Thinking about the nature of steampunk got me considering an issue that it tends to ignore, but which is inextricably tied into the industrial nineteenth century society on which steampunk is based. That issue is imperialism, and the nature of empires, and it’s interesting to think about how it fits into fantastic literature.
Empires are a fairly common feature of genre fiction, especially fantasy. Whether it’s the imaginatively named The Empire of Star Wars, or the expansionist evil of Mordor in Lord of the Rings, we love a good empire. But this is usually just empire used as a shorthand way of indicating an evil and/or expansionist nation, a big bad for the heroes to oppose. It doesn’t get into the nature of empire.
There are some notable recent examples bucking this trend. George R R Martin’s Westeros is clearly an empire, made up of disparate nations brought together by war and compromise, some more reluctantly than others. Martin uses features of empire, such as a government geographically and culturally distant from many of its people, and the resentments and rebellions that exist on the fringes of a vast state.
Joe Abercrombie hs created another example in his Union. Again, this is a nation that doesn’t self identify as an empire, but clearly is one. And again, features of empire are explored. An elite turning the efforts of the masses to their own ends, especially in the case of the mage Bayazid. The role of the military in such a society, with actions on the field of battle shaping and shaped by political competition and hierarchy. The dehumanising experience of people ground down, often to their deaths, by the needs of a state for whom they are anonymous resources, as shown throughout The Heroes. And the conflicts on the fringe of empire in Red Country, as so-called civilisation bears down upon the wilds beyond, restricting the choices of free living people, leaving them to flee, submit or die.
In some ways, it’s hardly surprising that empire is seldom dealt with in this way, especially in the sort of celebratory fiction that is much steampunk and Victorian fantasy. It’s hard to portray an empire as something sympathetic, and so it is usually a villainous institution seen from the outside, or an absence, an empire in name only, like the Britannia that plays background to much gaslight fantasy. I’m not judging this, just noticing the pattern, and perhaps the opportunity. As Martin and Abercrombie have shown, there’s a lot of interest to be found in this theme, and for writers of steampunk in particular, there are new ideas to be had.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve missed loads of other examples of empires. If so, let me know – it’s as good for me to learn something knew as to keep writing what I already think.