Western steampunk novels, television shows, and films juxtapose fantastic advanced technologies with those historically found in the frontier West: Whirling gears, gleaming steam-powered gadgets, and shiny airships combine with railroad tracks, telegraph lines, and horse-drawn wooden wagons. But this juxtaposition is far more than a clever collusion of genres and tropes. By including technology from the past and the (speculative) future, the steampunk Western raises questions about the impact of such ingenious devices on the culture in a way that cannot be ignored.
The concepts of wildness, independence, and freedom of the frontier West have long represented the American spirit for many writers. Frederick Turner described the frontier West as one of the defining elements in American national identity—the “dominant individualism” that Turner saw as a hallmark of American character:
“The coarseness and strength, combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that practical and inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things.”
In one sense this is why the steampunk aesthetic and the frontier West are such a good fit. The frontier Westerner that Turner describes shares many characteristics with those who work within the steampunk aesthetic: practical, inventive, and possessing the ability to work masterfully with basic materials to create items and inventions. But the frontier West had another trait that relates to the ideas of the steampunk genre; it had been a time/place where two sharply contrasting world-views battled for supremacy.
In traditional Western narratives the notions of progress—the forward march of those practical, inventive, and masterfully-created technologies—all symbolize the advance of Eastern civilization through the mountains and the stark plains; they also represent the loss of the wildness, independence, and freedom. As the railroad advanced across the country, linking the frontier with the rest of the nation, communities sprouted all along the way. Some Americans celebrated the inventions and machines that brought about social and economic changes to the West while others lamented the rapidly vanishing frontier. The new opportunities that attracted settlers, adventurers, and entrepreneurs were often facilitated by technological progress; yet that very same progress limited the freedoms that drew them to the West in the first place.
Cinematic Westerns celebrated the tensions inherent in this transformation. Directors Sergio Leone and John Ford brought these conflicts to life in films like Once Upon a Time in the West and How the West Was Won. Indeed, both of these films portray the triumph of civilization over the wildness of the frontier life, even if in some cases the characters are forced (figuratively kicking and screaming) to accept technological progress. In many cases, though, that triumph is not the main aspect of the story. It is an undercurrent flowing through the narrative—extremely important, but not often as explicit as in a steampunk Western.
The unique qualities of steampunk—the temporal hybrid generated by the speculative future and real technologies of the past—draw this tension between the attraction of the wilderness and the ease of progress into sharp relief and then take it a step further. The machines and the technology are front and center in the stories rather than the backdrop. They are a spectacle of power, steam, and fury. And they present a world where nature is conquered by civilization, but civilization is in turn threatened by technology.
The plot of the steampunk Western often hinges on the spectacular machines being used for nefarious purposes—think of the doomsday gun in Jonah Hex or the giant mechanical spider in the Wild Wild West film. These technologies do not fade into the background; they do not blend into the scenery like railroad tracks, telegraph lines, and horse-drawn wooden wagons. These mechanical devices are placed squarely in the visual foreground in order to create the biggest possible impact on the audience.
Awe-inspiring inventions fill the screens (and the pages) of these steampunk Westerns, but unlike the technology in the traditional Western narratives, those inventions are not always a force for promoting civilization. The inventions often exemplify the ideas of “science gone amuck.” Nowhere is this clearer than in the gloating of the Wild Wild West ’s antagonist Dr. Loveless, who explains that he kidnapped scientists to create “a weapons system beyond the pale of contemporary imagination” and demands that President Grant “surrender the U.S. Government.” The very technology and innovation that helped to develop the civilization in the West could destroy it by falling into the wrong hands.
By focusing on the notion of how the technology is used, steampunk Westerns take the frontier/cinematic Western one step further. They are cautionary tales that present the idea that mechanization equates to a loss of personal freedom. But the steampunk Western also plays with notions of control and the driving force behind the technology. Who uses it, and how it is used, is crucial. Even the giant mechanical spider in the Wild Wild West, a device that could have destroyed major cities, serves positive function at the end of the film as a conveyance for the heroes. The technology is morally neutral; the hand that sets it in motion determines the outcome.
Thomas, J. & Thomas, J.A. (1998). Wild Wild West. [Script.] Retrieved from http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Wild-Wild-West.html
Turner, F. (1921). The frontier in American history. NY, NY: Henry Holt.
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