Updated: Jan 25, 2022
"I think there’s a (perceived) element of blasphemy in imagining a world that is better than our own."
What if Steampunk Technology is real? Why didn't Steampunk Technology become a reality? Can it be real? There are so many variations on the same question. However, there is a problem in these discussions, and it starts with definition.
There is no such thing as a silly question, some claim. However, in this instance, it's how it's asked. For those that follow me know, I have a definition of Steampunk. And here is why? What do you mean by Steampunk Technology?
Are we talking about technology in Steampunk Fiction, like Gibson's and Sterling's The Difference Engine?
Well, here it is. A functional Difference Engine, as proposed by Charles Babbage. Their book describes a Victorian-era with these analog computers being used at a mass scale. Now, as I understand it, the creators of this replica did need to take some liberties due to design flaws. They also needed to use modern tools, because the components required such precision they could not be made with the tools available to Babbage's engineer. Then there are other problems, like Babbage constantly adjusting his designs, a falling out with an engineer. Even then, it probably couldn't be made to work.
There is no one reason why certain technologies were not invented. For example, engineers knew that nuclear power plants were a possibility. The issue was who would dare to take on, and fund, such a dangerous and untested project. What are the available materials? Where to build it? Etc.
Public perception of technology is also a major factor. The rivalry between Tesla and Edison is a well know example of one entrepreneur using public opinion to discredit another invention. Timing is also a factor. In the early '80's there was an attempt to purify food using radioactivity. Then the Chernobyl disaster happened and everyone was warned to be mind full of irradiated crops. So, you can imagine these food products becoming a commercial disaster.
At the other end of the spectrum, people want to invest in unlikely technology in the case of necessity, the mother of all inventions. And nothing creates necessity such as the desperation brought on by war. Much of the technology, and social paradigms, we take for granted today are brought on by war. When you look at the ridiculous ideas promoted during wartime, from tank designs to bouncing bombs and actual spoke wheels to clear mines, these ideas were taken seriously because generals were desperate. So, ideas that would not even be given a second thought in peacetime were greenlit. Like the Bat Bomb. Yes, an actual bomb that used bats to torch Japanese wooden houses at a yet unseen scale. Ridiculous! But then they tested it on a mockup Japanese city, it worked! It was so effective in fact, it nearly torched the nearby military base by accident! So, why isn't it used? Well, the nuclear bombs finished development. Another idea people didn't think would work. But I'm sure the bats were very relieved that it did.
I hope this demonstrates that technology doesn't happen in a vacuum, or that its development is a linear process. The Steam engine is a great example of this. An invention made in antiquity, but the greeks didn't see a use for it. It was cool and all, but it was horribly inefficient. At least the Hero's Engine entertained children. There had been occasional experimentation between then and the 18th century. For example, one of Cromwell's spies reported the Dutch were working on a Steamboat. However, the project lead, a Frenchman died, and the project came to a standstill. Can you imagine what would have happened if this succeeded? Well, alt-history buffs, get on it.
And this is my point. There is no such thing as Steampunk Technology. Asking why Steampunk tech isn't a thing is like asking, why isn't there a miracle potion that will cure all my mental problems? That is wish fulfillment. And if we define Steampunk technology as such, well... then you know why it doesn't exist. But that is not my definition for Steampunk Technology. Having a steamboat during the age of sail is what I call Steampunk technology. Having a Bat Bomb instead of the Nuclear Bomb is what I call Steampunk Technology. Having pretty trains, airships and highly ornate towers are just aesthetics. Remember, I separate the aesthetics of Steampunk from that of the genre. In my Steampunk multiverse, all worlds are anachronistic from our point of view, but I use very different sources of inspiration for the aesthetics of each world and their faction. Not only is this realistic, but its also extremely important to any world-building that something that is a thing actually looks like that thing. And what makes a thing a thing, isn't just its function, is also its context.
Let's use a real-world example. The Swedish Stridwagen 103. Now for those, a bit tank savvy might say, "Wait, this a is modern tank shaped like a WW2 tank destroyer?"
Yes. Now, this is a very Swedish tank designed for a very narrow role. To defend Sweden against Sovjet invasion. The Swedish army is on a budget, you see. They have a small population, in a large country, with difficult terrain and few places to hide. So their entire defensive doctrine is developed with these perimeters. Ergo, they created a highly maneuverable low profile tank that can take shots without being detected, and rush out of there before being overwhelmed. These incredible machines are no longer in service. I think some are being used as towing vehicles now.
In fiction, look no further than Last Exile for world-building with perimeters. This is an Anatorian Battleship, with an array of gun turrets on top. You might think, wait, that's not very practical. Indeed. But again. Its because they have a very peculiar way of warfare. We actually made a video on this, so if you want to know all the nitty-gritty, go watch the first part of a three-part series we did on the show. It is one of our favorite sci-fi shows with a wonderful Art Deco aesthetic. If you want great world-building, this is how it's done... You can ignore its sequel by the way, or watch the movie version of that show. Because if Last Exile is a perfect demonstration of world-building and effort, then Ginyoku no Fam is how you clank it up.
But to lift a veil a little bit, here is what the opposition looks like... Are the puzzle pieces coming together here?
That is what world-building really is. Make puzzle pieces and then assemble them as you write the story.
And that is why Steampunk technology is not a thing. These technologies are often created either as wish fulfillment, or technologies that can only exist in a particular setting, for these to make sense at least. Just as it is in ours.
Time to come to a conclusion. There are many filters that technology needs to pass through before leaving the prototype phase. These can be very pragmatic reasons or a matter of luck. Steampunk stories kind of imagine what happened if these technologies did so out of their original context, be those fictional or true to life. Steampunk is a lot like alternate history in a way, but with an emphasis on technology and its relationship to human behavior.
For example. Currently, I am working on a short story for the Association of Ishtar, in which Tesla's concept of wireless, so-called free energy, is made a reality by an organization called Jupiter Power. Conspiracies aside, Tesla's idea could work. Just not as he imagined as he greatly overestimated the Earth's and the atmosphere's conductive power. (Yes, Tesla didn't know everything). We know it can be done. But we are not there yet. Had people taken him more seriously, we might have advanced our knowledge of wireless energy.
Wireless power is nice and all, but where does the puzzle-piece fit in the grand narrative of our shared Multiverse? Well, it will hopefully appear on this blog before the end of the month
Want more examples of stories like these? Check out the stories section on our website. Want to experiment with these concepts, we accept story submissions to expend upon this universe. Want to meet other contributors and artists, Join our Discord. And if you want to encourage me to keep this project going and increase the quality and availability of our content, please check out the support us section of the site. For just 2 dollars a month you would help as greatly and get some awesome Patrons-only content to boot.
In this week's video Highlight, my conversation with Anna van Steenbergen about her second book, Lady Cat!