David Constantine is the author of steampunk/alternative history THE PILLARS OF HERCULES (Night Shade Books, March 2012), and can be found on the web at www.thepillarofhercules.com. As David J. Williams, he’s also the author of the Autumn Rain trilogy. Interestingly enough, David does not personally run on steam, but is instead platypus-powered. He may or may not have a Hello Kitty tattoo. (And I really need to stop writing introductions when I’m overtired…)
Steampunk sits astride the SF landscape, a clanking smoking beast. And while it started off focused on the Victorian era, some of the most compelling modern steampunk places it in entirely different contexts, the most notable being fantasy and postapocalyptic. Yet—when we consider the sheer volume of stories and novels cranked out—there remain good reasons for the subgenre’s ongoing fascination with the 19th century. As a displacement of anxieties regarding technology, steampunk conjures up an alternative reality that at once both minimizes the birth pangs of industrialization and distracts from the current predicament in which such industrialization has landed us. The societies we glimpse in Victorian steampunk are—with some notable exceptions—idealized; we see the airships and parasols, but rarely the mass graves around the rubber plantations……we listen in on drawing room conversation, but rarely hear the roar of the Vickers guns as they mow down Hostile Natives who’ve fallen behind the Curve of Progress.
So when we consider steampunk that features other “real” time periods—and many recent works have done so—we have to be careful. We’re dealing with a literature that offers a view through a glass darkly; that can bring new light to our relationship with technology, but also has a manifest tendency to idealize (or demonize, for that matter). When I positioned steampunk in the ancient world for my recent novel, I was trying to navigate that tension, in addition to tapping into my longstanding interest in the classical age. What I didn’t realize when I started out is how much steampunk was in that world already. Heron of Alexandria invented the steam engine itself in the first century A.D. (yes, you read that right), but the device was seen as little more than a curiosity. And Archimedes designed weapons known as steam guns; it’s not known whether he actually built them, but a team at MIT recently constructed a prototype using his diagrams.
But it’s precisely that lack of knowledge that plagues us in getting to the reality of Just What Was Really Going on Back Then. Ninety percent of the scrolls penned by ancient writers perished in the Dark Ages, and those writers weren’t generally given to discussions of technology, since they were—by and large—aristocrats who left such things to artisans, manual workers and other such lowlives. Yet every once in a while we get a tantalizing glimpse. In the first century B.C., a Roman ship sank off the Greek island of Antikyhera; twenty millenia later, when it was recovered, archeologists found a device that’s come to be known as the Antikythera mechanism: a precise model of the heavens, featuring more than 70 gears and so elaborate that it’s been called the world’s first analog computer. Had we not dug up this device, we would have had no clue it existed. There are no hints of it in the textual record, which underscores just how little we know about a world so much of which has been lost. We tend to see past societies—particularly those that existed two thousand years ago—as primitive, but the ancients had machines that leave us marveling even today.
But it’s possible to take such a sentiment too far. Without splitting hairs over the blurry boundaries between steampunk and its gearpunk and clockpunk cousins, we’re left with the question of what prevented such technology from not being more pervasive in the ancient world. Specifically, why didn’t that world move to a new level, in the same way that the agrarian economies of the 18th century became the industrialized societies of the next? The dynamics underpinning the “take off” phase of industrialization are too complex to be examined in detail here, but one issue that comes up again and again is the necessary catalyst: i.e., devices only see proliferation and/or mass production if there is incentive for their use.
Which, arguably, there wasn’t. It’s not like the ancient world lacked the profit motive of modern capitalism…far from it. But it was what the ancient world had in abundance that mattered: slaves. Every single field of industry was reliant on slave labor, to the extent that slavery was an integral part of the class structure. Slaves could hope to be freed, and rise in stature, and a few of them went on to rule empires. But the institution of slavery went unchallenged, regardless of who was in charge. Given such a ready supply of slaves, the very idea of labor-saving devices remained stillborn. And it’s worth noting that—even if one wasn’t enslaved—the vast majority of the society lived lives that were nasty, brutish and short. Examining the ‘what-if’ ramifications of steampunk thus becomes, ironically, a means of throwing that fact into sharp relief. And—regardless of what time period it focuses upon—in showing us roads not taken, steampunk underscores just us how far we have yet to go to realize technology’s promise.