Let me start by saying this: I loathe the Victorian period. Simply hated it in college. Hated the writing (the works of Charles Dickens should be hurled into the sun), hated the social mores, and while I never actually met her, was not at ALL fond of the queen the period is named after. It was an era of cruel expansionism…and the British have never been known for their restraint when it comes to attempting to dominate other cultures.
But that doesn’t particularly bother me when reading fiction. Because, well, it’s fiction. When I first picked up Gail Carriger’s Soulless I did hesitate when I saw the word “Victorian”, but because of the previously mentioned loathing, and not because I was worried that it wouldn’t accurately reflect the Victorian age with its human right abuses for all but the rich, male and white. I’ve studied the age – I know how bad it was. And it’s over. In the meantime we’ve moved on to regimes much worse and much better.
Over on Charlie’s Diary there’s a post The hard edge of empire that looks at the glut of Steampunk on the market, and bemoans what can only be described as a lack of political and cultural realism. Yes, there does seem to be quite the market for Steampunk now, because the publishing industry, like the reading public (and don’t worry, I’m lumping myself in here too) are like lemmings.
We’ve been at this point before with other sub-genres, with cyberpunk and, more recently, paranormal romance fang fuckers bodice rippers with vamp- Sparkly Vampyres in Lurve: it’s poised on the edge of over-exposure. Maybe it’s on its way to becoming a new sub-genre, or even a new shelf category in the bookstores. But in the meantime, it’s over-blown.
First everyone wanted to follow Stephenie Meyer over the cliff – now they’ve moved on.
He also makes a nice point about what Steampunk would look like if it were a bit more real (albeit with “zombies and zeppelins”), which had me alternately snickering and having horrible flashbacks to Leonard Oakland’s Victorian Lit class.
Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans’ Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn’t bring release from bondage. (Hey, this is steampunk — it needs zombies and zeppelins, right? Might as well pick Zombies for our single one impossible ingredient.) It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King’s shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers’ fortunes. In other words, it’s the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home.
Well, if that’s what an adventure is then for god’s sake why do we read? Is there anything intrinsically wrong with attempting to forget about the real world for a few hours? Yes, I’ll agree that a widespread romanticized view of a time-period distorts the truth about the period (I’m also not happy with the romantic notions we have of 1940’s Homefront America during World War II, but that’s a rant for another day). But it begs the question: how real does fiction need to be?
p.s. I actually do like one book about the Victorian era, Elaine Showalter’s Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle.