Friday, December 30, 2011

Steampunk and Empire

I don't hold much truck with the notion that sometimes a dirigible is just a dirigible. The idea that steampunk is popular simply because it's fun fails to take timing into account. I have to ask, if it's such an enjoyable genre (which it is), why didn't it take off in the 1970s, after Mike Moorcock wrote Warlord of the Air, or in the '80s after K. W. Jeter's Morlock Night? Why is steampunk such a phenomenon now?

Personally, I think it's because we live in a world in which empires are crumbling. Whatever moral highground the USA thought it might have held was yanked from under it after its recent military forays into the Middle East, which, beneath the hard gaze of the media have been exposed as little more than imperialistic assaults, however the right wing might justify them. In the UK, a soaring crime rate, squalid press, and a succession of dithering politicians have forced us to confront the fact that we're very far from what we used to be. In Europe, the edicts issued by Brussels have slowly but surely eroded unique cultures and national identities. The Arabic world is in the grip of multiple revolutions. And the fast-growing power of China looms over the Western World, making it plain that we're not dealing the cards any more

Now don't get me wrong. I don't mourn the loss of empires. Empires are not good. They're built upon foundations of a disenfranchised, poverty-stricken, and—if not actually, then certainly virtually—enslaved majority in order that a rich minority can live the high life. They bulldoze over the weak. They manipulate the media to misinform. They brutally subjegate those who oppose them. They are evil.

Conversely, and perhaps paradoxically, they also offer a sense of security. If you exist within an empire and are not actively against it, it will offer you a place, a function, and a sense of belonging. This is something we all, naturally, yearn for. To know you have a job for life, a roof over your head, health and safety for your family, enough disposable income to enjoy your leisure time, and are protected by the law of the land from those who might unbalance things—this is a good feeling.

How many of us are in that situation now? Not many. A job for life is a thing of the past. The extreme and frequent instabilities of the capitalist system can rob any one of us of our income at any moment. Even the bricks and mortar we invest in can be taken from us in the blink of an eye. Health services are underfunded, private health insurance is prohibitively expensive, prices are rising but salaries aren't, justice is rarely seen to be done (I'm looking at you, bankers), and, to put it bluntly, the vast majority of us have a clear sense that the western world is fucked up to the nth degree.

No surprise, then, that steampunk appeals, for it supplies us with a nice healthy dose of reassurance all wrapped up in an exciting package. It harks right back to those days when every individual knew his or her place and function, and had faith that those who ran things knew best.

I don't care whether it's the literature, fashion, art or music of steampunk, the ethos is the same, whether you are conscious of it or not.

And I have a real problem with it.

In my opinion, if you're going to reference empires, then you're obliged to acknowledge their ills and iniquities. You have to expose the fact that the benefits they bring are illusory and created through the sufferings of a wilfully obscured underclass. If you don't tackle these difficult themes, your work will lack depth and staying power. It'll be fluff, nothing more.

Okay, there's not a thing wrong with seeking to do nought but entertain, and I thank all those who've produced the engrossing steampunk adventures that've kept me on the sofa, nose in book, for many a pleasant evening. But personally, having been given the rare opportunity to place my work before the public, I kinda feel obliged to give my punters something more to chew on than tasty fluff.*

That's is why, in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, and Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, I confront issues of empire in an unflinching and often rather savage manner. In Jack, I send Burton and Swinburne into the cruel heart of London's East End, where the disenfranchised live in such destitution that they've regressed almost to an animalistic state. In Clockwork the focus switches to the personal ambitions of powerful dictators whose motives are likely to cause empires to clash, with the subsequent annihilation of millions of innocent people. And in Expedition, I throw Burton right into the fray, where an entire continent becomes the unwitting battleground as the conflict erupts.

Yes, I employed the trappings of steampunk in those stories, but I chose to do so specifically because they are signifiers of empire. The Age of Steam is synonymous with the Age of Empire, and the consequences I portray really did happen (albeit not necessarily in the manner I depict).

Don't get me wrong. The Burton and Swinburne tales are fun. They evoke the story papers of the Victorian Age, in which the British Empire was golden and faultless. In other words, they reference the propaganda of the age. But behind the derring-do, the square shoulders and stiff upper lips, the escapades and thrills, I hope I make a very serious point—that, no matter how much we might currently yearn for the security of empire, it is profoundly wrong for us to base our own comfort on the suffering of others.

* Actually, my forthcoming book The Somewhat Singular Mr. Macallister Fogg is steampunk stripped entirely of anything deep and meaningful, so please don't peg me as an author who doesn't know how to kick back and enjoy a good yarn when I feel the urge!


  1. Hi Mark, and thanks for the post.

    I do think that at a casual glance, some readers might assume that you aren't confronting the issues of Empire and the darker side of a Steampunk world.

    I do wonder, though, if the choice Burton makes near the end of Jack ties into those problems. If, by allowing the alternate history to stand, it doesn't allow Burton to address the problems of Steampunk and Empire in a way he couldn't and didn't in the mainline history.

  2. Paul,

    Thanks for your comment. The storyline extends over three volumes, so Burton's actions have repercussions that aren't wholly developed by the end of JACK but continue on into CLOCKWORK and EXPEDITION.

    All the best

  3. I love the Moorcockian tragic hero you've created with Burton. ever the best will brings about deeper catastrophe. I'm hoping there'll be more - hopefully a trilogy of failed attempts to improve the spirituality of mankind before the inevitable (and even more appalling) Great War

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