by Alan Beatts
A few of us at the store were chatting about the phenomena of Steampunk recently and the conversation went in some interesting directions. Before getting into that however, I want to make something abundantly clear. When I refer to "Steampunk" I'm referring to the lifestyle or the fashion movement rather than to the sub-genre of fiction. Steampunk as fiction has been around for a much longer time than the current popular culture meme. We could argue for days about what the first steampunk novel was but both Infernal Devices by K. W. Jeter in 1987 and The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling are sure as hell steampunk novels. There was a bit of a hiatus in the 90s and early noughties but then the fiction genre came back. And it came back before the pop culture scene.
It is amusing to read comments from people who are really into the steampunk "scene" who rail against the idea that it is based in genre fiction. I've even seen some (quite upset) commentators insist that it's not fiction, it's their _lifestyle_. Which seems to me a bit self-absorbed and . . . well . . . dumb. It is as if they want to distinguish themselves from the people who dress up as Stormtroopers from Star Wars or characters from Star Trek.
To be fair, the steampunk lifestyle folks are very different from the average costumed science fiction fan. But not necessarily in a good way.
Let's start with a couple of pieces of generally accepted history. The Victorian era was one filled with remarkable accomplishments in arts, technology, and society (for the purpose of discussion I'm going to use "Victorian" to refer to the period of her reign, 1837 to 1901). But for the rest of the world it was also one of the most savage periods of colonial expansion in Western history (I personally think that the pseudo-colonial period of the early 20th century was even more savage but opinions differ). And things weren't terribly better within Britain. Poverty was rife, class divisions were enormous, the gap in the standard of living between the lower economic 10% and the top 10% were almost inconceivable to a modern American, and the rights of anyone who wasn't male, white, and well-off were almost non-existent by current standards. In may ways, actual slavery (which was abolished in the British Empire in 1833) had been replaced with economic and status-based slavery, both within Britain and throughout the Empire. The industrial revolution was tearing through the country and society was desperately trying to restructure to accommodate it - while piling up the wreckage of lives, professions, and the existing social fabric along the roadside.
When Dickens wrote in 1859, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," it seems more likely that he was thinking of his world, rather than the 1790s world of A Tale Of Two Cities. And, from the viewpoint of someone living in the mid-1800s, that was probably a fair assessment of the Victorian era. But look at that time and society from the vantage of 2013 . . . . Wow, it _sucked_ . . . unless you were part of that group I mentioned earlier -- white, male, and well-off.
Oh, and heterosexual too. Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for, in essence, homosexuality (aggravated by really, really poor judgement) in 1895 under a statute dating from 1885.
At the end of the 19th century in Britain, roughly 25% of the population was living at or below subsistence levels (i.e. they were able, at best, to barely feed, clothe and house themselves). Over 10% were so far below that level that they couldn't afford sufficient food. Many were housed in slums where families lived in a single room that was probably smaller than a modern US bedroom.
Of the remaining 75% of the population, 7% were what we would currently consider "middle class" and then there were the lucky 1-2% of the population who earned more than 150 pounds per year (for comparison, a servant earned around 10 pounds per year). The remaining 66% of the population were mostly servants, industrial laborers, or agricultural laborers.
But the English (as opposed to the other British citizens - the Scots, Welsh, and Irish) had it better than the rest. For example, between 1845 and 1852, over one million Irish died from starvation and another million emigrated to escape the disastrous famine. In seven years the population of Ireland shrank by 25%.
Women were not allowed to vote, own property or enter into legal contracts. A woman who brought property to a marriage lost all rights to that property to her husband, even if the marriage later dissolved. In Britain legal rights of people of color were mostly equal to whites, as long as the person in question was male. But at the same time the concept of "scientific racism" (the argument that white people are genetically superior to other groups) was very popular. Of course, outside of Britain in the colonies, it was a very different story.
To an American, many of these details are easily lost behind a foreground of great literature, impressive visual style, and really cool mechanisms. But it's not surprising that steampunk has not been very enthusiastically embraced in Britain. Imagine how it must look to the British. It might be something like the way we would see . . . Confederate Punk? Ante-Bellum Punk? Cotton-Gin Punk certainly doesn't sound cool enough.
How about Slavepunk? After all, slavery, like steam power in Britain, was a driving economic force in the United States that also destabilized society (both by its support and its opposition). And, as a plus, the clothes in the ante-bellum South were fabulous. But no-one would get behind _that_ piece of pop culture in America. At least I sure as hell hope not (though I could be being to optimistic, there do seem to be some folks who glorify the Confederacy). You see, we understand that the 19th century in the U.S., though overflowing with remarkable accomplishments (and great clothes), was a complicated, shameful time filled with horrors of which we are not, nor should be, proud.
Much like the Victorian era.
The world of science fiction and fantasy has traditionally been much more egalitarian and tolerant than American society in general (though far from flawless, as any number of recent events demonstrate), as well as being much more respectful of different cultures, ethnic groups and sexual orientations. It is something of which the people in our business, be they "pros" (i.e. writers, editors, and so forth) or "fans" (readers), are justifiably proud. So it's really strange to me that the steampunk meme has been so popular. Steampunk is about as white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant as anything I can think of and yet the gadgets, costumes, and tropes are everywhere in a field that usually doesn't play nicely with those sorts of social values.
To be fair, the Victorian era was filled with optimism and, in its later years, there were strong movements towards positive social change (child labor laws, universal education, beneficial social programs for the poor, etc.) The idea that the world can be made a better place by the actions of groups and individuals is also something that is part of the DNA, if you will, of science fiction. That view was an important part of the Victorian mind-set. But all the lofty ideals in the world don't change the reality of the Victorian world. I think that world is worthy of study, consideration and even limited admiration. But I do not think it's worthy of emulation or glorification.