Friday, January 11, 2013

Steampunk and the Nostalgic Blinkers of Victorian London

'Steampunk Lab: Lightbulb on Sears Catalog' photo (c) 2009, Carly Lesser & Art Drauglis - license:

One of the genres we are always quick to jump to read is Steampunk. It’s an excellent and relatively recent addition to the popular speculative fiction genres and it’s a lot of fun. The aesthetic of it is amazing, with it’s brass and cogs, steam and corsets, pageantry and frock coats. It has a cadence of language to it that is musical and open to a great deal of amazing humour, with the elaborate, formal speech and the careful protocols of etiquette. And it’s a time that is, in is many ways, so different from our own that it adds a level of the alien fantasy to the setting that goes far beyond simple Urban Fantasy, while still being grounded in our world, preventing it from being too alien.

Yet we often seem to forget that the Victorian Era was a real time, and Victorian England (where most of these stories are set) was a real place. And it wasn’t pretty. While the rich could indulge in their protocol, elaborate ritual, scientific progress and social tapdancing of high society; the poor lived in abject squalor. Disease was rife, exploitation by the rich - including child prostitution (indeed, it was during the Victorian period the age of consent in the UK was raised from 13 to 16 and only then after a reporter exposed how easy it was for a man of means to buy a child virgin - much in demand because of the high rates of STDs),. The poor lived in the most crammed slums imaginable, often working horrendously long hours in obscenely dangerous factories for little pay, again, including the children. It was bleak, it was harsh, it was horrific and far too many of those with wealth and power considered the poor to be fully deserving of their fates: desperate, starving thieves, even children (indeed the urchins of the streets were not considered children to be pitied by many, but a menace or pest to be removed) could and did face long prison sentences and even transportation.

The wealth of the time was, of course, based on Britain’s sprawling empire. An empire based on severe exploitation and oppression of colonialism, with POC across the globe being persecuted and controlled to further enrich the coffers. Slavery was only banned across the empire a scant 4 years before Victoria’s reign began.

In terms of sexuality, being gay remained a capital offence until 1861 (and one that was enforced in the 19th century - and men were hanged for it), after which it was replaced by “mere” imprisonment and hard labour.

Steampunk romanticises this genre in that it creates an alternate world simply through ignoring historical fact. Most writers seem willing to deal with suffrage but this is probably because many of the protagonist themselves are women. Beyond equality for women, however, few seem to want to acknowledge that despite the gadgets and the pageantry, Victorian England was not necessarily a pleasant time for many people. Part of the impetus for this erasure is based in the fact that privileged people have the ability of nostalgia that marginalised people will simply do not. Those who are gay, of colour, disabled or poor certainly have no reason to celebrate this time period.

Of course the easiest way to do this is to put on the blinkers and simply pretend it never happened.

Most of the protagonists in Steampunk are at the very least middle class. They almost all have servants and have been educated and, for many, the poor simply do not make a meaningful appearance in the books: A Conspiracy of Alchemists, Pilgrim of the Sky, Infernal Devices (Tessa is almost instantly taken in by the wealthy Clave)

When the poor do appear, they seem to exist solely to be saved from the wretchedness of their poor lives through the charity of the rich. An example of this is Steam & Sorcery by Cindy Spencer Pape, Sir Merrick Hadrian ends up adopting several homeless children and then covering up their backgrounds. His title and long history of wealth certainly play a role in the continued impoverishment of the lower classes but the reader is not expected to acknowledge this in order to focus on his act of generosity. Or Shelly Adina’s massively fun Lady of Devices Series which, again, sees a select group of the poor benefit from the generous instruction of their social betters (which is rather exacerbated by the ease with which she overcomes the bonds of poverty). Or we get the poor who don’t need to be saved, like Ivy Tunstill from the Parasol Protectorate series who aren’t really that suffering the privations of real poverty, they simply aren’t as well off as the rich characters.  

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