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.  

This presentation of the poor as grateful recipients of the rich’s largesse completely ignores the unjust society that has created such a sharp divide. The poor are not there to show their stories, the lives they must lead, the issues they must suffer, they merely exist to show the wonderful nature of the rich people. They are tools and props to develop the rich characters, not people in their own right.

Other than charity projects of bored rich people, the poor may exist as disposable victims of the monster or villain - such as the sex workers in The Constantine Affliction, or casual servants who eagerly jump to serve like in The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. Again, not characters - they’re extras to advance the rich person’s story and their plight is barely noticed.

One of the few times we’ve seen class divide addressed was in Kate Locke’s excellent God Save the Queen, but even then class was as much a symptom of the magic of that world, with the vampire and werewolf aristocracy and the human commoners. I think that the only book that has made an extremely good commentary on class is the Masque of the Red Death, yet, again, the class is deeply bound up in the new elements of the book - the plague. Excellent commentary, but also slightly alien commentary.

Class is one of the more blatant erasures because of the sheer efforts the authors go to to avoid the poor people, but it’s not the only erasure. GBLT people hardly ever exist: a point we’ve made before. By simply focusing on straight protagonists and their straight circles, it’s easy to overlook the gay people languishing in prison for “sodomy” and, if anything, the very limited inclusion we have seen in the Parasol Protectorate with the highly problematic portrayals and stereotypes seems all the more galling when we consider the reality of the time. Similarly, despite a global empire, despite a long history of diversity in the British Isles, there are usually few - if any - POC in Steampunk’s Victorian Britain. That contact with an entire planet seems to come with steam powered forcefield keeping non-White people out. Despite colonialism being in full vigor there are few examples which include characters of colour. One example is the Iron Duke but it had less to do with the realities of the time and more to do with the fictional world presented when the Mongol Horde overwhelmed Europe.  Returning again to the Gaslight Chronicles we have one character of colour - Nell.  Throughout the series, we are told how difficult of a life she will have because of her race and she is continually described as exotic. In Timeless, the fifth book of the Parasol Protectorate Series Gail Carriger did manage to have characters of colour however, the protagonist had to travel to Egypt and in the end, the Egyptians ended up worshipping a White English woman as their queen.

We truly love this genre - it has a lot of fantastic elements that never cease to enthrall us. But it is an insult to history and to those who suffered to wear these brass blinkers to look back on this fantastical time. There was a lot of wonder and it’s a setting that encourages the fantastic - but there was a darker side and I wish the suffering of historical marginalised people could get some of the same treatment as Steampunk’s generally good challenge of the repressive gender roles of the time.