2Q 2012 editorial: Steampunk and Peak Resources
Examples of steampunk abound. Everything from the classic television show Wild, Wild West to the movie The Golden Compass, to Karin Lowachee’s The Gaslight Dogs has that edge of not only style—a sort of clockwork je n’ai c’est quoi—but also speaks of a lower level of technology. Personally, I believe that a number of forces are simultaneously conspiring to send us to a lower level of tech, whether we like it or not. Dwindling resources, a shifting environment, global uncertainty: could those be why so many of us are drawn to steampunk?
Historical steampunk usually leans towards science fiction, often with a dose of fantasy, and is set in a time when the industrial revolution was not yet in full swing. Often set in Victorian or Edwardian times, it can also have magical elements. We’ve published steampunk like that in A&A before, most notably Tony Pi’s “Night of the Manticore. ” But why it is so popular? Could it be that humans, at least to some extent, sense that we are destined to use the technologies of an earlier era?
Peak Oil, Peak Water, Peak Everything
Petroleum is a finite resource. Extracting it involves, at some point, a law of diminishing returns as it gets harder and more expensive to access. And we are reaching that point: that’s how we got the Deepwater Horizon disaster. When you combine increasingly difficult-to-extract oil with the depleting supergiant and giant oil fields, some of which have been producing for seven decades, you end up with the International Energy Agency declaring in late 2010 that the world’s peak of conventional oil production happened in 2006. And unconventional oil is more expensive to reach. So if you think $10-a-gallon gasoline will never happen, think again.
Looking back to the golden age of SF, science fiction writers assumed that we could just come and go as we pleased in the universe, with no energy crisis in the offing or because we were saved by science in some way that creates cheap energy. Note: don’t count on it. All forms of alternative energy thus far fallen far short in the amount of energy released, safety, or other important factors. Some clear thinking about this can be seen in Richard A. Lovett’s short story “Dinosaur Blood“(Jan/Feb 2006 Analog ). Oil will not last forever.
According to Aliette de Bodard (“Thought Experiments: The View From The Other Side: Science Fiction And Non-Western/Non-Anglophone Countries,” 2010 Asimov’s), science fiction flourishes in industrialized economies. Resources do not exist to keep industrialized countries humming, let alone bring underdeveloped countries into the industrialized fold. And while a pastoral, purely agricultural life sounds nice, a lifestyle not based on fossil fuels would only carry the world’s remaining population after a horrific, massive die-off. A dismal future, and that’s only if you factor in diminishing oil supplies. Let’s talk about peak water, too.
Nancy Kress recently wrote a dynamite story about the start of water wars in America due to future fresh water scarcity ( “A Hundred Hundred Daisies,” Oct/Nov 2011 Asimov’s). Conflict over water. In America? Think that’s far-fetched? Think again.
On America’s high plains, crops in early summer stretch to the horizon: field after verdant field of corn, sorghum, soybeans, wheat and cotton. Framed by immense skies now blue, now scarlet-streaked, this 800-mile expanse of agriculture looks like it could go on forever.
The Ogallala Aquifer, the vast underground reservoir that gives life to these fields, is disappearing. (Scientific American, March 2009)
We are the Saudi Arabia of wheat, but we weren’t always that. The USA has had a dust bowl in the Midwest before. Similarly, the Colorado River is currently overused to the point where it is a mere trickle by the time it reaches the sea.Wars have been fought over less. Plus don’t get me started on the risk fracking causes to groundwater.
America is not alone. Russia has had drought in their wheat-growing areas. India, which is now more populous than China, is using up their main aquifer far faster than the rate of replenishment. And water in China’s Three Gorges Dam was so low last year that it could no longer produce hydroelectricity. The dam has also helped dry up Lake Poyang.
Fresh water and petroleum are not the only resources growing scarcer by the day. I could go on and on about the well-documented shortages in rare earths, and the coming shortages in uranium for nuclear power, and nuclear is the only power source so far that comes close to replacing fossil fuels in its energy potential. And nuclear energy, if anyone even wants to go there after Fukashima, is not a liquid fuel. Using nuclear energy to run our cars is as scientifically far-fetched as Star Trek‘s transporter machines.
And then beam me up, Scotty.
None of us wants to live in a dystopian future, in a world where we live diminished lives. I’m not suggesting that steam can save us, but steampunk can at least get us thinking about alternatives.
Is steampunk escapist? Of course it is. But perhaps stories that highlight our resourceful forebears grab our imaginations, and fire up our inner MacGyvers. The future is coming, and with seven billion people on this spaceship earth there will be changes in our future as we run up against hard limits. We can either fear these changes, or resent them – or glorify them in fiction, with style, while trying to do the best we can. Perhaps we’re trying to write our own alternative history, in advance. Steampunk can alleviate our fears that a future with scarce resources will have no technology. Steampunk tells us that even if all we have are steam engines, gears, silk-and-wood dirigibles and vacuum tubes we can still have adventures. We can still have Boneshaker. Life will go on.
A future based on limited resources can still be fun. Especially if we have steampunk airships. And dragons. Jump to our lead story, “Aurum,” to see more.
Wendy S. Delmater, Editor
Abyss & Apex