Skip to Content

Clockwork Futures

Clockwork Futures: The Science of Steampunk and the Reinvention of the Modern World

Brandy Schillace
Pegasus Books
2017
336 pp.
Purchase this item now

“Steampunk,” for the unfamiliar, is a 19th-century aesthetic characterized by a fictional world where modern conveniences abound, propelled by atypical power sources (e.g., steam and coal) and energy convenience (e.g., gears and cogs). Clockwork Futures tells the stories of the real-life inventions that inspired the machines of the genre. The inventions enshrined in steampunk were often ahead of their time, were sometimes misguided, and were occasionally outright catastrophic, but, as author Brandy Schillace reveals, they celebrate the ingenuity and imagination that go into scientific research, regardless of the outcome.

The book is arranged to tell the story of what Schillace believes to be the dichotomous drivers of discovery: chaos versus order, darkness versus light, privation versus industry, anarchy versus control, and, finally, death versus immortality. In the first section (chaos versus order), she draws connections between a world controlled by a clock in S. M Peters’s steampunk novel Whitechapel Gods and the work of Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, whose efforts brought mathematical order to the heavens. Frankenstein’s monster makes an illustrative appearance in the next section (darkness versus light) as the fictional embodiment of Luigi Galvani’s 18th-century work on animal electricity. Part 4, which explores the push and pull of anarchy and control, tackles a uniquely social component of steampunk commentary, using Jules Verne’s Paris in the 20th Century to illustrate the folly of a society that would deny the value of art in favor of relentless scientific progress.

The section on death versus immortality brings the reader from the 19th century to a timeless frame of reference: the iconic steampunk hero, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is not generally recognized as a scientist, but Schillace draws connections between criminal and scientific investigations, describing, for example, how both methods of inquiry must fit the evidence (or data), rather than the other way around. The immortality to which Schillace alludes comes from Holmes’s versatility as a character and the endurance of the scientific method rather than an actual example of thwarted death, real or fictional.

INHAUSCREATIVE/ISTOCKPHOTO

Steampunk-style dirigibles invoke and exaggerate the risks posed by real-life aircraft.

One recurrent idea in Clockwork Futures is the notion that advances in technology can have unintended consequences. Perhaps not surprising, given the genre’s focus on steam from coal, the book delves specifically into environmental degradation with regard to industrialization. Unintended consequences make another appearance later on, as Shillace describes Thomas Edison’s concerns about the safety of alternating current—concerns that seemed to prove well warranted by the unpredictable performance of the first electric chair. She concludes with a reference to an interview conducted by Paul Virilio with the French cultural theorist Sylvére Lotringer in 1997. “Every new technology,” argued Lotringer, “invents its own perilous accident.”

Schillace thoroughly examines the world of steampunk in the context of history and society in a way that will initiate a deeper appreciation of the genre. Her careful retelling of both well-known and obscure stories may even motivate further consumption of these works by the scientific reader.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Center for Environmental Research and Education, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA 15282, USA.