How Zombies and Steampunk Explain Society

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Most people are familiar with the zombie sub-genre. Its tales of flesh-eating, undead creatures have a long history in film and literature. The steampunk sub-genre, however, is perhaps less known. To briefly summarize, steampunk is a type of speculative fiction set in the 19th century, when steam power was used. It often envisions an alternative history featuring retro-futuristic technology such as analog computers. It has also spawned a subculture with its own fashion, design and music.

These two sub-genres would seem to appeal to different sensibilities. But Charlie Jane Anders at the literary website HiLo Brow argues that they reflect a common origin: The infatuation with zombies and steampunk, she writes, is fueled by a pessimism over the current state of affairs.

When I think about these two strands of speculative fiction culture, it occurs to me that our love of steampunk and our fascination with zombies are two sides of the same coin.

Steampunk represents an idealized past, while zombies represent a horrible future. So they’re both outlets for our inexorable pessimism about our current era.

Every time we think maybe we’re ready for a moment of sunny optimism about the future of humanity, somebody goes and fills the Gulf of Mexico with unrefined crude. Or the North Koreans decide to bring World War III just a smidge closer. Etc. To my mind, zombies represent our mindless drive to self-destruction. In almost every incarnation of the zombie story, they can’t be reasoned with, and they can only destroy, not create. They’re not charismatic like vampires or tragic like werewolves. They are the most apocalyptic of monsters because they leave nothing but debris are more zombies behind.

Meanwhile, steampunk is the sort of optimism that looks backwards instead of forwards. It’s hard to think of a time when faith in progress was more unshakable than the Victorian era — at least for the privileged classes.

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