Fantasy literature is often accused of having a regressive or conservative tone as a genre. There’s an attitude among some commentators that it’s a way of retreating from real world issues, of romanticising aspects of the past without considering its dark truths. It’s an argument that’s extended to steampunk in this interesting but not entirely convincing piece I found via For Whom The Gear Turns.
I can see where people are coming from on this. A lot of fantasy and steampunk does romanticise certain aspects of the past, and of society in general. To generalise broadly about a hugely diverse genre, we tend to look at the nicer bits more than the really wretched ones, and to repeat a lot of the same features others look at. I’d love to read more steampunk that explores Victorian social and political trends like mass protest, social division, colonialism, the emergence of Marxism, or any of a hundred other things. I sometimes try to balance that in my writing. But it’s a small part of the published picture.
However, to criticise fantasy or steampunk for under-representing these subjects is to miss an important point. What are we comparing the genre with? If it’s reality then yes, fair cop, things look whitewashed. But if it’s compared with other literature? Then I don’t think it’s a fair criticism.
Consider historical fiction. Does that address the whole range of historical experience in a balanced way? Certainly not. There are dozens of books in which the likes of Richard Sharpe fight the dastardly French, and almost none in which they steal people’s countries and subjugate their populations. Or how about the dark side of Victorian England? Sharpe’s Peterloo Massacre anyone?
How about literary fiction? Yes, some of it deals with problems of race and society, but an awful lot of it is navel gazing from a middle class, middle aged perspective. The experience of Britain’s disengaged modern underclass, while not absent, receives literary attention that’s nowhere near in proportion to the real balance of our country.
If fantasy or steampunk is, on average, quite unadventurous then that’s only because it’s like the rest of our culture. And if it weren’t for the more adventurous writers, carving out new niches on our bookshelves, then these genres would never exist in the first place. Yes, we should be more daring. But that’s not about fantasy or steampunk. That’s about people.
Picture by Pascal via Flickr creative commons