Today we welcome author Kate Milford.
Kate Milford is the author of The Boneshaker, has written for stage and screen, and is a regular travel columnist for the Nagspeake Board of Tourism and Culture. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. To learn more, visit www.clockworkfoundry.com.
Go, Steampunk, Go
by Kate Milford
I always feel like I have to start with a disclaimer when I contribute to anything related to steampunk. My books do tend to have steampunky things in them, but this has less to do with a particular interest in most of what makes steampunk steampunk than it has to do with a thing I have for devices—particularly old ones—and how we use them and think about them. I’m obsessed with antiquated technologies, I love mechanical things, and I like to think about technical theory and philosophy, plus most of what I write is historical, so there does tend to be some overlap with steampunk when I really get going. So as I was planning this post, initially I thought maybe I’d write a little bit about some of the devices I’ve been messing with lately. The post sort of changed about halfway through, though, and I started thinking about why it really is that antiquated technology makes me as happy as it does, and why it has worked its way into just about everything I write.
This wasn’t always the case. I’ve always loved history, but I can’t say I’ve always loved gadgets and technology. (In my head right now, by the way, I’m hearing Kip from Napoleon Dynamite singing but I still love technology…always and forever…)
In the time I’ve been thinking about what I might have to contribute to this year’s Steampunkapalooza, I’ve also been decompressing from turning in the first draft of what will be my fourth novel, The Left-Handed Fate (Holt, spring 2015, for those who are curious). Among the things I like to do with the antique stuff I love and the modern stuff that interests me is to take the modern tech ideas and map them back onto the older devices and technologies and practices. (This is how one of my villains in The Broken Lands wound up using a form of hoodoo conjury modeled off of the Linux bootstrap process.) This was a particularly important part of The Left-Handed Fate.
In LHF, the whiff of steampunk comes from what comes in the story to be called the Copley device: a perfect and devastating weapon that my young natural philosopher, Max Ault, believes can end the seemingly endless wars in the Atlantic. Max’s mission is to find the missing bits of the machine’s design specifications and recreate it before Napoleon’s spymasters can. The Copley device was inspired by three things: Jacquard’s looming head, a mythical confection called manus christi, and big old music boxes. For this post, I’m going to set aside talking about antique confectionery, although it’s fascinating and has about as bizarre a history as a fan of bizarre history could wish. Instead, let’s talk about antique information technology.
Anybody who knows anything about the advent of computing knows why Jacquard’s loom is fascinating to someone with a fascination for either steampunk or tech history: the punch cards. Weaving a tapestry, or a piece of wildly complicated brocade takes ages if done solely by hand; each weft thread, potentially, has to pass through a different configuration of warp threads than the one before. With some money and encouragement from Napoleon and building on earlier attempts by several other inventors (including Jacques de Vaucanson, who also happened to be a legendary builder of automata), Joseph-Marie Jacquard created a head that used punch cards to automate the weaving of complicated patterns. Punch cards like these were later one of the advances of Charles Babbage’s analytical engine over his earlier difference engine efforts.
If you’ve read The Difference Engine, of course, you’ll be nodding right along with all of this. If you read my first book, The Boneshaker, you might also recall that the prescriptions given out at Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show are written on cards with holes in them, which the man in the dispensary pockets for a moment before filling. Punched cards were used for programming and information storage throughout the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth. Herman Hollerith’s machines for tabulating the results of the 1890 US Census are particularly beautiful, if you’re inclined to geek out over things like that (and they have a fascinating and bizarre history of their own, including a thread that leads to a particularly dark place half a century later, after the descendants of Hollerith’s machines were used for Germany’s 1933 census).
Going back to looms, Vaucanson’s loom head, one of the earlier attempts at automated weaving that inspired Jacquard, used a metal drum with teeth, something very reminiscent of the cylindrical brass drums inside of many music boxes. (Excuse the fact that these pictures are out of focus; I think I might have been being a little sneaky when I took them.) Lots of music boxes store their programs on cylindrical drums; others, of course, are stored on disks. I suppose I liked the (blurry) music boxes here because I liked the way they hint at our modern information storage discs.
Plus, they’re just pretty. I like them as objects. They also help me visualize and understand the way we engage with information and technology. I guess that’s one of the things I like best about steampunk—using the trappings of older technologies allows us to have elegant, visual tools to re-imagine current ones. There are some people who can engage meaningfully with, say, lines of code and different programming languages the way others engage with forms of prose and poetry and different spoken and written languages.
I am not one of the former, although the more I learn the more I kind of wish I was. I’m 36; I grew up with computers but I didn’t grow up with them in the same way that my husband did, who is only four years younger than I am (and who also happens to be a world-class web operations engineer, so it could be that it’s not only a difference of four critically-timed years). I’m sort of right in the spot where they’re a perfectly normal part of my life and I assume their necessity and their value, but I only bother about exactly how they work when they don’t work the way I want them to. I can appreciate a really awesome smart phone, and I have definite opinions on Apple versus Android, but the device itself, much like my laptop, is not in any way magical for me. I suspect I’m really not alone in this mindset. Nor are the processes that make either my laptop or my phone run in any way interesting to me.
Except when they are, which is typically when I stop thinking about them as the processes that run my phone and think about them as the processes that might run something older and wildly unfamiliar. Something that has the sheen of the fantastic about it, if only because it is so far outside my experience. Then, out of their normal context, things like programming languages and bootstrap processes and data sorting begin to fascinate, to feel a bit like magic. But more than that, the way we think about technology—the way we build it, the way we use it, the philosophies behind it—also tells us very real, very meaningful things about the way we think and the way we communicate. And toying with technologies in different eras and exploring the social and historical implications of those technologies, of course, offers a whole other assortment of potential revelations and bits of food for thought.
And that, to me, is the great beauty of steampunk—most especially of all, the great beauty of steampunk for young readers. Telling a young reader I’m writing a scene about data sorting…well, there are some kids out there who might think that’s neat. Most won’t. And the message of the scene? Not all information is meaningful. Some is meaningful but only insofar as it allows you to find your way to the information you’re really looking for. And sometimes that information only turns out to be meaningful depending on what you, the reader/interpreter, do with it. Maybe your eyes aren’t glazing over yet, but I wouldn’t judge you if they were. All the same, I think those are really important things for young readers to think about and discuss. And we can find ways to make those ideas interesting, especially with tools like great stories set in great worlds where fantastic tech and trimmings give us new ways to raise discussions and debates that are meaningful to us in our own time and society.
Therefore, the scene in question takes place in an oddball asylum with a girl privateer being coached through the puzzle of a set of whalebone punch cards by a mad spinster who’s literally stained blue from the dying of silk threads. And magically, data sorting is suddenly not boring at all. Suddenly it’s weird and vaguely creepy and potentially awesome.