From Chemistry to Cogs: Ether’s Victorian Aestheticism & Contemporary Steampunk (NAVSA 2016)

Cover of Karina Cooper's TarnishedThis paper will trace the through line between Victorian literary aesthetic visions of ether, which was originally thought to be the medium through which light traveled, and twenty-first century reworkings of the element in steampunk fiction in order to argue that ether’s radical connectivity not only enables surprising and subversive networks but also challenges the demarcations between the living and the non-living. In making this argument, I will put the work of late-Victorian Scottish poet and playwright John Davidson in conversation with that of contemporary steampunk novelist Karina Cooper.

John Davidson’s “Fleet Street” (1909) participates in the disciplinary exchange between science and literature as it considers whether the useful, unknown, dirty bricks that comprise this locus of London’s periodical press might desire a different fate. Throughout the poem, the poet mobilizes ether to connect all matter at its most basic molecular level and blur the boundaries between the aesthetic and useful, suggesting that an object’s place within a network of intellectual work that endows it with usefulness and beauty.

Turning to steampunk generally and Karina Cooper’s St. Croix Chronicles particularly, we find a twenty-first-century re-examination and reworking of this dynamic between aesthetics and function through the element of aether, ether’s steampunk reincarnation, in the mystical art/science of alchemy and its ability to destabilize the connection between bodies and minds. In examining at these two texts, I will argue for the pivotal role that Victorian aestheticism’s mobilization of science has played in shaping contemporary steampunk fiction and culture’s interest in the permeable boundary between the living and nonliving.

For those of you interested in what perhaps might be the “real” ether, dark matter, checkout the “Xenon” section of Radiolab’s “Elements” episode.

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