Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

The Appeal of Steam Punk

The Appeal of Steam Punk

By Dennis D. McDonald

Command Line’s podcastrant about Steam Punk is a fun listen. He refers to William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s 1990 novel The Difference Engine as the seminal work of “steam punk” literature where technology and 19th Century history are re-imagined. If you’ve never read that novel, I recommend it.

I’ve always enjoyed tales of alternate history and of time travel. Command Line’s rant is against the too-easy application of the “steam punk” descriptor to works as derivative and unimaginative as the 2003 film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I much prefer the imaginative and creative work that went into Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. That movie imagines a 1930’s “high tech” world complete with giant robots, ray guns, and Saturday matinee heroes (plus Angelina Jolie wearing an eyepatch). There’s no way you could refer to Sky Captain as “steam punk,” but it works for me because it describes a “future world that never was,” a concept that has always fascinated me.

You could probably say that Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s STEAMBOY follows the criteria that Command Line sets out for defining what constitutes “steam punk,” although the characterizations in that movie leave much to be desired, even if you are willing to accept the absurd technology that underlies the film’s adventures. The novel Difference Engine is much more believable, partly because we have seen in our own times how information technology has impacted society, and partly because authors Gibson and Sterling do not ignore mechanical realities as much as Katsuhiro Ôtomo does in Steamboy.

Another example of a “steam punk” facade is the bizarre technology that underlies ground-based and aerial transportation devices in Hayao Miyazaki’s HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE. But the technology there, while it reflects Miyazaki’s consistent emphasis on flight in his films, is secondary to the story which concentrates instead on magic and human relationships against a background of politics and warfare.

One could make the case that Howl’s castle is itself a “steam punk” device but I think that would be inappropriate, given that the castle is “powered” not by technology but by a demon (or is that “daemon?”)

Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald


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