We’re under attack! No time to lose!
So, leap heroically across the bridge (remember to stagger about as the camera pitches) to fire a photon torpedo from Ensign Chekov’s console, send a message to Star Fleet from Lt Uhura’s desk by the door and scan for lifeforms by looking in that viewer thing that Spock uses. Obvious really.
At least that’s what you’d have done on Star Trek, the original series. In Star Trek: the Next Generation, however, you just go to any console and press virtual buttons seemingly at random.
Those Okudagrams (created by Michael Okuda) heralded the advent of touch screen technology and a wider environment of storytelling that was simply less dramatic. Those two series were either side of a computer revolution. Beforehand computers were big, futuristic machines, afterwards everyone had a PC on their desks and now the computing power in my pocket outstrips even that. You can run a simulator of the space shuttle and have spare clock cycles to check Facebook at the same time!
In fiction it has become too easy to solve problems and some stories don’t work at all.
“Our car has broken down, should we go up to that scary look castle on the hill?”
“No darling, the RAC man said to stay with the vehicle.”
Any plot that can be solved by the mobile phone simply no longer works, it isn’t convincing.
“Romeo, I gonna pretend to be dead. It’ll fool everyone lol cu Juliet xxx”
It’s led to ‘exciting’ scenes with people rushing somewhere while desperately talking on the phone. The same chat could easily take place in the office, but then it would be far too obvious that it’s simply info-dumping. We might not realise why, we’re fooled by the visuals, but the story is unsatisfying.
Even modern, present day stories are full of people pressing a button on the Deus Ex Machina App along with an explanation of technobabble that might as well be “solvus problemosa!” The CGI impresses, we enjoy it as it happens, but like Chinese food, we want a sandwich afterwards.
I’m writing this at a computer. I could be flying a spaceship, hacking the Pentagon, stealing billions, invading privacy, activating the self-destruct and any number of a million other things, but from the outside all those examples look identically dull.
I think part of the appeal of Steampunk is the turning of the clock back to a world that’s understandable. In my first steampunk novel, The Derring-Do Club and the Empire of the Dead, I have a chase between a zeppelin and a steam train. Now, we all understand how that works, don’t we? You go to the bridge or theengine to pull levers, turn dials and, you know, do stuff. It has a reality, an honesty, and you can’t cheat in the environment. It’s the difference between playing chess for real and on the computer is that you can touch the pieces. The zeppelin is heading into the wind and so slowing down, they’re going to get away, but wait! The steam engine’s pressure is dropping and needs more coal shovelling, it’s going faster - phew. But the zeppelin is cutting the corner as the train has to follow the mountain’s contour…
It’s exciting stuff. Add a bit of the fantastic and that’s Steampunk. And there’s more jeopardy because it can’t be solved by polarising the inverted anti-thingion particle beam with an upper frequency modulation.
I wonder if steampunk is the genre of science fiction and fantasy deciding to reboot the franchise.
David Wake started writing one-act plays, won a couple of awards, and toured theatre productions in the UK. His work has been performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, London, Manchester and Birmingham.
Since completing an MA in Writing, he’s published two near-future SF novels, I, Phone and #tag. There are also two novels out chronicling the steampunk adventures of the Deering-Dolittle sisters: The Derring-Do Club and the Empire of the Dead and The Derring-Do Club and the Year of the Chrononauts.
He was Guest of Honour at the ArmadaCon SF convention in Plymouth and lives within smelling distance of a chocolate factory.