silhouette photo of man throw paper plane

Clockpunk

By Ellen Brickley

Leonardo da Vinci was punk.

Bear with me.

He was born outside of wedlock and received little formal schooling. Apprenticed to master painter Verrocchio, legend has it that the master laid down his paintbrush when he saw how well Leonardo had painted the robes of an angel in The Baptism of Christ (this probably isn’t true, but a punk needs a legend). Leonardo modelled for bronze sculptures in his early years in Florence, and once made a silver stringed instrument using a horse’s skull. He is credited with inventing prototypes for the helicopter, the parachute and the tank. It would take the rest of Western civilisation centuries to develop the ability to execute his ideas. Once, in an effort to impress the pope, Leonardo decided the best way to win favour was to dissect cadavers and present the pope with an analysis of how vocal cords worked (I can’t imagine what he would have brought along on a first date). For thirty years, he lived with the Devil. 

In between all of this, he also managed to paint some of the most renowned works of art in the world.

There’s little wonder that Leonardo crops up so much in clockpunk. Clockpunk has been described as steampunk without the steam, and it typically invokes an era earlier than steampunk, with technology based around clockwork rather than steam power.

The aesthetics of steampunk and clockpunk can seem similar, as both usually involve a muted colour palette and a heck of a lot of gears. 

Of all the punk subgenres, clockpunk has some of the most limited technology, since it is all human-powered – there is only so long a person can spend winding a mechanism, and clockwork weapons would be sluggish in a lot of action settings. Some clockpunk texts draw on later aesthetics, like baroque, or eighteenth century France (think large chandeliers and larger wigs), but at its core, you’ll still find gears, cogs and hand-cranks – people doing a lot with very little. Just like Leonardo.

In spite of the more basic technology, clockpunk is a lot of fun. Sometimes the limitations of the tech can even add suspense and drama, as neither the users nor the inventors may know how far their gadget can be pushed – this comes up in my story, Tame the Skies, when a character uses some new tech in an out-of-warranty manner. Characters in a clockpunk setting are often new to any kind of elaborate mechanisms or tech, so it’s a great genre for exploring the relationship between humans and new technology. This is so resonant for readers and writers today, as we come to terms with the privacy issues that have arisen from social media and smartphones, and from the bioethical issues that come with health tracking apps and devices. What is our relationship with devices? Can we use them for good or evil? Is the power entirely with the user?

Clockpunk is a great place to ask those questions.

Ellen Brickley is a novelist and essayist. Her writing has appeared in Banshee literary journal and the Irish Times. She was the recipient of a Literature Bursary from the Arts Council in 2017 and is currently working on an essay collection. Ellen has been a member of Cupán Fae for four years and has contributed to Cupán Fae Anthologies: Dublin’s Fierce Cityand Fiercepunk.

Check out Ellen Brickley’s story ‘Tame the Skies’ in Cupán Fae’s Anthology Fiercepunk, now available in Paperback and on Kindle.

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