Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
– The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats
Strange Attractor: In Physics—An attractor for which the approach to the final set of physical properties is chaotic.
If you’ve never heard of a strange attractor before, it’s a mathematical concept that describes a relatively stable set of equations that doesn’t actually have a center but a tendency towards a “space” of results. Applying that to the real wold, and what you get is an object in motion around the “idea” of a center. There tends to be a lot of them in weather related phenomena, with the eye in the hurricane being a good example of one you can see. (You can excoriate me for my layman’s mis-interpretation in the comments.
A strange attractor is the reason why the center of a widening gyre can hold, even if there’s nothing there but a hole.
And I think the “strange attractor” is a a pretty good metaphor for the current state of Steampunk on both aesthetic and cultural grounds. Most popular genres are built around a defining idea(usually a particularly successful piece of media), But Steampunk is different. The fundamental conceit is simply an anarchic concept of a fantastic retro-history. It’s about having our past is re-visioned in light of modern knowledge of materials and science. But it’s not actually about the past, materials, knowledge, or science. That’s because when it’s at it’s best Steampunk projects and aesthetic as it’s result.
Still with me?
The end result is our current temporal mash-up of vests, corsets, rayguns and goggles.We want the Victorianism, but without the imperialism. We want the steam, but without the grease, and the poverty without all the grim. So what we get is often Boba Fett filtered through the lens of the Lumière brothers. We want all of the condition, but with only just enough human that we can accept it into our modern values and technology. And that, to be honest, is a pretty damn Victorian attitude in and of itself.
But all that said, it’s difficult to imagine what the future holds for this genre. My best guess is that it will end up being the 19th century equivalent of the “Fantasy” genre: a pseudo-historical reality in which to tell stories that mythologize our past through fiction.
But fantasy has something Steampunk doesn’t: a genuine eye at the center of the storm. In fact, it’s the Eye of Sauron. Having the Lord of the Rings at the heart of that genre means that no matter how ridiculous things can get, or out of favor it becomes, there’s something to return to when you need to start over again.
But like it’s plucky protagonists, Steampunk is a proven survivor. This genre spent over two decades toiling away in the fictional workhouses before springing back into popular culture on the back of the Maker movement. It’s tough old thing, and I’m hoping that now that it’s here, it’s going to stick around for a while.
I knew of the Strange Attractor thanks to Mercury Rev, but had no idea of the concept.
Thanks for putting it so succinctly and I love the “Eye of the storm” idea, its true there is no true touchstone to return to (yet).
Here’s hoping Steampunk sticks around too!