Allohistory and the Steampunk Rhetoric of Inquiry
This chapter focuses on Steampunk’s use of allohistorical tropes, including the reversal of hindsight bias and point of divergence tropes, to present a rhetoric of science and technology reflective of our contemporary cultural anxieties surrounding technological development. Steampunk’s historical point of divergence is, significantly, the golden period of technological enlightenment and discovery immediately preceding the wide adoption of environmentally destructive diesel and coal combustion engines, and before the experiments in atomic physics that followed them. Steampunk preserves a moment in technological history in which the destructive potential of science was still largely unrealized, when inventors were imagined to be journeyman tinkerers like Franklin or Da Vinci rather than scientists like Oppenheimer. In short, Steampunk presents a tinkerer’s rhetoric of inquiry using an imagined late 19th century as its vehicle. This perspective is critical of the close relationship between science and capitalism that developed during the Industrial Revolution, and given the emergence of Steampunk in the 1970s and 80s also contains echoes of the rise of modern environmentalism and Cold War nuclear paranoia. To develop these perspectives, this chapter analyzes two steampunk novels: Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! and Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker.
Keywords: Rhetoric, rhetoric of inquiry, allohistory, alternate history, technology, tinkering, cultural anxiety, Cherie Priest, Harry Harrison, Bricoleur, hindsight bias, point of divergence, Lévi-Strauss
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