The Joy of Tech

In the age of Steampunk, New Jersey is among the world capitals. Indeed, today is the second day that the International Steampunk City will be inhabited in Speedwell, home of the telegraph. For yours truly, Steampunk is an escape. Alternate realities often look better than the pedestrian one we’ve inherited, so we like to look at the world through steamy lenses and imagine how it might have turned out differently. New Jersey, in the spring, also hosts the Steampunk World’s Fair. Perhaps we have more pressures to escape here in the Garden State. Imagination is certainly in no short supply. I attended the International Steampunk City last year and decided that I’d like to be a part of it. Knowing a thing or two about ancient technology, I thought I might share a bit with the Steampunk crowd. What is Steampunk without tech? Some ancient technology, although not very well known, is perhaps of even greater influence than we might imagine.

One of the connections that is easily misplaced in this era of purely scientific advance, is that technology was devised in the service of religion. At least in the early days. The greatest architectural achievements came under the aegis of temple building. Domes, arches, and eventually flying buttresses that could hold tons of stone high over your head—these were to please the gods. We can’t imagine Stonehenge as anything other than a capitalist venture these days, a way of drawing in the money. Of course, ancient builders knew of the financial benefits as well; temples were often the equivalent of ancient banks. Still, beneath all the pride of accomplishment there was the belief that the gods were somehow pleased with our innovation. Perhaps we’ve just done away with the convenient myth. Steampunk often has a religious underpinning. Many of the stories I’ve read touch on our ancient mythologies. Only, in fantasy, there are different possible permutations.

We sometimes think that technology is a modern phenomenon. Actually, it is quite ancient, as far as human culture goes. The first “computer” was invented around about the first century. Since it didn’t have an obvious benefit to the control of the masses, however, no technological revolution took place. The steam engine was, in nascent stages, invented also in ancient times. Until we learned, however, that it could be enslaved to make certain industrialists rich, we had no need for it beyond a diverting toy. Technology does not take hold without a deeper purpose. Every now and again I get a little paranoid knowing that I carry a telephone that knows my exact location at all times. As if I were important enough for anyone to care. Then the feeling passes and I open my iBooks app and turn to my latest Steampunk novel. I am a slave. I wonder what innovations there will be at International Steampunk City this year that might change the world. Only the imagination will limit the possibilities.


Victorian Secret

VictorianAmericaPerhaps it’s because the Steampunk World’s Fair is still on my mind, or perhaps because I’m increasingly curious about the way we came to be how we are, I read Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life 1876-1915. In this study Thomas J. Schlereth surveys the main aspects of daily existence during the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth. It is sobering to consider how quickly change has accelerated since then. Still, so much of what seems normal today was novel just a century or so ago. Although Schlereth doesn’t devote a chapter specifically to religion, he does tie it in with its natural analogue, education. We quickly forget that education was largely established because of religious principles. You can’t tell it today, but one of the main impulses behind higher education was the desire to educate people about the truths of religion so as to improve society.

Also developing in the late part of the nineteenth century was a new religious movement that considered five principles to be fundamental to Christianity. What’s more, those who promulgated this outlook also claimed it was true from the beginning of Christianity, although we know this is decidedly false. The inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, Jesus’ divinity, the second coming, and atonement through Jesus’ sacrificial death—a few concepts that had rudimentary form earlier in the religion’s history—became non-negotiable. Fundamentalism, a new religion, was born in this era and claimed a right to parse true Christianity from false Christianity. This virulent form of belief quickly became politicized, and the relationship between religion and politics clearly impressed Americans from early days. We still reap its whirlwind.

Ironically, the Victorian Era, as designated by Schlereth, saw the birth of the Social Gospel. Doctrine wasn’t the first question on the minds of these reformers, but the human condition was. Yes, they tended towards Fundamentalism, but those who believed in the Social Gospel wanted first of all to eliminate human suffering and misery. It was they, not the Fundamentalists, who came up with the question, “what would Jesus do?” Education and religion eventually divorced, and the Fundamentalist children grew ever stronger in their conviction that they alone were right. The First World War brought a crisis to an optimistic culture that believed the second coming was just around the corner. Of course, we’re still waiting. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn how we got here, Victorian America is not a bad way to pass the time.

In Our Own Backyard

That monk walking towards me looks a little suspicious. Perhaps it’s that guy with a top hat and weird gun strolling next to him with a waxed mustache and carefully sculpted beard. Like a page ripped from ComicCon, the Steampunk World’s Fair draws people from all across the east coast (perhaps even further afield) to Piscataway, New Jersey, or some venue near Rutgers, every spring. In a world where work routinely stifles creativity, a weekend of subculture is about as good as it gets. As a veteran of over two decades of Society of Biblical Literature meetings, I’m used to large conferences. Only this is much more fun. The Steampunk World’s Fair draws some 4,000 people, most of them baroquely costumed, to a sleepy corner of an overly developed industrial corridor, courtesy of Jeff Mach and Widdershins LLC. I met Jeff Mach at Steampunk City last October. A natural promoter, he has a way of getting events noticed.

Steampunk is more than a literary genre. It has become an eclectic mix of the technical and supernatural, the scientific and the absinthe-laced dreams of fantasy. An element of H. P. Lovecraft fandom is clearly present at the World’s Fair, as is an interest in Victorian spiritualism. Indeed, it would not be difficult to concoct a religion out of this heady brew. Like most human cultures, there is no pure form here. Vendors will be glad to accept your money, but true artists put great effort into unique pieces of creativity and style. I’m here, not feeling entirely safe surrounded by such strangeness, wondering if this isn’t a natural outgrowth of what happens when a technically oriented society too long denies its emotional subtext.

Role-playing is catharsis. Many of us spend our days feeling relatively powerless in a capitalistic system that is overwhelming and stifling. Thomas Piketty meanwhile suggests that extreme economic inequality leads to a breakdown of a system that favors too few. Although restraining himself from the economic implications, Frans de Waal notes the same phenomenon among primates that we insist on calling lower than ourselves. Bread and circuses, we know, only kept imperial Rome going for so long before it collapsed under the weight of inherited greed. Under great pressure, the people will play. This feels a bit heavy for the Steampunk World’s Fair, however. I can’t recall the last time I saw robots rubbing elbows with bearded, cross-dressing nuns, and nobody thought any of this was out of the ordinary. Or maybe it’s just the absinthe-flavored truffles talking. I know where I will be, in any case, come next May.

A typical sight.

A typical sight.