Knights, Dragons, Adventurers, Dirigibles, History, and Metaphor

Right, so, in the first installment of this thought process, I explained why I have a sentimental attachment to Victorian popular fiction. In the second installment, I explained how I got into an intellectual debate with Charlie Stross about steampunk, and how I realized that we were talking past each other to some degree.

The realization that he’s talking about second generation steampunk and I’m talking about first generation steampunk did leave one interesting question to be answered. Is second generation steampunk—return to the Edisonade roots, bright clean lines, technological optimism, setting out for the frontier and mastering it and then returning home, ‘man is the master of the machine and nothing is beyond the inventor’s grasp’ —inherently intellectually dishonest?

No question that the original form of an Edisonade is deeply problematic. I don’t think I have to enumerate the issues with a story in which one takes one’s souped-up biplane to the dark continent or the frontier, cutting through jungles or other natural obstacles (as well as those barbarous natives with their curious customs), raiding the tombs of dead civilizations, mastering nature with one’s shiny tech. No question it would be irresponsible to tell that kind of story now without at least thinking about what one is telling. No question that first generation dystopic steampunk is doing something important, and that somebody needs to be doing that. With all that as a given—does the shiny-happy second generation have any merit?

I think it might. Adventure pulp is fun, after all. The people who are flocking after the steampunk aesthetic now are doing so in part because excitement and optimism are attractive, and because we’ve been mostly looking in places other than the here and now for our optimism and excitement since the economy crashed in ’08. I think we can all get behind the idea of vicarious optimistic adventure, stories that celebrate courage, daring, innovation, and loot. That’s not the problematic part of Victorian adventure pulp; the problematic parts are all the other pieces.

So is there a way to reconstruct and retell an Edisonade? Harvest the elements that have the “hell yeah!” emotional resonance you want, and deliberately reject the ones that turn your stomach? Rescue the aesthetic of Victorian adventure fiction without perpetuating its horrific racism, classism, and sexism? The answer might be ‘no’, but it’s worth investigating.

It really comes down to a question of history versus myth, i.e., is it okay to know the history and yet find value in the mythology? If you can tell stories of heroic knights and dragonslaying as a metaphor for personal courage and yet have no illusions about the quality of life of 90% of the real-world medieval population, can you not write about adventure and innovation and a dirigible as shorthand for both without actually having illusions about conditions in Victorian factories?

I think you can, because I think I do—that is, I both possess a good grounding in the horrors of the real Victorian era and an emotional attachment to the stories it produced, in the same way that I both grok the medieval era and like what the completely fictitious Arthur and his knights are supposed to be about anyway. Let’s be absolutely clear here, my sentimental favorite among the characters of Victorian pop fic got his symbol-of-personal-honor-and-courage war wound because the Afghani villagers were shooting at the evil empire’s invading army, of which he was a member. From the historical point of view, it is my opinion that the British got precisely what was coming to them at the Battle of Maiwand, and good for Ayub Khan and his followers; if there’s a tragedy, it’s that the locals were not able to maintain their advantage for more than a couple of months longer. At exactly the same time, with a different part of my brain, I like the structure of John Watson’s story and the role the Battle of Maiwand plays in it. I like it enough that I want there to be a way to retell that story and preserve the emotion—the kid far from home on the frontier where the rules are different and the cavalry is beyond call, the just-doing-my-job everyday hero saving anything he can from a battle that’s already lost but whose ordeal is far from over. I want to be able to retell that story in a way and in a place where it isn’t also the story of ‘our’ manifest God-given right to grind ‘their’ inferior culture under our boots.

Certainly it can be intellectually dishonest to deliberately change the problematic elements when retelling an old story, but I don’t think it has to be. One might seek to make a fantasy-medieval society more gender-equal by writing in reliable folk magic contraception. Or one might play with the concept of exploring a frontier as actual explorers and not ‘explorers’ bent on military conquest. So couldn’t one take an Edisonade and set it on a different planet, one with, say, an uninhabited dark subcontinent? Where the things to fight off are actual animals or monsters rather than other humans who should not be classed with the barbaric and the monstrous? (Constructs or zombies left behind by the ancient civilization, maybe? I kinda want to write this story now.) The question is really whether we can reclaim the adventure story, in its pulp form or its more serious first-chapter-of-Study-in-Scarlet form.

I think we can. Though the steampunk novel I’m trying to write now is in fact pretty dark and pretty critical of Victoriana, and though I tend to think that presenting darkness is what steampunk is for—on principle, I think we can. If you look at some of my other projects it becomes obvious that I believe it’s possible to harvest atmosphere without perpetuating problematic ideology, because I’ve done it before. I co-wrote a game about buckling swash as the captain of a quasi-Napoleonic naval vessel, set in an alternate world where you can play as female rather than male if you like. I co-wrote another game that’s one part romance and one part court intrigue, but in a world that is gender-and-sexual-preference-neutral, so you can play as male or female, gay or straight, and not have any of your choices restricted.

Choice of Games got a lot of press for those decisions, mostly good, some bad—some people loved the atmosphere of inclusion while others disliked the lack of realism. And as I said at the time, everybody’s entitled to their opinion; it’s certainly not bad to prefer that the gender politics of one’s fiction more closely adhere to those of the real world. The only argument I had no patience for was the flat, ‘This is bad because it’s inaccurate. The real world doesn’t work that way.’ Yes. I know. That’s why these stories aren’t set during the actual Napoleonic Wars or Henry VIII’s actual court. I wanted to write about the myth, not the history.

I think you’re guilty of intellectual dishonesty when you pretend the real world was the myth, but that deliberately playing with myth and not history is okay. That shiny-happy historical fiction is intellectually dishonest, but shiny-happy historical fantasy isn’t necessarily.

So maybe there are some redeeming qualities in the sort of second generation steampunk that allows us to just enjoy the myth, harvesting the parts that move us and deliberately rejecting the parts that horrify us. Maybe writing about the Victorian era we wish had happened is okay, like writing about the era of chivalry that never was but that we wish had been—as long as it’s a conscious choice, a conscious rejection, rather than whitewashing or thoughtlessness or (most terrifying) deliberate revisionist history.

I’m aware that this is a dicey argument, and I’ve been on its other side before—in this very blog, in fact, irritated about a short story that put modern liberal sentiments into the mouth of a very not-modern and not-liberal character. I have been the person annoyed by inaccuracy and saying ‘ur doin it wrong’. But ‘ur doin it wrong’ bothers me a lot less when it’s a conscious adaptation, a deliberate choice to do it differently, than when the adaptation is pretending to be the original and doing it wrong. Maybe it’s okay, particularly if some steampunk is down in the grit and the grease, that other steampunk just soars above the clouds, celebrating its innovation and adventure and freedom—the world that never was, but that we wish we’d had.

Comments (1)

AdamMarch 4th, 2011 at 5:30 pm

I’ve struggled with this issue when considering certain examples of fiction that transform the historical pattern into a fictional one in a way that sanitizes the portrayals. Firefly is my go-to example of this: Firefly is a story of the Wild West, complete with heroic former Confederate soldiers (the Browncoats) who fought against an oppressive Union (the Alliance) and with marauding, senseless destructive “Indians” (the Reavers), but with both the serial numbers and the historical racist context filed off. In the ‘verse of Firefly, the Browncoats appear to have actually been the “good guys,” although it’s not entirely clear–certainly they weren’t soldiers fighting in a war intended expressly to maintain the institution of slavery. And the Reavers aren’t oppressed indigenous populations–they’re actually nearly mindless monsters who in fact can’t be reasoned with.

I’ve never been able to figure out what I think of that. Is this a good thing, letting us have the fun of the Wild West story without having to either embrace the historic racism or spend our time deliberately reconstructing the story, not telling a “Wild West story” so much as a revisionist story about events in the Western United States in the late 19th century? Or is this a bad thing, whitewashing and perpetuating the legacy of the Wild West’s oppressive tropes while pretending that these are gone. “No, no, we’re not saying anything about what Native Americans were like; these are Reavers, not Native Americans, and the fact that we all know that they’re based on the Native American characters in older works is irrelevant.” Is this just a way of having characters that are coded as black (or in this case Native American) because of a realization that making them explicitly members of a minority group would be offensive? I haven’t been able to reach any solid conclusion.

The one thing that I do think is dishonest is the tendency in certain works to simultaneously glory in and claim to deplore things. In my eye, _Leviathan_ by Scott Westerfeld falls into the category of books that claim to be deploring war (and in particular in that case World War I) while actually being built around glorifying a fictional version of it. (I haven’t read _Behemoth_ yet.) You can honestly tell an adventure yarn; you can honestly tell an adventure yarn where people get killed and their friends and family mourn the cost, but view it as worth it; and you can honestly tell a war story that is not a fun and dashing tale of adventure, but rather is about the costs of war and how much it sucks. But I don’t think you can honestly tell a war story that ostensibly believes that war is awful and no fun at all and yet spends its time reveling in adventure and dashing adventure.

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