Reverie Fair Magazine - Page 12

ALL STEAMED UP by barbara barrows

I am standing in front of a wooden box. I lift the outer engraved lid to reveal the inner glass lid protecting the mechanism. I turn the handle. I can feel the tension increase in the spring and go slowly, careful not to overwind it. In the flick of a polished switch, the metal cylinder with small spikes protruding from it starts slowly turning. A tinny, plucky version of the William Tell Overture fills the room, followed by Auld Lang Syne.

The music box was built in the 1880s and handed down through my mother’s side of the family. When we were little, great emphasis was placed on the care of its operation. It was placed in the corner of the dining room, out of the way of running children. My sister and I would peer into the box, observing the spikes hitting the keys to create the same sound my ancestors heard in the evening as they entertained company. I think my love of Steampunk starts here at this box.

The Steampunk [SP] movement can be hard to pin down because it means different things to different people. Some people cite Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the many works of HG Wells as the origins of SP; others say it is contemporary science fiction/fantasy set in the Victorian age. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Stirling is widely credited with giving a name and parameters

to the genre. This alternate history novel explores what might have happened if Charles Babbage had perfected his analytic engine in 1855 and the computer age developed alongside the industrial age of the 19th century. I read this novel years ago, in the throes of my William Gibson obsession, and was captivated by the lovingly described inventions. Its ultimately depressing ending dampened my interest in the literary world of SP, especially since much of the way I had earned a paycheck at the time seemed to mirror the last several paragraphs of the book.

However you arrive at a definition that works for you, Steampunk is a multifaceted genre that crosses literary, music (look at, and visual worlds (fashion, art and gaming, such as the massively popular BioShock Infinite). I like that it is described as a rebellion of sorts(hence the “punk”), a rebellion against sleek, modern machines whose workings are hidden from view behind hard plastic casings. As a kid, I was not into machines and Erector Sets but if I were, modern technology would be an incredible frustration. There is a kind of mind that thrives on taking things apart and putting them back together, often in some new configuration. These kids grow up to be engineers, inventors, scientists. Our society is richer for these people, and I wonder if we aren’t losing a vital part of our innovation by closing off our existing technology from their minds and hands.

In giving SP literature another stab for this column, I picked up Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy: Northern Lights (published as The Golden Compass in North America), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. I was familiar with The Golden Compass only, having seen the 2007 movie. In reading the book, I would agree with comments out on the web that the movie is beautiful, but much of the magic of the book was lost.

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