Steampunk Reversal Of The Negative Victorian Horror Science

Antonie Marie Bodley
Antonie Marie Bodley

In a time when new and astonishing technological advancements are everyday events, audiences are seeking answers on how to react to these innovative, and potentially frightening tools and technology. The Gothic genre offers one appraisal of a similar situation from the nineteenth-century when Gothic artists and authors shared their concern for the rapid development of science and industry which overwhelmed the Victorian era. From harnessing the power of steam to make the once motionless suddenly animated, to the surgical procedures of the autopsy, nineteenth-century Gothic authors expressed their growing fear of the use of technology and its potential threat to humanity.

Following this precedent and identifying with the fears and reservations about technology, audiences of the twenty-first-century find themselves inspired by the paradoxical attraction of the “era of inventors” which is both fascinating and terrifying. The Steampunk subgenre of Science Fiction finds optimism within the Gothic while simultaneously reversing the fundamental Gothic belief that uncontrolled science leads to dire consequences.

In this “Nuclear Age,” rife with nanotechnology, stem cell research, cloning, and other new discoveries of which the common person has little to no understanding, contemporary audiences find that the Victorian era and its anxieties do not seem so bad. In fact, this nostalgic attitude allows viewers to “play” and feel young again: play with the idea of more simple technologies, imagine how they might have lived in the distant past, and allow themselves to participate in the invention of new and safe contraptions. Viewers inherently know that in general, their predecessors were apprehensive of the pace of the changes surrounding them, but viewers also know that they survived and later were known to be amazing entrepreneurs and inventors. Looking back, it is easy for contemporary viewers to believe that what the Victorian scientists invented seems manageable in light of our current technology. This romantic view of the Victorian era offers an optimistic response to the current changes, a response that includes a secure nostalgia in the past while simultaneously invoking the “nightmare” of the Gothic in homage. What could allow for a more inventive, consequence-free return to the invention than the reinvention of steam power in the hands of Gothic superheroes?

Authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, part of the later Romantic Gothic, and Abraham Stoker, in the Victorian period, used the conventions of the earlier Gothic writers who preceded them to graphically illustrate the threat of becoming modernized. Even though few people today are acquainted with the original texts that inspired these Gothic images, twenty-first-century viewers feel at ease with these stories and characters as they have become indispensable “cinamyths,” as dubbed by Caroline Joan S. Picart in reference specifically to ‘Frankenstein’s Monster in Remaking’ the ‘Frankenstein Myth on Film,’ and ideal images to use in the re-writing of a social memory of science. Steampunk uses the conventions of Gothic horror, from the monsters to the details of a setting and its scene, and mixes these images with more modern action and adventure themes in order to reinvigorate the Gothic with “a hopeful heart.” With this genre shift, these new artists and storytellers forget the warnings and moralizing of the Victorian Gothic writers, while reimagining “what could have been” if we had stayed on the path of steam technology.

The dream of being forever inventors but never making the transition to dangerous Dr Atomic-like sciences and other environmentally “unfriendly” technologies are graphically illustrated in Steampunk. Most horror and science fiction films are considered to “poignantly [express] the sense of powerlessness and anxiety that correlates with times of depression, recession, Cold War strife, galloping inflation, and national confusion.” But nestled within the science fiction genre and borrowing from the conventions of Gothic, Action and Adventure, Steampunk perceives something altogether different in the horror stories of nineteenth-century literature. For example, “Steampunkers” easily forget that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley recalled a pre-Enlightenment time in order to illustrate the black magic of science and express the possible horrors of scientific overreaching. Rather, these Steampunk adventures tell stories of familiar Gothic characters using scientific apparatus to become heroes, not martyrs. Adhering to the graphic conventions of the Gothic, Steampunk uses setting, scene and anachronisms to give the feeling of “genuine” Gothic fiction while simultaneously “managing” the scientific apparatus used. Both viewers of Steampunk and the original audiences of Victorian-era Gothic share in a search for alternative ways to imagine the future: the Gothic with its warnings of what “could be,” and Steampunk with its enthusiasm for “what was.”

“Learn from me, if not from my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge,” Victor Frankenstein implores to the kind Captain who has let him on board. By using an image like Frankenstein and his Creation in modern interpretations, it would seem logical to use this same plea. On the contrary, twenty-first-century audiences see a minimal threat in the tale of Frankenstein and show little to no memory of the implied moral content of such stories, especially compared to the very real and tangible threats they are faced with today. The Gothic novels which inspired the fiction budding from this new genre and sub culture painted a bleak and terrifying portrait of what could happen if humans were to use science for their own selfish ends. But Steampunk does quite the opposite. It shows viewers that, in retrospect, this antiquated technology was actually “safe” and “manageable” — at least in comparison to what viewers find today in their pockets (from cell phone to wireless internet) and homes (such as microwaves and speaking computers) — and can be used to save the day. Audiences are reminded of a time in their childhood when tinkering and investigating how things work was safe and the boundless discoveries were innocent and without the price.

Steampunk ironically uses images and storylines of the negative romantic Gothic Horror and turns them into positive romantic vessels that return viewers to the age of gadgets. This shift of optimism helps audiences forget the times when technology was used for terrorizing machines (from our own aeroplanes to the still present threat of a Dr Strangelove-ian apocalypse) and gives us a chance to imagine “what if.” What if humans had not discovered the Bomb? What if we never made aeroplanes and weapons able to attack us on our own precious soil, and instead travelled the world in steam-powered zeppelins? Forget Prometheus: fire is tame compared to the nuclear reaction of fusion, fission, and other obscure technologies that the average person cannot begin to understand, let alone make with his or her own hands.

By returning to a time before the Bomb, Steampunk, both as a subgenre of science fiction and as an alternative subculture, delivers viewers to an imagined nineteenth-century, a time when technology was believed to be “in the hands of every man.” Or, as Margaret Killjoy explains in her poetic introduction to ‘The Steampunk’s Guide to the Apocalypse:’ “We wave goodbye, on no uncertain terms, to the invisible Workings of the Cyberian World. Our Future lies within honest Technology, a Technology that is within our Reach, a Technology that will not abandon us.” No matter how bleak a post-apocalyptic world with no automated machines seems, Margaret Killjoy replies to this pessimism with her “Steampunk motto:” “One who clings to Modernity will fall with Modernity. But one who builds water-powered Refrigerators will eat summer fruits in Autumn.”

In Steampunk, viewers remember a time in European history without the darker side of the British Empire and an “appreciation [for] the less subtle Technologies of Yesteryear.” “Steampunkers,” those who participate in the actual construction of this fashion subgenre, are men and women of many ethnicities and backgrounds which are very different from the actual professional people of the Victorian era. Women and men both participate in this reinvention. Never mind that the British Empire was one of the most imperialistic and destructive political powers that used its ethnocentric mentality to dominate much of the European, North American, and Indian continents. What really matters to this rewriting of the Imperialistic British Empire is the imagined wonder of science. In fact, the racism and sexism inherent behind the Crown become a minor detail that is easily forgotten as men and women of the twenty-first-century enjoy the images of steam power and innovation at their best. Steam power is nothing like the “super-destructive monster who has slept in the earth since prehistory,” as Susan Sontag describes her metaphor for the Bomb in ‘The Imagination of Disaster.’ For Steampunkers, that monster has been put back to sleep, and instead, the Gothic monsters are displayed to prove to audiences the possibilities of a new imagining of science, a science of hope.

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