Steampunk’s “era that never was” is often placed during an enlightened mechanical age of the past, when technological innovations mix with historical mores. In a romantic sense, technology is humankind’s hope for a better world; nostalgic steampunk celebrates the sense of wonder and accomplishment people feel in the presence of functionality. But steampunk, though commonly placed in optimistic contexts, can take a darker turn. The genre, after all, is cousin to cyberpunk, that over-engineered world where technology has escaped the understanding of the common man. The darker consequences of steampunk technology is rooted in the imperfections of steam: environmental pollution from burning fossil fuels, the intense human labor (and lost lives) involved in dangerous factory work, global arms races as nations compete to develop their tech. Post-apocalyptic steam combines the hope and the tragedy of progress: society struggling to build itself again in a ruinous world, often after some technological disaster. The City of Ember books, the Unhallowed Metropolis RPG, and the videogame Bioshock are all examples that fall under post-apocalyptic steam.
Post-apocalyptic steampunk exposes the raw conflicts inherent in creating technology. Once everything we knew has been lost, can we ever regain that same world again? We need technology to survive, but how can we not commit the same mistakes that caused our downfall?
Musician and composer Peter Foley asks these questions in his chamber musical The Hidden Sky.
Based on Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story, “The Masters,” The Hidden Sky takes place in a world where is civilization has been destroyed and thesky forever obscured under a dark haze. The survivors had created a sun-worshiping religion centered around the mysterious “face of God” that hid itself in the wake of humankind’s downfall, and in order to prevent calamity from striking again, the priests had banned all forms of math and science. The only ones allowed “forbidden” knowledge are the Engine Masters, those who build and maintain the steam engines they need to survive. In this society, Ganil is the newly-anointed Engine Master who yearns to learn more, and she risks everything in order to pursue her love of mathematics, with grave consequences.
The Prospect Theater of NYC recently ran a production of Foley’s musical. Their vision of a post-apocalyptic world–one that shies away a from Eurocentric setting–expands the definition of both post-apocalyptic storytelling and the steampunk genre. Telling a story that is dark in content but feels ethereal in execution, the Prospect Theater Company’s production of The Hidden Sky succeeds in creating a specific post-apocalyptic world that touches upon universal themes of exploration, survival, and sacrifice.
Cast & Crew talk about The Hidden Sky and its concept design based upon a ravaged multicultural world:
Taking place at the West End theater in a converted church, The Hidden Sky’s combination of the spiritual and the secular is immediately apparent. With respect to LeGuin’s unspecified geographical or cultural setting, the cast dress in a mix of African, medieval European and south Asian-inspired dress. The characterizations, if not the plot, has been explored further than what was in the original short story, with most of the songs focusing on Ganil’s mental and emotional discoveries about what she learns. This fits with the mix of music that range from choral pieces to full-out ballads.
The singing and performances were all remarkably strong. Victoria Huston-Elem plays the modest but curious Ganil and I liked how her unconventional looks gave her that geeky air. Both Ganil and her secret teacher Yin (Joy Lynn Matthews) are played by women, which is different from the original story, and adds a feminist slant to their struggle. Ben Gunderson plays the passionate Mede who first opens Ganil’s eyes to the power of numbers, and Mark Mozingo is the gentle and loving Lani, Ganil’s fiancee and newly-appointed Sun Priest. I especially liked the love triangle between the two men over Ganil, where the crux is both men fighting over Ganil and not Ganil “having to choose” between them, which is what’s been happening too often in romances these days. And, in the end, she chooses neither, which is also refreshing (though her last scene with Lani broke my heart).
And another casting decision that caught my eye is the talented Nadine Malouf as Ganil’s double. The role is unique because it gives the chance for Ganil to contemplate her inner world while the scene goes on with her double interacting with the real world. Her double also represents Ganil in dream sequences and plays out both her hopes and her fears. Having a woman of color play Ganil’s double adds another dimension to her character while also dismantling the concept of a static racial Other that could have happened if her double represented only one aspect of Ganil. Instead, the casting choice plays with the concept of public versus private selves in an effective and engaging way.
This has been a strong show from The Prospect Theater Company, and I hope to see more work from them inthe future.
I also encourage others to look into producing The Hidden Sky. Below are links for more information.