“Steampunk often deals in the exciting and glamorous side of Victoriana. Is it in danger of becoming a reimagining of the Victorian era without the crimes of empire and so perpetuating a one-sided view of our past?”
A friend of mine suggested that question for a panel I chaired at FantasyCon this year. As a fan and a writer of steampunk, it’s an uncomfortable question to address. It’s a question that challenges us. It can feel like an attack on the genre and what we do with it. But I think it’s important not to shy away from that discomfort.
It’s an inescapable fact of history that the achievements of the Victorian era were built on the labour and resources of people from around the world, people who were at best pitifully under-rewarded for their work, at worst enslaved and worked to death, who never saw the benefits of the industrial era that a small elite did. Cotton picked by slaves on American plantations. Resources torn with bloody hands from across Africa and India. The exploitation of impoverished labourers across the industrial slums and enclosed farmlands of Europe. In reality, the achievements that inspire steampunk were the amazing pinnacle of an economy made possible by cruelty and exploitation.
Of course, that same era also created a great distance between the struggles of an increasingly globalised society and its end products. Few in the European and American middle and upper classes had the ability to realise how their cotton blouses, their railway journeys, their Earl Grey tea were made possible, never mind the chasm-spanning bridges and awe-inspiring airships.
So if we never portray the dark side of that era, then yes, we are in danger of perpetuating the same one-sided view that privileged elite had. Because our fantasies shape the way we view reality, in sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious ways. They can perpetuate a view that these achievements don’t have consequences.
This isn’t to argue that every steampunk story should delve deep into the dark side of Victoriana. I want fun adventure romps set in that era. I want secondary steampunk worlds that are all about the sense of wonder. But I want stories that show the dark side as well, so that as a genre we create a varied perspective that encourages discussion about the consequences of industrialisation, consequences we feel to this day.
It’s OK to want comfortable entertainment. But it’s also useful to face the discomfort sometimes. Because the world can be an uncomfortable place and fiction is a safe way of exploring that.
I’ve tried to balance those two things in writing the Epiphany Club books, to have fun and flippant adventures that also expose the bad stuff. The results are inevitably imperfect, but I’m proud of the fact that I’ve at least tried.
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