More than once, I’ve heard that steampunk is a reaction against the world that cyberpunk gave us. The argument is fairly straightforward. Modern life is smooth and plastic and seamless. We’ve created a life out of near constant connectivity, powered by endlessly upgradable and ultimately disposable tools that are themselves mass produced in some distant territory. Our friends are online profiles that we refresh, our communities are by subscription service. For many of us, the work of our days and our lives comes down to little more than lights on a screen. Disposable.
Steampunk means to put that on its head. The hope is to build an enduring community of Makers and musicians and writers who dream of yesterday’s future that never happened. The intention is to create some kind of permanence in our increasingly fractured lives, to ground ourselves in things that we’ve made with our own hands, to find solace in the act of creation.
So, yes, in some ways it’s easy to see that steampunk is a refutation of the world cyberpunks dreamed of and eventually created. But it’s important to note that the modern steampunk movement is inextricably linked to the cyberpunk movement. Gibson and Sterling introduced a lot of folks to this era with The Difference Engine. And we all share a common fascination with technology. One of the things that is very appealing about the Victorian era is that it was the last time the sum of technology could be re-created in your garage workshop. An educated person (whether classically trained or an autodidact) could be on the forefront of science by working with their hands with tools that they could purchase locally or, at worst, from a catalog. The airplane was built in a bicycle shop by two brothers, not as the result of an international consortium on aerodynamics, funded by the U.N. Even such modern pie-in-the-sky projects as the X PRIZE require some hefty funding and a handful of doctorates.
The last time cutting-edge technology was in the hands of the common man, working in garages without funding, motivated by nothing more than a love of that technology? The computer science scene of the ’80s. And what did that inspire? Cyberpunk.
In fact, I think steampunk isn’t a refutation of cyberpunk so much as the culmination of it. One of the most important aspects of the original movement was appropriation of technology. The idea that the street will find its own use for things. What the internet does today is not what the internet was built to do. The internet is what we’ve made it into. So it doesn’t run on steam, isn’t fitted with brass, doesn’t peel open into a symphony of cogs and clockwork. It’s a technology of the common, of the community. It is available to us all (with unjustifiable exceptions), created by us all, and enjoyed by us all. If our fantastically imagined steampunk forefathers could build a Babbage powerful enough to do anything they wanted and then turned it loose on the world, I think they would have ended up with something a great deal like this. And I think our actual forefathers, our cyberpunk instigators, would have approved.
Tim Akers is a science fiction and fantasy writer in deeply suburban Chicago. His days are spent with databases, and his nights with fountain pens. His next book is The Horns of Ruin, coming from Pyr in November.