One of the great criticisms levelled at Steampunk is this whole business of fantasy science and silly, impossible technology. There are a number of strands to this one. Firstly there are plenty of Steampunks who do know their stuff, and who are making things in an entirely real way. The reclamation of technology, and the possibility of the lone mad scientist working in a shed are very much on the agenda. The new technology projects that show up on kickstarter indicate that there’s a wider movement here, with innovation moving outside established business models.
While our modern science and technology stands on the shoulders of Victorians, it’s not a simple picture. For every Isambard Kingdom Brunel building ships and railways, there was a man throwing himself down a hill with a bicycle flying machine. For every Marie Curie, there was a woman making up sugary solutions and claiming they would bring eternal youth. It is important to remember that science is not always serious, or right. Sometimes where science goes is unspeakably stupid, and sometimes what is ridiculed at the time turns out to have been the important bit all along. Who knows what future generations will look back and laugh at when it comes to our attempts at technology and innovation. The incredible arrogance of some strands of scientific thinking could use balancing up with a few reminders about the flying bicycles.
Sometimes Steampunk as a genre simply postulates that the crazy stuff of the Victorian era was viable, and plots from there. It’s a device for making an interesting story, no more or less valid than any other plot device and author might run with. It allows us to ask, what if? Going into the fine detail of the science would bore some readers to death, and authors (who make things up, after all) do not always know. I refer you to that great Star Trek quote. “How does the Heisenberg compensator work? Very well, thank you.” Welcome to fiction, some of it is pretend. If the story is good, it doesn’t matter. There’s a contract between author and reader in every book, around how far one can persuade the other to suspend their disbelief.
With period classics like Jekyll and Hyde, and Frankenstein, there are clearly points where the relationship between science and magic gets a bit vague. Most of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells falls out the same way. Then Dracula, and the whole genre of Victorian ghost stories pushes us clearly over the line into the magical and supernatural. There was a huge gothic genre, more visible now in its parodies than its original stories. Penny Dreadfuls provided the Dan Brown equivalents of the day, only to fall into obscurity. So there’s certainly nothing new in muddying the waters.
For someone who has no idea what the mechanics are, there is no practical difference between science and magic anyway. We do things now that our ancestors could only have understood as witchcraft or miracles.
I tend to be drawn to the ludicrous and the magical more than to the hard science. This would be in part because I stopped studying science formally when I was sixteen. I’m more interested and entertained by the makers of unworkable flying machines, attempts at balloon trips to the Arctic, and other such heroic failures than I am in the things that worked. We mostly know the stories of the things that worked. The ingenuity of the near misses can be astounding. There’s also something profoundly human about banging away at an idea that manifestly doesn’t work, and refusing to admit that your weasel powered engine is not poised to revolutionise the world. For every hero of progress, there are so many people who wanted to be that, and weren’t. For every ground breaking inspiration there were so many moments of convincing lunacy. I think those hold up a better mirror to humanity than the triumphs.
Of course I simply enjoy the magic, the aesthetics and possibilities appeal to me on many levels. I’ve toyed with the two, with a lot of crazy faux-technology and magic alongside each other in Intelligent Designing for Amateurs, where it is the inventor who accidently puts together the magical device. Hopeless Maine starts out with a fair helping of magic, but as we fell in love with Steampunk, the temptation of techno-magic overtook us, and we built devices into the setting as well, most especially the lighthouse that dominates the first book cover.
How you balance your science with supernatural possibilities, is, on the whole, less important than telling a good story. For every work of genius in that regard, there are other books that feel more like the men on the un-fly-able bicycles, peddling furiously but not going anywhere. But as we already know, more of human endeavour is off the mark than on it. It’s part of our charm as a species.
Author of Hopeless Main graphic novel series, Steampunk novel Intelligent Designing for Amateurs, and somewhat responsible for the Secret Order of Steampunk Druids. Also writes about Druidry and creates other gothic fiction.