While happily acknowledging the opinion says as much about me as about my target, I confess that I have always found steampunk more than a little annoying. Focusing as it does on a past that never happened, the genre rapidly fell into precious, escapist claptrap, and never found its way back out. It’s reassuring that the gears-and-goggles groundswell has finally started to contract, as the genre’s exhausted, one-trick pony—psychological anachronism—has nearly collapsed in its traces. There are only so many ways to freshen the conceit of twenty-first century mind retrojected into nineteenth century machine shops, even wonderfully sanitized machine shops, free of the malaria, polio, yellow fever, raw sewage, vermin, white supremacy, deformed sexuality, predatory capitalism and continental-scale environmental degradation (among other ills) that characterized every day of every decade of the actual 1800s. As cultural expression, steampunk exemplifies a refusal to come to grips with the present in which we find ourselves. It is like rushing to dance on a beach with tsunami alarms sounding.
What makes steampunk so attractive to its partisans is its marriage of mythical, “can do” individualism to sentimentality for a time when “high tech” was within the means of any gifted mechanic. And gifted mechanics populate steampunk like a clone swarm of improbable genius. Collectively, they express an archetype of specialness that resonates—bright but brittle—with the post-industrial mess our appetites have gotten us into.
The steampunk hero or heroine does not wait on governments, oligarchs or anyone else to innovate in a crisis. He/she settles the goggles over his/her eyes, adjusts the gas jets and storms the dirigible, likely with invincible weapons of glass, brass and mother of pearl. More fashion statement than mirror of the world, steampunk, even at its best, exalts narcissistic fascination with surface, style and glamorized irreality. It encounters the critical issues we face as a species, and does an about face. We no longer have time for this shit.
Of course, many genres are equally accommodating to narcissism, superficiality and glamorized irreality. I single out steampunk not because it is irredeemably corrupt, but because there are parts of its conceit that it gets right. A significant percentage of issues we face as a global society can be resolved by gifted mechanics in home workshops creating and disseminating human scale technology. Modeling such action, writers of vision are well served by seizing and relocating the steampunk protagonist into the present, to grapple with real perils—or depart from the present into the future, blazing a path out of the mire in which we sit. Repurposing these characters into a new timeline without structural change to their roles, however, is not enough. The heroines and heroes of our crying need must temper individualism with social responsibility. The way forward we desperately require avoids the worlds of both Mad Max and Bladerunner. The steampunk protagonist—stripped of steam and brass and fantasized past—can be a perfect exemplar for simplifying our lives without becoming robots or simpletons, but only if informed by defense of our living planet and love of humanity.
I call both the ethic and the kind of fiction I propose, “Gear Down.” What I mean by this is the transformation of a technological culture that is destroying its basis for continued existence into a new culture that is equally technological, but also radically conservationist, sustainable and humane. Gear Down shifts from combustion and radiation—power productions reliant on centralization in order to maximize wealth extraction by elites—to wind, sun and people power—methods most efficient when decentralized and localized.
The Gear Down ethic begins with the premise that this planet is the only home we have, and if we can’t learn to take care of this one, we are unlikely to succeed anywhere else. Gear Down is a way of talking about rationalizing the lives we lead, and it is about individuals, singly and together, innovating without waiting for governments, oligarchs or other corporate megamorphs to take the initiative. Imagine the exhibitors of Maker Faires, the freaks of Burning Man, back alley bricoleurs, circuit benders and the aggregate membership of the nation’s food co-ops rising together to build a new world in the collapsing shell of the old. Imagine the stories waiting to be told.
Rose Moon, this recently completed novella of mine, is rooted in Gear Down. It is also rooted in explicit eroticism and Sumerian mythology (in some contexts, those terms are synonymous), but the Gear Down ethic is the story’s real reason to be. One challenge I faced was that of making this element matter of fact, of representing it as a motivation long established in the depicted era. The Rose Moon reality is one in which classes of human-powered vehicles such as Bigger makes are not only widespread, but normative and diverse. The technology on which he bases his work is advanced, but human-scale, non-toxic, and evolved with an eye toward perpetuity. Has every detail of this alternative vision been worked out? Not even a little bit. Rather, this latest story is a sounding, a ping, testing the cloud mind, the techne tulpa, to see how faint and from how far away any echoes come. I have a clear idea how my fictions should unfold. We shall learn together whether or not I succeed. Even at this preliminary stage, however, one fact is clear. Given what the future appears to hold, we’re still going to need the goggles.