Steampunk is, in part at least, a re-envisioning of humanity’s interaction with the things that we make and how we make them. It’s a non-luddite critique of technology that says “Hey, you’re doing it wrong” without trying to eschew technology outright. And that critique is sorely, sorely needed, now more than ever.
We live in a civilization built on an insane and compulsive relationship with technology. Industrialized production creates objects and hopes for demand instead of making things as they are needed or desired. This is backwards and dangerous. It overtaxes our resources—hell, it treats the Earth and all the wonders within it as “resources” instead of beautiful and unique things—and is directly responsible for desertification, global warming, deforestation, mass extinction, mountaintop removal, and any number of grievous crimes against the natural world. It’s economically insane, too. It’s led us to the place where our economy requires growth in order to remain stable. And by producing without regard for demand, we’re stuck with boom-and-bust cycles that drive all but the richest among us further into poverty.
And you know what else? It’s boring. Monoculture is banal. Not only do all the cars look more or less the same, we’re all only using cars to get around. People talk about flying cars sometimes but all I want is to get across the country on a zeppelin powered by passive solar technology. Is that so much to ask?
Mainstream culture is so bored and boring that when someone does something crazy like build a house that isn’t just some bland cube, it becomes a tourist attraction. Why do we settle for this mundane efficiency?
There are other movements that challenge the industrial production that’s quite literally in the process of killing us, and those movements are worth checking out. Permaculture and the maker’s movement both have a healthy overlap into our scene and I’m glad they do.
But I’m happy to use steampunk as a goggle lens with which to see the world and a wrench with which to change it, because aesthetics matter. Doing things beautifully makes the experience more worthwhile. Anyone who’s been to a boring activist meeting might understand this, and anyone who’s decided that life is too short to spend at boring activist meetings might understand it even better. What I love about steampunk is that it’s both an aesthetic movement—of fashion and fiction alike—and a technological movement. We’re a movement of makers, of Do-It-Yourself and Do-It-Ourselves, of information sharing, and of supporting artisan crafters.
Even as poor as I am—being a professional creative type with no interest in working for companies I don’t respect will do that to you—I still know that lots of things are too cheap in this society. It’s better to have only a few things of high quality than mountains of cheaply-made, mass-produced objects.
Of course, consumer choices aren’t enough to save the world. But creating entirely different economic and social structures—at least within our subcultures—might be a start. When we permaculture our cities and turn parks and gardens into self-maintaining food forests, free for anyone to come and graze in, we start to dismantle the machinery of boring spectator consumer culture that we ought not owe our allegiance to. When we learn how to make machines ourselves, we can invent what we feel is appropriate to our own communities.
And when we start driving our pedal-powered arachnid machines around the cities, sipping homegrown tea from locally-crafted ceramic cups and doffing our bowlers at passerby, then box stores and even corporate rule might start to become a fading memory.
Of course, while I like to fantasize about it, I realize that it’s not really a steampunk world I’m fighting for. I won’t make the claim that one aesthetic is enough, that any one group of people has the right answer. I don’t think everyone needs to be a steampunk, and frankly I might start to get bored if everyone was. But steampunk’s ideas are important in how they tie this non-luddite critique of technology into an aesthetic framework that seems to resonate with more and more people every day. And those ideas, if we keep them to the fore—or at least not buried under rust—might just help be part of this fight to save us all from misery and damnation.
Because we’re people who are out to make life worth living, to make things beautiful, to defend the marvelous, and to destroy the banal. At least that’s what I’m in this for. That and the excuse to wear a pocket watch.
Margaret Killjoy is a nomadic author, editor, anarchist, and activist. He is the founder and current editor of SteamPunk Magazine as well as the author of A Steampunk’s Guide to the Apocalypse, the interactive fiction book What Lies Beneath the Clock Tower, and is a co-editor of We Are Many. He blogs at Birds Before the Storm.