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Post Post-Apocalyptic

As you all know, I appeared as guest of honor at the recent World Steam Expo, which I highly suggest you all attend next year. During one of my lectures on steampunk, an audience member brought up the topic of steampunk and post-apocalyptic and whether the two are connected. I gave a usual reply with a slightly expanded explanation of the topic. Afterward, I had numerous people come up to me and tell me that my explanation made the issue much clearer to them, and it even helped some of them to find a better term and context for their own approach to steampunk. The general consensus was that I should present the explanation to a wider audience, which is what I am doing here.

To begin, post-apocalyptic is not steampunk, and steampunk is not post-apocalyptic. The two genres both have their origins in 19th century literature, but they have distinct and often incompatible features and themes.

Steampunk, as you all well know, envisions a world in which the technology of the Victorian era is built up to an even higher and more elaborate level of development, while retaining its distinctive Victorian aesthetic. Naturally, this kind of technology demands an equally well-developed infrastructure to build, maintain and fuel its machinery. If a society lacks easy access to metal, water and some sort of fuel source like coal, it is in a poor position to develop even basic, historical steam technology, let alone the widespread and advanced systems commonly encountered in steampunk.

Post-apocalyptic, in turn, envisions a world in which some sort of apocalyptic event has occurred, leading to the collapse of large-scale civilization. Probably the most recognizable post-apocalyptic environment is the desert wasteland encountered in Mad Max and Fallout. In this scenario, not only has civilized order broken down, but water is extremely scarce, and let us remember that water is required for both human survival and steam power. It is unlikely that people in this scenario would dream of sacrificing vital water supplies for even a single steam engine, let alone for multiple engines. Other, similar post-apocalyptic scenarios dealing with a radical change in the physical world, like ocean flooding, a la Waterworld, or massive freezing in a new Ice Age, suffer similar problems in providing fresh water for steam engines to use without risking major corrosion, to say nothing of the problems they pose in providing access to coal and metal. Even more "benign" post-apocalyptic scenarios, where civilization collapses but the world remains more or less plentiful in terms of natural resources, still suffer from a lack of infrastructure to provide easy access to requisite materials and fuel. A post-apocalyptic society that manages to correct these problems of supply and infrastructure sufficiently to attain a "steampunk" level of technology will cease to meet the requirements of post-apocalyptic.

So what if someone wants to explore what happens when a society in a post-apocalyptic world reorganizes and redevelops itself into an advanced, urban and highly industrial steampunk society? This is something that I like to refer to as post post-apocalyptic. In this situation, an apocalypse has already happened, plunging the world into a pre-industrial age. Then, either some survivor communities manage to retain some degree of their infrastructure and organization, or after the crisis has passed, they manage to rebuild and progress once again through an industrial revolution. The early stages of post post-apocalyptic are characterized by small-scale but rapidly growing experiments in industrial technology, such as one sees in the first few decades of the 19th century. Inevitably, a post post-apocalyptic society advances further into an identifiable urban industrial society along the lines of the mid and late Victorians, although this may be accomplished at the same rate or even faster than in the historical Victorian era.

For those of you curious about what a post post-apocalyptic steampunk scenario looks like, I direct you to Unhallowed Metropolis by Hallows Eve Designs (the originator of the zombie-steampunk mix) and AIR by Hatboy Studios, Inc. In both of these settings, the world as we know it ends in some sort of apocalyptic event, but society manages to either retain its technology and infrastructure or to rebuild itself to a 19th century industrial level of technology, and from there to a steampunk level of technology.

This was the explanation I gave at my talk, which was very well-received. I hope you have enjoyed it and that it will make the topic clearer. There is no such thing as "post-apocalyptic steampunk." If one is interested in exploring a steampunk society that develops out of a post-apocalyptic situation, it is no longer post-apocalyptic but rather becomes post post-apocalyptic. Though, come to think of it, one may as well drop the entire "post-apocalyptic" thread and just call it "steampunk" for simplicity's sake, since there is no structural difference between post post-apocalyptic steampunk and regular steampunk.

Regards, etc.,
-G. D. Falksen


( 32 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 9th, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC)
I love Unhallowed, it's one of the best roleplay settings of the past couple of years. I own both books: Unhallowed Metropolis (the first) and Unhallowed Necropolis (the second). It's beyond awesome.
I wrote a review for both in the Gatehouse Gazette a while back. (Can't remember which issues offhand).
Jun. 9th, 2010 08:24 pm (UTC)
Thank you for mentioning Unhallowed Metropolis!

(And pardon me while I giggle at the third image you included.)
Jun. 9th, 2010 11:56 pm (UTC)
What? Sometimes a Kukri is just a Kukri.
Thot I recognised that lovely face under the parasol.
Jun. 9th, 2010 08:30 pm (UTC)
Well said.
Jun. 9th, 2010 08:34 pm (UTC)
My favourite type of steampunk :)
Jun. 9th, 2010 08:53 pm (UTC)
so what you mean is your favorite steampunk is steampunk? cool!
Jun. 9th, 2010 08:54 pm (UTC)
There's a subtly different aesthetic between this and say, straight neo-Victorianism IMO.
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Jun. 9th, 2010 11:40 pm (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 9th, 2010 11:53 pm (UTC)
If it's the only clothing you can scrounge....
Jun. 10th, 2010 06:41 am (UTC)
Yup, I agree. Like, if it was what you were wearing when the world blew up, well.... that's what you're stuck with.... Of course, it would be ragged and torn and dirty, but still, it can be pink and lacy and frou frou.
Jun. 10th, 2010 03:34 am (UTC)
In Unhallowed it does work...the rich got richer, the poor are suffocating and getting diseases. Elaborate balls happen and the frou frou goes wild while the hungry masses are stolen from the streets at the dead of night for their life bodies to be experimented on by mad doctors.

*grins madly*
Jun. 10th, 2010 04:19 am (UTC)
"Let them eat..." erm.
Jun. 10th, 2010 08:54 am (UTC)
We have anarchists too. Makes for fun mini-revolutions that last as long as it takes for the undead to respawn and takeover for a bit, kill half the city and then everything starts over :P
Jun. 9th, 2010 08:50 pm (UTC)
The question, when asked, brought to mind the question of what, exactly, the definition of "Apocalypse" was that the questioner was using.

I whole-heartedly agree with your answer given the apocalyptic scenarios commonly presumed. I would be interested, however, to hear the person's justification for it.
Jun. 9th, 2010 08:51 pm (UTC)
Well said, very well said.

In literature, the classic example of post post-apocalyptic is S.M Stirling's The Peshawar Lancers - a world where a meteorite strike in the late 19th century has made the northern hemisphere hit another ice age, and so the great empires of Europe move to their colonies in the south - Britain to India, France to Morocco, Russia to its southern cities, while the Ottoman and Japanese empires take advantage of their placement to grow.

The action actually takes place in the late 21st century, but because of the trials, the technology is only just hitting its stride again, with very steampunk results.

I heartily recommend it to all, it's a cracking good read.
Jun. 9th, 2010 08:53 pm (UTC)
Indeed it is, and I'm hoping to have Mr Stirling talk about it at Dragon*Con this year :)
Jun. 9th, 2010 08:57 pm (UTC)
Oh excellent! It's my favourite bit of his work, and it drives me mad that he treats it like an unwanted stepchild compared to his island in the sea of time series. Perhaps if we show him there's interest in it he'll produce some more stuff in the universe.
Jun. 14th, 2010 01:58 am (UTC)
Alas, the publisher controls which books get sequels -- I usually plot and worldbuild so they're possible -- and weather the publisher wants sequels depends pretty well entirely on sales.

In other words, it's up to the readers.
Aug. 4th, 2010 03:33 am (UTC)
I'd love to talk about it!
Aug. 4th, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC)
Re: Dragoncon
Oh, how I wish I had heard this a month ago! Email me at alternatehistory at dragoncon dot org and I will see about getting you a panel to talk about this one (and whatever else you'd like to discuss).

I will also let you know what I have you scheduled for on the track so you won't show up and be surprised. We were very pleased and honored with your presence last year :)
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Jun. 9th, 2010 10:04 pm (UTC)
This comes at a scaringly appropriate moment for me :).
I had been considering in the past week what the connection between these two scenarios might be, and your explanation was perfect. Thank you very much!
Jun. 9th, 2010 10:54 pm (UTC)
I will admit that, at first, I had a difficult time defining Steampunk to myself and others and did use the word, "Post-Apocalyptic" myself. I suppose that, somehow, the grunginess of it all and strange guns seemed to look the same at first. I have since learned differently, but I'm glad that you have put it "down on paper," so to speak, for the many who, I'm sure, are still a bit baffled by the differences of all these genres.... and you say it so well too!
Jun. 9th, 2010 11:44 pm (UTC)
It's not the same grunge [nor the same Grunge].
And if we follow out post-Apocalyptic, there can't be too many strange guns, for there would be no way to manufacture new ammunition or power sources.
OTOH, lots of gun-shaped clubs, I guess.
Jun. 10th, 2010 03:37 am (UTC)
Aetheric energy and tesla coils.

I play the Unhallowed setting and LOVE it as it is indeed made clear that energy is a vital source and people do anything to aquire it. The Tesla Grid powers the city, ghosts power the lamps of the rich and corrupt. My character even has a cattleprod she uses on occasion and has to recharge.

Very cool and dark
Jun. 10th, 2010 03:47 am (UTC)
"there would be no way to manufacture new ammunition or power sources."

Oh, there's always fire...lol. I assume we would melt down the charred remains of civilization and fashion the metals into whatever we needed to get by including weapons. The main thing is that our lovely clothing survived!

I'm sure I accidentally do a little "apocalypto" from time-to-time. ;)
Jun. 10th, 2010 04:22 am (UTC)
::sees people in ruined Vic finery dancing the Limbo::
Jun. 11th, 2010 01:44 am (UTC)
haha! now that's something I would LOVE to see. Those funky Victorians. That will keep a smile on my face for the rest of the day.
Jun. 10th, 2010 05:09 am (UTC)
I agree with you, and would also add that from my perspective (more of an onlooker than participant) steampunk also hearkens back to a time when technology was such that it was conceivable for one person to make a big difference by being able to make, create or invent things pretty much by themselves. That's fairly optimistic and hopeful, even if we are waxing culturally nostalgic about it.

Post-apocalyptic tends not to be nearly as optimistic, especially with regards to technology.
Jun. 10th, 2010 10:29 am (UTC)
I will say I like that photo of The Penny Dreadful Productions as there all wearing the goggles.
Jun. 10th, 2010 03:09 pm (UTC)
Goggles MUST serve a purpose.
Jun. 11th, 2010 08:50 am (UTC)
I've actually come to appreciate that bit of logic! Like, looking for resource material there are tons of people who wear them and on occasion I'm scratching my head trying to figure out how it's supposed to work with the rest of the ensemble, lol!!
( 32 comments — Leave a comment )

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