I recently went to a steampunk convention where I gave a lecture on the value of steampunk set in America. I delivered it in a but of a rush, because I was harried and late thanks to an accident on I85. The lecture was sparsely attended but those who came seemed to enjoy it. I thought I would post the full prepared lecture here for your amusement. I suppose it is sort of a defense of American steampunk. Take it as you will.
There’s Gold in them Thar Hills!
When we say the words Victorian Era, many of us immediately think British Empire. We think cockney merchants hawking handmade wares from the backs of wooden wagons. We think sea soaked sailors pulling into port, their ships filled with exotic spices and foreign diseases. We think bawdy prostitutes lingering in darkened doorways offering us a glimpse of sin for just a shilling. Maybe two.
It’s a natural leap to make, after all the time period is named after the monarch of England, so why wouldn’t we go straight to the muddy streets of London when we hear the words Victorian Era. But the Victorian Era isn’t a place; it’s a time frame. From 1837-1901 Queen Victoria ruled the British, true, but the years themselves are far richer than just a single country, or for that matter a single empire.
Now when we say steampunk, we think Victorian Era, and once again we find our minds and creativity drifting towards jolly old England. For example, imagine this plotline for a possible tale:
London England, 1869. The streets are a nightmare of congestion; overcrowded with carriages, bursting with bustling pedestrians and overflowing with garbage and rats and those who have no other place to go. Enter one inventor, with a revolutionary idea. His plan? Take transportation underground by building a series of pneumatic tubes to carry people across the length of the city via airflow provided by 48 foot fans. But he had one obstacle; the head of the largest transportation company in the city all but controlled the streets, and had no plans on losing his grip to some underground roustabout. Our intrepid inventor would have to build it in secret, right under the noses of the boss man and his shareholders. Under the pretenses of building a pneumatic mail system, he constructs his secret project and opens the line to the surprise of the public. But thanks to a failing economy and the ever increasing pressure of the competition, the line dies out with a quiet whimper, leaving behind a series of abandoned tunnels and broken dreams.
Sound like a good set up for a fantastic steampunk tale, doesn’t it? Sure it does! The thing is, while the whole thing sounds like a great slice of fiction, is actually fact. Only it didn’t happen in London. It happened in New York City. In 1869 Alfred Beach built and operated the world’s first pneumatic transportation system and the precursor to the subway, all in secret and much to the dismay of the powers that be. It crashed about the same time as the stock market, taking his dreams to a dire and desolate grave.
I relate this interesting piece of Americana as a point. A simple reminder that the Victorian Era is a time, not a place. And with a history as technologically rich as ours, a genre like steampunk should really write itself.
Let’s talk about the genre for just a moment, so we can get a better understanding of where American steampunk comes from.
Author Jess Nivens put forth the idea that steampunk first developed as a kind of reactionary movement against the Edisonade; the popular pulp fiction genre aimed toward young males that featured righteous American explorers (usually young men) conquering barbaric natives and exercising good old fashioned Manifest Destiny. He states that steampunk’s real purpose was to lay bare the dark underbelly of the Victorian Era. According to him, steampunk was designed to play upon the vast financial gulf between rich and poor, to expose the lack of healthcare and education for the underprivileged, and to point up the dire need for social changes and the borderline revolutionary atmosphere so inherent to Victorian Era England, all in an attempt to mirror the much needed changes in our contemporary society, whether here in America or anywhere else.
Nivens also suggests that steampunk presents itself in waves of generations; the first generation (or as he puts it ‘true’ steampunk) featured gritty dystopian settings, explored social and cultural themes and was British in nature; the second generation focused more on adventure and technology rather than social issues, and is typically not based in England, or rather not restricted to the place. By his definition, second generation steampunk is a return to the roots of the genre. It delves back into the waters of the Edisonade by featuring adventurous tales rife with American settings, but with a slight difference; the authors penning these tales have the history of Manifest Destiny to look back on, both the good and the bad.
Most authors of this second generation grew tired of the bleakness of the original steampunk movement, but fell in love with the trappings of it. They fill their tales with clockworks and corsets and flying contraptions, and while they may tip their hats to those social issues that plagued the Victorians (as well as us) they tend to shy away from making these themes a focal point, aiming instead to keep the tempo upbeat and the stories lighthearted.
This is by no means a hard and fast rule, for many steampunk novels set in America are by no means lighthearted. Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, for example, is set in western America, which suggests that it is second generation steampunk, but creates a dystopian alternate history complete with zombies. Felix Gilman’s Half Made World is set in the weird west, but one wouldn’t describe it as shiny or feel good. (Both labels attributed to the second generation of steampunk.) My erotic novella series, Clockworks and Corsets, explores the various roles of women during the Victorian Era, from ballroom to bedroom, by playing upon the responsibilities, bravery and fiery spirit of the female pioneers that settled the old west.
The old west seems to be the favorite focus of steampunk authors that base their stories on American soil, and it’s easy to see why. That great push into the western front shaped our nation. It gave us much needed land and resources and became a springboard for the advancement of technology. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention! The expansion of the railroad alone is a hotbed of technological development. Hence the Wild West is a hotbed for steampunk stories.
Of course there is a darker side to this Wild Western history. For example our mistreatment of the natives, or how we wiped out entire species just for sport, or how we destroyed our own citizens in the name of the railroad, or any of the hundreds of other travesties we’ve committed along the way. Again, most steampunk authors don’t outright ignore such things, but they tend not to focus on them either. Why? Are we shying away from our past out of embarrassment? Or is it simply a case of what makes for good entertainment?
After all, we aren’t writing history books. We’re writing fiction.
I suppose what I am trying to get at is this: American history is rich. From the Civil War to the Wild West, the Victorian Era saw America through some fascinating times. We had our own mouthy merchants and swarthy sailors and haughty harlots. We had pirates and bandits and cowboys and Indians. We had uprisings and exoduses. We had assassinations and political coups. We had Edison, Tesla and Bell. We had Florence Nightingale and Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley. Our nation grew, and nearly collapsed and then exploded into the size it is today, all within the span of the Victorian Era.
Lets look at Victorian America, so we can get a general idea of the kind of steampunk stories, both first and second generation, lay hidden under her veneer. (I am by no means an American history buff, so this next part is pulled mostly from Wikipedia and various websites)
The Industrial Revolution was partly responsible for the lifestyle of the wealthy, but created a body of new rich who threatened the status of the old. Culturally, these new rich were very different, unsure what it was to be rich they created a class all their own. To distance themselves from the new rich, the old rich created "society" made up of "proper families." Newly rich people could not easily join society, except perhaps in New York City, where they could buy their way in, but their children could if they married into an old family.
In 1849, thousands of Americans flooded the western territories looking for gold. This influx of folks boosted California’s population from about 14,000 in 1848 to over 200,000 in 1852. The majority of these folks, left empty handed from failed mining expeditions and with no other place to go, settled into California and helped shape the new frontier.
The Civil War was a time of awareness and change in American culture. 750,000 Americans died during the war out of a population of 31 million. Among men aged 18–35 about 20% had died by the end of the war. The war accounted for roughly as many American deaths as all American deaths in other U.S. wars combined. The war destroyed much of the wealth that had existed in the South. Income per person in the South dropped to less than 40% than that of the North, a condition which lasted until well into the 20th century. Southern influence in the US federal government, previously considerable, was greatly diminished until the latter half of the 20th century.
As industrialization moved workers from farms and home workshops into urban areas and factory work, children were often preferred, because factory owners viewed them as more manageable, cheaper, and less likely to strike. In 1852, Massachusetts required children to attend school. In 1853, Charles Loring Brace founded the Children's Aid Society, which worked hard to take in children living on the street. The following year, the children were placed on a train headed for the West, where they were adopted, and often given work. This orphan train didn’t stop operations until the 1920’s.
The years between 1850 and 1890 saw phenomenal growth in the US railroad system, which at its peak constituted one third of the world's total mileage. Although the American Civil War placed a temporary halt to major new developments the conflict did demonstrate the enormous strategic importance of railways at times of war. After the war major developments include the first elevated railway built in New York in 1867 and the symbolically important first transcontinental railway was completed in 1869.
Sexual discrimination was rampant surrounding the idealistic impression that aristocratic women should be "pure" and "clean." This paradoxical form of repression used positive words to restrict upper-class Victorian-era women from becoming "dirty" with the jobs that would have provided them with economical freedom and the lifestyles that would have provided them with social freedom. It was sometimes even claimed that "decent" women were untroubled by sexual pleasure. It was taboo to even mention the words "leg" or "breast." Women covered their legs to a much greater extreme than they do today. Even the bare skin of an ankle was considered risque. In contrast, cleavage was not sexualized to the extent that it is today. Cleavage lines that would be normal by some of today's standards would have been controversial for even the most "decent" middle-class woman in Victorian England.
All in all you can see, there is a vast history to work with here. Americana is a gold mine of facts and figures, inventors and luminaries. While there is nothing wrong with British based steampunk, there is also nothing wrong with American based steampunk.
In the end, it’s all water from the same boiler.