The Chastened Society
Or, What is Reverse Steampunk?

Happy book birthday to my fourth novel, Icarus Down! While copies have been circulating at better bookstores a little bit early, this is the official release date, so if you haven't yet bought a copy, do so. And may I also point out that the book makes an excellent Christmas present to your young adult readers in your family.

Enclosed is an opinion piece that I wrote as I was putting the final touches on Icarus Down. The photograph, incidentally, is entitled Steampunks by Kyle Cassidy, and is used in accordance with her Creative Commons license...

steampunk-photo.jpgSome science fiction and fantasy fans want a little bit of the past with their future. In books and in movies, some writers are combining the atmosphere and aesthetic of the Victorian era with their fanciful and fantastic storylines. This has created a sub-genre often referred to as "steampunk".

Steampunk can be broadly defined as using a Victorian style design or approach to the setting or characterization of the story. Steampunk can range from the superficial (such as the television series Warehouse 13, whose steampunk aesthetic is specifically said to be a fashion choice by Artie, the leader of the warehouse), or it can be deeper, specifically setting the story in the Victorian era, and dealing with the mores and the mindset of the Victorians as they encounter science fiction and fantasy tropes from aliens to robots to dragons.

But which is it? Does steampunk take the Victorian era and spin some science fiction elements in it? Or does steampunk take a science fiction setting, and use whatever excuse it can to make it Victorian? And does the choice between these two options alter the way the story is presented?

Think of what it would be like to give Victorian England access to 21st century technology. Now think of forcing 21st century England to live with Victorian-era infrastructure. The choice is up to the writer, but it can produce some subtle, though profound differences.

The seminal works of steampunk date from the 1960s and the 1970s, but K.W. Jeter coined the term in 1987 in a letter to Locus magazine:

"Enclosed is a copy of my 1979 novel Morlock Night; I'd appreciate your being so good as to route it Faren Miller, as it's a prime piece of evidence in the great debate as to who in "the Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate" was writing in the "gonzo-historical manner" first. Though of course, I did find her review in the March Locus to be quite flattering.

"Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like "steampunks", perhaps..."


Initially, steampunk novels married the science fiction and fantasy novel to the sensibilities and storytelling styles of well-known Victorian authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Welles. Steampunk really gained recognition as a genre, however, when William Gibson and Bruce Sterling co-wrote The Difference Engine. The two authors were known as the founding fathers of the cyberpunk genre.

In The Difference Engine, Gibson and Sterling speculated on what could have happened if the steam-powered mechanical computer, designed by Charles Babbage, had actually been built. What would the Information Age look like if it took root closer to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution?

Since then authors like Arthur Slade (who wrote The Hunchback Assignments) and Kenneth Oppel (who wrote the Airborn trilogy) have mined this rich vein. In the case of The Hunchback Assignments, Slade sets the story in Victorian England, and sets literary tropes of the time against each other. Modo, a shape-shifting hunchback, is recruited by the British secret service to fight against the Clockwork Guild, which have at their fingertips spies with steam-powered limbs.

Kenneth Oppel's Airborn trilogy and his more recent book, The Boundless, are possibly the least stringent in their use of steampunk. Airborn envisions an alternate history set around the first half of the 20th century where Zeppelins are still the primary means of long-distance travel. The Boundless is set aboard a seven-mile long steam train travelling across North America.

Philip Reeve's Larklight series of books is also deep in Victoriana, giving the British Empire of 1851 access to much of the solar system using fantastical elements of the period. The solar system conforms to some of the Victorian imaginings of the time: Venus is a jungle planet, while Mars is a desert planet, full of hints of ancient empire. Reeve goes further, however, and visits the other planets in the solar system with an imaginative flair - intelligent storms on Jupiter, for instance - that matches the Victorian style.

The common thread of all this is the concept of a society in the steam and clockwork age coming forward to the computer or space age, or something similar. This informs the social structure of the society. In Philip Reeve's Larklight series, the social mores of young protagonist Art Mumby's world can be charitably called "quaint" by today's standards. Although Art's mother and sister are both strong female characters, the fact that they have the same personal strength, cunning and derring-do as the men is something for pirate Jack Havock to fall in love with, and for Art to be bewildered by.

Similarly, Kenneth Oppel's Airborn trilogy devotes a significant portion of its narrative to Kate DeVries as she struggles to be accepted as a scientist in what is a man's world where she does not even have the right to vote. Adrienne Kress' The Friday Society tackles this theme head-on. Her book, set in 1890's London, has three young women working within the male-dominated society, solving a murder in steampunk fashion "without calling too much attention to themselves".

In an e-mail conversation with Ms. Kress, she explained further, saying:

"One of the reasons I made [my protagonists] all lower class... ...was so that they would be aware of the class divide and how the mores held them back, and thus inspired them to fight against it. A whole big part of them deciding to become these superheroes has to do with fighting against the society they are in, not just solving crimes... ...I think that the Victorian set literature can also be holding up a mirror to nature as it were. That it might be set in a different time but can reflect back current systemic issues in our modern society, either through allegory, metaphor, or even more literally. I think not everyone chooses to set things in Victorian times because it is quaint."

So, even though, under steampunk, the Victorians have overachieved in terms of their technology, their sexual attitudes - and likely their racial attitudes (as evidenced in Larklight by Art's ignorant preconceptions about the other races of the solar system) - remain unchanged. Therefore, one element that marks the genre of steampunk is the derring-do of the protagonists and the society they belong to. Or, in other words, their male, colonial arrogance.

The Victorian Britons were unbelievably arrogant. They were absolutely certain of their moral superiority over the world, as evidenced by their imperial presumptions in maintaining colonies around the world. And who was going to tell them different? They had beaten everybody from Napoleon on down. Steampunk serves to give the British Victorians access to even more powerful machinery and weaponry. One has to ask if such a move would do anything to curb Britain's sense of entitlement?

But what is the reverse of arrogance? There is more than one way for a technology to be outlandishly out-of-time. You can approach the steam and clockwork age from the past, as the British do in traditional steampunk, or you can also approach it from the future.

Imagine a society where steampunk is not evidence of a society overachieving in terms of its technology, but jury-rigging a system to maintain what it has in the face of great loss. This could be called "reverse steampunk".

An example of this, in my opinion, is Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines sequence of books. In these novels, the surviving populations of a post-post (post?) apocalyptic world scramble to live by mounting their cities onto gigantic caterpillar treads and racing around the remains of Europe and Asia (referred to as "the Great Hunting Ground") consuming any resources they find, including each other, in a practice known as "municipal Darwinism".

The protagonist in Reeve's Mortal Engines books is 15-year-old Tom Natsworthy, an apprentice to the Historians guild of London, which is charged with remembering and relearning the old tech of the civilization that existed before the "Sixty Minute War". Elements of the original London are found on this multi-tiered moving city. The London Underground symbol now adorns the elevators that take Londoners from their housing levels to where they work. St. Paul's Cathedral caps the city, and its dome hides an old-tech superweapon that the mayor hopes will break down a wall blocking the only pass through the Himalayas, opening up virgin territory for London and other cities to consume.

In these novels, where all of the characters are living hand-to-mouth, and are thus more inclined to sell out their friends or their ideals for the next meal, the references to the artifacts of the old world these people have managed to hold onto provide poignant reminders of just how much this civilization has lost. In some ways, it's as if the old tech mocks the new.

In my own novel, Icarus Down, the society of Icarus Down used to be a star-faring civilization. They had ships and computers and power systems well in advance of what exists today, and certainly well in advance of what the Victorian Britons could imagine. Suddenly, the colonists of Icarus Down find themselves marooned and cowering beneath an electromagnetic wash from a powerful star that ruins computers and makes even a central power system impossible. How does a society used to sending messages instantaneously cope with having to resort to pneumatic tubes and town criers? How does a society that knows how to make electricity from solar power cope with having to transport it using children running around with bags of batteries?

Unlike some of Reeve's characters, the response of the Icarans is not to sacrifice their ideals, but to cling more closely to them, as a means to hold on to as much of their lives, and their sanity, as they can.

It is often the stereotype to view Victorian England as a place of sexual repression, and not without reason. This was the era the suffragettes were rebelling against, after all. But the depiction of the Victorians as prudes - no sex before marriage; no sex without intent to have children, and so on - really only applies to the middle and upper-middle classes of the age. The reality was that if you were super rich, you did whatever you wanted - from having liaisons to wearing pants instead of corsets - because you could pay people to look the other way. And if you were poor, you also did what you wanted, since you didn't matter to the rest of society, and nobody paid attention.

On the other hand, the middle class, who had enough money to matter, but didn't have enough money to pay people to look the other way, were in a far more precarious economic position. As a result, they did ascribe to many of these mores. The fact that many of the writers of this period, including Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, came from these classes and wrote this reality into their books, is one reason the prudish Victorian stereotype is so entrenched.

A society that has come at the steam and clockwork age from the wrong direction has not gained, but lost, and is probably balancing on a knife's edge. They have been strenuously reminded of their mortality, and are jury-rigging what they have in order to maintain technology that would, in other circumstances, be impossible. Such a society would not be arrogant. A society that felt itself constantly on the edge of extinction would hold itself in, much like the precarious middle-class of Victorian England. It would be humbled. It would be chastened. It could lash out to grab whatever it could as quickly as could in the desire to never go hungry again, as is the case in the Mortal Engines books or the chastened society could, to paraphrase Madeleine L'Engle, become chaste.

Societies that come at the steam and clockwork age from the wrong direction will be resourceful, having jury-rigged the 21st century out of the tools of the 19th, but they'll also long remember how much they have lost. It is a different attitude that changes the core of steampunk and, in my opinion, this psychology is a rich vein that has not yet been fully mined.

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