Steampunk. I never had an appreciation for the steampunk esthetic. It had always seemed too Rococo, too Escherian and impossibly, fancifully over-complicated to my fantasy sensibilities. The sleek possibilities of worlds where magic was a commonplace seemed to allow for the unlikely or extraordinary to be accomplished with a simple wand, spell, or charm—worlds where the sine qua non of weaponry was a sword, direct and, as it were, to the point. The intricate overlays of gears and belts and multi-stepped mechanisms replaced the wonder of magic and somehow drew the modern trappings of life, the planes, trains, and automobiles, too close to mind when the seductive hopes of “traditional” fantasy were nearer and dearer to the heart. Sure, the Victorian mood that seeped into the steampunk had an appeal, but for me at least was less than magical. After all, the point of such a contraption seemed less what it accomplished than how it came about, much like a game of Mousetrap or one of Wallace and & Gromit’s breakfasts, to which the caught rodent or buttered toast are secondary.
Though I don’t really understand the full steampunk view, a revelation in how things steampunk can speak to things fantasy snuck up on me like a little, simple spell. Of course, the thing about revelations is how they come in odd places and at odd times; the thing about this one in particular was how the simplicity of the spell was a fanciful convergence of complicated things. It came in a tractor shed, in the early morning, through eyes that were not quite mine.
My seven-year-old son was with me as we were working on the trucks and tractors that work at our place. Relishing my role of father passing timeless and timely knowledge to the heir-apparent, I explained about oil changes and diesel additives, engine-hours and hydraulic fluid. His Lego and PlayMobil worldview was, I know, much more interested in the shiny paints, work lights, and nifty control levers than anything else. But, my son listened and nodded and held tools. We worked our way through the most used equipment, big tractors to pickups to grain trucks, finally to my own childhood pride and joy, the little Ford tractor built in 1939 that I had learned to drive on. Built in the days when streamlining held sway in design, it is a thing of simple beauty, painted in equally simple grey with no accents – straightforward as Gandalf’s cloak, which, as I once tried to explain to my dad as we did this same task, was incredibly cool. The thing I like best about that old tractor is that nothing about the business end of its purpose, horsepower and pulling, was revealed from beneath the long smooth hood and uncomplicated controls — to me it will always be magical because it just does things without advertising its inner works.
Done with the task, as we began to clean up shop and my son moved about much more quickly at the promise of not having to nod and listen so very much, he came to a sudden stop, transfixed by something. He nearly shouted, “What is THAT?” In the corner of a nearby shed sat one of the very old, disused tractors that had been replaced decades ago by newer, more efficient machines. I explained this to my son, and we wandered over to look at what was just another pile of used metal to me. I hadn’t really paid attention to it ever, really – it wasn’t running when I was seven, and it wasn’t useful even if it were. But then, I haven’t been seven years old in a long time, either...
Clambering up the exposed gearing and onto the hard metal seat, my son exclaimed that this was clearly the best tractor ever – it was high and huge, it had menacing looking steel wheels rather than tires, it could be a battleship or a tank or anything! Then, he asked the dread question: “Can we make it run?” No, we couldn’t, and I told him the many reasons why, starting with not having a clue about replacement parts and ending with it being designed to run on steam, like an old locomotive. This, in hindsight, was probably the single worst thing I could have said to discourage a boy who knew more about Thomas the Tank Engine than the whole programming staff of PBS.
Heading off his delight at steam, I asked him why he thought it was so much better than the newer tractors, or even the old Ford that was small enough he could drive it himself next summer. My son’s reasons were pure steampunk, and came out in a rush of words: “it has gears and belts and pulleys and it’s not electric and you can see what EVERYTHING does and I could add a paintbrush to the wheel and make a road with stripes! And it runs on water! It’s like a magical machine where you see the magic for real!” So we spent a half hour climbing over the old tractor while he traced the way he was sure it worked, which rod pushed which connector, and where he would improve it “when you fix it, Dad.” Though it was nice to be an infallible father for a moment in his eyes, one who could wield a magic toolbox and fix anything, that old tractor will have to remain a fortress of fantasy for my son.
But, the revelation stuck – steampunk isn’t the oddball collection of overdone machinery it once was to me, no longer an odd offshoot of fantasy bridging to science fiction. I can see a glimmer of the allure, though darkly. A necessarily intricate way of being magical: an aesthetic that balances the draw of the impossibly done with the inquisitive desire to see why magic works. Like those Legos that litter our house, morphing from one magical creation to another, but always essentially machinery that reveals how the magic happens. Like the way an old tractor that wasn’t so efficient at its task even when new, but that can capture magic in a bottle for a boy who doesn’t mind a bit being called a steampunk.
By Lindsay Craig