Steampunk and the Dark Side of the Victorian Age

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.

A Steampunk Writer’s Resource: The Victorian City

  • Authors: Judith Flanders
  • Release: July 15, 2014
  • Genre: History
  • Edition: Kindle
  • Pages: 544
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press


The 19th century was a time of unprecedented change, and nowhere was this more apparent than London. In only a few decades, the capital grew from a compact Regency town into a sprawling metropolis of six-and-a-half million inhabitants, the largest city the world had ever seen. Technology – railways, street-lighting, and sewers – transformed both the city and the experience of city living, as London expanded in every direction.

Now, Judith Flanders, one of Britain’s foremost social historians, explores the world portrayed so vividly in Dickens’ novels, showing life on the streets of London in colorful, fascinating detail. From the moment Charles Dickens, the century’s best-loved English novelist and London’s greatest observer, arrived in the city in 1822, he obsessively walked its streets, recording its pleasures, curiosities, and cruelties.

Now, with him, Flanders leads us through the markets, transport systems, sewers, rivers, slums, alleys, cemeteries, gin palaces, chop-houses, and entertainment emporia of Dickens’ London, to reveal the Victorian capital in all its variety, vibrancy, and squalor.


It is not necessary to know about the Victorian Era in order to enjoy the steampunk genre. However, authors of steampunk novels, short stories, or other works of fiction should have a familiarity with the norms and conventions of the culture. This is especially true if their works are set in an alternate version of the 19th Century. The historical details—both large and small—which help bring the story to life for their readers. Having a grasp of the basics of the era will also help a writer create a sharper contrast when he/she develops a story world that differs from the historical record.

For instance, dirigibles/airships are common elements in modern steampunk novels. Such modes of transport went out of favor after the spectacular explosion of the Hindenberg. Yet steampunk novels rarely refer explicitly to the potential of these ships to explode. More often than not, the ship is depicted in everyday use. Steampunk authors domesticate a technology that has proven devastating to human life, and in doing so establish a firm contrast between the real world and their story worlds. Without knowing the history of airships, though, would their incorporation into the steampunk world be considered so subversive?

Flanders’s novel provides intricate detail about life in Victorian England during the span of Charles Dickens’s life. It addresses many of the aspects that modern people take for granted. For example, how did people manage to wake up on time without the benefit of an alarm clock? How did the poor and middle-class citizens navigate the city of London? Which city professions were effected by harsh weather? How and why did the slums flourish? How was the grass cut in the city squares? What did farmers do when they wanted to sell fresh milk in town without any type of refrigeration? What happened to all of the human waste created by the inhabitants? This is a smattering of the type of questions Flanders addresses in her work.

The Victorian City delves into the history of the era and provides a good base for any writer interested in creating a steampunk novel with Victorian undertones. I recommend it as a great place to start your research. Flanders provides a thorough snapshot. Whether discussing the daily life of a laborer, explaining the science behind the poor air/water quality, or presenting the causes and effects of violence/protests in the streets, the author uses enough details to bring the subject to life. The book is available in print, ebook, and audio versions.

Tesla and the Lamplighter

The wifey and I watched a great short animation the other day. It’s called Tesla and The Lamplighter. It’s a cute non-verbal story about a lamplighter helping to revitalize Tesla’s love of inventing.

While there are an intro voiceover and an outro voiceover no characters speak. With the quality of the animation and the flow of the score, it doesn’t need them to. At fourteen minutes long it’s the perfect length for your midday stretch. Or just long enough to eat a snack.

This short is the first release from CAROUSELpictures. There are two ways to pay them, you may rent it for three bucks. Or buy it for $6.50.  If you feel like the teaser is something you see yourself watching more then once, then, by all means, please buy it. But if you’re only going to watch it once renting is the way to go.

I’m very interested in Vimeo as a platform for independent creators. Vimeo does not compress your video file as much as YouTube does, and with a way to set payments for your work. It shows promise of slipping into the void that will occur when YouTube has to reinvent itself to keep up with current demands of content creators and advertisers. With my current interest in getting my own short film out to the world, I’ll have to look into this more thoroughly. 

Please follow the link below and enjoy a teaser of Tesla and the Lamplighter.

Steampunk Next by Daniel Ausema

Season Two of Spire City was largely written during Nanowrimo

Like many writers out there, I’m spending this month of November furiously writing, as I take part in National Novel Writing Month for the sixth time. In my first year participating, I wrote (most of) Season 2 of my steampunk-fantasy serial Spire City. A few years later, I wrote a good portion of Season 3.

The serialized seasons of that story are complete, but for a number of years I’ve had this idea for a story that takes place some twenty to thirty years later. Spire City, the Next Generation as it were…

I’ve always said, though, that the sense of change is one of the big draws to steampunk for me. If Spire City corresponds roughly to an 1890s level of tech (amped up with fantastical steam advances), then a later generation should feel different. Otherwise where’s all the change that was happening in the earlier story?

So how do you tackle that sense of change within a steampunk world? How do you create an ambience that feels more modern yet still steampunk?

I have a few ways I’m trying to give this story a later feel. The simplest is in-world change. Things that had seemed fixed and certain in the earlier story—just a part of the way things are—are now seen by the characters in the story as quaint, old-fashioned. These relics of the past make brief appearances juxtaposed with the more modern ways of the current day. That only works for those who’ve read the earlier story, but those subtle hints can have a powerful subconscious effect.

Another way, which this new story also makes use of, is to simply amp up the steam. Make the gears and gadgets and airships even more fantastical. Make the inventions of the earlier story, which had evoked a sense of wonder, commonplace compared to the new things that are rolling out.

But what specific things can a storyteller use to make this feel like real change?

I’ve found two that are working for my story.

First, this is much more a war story than the earlier one. Most of the characters are away from the fighting themselves, but everyone is deeply affected by the ongoing war. So I’m looking at World War I tech and weaving in some of the advances of that era. And even beyond the tech, the demeanor of the soldiers and the way people back in Spire City behave can really create that sense of being in a later era.

Image from Wikipedia
Image from Wikipedia

The other big advance is a widespread use of radio. I’ve read steampunk stories with radios in them. There’s nothing to say you don’t already have radios in your stories, but for the world I created in the Spire City stories, it creates a startlingly different feel. It’s often very subtle on the surface, but it gives the mood of the story just the right amount of difference.

So when did radio come into use in our world, and what kind of other tech will fit with a use of radio, if you decide to incorporate it in your steampunk stories? You could make an argument going back even to the early industrial revolution, if you want an especially brilliant inventor or fortuitous discovery. Some of the earliest experiments began all the way back into the late 18th century.

Then for a good stretch of the 1800s, new experiments and observations pushed our understanding forward. In fact, Edison in 1875 tied radio waves in with that beloved-of-steampunk-fans term the ether (or specifically “the etheric force”). But it was really in the 1880s that scientists began to understand what they were working with and make use of it.

The early devices, using a continuous wave, were quite limited. So it wasn’t until World War I that radios began to be more useful. And our image of the old-time commercial radio system didn’t spread until the 1920s.

So all of that fits with the time era I am looking at for this story. I’ve heard some creators try to define a separate term for things based on that somewhat later era, but such distinctions have never interested me. I still call it steampunk.

What about you? Any inventions or developments that give your steampunk stories a later feel? I’d love to hear.

It Is Never Too Late to Be What You Might Have Been: George Eliot’s Influence on Modern Alternate Histories


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George Eliot

In the steampunk genre there are many Victorian Era authors who have influenced modern works. Many writers espouse names like Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, and H.G. Wells. Yet another Victorian Era writer, Mary Ann Evans, popularly known by her pen name, George Eliot, created works of fiction that explored the connection between the individual and society and explored the idea that a single decision or action could alter the course of history: This viewpoint has been explored at length by steampunk authors who create story worlds based on alternate histories.

George Eliot wrote in reaction to the dominant ideas of her day—opposing the views that within the historical past lay a panacea for modern Victorian culture and that within the past one could find the best possible moral guide between good and evil. Her views on individualism and society are more modern in perspective and focus on the “here-and-now” rather than the past “glory” of the British Empire. For her, literature was fundamentally tied to her exploration of human nature and the current cultural atmosphere.

As Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth (1985) notes, Eliot focuses on human interactions and cultural understanding. The realm of culture as Eliot conceives it is full of conflicting claims, diverse possibilities, and a bewildering array of evidence that can make it seem a hopeless wilderness to the individual looking for a reliable guide to choice. Because conditions are so diverse, what an individual can do is also diverse. There are alternatives to every choice and to every result, and thus it matters considerably what an individual does. Because people share a common ground in culture, individual action inevitably modifies circumstances in ways that reach far beyond intention with effects that are incalculably diffusive.

In effect, for Eliot, the interaction between the individual and the cultural does provide a sort of give-and-take. The culture affects the individual, but he or she will also affect the culture through the choices that he or she makes throughout life. For example, the “definition” of good and evil can differ from culture to culture and era to era and this precludes a “revelation” about the definition of the terms. What is good for one person is often evil for another; valid ideas can lose influence while tendencies that should be resisted can be mistaken for inevitable laws. If there were a clear right and wrong, based on a single dispensation of human affairs, there would be no need for daring to be wrong. All action could be evaluated according to the law (Ermarth, 1985).

An example of this dual perspective can be seen in the events surrounding the American Revolution, which occurred just prior to the Victorian Era. The British view of this war differed greatly from that of the colonialists (and future Americans). After the French Military threat to the British North American Colonies ended in 1763, the British government felt that the colonies should pay an increased portion of the costs associated with maintaining troops and services. The colonies lacked elected representation to British Parliament and felt that the increased taxes violated their rights. The taxation, while good for England, was seen as evil in the colonies. These two perspectives eventually clashed on the battlefield.

If the British had won the Revolutionary War, would George Washington still be seen as a hero, or considered a villain? How would other figures, such as Charles Cornwallis, William Howe, or Benedict Arnold, be viewed? To quote an old adage—“history is written by the victors.” It is, as Eliot sees it in her novels, a matter of perspective.

Illustration from George Eliot's Middlemarch (1874).
Illustration from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874).

Although Eliot was not the first writer to explore these concepts, she was the most influential writer during the Victorian Era to broach the idea that a single decision or action by an individual could alter the course of history and the alternative possibilities brought about by those potential decisions or actions are just as interesting as the historical record. In fact, it is this concept of the individual’s impact on culture that many modern steampunk writers explore in their novels and short stories set in alternate histories. This type of story can be compelling to read. Instead of history being set in stone, it lets writers (and readers) think about what else could have happened had an alternative choice or action been taken. It is the “what if” question that leads to so many narrative possibilities.


Ermarth, E.D. (1985). George Eliot. New York: Twayne.


Dueling in the 19th century

Free image from pixabay is the first of many articles exploring the Victorian world steampunk novels are based on. Enjoy!


For hundreds of years, one of the key markers of social privilege and good breeding was was the right to defend personal honor with deadly force. To most of us today, the idea of exchanging gunfire over accusations of cheating at cards or the assertion that someone has lied seems ridiculous, but for those who aspired to the status of “gentlemen,” these accusations could become matters of life and death.


Aristocrats in Europe fought duels for hundreds of years, but the type of formal combat of most interest to steampunk enthusiasts is the pistol duels of the early 19th century. In England and the United States, these were generally conducted under some local variation of the Irish Code Duello, which was promulgated in 1777, at about the time that pistols began to replace swords as the most common weapon on the field of honor.


The code consists of 25 rules, many of which are designed to defuse the dispute. The Code lays out several point at which an “apology” or “explanation” may be honorably offered and accepted. Special emphasis is given the role of the seconds, the trusted assistants to the principal parties of the duel.  Rule 21 states: Seconds are bound to attempt a reconciliation before the meeting takes place, or after sufficient firing or hits, as specified.


The Code gives the challenged the right to choose the weapon and  the ground, while the challenger chooses his distance, and the seconds fix the time and terms of firing.


The weapons were generally large-caliber, smooth-bore muzzle-loading pistols. Dueling pistols were often works of art in their own right, but not very accurate or reliable by modern standards. The lack of rifling — which causes the bullet to spin for stability — combined with the uneven quality of black powder and the unreliability of flintlock and percussion cap firing mechanisms limited the lethality of these weapons. Most codes took advantage of these defects to lower the lethality even further, limiting the number of shots that could be fired (typically to three) and counting a misfire as one of those shots.


The main concerns with choosing a dueling ground were picking a place where there would be no interference from the law. Even though dueling was widely accepted in this era, it was often illegal. River islands were popular dueling fields, because there was frequently some uncertainty about which state the island was in, and the jurisdictional issue could give a prosecutor an excuse not to act. Maryland hosted many of the politically-motivated duels originating in Washington, DC because the practice was legal in Maryland but banned in the nation’s capital.


The code does not specify a standard distance, but sources describe a typical separation between participants  as 30 to 40 feet.


Dawn is the traditional time of day for a duel. The low light and mist of the early morning hours aid in concealing the activity, and waiting for at least a day gives all the participants a chance to sleep on their decisions.


Terms of firing could vary. The duelists could stand at the agreed-upon distance and fire upon an agreed-upon signal. They could also fire “at pleasure,” leaving each participant to work out their own trade-off between firing accurately and firing rapidly. There are even some cases where the duelists agree to take turns firing at each other. Given the accuracy and reliability of the pistols involved, this probably wasn’t completely irrational, but it seems like it would be terrifying.


Depending on the code being used, the seriousness of the offense, and the agreement of the parties, the duel could end in many ways. A simple exchange of shots with no one being hit was considered sufficient in many cases, giving each man a chance to prove their seriousness and courage. Other duels might end when at least one participant was hit, or it might continue until one of the participants was disabled. In some cases, the dispute might not be considered settled until one participant was dead.


Dueling’s popularity declined sharply during the latter part of the 19th century. In England, removing the privilege of dueling from the aristocracy was part of a movement against aristocratic privilege in general. Some sources also suggest that boxing began to substitute for dueling at about this time. In the United States, dueling’s decline is often attributed to a reaction against the mass death of the Civil War, and the defeat of the Southern planter class. The increasing reliability and accuracy of firearms probably also played a role.


Like many aspects of the 19th century, dueling will not be missed by most people. However, it does survive in steampunk circles today as the sport of tea dueling.