I love Guillermo Del Toro. I won’t be talking about him much this post, mostly because I can’t spell his name to save my life, but he’s an amazing dude. Why do I hold Del Torro in such high regard? Well a lot of reasons really. The man understands stories, and character. He understands how to meld fantasy and reality in a believable way. He’s a got a wonderful visual style that gives you just a hint that the world of his movies isn’t quite the same world we live in. But mostly, it’s because the man loves gears.
Yes, gears. There aren’t nearly enough of them around anymore. The gear has become something of an endangered species, an animal which has been banished to the bowels of big machinery and occasionally used for decoration in clocks that no longer require them. In fact I saw a clock the other day that had gears just glued on to it behind the hands. Can you imagine? The sacrilege!
For me, the gear represents a era of history when things were simpler. You will notice I didn’t say better. I am not one to wish to be able to live in a different century. I’m fine right when I am thank you very much. But even so, there is a part of me that has a strange affinity for the mechanical things of the age before electricity, things that ticked and tocked and bonged out the time.
I recently had a conversation with a man who believed that the steampunk genre, was a reaction to mankind’s uncertainty about his future. If you’re not familiar with steampunk, it’s basically science fiction set in the age before science fiction, in the heyday of steam power and electrical exploration. And, of course, gears feature prominently.
My first reaction to this man’s claim was complete denial. Steampunk doesn’t need some deep seated psycological reason to be cool. It’s just cool. Can’t we leave it at that? But then, two things happened.
First, I was shopping at the thrift store, and I found one of those aniversery clocks. You know the kind with the thing that spins around back and forth on the bottom? Only most of the ones you see today just have the spinning thing for effect. But this one was old and covered in dust, and when I whiped the glass of the bell with my sleeve and peered inside, I saw it was one-hundred percent mechanical. And for a price of only twenty dollars? Jackpot!
The second thing that happened came a couple of weeks later at Christmas. I wasn’t expecting much for Christmas last year. I didn’t think there was much I really had to have. But when I opened a small box from my father I found it contained something better than any gift I could have hoped to ask for. It was a pocket watch.
“I think it belonged to your great-grandfather,” dad told me. “Possibly your great-great-grandfather. The history’s a little fuzzy.”
It was, hands down, bar none, the coolest Christmas gift I have ever received. I keep it on my nightstand by my bed and wind it up approximately twice a day. It’s too old for me to feel safe bringing it with me anywhere, but every night before bed I pop open the little hinged cover to look down at the delicate hands, and hold it up to my ear to listen to the musical sound of its ticking.
And it was some time around then when I started thinking again about the conversation I had had about the popularity of steampunk. I still thing the guy I was discussing it with was wrong, but he was less wrong than I was. He said that steampunk plays on our uncertainty about the future. But the more that I think about it, the more I think that the fascination many people have with gears and steam is driven by an uncertainty about the present.
Think about it. Think about where you are right now. No, not your physical location. Think about the fact that you’re sitting in front of your computer peering into it’s softly glowing screen. Do you understand this computer thing? I’m not asking if you know how to use it, I’m asking if you understand how it works.
No. You don’t. I don’t care if you’re a expert in computer science with years of programming experience, you’ll never convince me that you have a top-level overview understanding of this magical box we call a computer. And our lives are filled with this kind of stuff. Stuff that works, but that we can’t possibly hope to understand. We take it at faith that these things will go on working, but we’re disconnected from the mechanics of the whole thing by the necessity of our limited understanding.
But when we go back to the devices of a hundred years ago things are different. Now we can pry off the casing and look into the bowels of the machine and say, “That thing connects to that thing, and this thing over here spins which causes…”
That is why I love clockwork so much. Because it’s something I can understand. I can connect to it with my mind, in a way that I will never be able to connect with my computer, or my cell phone, or even those dime-a-dozen digital clocks that have supplanted the less accurate gear-driven watches of the past.
Arthur C. Clarke famously once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Today, I would argue that the magic is here. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Because these magical machines have opened up doors we could never have dreamed of without them. But while the digital age may be amazing and wonderful, there will always be a part of me that pines for the comprehensible curiosities of clockwork.
[If you're wondering what happened to your regularly scheduled writing blog, Do Not Panic. It will return on Monday. For the time being, I am designating weekends as "whatever I feel like" days, so the topics will be a little more varied. Thanks for reading.]