“Clockwork Futures” studies the history of steampunk

“Technology is at the intersection of what we fear and what we want to fight,” said author Brandy Schillace.

On Sept. 22, Research Associate and Public Engagement Fellow for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History and Schillace gave an unforgettable lecture at the launch of her new book “Clockwork Futures: The Science of Steampunk and the Reinvention of the Modern World” at the atmospheric Dittrick Museum. Though the book itself is about the history of steampunk and its place in society, it’s heavily interwoven with commentary about the human condition and steampunk’s place in it as a genre.

“Steampunk reminds me of something the Red Queen says to Alice,” she said, reading a quote from “Alice in Wonderland.” “You need two types of memory, one that stretches forwards and one that goes back.”

This is the steampunk she showcased at its core, stretching back history to the Victorian Era and then stretching forwards, to the other futures that could have been. Schillace structured her presentation in the same way, going back into history to the beginnings of the use of electricity and automatons to simulate human behavior, and masterfully connecting the origin of automations with the concept that the human body is itself a machine.

From there, Schillace moved to connecting the heavens and the earth through the use of electricity. Before electricity was commonplace and truly understood, the lightning in the sky and the electricity here on earth were of two sorts: That of God and that of man, and were fundamentally different.

She explained that this is reflected in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” where the power of the gods animates the monster, not the electricity of man. The discovery that electricity in the sky could be harnessed down on earth caused some tension, as man came one step closer to shaking the constants on which society rested. Steampunk’s use of mechanical critters and the electricity and steam engines is a clear indication that the belief of man as a creator is core to the genre.

Like many types of fiction, steampunk allows a genre to explore the consequences of change in society. However, it has traditionally focused on the tension of technology and its consequences.

Schillace quoted a saying: “The invention of the train means the invention of the train wreck.”

She told the audience that not all consequences are as easy to see in the moment. The invention of the train lead to the creation of time zones in the United States, to pioneering the West. It’s these consequences that are not so easy to see, and for which fiction provides us with warnings. But not all things can be foreseen, she warns.

Schillace quotes the examples of Jules Verne’s “Paris in the Twentieth Century” where the humanities are considered lesser to the sciences and the bed can be a table, toilet and piano. One of these has come to pass, she pointed out, but we do not use the table, toilet and bed analogy. However, we do carry GPS, phones and computers. Foresight is not 20/20, she told the group, but we do the best we can.

The talk at the Dittrick Museum was followed by a costume party at The Happy Dog at Euclid Tavern.