Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Top 5 Steampunk Devices

Victoria Day is just around the corner: a time for those in Commonwealth countries to celebrate the birthday of the monarch who presided over the British Empire at the height of its power and innovation. It was an age of iron, brass, wood and, most importantly, steam. More than a century later, that era's sense of boundless discovery still has the ability to mesmerize (though we would do well to remember the intolerance and oppression that went part and parcel with the culture of that day, as well as the isolation of the individual). It was a time strangely familiar to us with its people struggling to comprehend the rapid technological, scientific and social changes sweeping over them, and yet somewhat alien due to their narrow worldview, comparative lack of knowledge and slower pace to life. Perhaps it is because of this combination of the alien and the familiar that the Victorian era has spawned a strong sub-culture of SF: Steampunk. Forget your solar or nuclear power, this is a genre of steam-driven pistons, pneumatics and wind-filled sails. And so, in honour of the old Queen and the SF inspired by the heady zeitgeist of her reign, I humbly present the Top 5 Steampunk Devices.

5) Land Ironclads
Essentially a tank powered by steam - or an armoured locomotive without a track. First dreamt-up by HG Wells, the concept has been tapped every now and again in modern times for steampunk purposes.

4) The steam-powered hovering fortress/themepark
When I saw this on Steamboy, I was blown away. The ultimate expression of steam power made even more frightening by the fact that it lies hidden beneath the smiling painted merry-go-round facade of a themepark.

3) Airships
Climb aboard one of these beheamoths of the sky and the world is yours. Sure, this form of flight is somewhat slow, but with the size of your vessel, you'll be well-supplied and able to travel in luxury. Just don't light a match around the gas bags.

2) The Time Machine
We don't know how it's powered, but with polished brass control knobs, it sure is a beautiful example of Victorian craftsmanship. Guaranteed to challenge your views on labour/class relations and sexual mores in any era.

1) The Locomotive Steam Engine
Few technological advances have inspired the imagination like the train. Sure, they're noisy, smoky and solid blocks of brute power, but one look at one of those black iron steeds trundling down the tracks and you can just feel frontiers opening. For better or for worse, the steam engine has made countries. It is such a powerful, recognizable symbol in western culture that it continues to thrive in our fiction - and SF is no exception. We could probably spend days listing the SF stories, TV shows and movies featuring trains in one form or another. Because of its deep metaphorical significance and because it is so completely associated with the Victorian era, the steam engine is, to my mind, the number one steampunk device.

So what steampunk devices would you nominate for the list?

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