Gathering Steam

Rice University’s alumni magazine informs us that a Rice alum was part of a team that in 2009 broke a 100-year-old land speed record –  for steam powered vehicles.  It was a  British effort that took place at Edwards Air Force Base.  The achievement was lauded on the British Steam Car Web site which describes the steam turbine vehicle as having 12 specially designed water tube boilers, fueled by liquid propane.  It won the team the Royal Automobile Club’s Simms Medal.  A Royal Automobile Club spokesman said, “No one is going to suggest that this vehicle represents a major technical breakthrough, a relatively small improvement has been won at a cost of enormous complexity but it is unquestionably a triumph of determination, persistence and absolute refusal to give up in the face of adversity. Does it exemplify the ‘spirit of adventure’ Unquestionably!”

At ArmadilloCon last weekend, a panel addressed the topic of whether Steampunk is a literary or social movement.  The answer is both – witness the new steam car speed record and how at ArmadilloCon there was a conspicuous contingent of Steampunk costumers and jewelry- and prop-makers.  And one of the people in the panel audience explained that he belongs to Ornamental Turners International.  Reviving the craft of turning wood with antique tools such as lathes, they make beautiful knobs, lids, spinning tops, and other things.

The ArmadilloCon panel listed list of things that characterize Steampunk literature.  Some of these came up in the ApolloCon panel that I reflected on in the Full Steam Ahead post on June 29.  But there are more.  These items explain even further why Steampunk is a literary AND social movement that’s gathered a great deal of steam.

THE SUPERNATURAL.   One way to explain Steampunk is Victorian science fiction as over against fantasy with all kinds of magic.  Well, some Steampunk seems to freely include magic.  OK, how about calling for a consistent and thoughtfully built world with optional elements of ghosts, spirits, mediums, garden fairies, magicians – all of which waxed in the Victorian imagination?

NATURAL HISTORY.  This was something Victorian era had great enthusiasm for, and which is intrinsically fascinating.  To this day Smithsonian Natural History Museum pulls in droves of visitors.

PIRATES (!)  Also fascinating.

ARTS AND CRAFTS.  Like ornamental turning.  The mass-produced age is one in which manual dexterity, mechanical skill and knowing how to draw are unimportant for most of us, but a matter of keen interest for some.  Mention was made of Make Magazine.

LONG-LIVED MACHINERY.  One panelist cited an essay by Bruce Sterling, “The User’s Guide to Steampunk.” Sterling said celebrating dead technology is a comment on modern technology being constantly dying:  how audio tapes, VCR’s, computers and so many other devices evolve into obsolete relics.

But the Ornamental Turning people could walk into a Victorian wood-working shop and roll up their sleeves and start working.  And that British team is giving steam-powered cars an afterlife with a “spirit of adventure” vibe.

Long live the age of steam and adventure.

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