Holiday Question: Do We Have Moral Obligations As Writers Of Steampunk?

Morality—this is a tricky issue, but specifically with regard to the subject in the sense of morality plays, as in good versus evil, bad guys/girls versus good guys/girls. Steampunk, as a genre, relies particularly heavily on this sort of interaction in its plots, but then so do most speculative genres to a great degree. Still, with Victorian settings so often prevalent in Steampunk tales, that particular time’s concepts of right and wrong, good versus evil, often have to figure very prominently into the stories of Steampunk. Whether set in this world, a parallel world, or wherever, if it is modeled on the Victorian Period of our world, morality often plays a key issue.


With the holiday season coming fast upon us, and with the attendant focus this tends to place upon our moral obligations, our behavior toward our fellow humans during this time of year (for Steampunk, think about the moral obligations of Ebenezer Scrooge, etc.), I thought it would be a good time to speak about morality in our writing.


Let's refine this topic a little, ask a couple of specific questions here, and see if we can come up with some answers for them.


1. Do we have obligations to write morally sound works, or as Steampunk authors, dealing with such a flexible genre, are we free of such restrictions, can ignore such bourgeoisie social constraints (despite Victorianism often having such a strong part in our works? And,


2. If there were no repercussions, no overt consequences to us as writers, such as lawsuits, editors and publishers shunning our work, etc., would we be more likely as a group to write without any moral restraints at all? Would it hurt or help our readership, us, and/or society if we did this?


If by now you think we aren't going to have conclusive answers to these questions in this article, you are probably right! That's pretty much a given. However, the idea here is just to discuss these topics, to bring them to the fore, and give some thought as to what each of us might feel about this particular issue.


It's obvious that the spectrum of opinion on this issue will be a broad one. It, no doubt, ranges from those on the far left with an "anything goes," the "sky is the limit" attitude, to those on the far right who believe "we need to be careful about everything we say as authors."  I have a little trouble with that last one, because in a multifaceted society, even though it is often the more rigid, Steampunk Victorian one, it’s still a melting pot. It’s obvious that even in the London of those days, for example, we have multiple religions, each with widely different held points of view and different beliefs.


So the minute we try to restrict Steampunk authors as to what they can and cannot write according to any one certain set of religious rules or moral belief systems (as defined for the period), we then run into big trouble. For instance, what if your Steampunk novel or story is about a Victorian era, but one where vampires rule? Wouldn’t they, by their very nature, have to have a different set of morals than, say, a Steampunk world set on a different planet, where a rigid, formal, and god-fearing society might rule with the power of airships to back them up? Do you think this unlikely? Well, the British Empire behaved just that way during the Victorian Period with its “gunboat diplomacy,” and belief in the “white man’s burden,” that it was their “duty” to civilize, even at the point of a gun, whether the locals liked the idea or not!


See what I mean? The Steampunk writer must somehow incorporate a coherent moral system into their tale to make it believable for their universe, but that system must somehow also accommodate the “real” characteristics of the society they are trying to create, and still appeal to today’s readers. In other words, it must relate in a “realistic way” (as the readers view it) to the settings created by the author. Steampunk is an incredibly flexible genre, given to lots of crossover. Therefore, authors must somehow incorporate moral systems into these crossover societies they create that seem real and that should work somehow, someway, for the reader, as well.


But this can have problems for authors when it comes to what the reader will tolerate in this regard. After all, they’ve been brought up, in general, with moral codes of their own, and they probably won’t enjoy stories that deviate too far from them. For instance, those who believe in the basic concepts of good versus evil probably won’t want to see an “evil” character (with no “redeeming” qualities at all) win the day against the “good” ones.


Between the combination of readers who entertain various and differing moral codes and religious beliefs, and authors who also have such various ones, as well, writing for a large audience, when it comes to incorporating a society’s sets of morals and religious beliefs into a story isn’t always easy!


Now just to mention as a side-note; there are many writing outlets, publications for those authors and readers who hold strongly religious and moral imperatives, the need to write only that which is strictly within the bounds of their personal religious beliefs. Victorian-style Steampunk settings can often lend themselves well to this particular group, because after all, the Victorians (at least, superficially) had a strict code of moral conduct, and perhaps even stricter religious views. Although, as I think we all know in reality, Victorians could be very hypocritical on many an occasion. Still, for those authors who wish to follow a more rigid set of moral guidelines, ones that adhere to their particular religious beliefs, Steampunk makes for a good genre in which to write.


However, again, it does rather make a problem to try to restrict Steampunk writers by any one set of religious precepts or moral strictures. How would such account for vampires as citizens, heroes, “the good guy,” for instance? It can be done, but it’s tricky! You still have to incorporate some “redeeming social values” into them, to make them palatable to the readers. Perhaps then, we need something that all Steampunk writers, en masse, can adhere to instead. Could we do this with a set of secular society's moral restraints and guidelines instead of those founded on strictly religious ones?


There's a bit of a problem there, too. For example, even England's overall moral viewpoint is not the same as Australia, Russia, Norway, or America's viewpoints. A recent poll showed that only 7 percent of the British population attends church regularly. In America, over 50 percent still attend church regularly. So there is definitely going to be a different viewpoint with regard to how stories portray their cultures and heroes, at least to some degree, if only to please these different, culture-oriented audiences.


We Steampunk writers form a worldwide community, despite the fact that we all write in the same genre. Same holds for readers of Steampunk. And this means any one country's set of morals will simply not necessarily work well for the whole group. You cannot easily overlay, for instance, a Steampunk story written in Victorian Nepal with one written about Outback Australia of the same period, where a much more wilder and “woolly” attitude prevailed. At least, you couldn’t do it without difficulty, and “realism” of the tale might suffer. Another example? A Steampunk novel written for a Muslim audience would not and could not go down the same way as one written and aimed at Southern California liberals.


Although, I could see some wonderful writing opportunities in this, as well. Think about a Steampunk world in which Zen Buddhist precepts prevailed in the Australian Outback of the day—that could be a fun tale to write! However, in general (and we are talking just generally here) trying to force some other belief system, ism, or moral code of conduct on a completely different sort of society through a novel would be tough to do. You, as an author, would have to be very careful to make the tale internally self-consistent in this regard and that can be VERY tricky. If you do it, it must be well done, or the readers will howl!


So, what’s the alternative?


Well, if every country has a different set of standards their readers go by, could an author than only go by his/her particular country of residence. An American author might go by American standards, as opposed to a German who would go by Germany's standards. I’m sure most of us would agree, for instance, that a Steampunk story set in a Bismarkian world, with strict codes of Junker conduct and a Prussian “warrior” outlook, would have to be different than, say, a Back Bay Boston setting in Victorian America.


So would a national-level system of moral standards by which all authors could write, work? Often, yes. And truthfully, often this is exactly how stories are written, because these are the only cultural standards a particular author knows. Yet, this does act to narrow the possible target audience for such tales worldwide, because of this very national “regionalism” imbued into the stories.


Alas, even this national level isn't a perfect solution, either. The moral standards within countries vary markedly from region to region and from time to time. Today, Massachusetts, for example, is in stark contrast to the morals of, say, today’s Kentucky. And even if we just take Kentucky on its own, the moral strictures there are greatly in variance between the metropolitan areas, and the extremely rural, hill-country ones. Go just twenty miles out of a city there and it's a completely different world, folks. What works in town may well not work in the countryside, and even seem offensive to them.


Okay then, so a story with a set of moral principles, a code of ethics based on any one religion must by its very nature be limited to more narrowly-defined audiences, ones which will receive such stories well. So how about not even letting religion enter into it at all? Again, keep it secular. Well, good luck with that! We have the same problem, because secular society's moral belief systems vary just the same, and not only widely from country to country, but from city to city, and even town to town (not to mention from time to time). They just aren’t consistent.


What then can we do as an entire group of authors to have moral guidelines for all of us, and should we even bother to try? Now we come back to those questions I earlier mentioned. To paraphrase, should we have moral obligations to write moral works, or should we write what we want, publish, and be damned?


It's tough to answer that one! There can be repercussions! For instance, decades ago in the Sixties, Time Magazine, which had a cover that asked, “Is God Dead?" had a response on a national level. There was a definite and powerful negative backlash! So push your particular Steampunk society's moral limits too far from the “relative norm” of today’s societies, and you may be buying yourself big problems with lots of angry readers. Oops! There go your sales!


Should you do it anyway? Do you wish to make what you think is a valuable statement and against all odds? Again, that answer can only be on each author’s individual level. That is you choice. If you are just doing it to be doing it—well, that's also your choice, but I do hope you know just how strong the consequences for such an action can be. In some cases, in some countries, and even in America, the consequences can be life threatening.


Remember the author, Salman Rushdie? He had to go into hiding, literally for years, because some Muslims took his book, The Satanic Verses (rightly or wrongly), as a great offense, thought his book a terrible blasphemy. His life was threatened, and those doing the threatening meant it!


This is just one example of what can happen to an author. Moreover, remember, we live in a globally “politically correct” culture these days. We are fast becoming a people who are very intolerant of intolerance, so say the wrong thing, and an author’s career can be ruined. Look at what has happened with any number of stand-up comedians recently who have overstepped the bounds of current political correctness. The results for their careers were disastrous. This happens to authors, too. So make that statement as an author if you feel you must, but beware of the consequences, the resulting implications. They can and often are, profound.


Now our second question; if there were no such repercussions, such negative consequences, would we as a group go to the extreme and just write about anything and everything, "good," and "bad" (as defined by our particular society, or religious groups of the day)?


I think we might. Heck, look at television. The more the FCC loosens rules and regulations, the further television shows go. The more they tighten them, the more restricted television shows become. Whether or not being loose or tight with such restrictions is a good thing, I leave to each author to determine for him or herself. But I will say this, as much as I loved "I Love Lucy," and "Leave It To Beaver," as a kid, I now find upon viewing such shows as an adult in today's world, that they are rather boring, a bit dull, and awfully pontificating at times. Take "Father Knows Best," for example. I once enjoyed that show. Nevertheless, by today's standards, even that title is irksome and definitely sexist to me!


Which brings up another point—our societies keep evolving in their moral viewpoints, and we authors often have a lot of influence in that regard. So, do we push that envelope? Well, again, the choice is yours. Steampunk is an ideal genre to do this in, if that’s what you want to do. But should we?


Me, I'm in the middle. There are topics I feel strongly about, and so will push the envelope with regard to them. Others, of less importance to me, I just choose to ignore. And there are some that are like the "third rail!" To touch them is to invite career suicide. I only approach these with real trepidation, and have to really ponder for a long time if it is even worth "going there!"


I will say this. The concepts of right and wrong, of good versus evil have been with us always as a people, throughout time. They reached a particularly formalized and strict level in the Victorian Period, the very period we Steampunk authors often incorporate into our tales. And although it is true these concepts have undergone major evolutions in their nature and interpretation, as we've discussed earlier, they still exist, but again, they do change—if slowly. Witches, for instance, used to be burned centuries ago and that was thought by most as a good thing. Today, most of us wouldn't think even to imagine doing that! So there is nothing so certain as change, as "they" say.


In any case, what it all boils down to, morally speaking, is that each of us as authors must search our own consciences, decide for ourselves what our moral principles are, and how and to what degree, if at all, they should affect our writing of Steampunk. In addition, if necessary, maybe we should go out on a limb and make a major statement. Great authors have defied their times and written "morally outrageous" works, only to have their concepts be proven correct by a later generation. Others have written works that were used as foundations for horrible acts by later generations, and I'm talking about science fiction authors here, too! So it works both ways.


So, the pen is a powerful sword we wield. It’s a cliché, but a truism, nonetheless. And when you write something, it might behoove you to consider the consequences of it carefully, the repercussions for yourself and others and not only for today, but for tomorrow, as well. Edgar Rice Burroughs was famous in his day for science fiction. Now, many see him as having been a terrible racist. The same goes for Rudyard Kipling, as well. How do you want to be remembered? If you are a good enough writer, your name may, indeed, echo down through time, but will it be in a "good" way, or "bad?" And, what will constitute "good" or “bad” to that later generation? So all I’m saying here is think carefully before you write.


However, if it makes you money to sell such stuff, and you have no "moral reservations," about it…well, I hope you are a publisher and will call me! No, me! Seriously, though, I hope you all have a wonderful time this coming holiday season! May you make lots of headway in the Steampunk world. Moreover, as to answering the above questions on morality—as I’ve said, we may not have done this here, but I think each of you, for yourselves, can do just that. That's as it should be.


I just hope this article may help you think about it all more, and consider the consequences of what you write. And yes, those consequences can be far reaching. Such is the power of a writer. So if nothing else, do give it some thought.


Be careful and have a good Holiday Season! It's almost upon us now. I've noticed the stores are full of Christmas decorations and such already. I'm just waiting for the first carol and commercial on television to come now. They always do, and ever earlier in the season, it seems...

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Comment by Tambra Nicole Kendall on October 7, 2011 at 2:59pm


What a wonderful thought provoking post.


When I write historical/fantasy/paranormal I always try to remember in world building there needs to be a balance and an understanding of the rules of that world.


I think "good" and "evil" for the most part falls in line with universal truths most of us understand and relate to. Having stories that our readers can relate to, that make them think without being preachy is what I strive to do.


From my research so far, there appears to be a few areas where most cultures agree on certain taboos. You raise some very good points in this post, which I happen to agree with.

Like you, I tend to choose what topic I want to focus on, but it must also fit within the framework of the story.

Keep in mind, too as in any area of genre fiction, our readers expect certain elements and being aware of this for me is a guideline on how far and what envelopes to push.


I want my stories to continue to be read for years to come. I want the reader to be entertained and look at my books are comfortable friends.  If I can also make them think or raise awareness about an issue that makes an impact for the positive, that makes me happy as well.


Execution and the skill of a writer are areas that need consideration. It might behoove a writer to examine if the statement they are trying to make should be written in another format such as an essay or public opinion piece.

IMHO fiction is entertainment. A way for people to step back and immerse themselves in a world or time and left their personal troubles behind for a little while.


Thanks for sharing such an informative piece! I 'm looking forward to reading other topics and knowledge you share.




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Comment by Cass Morris on October 7, 2011 at 4:37pm

Personally, I'm with Oscar Wilde. "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written." I think swinging too far to either end of the spectrum can impede the story -- if you're too concerned with being morally correct, the tale will be dry as dust, and if you're too indulgently cavalier and too pleased with your own daring, it's just going to come off as immature.

Now, in the steampunk genre, I think there's a certain expectation of challenging the status quo -- that's where the "punk" aspect fits in, after all -- but that doesn't mean going over the edge into libidinous excess. You can write a story in which the protagonist is in every way perfectly correct, and write it in a way that challenges the constraints that force her to be so. You can write a story in which the character disrupts social norms, and do so in a way that shows how difficult, selfish, dangerous, or otherwise problematic that can be. But I think the moment you care more about the message you're sending than the story you're telling, it's not art any more. It's something else, a polemic or treatise, which may be just as fine in its own way, but it isn't good storytelling.

So, I have never worried about good or bad, right or wrong. I worry about telling the story, and trust the rest to sort itself out.

Comment by Rob Shelsky on October 7, 2011 at 4:51pm
What can I say, both Tambra and Cass have valid points!
Comment by Tambra Nicole Kendall on October 8, 2011 at 5:58pm

Cass, you brought up some great points. It should be about the story, the characters and as writers giving our best.


Great post!





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