Radicals and Reactionaries

PrintE-mail Written by CB Harvey Friday, 14 October 2011

Exile On Augusta Street - by CB Harvey

Whilst the brass automaton butler creakily refills your brandy glass, allow me to issue a stern warning, ladies and gents.  As we pilot our dirigible in its eccentric journey over the steampunk landscape, seeking high adventure where and when we might find it, we must be careful to avoid missiles from the world below.  These are not actual missiles, at least not at this juncture in our voyage, heaven forefend.  No indeed, the missiles of which I speak consist of words, epithets and carefully reasoned arguments, launched by writers, editors and academics at unsuspecting steampunkers such as our goodselves in our bonnets, goggles and stove pipe hats.  Sip that brandy if you must, but do not relax:  in their own ways words can be no less pointed and destructive than their more material, military counterparts.

For steampunk, a sub-genre and verily a cross-genre that itself spawns sub-sub genres, is a political construction, let there be no doubt.  Award but a moment’s consideration to the subject at hand and I think you will concur.  Steampunk in its familiar – some would say stereotypical – Victorian manifestation concerns itself with airships, extraordinary mechanical devices and upper crust gents thwarting the maniacal plans of fiendish ne’er-do-wells of non-British extraction.  In the American equivalent of the British Penny Dreadful, described by John Clute and Peter Nicholls as ‘Edisonades’, racism and colonialism dominate.  Commentators debate the extent to which such unsavoury views inform the early history of steampunk endeavour – even HG Wells, who furnishes steampunk so many of its key ideas and iconography, is not beyond reproach in these matters (check out John Carey’s still brilliant The Intellectuals and the Masses if you want to understand why).

Of course, as with any branch of culture, elements of the disparate steampunk fanbase will choose to embrace some aspects of the object of their adoration and ignore or reject the uncomfortable others.  It’s the same for many fanbases:  Star Trek and Doctor Who fans have to negotiate their way around the sexism that characterises their favourite shows throughout their early incarnations, while devotees of HP Lovecraft’s oeuvre are forced to ignore some of the author’s wackier views on race.

Steampunk Prime is a recent collection of Victorian steampunk short stories authored by the lesser-known contemporaries of Jules Verne and Wells.  In his introduction, the man responsible for bringing together these neglected gems, Mike Ashley, imagines the joy of sitting in a leather chair in the luxury of the smoking room of the Explorers’ Club admiring a world of dirigibles and automatons – as Ashley muses, perhaps the Victorians got things right.

Certainly it’s possible to say that the Victorians did indeed gift to us many of the things we take for granted in our technological age, but the cost of that to lots of people, both in Britain and across the globe, was incalculable.  We also have to gloss over the fact that in reality the majority of us reading this would only have encountered the upper classes in our roles as forelock-tugging servants so that we can properly indulge in the fantasy.  But then, glossing is what fantasy is about, surely – all those people reading Jane Austen and imagining themselves middle class sybarites are missing the truth of the era for the vast majority of the population, and also missing the point about where middle class wealth originated (in the exploitation of people at home and abroad).

And yet it cannot be ignored. The British Empire existed and thrived through many (sometimes complex) regimes of exploitation, from that of the British working classes to those many and varied populations it conquered over an extended period.  Steampunk worlds are by definition often parallel realities, advancing alternate ideas of where history might have gone if a different technological development had occurred, as in William Gibson and Brue Sterling’s seminal novel The Difference Engine (1990), in which Charles Babbage managed to construct a working analytical engine, ushering in an era of extraordinary but anachronistic technological advancement.  Yet for such worlds to convince they must adhere to certain rules, or at least explain away those rules.  Are we to assume that the variations on Empire presented in them exist without the subjugation of vast swathes of people?  How do they function if they don’t?

Films like the wonderful anime Steamboy make some limited effort to engage with working class life in a steampunk environment but it’s to literature we have to look if we want to see real subversion.  In last month’s column I mentioned Michael Moorcock’s mighty Warlord of the Air (1971) as an early example of contemporary steampunk but there were other writers, too, animated by a desire to subvert the idea of Empire as handed down to us by reinventing the Victorians in fantasy guises.  Steampunk in its contemporary manifestation was formed by these writers in the late 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and into the 1990s.

As the writer Catherynne M Valente observes in the pages of the terrific Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, an anthology of fiction and observation about the sub-genre edited by Ann Vandermeer and Jeff Vandermeer, “…you can’t have Victorian England without Levelers, Luddites, and angry young women”.  The Victorian era gifted us the templates for the modern era, but as well as the steam train and industrial production such templates constitute blueprints for revolution and emancipation.  Twentieth century steampunk began as a critical conversation with the idea of Empire, and as such is a truly radical sub-genre.  If it loses sight of that surely it loses part of its raison d’etre.

So as we journey on, we would be wise to remember that while steampunk is all about remaking technology, it should also seek to address the potential for remaking society.  It should aim, too, to give voice to individuals whom Empire exploited for its own nefarious purposes.  These are pertinent, dynamite ideas for a credit-crunched reality in which the Old Order is currently reasserting itself, in which Society became Big so the majority could be rendered Small once again.  Watch out, though, lest that automated butler give you more than you jolly well bargained for, what.

CB Harvey is a writer and academic now living in the Blue Mountains in Sydney, Australia.  He writes this column wearing a stovepipe hat.

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