Academic journal article Extrapolation

Steampunk and Nineteenth Century Digital Humanities: Literary Retrofuturism, Media Archaeologies, Alternative Histories

Academic journal article Extrapolation

Steampunk and Nineteenth Century Digital Humanities: Literary Retrofuturism, Media Archaeologies, Alternative Histories

Article excerpt

Inaugurating Nineteenth-Century Digital Humanities through the Clockwork. Roger Whitson. Steampunk and Nineteenth Century Digital Humanities: Literary Retro futur ism, Media Archaeologies, Alternative Histories. Abingdon: Routledge, 2017. 229 pp. ISBN 978-1-13-885950-0. $140 hc.

Reviewed by Jonathan P. Lewis

In this contribution to the growing pool of scholarship on steampunk, Roger Whitson examines how steampunk arts, media, fandoms, and makers can benefit from the study of nineteenth-century cultures through digital humanities. It is a worthy addition to ongoing dialogue by joining the two sets of practices.

Whitson sets two goals: first, to look at the nineteenth century as both a historical period and a digital system whose various cultural practices are currently being played with by a variety of artists, scholars, and other makers; second, to see steampunk not simply as an aesthetic, but as a vehicle for contemporary expressions through nineteenth-century technologies, storytelling devices, fashions, etc. He is largely successful in realizing these goals.

The book is divided into five chapters covering historicism and time, postcolonialism and intersectionality, eco-criticism and the Anthropocene, Marxism and labor, and queer theory and sexuality. The chapters on eco-criticism and labor are especially useful. Those on historicism, postcolonialism, and the conclusion, on the other hand, could offer a stronger sense of the ongoing criticisms of empire in digital humanities and steampunk studies. For literary critics, Whitson makes broad connections between the works of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Ken Liu, Neal Stephenson, and China Miéville, particularly Liu's "silkpunk" novel The Grace of Kings (2016). Of female steampunk novelists, however, few names beyond Cherie Priest's make an appearance, and he offers no extended readings of Priest's Boneshaker (2009) or other texts by women. Issues of gender in steampunk and nineteenthcentury studies are primarily relegated to an examination of fandoms in Chapter 5, where Whitson invokes such creators and critics as Jaymee Goh, Emma Goldman, Diana Pho, Ashley Rogers, Dino Felluga, and Lisa Hager.

Chapter 1 begins with a sharp analysis of Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine (1991) for the ways in which it "warps" the historicity of the nineteenth century through play with the known lives of Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Charles Babbage. Whitson also looks at efforts to build working Engines based on Babbage's designs using materials such as Lego and Meccano (marketed in the United States as "Erector") sets. Such examples demonstrate one of the strengths of Whitson's connection of nineteenthcentury studies and contemporary makers who join the historical, the fictional, the functional, and the whimsical.

Chapter 2 offers a compelling look at the call by figures such as Jaymee Goh and Diana Pho for steampunk enthusiasts, makers, artists, and fans to create steampunk works outside American and British settings. Whitson further opens a line into an investigation of Liu's The Grace of Kings, photographer James Ng's works, Isabella Bird's Chinese Pictures (1900), and the silkpunk genre. …

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