The expanding threads of steampunk are statements of what could have been, nostalgia for a retro-future, and false memories of an alternate history.
Woody Evans of H+ Magazine interviewed science fiction writer Michael Moorcock in 2009. Moorcock had this to say about science fictional nostalgia (“merry old future”) and transhumanism:
MM: I’ve argued since around 1960 that most science fiction is fundamentally nostalgic in nature, producing a simpler world that makes us feel good. I’m not sure transhumanism is intrinsically nostalgic at all. It tends to complicate the issue.
My question is, could steampunk have a transhuman aspect that escalates it beyond nostalgia into something uncomfortable and world changing? I think the answer is yes, but to some degree it just depends on your interpretation.
To some, alternate histories are safely alternate and will never encroach on their own history. To some, it’s escapism. However, steampunk as escapism has leaked into the real world with costumes and occasionally working steam powered machinery.
But is this any different than any other fantasy? People dress up as comic book heroes and RPG characters as well. The only way all the fantasies would affect the real world is if everybody was living all the time in these fantasies. To some degree, this has happened with the large online societies in certain computer games. But video games have not yet propelled us into an irreversible science fictional outcome and certainly not into a singularity. However, there is an aspect of steampunk that could make it actually contribute significant sociocultural and technology change. And that is the reimaging aspect of it.
Steampunk re-images machinery with steam engines, clockwork and clunky brass fittings. But it doesn’t just reimage what we have now, it reimages the retro-future. Typically “retro-future” refers to pre 1960s future concepts, but I think it could mean any time period where the future projections didn’t pan out. Or perhaps we should just think of them as memetic valleys, where certain speculative concepts won out in the shared mind of culture.
But with steampunk, future robots, cyborgs, weapons, advanced clothing and so on are jarred out of the few memetic valleys they have fallen into. So in that way, steampunk is a way to look at the future in a different way. Steampunk celebrates alternative technology and style without being Luddite, and it sparks creativity through anachronism.
And as people start exploring shared fantasy background, for instance by making and wearing costumes, the may start investigating further. Some will actually implement the technologies. Some of the props and decorations will become fully functional.
Surely, one might think, steam and gears will never replace our core technologies such as silicon-based digital computers. But, playing, with steam and gears could lead to new solutions. Even making fake steampunk technology–e.g. silicon computers and electrical components behind a facade of steampunk — could lead to new approaches, technology, or styles.
There are always the occasional creative thinkers that figure out some alternative technology solution that has advantages over the norm, for instance the usage of small rocket engines in the blades of a helicopter.
Imagine something like the rocket helicopter, but steampunk. And a million times more alternate to the mainstream. It could provide a backup technology solution, or perhaps the next mainstream solution.
Of course, there could be other movements with the same properties as steampunk but that chose a significantly different alternate technology set and style. One derivative of steampunk that is especially provocative is Teslapunk.
Imagine if we recreated the past hundred years of worldwide technological advances starting with steampunk compatible tech. It would be a totally different path.
Besides giving us alternative methods, would it bring us closer or further from becoming posthumans… or closer or further away from colonizing the galaxy?