Magical Technology

I've been trying to respond to Jha'meia's wonderful article on race and steampunk for a few days, but found myself distracted by one of her linked articles. Lavie Tidhar's steampunk summary (scroll down if you don't see it immediately) includes an interesting thought on the interplay between magic and technology in steampunk: "The underlying theme of all fiction within the Steampunk sphere resorts to that moment whereby technology transcends understanding and becomes, for all intents and purposes, magical." Tidhar supports the contention very well with a few well-chosen examples, before restating his thesis, that "the true strength of Steampunk is the way in which the [magic and technology] coexist: where technology becomes magical, magic becomes rigorously scientific. The resulting tension is at the core of Steampunk."
Tidhar's thesis supports the inclusion of the supernatural in my recent cataloging of steampunk pastiche elements, but expands our understanding of how these particular pastiche elements work together. If the pastiche elements I've identified continue to hold academic water over the course of my reading and observations, the nature of how the pastiche elements are in conversation with one another will have to be identified and investigated.

In addition to his own examples, I would add the way in which automata are often given "life" through kabbalistic means (see my post on Steamnocchio and the entry on the supernatural and automata in the pastiche post), which carries strong ties to other fusings of technology and the supernatural in steampunk: the god-like Victorian Wintermute of Sterling and Gibson's The Difference Engine, the disease that begins to turn men into machines in S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods, the miracle of creation made clockwork in Jay Lake's Mainspring (as well as the way in which Mainspring's messiah, Hethor Jacques can interact magically with the clockwork universe he inhabits), the alethiometer of Pullman's His Dark Materials (pictured at the top of the post), or the way Thomas Pynchon employs mathematics as a near ritual-magic means of changing aspects of time and space in Against the Day.

We might also merely construe the idea of technology becoming magical in a wide-eyed-wonder sort of way, in the sense that many steampunk technologies would require some form of magical impulsion or cohesion in order to be rendered plausible. Steampunk's merging of magic and technology permits the designs of DaVinci to not only be built, but to work, permits airship travel to be safe, and faster than we currently know to be possible. This relationship between magic and technology explains a great deal about the steampunk aesthetic, sometimes lampooned as being frivolous and pointless, merely wallowing about in the dregs of colonial adventure tales. It is also why I am hesitant to posit steampunk as pure SF, or fantasy, and why I resist the term "gaslamp fantasy" for it, since it gives too much attention to the word fantasy. Tidhar rightly points out that steampunk employs both magic and technology, not one or the other. Steampunk is pastiche, even at the level of genre - it is both fantasy and SF, in the way that space opera often is. This may not seem serious enough for the aficionado of hard SF, and in many cases, steampunk has no intention to be serious, to have a point, to make a political or social statement. There are examples of frivolous hard SF--or serious fiction which is merely well-structured word paintings, not thought experiments, nor cautionary or prescriptive tales. All genres have their fluff, even when the fluff is well written enough to be considered literature.

Likewise, when steampunk writers decide to say something, as in the case of Moorcock's Warlord of the Air, we realize that the magical technology of time travel is just another vehicle to move a character about in. The point of the story isn't so much about really travelling through time, but about being wide-eyed enough to entertain a new idea about what we've come to consider history, and to reflect upon the potential malleability of the history we are currently making.


  1. Aha! My ruse of distracting the readers from my essay's weaknesses has worked! *cough* I mean...

    I recently mused about the interchangeability of settings when it comes to telling stories, which I think touches on what you're saying here. (OK, it wasn't as articulate as all that.) I know I've often wondered what constitutes pure SF, particularly since some SF relies on the bending of the physical laws we're aware of (Stargate SG-1, for example), and fantasy requires some 'scienciness' at times to make it truly believable (at least, in my case).

    Is it really "magic" though? I always thought the fantastical elements sprung from a kind of hopeful idealism of what science can do, if not now, then in the future (or some strange parallel universe).

    (I'm glad you liked the essay, I really am!)

  2. Although this is a "out-of-world" question, have you ever considered or read about what the development of technology-as-magic and magic-becoming-scientific reflects about our 21st century understanding and experience with technology?

    Clarke of course wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - could our willingness to make a pastiche of the two signify something about how our own technology has left us in the dust?

    I'm afraid I'm thinking of my own research, here. Albert Borgmann has this concept of how "devices" more and more deeply separate the commodities they make available from the machinery behind the scenes. An iPod, compared to a phonograph or even a tape deck, is a good example: the machinery is completely invisible and incomprehensible to most of its users. It's basically magic.

  3. Actually Michael, you've hit upon one of the most common responses to the question, "Why Steampunk?" People are feeling disconnected from technology - it feels like magic, after all. So the answer to your question is, yes. And apparently your "self-serving" research related question isn't so unrelated after all! Maybe we'll have to write a paper together on that subject.

  4. Another great post. I've been thinking about this a lot over the past few months whilst working on an Anubis Gates/Morlock Night/Homunculus section of my own research project. I was trying to reconcile The Anubis Gates with the other two texts as the former superficially appears to exhibit a complete absence of technology in its Victorian setting whilst technologies (of various types) are central to the latter novels. What I have come to appreciate is that magic - in novels like The Anubis Gates particularly and in Steampunk fictions generally - undergoes a process of technologisation, often in relation to technologies of the body (Anubis Gates = magic as cloning, Perdido Street Station = magic as extreme body modification). At the same time, technology when it does overtly appear in all its brass and pomp takes on the mysticism, ritual, and otherworldly qualities inherent in magic. I'm thinking here of the appearance of the steam-powered sub in the sewer of Jeter's Morlock Night, or the industrial application of aether in The Light Ages.

    It's all fascinating as I think that Steampunk superficially feels as though it has nothing much to do with magic while under the surface there is a possible unconscious and inextricable interrelation between magic and tech that, as you have indicated Mike, says more about our modern apprehension of technology than is immediately apparent.

    Also, thanks for the link to Steampunk and race. I'll have a look at that today.

  5. Vee, I was thinking along those lines a great deal yesterday while reading Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters" in the Vandermeer Steampunk anthology. There is one conversation in particular which wouldn't be out of place in a techno-thriller about cloning, save that the terms being used are all "technical" terms from Jewish Mysticism. Chiang's short story is a great example of this Magical Technology concept.


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