Steampunk

In my researches on H.G. Wells, I have discovered a field dominated by English Lit types and those who love his science fiction. Likewise, Steampunk is not really a place for historians, but rather a place for imagination, for “alternative history” (which, of course, isn’t history at all).

However, in a literary sense, I find Steampunk appealing. My first foray was a wonderful book, Steampunk: Extraordinary Tales of Victorian Futurism  (2012). It was not what I expected. Indeed I now realize it was not what any Steampunk aficionado would expect either. Instead of contemporary fiction set in the Victorian era, the stories were written by Victorian authors in the 19th century. As Mike Ashley says in his “Introduction: When Steampunk was Real”: “I would argue that steampunk was well under way by the 1880s but came into its own in the 1890s”. The dime novels and stories of this era contained visions of the future, automatons, interplanetary travel — all the steampunky stuff. Steampunk did not begin, as I had imagined when I bothered to think at all about such things, with Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen (1988).

cc Flickr Curious Expeditions

About the same time I read Ashley’s anthology, I began reading H.G. Wells’ short stories, then Jules Verne. I read and saw the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. A bit later, I read a lot of H.P. Lovecraft (yes, I know, he’s later, in the 1920s, but his work is a staple of Steampunk anyway). I began to understand the idea and the aesthetic. As a historian, I see so many commonalities between our current age and the Victorian age: the fascination with gadgetry, the naive hope of technology and science solving all our problems, the horrifying division of classes between the haves and the have nots. The middle-class guilt, the compulsive acquisition of household goods, the energy infused in politics, the trappings of celebrity – I’ve seen all this before.

So this weekend there was a Steampunk Expo here in San Diego. Now, again, keep in mind – I am not an SCA or Renaissance Faire type. I enjoy dressing up only very occasionally. The anachronisms inherent in contemporary events pretending to take place in the past cause me extreme annoyance (no one watches historical movies with me either – I ruin them). But in the case of Steampunk, the desire for “authenticity” is not really there. It is already imaginary – 21st century people living an alternative history that never happened, based on a fascination with Victorian thinking.

And it’s the thinking that brings me back to the literature, and the writing. The expo had panels, and one was of steampunk writers: “Fantasy or Science? Does Steampunk Literature Rely More On One Or Is It A Combination Of Both?”, with Tim Powers, Vernor Vinge, Erix Hendrix, Madeline Holly Rosing, and Dru Pagliassotti. I do not know their work, but the discussion was fascinating. I learned that the bible for understanding the Victorian underworld is Henry Mayhew’s volumes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851), which I know as a primary source for history.

But on the nature of writing fiction, and the complexities of writing Steampunk in particular, some interesting topics were tossed around by the panel:

The idea that 19th century steam technology made it impossible to justify slavery, because brute force was no longer as necessary. I have to think about this, because one could argue that the children put to work were enslaved to the machines.

The paucity of female heroes in steampunk works, a motivating factor for Madeline Holly Rosing. I find myself disillusioned with this one – there were new books on display in the vendors’ room that featured heroines in bustiers and stockings, looking like streetwalkers. I met a woman in the bathroom who was dressed in suede and carried arrows to rescue fairies. And yet I know that women had quite a bit of power during the Victorian era. Even though it was often wielded in private venues, it could have devastating effects. Educated women were at an advantage here, rather than those who could fight monsters. But I do understand that in science fiction in general, and steampunk in particular, most of the characters have been male.

The conflict between science/technology and magic, and the difficulty of determining genre. When there is greater technology, there appears to be less need for magic, and vice versa. However, one can gain social insight by putting one tool in the hands of elites, and the other in the hands of the masses. Magic, at first, was discussed as being something not everyone has. But the same could be said for technology. So an interesting framework can be created by having the elites control magic, while the masses rely on technology and have to seek the elite oracles and mages for help. Or, conversely, the elites control the technology, while the people have only homespun magic on which to rely. This idea certainly makes the genre of fantasy more interesting to me.

The ways in which Steampunk can be kept “real”. This came up several times – an effort must be made to imbue a fictional work with enough veracity that the reader accepts the premise and actions. Science plays this role – even if the author doesn’t get deeply into the science, a bit of scientific justification can make things possible. And the reader must believe it is possible, that what they’re reading could happen, somehow, at some time, somewhere. For magic, it is necessary to show ceremonies or steps to the magic – that creates the illusion of authenticity, since we associate tradition and rituals with things that are real. Similarly, creating social myths for an imaginary society can make it seem more real. Logic, said Vinge, should be implicit – as in David Levine’s Arabella novel where ships sail solar winds. The units of measurement should be believable and translatable – then the audience will follow.

So to maintain this veracity, all things have to come from somewhere. Powers talked about a novel where anyone who lied had water dumped over his head from nowhere. The novel never explained where this water came from – if water appears somewhere, it must disappear from somewhere. Basic natural science is inviolate. And, said Powers, one must consider consequences – surely courts would not be needed if we all knew who lied the moment they were lying? Why would probate be needed if everyone could talk to ghosts?

Once could work against what we know is real, however, by placing the character(s) in an era where people didn’t know certain things (nuclear power, antibiotics, the distance between planets). Then it was OK to have things askew, because they are also askew to the character. The reader, presumably, knows better, and thus will accept a character’s ignorance of what they know to be real.

More in alignment with my own teaching and examination of history, Steampunk stories can bring up findings from the past, things that were (or in fiction, may have been) ahead of their time, but did not move forward. It was pointed out that when there was no money, no investment, innovations can die off. We can bring them back in fiction, or they can be rediscovered. I am continually discovering things from earlier ages, where they were thought not to exist yet. We tend to assume the past was more primitive than now — often it wasn’t.

And yes, I dressed up, in a Victorian ball gown, decorated hat, gears on my earrings, cameos and watch face necklaces. But this one session made my day.

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