Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why Charles Dickens Isn't The Father of Steampunk

Dianna Gunn approached me with the idea of writing a few blog posts about steampunk. I enjoy this genre both as a writer and as a reader. I am happy to share ideas about this type of speculative fiction with a caveat: these blog articles are not ultimate, end-all-be-all definitions of the genre. Steampunk is still a work-in-progress. It is still evolving. There are new stories to be told and new writers to be discovered that will add their distinctive voices to the mix. I am simply one author among many talking about how to create a story world in a genre I enjoy. I welcome comments and observations from others who enjoy steampunk and all types of speculative fiction.

For me, steampunk is a genre of speculation, whether it is set in an alternative version of Victorian England, in an alternative American West, in a future where steam power rather than electrical current runs the world, or in a fantasy setting where steam power is in mainstream use. The technology in steampunk novels and short stories has been called “retro-futuristic” by some enthusiasts; this is a way to describe modern technology and inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them using the technology of their time. It owes a debt of gratitude for its creation to such authors as Jules Vern, Mary Shelly, and H.G. Wells: Their works are speculative, and some critics refer to them as writers of steampunk novels. (This can be debated—and has been on many a steampunk blog forum.) In terms of world-building, though, the genre owes an even larger debt to Charles Dickens and his depiction of Victorian England.

In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute (2014) writes:
It is as if, for a handful of sf writers, Victorian London has come to stand for one of those turning points in history where things can go one way or the other, a turning point peculiarly relevant to sf itself. It was a city of industry, science and technology where the modern world was being born, and a claustrophobic city of nightmare where the cost of this growth was registered in filth and squalor . . . These recall not so much the actual nineteenth-century as a nineteenth century seen through the creatively distorting lens of Charles Dickens, whose congested, pullulating nineteenth-century landscapes . . . were the foul rag-and-bone shop of history from which the technological world, and hence the world of sf, originally sprang. Somewhere behind most steampunk visions are filthy coal heaps or driving pistons (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/steampunk).

To Clute’s definition I would add an emphasis on the idea of the “turning point.” Victorian literature is filled with examples of a culture on the verge of reinventing itself. In the 19th century, Britain had moved from a primarily agricultural system to one based in manufacturing. Technological change was a way to improve the standard of life for all citizens. The lower class were abandoning the farms and moving to the cities in droves in search of a better life. The country was in the throes of the first industrial revolution in world history. The smokestacks from the mills and engineering works pumped noxious chemicals into the air. The buildings were covered with soot, pitted, and eroded by fumes. In this situation, is it no wonder that some people looked to the past and life in the small towns and countryside as a panacea? Yet those who would abandon the overcrowded cities and new technology seemed to forget the poverty and starvation of those who had previously lived the pastoral life. It was a culture being pulled in two opposite directions and this was reflected in the literature of the time.

In the Victorian Era the nostalgia and idealization of the past mixed with the ideas that industry and innovation were the only ways to improve the human condition. Modern day steampunk works have the same diametric opposition that the Victorians explored, especially those who look to the novels of Charles Dickens as inspiration for world building. For example, the city of Southwatch, from the Darkside Codex, is bisected by a toxic stew of chemicals and pollution called the Dark Cloud. In the lower parts of the city, the Steamworks and other industries emit the chemicals that make up the cloud. In the areas above the Dark Cloud—called sunside—the air is pure and pollution free. The “claustrophobic city of nightmare where the cost of . . . growth was registered in filth and squalor” first described in the novels of Charles Dickens forms part of the inspiration for Southwatch; above is all light, clean, and healthy, while darkside everything is dark, gloomy, and dangerous. Those who are wealthy live sunside while the poorest citizens live down below. And the fae magic that keeps the Dark Cloud centered in Southwatch protects the nearby pastoral countryside from the toxic pollution—for now.

Yet the poor people do not abandon Southwatch. For all its grime and toxic air, it is where they can earn a living. It is quite a choice for the darksiders: leave the city and have no means to support themselves and their families or stay and slowly be poisoned. This is part of the reason for the high level of unrest in the city.

Those who live sunside have issues as well. They are constantly fighting for money and prestige. One misstep can plunge a family into poverty. To lose position in the city could mean banishment below the Dark Cloud and an exposure to the toxic atmosphere. What are they willing to do—to sacrifice—to stay in the light?

As a writer, this type of tension leads to multiple story inspirations. To miss-quote another English author: From this city of nightmares, what dreams may come?

Steampunk writers (and readers) owe a debt of gratitude to Charles Dickens for his vivid descriptions of London and other cities during the Victorian Era. More than any writer listed in this article, he helped to create the background setting for the genre. Yet it is important to remember that his works have only influenced the genre; he did not write any steampunk novels (unless I am completely miss-remembering Bleak House and Little Dorrit.) Thus—as I stated in the title—Charles Dickens cannot be called the father of steampunk. Perhaps he could be its great uncle?

Chris Pavesic lives in the Midwestern United States and loves Kona coffee, fairy tales, and all types of speculative fiction. Her stories, “Going Home” and “The World In Front of Me,” have been published in Penumbra EMag. Her first novel with Musa, The Caelimane Operation, will be published in January, 2015. 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.

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