored alleys. It is a historical

wunderkabinet, which promises, like Dr. Caligari’s, to wake the somnambulist of the present to the dream-reality of the future.

We are archeologists of the present, reanimating a hallucinatory history


Not the Empire. Not the social-conservatism. Not what was. What might be: “We stand with the traitors of the past as we hatch impossible treasons against our present.” I like that quite a lot. something to think about this Victoria day.


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