20 May 2013

Dr. Some's ABC of Steampunk Part 6: P - R

P is for Pirates

This is not an air pirate-ship!
(Thanks to Zen Wickentower for the lovely craft!)
Yarr! Don't think that the only pirates nowadays are either Johnny Depp or Somalians. The steampunk skies are filled with dangerous air pirates!

Much like their 18th century counterparts of the Caribbean they have usually secret pirate lairs, hunt treasures, kidnap princesses, trade slaves and - board other ships!
Preferred bounty, apart from obvious things like gold, jewels and treasure maps, are exotic devices, strange artifacts and mad inventions which enable their owners to take over the world (which of course is always an excellent starting point for adventure-stories!).

A stylish not-air pirate!
They use usually well armed air ships, mostly in the classical zeppelin-style or as flying galeon (complete with rigging, jolly roger and stuff!), though there were sightings of pirates using airplanes too. The author of this lovely blog got even incarcerated and accused to be one by herself! (see here, here and here) Just because her red biplane did look suspiciously similar to one the notorious Red Baroness does use for her raids! Of course these accusations were untenable and resulted in a release from prison without even a trial! Just good that the booty was nicely and securely hidden, they didn't had any evidence *evil laughter* - Hey! Did write that loud???

Anyway, steampunk pirates are not only a serious threat to peaceful aeronautics, you also should not underestimate the impact the have on fashion! The dashing female air pirate combines useful equipment (the inevitable belts with guns, knifes and perhaps a cutlass too) with a sexy look, employing leather corsets, boots and skillfully omitting cover at just the right spots - delicious!

Q is for Queen Victoria

Me and Queen Victoria
One of the words you hear quite frequently when it comes to steampunk is "Victorian". This term comes from the "Victorian Era", the time when Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire with its colonies (which was all in all about 1/5th of the world's population. So yes - it was a big empire!).
The world of Queen Victoria is the ideal where steampunk builds upon (well, visually at least). Its literally impossible to think steampunk without at least a bit of its technology, fashion or design with its typical ornamentations.

During Queen Victoria's reign (from 1837 till her death in 1901), the industrialization was in full flight in the western world and it affected people's life significantly. In a way like the Internet does today. Steam engines allowed mass production and mass transportation: Factories were mushrooming, dragging millions from the countryside into the big cities on the search for work whilst steam-powered trains and ships shortened transportation ways, making the world a significantly smaller place.
Being the technologically leading nation in that "industrial race", Britain was the most important political and economical player of its time with trade routes and colonies all over the world.

Socially however the British Empire was faced with inner tensions. The industrialization didn't bring wealth to everyone. Huge fortunes did exist next to mass poverty and people working under terrible conditions (sounds a bit like today's China, hm?), there were riots in the colonies and the moral standards of the Victorian Era war from being progressive - especially regarding the role of women in the society.

So its a two-edged sword. Visually its a great time, giving sheer endlessly inspiration for creative people, but I don't think nowadays humans would feel well in that world - just think: no premarital sex!

R is for Robot

Robots seem to have not really much to do with steampunk and they occupy indeed rather a niche there. However a quite interesting one.
They are at the first glance typical inventions of the 20th century. First in science fiction, then in reality (where they are mostly doomed to be either be silly blinking or barking toys or weld together cars). But thats just one part of their long and peculiar story. Lets start with their earliest predecessors, the golems:

The golem (which first appeared in the 12th century) was of course a rather simple creation. You take a piece of clay, give it roughly human shape, do your secret rituals (likely found in the Jewish Kabbalah) and finally put a slip of paper under its tongue with some magic words written on it, much like a modern day operating system (lets do a neologism and call it "Clay OS").

China MiƩville (see "L is for Literature") picks up the idea of the golem for his novel "Iron Council" where one of the main characters learns to create them, eventually leaving the medium clay far behind. He creates railroad spike golems (which try to hammer themselves into the track), wind golems attacking airships and finally even a time-golem!

Much more technological than the golem and therefore closer to the general understanding of what a robot is, is The Turk.
The Turk was Invented in a time where the understanding of nature was a mechanistic one and therefore all living beings were - in a sense - machines.
Invented in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen The Turk did amaze its audience: It was an elaborate high-tech chess playing automaton in the shape of a human (in this case a Turk, I'm sure you'd never guessed that!), sitting on a chair before a chess table. After its human contender made a move, The Turk (capitals make its name look more pompous, you know) rattled, reached out its arm and moved its piece like by magic, driven by its elaborate calculating mechanism.
Of course it was a hoax, with a small human (not necessarily a Turk) chess-player hidden underneath the table performing all the moves, as they found out only 50 years after its creation. Silly humans.

The Turk did prove two things, which are still valid today: 1) Its very easy to fool humans, and 2) its somehow expected that a robot looks at least roughly like a human being. Especially in science fiction you will hardly find a robot, which is not looking humanoid. If its the mechanical Maria in Fritz Lang's masterpiece "Metropolis" (1927), the robot in the series "Lost in Space" (1965 - 1969) or in Isaak Asimov's Robot-Stories like "The Caves of Steel" (1954).

Robots (or sometimes called "Clanks") in steampunk are - which will surely surprise you to hear - usually steam driven and possess a mechanical brain contrary to their electronic counterparts of the modern world. They are often operated via punch-cards (which is an interesting analogy to the golem) and are ideal for mad scientists like Dr. Steel to form great armies of them to take over the world!
Robotic body parts are also very popular, especially for villains who lost a limb or two by unspeakable experiments (or plain foolishness). Also its handy for them to have, if its not a heart of steel, at least one made of corrosion-resistant brass.

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