I’ve been reading a bit of steampunk lately, and so far I’m only middling impressed. I’m sure there’s great stuff out there, but I haven’t found much of it yet. I’ve mostly found the ones that are by hack writers who think that putting in plenty of brass, steam, mechanical computers, crystals and clockwork (even when it makes no sense), plus somehow referencing the Victorian era, is all you need to do.
Which is kind of like the writers of the Halle Berry Catwoman movie thinking that putting Halle Berry in a leather catsuit was as much effort as they needed to make.
Anyway, since The Gryphon Clerks is at least a little bit steampunk, it got me thinking about that elusive subject, genre definition, and what appeals to me, specifically, about a steampunk setting. And I decided that it’s a particular aspect of the Victorian era that isn’t (apparently) the one that a lot of writers first think of.
Different people have different associations with the word “Victorian”.
For some, it’s all about the class struggle, and you can do good things with that (Brand Gamblin does, in The Hidden Institute, which is neo-Victorian – like The Diamond Age, another of my favourites.)
For many others, the first association is “uptight, old-fashioned, prudish and hypocritical”, which is certainly a perspective. Not an entirely accurate perspective, or one that interests me much, but a perspective.
Some pick up on the “adventure, discovery, colonialism” vibe, which somehow has a wormhole in it leading to 1930s-style pulp plots.
But to me, one of the most interesting things about the Victorian era was not its conservatism, not its injustices, not even its colonialism, but its pursuit of scientific knowledge, technological progress and human rights.
Part of that I attribute to the fact that I’m a New Zealander. New Zealand was colonised starting in the 1820s, and the Treaty of Waitangi, its founding document as a nation, was signed in 1840, not quite three years after Victoria’s accession. So the early history of the country and the city that I live in is Victorian. To me, then, the Victorian era is one of building and development and new things never seen before.
Besides which, we New Zealanders have the proud claim to have been the first to grant women the vote, in 1893. At the end of the 19th century we were the social laboratory of the world.
Back in England, meanwhile, Charles Dickens was only one of the most prominent people campaigning for the betterment of the poor and increased social justice in the still relatively new conditions of an industrial society.
So that’s why The Gryphon Clerks involves freeing the gnomes from their industrialist dwarf oppressors and promoting education for the lower classes. That’s why I’ve included the tribal society of the beastheads getting the opportunity to participate in wider civilization (duly informed by postcolonialism, since, in a sense, that wider society is itself postcolonial, or at least post-Elvish-Empire).
That’s also why, to me, the most interesting thing about the new magical technologies is how they affect society (though that’s always the most interesting thing about technologies for me). They’re not just gizmos for the sake of atmosphere.
What’s more, the Victorian themes that interest me are very much relevant today. There are still workers struggling under industrialist oppression, they’re just in China rather than Manchester. Education is still an issue, as it probably always will be. For that matter, a hundred and twenty years after women got the vote they’re still not equally paid or equally represented in positions of power. (I work around that, in a way, in The Gryphon Clerks by positing that the Elvish Empire had already achieved gender equality centuries before, and the humans have inherited that cultural attitude – but in dwarf and gnome culture there are still very strongly defined gender roles. Meaning it can be an issue to explore or not, depending.)
I’m no Dickens, and I don’t want to be all preachy (or “relevant”, which means “irrelevant in another five years”). But I want to write books that are intelligent as well as entertaining, and that means paying some attention not only to the headlines, but to the human universals behind them.