Recently I watched the first season of The Frankenstein Chronicles on Netflix and started musing on steampunk world building. The Frankenstein Chronicles is not a steampunk series. It is a sci-fi period drama starring Sean Bean that originated in the United Kingdom. After a successful run on ITV’s Encore station, Netflix acquired the show and presented it as a Netflix Original. But while viewing the series, I felt that it had all of the elements that I wanted to see in a neo-Victorian era steampunk show—except the “steam.”
About the Show
In The Frankenstein Chronicles John Marlott (Sean Bean) is a police officer who discovers the body of a small child. Except forensic examination reveals that it’s not a small child. Pieces from “seven or eight” small children have been dismembered, mutilated, and stitched together to form a “new” body.
Soon after examining the body, Marlott is charged to discover the murderer by Sir Robert Peel (Tom Ward), the Home Secretary and an advocate for advanced medicine who is trying to pass “The Anatomy Act” in Britain. If made into law, the act would ensure only licensed experts could practice medicine, and the deceased corpses of the poor would be donated to surgeons for practice and education. Because of the condition of the corpse, Peel believes that the murderer is trying to discredit “The Anatomy Act.” Of course, given the title of the series, a viewer will be able to discern that everything is not what it seems on the surface.
Minor Spoiler Alert (Occurs in the first few minutes of the show.)
When Marlott discovers the “body,” the child grabs his hand. Which, given the “facts” of the composite body, is impossible. But it happens and is one of the reasons Marlott is so invested in solving the crime.
What Does this Demonstrate for Steampunk Worldbuilding?
Now we get to the crux of the argument. Why is this series such a good example for a steampunk world?
“The ‘punk’ part means the story has a rebel who’s opposed to the existing socio-political order. At least one character needs to strive against the prevailing norms of the time.”
As Marlott delves into the messy politics of 19th century health care, he discovers a war raging between the wealthy and the destitute, the religious and the scientific, and the young and the old. It is a clash on many different levels and Marlott stands at the center, fighting against both the old traditions and the new innovations, advocating for a humanism that is radically different than any other side.
2). It brings history to the forefront.
In 19th Century England an increased interest in anatomy study caused issues for the universities. A lack of cadavers ushered in the practice of grave robbing. Some groups (or gangs) in London would murder victims to sell to anatomists.
The Anatomy Act was put forth in an effort to combat this supply-and-demand situation and to legalize the acquisition of cadavers.
3). It doesn’t gloss over the problems in the society.
Marlott champions London’s disenfranchised underclass. He works with the orphans who live on the streets, the prostitutes, the runaways, and the homeless. The series captures the grittiness of the world alongside the upper-class and aristocratic homes. Yet social class does not make you inherently “good” or “evil” in this worldview. It is more complex and layered.
There are other elements inherent in a good, layered steampunk world, but these three are a start. The first season of The Frankenstein Chronicles hits the mark for a work that is not steampunk and has a lot to offer those who want to learn about effective worldbuilding.
What are some things you look for in your reading and viewing of steampunk works? What else should be included? Let me know in the comments below.
This is a guest post by Steven R. Southard. Want YOUR article featured here? Submit a guest post!
For many, steampunk is all gears and corsets, airships and goggles. It’s all about a time when technology was new and anything seemed possible, the optimism of an age of discovery and stylish machinery. That may be steam, but it ain’t punk.
For steampunk fashionistas, those who dress like quasi-Victorians, or those who tinker around making Jules Verne-style watches, guns, furniture, computers, etc.—for all of them, that positive, cheery view of steampunk is fine. They can have their steampunk entirely free of punk.
But if you write steampunk, then to be true to the genre, you really should punk it. Once I get done telling you what that means, you’ll probably want to anyway.
The ‘punk’ part means the story has a rebel who’s opposed to the existing socio-political order. At least one character needs to strive against the prevailing norms of the time. You’re writing a story, so you’re going to need conflict anyway. This clash between your rebellious character and the world can be the main conflict or a minor one in the background; it can be an external conflict or a conflict inside the character’s head; but it should be there.
If your story is set in a quasi-Victorian setting or a Wild West setting, these societies had plenty of norms a character could oppose—antisemitism, chauvinism, child labor, classism, colonialism, economic inequality, ethnocentrism, glorification of war, imperialism, monarchism, racism, sectarianism, sexism, snobbery, xenophobia—the list goes on and on. Of course, our modern society is not entirely free from all of these attributes. Not yet. That means your story, though set in an entirely different society from ours, can have relevance to contemporary readers.
For example, there’s a punk element in my short story, “The Commeteers.” It’s set in 1897 and a planet-destroying comet is on a collision course with Earth. There are no space shuttles or nuclear bombs available in the 19th Century, just steampunk technology. No single nation can afford the price of the planet-saving mission, so numerous countries insist on participating. The hero has to overcome his xenophobic distrust of foreigners (and other obstacles) to succeed.
“Ripper’s Ring” is my mix of an ancient Greek legend with Jack the Ripper. I punked it by contrasting the rich and poor neighborhoods of London, as well as juxtaposing nobles with commoners. The story’s Scotland Yard detective sets aside societal norms and pursues Jack out of a sense of justice alone.
As a final example, “After the Martians,” is my examination of how World War I might have ensued using weapon technology left over after H.G. Wells’ Martian invasion. The story’s young protagonist begins with an unrealistic, glorified notion of war, a common sentiment in pre-World War I times.
Maybe you didn’t like the sound of that ‘punk’ syllable at first, but I’ll bet you’re warming to it now. I got those creative lubricants flowing through the gear meshes, didn’t I? Whether you’re writing a short story, novel, or screenplay, when you write steampunk, please don’t leave out the punk.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Submariner, engineer, and Jules Verne enthusiast, Steven R. Southard pens stories that showcase people as toolmakers, gadget-masters, dreamers and tinkerers, creators of devices and victims of them. He’s written ten published steampunk short stories, some for single sale and others as part of anthologies, including Avast, Ye Airships! He’s also crafted tales in the clockpunk and dieselpunk genres. Learn about Steve by visiting his website, following him on Twitter, or visiting his page on Facebook , Goodreads, or Amazon.
The Steampunk Cavaliers has long accepted guest posts for invitation, but we want to do something bigger and better! We are officially open for submissions from ANYONE, about ANY steampunk related topic.
Check out our guidelines below and shoot us an email today to make YOUR contribution to the Steampunk Cavaliers:
Guest Post Guidelines
Guest articles can be on any topic related to the steampunk genre or the Victorian era. Topics that do particularly well tend to center around the darker and more political aspects of steampunk and the Victorian era. These can take the form of historical articles, articles examining trends in the steampunk genre, or recommendation lists of books/films/games that explore specific aspects of the Victorian era (I.E. 5 great books that use steampunk technology to challenge strict Victorian norms).
For ideas, send 2-4 sentences to diannalgunn @ gmail.com explaining what you want to write about and why you’re the person who should write about it.
Full articles should be 350+ words long (there is no maximum word count) and focused on a single aspect of the steampunk genre or the Victorian era. All completed articles should be sent to diannalgunn @ gmail.com. Please send them as .rtf, .doc, or .docx documents. Articles should also be accompanied by 1-4 relevant images, sent as separate attachments, an image of you and/or your work, and a 3-6 sentence bio. Include links to your website and any social media channels you want shared as well.
If you contribute high quality articles on a regular basis you will eventually be invited to join as an official contributor. This means you get an official account on our WordPress blog, and first dibs on any open weeks. Your image, bio, and links will also be added to the SteampunkCavaliers‘ “About” page.
My First Steampunk Series
These are the stories of how all kinds of creators have been drawn into steampunk, featuring their first steampunk event and the reasons why they love the community. The only requirements are that they’re 350+ words long (no maximum) and that they come with at least one picture.
Before submitting, please take a moment to check out our previous My First Steampunk guests:
This month I would like to share something a bit different: my own steampunk novel. I hope you enjoy.–Chris
About the Unquiet Dead:
When the Temples north of Chiaroscuro are burned and followers of the Sun Goddess are murdered, Catherine, a bard of the Ealdoth Temple, sets out to find those responsible and to bring them to justice. With only the help of a traveling group of minstrels and a retired fae investigator, Catherine must solve the mystery before more people are killed.
So saddle up your clockwork mount, buckle on your electro-dagger, and join Catherine as she finds herself pitted against members of her own Temple, rogues members of the Seelie Court, and a seemingly unstoppable army of undead.
Services were scheduled to commence in an hour, and Ernest needed to be ready. He struck a match and lit the first gaslight, watching the flame take hold and flare up. The light pushed back the shadows so parishioners were able to find their way to the pews without stumbling. He would extinguish the artificial lights right before the service so the effect of the sunlight illuminating the darkness hit with maximum impact as it flooded through the skylights.
The parishioners would marvel at how the Temple filled with the Goddess’s Holy Light just in time for the service. Ernest would marvel at the fact that none of them were smart enough to realize he flipped a switch on back of the altar to swing open mechanical shutters.
There was a religious stirring in Grand Marsh more powerful than anything Ernest had experienced in his ten years as a Sacerd. The services at dawn, noon, and sundown were packed. Few of the farmers went out to the fields. They worked in town on community projects or sat drinking at the tavern. Their wives remained in the town square, full of chatter, instead of staying on their farmsteads. Their thin voices filled the air. The youngest children were kept close while the teens clustered in protective packs far enough away to keep their discussions out of reach of their parents’ ears. But close enough to be in sight at all times. None of them wandered off.
Three times a day they filled the Temple, ready to hear his words. Faces tilted up to him. Man and woman, young and old. And none of his parishioners would confess why they were so filled with the Holy Spirit that they were neglecting their farms. They were afraid of speaking blasphemy. But he knew the reason, and it caused a lift in his heart that was not due to religious inspiration. They were scared, plain and simple, and it gave him hope.
Since being assigned to the far parish almost five years ago, a posting he saw as an end to the upward progress of his career in the Temple, he struggled daily to swallow his disappointment. It wouldn’t leave, and it was bitter. Bitter.
In this remote village, far from the bustle and industry of Chiaroscuro, the quality of his life, the texture of his life, changed. He longed for life in the city. The world seemed to have shifted into two zones. The pace of life for the city dwellers increased while people living in the countryside were being left behind.
Time’s arrow struck fastest through the densest populations. Sacerds assigned to any of the major cities made more connections and accumulated more power in a single week than he did in a year. Exerting influence was impossible when the spheres of power were spinning outside of his reach, moving too fast for him to see, let alone have an impact.
The wound to his pride stung the most. The elders had hurt his feelings. To be dismissed so easily, passed along so casually—it was like the swatting of an annoying insect. The Temple elders did not treat him as if he mattered, as if his family ties were consequential. True he was a third son, but of a noble line. And they assigned him to a rustic Temple to attend to common folk far below his station.
Very little was required of him here. Or, more precisely, very little of what he did here interested him. He burned to return to the central Temple and to be part of the intrigues and power shifts. This attracted him more than caring for the simple souls of farmers and shopkeepers. Power was why he joined the Temple, and what he was now denied.
But not for long. The thought clanged in his mind with undeniable rightness. Not righteousness. It was an important distinction. Would the Goddess sanction his actions? Probably not, but he was past caring about her approval. During all of the ceremonies, all of the prayer and introspection, he had never felt any divine presence. He had never witnessed any miracles, and doubted their existence.
But power, oh he had seen the existence of power. Political. Social. Religious. Whatever you called it really didn’t matter. Get enough people to follow you. Enough people to believe in what you were selling. This was the belief that could move the world.
There was only one woman in his life he needed to please now, and she held no divinity. Merci had offered him a way out of this rural purgatory, and he had accepted. Truth be told, he had grabbed at it like a castaway might grab at a line from a passing airship. If the price were the damnation of his soul, so be it.
He glanced out the window at the transport coming down the lane. A high quality clockwork carriage with the Temple’s Crest stamped on the doors rattled over the boards strewn across the irrigation ditch and stopped, parking in the speckled light cast by the ornament trees planted along the lane. The carriage blocked traffic, but the driver did not seem to care. Elder members of the clergy, Hlytere, and above, felt they had the right of way. Others had to go around.
A pale, dark-haired woman emerged and stood for a moment looking around. She pulled the hood of her dark cloak over her hair and walked through the yard toward the Temple. Ernest’s gaze followed her, trying to imagine who this stranger was.
Her footsteps sounded in the aisle and, when he turned from window, she was almost upon him. Her speed startled him. When he saw her face to face he realized she was younger than he had supposed. Too young to be a Hlytere, but her use of the carriage meant she was favored by the Temple elders. The seed of jealousy radiated through him. He felt it in his chest and the pit of his stomach. He struggled to keep the emotion off his face.
“Greetings.” He shook her hand with a firm grasp. Her hands were small and smooth and white. “Will you come in for a moment?” He led her to the small reception room off the main area that contained a round table and several wooden chairs. He lit a cheroot, offered her one, which she declined, and they sat down.
“Please forgive me for calling on you so close to mid-day Services, Sacerd Ernest.” She paused. “You are Sacerd Ernest, correct? It’s not like me to presume.”
“Of course. I’m glad you came. I watched you drive up, you know, and I wondered who you were. We don’t get many visitors from the Temple here.”
“I’m surprised you don’t recognize me, cousin. Of course, I didn’t recognize you. So perhaps it’s not so surprising.”
“I’m sorry. I …”
“I’m from the cadet line of our family tree. My father is the elder son of the younger son of our line.”
His brow creased in thought. “Grace?”
“Yes,” she said with a smile, reaching out to touch his hand. Her fingers rested there for a moment too long. Lingered. And then she leaned back in the chair and crossed her legs, which were slim and bare beneath her robe.
Sacerd Ernest regarded his guest, wondering that her physical presence should suddenly dawn upon him so. She was more beautiful than he had thought at first. Her skin was clear and lovely, and her eyes and mouth were made up carefully and well.
What’s her game? He licked at the perspiration that appeared upon his upper lip.
“I would like your help in a small matter. And of course I wanted to meet you.”
“Our sponsor has spoken of you with such affection.”
“Our superior?” He used the wrong word to see if she would correct him.
“Technically, I suppose, she may be yours. I’ve never thought much of the rules of hierarchy in the Temple.” She cocked her head, listening to noises from the other room. Some of his parishioners had started to file in for the service. “It’s such a mercy, isn’t it?’
Ah, code words.
She must think she’s being clever, although he had no idea who could possibly overhear their conversation. It was only just dawning on him why she must be here. In his town. In his Temple. But he didn’t care. All he wanted to do was get out of Grand Marsh. Get back to Chiaroscuro. It didn’t bother him that people, his parishioners, may die, or suffer a fate worse than death. He just wanted to get out.
It’s not my fault if I’m following orders.
But that was a poor excuse, wasn’t it? Guilt flared, hot and strong.
Do you want to stay in Grand Marsh forever? Ministering to the townsfolk? Do you?
No … but he didn’t want to hurt people. Those conflicting thoughts pulled at him. There was the question of right and wrong. What was right for him might go wrong for others. But that was the way it had to be.
Thus he banished the guilt. When something inside of him tried to protest again, tried to tell him to think before he did this, he smothered it.
“When?” He didn’t have any time for nonsense. The quicker it occurred, the quicker he resumed his rightful place.
“In two days. I have some items in my transport that need to be set up in the Temple, but kept out of view.” She smiled and spoke a little louder so that the earliest arrivals overheard her. “I wish I could stay to help with the Mass, but I am needed back in Chiaroscuro.” She lowered her voice. “Officially I never left the city.”
“Of course.” He guessed that she had no desire to partake in the service. “I will help you with whatever you need.” Whatever may come of it, he had gone too far to stop now.
Meet the Author:
Chris Pavesic lives in the Midwestern United States and loves Kona coffee, fairy tales, and all types of speculative fiction. Between writing projects, Chris can most often be found reading, gaming, gardening, working on an endless list of DIY household projects, or hanging out with friends. Find Chris Pavesic Online:
The aether comes up every so often in steampunk. Often, it’s used as a hand-wavy thing to explain all manner of strange technology or effects the same way ‘subspace’ is used in Star Trek. Am I guilty of using the aether to hand-wave things? Oh yeah, big time. However, the aether is actually a real concept, albeit an outdated one.
The word aether comes from Ancient Greece and was used to described the air-like substance present in the realm of the gods. It has been used to describe various concepts as physics developed as a science. Issac Newton solidified the concept of the aether as a substance that filled the universe at the end of the 1600s. As we all know from the story of the falling apple, Issac Newton developed the first equations that described the effects of gravity. However, while he could describe the effects of gravity, he was left with the mystery of how gravity works.
Newton’s laws of motion describe the way forces work on objects and the inertia of mass, but gravity didn’t really fit in. What force was acting on that famous apple to make it fall to the ground? So Newton created the concept of a substance that filled the universe. In this theory an object’s mass caused this substance to flow toward it. Other objects are then caught up like a log in a river. Newton moved away from this idea latter, but the concept of a universe-filling substance persisted and came to be named ‘aether’.
In the 1800s, new discoveries brought back the idea of the aether in a big way. During the last half of the 1800s, the Victorian age, a number of scientists began to develop the equations that described electromagnetism that would formulate into Maxwell’s equations. An outcome of this work was that electromagnetic radiation (light, radio, microwave, x-ray, etc…) propagated at the speed of light as a wave. That brought of the question of what was waving. Sounds waves waved air, ocean waves waved water, so what did light or other forms of electromagnetism wave? The aether provided the answer.
It seemed like a solid theory, but then scientists started running experiments to detect the aether. The best known of these was the Michelson-Morley experiment. In this experiment, they measured the speed of light in perpendicular directions. If the Earth was moving through the aether that filled the universe, the speed of light would have to be a little different in the two different directions. Think of it like measuring sound while moving through the air. In this analogy, consider the Earth as a boat moving at a good clip. On the top of the boat we affix a device to make a sound and two detectors, one 10 feet away toward the front of the boat and one 10 feet away toward the side of the boat. We’ll also assume there is no wind. When the sound gets made it will radiate through the air in all directions at a constant speed. However, the detectors on that moving boat are also moving through the air. The sound is lot faster than the boat so it will still reach both detectors, but not at the same time. So while the sound is moving at a constant speed, the speed we measure at each detector isn’t the same. The point of the experiment is not to measure the actual speed of sound, but to show that the source and the detectors are all moving through the air.
However, the Michelson-Morley experiment showed no difference in the detected speed of light between the two directions. This result really puzzled scientists at the time. It would take Albert Einstein and his laws of relativity to finally explain the results. Between relativity and quantum mechanics we now understand the nature of electromagnetic waves isn’t the same as sound or water waves and the concept of something waving doesn’t apply. We also gained a new understanding of gravity that saw the effect of gravity as warping space rather than making a substance flow toward mass.
With relativity and quantum mechanics changing the way we saw the universe, the idea of an aether faded away to become a relic of the Victorian age. Nonetheless, recent observations of the universe have suggested an unknown energy, called dark energy, filling empty space and accelerating the expansion of the universe. Maybe the aether will rise once again.
Erik Larson was born in Manhattan — the Kansas one — and raised mostly in Topeka Kansas. He went to college in San Antonio at Trinity University where he earned a degree in physics. After the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider, he decided to seek his fortune with software engineering instead.
Eventually, he gained an interest in writing his own fantastical tales and has written three fantasy novels. Cog and the Steel Tower is the first one ready for public consumption. He normally goes by the name Erik Larson, but decided on W.E. Larson for a pen name since there is already a well-known author with his name.
Today’s article is part of a series called “My First Steampunk”. To learn more about the series – and apply to be featured – scroll to the bottom of this article.
My first exposure to basic steampunk Victorian elements goes back to the mid-1970’s. In primary school, I was part of an educational trip to the Missouri History Museum to study the 1904 World’s Fair. I was assigned to do sketches of fashion of the fair, and from that moment, I was hooked on history.
Recently I reviewed Heir of Thunder by Karissa Laurel, the first book in the Stormbourne Chronicles. You can read that review here. The second novel in the series, Quest of Thunder, has just been released and I am excited to share the next part of Evelyn Stormbourne’s journey with you.
Evie must restore her divine abilities, or be enslaved by her enemy’s dark Magic
Evelyn Stormbourne has overcome revolutionaries, pirates, devious relatives, and powerful Magicians to claim her birthright as Lady of Thunder, but before she can embrace her dominion over the skies, her powers falter, leaving her impotent and adrift. Under the protection of her stalwart companion, Gideon Faust, Evie hides in anonymity and searches for news of the Fantazikes who had once promised to help her master her divine abilities.
Without her capacity to control the storms, Evie wonders how she’ll ever reclaim her throne—a legacy she’s not convinced she deserves. But when a fearsome nemesis from her past reemerges, she embarks on desperate quest to find the Fantazikes and restore her powers. If she fails, her enemy’s dark Magic will enslave her, forcing her to destroy everything and everyone she loves.
Review (Spoilers Ahead)
Evie, heir to the Throne of Thunder, is still on the run from a group of dark magicians who want to rob her of her birthright. To complicate matters, she has lost control over her own magic. Without her magic at full strength, she cannot hope to protect herself and reclaim her kingdom. Evie describes her situation in the following manner:
“My powers are unreliable, my allies are few, and I have good reason to believe I’m being chased by a group of powerful and malevolent Magicians. It’s not safe for me to go home yet.”
Still, Evie is adjusting to life outside of the palace with the help of Gideon and his sister, Marlis. She doesn’t want to live in exile forever, though, and works to reestablish her magical abilities. But this practice inevitably draws attention to her whereabouts from both friendly and unfriendly forces.
Evie feels that reconnecting with the Fantazikes (her allies in Book One) is the best chance for her to regain control over her powers. Not willing to put her friends in danger any longer, she joins a traveling circus that just happens to be en route to the last known location of the Fantazikes.
And what a circus it is! This is a steampunk world after all, and the circus animals, wagons, and some of the acts reflect this:
“Light reflected from the beasts’ metallic surfaces, exposing skins of brass, iron, and copper. Subtle gear-works clicked and purred as the animals shifted, mimicking the movements of their live counterparts. Dull bladed feathers, like rows of butter knives, fluttered as birds flapped their wings. The unicorn’s horn glowed a warm gold as she pawed the ground. The elephant’s trunk curled upon itself with a tink-tink-tink of metal joints compressing. He flapped his great ears, raising a breeze that stirred loose hairs around my face.”
This is the type of detailed world building that I love to see in a steampunk novel. Laurel takes the exotic setting of a circus one step further by adding mechanical animals and transports. She also doesn’t over-describe the steampunk elements. It is very easy for a reader to picture the bird feathers that look like butter knives, for example. It reminds me of Stephen King’s advice in On Writing: Add just enough description so that a reader can share the writer’s vision. Be clear and succinct.
Will Evie find the Fantazikes? Will they help her regain her powers? Will she develop enough of her powers to re-take her kingdom? Is this the destiny she wants for herself, or will she choose another path?
I cannot wait to read the next book in the series. I highly recommend both Heir of Thunder and Quest of Thunder for anyone who loves steampunk, fantasy, and adventure.
A couple of years ago I was a little bit stunned to have a reader tell me that my first book, a steampunk western, “triggered” some bad emotions for her. For those who don’t know or haven’t heard that phrase, in very simple terms, a trigger refers to the effect, like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that something has on someone. For example a pop of a cork can sound like a gunshot, and for someone that’s been affected by gun violence, this can be rattling.
This article isn’t to argue whether triggers exist or that people are being overly sensitive by darker works of fiction, rather these comments reminded me that my steampunk books are not sweetness and light. On Amazon they’re marked for adults and I tell buyers at book signings that they’re not YA (Young Adult) or for children. I don’t sugar coat my themes. Most of my characters are spies and spies need to thrive in any environment, including the underbelly of society.
Like their gothic novel cousins and authors like Poe, there are many steampunk tales that have dark sides. Authors like China Mieville and Cherie Priest use underworld themes. And there is plenty of inspiration in the real past to provide gritty fiction. The gilded age wasn’t all gold and progress, manners and etiquette. Let’s examine some of these darker shades of brown. And if you’re easily offended or grossed out, now is the time to stop reading. There now, you’ve been warned, we shall continue, starting with a few basics.
Unlike most bodice rippers, life (and death) in the 1800’s was rough. Watch Victorian House to see a pretty accurate depiction of the following:
Most people were poor and diseases were rampant.
They didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity.
Children worked alongside their parents, often up to sixteen hours a day.
Not everyone could be educated, many were illiterate.
Corruption was rampant.
Even death was hard. Many were buried in pauper’s graves. A death in the family was the only event important enough to get a picture of the family for most people. So they would scrape money together, keep the body cool, and then take pictures with other living relatives. Sometimes they painted “eyes” over the eyelids to make it look like the loved one was still “there” or put the body in a relaxed position.
I used one such occasion like number 6, in one of my own books. As a young character steps off a train into the Wild West, the first thing she sees in town is a man in a coffin getting his last “good side” taken. Creepy, I know.
So a further delving into the dark side…
Drugs-Down the Rabbit Hole
During Victorian times in London, one could walk into a chemist’s shop and walk out with cocaine, laudanum, arsenic, cannabis, and several other toxic concoctions that could knock out an elephant, let alone cure what ailed them. By the 1840’s, hypodermic needles were invented, so morphine and heroin could be injected. So much for the “new” opioid crisis, eh?
Because the sun never set on the British Empire, including parts of Asia, drugs were plentiful and easily accessed. Coca Cola really did have cocaine (direct from cocoa leaves) from its development in 1886 until 1929. No wonder all those Victorians smiled in those early soda pop ads. Many enjoyed a visit from the “green fairy” or absinthe. Remember, that during these times, there weren’t many filtering or buffering processes for drugs or liquors, making them particularly deadly.
Just like people today, Victorians got hooked and suffered the consequences. Ada Lovelace was known to be addicted to laudanum (tincture of opium mixed with water or wine) that she took to treat her asthma. Writers from Charlotte Bronte to Charles Dickens, to Oscar Wilde, and of course Lewis Carroll used. Carroll’s trippy images still inspire imbibing youth today. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock indulged as did Doyle himself. He wrote of one addict, “when the fit was on him, made use of an opium den in the farthest East of the city.”
Poor addicts turned to crime and slums were filled with lives ruined by repeated use. Fatal overdoses, especially of small children, were common.
Fashion Victims and Industrial Nightmares
Even those who led clean lives could not escape some of the perils of living in the 1800’s. Clothing and makeup was made from arsenic and lead. The much desired hues of bright green paint and dye were both flammable and toxic. One of the first models for arsenic facial powder died of an arsenic overdose. Green foam poured from her mouth and the whites of her eyes also turned green as she died.
Crinolines and dresses were incredibly hazardous. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lost his wife as she perished from burns the day after her dress caught fire from a lit match or lighting paper. He wrote, “How I am alive after what my eyes have seen, I know not.”
Nine ballerinas died after one of them brushed against a lit candle on stage at the Continental Theatre in Philadelphia. She was close enough to the other dancers and their flammable mohair crinolines, that they were combustible within seconds.
Large ladies hoops were also hazardous for various reasons. Southern preachers warned their flock that the hoops were sinful, especially since a hefty breeze or sitting down too quickly could cause exposure of their undergarments. Scores of women were sucked under train wheels or caught in carriage wheels by oversized skirts. One of my own great aunts was run over by a trolley car. During the Civil War, many a southern belle hid guns, ammunition, and supplies under their immense garments.
Men didn’t have it much easier. Cravats and ties caught fire from cigars and pipes and often ignited men’s facial hair. Top hats used a mercury sealant to preserve the fur which seeped directly into the skull and brain of the wearers, and especially the millinery workers, who became shaky and delusional at work, which coined the phrase mad hatter.
Other production workers suffered. Combs were made of flammable celluloid. Women’s hair would catch fire if those combs became too hot. Men who used heated razors were warned not to use celluloid combs. A whole celluloid comb factory in Brooklyn exploded when the building overheated.
Max Blanck and Isaac Harris owned many garment factories. Two of those, the Diamond Waistshirt Company, were believed to be burned to the ground for the insurance money. But the real tragedy was when their last company, Triangle Waistshirt , caught fire on March 25, 1911. The building was not up to code. A laundry hamper caught fire. The fire hose on that floor was rotted and the valve rusted. There were only four elevators and two fire escapes. One fire escape was blocked off and the other could only support 4-5 people. 145 women died. Many threw themselves down the elevator shafts when the lifts stopped working, or jumped out windows and crushed firemen and equipment below.
Gruesome. So on a lighter note:
Entertainment and the Devil’s Opera
Opera could seem to be stuffy, especially when only wealthier people could afford it. But in reality, Giuseppe Verdi wrote “Stiffelio” in 1850, about adulterous German Protestants. It was censored. And one his most famous pieces “La Traviata” was about a fallen woman, a courtesan named Violetta Valery. Sounds pretty saucy.
So if listening to music was sinful, dancing was far worse. Waltzes were “morally decadent” due to how the women flung themselves around in scant attire with men allowed to hold them at the waist. “Only Pagans danced like that”, according to one stick-in-the-mud minister.
He probably would have completely lost it if he’d seen any of the Can Can ladies at the Moulin Rouge. The Can Can was originally performed by French courtesans to encourage the finest suitors and first performed at the Rouge in 1889. Dancing mixed with champagne parties during the Belle Époque drew the ire of many a preacher man. But then again, worse things did happen…
The Skin Trade
Sex in the Victorian and Wild West eras was far from “lie still and think of England”. Anxious women suffering from “hysteria” were given treatment in the form of newfangled mechanical vibrators, because of all things, male doctors were complaining that their hands were getting tired from “manual stimulation”.
Unfortunately, slavery was legal for much of the century and so was prostitution. In the mid 1800’s, there were approximately 80,000 working girls in London. Some of them were literally girls because the age of consent was 13. It wasn’t until 1885 that the legal age was raised to 16. There were even “sporting guides” that gentlemen could order a lady of the evening or have a “quick hand at it”, like a Victorian version of Playboy. In my own works, I have many a prostitute that act as spies, as pillow talk provides some of the best intelligence.
On the other side of the pond, St. Louis, Missouri was the first city to legalize prostitution in 1870. There were said to be over 5,000 ladies that earned a living helping men with their desires. Even Mark Twain commented on “the immemorial mile of cheap foul doggeries” just north of downtown in a slum area known as the Wild Cat Chute. Officials who’d tried to stop it on the state level ended up sleeping with many of the local entertaining inhabitants.
It was a very good living for those ladies who were attractive or worked for Madams like Eliza Haycraft. Eliza was said to be worth $250,000 (4.7 million in today’s money) when she passed away and 5,000 people attended her funeral. She purchased a premium plot in the famous Bellefontaine Cemetery; enough space to hold twenty bodies. However, because of her oldest profession, she was told she could not be buried there. But after Eliza spoke of the possibility of having conversations with the cemetery directors’ wives, she was sold the plot, later to be marked “Civil War 27”. However, the grave could not have a formal tombstone and it was to be located in the back portion of the grounds. But, as fate would have it, due to modernization of roads in the 1930’s, the entrance to the cemetery was moved—to where the back used to be. So in death, even Eliza made it to the front.
Eliza inspired me. Prostitutes make some of the best interlopers. The things men say in and outside of the act…but to carry on…
Still by 1879, legal prostitution had failed. The licensing was corrupt and social diseases among the military were so bad that men had been considered not fit for battle (on both sides of the pond). The poorest women were also addicts and slums were ripe with VD. So The Social Evil Hospital was started to take in the wayward women.
However, some light did come out of all this darkness (as oftentimes happens in my own novels). The name of the Evil institution was changed to St. Louis Female Hospital, where on June 3, 1906, a poor African American washer woman, Carrie McDonald, gave birth to Freda Josephine. Freda would soon go by her middle name, and became Josephine Baker, one of the most famous women in the world.
I hope you enjoyed this foray into deeper shades of brown. For myself, without the bleak undertones, there cannot be light or redemption. There cannot be a hero without a villain. And heroes are not heroes until they are tested and make their way through the darkness.
-Victorian Slum House/BBC/PBS
-Missouri Historical Society
-St. Louis Magazine/Harper Barnes
-Mental Floss/Bess Lovejoy
About the Author
Victoria L. Szulc is a multi-media steampunk artist/writer who regularly displays her work at 1900 Park Creative Space in the historic Victorian neighborhood of Lafayette Square in St. Louis, MO. She spearheaded and curated the first Steampunk Broken Hearts Ball Masquerade and Art Show in St. Louis and directed the first Steampunk Fashion Show at the Big River Steampunk Festival Masquerade in Hannibal, MO in 2017. Victoria’s third steampunk novel, “A Long Reign” was in competition for the 2017 Amazon UK Storytellers contest and was an Amazon/kindle bestseller. Victoria is currently working on the third part of the Society Trilogy, “Lafayette to London”.
When physicist Sophie Clarke builds a strange machine from long-lost scientific plans she unwittingly transports Nikola Tesla to modern-day London. Unfortunately Tesla brings another historical figure along with him: an autocratic automaton.
Two brilliant scientists. A slightly unhinged enemy from the future.
This could lead to the end of the world.
Review (Potential Spoilers)
Nikola Tesla and the End of the World is an entertaining series of short films based on the premise that the historical Tesla left blueprints behind after his death to create machine that generates a Tesla Wave. Dr. Sophie Clarke, a teaching fellow at London University, discovers the blueprints and assembles one of the inventions. This pulls Tesla from his own time period into modern-day London. It also displaces another figure from history—one with a very bad French accent.
Humor and history mix in this short series. A viewer who might not be aware of Nikola Tesla’s achievements will learn a great deal about the man who designed the alternating-current (AC) electric system that is still used worldwide to this day. Viewers will learn about the Tesla coil, which is still used in radio-technology. And the theory about Tesla waves.
Tesla: Above certain frequencies the ether is no longer bound by inverse-square laws. One need only find the threshold values to erect a transmitter emitting a wave-complex of special characteristics, and then incorporate my unique method of telephonic control over any amount of energy.
Sophie: Actually, the ‘ether’ as you seem to understand it was disproved in your own time. We know there’s no such thing as a pure Newtonian vacuum, but…
Tesla: Without the ether a Tesla wave would not be possible.
Sophie: A Tesla wave is not possible. Particles do not travel faster than light. Your system has to work using relativistic principles, we just need to figure out…
Tesla: I have constructed a functioning special magnifying transmission system. You can speak all you wish of your theories.
But humor is also evident throughout the short films. As Tesla and Sophie scramble to save the world, she suggests that he ally himself with the British Prime Minister or the professors at her college. Tesla scoffs at this. Politicians and bureaucrats do not have the necessary vision. He needs entrepreneurs who can understand what needs to be done and act quickly. After researching the current state of society on Sophie’s tablet, Tesla decides that the only hope to prevent the destruction of the world rests with the Kardashian family.
The films, which are set in London, remind me a bit of Doctor Who with a dash of both Sherlock and Torchwood thrown in for good measure. Tesla, as the time-traveler, knows far more about his inventions than Sophie. However, she knows more about modern technology and the way that science has progressed since Tesla’s era. And they are both working to solve the mystery of Tesla’s fellow time traveler. Why does he want to destroy the world? And why is his French accent so bad?
Ian Strang, creator and producer of the series, explains in an interview for First Glance Film Festivals:
“I love science fiction and I knew that I could make something amazing—amazingly geeky” (http://bit.ly/2jb8sN9).
The film stars Ben Keenan, Gillian MacGregor, and Paul O’Neill. It has won several awards, including:
Valencia International Film Festival
Best Actress (Gillian MacGregor)
TO Web Fest
Best Sci-Fi & Fantasy
NYC Web Fest
Outstanding Achievement in Editing
Geek Film Fest at Fan Expo Dallas
Best Web Series
The full series is available to watch on Amazon. It is free if you have a Prime account. It is also available on YouTube. Check it out if you have about 22 minutes to spare. If you are a fan of steampunk and alternative histories, you won’t be disappointed.
While steampunk and the Victorian age aren’t synonymous, they are obviously very much intertwined. The Victorian age in Britain was a time of great change in almost every aspect of life. Industrialization and urbanization transformed the lives of the lower and emerging middle classes while science and technology transformed communication, transportation, and society itself. It’s easy to see to the appeal of envisioning an alternate future from this dynamic period of history.
However, there was a dark side to the Victorian age. As the rural population migrated into urban areas, wages for the lower classes fell sparking poverty, child labor, long work hours, and dangerous conditions. Outside of England, the British army committed atrocities to maintain the empire, and the slave trade continued despite the successes of the British abolitionists back home. A rigid patriarchy ruled the day, limiting the options for women and girls despite Britain’s monarchy being led by a Queen.
When I set about to write a steampunk novel, I largely sidestepped the darkness. I was targeting a middle-grade readership and had set the story in an alternative world. There are a couple of hints of social and economic injustice, but nothing that really plays into the story. If, make that when, I get the time to get to the next novel I think I’ll have to dig into it a bit more. It may be an alternative world, but it still borrows from the same Victorian heritage as so much of steampunk does.
Something I wonder about is to what extent writers of Steampunk fiction should expose the dark side of the Victorian world. Maybe ‘should’ is the wrong word. I don’t want the writer of a fun, escapist steampunk story to feel guilty over not delving into the injustices of that world. However, I do feel like it does a disservice if the darker aspects never come up. I guess I’d say I think it’s something to keep in mind when writing. That’s a lot that history has glorified during the Victorian age, but history also stepped on a lot of people during that same period and some care should be taken to not sweep it all under the rug.
With the darker aspects of Victorian culture, there comes a certain optimism. The Victorian age was also an age of reform. While the British slave trade didn’t cease entirely, slavery had been outlawed by Britain as the age started. As the Victorian age continued, laws were established to limit child labor and the working hours of adults. The patriarchy wasn’t challenged, but more opportunities did appear for women. Leisure time increased even among the lower classes and the middle class grew. Perhaps the spirit of reform and justice can inspire stories told from the lower levels of society instead of the frequent focus on the aristocracy and military.
What do you think is the responsibility of steampunk writers to remember darker aspects of the age?
Erik Larson was born in Manhattan — the Kansas one — and raised mostly in Topeka Kansas. He went to college in San Antonio at Trinity University where he earned a degree in Physics. After the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider, he decided to seek his fortune with software engineering instead. He has worked as a software engineer at a variety of companies, carefully avoiding ones that have a big IPO that makes all the employees rich.
Eventually, he gained an interest in writing his own fantastical tales and has written three fantasy novels. Cog and the Steel Tower is the first one ready for public consumption.