Influenced by both 19th-century literature and
popular representations of science, the figure of the medical doctor in
steampunk fiction is marked by ambiguity. At the same time a scientist, a
wizard and a mechanic, the steampunk doctor exists halfway between
respectability and illegitimacy, a manipulator of bodies, a wielder of
mysterious powers, a respectable and ominous character at the same time. Their
role includes but is not limited to healing bodies. Indeed, steampunk examines
the consequences extraordinary medical discoveries can have on both individuals
and societies. It questions the meaning of “improvement” in the context of
medicine, and whether it is ethical for medical practitioners to bring human
bodies beyond their normal state, to the point that normality itself has to be
re-defined. This paper describes the figure of the steampunk doctor and details
the place and power of medicine in steampunk worlds. On the one hand, the
steampunk doctor can modify bodies at will, bringing bio-engineering on a par
with regular engineering, and leading to questions about the boundaries
(ontological and ethical) between humans and objects, living and inanimate
matter. On the other hand, their work on individual bodies can lead to transformations
of their society as a whole, by modifying entire groups to suit social or
political agendas, or in a quest for personal power. In the end, the figure of
the steampunk doctor brings to the forefront some ethical questionings about
medicine, healing, bio-engineering and human enhancement that are very relevant
to the present times, in spite of the deceptively retrospective aesthetics.
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