Over the last year or so I have been somewhat intrigued and also baffled by the Steampunk phenomenon. Even though I have read the Wikipedia page and summaries from other sources, I still don’t get it. Why are people obsessed with this sort of H.G. Wells’s vision of the future? Somehow I feel it is a shortcoming on my part that I don’t understand this movement.
That said, if Steampunk is your thing you might want to check out The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and the Terror of Science by Richard Holmes. One could think of it as sort of the roots of Steampunk. In this volume Holmes seamlessly melds the worlds of Science and Literature, including Mary Shelley, a Steampunk fav, or so I hear.
Essentially, Holmes documents how in a just a few decades scientists re-arranged the way we think about the solar system and the universe (William and Caroline Shelley), a revolution in the science of chemistry (Humphry Davy) and human flight by use of Balloons, (Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier). These discoveries were immensely influential on the artists of the time, Yeats, Shelley, Blake, Horace Walpole, you name it, they all had plenty to say, some quite prescient, about the startling scientific advancements of their age.
One of the accomplishments of this book is how Holmes conveys a sense of a time when science and it’s achievements were not only marveled at by a largely illiterate public, but were accepted as essentially positive ideas that would only help humans and improve our quality of life. Science and technology seem to be moving at such an accelerated speed that it is beyond the grasp of most people and often met with a bit of trepidation. Perhaps that is a clue to the Steampunk fantasy. It is a vision of a time when science solved problems instead of a post-Hiroshima world where it seems to mainly create them.