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Steampunk, Social Position & Representation

Over the weekend, I caught one edge of a discussion bluedevi was having with some other folk about Steampunk, and the way in which it reflects only the upper edge of Victorian Society, ignoring the poverty and the downright abuse of the rest of the population at the time. The fact that we were all lounging around in a castle partially re-built in the Edwardian era to a rather Victorian outline was not lost on me, but still.

I've been thinking about it since, and it ties in with some thinking I've been doing about my own campaign world. sabayone has pointed out on several occasions that there's very little sense of poverty or injustice in the world as depicted in the games I run. This seems to me to a very closely related issue, for two reasons. First and foremost, my thinking for the world is that it's very plain that the position, the wealth, and the situations that the player characters move about in can only exist, given the available technology and magic, in a world that has distinct levels of poverty and exploitation.

As far as I'm concerned, the existence of a sword for a given price requires a smith, miners, tanners, farmers, woodworkers, and their families, all of whom get along on less than the price of that sword. And as you go down the chain from smith to tanner to farmer to cowherd, there's a lot less money at each step. At your 75gp for a longsword, the cowherd might be seeing 2 coppers a month, over his room (stable loft) and board (porridge, bread, greens, some meat on a feast day). There's your poverty, and hey, he has a job and a roof, he's doing better than some.

Likewise, I look at a faux-Victorian steampunk costume, and I can see the lacemaker, the coppersmith, the tanner again, the tailor, the weaver, the basketmaker, and so on, back into the middle distance; they're all implied by the costume. That costume, as it would have been made in the Victorian era, could not exist without those people.

But that's not necessarily evident to the player, who doesn't have my economic-minded approach. To help handle this in the game world, I've been doing some background writing for my campaign world, depicting a day in the life of each of a selection of characters, ranging from a professional enchanter down to a "procurer", so far, and which will include more as I go. This does mean adding reading for the player, because there's no way these people are going to appear as more than a passing glimpse in the actual events of the game, any more than a steampunk costumer might mention the good leather from Staffordshire.

Trouble is, I can't think of a way for this to appear in a steampunk convention. Sure, in the literature or the music, or even the art, you can include some details - but steampunk is about costume. And the costumes of poor people in a faux-Victorian era are even less fun than they were in the real world, because they're an extra step removed from the added cogs and goggles. And while there's absolute validity in saying that the depiction is of the upper crust of an exploitative society, the main point is the fun of the depiction. How can you acknowledge the rest of Victorian society more explictly, without making nonsense of it?


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 30th, 2011 05:21 pm (UTC)
In terms of clothes and the kinds of things you're speaking of...many people made their own clothes. As they do now. I'm not sure that buying a t-shirt made in a sweatshop in Southeast Asia is less exploitive than buying leather shoes made by someone you know who bought the leather from a place you could name.
Mar. 30th, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC)
but steampunk is about costume.

I'm not sure I'd go quite that far. Yes, there's a lot of crossover between steampunk and cosplay, and obviously between steampunk and goth fashion, but for me, steampunk is about the technology - which combines high and low tech elements to create an imagined past where Victorian aesthetics meet 21st century science.

Anyway, one of the main things I like about steampunk as a literary genre and a style tribe is the slight grubbiness of it - full skirts kilted up over boiler boots, battered bowler hats and unkempt hair. And the DIY side of things, of course, which reminds me of the days before every high street had an 'alternative' shop, when putting a goth outfit together involved raiding the charity shops and vintage stalls, and getting creative with buttons and lace.
Mar. 30th, 2011 07:30 pm (UTC)
Hmmn, there's a lot of ideas in here that have been percolating in the back of my head in relation to steampunk from a design history point of view. I mean, I'm really interested to see a subculture style which explicitly references the past and a lot of the mash-up combinations are a whole load of fun, but I always get the sense that it is very much about cherry-picking the cool and sexy bits of the Victorian era, in order to have fun. I haven't thought about this in any detailed or rigourous manner, but I am not entirely sure if it is possible to do this, they way the genre is set up at the moment, or whether it's actually incumbent on us to make it less elitist, so that it's not just another version of the medieval princess/prince syndrome (i.e. everyone is royalty and where does your food come from, hmm?) I do think that the DIY aspect of it may be very important here, particularly in relation to the Victorian subculture of the Arts and Crafts and attitudes towards making and craft like that espoused by William Morris, but I probably need to get my brain back from thesis-land before I work that through in more detail.
Mar. 30th, 2011 07:51 pm (UTC)
Steampunk tends to be about finding things and using them -- very much DIY. it doesn't have to be upper class -- it can be downright lower class and dirty.
Mar. 30th, 2011 11:50 pm (UTC)
As someone who's become very active in the local steampunk scene in the past year I'd have to disagree. It's true that there's a tendency towards the elaborate and beautiful in costuming, but there are plenty of outfits that represent other social classes as well. In the fiction (where is where it began, of course) there's a lot of attention being paid to issues of class, race, etc. For example, in Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century series, in Guinan and Bennett's Boilerplate, in the ur-text The Difference Engine, etc etc. For multicultural issues, try the Beyond Victoriana blog. And, as others have mentioned above, the DIY culture that's a big part of the scene.
Mar. 31st, 2011 03:36 am (UTC)
Charlie Stross wrote about this recently: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/10/the-hard-edge-of-empire.html

I haven't read any steampunk myself - any suggestions?
Mar. 31st, 2011 06:22 am (UTC)
The short story collection Extraordinary Engines is a good place to start.
Apr. 1st, 2011 12:37 am (UTC)
Thanks - I'll take a look.
Mar. 31st, 2011 06:59 am (UTC)
Cherie Priest's Boneshaker is excellent.
Apr. 1st, 2011 12:38 am (UTC)
Thanks :)
Mar. 31st, 2011 02:39 pm (UTC)
It was truly a pity that Mr. Stross didn't bother to do any research for that essay. If he had even bothered to read the book he called out for poor zombiology, he might have noticed that it contained every single thing he said Steampunk ignores.
Mar. 31st, 2011 06:57 am (UTC)
Just thinking -- have you read Cherie M. Priest's steampunk novels? Granted, they're set in the 19th-century United States, but she shows different classes. And it's clear that the costumes described there can be re-created.

I'm also thinking about the down and dirty Steampunk characters shown on stage in the National Theatre's production of Frankenstein, they who were hanging about the train and robbing people.
Mar. 31st, 2011 11:41 am (UTC)
Steampunk...reflects only the upper edge of Victorian Society, ignoring the poverty and the downright abuse of the rest of the population at the time.

I don't see how anyone who's actually paying attention to what's been going on in Steampunk can possibly say that in 2011.

Steampunks talk about "the rest of the population" all the time. It's in the fiction, even when the fiction centers on the Victorian upper class. It's in the non-fiction. There's panels on it at conventions. It's in every steampunk mechanic, butler, maid, reporter, prostitute, chauffer, pilot, pirate, etc. costume and persona. It's in moniquill's Native American Steampunk. It's in Beyond Victoriana, as chelseagirl has mentioned, and Jha's Silver Goggles. It's in James Ng's art. It's in the maker's makings, from costume to furniture. It's all over the place.
Apr. 12th, 2011 09:59 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing the info. I found the details very helpful.

Apr. 26th, 2011 09:35 am (UTC)
"How can you acknowledge the rest of Victorian society more explictly, without making nonsense of it?"

Well, there's nothing wrong with ignoring or skipping past the less interesting or boring parts of a society when the context is entertainment, especially fiction based or fiction enhanced entertainment. Being 'right on'/PC all the time would certainly end up making a fantastic world rather dull.

Is it one's duty to acknowledge the hardships and suffering of fictional supply chain serfs? Not if it's boring! Might it not be better, in steampunk costumery, for example, to consider _this_ world's serfs and make more educated choices in the services and materials used in the construction of the costumes?

We're all[*] supply chain serfs anyway in one form or another and fantasy worlds and steampunk conventions are one way to temporarily escape these realities. In 200 years time will someone view us as boring wage slaves or will they be taking our characters an incorporating us into their games?

[* if you're not, good for you! ]

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )