(Re)Constructing Human Beings in Steampunk

Elgin_thumbThe Steampunk culture focuses strongly on technical attributes. In a D.I.Y. manner many people, dedicated to the Steampunk aesthetic, try to create diverse gadgets as eye-candy on their outfits or even to re-build modern life tools mechanically or with steam-power. When talking about this topic, we must not forget that “Steampunks seek less to recreate specific technologies of this time [the Victorian era] than to re-access what they see as the affective value of the material world of the nineteenth century” (Onion 2008: 138f). It is the fascination by the Victorian technological creations per se, which turns Steampunk sympathisers into actual engineers.

The Human Machine

Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus, released in 1818, where the scientist Victor Frankenstein constructed a human being, put life into an inanimate body, had a great impact on contemporary gothic culture. As such it also found its ways to become a narrative of Steampunk culture, not least because one of the main inspirational authors of Steampunk, Edgar Allan Poe, also touched this topic with his short story The Man That Has Been Used Up (1839). But while in gothic culture the human element of the created human being is of greater importance, in Steampunk it is the creation itself. Mechanical aspects of creating life take the forehand, combining organic life forms and machine or even turning life forms into machines (cyborgs).

Many examples of human bodies modified by steampunk machines can be found in filmic steampunk representations, such as the steam wheelchair which propels the legless Dr. Loveliss around in Wild, Wild West; the human being in City of Lost Children who is actually just a brain in a vat of bubbling liquid, attached to a camera and a gramophone in order to see and hear and the mad father in the anime Steamboy, who changes most of his body into an intricate mass of turning wheels. (Onion 2008: 147f)

In the popular television series Doctor Who there are examples of both, the combination, represented by the Daleks, and the transformations, represented by the Cybermen.

But wherein lies the fascination of combining organic and inorganic components? It is, indeed, one of those absorbing “What if?”-scenarios that are so important in the Steampunk narratives. “Since it may not be actually possible to create a steampunk cyborg […], modifiers working in this realm tend to ignore the general steampunk rule that things they build must actually work, in favour of the creation of fantastical sculptures” (Onion 2008: 148). The mechanical nature of the human body suggests “for collaboration between the physicalities [sic!] of human and machine, affording machinery more respect and dignity – a move that would, presumably, also re-humanise the human operators of machines” (Onion 2008: 147). Thus “[t]he moving parts of the machine are analogous to the moving parts of the body, making visible what, in the actual flesh, remains hidden behind a smooth, iPod-like surface. This visibility empowers the human mind, which seeks to be reassured that the functions of the body have a visible, comprehensible (and thus medically controllable) logic of their own” (Onion 2008: 149).

Connected to the question of bionics, cyborgs and constructing human beings are, of course, a couple of ethical questions. The stereotype of the “mad scientist”, a part of Steampunk narratives, breaks the codes of practice, is playing god. Science is perceived as a religion, which demands sacrifices. Most of the bionic creations have in common that they loose or lack parts of their humanity, which raises the metaphysical question of the soul. The characterisation of the mad scientist is intended to provoke or criticise rather than actually glorifying to break any ethical rules.

In the next chapter we will take a closer look at a tale, which deals with the (re)construction of human beings in Steampunk themed music: The story of ‘Reconstructing Alice’ by The Melting Clock.

The Tale of Elgin and Alice by The Melting Clock

The Melting Clock

The Melting Clock is a solo project of Ryan Genengels from Washington state, existing since 2001. Since 2011, after years of a break from music, Genengels started to work on a new album titled One Tiny Gear.

When asked what Steampunk is for him, Genengels answers (Genengels 2011):

One thing I really love about the Steampunk genre is that it is really ripe for experimentation. From what I have seen, that is what Steampunk is all about. Taking parts of the past and making something new and beautiful. Tinkering. Creating, Evolving. There is a vast world to explore within the Steampunk genre both musically and otherwise.

The inspiration for the themes Genengels uses in his music is mostly based in literature: “The upcoming album combines elements of many of Ryan’s favorite Victorian/Edwardian works including Poe, Shelly, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There is also modern sci-fi inspiration drawn from author Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Richard Matheson (What Dreams May Come) (Genengels 2011).

As influence for his music he refers to David Bowie, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Kate Bush, and Sky Cries Mary (Genengels 2011). The musical style of The Melting Clock is lugubrious, psychedelic and has also a touch of dark wave. The lyrics are impressionistic and introspective.

The Elgin-Dilemma

The tale told by The Melting Clock emanates from a story around the mysterious character Elgin. The press release offers the following information on Elgin (Genengels 2012):

Elgin was born in the late 1800s and is half man/half mechanised. He is obsessed with the reconstruction of his departed love, Alice. In the early 1900s the technology did not exist to rebuild her, so he was put into a state of hibernation. He has just recently been awakened and can only remember his past through song. He deals with the emotions of losing Alice as well as the madness of trying to re-create her. Through his struggle he finds that he exists for a greater purpose.

To find out more about the character Elgin, I had an e-mail correspondence with Ryan Genengels, who revealed more details about him:

The theory of Elgin starts in Victorian times. He is inspired by the writings of Mary Shelly and believes he can bring Alice back if he can figure out the secret to re-animation. He can’t quite get it right in Victorian times. Then he awakens in our time and reads Philip K. Dick and Double Helix by Watson and Crick. This inspires him to try again. He believes if he can clone her DNA sequence he can create a robotic shell for Alice and force her to inhabit it (‘A little drop of blood, and a lock of her hair’). The new song [‘I Call You Alice’] is inspired by the book ‘What Dreams May Come’ and represents Elgin’s journey into the afterlife to retrieve Alice. It also has seance overtones. Elgin can travel beyond the veil because half of his soul has perished and exists there. Elgin’s machinery keeps the other half of Elgin anchored to this world. Oh and Elgin gets his name because when he awakens in our time he can’t remember anything. He pulls a pocket watch out of his pocket and thinks the brand mark ‘Elgin’ is his name. The Elgin persona gives me a lot to work with because I can tell his story through music and can also present his observations of modern society through the eyes of the past. I plan to put more songs featuring social commentary on the next album.

In short, Elgin is a mysterious character with an obsession he wants to accomplish at any price. The story combines scientific with supernatural elements.

After I sent some more questions to Ryan Genengels, he was so kind to reply on each one of them in great detail. Genengels also plans to write the story down in book form: “The story of Elgin and Alice will likely be a book as well as the theme for the upcoming album” (Genengels 2012). Genengels wrote me the plot of the story of Elgin and Alice, but is still developing it further. The album is not released yet, some songs are yet to be recorded for the finishing.

Let us now go further to the story of Elgin. His wife Alice killed herself from depression caused by the loss of her child while giving birth. Elgin found himself guilty of her death and tries to recreate Alice. The first ethical questions come up (Genengels 2012):

Although he succeeds in re-animating something that resembles Alice, it is not her. Elgin fails to see Alice 2 (Betsy) as the unique creature she is and she begins to follow the same path as the original Alice, because she cannot reach Elgin to convince him of her worth as a unique creation. She locks herself in the lab and sets it on fire. Elgin realizes the error in his ways and tries to save her, becoming seriously burned over half of his body. He slips in and out of this world and awakens to find that the burned half of his body is now mechanical.

Although Elgin succeeds in his mission of constructing an actual human being, he realizes that this is not the same girl he loved, at the same time, however, neglecting the individuality of the new life form. We also find out that Elgin himself is half mechanical, a cyborg. “Elgin’s mechanical half seems to have various inate tasks that it completes[; m]ostly repairing things” (Genengels 2012). Now it becomes understandable, how Elgin managed to survive the state of hibernation, as described above. The mechanical half was maintaining the organic one.

The metaphysical concepts of the ‘soul’ and the ‘afterlife’ play important roles in Genengels tale (Genengels 2012):

Elgin can communicate and travel beyond the veil because half of his soul has already passed into the afterlife. There are times when Elgin’s consciousness passes from this world to the next. He believes that he can build a shell for Alice to inhabit and that if he can replicate her DNA sequence, her soul will be pulled from the underworld into the vessel he has created. He succeeds in creating a vessel for her and travels into hell to convince her to inhabit it. For a moment she steps into the shell, but to her it is like an ill-fitting garment. She refuses to inhabit the shell. The vessel still just isn’t her. At her request Elgin keeps Alice 3 (CeCe) as an Automaton effigy. Something to remind him of Alice but that is still just an empty shell. Like a walking portrait of her.

Elgin is half human/half mechanical, half of his soul died, but the mechanical part keeps him from passing away. He is also able to travel between the world and the afterlife: “It was then that I realized that I was anchored to this world and tethered to another1”:

What are the religious/ethical views of Elgin, a half man/half machine? “There are some conflicts and idiosyncrasies that arise between his human and mechanical half. His human side is the part driven by love and emotion while the machine side is more methodical about life” (Genengels 2012).

In the song ‘God is a Watch’ the world view of Elgin is revealed: “God is a watch and we’re the parts inside/ time moves on when we collectively wind/ The closer we work/ The further divine/ This is how the universe is designed2”. With this image of the world and the afterlife it is Elgin’s belief to change the past: “I’m forcing my will upon the fates/ Mistakes that we made/ Are now subject to change3”. Elgin’s religious views are mostly a rationalistic concept (Genengels 2012):

Elgin seeks spiritual solutions with an open mind. Anything that will help him fulfil his objectives is something that he is willing to entertain. Elgin approaches ethical dilemmas with rationalization. He weighs the perceived good that will come of his actions. He is willing to walk the line of what is acceptable in order to save his love. Often he is not aware of the ethical issues until they present themselves. Like when he comes to the realization that he should have appreciated Alice 2 (Betsy) as her own individual rather than forcing her to become Alice.

Final

Ryan Genengels’ project The Melting Clock presents us with an unusual and absorbing concept: Elgin, a scientific genius, half man/half machine, obsessed to reconstruct his deceased love, Alice. The story has big potential of becoming a narrative in the Steampunk movement. Through correspondence with Genengels I got a deep insight into the tale of Elgin and Alice. The character concept of Elgin is well thought of, so also the question of religion, the sacred and ethics connected with it, which was intended to answer in this paper. Elgin’s quest is ambitious, but tragical. Genengels put the inner life of Elgin elegantly into lyrics, and with the ambience of dark music, one can imagine how Elgin is feeling. Hopefully the story will really be published as a novel.

Sources

1From the preface to the song ‘Reconstructing Alice’ by The Melting Clock

2From the song ‘God is a Watch’ by The Melting Clock

3From the song ‘Reconstructing Alice’ by The Melting Clock

Genengels, Ryan
2012     E-Mail correspondence.

Onion, R.
2008′       Reclaiming the Machine. An Introductory Look at Steampunk in Everyday Practice’, in: Neo-Victorian Studies 1:1, 138-163.

About André Savetier

Since 2011 André Savetier is actively working as a music journalist with an expertise on contemporary new wave music phenomena.
His scientific specialization is anthropology of music and anthropology of popular culture. Savetier remains intrigued by the interplay between the aforementioned social phenomena, the told (and untold) legends of music and its roots.

One Thought on “(Re)Constructing Human Beings in Steampunk

  1. Blackster on 30th January 2013 at 21:44 said:

    Another in-depth one. Very interesting!! 🙂

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