Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/13/2010

Steampunk, Rudy Rucker, Reader’s Digest, Redundancy, and “Something Stopped!”

In which I speak for some of the over-60 crowd; nostalgia for a much more complicated time.

1868 Steampunk?

1868 Steampunk?

A long time ago Reader’s Digest—yes, when I was a kid, I read it regularly; that is, I’d read the jokes and humorous little personal stories and observations—published one of those “Life in These United States” (or whatever it was called) personal anecdotes in which the writer told of his elderly mother, lounging on the sofa, suddenly sitting bolt upright and saying, “Something stopped!”  She meant, of course—this being in the ‘50s or ‘60s—the refrigerator had reached its set temperature and had shut itself off, or some other normal household mechanical occurrence. Her ears were the only ones in the house who were not so inured to the constant mechanical sounds that she could hear when “Something stopped!”

The “Something stopped!” anecdote was a comment on the modern American household with its mechanical and technical wonders running and humming and keeping us comfortable and eliminating the drudge work Americans of an earlier time had to do. We were au courant and blessed. And when “Something stopped!” it was either a normal “Sign of the Times” (another Reader’s Digest feature), or a sign some disaster (the breakdown of the air conditioner, perhaps) was imminent. Natural cause and effect.

The devices and technical wonders running and humming and keeping us comfortable these days are unnatural. I wish I could hear when “Something Stopped.”

This morning when I turned this damned computer on, it was downloading three updates. I couldn’t do anything. I’d been awake nearly an hour before started writing. As a Temporal Lobe Epileptic with a touch of hypergraphia, I should sue Microsoft and Gateway for emotional distress. “Something stopped,” that’s for sure—without warning, without consideration for me.

Our gadgets’ silence keeps us at their mercy. They run on computer chips (or something equally mysterious) powered by batteries. And they give no clue they’ve stopped until we need them. My cellular phone is plugged in right now because I tried to make a call and the battery is dead. I’d have no ability to sit upright on the sofa and say, “Something stopped!” when my phone died. It’s silent, it’s insidious, it’s the cause of emotional distress.

Our gadgets keep us old folks at their mercy physiologically, too. Some years ago a friend, a concert pianist who was also a professor of neurology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School told me the reason J.S. Bach was the greatest organist of his time was he was the first keyboardist to cash in on the intelligence of the thumb.  He said more of the brain is dedicated to controlling the thumb than all of our other digits together.

Give me your poor, tired thumbs and I will teach them to text message—almost as fast as Bach played the organ. Not bloody likely. I’ll never be able to text message. I can’t read the screen. My thumbs may be smart (they’ve played lots of Bach, you know), but they are much too old and creaky for those itsy-bitsy keyboard things.

The real problem, though, is I was born in the age of steam engines. At the very latest, at any rate, in the age of ’47 Fords. Does that make me eligible to be a Steampunker?

Era of the '47 Ford

Era of the '47 Ford

“The world grows apace,” said [Hieronymus] Bosch. “Were you married in the Church?”
“Married in City Hall,” said Jayjay. “That’s just as good in California. We worship our government”
(1).

Two Californians (really!) auditioning to pose for Hieronymus Bosch for the “Garden of Earthly Delights.” Time-and-science-out-of-whack. I’m not going to rush right off to Toronto to the 2011 Canadian National Steampunk Exhibition. But my real world is a Steampunk world. I don’t Tweet. I have no idea what a phone with 4 G’s is. I don’t own a TiVo. I don’t even have a Netflix account. My car is ten years old and has no GPS tracking device. I haven’t seen a 3D movie since elementary school, and the only iPod I’ve ever touched was a friend’s when he dropped it and I picked it up for him.

What this means is I am slowly sinking into a sort of Victorian Era mire of redundancy, as in the sense of “able to be omitted without loss of meaning or function.” If I were omitted from any area of my life, would part of my life suffer loss of meaning or function? Of course it would!

I live naturally in two worlds, but not two worlds I create in order to merge. I do not fabricate the Victorian Era in order to make sense out of the technological world spinning out of control. I have order. Look at my writing. I may not have a “thesis statement” as we teach our English Composition students to write (just why, I don’t know). None of my writing follows an outline or makes its argument in a logical, rhetorical pattern any reader can follow. But look at internal the order of my sentences. Miss Marcy and Mrs. Siever and Dr. Rice taught me well. My life, in spite of TLE and (perhaps) Bipolar Disorder and other socially questionable patterns, has been ordered and deliberate. I do nothing extraordinary or bizarre, either in my day to day life or in my writing.

At the same time, I live in a world where it is impossible to hear, to comprehend when “something stopped.” I teach writing in a computer lab. I can scarcely write with a pen any more. Even I, letting the technological world pass me by, cannot return to the ‘50s. I am only partially redundant.

The Steampunkers, I sense, are born into technological chaos. They attempt to recreate Victorian times in order to make sense out of the technology that, in fact, is the structure of their lives. They look to the past in order to understand the future—the future which, if they do not pay attention, is upon them before the present is over. Tomorrow is today so today must be yesterday. So they find yesterday in order to slow down tomorrow.

I take great pleasure in my discovery of Steampunk (it may be on its last legs as a movement, so I found it just in time). But, truth be told, I found it long before the 25-year-olds did. I read The Time Machine when I was about twelve. I first saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when I was in junior high. I understand the fantasy of science in the stability of a time like the Victorian Era. Trump card! I discovered Steampunk, the literary movement, when I was researching Frankenstein to present to my classes. Frankenstein, surely the first great literary work combining life in the 19th century with an explosive scientific view of the world. The first Steampunk.

Grandmother. Victorian?

Grandmother. Victorian?

I understand the work of the Steampunk fiction writers. I understand

. . . .these stories celebrate the drive to document, to explore, and to interpret the world, both present and past, which they locate in the nineteenth-century enthusiasm for science and for “words like Exploration, Revolution, Rationalism, and Utopian”. This nostalgia is tempered by consistent worry over the consequences of scientific and technological progress, and of an untempered drive to mastery, as they assert that we can never know the whole of the answer, either scientifically or historically (2).

Along with the trump card, I’ll play the ego card. I’ll bet this old fossil of a professor, the one without an iPhone who not only does not Tweet, he doesn’t even Text, will be the only professor in the entire University who assigns a Steampunk story to his students this semester.  Who needs an iPhone, anyway?
________________
(1) Rucker, Rudy. Hieronymus Bosch’s Apprentice. Flurb: A Webzine of Astonishing Tales. Issue #9. Spring-Summer 2010. Web. 8 Aug 2010.
(2) Rose, Margaret. “Extraordinary pasts: Steampunk as a mode of historical representation.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 20.3 (2010): 319+.

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