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.