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Steam v. The Atom

13/02/2008

Lately I’ve been a bit torn.

I’ve become slightly obsessed with the Steampunk aesthetic.  It’s a bit of a dystopian/utopian science fiction genre in which steam is the dominant technology.  Lots of airships and locomotives. Think copper, brass and their lovely offspring, bronze. Lots of guages and rivets and fancy scrollwork.  It combines a victorian aesthetic and Jules Verne-esque gadgets with a kind of rugged clunky, grease smeared sense of fun.  League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is often considered steampunk.
For a while now, I’ve been really into the 1950’s aesthetic. The early atomic age held such a sense of hope, we were going to go to space! There were all kinds of gadgets for the home! Women were women and men smoked pipes! I love the futuristic utopian 50’s thing.  The future was right around the corner! I know it was all mostly cold war propaganda but, in spite of the constant threat of nuclear war, it was a happy time.  (Not to mention, being a woman with a set of full hips, the 1950’s silhouette is extremely flattering to my figure.)

I tried to draw some similarity between the two aesthetics:  Both were times when there was hope in technology.  In one, there was power in steam.  Transportation between continents was faster than it had ever been. The telegraph was making communication instantaneous.  The railways were making crossing continents safe and easy. Minds were abuzz with invention and it seemed like the tide of new ideas was going to take off and the future was bright.  In the other, there was the rocket, there were jet engines and we had control of the atom. There was plastic and cheap means of production.  The luxuries of modern life were available to anyone. Every man had a home and every wife had a waffle iron. A chicken in every pot.

When I started searching for examples of these parallels, it led me to an interesting observation: many science fiction films made in the 50’s were adaptations of books written in the late 1900’s. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds.  These futuristic visions of the steam era were reproduced in technicolor for audiences in the hopeful yet terrified 1950’s.  Of course there are parallels between these two eras.  Those parallels were being drawn at the time! (Link: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea trailer on YouTube)

All this time I’ve been feeling conflicted and it turns out there’s no conflict after all.

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