A short while ago Double Dragon Ebooks accepted my novella Steampunk Imperialism for publication, albeit with a name change to Rise of the Steampunk Empire. The reason I’m blogging about this, apart from the obvious, is because of what caused the story to be written in the first place. That cause was Charles Stross.
As most of you probably already know, Mister Stross is not a fan of steampunk. In essence, he seems to dislike the lack of Victorian squalor, violence, racism, and sexism within the genre. In short, the lack of realism bothers him. This is a bit odd, given that steampunk is built firmly upon the concept of alternate reality, but never mind.
I didn’t pay much attention at the time, but in the back of my mind the rusty cogs had started to turn; what sort of steampunk story would Stross want? Presumably not one of individuality triumphing over corporate conformity, or anything involving strong female characters taking control of their lives and destinies. After all, we all know how repressed and miserable women were in the Victorian era.
Or do we? With hindsight, we can indeed say that Victorian women were the victims of sexual politics which relegated them to the home and to motherhood but – and this is a crucial point – this overlooks the fact that many women of the era agreed with the social norms of the time. Women seem to have accepted, with admittedly some exceptions, the restrictions of the age because they didn’t perceive these restrictions as such; rather, they were self-evident truths.
Women were designed by God for the domestic sphere, while men were designed for public life. Anything else was just plain wrong. Similarly, Christianity was clearly the one true faith because Christianity was England, England was Christianity, and as one spread so did the other, and thus God had to be favouring both England and the Christian religion. If God wasn’t Christian, or indeed an Englishman, it would be another country and religion that ruled over much of the globe. Why else would society be the way it was?
However, the Victorian period wasn’t quite as straightforward as popular prejudice makes out. Although there were many social horrors inconceivable to us, there was also hope. The Victorians believed in progression, innovation, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, social reform, care for the poor, and many other philanthropic concerns. Against this, of course, was tradition, inertia, snobbery, fear of the lower orders, and social/political pragmatism.
Society was stratified, yet also bound together. Somehow, great changes such as mechanisation, science, Darwin etc, any one of which could have ripped society apart, were analysed and accepted, absorbed and built upon, and society moved upward and onward, gradually improving itself for everyone, albeit without getting very far in some cases. Just look at the squalor of Whitechapel in the 1880’s for proof of that. Thus the era was characterised by many shades of grey and not just simplified tones of black and white.
So, what did all this mean for my book? I wanted to try and show all the contradictions inherent in Victorian society, the amazing highs and the appalling lows, and I’m afraid to say I bogged it completely. For what I ended up with was... rather grim. A crew of international astronauts from the future fall through time and land in the early Victorian era, before any great social progress has been made. The crew have to face Victorian attitudes toward foreigners, women, class etc, and in doing so the worst of the era’s ideologies are revealed.
Given the above, can I claim that Rise of the Steampunk Empire is actually a steampunk novel? Admittedly that sort of question immediately leads us to the minefield of what steampunk is, or ought to be, and also leads almost to a tick-box mentality. Goggles? Check. Lasers? Check. Feisty female heroine? Um...
Sarah, the only female astronaut, never has a chance to be a steampunk heroine because anything she says that does not conform to Victorian type is viewed as being unorthodox and can therefore be dismissed, as can any critical observation on equality, international relations, religion etc. Victorian ideology was so powerful and worked so well, at least for those with real power or influence, that any other view was just plain wrong.
As such, there is no justice for those oppressed by the status quo, no sky-pirates and no aristocratic champions anywhere in the book. There is no hope, no heroes, and no happy ending. Instead, we have a novel of small boys being stuffed up chimneys, total oppression, deadly violence, and the demise of the human race. So it should at least please Mister Stross and raise a ghost of a smile on his disapproving lips.
That, then, is what inspired me to write Rise of the Steampunk Empire, and what I want to know from all of you is simple. What inspires you?
Rise of the Steampunk Empire will appear under my pen name, Barnabas Corbin, in early 2012.