Culture Undiscovered: Powered by Fiction: Bushpunk, Steampunk, and Time Traveling Robots

Being a creative writing major is mostly awesome, but sometimes I have to admit that it’s downright terrifying. When I get asked what my post-graduation plans are, part of me cringes. Poets without borders? Professional homeless person? My opportunities are slightly more limited than, say, an engineering major’s. But on the bright side, I get to spend every Tuesday night in class with the legendary Norman Dubie, and I really love what I do. That’s why it makes me happy to meet writers and other creative people who’ve managed to make a living doing what they’re passionate about; it gives me hope that I’m not destined to become a hobo.

Naturally I was thrilled when I saw posters advertising Powered by Fiction, an ASU exhibit featuring “Artists, Makers, Tinkerers, and the backstories that inspire them to create.” Its corporate sponsorship (get out of my fiction Intel) made me immediately suspicious, but I was willing to suspend that long enough to check out their exhibit exploring the medium of design fiction, which combines “design, science fiction, and science fact,” and uses physical artifacts to make real an imaginary world. Design fiction is something that I’m admittedly unfamiliar with, but was immediately interested in; the way that it takes DIY culture and applies it to something as unexpected as fiction stretches the limits of both, and that’s what art is about!

Boilerplate with his inventor, Archibald Campion. Photo by Jessica Pruett.

Powered by Fiction specifically featured four very different works of art from within the design-fiction genre. Captain Chronomek is the story of Skip, an industrial revolution era machinist whose collision with a meteorite gives him the ability to time travel, thereby protecting the world from evil time-traveling aliens. Mark Thomson’s Henry Hoke is a forgotten genius whose inventions, like the Random Excuse Generator and the Quack of Doom, went tragically unnoticed during his lifetime. Adiel Fernandez’s massive Archangel-inspired wings will soon be on display in the New York Hall of Science’s maker space, and finally, artist Paul Guinan and writer Anita Bennett’s Boilerplate chronicles the adventures of the world’s first robot soldier through history.

Each exhibit had its roots in a unique artistic tradition — Captain Chronomek is very distinctly a steampunk creation, Henry Hoke is the product of something called bushpunk, and Adiel Fernandez’s efforts were inspired by maker culture. However, what most interested me was Boilerplate, which takes something we’re mostly all familiar with — historical fiction — and turns it on its head. The Boilerplate exhibit was based on Guinan and Bennett’s critically acclaimed book, Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, which is currently in the works to become a feature film produced by JJ Abrams.

Guinan said Boilerplate began as a way to get people interested in history: “people find history boring,” he says. But told through the eyes of a robot, “it could be almost like they weren’t reading history.” He began by creating a tiny robot from an artist’s dummy, then started photoshopping Boilerplate into various historical photos. From there, his goal was to “tell a story with photos and artifacts,” eventually “taking fiction to the next step by reflecting on the past.” Ultimately, Guinan hopes that all readers will take something away from Boilerplate: “In order to know where we’re going,” he says, “we should know where we came from.”