The Steampunk exhibition at the History of Science Museum has been running for a few weeks now, and we’ve seen glowing reviews emerge left and right. It’s true, the exhibition’s combination of shiny brass-and-neon sculptures with their fascinating real-world inspirations is really very interesting. It could just be quite a bit better.
Don’t get me wrong – every single one of you people reading this article should go see this exhibition as soon as possible. It’s free and it’s short, so it won’t be a drain on either your wallet or your timetable. What it does, it does very well. It just doesn’t do enough, giving only a brief albeit fascinating glimpse into the steampunk aesthetic movement.
Let’s start with the name ‘Steampunk’. It’s an odd word, and whenever I enthuse about it to my uninitiated friends, I get odd looks. The ‘Steam’ part is easy enough to explain. The distinctive steampunk aesthetic is one of modern devices animated by antique technological systems. Gears, clockwork and the steam engine replace electric motors and fibre optics. Brass and cast iron replace plastic and aluminium. Think Jules Verne and HG Wells, without the dense prose and dubious characterisation. This part is what the exhibition does very well. Art Donovan’s ‘Electro-Futurist’ clockwork-encased neon lamps are worth the trip on their own. Kris Kuksi’s terrifying cathedral-tank (yes, really) appealed tremendously to my inner military geek. I was also deeply and pleasantly unsettled by Molly Friedrich’s ‘Complete Mechanical Womb’, which, all things considered, has a remarkably self-explanatory name. It’s a womb including baby.
I digress. The ‘steam’ part of the steampunk exhibition is very well done. What about the ‘punk’? Time for a history lesson perhaps.‘Steampunk’ isn’t just an aesthetic movement, it’s a literary genre. There’s a lot of debate about how far back the genre goes, and whether Jules Vernes et al are part of the genre or just inspirations, but steampunk literature in its modern form didn’t become popular until the publication of The Difference Engine in 1990 – a novel set in a dystopian London, part of an alternative history where Charles Babbage actually finished his giant steam-powered calculator and ushered in a clockwork digital age. The Difference Engine was written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. William Gibson, as the speculative fiction fans among you probably know, wrote another famous novel – Neuromancer. Neuromancer kicked off the ‘cyberpunk’ genre, where amazing futuristic technology becomes a tool in the hands of oppressive, faceless corporations. The link isn’t hard to spot. The ‘punk’ in cyberpunk comes from the rebellion and resistance of the protagonists, who refuse to submit to de-humanisation. The ‘punk’ in early steampunk was well, basically the same idea. Jules Verne, meet Charles Dickens.
Times change. Steampunk fiction has moved beyond its dark beginnings, and your heaving platter of clockwork goodness doesn’t have to come with a side order of grinding oppression anymore. It’s entirely possible to marvel at the cool brasswork without worrying about the destruction of individuality in the face of industrialisation. It would just be nice if the Steampunk exhibition mentioned any of this at all. In the second room, where they keep the real-world inspirations, they actually have a big chunk of the actual Difference Engine itself – and no mention at all of the novel that makes it relevant to the exhibition. We steampunk fans may not have to be angsty haters of the establishment anymore, but I would have appreciated a little more context. So go and see the Steampunk Exhibition. Revel in the retro, but don’t forget – steampunk can go so much deeper than this.
Steampunk is at the Oxford Museum of Science until 21st February. Admission is free.