I was inspired to write this post after watching a Lindsey Sterling video. If you haven’t heard of her, she’s this spunky kid who does some very contemporary and creative things while plying the violin. Her latest video (that I’m aware of) is called Roundtable Rival and can be found at, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvipPYFebWc
As the video opens, we see its obviously taking place in a wild west setting, but soon we notice the goggles and, bam! its steampunk. Frankly, there’s no reason for the video to be steampunk, per se. The music could be set to many eras, and if you have all these wild west sets; why not just set your story in the historical wild west?
Easy answer; although we love cowboys, we don’t like the historical wild west.
First off, I need to be clear on who is “we.” We are the Americans of pop culture circa 2010. We were raised on cowboy movies and television shows as a part of our cultural education and we found that learning was indeed fun. We also have enjoyed Sherlock Holmes novels, Lovecraftian horror, and bold tales of great white hunters searching the jungles of Africa for lost cities of gold…and we have felt incredibly weird enjoying all this stuff.
Ever read the original Dr. Fu Manchu novels by Sax Rhomer? Racist as hell, aren’t they?
Today we are repulsed by the racism, sexism and rampant homophobia that saturated the Victorian age. Between 60% and 75% of us cheered when gay marriage became legal nationwide (and many others grudgingly admit gays have rights, they just wanted it to be done by the states or whatever). How can people of such a socially enlightened age enjoy a good Victorian tale where the white male hetero characters do all the cool stuff and everybody else is just a servant, a native guide, the girl to be rescued, or the villain? Heck, we see white cop on black citizen injustices on our television screens and we want to scream. How can we read that in our fiction and not be legitimately repulsed?
And yet, the Victorian era was so cool in so many other ways. It was an age of invention, exploration and expansion into the unknown. The costumes, the music, the architecture and even the weapons offer an extremely rich pallet for fiction. Remembering a time when people didn’t need spaceships to go exploring, two good boots were all that was needed to find the source of the Nile, is very appealing. Yet as frontiers were expanded native peoples were exterminated; a legacy we are dealing with still.
So, we find our salvation in the works of Jules Verne and HG Wells. True, they were men of their times but they were certainly more benign than the monsters of that day. We take their leave to re-imagine the Victorian era as something less ignorant and mean than it actually was. Put some googles on and the woman becomes the hero, the black character the aviator, the inventor a homosexual, and the story flows from there. And if the steampunk author includes the ugly side of that time he or she can show it to us as the injustice it was and not white wash it and pretend it doesn’t matter.
Let me be clear, I am not opposed to steampunk and may even write a story of that ilk someday. However, I do request of my contemporary Americans that we remember the past for what it was as well as for what it could have been. That way we can take today’s world for what it is, and work to make it what it should be.