Friday, 21 October 2011

Steampunk and Reality

I suppose that I should start by saying that I love Steampunk and the styles that it creates. I adore the look and feel of it and I also love the huge amounts of creativity that's sprung from the subculture that's grown out of the literary subgenre. Whether it's the likes of Dr Geof's cartoons (http://islandofdrgeof.co.uk), Herr Doktor's wonderful creations, the charm of the steambear competition at the Asylum or just the fashions sported by Steampunks around the world the subculture is brimming with wonderful ideas and concepts (not to mention that the whole thing is a hop, a skip and a jump away from a fairly coherent political philosophy).

Steampunk fiction is similarly excellent, full of the strange and exotic, the dark and dramatic, with wonderful heroes, dastardly villains and awe inspiring technology. Best of all it's such a meta genre that almost anything can fit snugly under it's broad brim. It can embrace everything from alternate histories (Steampunk's forte by definition I suppose), weird romance, vampires, aliens and other monsters all the way to the Cthulhu Mythos and beyond.

So why the "Reality" in the post title? If the subculture and subgenre is as fabulous as all that why would I have any reservations?

Partly it's because I can't help but feel that the whole thing runs the risk of being a little myopic and selective in what it sees in the past. There seems to be a lot of focus on the bright shiny things in the Victorian period and not a great deal on the terrible conditions that many normal people lived in. There's an uneasy feeling too that the inevitable but tragic concequences of Empire are brushed under the rug in both the subculture and the subgenre in favour of a "cracking good wheeze" (in truth the British Empire was sustained, as all empires are, by nasty tactics and an extraordinary amount of bloodshed: http://gu.com/p/32mgt) and a there's still a very great feeling of "White Man's Burden" about both the fiction and the culture which is regrettable. I'm sympathetic to Charles' Stross' comments about the subgenre, though I don't think I'd go so far as him in his comments (www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/10/the-hard-edge-of-empire.html) especially with regards the second artist effect.

It's certainly true that Steampunk Magazine (www.steampunkmagazine.com) has addressed a number of the issues that surround the genre, with their focus on non European cultures and the role of women in the Victorian age (as well as critique figures like Edison). How much of that will trickle out into the wider world however is something that at the moment we just don't know.

The other thing that concerns me is the great focus on militaria. Whilst I have to admit that I think that many of the steampunk uniforms look glorious I'm also of the opinion that war isn't something we should aspire to and I would love to see the development of more, well, civilian aspects to go alongside the fancy ray guns and other forms of weaponry.

Which all leads, I suppose, to the question of what I'd like to see more of, especially as I'm not willing to declare a plague on both the houses and flounce off into the night, camp vampire style. Really I'd love to more fiction exploring the darker and nastier aspects of the subgenre, not mad science or occult dark but what happens to children who lose their limbs in industrial accidents dark; or the darkness and menace of a steampunk styled Opium Wars or Indian Mutiny. I feel that we should not be frightened to stare into the real shadow the Victorian era casts and engage with it, rather than simply making up monsters to project in a shadow puppet show. I'm not sure I'd want to go as far as Stross in his comments about there needing to be a "mundane" steampunk story, I'm not sure that such a thing would be successful, but bringing a bit of hard edged historical accuracy in wouldn't exactly hurt things.