In recent years the popularity of Steampunk, as an aesthetic movement, has increased almost exponentially as the outlook for the future has become increasingly bleak. As renowned author Christopher Fowler put it recently, “When a nation is strong it tells stories of the future. When it's weak it tells stories of the past.”
While this is all well and good for an author now probably best known for his series of Steampunk novels, there is a growing concern within certain quarters regarding the image that proponents of Steampunk are putting across to the rest of the world.
At the heart of Steampunk culture are the ideals of elegance, good manners and a genial sense of decorum embodied by the Victorians and epitomised in the phrase, “Be splendid!” However, just as the Victorians harked back to a chivalric past of courtly romance that never really existed, so modern Steampunks are in danger of airbrushing out all that was bad about the 19th Century, and thereby alienating whole sections of modern society.
I have heard certain authors and Steampunks declare that Victorian Britain was a much more pleasant place than today’s Big Society, that people knew how to behave back then, ignoring the fact that in the 19th Century the State still executed criminals whilst high class gentlemen sought the pleasures offered by children who were all too worldly-wise for their tender years.
I will happily admit to having only a narrow experience of Steampunks, and only in this country, but those I have encountered have been predominantly white and, just as tellingly, for all the top hats, corsets, goggles and Victorian laser guns, I have never seen anyone dressed as a chimney sweep or got us as a cholera victim.
I realise I won’t make many friends by saying this, and may even risk losing some readers, but I am a Steampunk author. I am not a Steampunk. I do not personally feel the need to dress in a three-piece suit, carry a cane, or wax my moustache on a daily basis. But I can see how the elegance of an earlier age might appeal to people, enabling them to escape the mundane humdrum nature of daily existence in the 21st Century. After all, there are plenty of examples in modern life where a bit of glamour and basic good manners are sadly, and noticeably, missing.
However, if you buy into the whole Steampunk aesthetic, togging yourself up in vintage frock coats, antique army uniforms, tailored waistcoats or bespoke ball gowns, there is a risk, I feel, of looking back at the past through rose-tinted spectacles (probably with extra lenses attached and a few cogs thrown in for good measure). Then what ends up being celebrated is Empire, and all the negative connotations that go with that particular word. After all, Imperialism is not known for its culturally, or ethnically, diverse outlook.
Were the Victorians really any better or worse than us, or the people of any other period in history for that matter? Are we right to place them on pedestals akin to a pantheon of the Industrial Age. True, it was Victorians who brought us education for all, sewerage, mass communication and transportation, but what about the achievements of the hundred plus years since then – electricity in every home, the microchip, the Internet, all manner of medical vaccines, renewable energy sources and the like?
Now this is where Steampunk literature comes in, if that’s not to grandiose and conceited a concept. It is in Steampunk novels, short stories and comic strips that you will find issues of equality, race, poverty, a divided society, and the industrial rape of the world addressed. Lavie Tidhar’s Bookman Histories, for example, deal with revolution in the Victorian world, while in my own Pax Britannia setting, scrape away the veneer of civilised society and you will soon discover that Magna Britannia – the British Empire itself – is in fact the enemy, pillaging the planet and its peoples of all they have in the name of science, advances in manufacturing and exploration.
So is Steampunk guilty of glorifying a dark period in British history? I believe it is, but it’s not too late to reverse that trend, and the discussion begins in the books that themselves celebrate this burgeoning cultural phenomenon.
To keep up to date with what Jonathan is working on now, visit his blog at www.JonathanGreenAuthor.com, and you can find about more about the dystopian steampunk world of Pax Britannia at www.PaxBritannia.com.