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Authors: KW Jeter

Infernal Devices

BOOK: Infernal Devices


Infernal Devices

On Steampunk and "Steampunk"
I wish I could say that the whole steampunk thing took me by surprise. Opportunities to display a becoming modesty arrive so much less often than those calling for a well-deserved modesty, as in this case.
  Of course, the creation and promotion of literary genres and subgenres, even for one the label for which has embedded itself so deeply into the hip world's current operating dictionary, is nearly always a matter of selfpromotion. Writers are essentially telling readers, "Hey, look at me; I'm doing something New & Different, not like those schlubs over there at the other end of the bookstore shelf, who are just doing the Same Old Thing." For academics, of course, it's more of a tenure pitch, a ritual dance in front of their department committee, demonstrating that they are indeed keyed in to what is being texted about by the youth of today, whose parents pay the tuition bills.
  Observing these endeavours, one is inevitably reminded (if one is old and recherché enough) of Seventies comedian Flip Wilson, whose television personae included the Reverend Leroy, excitedly exhorting the congregation at the Church of What's Happening Now. That's an ecclesiastical establishment where the pews are perhaps even more tightly packed these days than they were back then, since hardly anybody now wants to be called a Luddite and risk not being invited to the better party that's always down the street somewhere. (Though of course, Luddism proper is something that neither anti-Luddites or neo-Luddites, bravely contrary in their hempen shirts, get quite right as they push their own agendaheavy carts down that same street. But that's another discussion, for another day.) If the mid-Eighties' starry-eyed, gobsmacked fascination with the siliconized future now seems more of a piece with the Kennedy-era Disneyland's Carousel of Progress exhibit than with the life we're living now, then who says mankind doesn't progress? As soon as your kids can download a smartphone app for hacking the Pentagon, we'll know the revolution is over.
  So it's a tribute to tortuous human ingenuity and the blithely cheerful doublethink of pop culture (indexed under "Orwell, George; gameshow host"), that there developed a taste for brass and copper and the ticking, hissing mesh-&-grind of Victorian technology. God knows that I didn't send that particular juggernaut careening down the highway; the most I can be credited with is the vaguely modernistic nameplate under the hood ornament, as though the chrome moniker of a Chrysler Airflow had been bolted to Amédée-Ernest Bollée's 1875 L'Obeissante and sent cruising for dates at Mel's Drive-In. But as Orwell did in fact point out in his "The Principles of Newspeak" appendix to 1984, it can be pretty difficult to think about stuff for which we don't have names. My coining back in 1987 of the word steampunk originally might have been more of a humorous jab at a tendency going around those days, of labeling any two genre writers with more in common than bipedal locomotion as the "[insert word here]punk" movement, but if it assumed some sort of life after that, or at least clawed itself up from whatever grave in which old jokes are laid to rest… well, it could've been worse, lexicographically.
  And as much as the nametag is the tail to the much larger shaggy dog of the various novels and stories that have since been labeled steampunk (many of which are excellent and substantial, and would be just as enjoyable with or without the category to be stuffed into), the steampunk literature is a relatively small part of a larger enthusiasm. The concept has metastasized to the point where its cultural penetration is driven less by authors than by film studio art directors, costumers and special effects departments. (In that sense, not much different from any of the shrinking number of other concepts we have nowadays.) If saying that one is into steampunk allows young women to attend science fiction conventions while laced into visibly complicated underwear, while their weedy boyfriends are bulked up by the heavy armor of period tweeds and vests, the inspiration is likely from the movies rather than any words on paper.
  While I might not have anticipated the slipping into common parlance of the word I coined, the larger steampunk enthusiasm wasn't similarly unanticipated. Yes, most of this is just a matter of people having good, clean, if somewhat gimmicky fun, but there's a genuinely worthy element to it that makes me one of those happy few who, even if we can't say we love our species, we can at least tolerate it on its better days. A fascination with Victorian tech is at its heart a salutary acceptance of the machine-ness of machines – and correspondingly an acceptance of the humanity of human beings. There's something nauseatingly predigested about the look of late 20th and early 21st century industrial design, all those Steve Jobs-approved rounded edges like cough lozenges sucked on for a minute or so before being spat out into your hand. Whereas Victorian machines, with their precision-cut gears and spurred mantis armatures, are unabashedly themselves rather than trying to smoothly cozen their way into your life. Thus we similarly perceive flesh-&blood Victorians – even the fictional ones – as being more genuine than ourselves. They had lives; we have marketing. Even unto our souls; drama and ruin were possible to those who guarded their secrets and shame, as pre-digital clocks held their tightly coiled mainsprings inside themselves.
  That's what makes this last fully human epoch so interesting for writers and readers alike. And why I was gratified rather than surprised that the thing to which I so offhandedly gave a name now clanks forward at its own pace. The faint tick and whir we hear across the sadly therapeutic centuries is that of our own foolishly abandoned hearts, which we'd love to wind up and set running again. Steampunk enthusiasts are engaged, however unknowingly, in nobler fun than mere mental cosplay. May God bless and increase their tribe; human beings might yearn for lost things, but never for unreal things.
K W Jeter
San Francisco
November 2010
All comfort in life is based upon a regular occurrence
of external phenomena.
In Search of Saint Monkfish
Mr Dower Receives a Commission
On just such a morning as this, when the threat of rain hangs over London in the manner of a sentence neither stayed nor pardoned, but rather perpetually executed, Creff, my factotum, interrupted the breakfast he had brought me only a few minutes earlier and announced that a crazed Ethiope was at the door, presumably to buy a watch.
  Reader, if the name George Dower, late of the London borough of Clerkenwell, is unfamiliar to you, I beg you to read no further. Perhaps a merciful fate – merciful to the genteel reader's sensibilities, even more so to the author's reputation – has spared a few souls acquaintance with the sordid history that has become attached to my name. Small chance of that, I know, as the infamy has been given the widest circulation possible. The engines of ink-stained paper and press spew forth unceasingly, while the even more pervasive swell of human voice whispers in drawing room and tenement the details that cannot be transcribed.
  Still, should the reader be such a one, blessedly ignorant of recent scandal, then lay this book down unread. Perhaps the dim confines of the sick-room, or the wider horizons of tour abroad, far from English weather and the even darker and more permeating chill of English gossip, have sheltered your ear. There can be only small profit in hearing the popular rumours of that dubious scientific brotherhood known as the Royal Anti-Society, and the part I am assumed to have played in its resurrection from that shrouded past where it had lain as mythological shadow to Newton's Fiat live.
  Such happy ignorance is possible. Only the sketchiest outline has been made public of Lord Bendray's investigations into the so-called Cataclysm Harmonics by which he meant to split the earth to its core. Even now, the riveted iron sphere of his Hermetic Carriage lies in the ruins of Bendray Hall, its signal flags and lights tattered and broken, a mere object of speculation to the attendants who listen patiently to the tottering grey-haired figure's inquiries about his new life on another planet.
  The discretion that sterling can purchase has saved the heirs of the Bendray estate further embarrassment. Not for the purposes of spite, but to remedy the damage done to my own and my father's name, will I render a complete account of Lord Bendray's fateful musical soiree in these pages.
  The rain begins, spattering on the panes of my study window. Before the heaped coal-grate, the dog sleeping on the rug whines and scratches the floor. An apprehensive tremor blots the ink from the pen in my hand, and in my waistcoat pocket a coin of no value, save as a dread keepsake, grows cold through layers of cloth against my flesh. No matter; I press onward.
  Many who read this, I know, will be in search of further salacious details concerning the more disgusting accusations brought against me. I have been painted as a demon of lust. Reports of my careering through ill-lit dockside alleys in a coach-and-four, hot in pursuit of unnatural pleasures such as the "green girls" whose connection to instances of madness and physical decay among the younger peerage is so often whispered of, have been given credence far beyond that which is called for by the small bit of truth in those stories. It was through no fault of my own that the Ladies Union for the Suppression of Carnal Vice staged a torchlight march on my former shop and residence. Indeed, if the public were aware of the hidden nature of Mrs Trabble, the captain of that well-thought-of regiment, much excited talk would shift away from me.
  As to the greater scandal surrounding the dual career attributed to me, that is, as a violin virtuoso equal to the great Paganini and a debaucher of women exceeding the lecherous Casanova, I maintain that neither of these accomplishments was mine. No Stradivarius or well-born lady ever responded to my bow in such a way. Though my brain was used in the production of those melodies, so enticing on the concert stage and even more so behind it, my hands are spotless. I can scarcely hope that my revelations will be credited. For my own comfort I place them here.
  On other matters official judgment was rendered in the courts. My conviction on the charge of desecrating a place of worship, specifically by substituting copies of Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler for the hymnals of Saint Mary Alderhythe, Bankside, and decorating the church altar with fishing tackle – that too can be explained. Folly I may be guilty of, but not sacrilege.
  Even though my name has been connected – with some cause, I admit – to reports from the Scottish Highlands of the Book of Revelation's Seven-Headed Beast flapping about and dropping flaming sheep carcasses upon the heads of Sir Charles Wroth's grouse-beaters while the Whore of Babylon laughed and shouted disrespectful comments from her perch aboard the creature, yet I still believe that an open mind will absolve me of blame. Indeed, the fact that the guns of Sir Charles' grouse-hunt were trained upon me should cause a charitable nature to hear my grievance with some sympathy.
  But as I pause for a moment, lifting my pen, and gaze through the rain-wavering glass at the thin trails of smoke rising from the crowded rooftops' chimneys and fading towards the river's mist – a view I cannot describe in greater detail for fear of leading the gawking crowd to this, my retreat – a shiver not prompted by ague or cold reaches down my arms. The dog raises his head, ears pricking at the sound of the distant church bells that neither I nor any other Christian gentleman has heard, or should ever hope to hear. Somewhere in that city borough, the name of which is spoken only in the most muted whisper, and whose location is everywhere and nowhere in London at once, the congregation summoned by those bells – to us, mercifully silent – is sidling through narrow alleys towards a damp worship.
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