I don’t know about you, but when I think of steampunk I think of corsets, coat-tails and gadgetry. That’s the first thing off the cuff. I think of upper-class Victorian dandies. Toffs. And the image of Her Imperial Majesty, Vicky herself, springs to mind. The Victorian era seems to dwell in that part of history that is romanticised in our minds, an age of glorious empires and of scientific discovery, a “Golden Age,” like Rome, or Athens. Al Andalus.
“…broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken forays. Many of these pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright instead of going on all fours, and why they talk instead of grunting?”
Charles Dickens, writing of slums in New York.
An age of tinkers and discoverers, of exploration.
But all societies have an underbelly of the poor, of the “criminal classes,” and none spring to mind (to my mind at least) quite like those in the histories of European and North American cities. Cities like London. Now everyone’s imagining the fog. That was a fog that could kill, the pea-souper. Imagine Jack the Ripper, dim, gas-lit streets, the “women of the night” plying their trade for enough coin to sleep indoors overnight. Imagine the children in the workhouses, working twelve hour days, employed at a quarter of the going rate for adult males (or half a woman’s wage.) Charles Dickens’ London. A place where the rich and the poor didn’t rub shoulder-to-shoulder, because the poor were in the gutter where they belonged.
“Bleak House is a quintessential Victorian text, but it is also probably the best steampunk landscape that will ever be. Dickens really nailed it, especially in those proto-Ballardian passages in which everything in nature has been damaged by heavy industry.”
I think steampunk needs to go out of its way to address this – and not only because (from the outside) steampunk seems to be lacking this sensibility. China Mieville addressed the outrageous poverty, both in Perdido Street Station and in The Scar. Read some Dickens, and he’ll show you some of the poverty and despair that stalked cities all across the globe.
These people, the imagined bystanders, lurking, unwritten in the backstreets of novels and short stories…what’s their story? For every aviatrix or inventor there’s at least one slumlord, at least one hundred families of the starving poor. Hell, the aviatrix probably was a slumlord! She certainly wouldn’t have come from the workhouses or the textile factories. How do these wonderful technological advances affect the poor? They certainly couldn’t afford any of them. Imagine Crystal Palace, if you’d turned loose a man who’s just burnt his front door to stay warm.
“I hope we get the steampunk version of the Belgian Congo and the steampunk version of the 1857 Indian Uprising and all those things, to really interrogate some of the aesthetic assumptions in that field.”
I want to know what happens to the Suffrage Movement, when men have even more power. How long would the battle for women’s suffrage have to rage into the twentieth century without women working in the arms factories during the Great War? People tend to see the wave of technological advancement as being a great liberator, but historically we’ve used technology to oppress minorities. Think about Gunship Diplomacy and the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion. I saw a call for submissions recently, for an anthology, Confederacy of Steam Vs Zombies, and at first I was interested…but I think I was asking the wrong questions. I think they were after Southern Belles and gentleman slave-owners. What I want to know is if the Civil War still occurs, once machines replace slaves as the primary industrial force? Would the slaves rebel, Luddite style, smashing the looms that replaced them? Or would vast refugee camps spring up, only to be smashed by the expansionist United States as they spread westward? Would Libya be the name of an African enclave in the Pacific Northwest, or would they call it Liberia?
The impact of steampunk technology on Victorian society would be immense, and not only to those wealthy aristocrats in London, speculating on the Irish Question or the intolerable opium addictions of the young. And how would this unleashing of Victorian Industrial power impact on the rest of the world?
Would the Empire have fallen? Or would we see another Cold War, a war between proxies, as the colonial powers exploit and pillage Africa and East Asia? Would India be free? Or the Belgian Congo? How about the Philippines?
“A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic…would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans’ Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise…It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect.”
How much sooner would the impending environmental apocalypse occur in a world where coal-smoke is billowing into the atmosphere? We are, after all, talking about levels of pollution so great that the famous London “pea-souper” fog could actually kill you, about the pollution-driven evolution of the Peppered Moth (went from a speckled white to completely black, the better to remain camouflaged on trees covered in soot.) We are talking about heavy industry located in the heart of poor districts, about the Great Stink of 1858 and of nightmen and toshers, rummaging in the cess-pits and sewers to make a living.
I think that we as authors, and as fans, need to ask more of the genre, that we need to hear steampunk voices actually imagining what would happen if Victorian morals and politics had been further empowered, and had maintained a tight grip on the world. Even if these stories are only tangential to our plots – you can still talk about the aviatrixes or ‘gentleman’ explorers, but what of the match-girl starving on the street corner? Or the six year old pickpocket, imprisoned?
Steampunk needs to look at the truth of history, and the truth of steampunk doesn’t lie in creating a poetic-idyll out of the lives of slumlords and dictators.
Steampunk needs to become slumpunk.