Clockpunk and the Perils of Reimagining the Past

What is Clockpunk?

clockpunk image from Professor Layton video game

Clockpunk is akin to steampunk and dieselpunk in the sense that they reimagine the past by introducing retro-futuristic technology to a particular historical setting.

In the case of clockpunk, it is the Renaissance period (roughly from the 14th to 17th century).

The technology is based on clockwork and gears, as well as Leonardo Da Vinci’s machinery designs. Consequently, some refer to clockpunk as ‘steampunk’ without steam.

Except there is more to steampunk than just steam engines.

clockpunk design image: Plutonia

As historical periods go, this is fertile ground. The Renaissance was exciting in several ways. This was an age of exploration (Columbus, da Gama, Magellan); arts and philosophy (Da Vinci, Michelangelo); and science (Copernicus, Galileo). It was a rupture with the past, the dark ages, and rediscovery (for Europeans) of Greek philosophy.

Also, it was the beginning of capitalism and banking. Da Vinci‘s (unpractical) flying machines were representative of the optimism and potential of the time.

And yet, I have a problem with clockpunk and some of its derivatives (atompunk, stonepunk, teslapunk, decopunk, and even ‘nowpunk’). Can you have too many punks? Do we need so many punks?

Are we diluting the ‘brand’ of ‘punk’, or at least diminishing its meaning?

Histories Which Never Were

A model of Da Vinci’s helicopter, image from Pinterest

Speculative fiction constantly asks what-if questions. Its purpose is to not only imagine the future but also the past.

There is a subgenre of speculative fiction called “alternate history“.

Alternative history reimagines the past by asking questions like, what if the USA lost WWII? Or what if the USSR won the cold war? Or what if the South won the Civil War?

As an intellectual and artistic exercise, this can be fun.

The problem is when we allow nostalgic views of the past to cloud our vision. In other words, when we positively reimagine the past and ignore the ugly things about it.

Granted, we read for escapism. To forget the here and now. And yes, we can romanticize the past a bit.

If we wanted to read about the real world, we would just read nonfiction, read the newspaper or just read literary works.

clockpunk image, Pinterest

Moreover, just because we live in the present does not mean we cannot revisit the past and reimagine it.

On the other hand, we have to be mindful when we pick and choose which facts we reinterpret. A WWII alternative history that ignores the Holocaust and other atrocities can be problematic. A Victorian story that ignores the effects of the industrial revolution on factory workers, the poor, and minorities is vexing.

Therefore, ask yourself, what could have been. Reinvent the past. Make sure you do it responsibly.

The Perils of Reimagining the Past

Clockpunk image, Tumblr

Clockpunk and the other punk derivatives are fun exercises of speculation in their truest form. Alternative history, although not really my thing, can be lots of fun.

However, you cannot divorce the fictional aspects of history. What do I mean?

Without recognizable characters, specific locations, and important events, these narratives lose their punch. Also, you cannot select only the good stuff from the past.

Even if we would like to think past times were better or a sort of Golden Age, once you look closely there is plenty of dirt. That’s where you find your conflict and your real story.

We love the past. We want to revisit it and experience it. Otherwise, subgenres like steampunk and weekend celebrations like renaissance fairs would not be so popular. To be fair, let’s do it in a way that does not gloss over the less glamorous aspects.

Granted, we are not historians. But your readers are probably history buffs and they are paying attention. Worse, they would call you out for every little mistake and anachronistic technology you put there.

Wallpaper for Da Vinci’s Demons

Finally, as much as I love steampunk, I get the feeling having too many ‘punks’ weakens what they are about. I applaud the imagination and creativity needed to rewrite history and introduce fantastical elements in other historical periods.

No, I am not singling out clockpunk. On the contrary, I feel more authors should develop it. To clarify, clockpunk is not the problem.

The problem I have with so many of the newer ‘punks’ is that we are focusing too much on technology and world-building and forgetting about the ‘punk’ part of the equation.

clockpunk image, Pinterest

The punk subculture is about anarchy, rebellion, individual freedom, and expression. By definition, it is anti-establishment. Cyberpunk gets it; steampunk gets it. Let’s hope the newer ‘punks’ do too.

Hence, here is my exhortation–let’s rewrite the past in a way that avoids its perils as described above and challenges our understanding of our present. In many ways, steampunk and clockpunk are rejections of our modern world, its abject consumerism, pollution, inequality, exploitation, and progressive dehumanization.

It is precisely in addressing their rebellious nature, not its retrofuturistic tech, where the ‘punks’ have plenty to teach us.

Are you a fan of clockpunk and the other punks? Do you agree or disagree with my opinions? Let’s debate.

2 Responses

  1. Sarah says:

    My own issue is with Stonepunk in particular. If they actually used high technology in such narratives, it be one thing. And in some cases, people Post Hoc add punk to time periods when “rebellion” wasn’t even a concept.

    People slapping the word Punk on The Flintstones comes to mind in particular.

    Now with Uechronian fiction where society was as advanced as we are today, battling capitalism and totalitarianism, with plucky anarchists fighting against societies more is a whole other thing. I’m OK with that.

    I mean Punk is suppose to mean something, it’s not suppose to be like how The Establishment is using the word Troll.

    • Albizu73 says:

      I agree with you, Punk is about rebellion and it is supposed to mean something.
      I focused more on dieselpunk, atompunk, clockpunk, and steampunk since I am more familiar with them.
      How could I forget stonepunk? These days it seems they are adding the suffix ‘punk to just about anything.
      Thanks for reading and commenting, Sarah!

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March 2023