Mad scientists, airships and class: the politics of Steampunk by Rjurik Davidson
Rjurik Davidson is an author who tackled this topic in 2012 an Australian magazine called Overland. I ended up reading this one because it was listed on Cate Russel-Cole‘s Steampunk Inspiration and How-To for Writers as “a controversial article by people who just don’t get the concept of fantasy” and I absolutely agree with that as an assessment of the literary critics quoted by Davidson, but not of Davidson himself. (Though I don’t agree with Davidson that Steampunk has reached its zenith and is in decline.)
I’ve included the first few paragraphs and a link to the main article below. I’d love to hear what people think of the article, so please come and report back by commenting on this post.
“The subgenre of Steampunk – that subgenre of speculative fiction set in a fantastical Victorian era filled with airships, mad scientists and mechanical replicas of people or animals – may well have reached its zenith. With the new Sherlock Holmes movies, The Golden Compass or Scorsese’s Hugo, it seems possible that the initial burst of zest and inspiration will now settle into a more subtle ticking over of novels and films as the subgenre colonises the cultural spaces still open to it (Heart of Darkness steampunk? Opium-war Steampunk?).
For some time a debate has been raging about the politics of the subgenre.
For some, Steampunk is a reactionary nostalgia for past that never happened. In a review last year, author and critic Adam Roberts claimed that Steampunk is a perfect example of Jameson’s claim that the culture of postmodernism means a loss of any sense of historicity. For Roberts, Steampunk is ‘a studied dismantling of the consecutiveness of history in the service of a particular set of styles and fashions.’ He continues:
the appeal of the genre is in the way it finesses the past into the present. This is an aesthetic strategy it shares with Heroic Fantasy (or much of it) as a mode: a disinclination to encounter the past as past. Most twenty-first century representations of a notional “past” are based on the idea that people in the nineteenth century (or, in post-Tolkienian Fantasy, the middle ages) were basically people exactly like us, and therefore people with whom it requires no effort from the reader to identify.
According to Roberts, Steampunk jettisons a sense of the logic of history. Fundamentally, the subgenre is an irrationalism.
Others have mounted similar arguments. A couple of years ago, science fiction author Charles Stross claimed on his blog that most steampunk refused to face up to the Nineteenth Century as it really was. In that world, Stross claimed:
Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat. I could continue at length. It’s the world that bequeathed us the adjective “Dickensian”, that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto. It’s the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing (or the passing of that which came next).”
Read the whole article here.
Thanks for pointing this out – it’s a really interesting article.
Personally I don’t agree with the idea that steampunk necessarily involves detachment from considerations of history. I think that, like fantasy, it allows us to approach elements of history in different ways. I’d like it if that involved more engagement with the dark side of the Victorian era – the class struggles, oppression, deprivation, colonialism and so on. But historical fiction is just as guilty of glossing over that when it wants to, and there are people who seek to make that more prominent in steampunk, for example Steampunk Magazine.
December 16, 2013 at 2:40 am
I especially believe in the notion that if you present people with a scenario without prejudice it will bring those prejudices that do exist into consideration, which is not at all “glossing over” them. In my own steampunkish novel I am writing I am making a point of giving women college educations as a general rule specifically to show how this time and place differs from history, which (I hope) will make people think about women’s rights in our own history.
December 16, 2013 at 12:46 pm
Thank you for listing my blog post on your blog. I appreciate it and wholeheartedly agree, Steampunk is thriving. I know quite a few Steampunk writers.
January 5, 2014 at 7:26 am
I really appreciated this post. I absolutely LOVE the steampunk aesthetic but in the more tech-driven works there always seems to be something missing for me, and I think that’s awareness of the social and political context of the source material.
Not that fantasy always has to be political, but there is a wide open opportunity for it in steampunk. For example China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station has a very dark political tone (maybe it’s debatable if that’s steampunk, but it’s close).
January 30, 2014 at 8:08 pm
I have Perdido Street on my list of books to read 🙂
I think that at its heart, good sci-fi and fantasy are works that use imagination to explore what it means to be human, and because humans are social animals we should also delve into our social trappings like culture and politics. I hope you’ll find more on my site that you enjoy!
January 31, 2014 at 12:59 pm