by Julian Cunningham
What could I possibly have to say about English history that would mean a hill of beans to a readership far superior in depth and detail than myself, when it comes to fact and fiction, as it pertains to the historical depths of the aristocracy and English lore? I decided to take on this daunting challenge if for no other reason than to make a case for the beauty, fun and ultimate aggrandizement steampunk brings to the glorious Victorian age.
Think of it similarly to the analogy above; how many viewers watched Harlan’s Emmy award winning Star Trek episode, then curiously thought to examine whether or not Edith Keeler was real or fictitious? For me, this is the Holy Grail of writing fiction. Whether it is pure historical fiction, or science fiction, the ability to immerse the reader beyond the point where characters are not only plausible, but also decidedly real, is a great writing accomplishment.
Imagine almost anything we use today, or even speculate we might have in the future, make it out of some spare gears and cogs, power it with steam, and you have made it steampunk.
I hand over this story only to emphasize that if my own questions about creating and wearing a Victorian dress prompted me to do some real in-depth research, I am sure that there are many like me who end up doing the same. The steampunk community is an avid and ravenous crowd absorbing all things, which enhances the realism and fun of their Victorian fantasy.
Of course, admittedly, the moment you add some avionics-covered leather bound bracers you have strayed dramatically from the historical nature of the outfit, but you have enabled the wearer a ticket to vicariously live out an enticing moment in history. Even if it is under a fictional pretense, the act alone adds cognizance to the historical truth. I would argue that most steampunk role-play is at least as enriching to the real history as good civil war re-enactment is.
The second point I would like to put forth involves the inherent historical inaccuracies of the genre, which I believe tend to add strength as it pertains to the story telling aspects of steampunk. Unlike mainstream science fiction where stories are typically placed in the far future, where they need only have a plausible path to their eventuality, steampunk requires a little more exposition as to the nature of how it fits into history. Agreed that not all steampunk abides by this aphorism, however, most of my favorite steampunk does.
Once again, for those not familiar with steampunk, one of my all time favorites is the old TV series The Wild Wild West with Robert Conrad. They placed wonderful James Bond-like gadgets taken out of time and wove them into a classic western on the premise of being provided by the secret service. The modern remake with Will Smith even had a giant robotic spider - definitely steampunk!
There are a few more examples worth mentioning only because you might not immediately recognize them as steampunk, like Time After Time with Malcolm McDowell or even the beloved Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with its flying car. In the case of Time After Time, it becomes steampunk rather than just fiction the moment H.G Wells’ time machine is considered real in the primary plot of the story from 1888.
By its very definition, steampunk seems to work best when given a nicely placed bit of alternative history. I can’t speak for all steampunk authors; however, I know that I put a lot of research and effort into the alternative and speculative history I create in my books. From what I have read of my fellow steampunk authors, it seems that many others do as well.
I find it particularly fun and interesting that the chains of historic detail need not bind a story or its characters into some predetermined expose of the misgivings and failings of our past. Instead, the trend I have noticed is an exploration of our own disposition in the modern tense and where that may put us in our own futures.
|Picture by Ecajoe (Joe Alfano)|
They say that those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it. I contend that bringing attention to any subject or era of history, even if done so in a highly fictitious light, only furthers the pursuit and interest in the foundations of that era.
Admittedly, the only real history involved with steampunk is reliant on the individual author’s vision and underlying message. However, the fact that steampunk has so many people interested in a period of history typically only lectured with dry idioms of industrialism, no matter how historically inaccurate it may be, it just can’t be all that bad.
An example of how a steampunk author might put a twist to standard fiction would go something like this. Find an interesting tidbit in your target era: Jul 27th 1888 - Philip Pratt unveils first electric automobile. Now, this is really an interesting piece of data and history. I am sure any good fiction writer could research and entwine this into a fascinating fictional story, but a steampunk author would probably just run with this until they were pumping out the modern Tesla Model S in 1888 like it was a Ford Fiesta. Every once in a while though, someone will hit the jackpot and get it so close to correct, that the reader will actually question if perhaps Nikola Tesla could have invented a matter replication and teleportation device as portrayed in The Prestige, a brilliantly written steampunk story and movie.
In conclusion, I don’t think you will see many people grabbing a steampunk book to look for historical facts about Victorian England, though I do predict that many people are going to enjoy some wondrous visions of a hypothetical past sparked by a captivating story entangled around exiguous historical facts. Those people will then go on to examine and question the real history surrounding these colorful tales.
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