Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Steampunk: Where The Thorns Dig In

I first discovered Steampunk as a community, or subculture, a few years ago, when a friend suggested we go to the Asylum, the annual convention held in the picturesque surroundings of Lincoln’s castle and the area around it. We had a really good time, met lots of lovely people and became friends with a lot, if not most of them. The community’s offered me opportunities for expression, for my writing to be published and other things. Sure I may not enjoy the Asylum as much as I did that first year but that’s largely to do with the fact that I find it a bit overwhelming (and a lot of the time the panels I attend feel like déjà vu – but that’s much more to do with the fact that I’ve sat in on a lot of panels about getting published and writing; really there’s little wisdom that can be imparted from them after the first few). It’s a community that’s full of energy, full of ideas brimming up and a strong ‘do it yourself’ ethos.

On the books front, I appear to be in the minority in that I read steampunk books and comics before I discovered the social element of it all. I enjoyed Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and George Mann’s Newbury and Hobbs books amongst others. I liked films that, if they weren’t steampunk, were so close that they might as well have been. None of this has changed really, the vast majority of things I liked before I was introduced to the social side of things I still like and I admire the artistry of Steampunk.



Why then do I have a certain reticence with regards to Steampunk? It’s hard to put my finger on, but something nags at the back of my brain, that’s it’s just not me.

Warning, opinions lie ahead.

In part it’s because the vision of the world Steampunk seems to be built on doesn’t really jibe with my own. Steampunk seems to see the world as one where people are uncouth, where patriotism is on the decline and institutions like the royal family aren’t valued. Perhaps that was true a few years ago, but now these ideas, to me, seem out of date.

Support for the monarchy in the UK is at something like 73%, something I don’t think was just caused by the Queen’s appearance in the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. The truth is that the British have always supported the monarchy, something I find sad and a little strange, being a republican by nature (yes, yes I know Blair was terrible, Cameron’s no better – that’s not an argument for monarchy, it’s an argument for better politicians and more voter engagement). I suspect the legacy of the Commonwealth and a breed of royals that have for the last 60 plus years made it their modus operandi to mostly stay out of the way and keep their mouths shut, Princes Charles and Philip excluded, have softened the blow and given the institution a cuddly exterior. Holding my nose, I must admit the House of Windsor is a good advert for the UK and, monetarily, they make sense; if only for fleecing American and Japanese tourists of their hard earned cash.

Looking back I wonder how much of the dip in the family’s approval ratings were connected to Diana’s death. She became a cult figure during the 1990s, seen as a sacrificial lamb against the cold, closed ranks of an uncaring family. But that was nearly twenty years ago and things have definitely moved on – after all we’re altogether more interested (and appalled) in seeing Prince Harry either dressed as a Nazi or in the altogether these days.

I’m also a little suspicious of the claims that there’s a lack of patriotism, partially because I suspect the Olympics really reversed any trend for that sort of thing. So much patriotic fervour is channelled into sport (as a proxy for war or so I understand) it’s untrue to say it doesn’t exist. Again, lack of patriotism is something I associate with the past, with the end of the last century or with Gordon Brown’s weird desire for us to have a Britishness Day to celebrate being British. If I recall it was never that popular an idea, if only because there wasn’t an extra day off in it, and because the vast majority of people were actually a little confused about what it would entail.

Since World War 2, which I note with sadness has become our nation’s founding myth; the British have drifted away from overt patriotism. It usually gets compared to America’s weird saluting of the flag or the lack of criticism we hear outside their borders on issues of policy, unless you’re talking to someone who has an axe to grind. Then too, there’s the issue of the National Front’s usurpation of the Union Jack and the echoes of Nazism that left my parents’ generation uneasy with anything that banged the drum too vigorously. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t patriotic though, only that there’s a certain ‘un-Britishness’ about that sort of thing now, which ironically suggests that the stiff upper lip is still firmly in place.

In my own way I consider myself to be a patriot, it’s just that the things I’m proud of about Britain aren’t the usual things – honestly I don’t give a fig about two world wars and a world cup, which often drown out everything else the country’s achieved (Empire aside). What I’m proud of are people like Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, the Romantic poets and the likes of Babbage and Lovelace; the legacy of inventors and artists that have created the culture we live in. I find it sad that we don’t celebrate them more (which is one of the things I do like about Steampunk, ironically). It seems a shame that so much of this feeling is mixed up with warfare, even in Steampunk with its mock regiments and focus on the service. I appreciate that a great many Steampunks are actually soldiers, or have been and that the services benefit a great many people, but it doesn’t sit easily with me that in a society that’s at war, we have people pretending to be soldiers like this.

The last point to address, the uncouthness of society is an odd one. It’s hard to disagree that the world has become much coarser since I was a child; the presence of lap dancing clubs and lad’s mags certainly points to that, as do pop music videos where women are treated as pieces of meat (as my friend Cara pointed out at her blog ‘Oh We Do Love’ http://ohwedo.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/blurring-gender-lines.html) and there’s an argument that people in general are ruder and less patient, though in part the immediacy of technology is to blame for that. Part of this the problem is that we see it more these days – not because it was rarer in the past but because we’re constantly watched and the media is full of scare stories about feral youths smashing places up. In this Steampunk doesn’t defy the Zeitgeist but embraces it. I’m not so convinced that we’re losing our sense of etiquette, a quick search of Amazon shows me over 12000 results for a search of ‘etiquette guides’ (okay one of those is a Gaile Carriger novel but the vast majority are recently published books on how to comport oneself in social situations). That suggests to me that we are more concerned with how to behave, not less.

These points may, as I’ve already said, were well established a decade ago. For all I know they were standard for Steampunks in the 1990s when the scene was bubbling under. Now, the rest of the world has caught up, and Steampunk isn’t rebelling against a ‘pit’ of barbarism anymore but reflecting mainstream society.

Another area where there seems to be a rebellion that isn’t, is in regards to the identities Steampunks create, the Lords, Ladies, Majors, Professors and so on that litter the scene. On one hand they do seem revolutionary, on the other… isn’t it just recreating the excesses of Heat Magazine?

These personas are the 1%, the people at the top of the tree, and whilst it’s harmless fantasy it says as much about our society as the fact that Batman and Iron Man are the most popular superheroes. In this sense Steampunk only reinforces the Zeitgeist, rather than challenging it and whilst it’s something that comes through from novels as much as anything else it seems like that moment where fantasy threatens to turn poisonous. Most of us are on the lower side of the gap between rich and poor, most of us will be caught up in the detrimental effects of current economic policies and the march of technology as white collar jobs are winnowed as surely as blue collar jobs were during the 1970s and 80s. To deny that and to kick downwards only serves the real elites.

It seems myopic to me, to focus on the tiny sliver of Victorian society that did go to garden parties and grand balls. I appreciate that few people want to be the dregs of society, the lower rungs of the great pyramid of Victorian ‘organic society’; the kind of people who were castigated in newspaper columns for spending their money on tea or coffee if they couldn’t really afford it. The attraction after all is to step out of that existence for an evening and be one of the privileged. It’s also true that we know little of the lives of the working classes; there’s more documentary evidence of the aristocrats because more of their world has survived. At the same time all these titles and airs and graces make me want to ask where the normal people are in all this. It makes me dream of urchin flash mobs and Chartist marches, Anarchist meetings and beggar’s banquets. Frankly, it makes me long for grime and muck and brass, not tight uniforms and faux military honours.

One area where steampunk might benefit people in this regard is if it uses it not inconsiderable drive and ability to address things in new ways to help people find alternative work, as it seems likely that if we’re on course for a cyberpunk future, old trades and alternative ways of doing things will be needed. This might be possible once the glare of the upper world fades and it drops back down to the underground where it can reinvent itself. But those things, the inevitable submergence and the possibility that people can learn new skills and find new paths through the community are for the future. At present the subculture is defiantly middle class (in common with the vast majority of subcultures) and seems to be caught in that bubble. As the new darling of the mainstream it's being crunched up like a curious bon-bon, ready to be spat out again once the cool hunters find their next victim.

Returning to my point about novels, I think a great many of them now rely on far too many clichés – zombies, weird technology that never seems to make it out of the story to change the world around it unless it’s an airship or a ray gun, plucky female protagonists*; often a long protracted war. These seem to be the nuts and bolts of the subgenre. Whilst he detests the stuff, and I’m loathe to mention him because of comments he’s made in the past, in prose fiction only Lavie Tidhar seems to be content to overturn the applecart with a different vision, one that cocks a snook at the ideas of empire and nationality. Alan Moore of course deserves a mention here, if only for taking a cast of monsters and using them to throw doubt on the legitimacy of Britain’s imperial dream.

Then too there’s another problem here. Most good Science Fiction or Fantasy underscores something about the world and discusses it through the novel. Whether that’s the perennial Cyberpunk question ‘what does it mean to be human’ or the discussions around feminism that you’ll find in Juliet McKenna’s Hadrumal Crisis or Emma Newman’s Split Worlds books; or Neil Gaiman’s quest for meaning in the world by writing about old pagan gods and their place in a world that no longer believes in them. Good fiction of all types goes beyond a narrative, either wittingly or unwittingly, and talks about other things; ‘stuff’ as it were. To date I haven’t read a modern steampunk novel that does that. Classics like the Time Machine which is so obviously about class warfare it’s hilarious, do it in spades. The Morlocks literally 'eat the rich'. So why don’t the books being written now?

So if I don’t like all this stuff then what do I like and what do I want to see?

It’s a valid question; after all I’ve basically typed a thousand plus word whinge about the thing haven’t I? At the very least I should put my money where my mouth is and 'have a dream'.

At the height of the subculture there’s a brilliant vision engaged in Steampunk. Whilst I’m less and less certain about the merits of its historical fixation and worry the UK is miring itself in the past on every front and relying on failed strategies (what was it Einstein said about madness?) at least Steampunk is looking forward as well, even if it is dreaming of an apocalypse and what might follow afterwards. As the rest of the world runs around in a recession induced craze, Steampunks seem to be looking at what they can do that’s different. Where the subculture connects to the world only good things happen. I suspect the majority of what Goth calls 'mundanes' are entertained rather than repulsed by Steampunk - its a friendly, open grouping that seeks to grow through inclusion rather than by exclusivity (though one might argue that that particular dragon will rear its head as more and more people become interested; as the price of being 'in fashion').

Realistically I’d like to see more appreciation for the period(s) that are being mimicked in dress and mannerisms. The Steampunk period can be seen as running from about 1814 to 1914 – though arguably it’s even longer given that steam engines were first used in the modern period from the 1700s, first being used to power factory machinery from the 1780s.

Effectively we’re talking about a period that has immense social and political changes in it. Think of how much has changed in the last 60 odd years and then consider how the country transformed in Queen Victoria’s reign. We overlook that there are arguably three different Victorian periods, early, middle and late and each with a different ethos and expectations. Then, you have to consider not only Edwardianism but also the rump end of the Regency and George IV at the start of the period and possibly the Napoleonic War period as well: though I’d be more likely to refer to that as Regency Punk.

The politics of the century are immense, complicated and tangled. They include the machinations of the Great Game and Empire, Irish Home Rule and the fall of the East India Company; and the rise of Germany and the United States as serious rivals to Britain. There are also the beginnings of Feminism, rooted in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women and the Labour movement as well as the emergence of various political theories, including Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Capital (yes I know that Communism’s a discredited political ideology, but how long is it going to be before laissez faire Capitalism is too?) Then there’s social exploration, where the middle classes discovered the conditions that the poor lived in, independent of the Poor Law Guardians and the Work House. These are amongst the things that grew the modern world, which led to things like National Insurance and pensions and other such mad ideas that would have sent Gladstone spinning in his grave.

Eventually they would pave the way for the welfare state and NHS that most of us are dependent on, and which it now, sadly, seems we are told we would be better off without (as an aside if the welfare state is going the way of the dodo I expect to see my taxes shrink to a pittance Mr Cameron, you obviously won’t need the money if you aren’t using taxation to support people).

It also has some corking, if mad, ideas like John Stuart Mill’s idea that everyone should have the vote but you should get more votes depending on how educated you are. Totally unworkable but let’s face it, it’s barking enough to have an appeal.

And that’s just the British Empire; I haven’t even mentioned the Paris Commune, the creation of Italy and Germany as sovereign states or the Wizard of Oz being a parable for Bimetallism (which is just brilliant, surely?)

Yes, I get that part of steampunk (and Goth for that matter) is taking aspects of history and repurposing it and that we all do this, no matter who we are. To add to my whinge list, it feels very much to me as if there’s a great deal of picking and choosing going on and not a lot of appreciation for the sociological side of the period; almost as if the interest is invested in tangible artefacts like steam trains and wagons. It also feels as if we boil the period down to one point of view, brushing over the pluralism the Victorians lived with in an effort to see them all as pro Monarchy, pro Christian, anti-social mobility and anti-democracy caricature. The truth is far more complicated.

At the same time I appreciate it’s very hard to show these things in an interesting fashion, a steam locomotive is far more visual than a discussion on the unification of Germany and far less contentious. So I do get it.

I just think it’s a shame.

In fiction I’d definitely like to see a break away from ‘posh people fight zombies and have adventures’ thing and see fresh ideas as well as novels that have heroes and heroines from other classes. I’d also like to see more worlds where technology spreads out and starts to change things in civil society (I know, I know that’s not where the adventure is but if you want to bring things home, then it’s the only place to go). And of course I’d like to see more books and stories that talk about ‘stuff’ and don’t just set out make pretty distractions. Come on, we’ve all got stuff to say and SF and Fantasy are the best ways to discuss ideas because you can do it without being fettered by ‘reality’, whatever the hell that is. So why must we have dull narratives that just plod through cliché after cliché?

Of course the answer is staring me in the face. If I want change, I must embrace the Punk element and do it myself.

*Something I don’t actually begrudge authors for using given the huge number of women who buy novels in comparison to male readers.