I have just returned from the World Fantasy Convention, held this year in Arlington, VA, where I got to hang out with many other authors and readers, sharing our knowledge and celebrating the realm of fantasy writing. One of my highlights was participating in a panel about the use of technology in Medieval Fantasy, along with Beneath Ceaseless Skies editor Scott H. Andrews, and medieval scholar Michelle Markey Butler.
When I participate on panels, I usually start out with some notes about my ideas or references for the topic, to make sure I present the most useful and engaging information for discussion. We discussed the roles that technology plays in the real world, noting the absence of technology from many prior works of fantasy, and finding an increasing number of recent publications that reference historical technology. It looked, to the panel, as if the use of technology in medieval fantasy has been increasing, and it occurred to me that this trend might owe a lot to the Steampunk movement.
I know that, while there are many who revel in the gears and goggles that are emblematic of Steampunk, many others bemoan its popularity or worry about its embrace of a historical period known for the colonization of the lands of others. However, I suspect that the explosion of Steampunk, and in particular its exuberant use of mechanical innovations, however unlikely they might be, have liberated authors of other sorts of fantasy to employ similar innovations in their own work.
Until recently, the extrapolation and use of technology has been the purview of science fiction, while fantasy focused on building worlds around imagined magics, creatures and countries. When technology did appear, it often did so in opposition to these elements, so the industrialization of the Shire leads to degradation at the end of The Lord of the Rings, and the six-fingered man uses a machine to suck the life from the Man in Black in The Princess Bride.
But historically speaking, technology is how people work to make their lives better, whether that is the back-and-forth development of weapons and defenses, or the labor-saving innovations of water and wind mills, spinning wheels and paper-making. Even in a world of elves, wizards or dragons, people need clothes to wear, grains to eat, and surfaces to write on, yet most fantasy novels incorporate the products of technology without any sense of the means of production or development required to get there. (I started this blog by railing against the presence of books in fantasy novels, and this is one reason why).
Steampunk, on the other hand, puts the technology right out front. It not only uses historical background technology, it extrapolates new things based on the history, and I think it has liberated the idea of technology and technological advancement from the pages of science fiction and returned it to its rightful place, at the heart of human need. Authors began poking around the edges, thinking about the technologies between the age of steam, and the current age, and they also began looking back.
Those of us writing historical fantasy and fantasies that imitate historical eras, might choose to foreground the technology appropriate to our own period of time, or simply to suffuse our worlds with the means of production and material culture that technology allows—but I, for one, am excited to see where the Steampunk explorers might lead.