Steampunk and Star Wars

Sorry everyone, but I couldn't resist. As I was waiting for The Force Awakens yesterday, I started thinking about the connections that Star Wars has to steampunk. I'm not talking about mashups, although those are always fun. I'm talking about the common heritage that these two aspects of pop culture share.

Victorian Science Fiction

Adventure fiction in the late 1800s and even into the early 1900s often focused on the idea of exploration, of finding amazing discoveries and exciting events in far-flung (to Europeans) corners of the globe. They often (though not always) involved sea travel and exaggerated descriptions of lands and events that were as unknown to their readers as the moon was to readers in the 1950s. Robert Louis Stevenston and C.S. Forester were among the authors that tapped into the popularity of these themes.

 

Sailing for adventure on the big blue wet thing

 

Jules Verne was in many ways part of this trend, but he pushed it in new directions. With his novels, he also imagined exploring the earth itself, but in ways that stretched the imaginations of his readers - by steamer and railway, by submersible ship, and into the center of the Earth itself. Verne brought a unique sensibility to adventure fiction - offering new technologies and scientific discoveries and considering their potential implications. This insertion of science into adventure fiction paved the way for science fiction. H.G. Wells and Hugo Gernsback then took these ideas further into a realm where the technology itself was the exploration.

At its core, steampunk is science fiction, albeit a retroactive one. And this, interestingly, is something that it shares with Star Wars. Star Wars imagines a futuristic past, which allows it to avoid projecting current technology forward and instead imagine what could have been. Because Star Wars is also placed somewhere else entirely, it does not have to adhere to Earth history at all, unlike steampunk. Yet because of its inspirational source material, Star Wars takes numerous aspects of Earth history and remixes them in a science fiction setting. And this tendency - which is shared with steampunk - is unusual in science fiction. Science fiction typically uses the future to consider issues in the present, whereas Star Wars and steampunk use a futuristic past to consider issues of the past.

 

Pulp Serials

If you are an avid Star Wars fan, you know that George Lucas grew up on pulp serial films. In a way, Star Wars came about because Lucas was unable to convince anyone to let him do Flash Gordon. The term "space opera," coined in 1941, describes the sci-fi reimagining of that 19th century adventure fiction genre - great heroes traveling to strange new worlds. From Lensman to Vorkosigan, from Foundation to Mass Effect, this genre is extremely broad. But the pulp sci-fi serials of the 40s and 50s brought a particular look and feel to the genre that Lucas intentionally incorporated into Star Wars. There is a focus on the aesthetic over the practicality - of form over function - that is very familiar to steampunks. The visual imagery is a vital part of the storytelling. (And steampunk even borrows the gadget obsession common in those old serials, although Star Wars sets that aside somewhat.)

 

Commando Cody, the literal inspiration for the clones, would fit right in at a steampunk gathering

 

Also, the stories of steampunk and Star Wars tend to incorporate the pulp heroism of those serials. Yes, there is complexity in both beyond the fairly black-and-white morality of the serial era, but steampunk and Star Wars do tend to avoid complete amorality and existential crises. For the most part, the good side still wins. For both Star Wars and steampunk, this sometimes causes critics to question the seriousness of the material, but we fans know that there is plenty of depth to be found even in a positive narrative.

 

If you are a fan of Star Wars, I hope that you enjoy the movie as much as I did. Stay steamy, and may the force be with you.

-Fairman Rogers