Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Over on his blog, Neil Williamson confesses that he just doesn't get steampunk, invites people to explain what he's missing. My own glib response when the GSFWC email list was chatting about this was that it all comes from too many viewings of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in childhood. Glib as that is though, there's a serious point, so I ended up going into it a bit more on his post. Figured I'd stick it up here too. So...

I nominate Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as the true taproot of steampunk.

Also, Around the World in Eighty Days (Disney version,) Wacky Races, Dastardly & Mutley, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Mouse on the Moon, and so on. Cinema and TV have been giving us adaptations of classic Romance, Scientific & Ruritanian, from the 1950s… and pastiches of such.

But particularly Chitty is the quintessential “numina (ex) novum arcana,” as I hereby dub it.

It’s marvellous, “le merveilleux” in poncy French lit crit terms, a numina in me own system, injecting a boulomaic modality of “should happen.” In short, it’s *cooooool*! Want one!

(Hell, the title song is all about just how cool Chitty *is*!)

Like many such marvels, it’s the (real world) novum of old — automaton, car, zeppelin, plane, steam train, submarine — no longer novel but retaining its wonder. Arguably, with those ex-novae now familiar, we take them for granted, but when we look to prototypes & originals, they’re defamiliarised. We consider the technical impossibilities (for a mere human) made possible by them, and that reinvests them with wonder; the mundane is made marvellous once again. Over and above the simple numinosity of beauty and empowerment, I suspect this is why enthusiasts oooh over the wonder of classic cars, trains, etc..

Anyways, hence numina (ex) novum.

But more, Chitty belongs to a bygone era conceptually dislocated from our own, categorically severed from our present. If the past is another country, our era and that era don’t even share a border; World War One is the English Channel between them. When we look back, I mean, we’re not seeing the Victorian era at all, so much as we’re seeing Ruritania as a discrete elsewhen rather than elsewhere. So the movie sets itself just on the edge of that (England in 1910 or so) and springboards from there into a full-blown Ruritanian fantastication.

The point is, objects *of* that other era — like objects of the future, outer space or unexplored corners of the globe back in the day — are not expected to play by our rules; indeed, that can be turned around so they’re expected to *not* play by our rules, so we have no idea what rules they *do* play by. They become arcana.

Basically, casting yer doohickey as paradigmatically *of* that era (making it clockwork, steam-powered, even just aesthetically styled as Victorian Baroque) conceptually unlimits its potential even though we know those technologies were actually more limited than what we have now. Give the car running boards and we’ll more likely buy it flying; it ain’t rational, but it’s how we think. (Mostly.) So you end up with Chitty — the numina (ex) novum of a classic automobile, now a black box ancient artefact with unknown capacities, an arcanum.

And that’s what Steampunk is all about, I’d say. Steampunk as a genre or subculture is an aesthetic based on quirks in the mold of Chitty — numina (ex) novum arcana.

Why is it so appealing? A numina like Chitty becomes even *more* wondrous with the additional “should *still* happen” of nostalgia, the desire for things to be now as they were then. The Ruritanian era is a construct of such desires. Doesn’t matter if it *never* actually happened that way, if we’re nostalgic for a Ruritania that never was; the desire is still there. And actually because it’s a setting for adventure we can even be nostalgic for the *bad shit* of that other era, because it would be awesome to overcome the wicked Childcatcher, it would be cool if the villainy we had to deal with was as straightforward as moustache-twirling fiends in top hats.

(A side-effect: steampunk doesn’t have to irresponsibly elide those iniquities; there’s no reason it can’t subvert reactionary nostalgia, critique the phony construct, the actual period *and* iniquities of our world that might be figuratively represented in a twat of a Ruritanian monarch.)

But in the arcanum there’s also a more complex yearning, a sort of “should *still be able to* happen” desire, where it’s less about wanting the lost wonders of then, (ah, that teddy I had as a kiddywink!) more about *not* wanting the added constraints of now (oh, if only I could be that kid with the teddy, so my teen and adult life was pure potential again.) Like, basically, those classic/antique marvels are playing on a desire for the past as an *unbinding* of the present, I’d say.

It maybe even gets into the territory of C.S. Lewis’s “sehnsucht” — an inconsolable longing for we know not what. Like there’s a positive anticipation for something that should & *shall* happen, like a kid on Christmas Eve. And then there’s the melancholic yearning for the return to that state — almost a yearning for yearning itself. And that’s what Chitty taps into.

I think about this stuff *way* too much.



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