A Steampunk Philosophy

(For some background on steampunk, see the Wikipedia page.)

Steampunk is a genre or a style more than a technology, properly speaking. On the other hand, steampunk technology is itself a genre or a style in its way. It looks and feels different from today's modern technology. This is because it is born of a very different world from the one we live in today, and in a lot of ways it reflects the attitudes, ideas, and principles of that world.
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One of the most noticeable aspects of steampunk technology is its sheer improbability. Strange devices like the ones above abound, and often they don't have any immediately discernible purpose. In a world like Second Life, it's easy to assume that whatever it is is only there to look cool. However, in a well-crafted novel or movie, one has to assume a background to such objects, assume that they do something and that someone knows what that is, that someone in fact designed this improbable conglomeration of steel and brass and steam. In Girl Genius, a steampunk webcomic, the heroine at one point builds a device composed of "the fencing clank, part of the wrecked flying machine, bits of the furnace and the mechanical orchestra, [another character's] good lathe, and a pneumatic nutcracker" - in her sleep. The fact that one has to take that sort of thing seriously is part of what makes steampunk seem so outrageous sometimes.
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It's not the only thing, though. Steampunk technology can be pretty improbable in a purely visual sense, too. Gears, rivets, pipes, dials, levers, and gauges flourish everywhere, as can be seen from the kiosk above. Since in Second Life technology is entirely for show, these things are added anywhere to give a steampunk look. Even an ordinary door is surrounded by pipes and has extraneous rivets bolted to its edges -
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- and this display is simple compared with the profusion of bits and parts elsewhere. The body of the clock beside it, for instance, is entirely covered in gears, pipes, and rivets. Steampunk technology, especially in Second Life, tends to the showily complex. In modern times, technological showiness tends to come in the form of sleekness, a smoothing away of mechanics. Steampunk, on the other hand, often glories in mechanics. Inner workings are sometimes only partly concealed or even, on occasion, left entirely exposed. The gears below are visible behind only an immense sheet of glass, left in view purely for display. This glory in complexity, mechanics, and parts is one of the hallmarks of steampunk technology.
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Another is sheer size. Steampunk technology is often built big. Modern technology generally aims to miniaturize as much as possible, making technology smaller and smaller. Not so in steampunk. While magnitude is not universal, it does tend to be the rule. In Girl Genius, the main character does make miniature robots ("clanks") only a little larger than an adult's hand - but she makes an army of them. She also makes a death ray the size of a small child as a personal weapon, and in her travels she encounters both an airship large enough to house an entire city's worth of permanent residents, and (hearkening back to "improbable devices") a sentient castle that can rearrange its own floor plan at will. Or consider Perdido Street Station in the book of the same name; it's described as vast and and labyrinthine in such a way as to give the impression that even with a description, the reader still cannot grasp its true size and complexity, that even those who walk through it daily do not. This characteristic of steampunk technology is also visible in Second Life.
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There are gears the size of small buildings and furnaces as large as airships. There are even entire floating cities. The picture below shows a small part of the underside of Caledon SteamSkyCity. (Note the typical SL steampunk decoration as well - pressed metal, giant wheels, and rivets.) Granted, in Second Life making a city float is easy, but the idea of the endeavor fits very well into a steampunk world. By contrast, one does not generally encounter cities floating in midair in, for instance, cyberpunk worlds.
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These statements imply an ideology underlying steampunk worlds and therefore steampunk technology. Steampunk is a varied genre, and different examples of it display a wide range of attitudes and beliefs. However, there is one idea that forms the basis of steampunk worlds: the greatness of human potential and the human potential for greatness, specifically in the areas of building, making, and shaping the world. The world, not just the world around them - the whole world, near, far, high, low, is within grasp. The flag below (of a steampunk sim in Second Life) illustrates this idea well. With hammer and wrench and gears, with coal to burn and steam, human beings can accomplish great things.
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All of the trends identified above point to this idea, and one way or another, they tend to lead back to the following reason: because we can. Improbable devices abound in steampunk because its worldview insists that they must. Human beings are capable of designing and building all kinds of unbelievable machines, and so they must exist. They are there because we can build them. The reason behind the showy profusion of gears, pipes, rivets, etc. is similar. Look at what we have built, they say. See what we are capable of. A profusion of parts indicates the skill of the maker who can conceive and create such complexity. The sheer size of many steampunk constructions is less subtle evidence of the steampunk philosophy at work. The greatness of human beings' works mirrors the greatness of humans themselves.
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All of this is not to say, however, that steampunk necessarily has an optimistic philosophy. Greatness does not necessarily imply goodness. Some steampunk settings are bright and positive; some are dark and grim. Girl Genius, for instance, tends to be light-hearted, despite the dark hearts and dark deeds that exist in the world, and even its villains are not too terrible. Perdido Street Station and its sequels, on the other hand, are set in a world of corruption and cruelty as well as less purposeful evils like ignorance, indifference, and poverty. Consider the two airships above as visual examples. One is sleek, polished, goldenly beautiful, while the other is dirty and rusted. Both are steampunk. In both types of steampunk, and in the spectrum in between them, humans do great things. In Perdido Street Station, for instance, humans have developed a science called Remaking, which allows them to graft nearly anything to human flesh - from wings to tentacles to furnaces. Remaking is commonly used as a punishment, however, often in creatively or whimsically cruel ways, which is part of the darkness of the setting. It is a terrible thing to suffer against one's will, but it still represents an incredible accomplishment scientifically.

Steampunk is about the human ability to shape the world, not unlike the way Maitland does in Concrete Island on a much larger scale. In it, human beings invent - but invention is just a stepping-stone. Rather than stopping with inventing a world, in steampunk, people go on to create it. Bright or dark or in between, a steampunk world is a testament to the greatness of human architecture.
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Introductory Page: Back to the Future
The Renaissance Festival - The Rennies - Time Travel in Second Life - A Steampunk Philosophy - Dystopian Futures
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