. . . well, nothing happened to steam. It’s still pretty important.
It’s always nice when the post I actually have a few minutes to write somehow ends up following the last one I did from god knows how long ago. Picking up on the criticism of nostalgia in the previous post, I was just thinking more about the fetishization of particular technology in any ****punk genre.
Calling Victorian-inspired fiction “steampunk” kind of implies that the technology is stuck in that era. It’s as if only Victorians used it and as soon as people started driving Model Ts, nobody ever used it again, thus giving it some kind of cachet. This is ridiculous. Steam is still a crucial technology.
Okay, so maybe the defining factor is the steam engine. I can live with that. It makes sense. So maybe the idea is still legit and I’m just typing out of my ass. But while I’m here for like 30 more seconds, let’s appreciate how important steam still is . . . you know, just for shits and giggles.
The properties of steam are actually pretty neat. I don’t want to throw numbers around here, but due to its density, you can get huge flow rates from it when compared to plain hot water. This is more efficient. And unless you’re on a hippie commune in California, a lot of facilities/homes need a lot of hot-something to function properly. A pressure vessel–a boiler, preferably steam and not just hot water–is still how we do this. Boilers are everywhere, and I can’t see how we’d function without them no matter what kind of awesome technology makes us think we don’t need basic large-scale industrial solutions.
So what has changed? Well, thousands of people used to die in boiler accidents. That’s a neat steampunk theme, and I’m not being sarcastic for once. I’ve seen it in a couple books. To me, there’s an example of punkin’ it right. Anyway, now that we have mechanical engineers and boilers aren’t just something pieced together by Balloon Captain Englishman McBritishperson in his hobby workshop; they’re pretty safe and accidents are low. But they’re still there, and you wouldn’t be fretting about being too hot in the mall with your winter coat when Christmas shopping if it weren’t for boilers. So yeah . . . there isn’t a guy with coal on his face and a bunch of poor children at home tending it, so it’s harder to write a neat story about the power engineer watching the boilers nowadays. But it’s still pretty cool . . . at least to me. It’s also a decent paycheck.
Another tack to this is how people view energy, especially now. There’s so much talk about ditching things that work but take a big corporation to produce (like natural gas, which is pretty clean, but I digress) for downright silly ideas like “solar roadways.” What I’m getting at here is that the requirements of a huge facility, like a hospital or a factory (even one that makes solar panels) tend to demand a lot of power, especially for heating. It takes 60 percent more water to heat a surface using liquid than steam. I don’t think I’d want my hospital to rely on solar panels to output millions of BTUs to keep the place running. Just sayin’.
Even in the Nuclear Age (atomicpunk?) you still have steam doing the dirty work. Are we still in that age? I don’t even know–we use it, and it’s good, but we’re not supposed to acknowledge that anymore. Derp.
I guess in reality, you can’t just chop our technological state into different . . . erm . . . things. It’s mutable, and some old things are repurposed because they are so basic and practical, other technology pivots around them and they fade into the backsplash where nobody looks because there’s not a lot to say about them politically or socially. I guess, then, that’s the true measure of a successful or important technology–when people stop talking about it but still rely on it.