Neo-Victorian Review – Tales of Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Steampunk Fiction

Helena Esser studied Anglophone Literature and History at the University of Duisburg-Essen, from which she graduated with a BA thesis on retrofuturist feminism in steampunk literature and an MA thesis on female identity in WW1 memoirs. She is currently busy trying to coordinate her many research interests, which include steampunk subculture, cityscapes, cyborgs, and airship pirates, Ouida, WW1 history, Terry Pratchett, and cyberpunk. You can find her on Twitter @EsserHelena

A few weeks ago, when I outlined how the steampunk aesthetic re-purposes a received Victorian past, I suggested that there exists an array of ‘Victorian’ archetypes which function as steampunk’s chief inspirations and subsequently asked, ‘What does it mean to punk the past – and which ‘past’ is that?’

Victorianists, by definition, encounter the Victorian age from a variety of perspectives and from up close, but steampunk, as an interactive and international movement, can reflect which impressions an interested public has of that age. Which images, associations and stereotypes filter through a hundred years of pop culture as cultural undercurrents, to be picked up, played with, and punked by steampunks? In today’s post, I would like to broadly review a few popular steampunk novels which illustrate the main tendencies in steampunk fiction so far, and in doing so examine which notions of the Victorian age are presented therein.

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James Blaylock: The Adventures of Langdon St.Ives

Blaylock is a member of the California trifecta who popularized steampunk in the sci fi community in the 1980s and coined the term, and is therefor a good representative first generation steampunk. His steampunk series, centered around gentleman scientist and explorer Langdon St.Ives is heavily influenced by Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, and was published as a loose trilogy, with The Digging Leviathan in 1984, Homunculus in 1986 and Lord Kelvin’s Machine in 1992. The books went out of of print, but were re-published in the wake of steampunk’s second wave in 2013. They are marketed as a ‘steampunk legend’ and are even printed in brown ink. Blaylock followed up with several short stories and continued his series with The Aylesford Skull in 2013 and Beneath London in 2015. This illustrates which impact the taste for steampunk has on the publishing industry, and may explain why publishers are so eager to market ‘anything with airships’ as steampunk.

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Blaylock’s series, independent of publishing strategies, is a good example of how steampunk first started to re-imagine the Victorian age. Through characters like Bill Kraken and Finn, Blaylock revives and explores London’s East End and the people who live there, but instead of Mayhew’s benevolently patronizing sentimentality, we find here a shabby vivacity that produces hearty, heroic oddballs who can proudly contribute to the story alongside gentlemen like St.Ives. However, while this points to Mayhew, Doré and Dickens as influences, we also find in Blaylock’s series alien airships, time travel, and vivisection, along with necromancy and lately, giant luminescent funghi. Mayhew’s social commentary clearly serves only as a cornerstone of an imagined historical playground that is infused with Lovecraftian ideas and weird fiction tropes: in Blaylock’s universe, peapod men and peddlers, Victorian manners, social codes, toy shops and pickpockets are no less whimsy, curious and weirdly fascinating than homunculi and haunted skulls.


Kim Newman – Anno Dracula

Newman’s series combines, conflates and re-arranges a variety of historical and literary figures. While Anno Dracula (1991) does not heavily feature anachronistic, technofantastical inventions, its setting in Victorian London and its imaginative re-combination of intertexts can qualify it as ‘steampunk’ and illustrate stenewmanampunk’s hyper-Victorianism. The novel’s premise, simple but effective, is simply this: What if Stoker’s Dracula had ended differently? What if the Count had succeeded? In the Gothic-heavy ‘sequel’ to Dracula, the Count has become Prince Regent and infected Britain with vampirism, Sherlock Holmes is in exile, Lord Ruthven is as much a vampire as Tennyson, Florence Stoker, and the entire social elite. Frederick Abberline, Inspector Lestrade and Dr Henry Jekyll all work on finding the notorious Jack the Ripper, who- in a srprisingly plausible twist- turns out to be John Seward, killing vampire prostitutes to avenge the loss of his beloved Lucy Westenra. In Newman’s vision, Victorian history intertwines with Victorian cultural imagination to create a multidimensional, highly evocative vision of the nineteenth century in which literature and history leave equally potent traces, at least for the steampunk reader.


Gail Carriger – Parasol Protectorate

Alexia Tarabotti, Carriger’s feisty spinster heroine, entered the steampunk stage in time to shake up second generation steampunk with her decidedly feminine perspective. Soulless (2009) the first of five novels, was accused by the steampunk community of being whimsy, romantic, and silly – in short, ‘for girls’. While ‘serious’ steampunks sought to establish an identity of counterculture and give their movement a political direction, Carriger wrote witty, entertaining novels in which a bluestocking with no soul investigates mad scientists, has tea with dandy vampires, and finds herself romantically entangled with a Scottish werewolf. Maketing and plot structure suggest a more or less generic romance, but Soulless is a clever combination of Wildean irony, aestheticism and female perspectives along with openly queer characters. Alexia is forthright, regrettably Italian, and in her quest to ‘be useful’ becomes a character with agency who transgresses Victorian angel/whore binaries: a respectable, but sexually active woman. Alongside Alexia, we find Lord Akeldama, leader of a whole hive of gay dandies and spies, or Madame Lefoux, a lesbian inventor and an interesting take on the ‘mad scientist’ trope. With its focus on fashion, manners, and romance, The Parasol Protectorate certainly is ‘steampunk for girls’ – but as it is also an intelligent interrogation of gender ideas, is populated by mechanical killer ladybugs, dirigibles, and a giant brass octopus, and makes clever use of Victorian ‘sciences’ such as spiritualism or Egyptology, being ‘for girls’ merely means the novel contributes fresh perspectives to a literature that had hitherto favored Mahew, Stoker or Doyle as its influences.

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Carriger has also begun to publish a Young Adult series set in the same steampunk universe that tells the story of a school for female spies, as well as a series about Alexia’s daughter Prudence, which promises to explore non-British settings.


George Mann – Newbury & Hobbe

9780765323224Mann’s detective series about a gentleman scientist and his spunky assistant is quite popular, and seems to condense in its neo-Victorian collage many tropes that steampunk readers expect or are familiar with. A London setting, a respectable scientist who dabbles in occult studies, a heroine who is both conventionally feminine but who apparently ‘breaks’ Victorian norms enough to be recognizable as a modern, independent woman, fog, mad scientists, airships, mummies, poor East Enders, asylums, and robots. That said, aside from these stereotypical tropes, the series offers little that can be read as critical or new. Class relations, gender norms, colonialism, or social topographies are never in question, Miss Veronica Hobbes is not quite as brave and emancipated as Mann believes her to be, and the series can quickly become boring to readers who expect both Victorian and contemporary tastes to be subverted or even called into question. The Affinity Bridge (2008), The Osiris Ritual (2009) and subsequent novels in the series romanticize the nineteenth century unquestioningly. Nonetheless, the Newbury & Hobbes series reflects which popular tropes, ideas, and values a mainstream audience seemingly associates with both the Victorian age and the steampunk aesthetic, at least at first glance.

Tee Morris & Pip Ballantine – Books & Braun

Morris and Ballantine’s series is structured as a steampunk take on adventure and espionage fiction: An unlikely duo of British agents, namely the bookish Wellington Books and the firebrand Eliza Braun of the Ministry for Peculiar Occurences investigates mysterious events, such as secret societies made up of mad scientists or suffragettes disappearing in electric light, and they do so with wit and chemistry. This steampunk vision is quite evidently inspired as much by Doyle or Dickens as it by British classic TV series The Avengers, with a bit of James Bond or Indiana Jones thrown into the mix, and conceives of the Victorian age as a time of adventure and unexplored possibilities. Next to a gang of street urchins who double as loyal spies, a house maid with cyborg legs, and Books’ retro-futurist inventions (such as a post-Babbage computer that catalogs files and plays music), we are presented with agent Braun from New Zealand who, with her bulletproof corset, her firearms and her temper, is supposed to be a thoroughly independent, ‘un-Victorian’ action heroine. While this attempted feminist portrayal does occasionally relapse into accidental sexism, the series largely tries to explore issues of gender, class and race. With its ‘Kiwi heroine’ and its internationally diverse cast of characters, Books and Braun inventively re-imagines popular Cold War fiction in a colonialist setting, thereby exemplifying how steampunk combines a perceived Victorian age with post-modern ideas.

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Conclusion

The works of fiction I have endeavored to introduce and outline are amongst the most popular in current steampunk fiction. Quite striking is the fact that all of them are set not only in Britain, but in London. While there are steampunk works that explore other settings, such as Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker series (post-Civil War US), Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer (Japan), or Nisi Shawl’s Everfair (Congo), steampunk’s favorite go-to setting seems to be Victorian London as the epitome of the age. Apparently, Victorian London provides a density and richness as a speculative playground that has yet to find its match. Given the sheer amount of historical fiction written about London by Dickens, Stevenson, Stoker, Doyle, or Wilde, it is unsurprising how much the steampunk vision is coined by those texts. I would argue that these urban settings coupled with a detection plot are so popular because they resonate so productively with some of the most successful genres of post-modern fiction, especially film: crime/detective fiction, which is embodied by no one as well as Sherlock Holmes, Gothic, which was successful as an urban genre in the late nineteenth century, and action/adventure, a genre that acquires a stimulating sense of enthusiasm and romance when set in the Victorian age. Apparently, steampunk allows for a re-combination of these three genres that is endlessly fascinating because it it at once innately familiar to the reader and defamiliarised in an anachronistic setting.

Even so, would it not be as interesting to see steampunk visions that based off of Haggard’s adventure fiction or Getrude Bell’s diaries? What about steampunk set in Paris, or the German Kaiserreich? Could steampunk be inspired by the aesthetes and decadents? When we ask, ‘Which past are we punking?’, the answer is as yet more or less easily discernible, but in theory, the possibilities are endless.

 

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