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?
1). It brings the “punk.”
Last week The Steampunk Cavaliers presented a wonderful guest post by Steven R. Southard: “Putting the Punk Back in Steampunk.” Sothard writes:
“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.