Thursday, August 9, 2007

Steam Punk - NPIRL?

Can steam punk - in its various SL manifestations - ever be NPIRL?


Inigo Dench said...

There are aspects of steam punk as it is manifest in places in SL that are definitely NPIRL.

Airship Outpost, which seems as good a starting place as any, is itself a large timber platform apparently supported in the sky by multiple steam powered rotors. It is surrounded by a variety of craft, with hulls constructed of materials ranging from timber to steel to steel-reinforced concrete, and which are either suspended from balloons or also make use of rotors.

I'm not sure how obvious it is to everyone here the extent to which this could not be done in RL. To start with, materials like timber, steel and concrete are HEAVY. Given their relative density with water, it's still more than possible to build ships with them. However for object to float in air they must be much lighter, or be matched be correspondingly massive upward force. But we'd be talking about balloons hundred of times the size of the ones in use. And rotors - well, if the steam plumbing ran to the ground, and the major plant were down there maybe it would be possible. But reason there were no steam aircraft is precisely that the power to weight ratio of steam engines did not favor this.

I suspect this skirts the real question though, and what Bettina is really asking is whether steam punk in SL is *in essence* about things that are NPIRL. And there are a few ways to consider this. Steam punk covers everything from it seems 1830s colonial themes through the Victorian and Edwardian eras and up to and including (in some genres) a strong representation of 1930s anti-fascism. As far as interesting and slightly impossible alternative histories and fantasy worlds go, we're extremely well covered. It's an extraordinarily fun genre to play in.

Everything we encounter in SL is representation. Everything we perceive in RL is too, but in SL it's much more explicit and obvious, because the constraints and the mediation are easy to understand. All representation is mediated to some extent by its medium, even in RL where it is never really possible to know what someone else means in any definitive way, but the whole gamut of shared experience is always in play.

In SL, even real-world physics and the laws of the possible are mediated, even attenuated by the way in which their in world equivalents work. I great many very talented people have put an enormous amount of work into working with the constraints of LSL and the facilities of the physics engine to do things that look very much like they might in RL. Underneath, it's really all rules of thumb, and hedging things. The message here is that "real" and "possible" are things that we bring into SL with us, they are not truly inherent in SL at all.

So where does that leave steam punk? First, the major aim is to make the mechanisms by which these imaginary vehicles float be as whimsical, entertaining and visually pleasing as possible. Whether they represent something that could in fact be implemented in an RL vehicle seems almost irrelevant. And this is the aspect of the NPIRL concept that really has teeth, is productive.

Inigo Dench said...

Second, these representations always refer to but do not involve RL physics at all. Other real but underemphasised aspects are the forms of social organisation and economic constraints upon building things in a particular way. All attempts to transfer a culturally and historically distinct structure from one set of conditions to another is chancy at best. When one says a thing is impossible IRL, one is not always talking simply about engineering concerns. Social matters are as solid as anything here, and Victorian society in particular was quite married to it's very specific economic position. So in a way experiments that are social as well as simply aesthetic do play up to the sense in which SL is a mechanism to express ideas and work with cultural forms that simple is NPIRL.

Last - alternate histories can be considered to form hypothetical arguments. The logic of these is not an argument for the possible - rather one based on false premises. If the premises were not false, it would not be an alternate history. Whether this suggests an essential impossibility for the genre as a whole is a bit of a leap though. Really what is required is more a suspension of disbelief, as with any speculative or fantasy fiction. Here, steam punk is not distinct really from fantasy, yet we are not according any special status to other fantasy genres.

To summarise, steam punk involves and emphasises, even privileges themes that invite representations that are definitely about things that are NPIRL. It would be going too far to say that the genre itself is in some way essentially NPIRL, however, and that doing so begs various questions about why we appreciate such a thing in the first place.

That last issue seems fairly simple: how might SL extend upon and enhance expression and representation, beyond what has come before, making use of the new medium to inspire beauty and delight and wonder. In that context, absolute ideas of definitions and essential impossibilities are probably meaningless. The specific, the particular, the tangible instances of things which do are what is of most promise, and what are in themselves the extension into NPRIL representation of thoughts and ideas that were previously far less expressible.

So the answer, if there is one, as in mean things is "It depends". No to generalities, maybe yes to specifics.