Hello, gentle readers. I am trying out a new theme, so don’t be alarmed. This weeks article was prompted by a question asked by one of my clients. He noted that some writers associated the beech tree with Saturn. Now, in my schema, derived in the first instance from the lore of the Ran Sarithin, beech is placed among the fiery woods with oak and holly et al. I described it as largely solar in its planetary energies. The Sun and Saturn are poles apart in their influence. The Sun is live-giving and Saturn is restrictive, dour, and constricted. Saturn is the planet symbolic of limitation and control. The Roman god Saturn was modelled on Greek Kronos, father of Zeus, who was so worried about being usurped by one of his offspring that every time one was born, he swallowed it. The myth is symbolic of the controling and restrictive father-energy — that is masculine but tyrannical and selfish, even monstrous and murderous.
Fortunately for Saturn’s children, they didn’t perish but remained inside his body, to be rescued by the youngest brother, Zeus through a trick. So, mythologically speaking there is a lot going on. The Oedipus complex of the son who kills his father (not in this case to marry his mother, but at her bidding). Paternal violence and filial rebellion. Pretty dark. And so it should be. The Romans had a great annual festival at the time of the Winter Solstice called the Saturnalia. Some writers consider that it was because of the popularity of the Saturnalia that mid-winter was chosen as the time for Christmas in the Christian calendar. In any event, the winter solstice is the darkest day of the year and the longest night. It is a time when celebrations were held in order to encourage the dwindling, apparently dying, Sun to come back to life and begin moving toward the north again.
Now, solstices cut two ways. On the one hand it is the longest night at the winter solstice, but on the other hand, it is the moment of the Sun’s rebirth when he begins to wax larger and the days grow longer, triumphing over the night until the next summer comes. So, in this respect, we might well associate Saturn with the Celtic Holly King, who governs the dark half of the year and fights it out with the Oak King of summer.
So much for mythology. Now, the association of Saturn with Beech comes, I think, from Nicholas Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician, the standard medical text in the 17th century, and one still used by herbalists. Like all medical doctors of his time, Culpeper based all this thinking on the doctrine of the four humors. He described the humors — Sanguine (Blood), Choler, Phlegm, and Melancholy — as four characters that could govern a person’s body and personality. We still use these words sometimes in the latter way, calling a very unruffled, calm person plegmatic, and one full of energy, optimism, and good cheer sanguine. When speaking of Saturn, it is Melancholy that we must examine.
In medical terms, melancholy was a tendency to constriction and limitation. Saturn’s appearance with its rings, suggests the idea of power within a circumference. Freemasons refer to this idea as keeping one’s passions circumscribed within due bounds. While Apollo was named the Greek god of Law, as well as art and beauty, Saturn was considered by the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to be the essence of a kind of control necessary for laws to work — that is, self-control or discipline.
Now, let us turn back to the beech tree and the use of its wood in wandmaking. First, let me point out that any tree may have medicinal uses that have little or nothing to do with the magical character of its wood. However, generally speaking, the character of the whole tree or plant is in a wand made from that wood. Beech has the association with books, writing, and learning in folklore. It was said that its wood was the first used as a surface upon which runes were carved. It provided the first books. How is this fiery? Well, fire being the element of will in magical symbolism, beech engages that will in the focused way needed for study, reading, and writing. But that concentration and focus is exactly what Culpeper and his precedessors thought to be Saturnian. Melancholy and the Saturnine character was needed to be a scholar.
The great poet Milton describes Melancholy in his poem Il Penseroso (Italian for a thoughtful man). Melancholy is a goddess like a nun. She bore to Saturn the goddess Vesta as her daughter. Vesta is the guardian of the home fires, famous in Rome for the Vestal virgins, her priestesses who kept her sacred fire always alight. Keeping the home fire burning was a magical necessity without which the Roman state would collapse (See: Vesta). Melancholy, the goddess of the poetic genius, is like a muse for the young Milton, a female figure separated from sex and marriage. The Vestal virgins were sworn to 30 years of chastity during their service in the temple. The point of this was to separate them from sexuality and the procreative act. Sex is both procreative and pleasurable, making it come under the power of Venus and the sanguine humor. Carefree jollity and carnal pleasure were considered by Milton as by his contemporaries to be distractions from the serious work of the scholar or poet. Genius came from going deep within oneself, from walking at night in the forest, and from being alone and undisturbed. The perennial dilemma of the college student! Milton’s companion poem to Il Penseroso was titled l’Allegro, or the happy fellow.
In terms of the Harry Potter mythos, we might contrast Severus Snape to Gilderoy Lockheart. In planetary terms we might think of Saturn and Jupiter. But to Culpeper, Saturnian plants could extinguish the effects of diseases associated with several other planets — Venus because she was the life energy of pleasure and procreation; Jupiter because he was the life energy of expansive joy and good fortune. Fire, water, or air — Saturn was a killjoy. He was earthy, cold, and dry. Useful qualities if you are trying to cool off an inflammation and shrink swelling. But is this cold and dry quality anything that can usefully be applied to a tree such as the beech? Culpeper does so, but only in the use of the leaves as poultices.
The beech tree as a whole can only be connected to Saturn via the association of that planet with Melancholy and the further association of melancholy with studious abstenance from the pleasures of love and life. Now, I do not think even Milton really thought that poetic genius and productive writing depended on a fellow abstaining from carnal delights. But he certainly did seem to think that they were distractions, and any writer will probably concur. If you start putting off thinking and writing because your buddies keep inviting you out to bars and clubs, or because you have a wife or girlfriend demanding your attention, that can pretty quickly lead to the end of your writing career.
Here is what Culpeper says (p. 212): “Melancholy is the sediment of blood, cold and dry in quality, fortifying the retentive faculty,a nd memory; makes men sober, solid, and staid, fit for study; stays the unbridled toys of lustful blood, stays the wandering thoughts, and reduces them home to the centre…”
You might compare this to Milton:
- Hence vain deluding Joys,
- The brood of folly without father bred,
- How little you bested,
- Or fill the fixed mind with all your toyes;
- Dwell in some idle brain
- And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,
- As thick and numberless
- As the gay motes that people the Sun Beams,
- Or likest hovering dreams
- The fickle Pensioners of Morpheus train. (lines 1-10)
This is a little hard for the 21st century reader to follow. I am not sure why folly is without a father bred (because folly is associated with women?). The verb “bested” or “bestead” means “to set about with foes” in one of its old usages. So, Milton is saying that the “vain deluding Joys” have little power over “the fixed mind.” Note how, as in Culpeper, the temptation is that of “toyes” the playthings. Dreams, motes in sunbeams, gaudy shapes, fancies fond — these are the temptations of deluding joys to be rejected by the fixed mind which is not idle.
In such a representation, Saturnine melancholy is far from inactive. Indeed it is the opposite of idleness. It is not the melancholy of depression, but the fertilizing melancholy of the poet walking alone in the forest under the moonlight. This point emphasizes the fact that when we speak of alchemical or philosophical elements, we are not speaking of matter. The element of Earth may sound like dirt, soil, rocks, and the solid body of the planet. But it is not. Not literally. In elemental Earth, solidity is an energy in itself, stability is a force held in balance, and fixed materiality are the geometry of genius and intuition. Saturn, in this sense, is quite compatible with Mercury, the governing power of thought and knowledge. And in this respect one can see how Beech could be associated with Saturn.
But, I am still not convinced. For one thing, I think the characterization of the thoughtful mind as one that must reject joys and companions and the light is too extreme. A student or scholar of that description, locked alone in his tower, is more likely to end up crazy than to produce writing of merit and wisdom. Sure, the scholar needs a room of his or her own in which to concentrate, but he or she does not need complete isolation from peers. Saturn is, in the end, an extreme, an imbalanced character which if unleavened by the expansiveness of Jupiter and the love of Venus, becomes deadly dull. Like Kronos, such a nature ends up consuming its own creative powers, destroying its own fecundity. The Beech tree, with its abundant nuts used to feed pigs and other livestock, is a rich emblem of such fecundity and productivity. It is a tree of abundance, not limitation, and like the search for knowledge, is characterized by the joy of learning, and the acquisition of the wealth of wisdom.
In the end, I do not wish to give the impression that I think the herbalists wrong about beech trees. Rather, I would say that this discussion illustrates the complexity of the character of any tree, plant, or person. Associating beech with he earth element would not be incorrect; it would be an association employing a different logic and symbolism than the I have employed. As most things in magic, there can be more than one right answer.
Recently, I procured a copy of the Sept. 2010 Locus Magazine which carried interviews on steampunk with famous authors in the field – Sterling, Blaylock, Moorcock, Lake, et alia. Now, it’s a great set of interviews with lots of insight on the genre and its history. New to the scene this year, I am fascinated to study the movement-cum-literary-genre. I’m trained as a literary analyst (I don’t like the term “critic”). Loads of information and insight into the authorial big wigs. Highly recommend it and all that.
However, reading the remarks of the esteamed Mr. Bruce Sterling, I was struck by several statements. Mr. Sterling cites K. W. Jeter’s letter to Locus (April 1987) in which Mr. Jeter introduced the term “steampunk” as a tongue-in-cheek term for the “gonzo-historical manner” of his own writing along with that of Tim Powers and James Blaylock. This letter to the editor is cited as the inception of the word “steampunk.” Mr. Sterling remarks flatly, “No Locus, no steampunk. That simple.”
I hardly think that it is that simple. Perhaps without the books the whole thing might not have happened. But a movement stopped dead in its historical tracks because a magazine neglected to publish a letter to the editor, or the author never wrote it?
What is most interesting in this statement is that it represents a view of history that is a common aspect of the steampunk genre and also of the western world’s take on history. It is often called the “great man” approach to history and was prevalent in the nineteenth century itself. You know: Great Men do things that change the world. In Mr. Sterling’s statement the great men are Mr. Jeter, and, metaphorically speaking, Locus Magazine.
We tend to look back on history and say, “Wow! What if Isaac Newton had stuck to Alchemy and never invented calculus or the theory of gravity?” Or, what if Napoleon had not been defeated at Waterloo? Or, what if the American civil war had gone on for twenty years instead of four? These “what ifs” focusing on inventions or events tend to assume that, for example, if Newton had not invented calculus, it might not have been invented at all, or at least not until much later. Steampunk often goes the other way, saying “What if Newton’s alchemy paid off in terms of inventing aetheric light bulbs and weapons? Or what if dirigibles never went out of style.”
Such a take on historical changes seems logical, of course, but that is because we live within a western ideology of individualism. Centuries of reading “great man” history books from the Romans on has led us to believe that the future would be changed completely if it were not for the actions of certain individuals. Maybe yes, maybe no.
Great Minds Change the Times
We love that theory of history because it makes each one of us feel potentially important. We all can read about Tesla or Edison or Brunel or Zeppelin and aspire to be someone who counts, someone who does something that changes the course of the world. That idea of being Someone is maybe the driving desire behind all adventure fiction. It is also the root of most religions – a Great Man.
SF time travel stories have often played with the idea that some small action taken by a time traveler in the past could change the whole future in dramatic ways. Little men can become Great Men because of a sort of butterfly effect of the actions of ever unknown common man. I am gendering the discussion on purpose because in the old history books and SF time travel stories it is almost always men.
No Marx, no Lenin. No Lenin, no Communism. Presumably, No George Washington, no United States too. It’s that simple.
Marxists theory, by contrast tends to think of history as an ocean in which currents of economic and social change drive us into the future. If there hadn’t been a Lenin, someone else would have led the Russian Revolution. If Newton had not published Principia Mathematica, someone else would have. Maybe not at the same chronological moment but sometime, because the thoughts of individuals is driven by social, economic, and historical forces that made certain ideas ripe at a certain point in the development of a culture. It is harder to say that, for instance, dirigibles would have become a worldwide transportation revolution and airplanes remained the tools of warfare if the Hindenburg had not exploded. Can accidents occur because of historical forces? Of course, if it was a bomb, as some think, then the bomber would have been motivated by historical forces – presumably anti-Nazi sentiments.
And when the explosion of the Hindenburg had occurred was it inevitable that the public would turn against airship travel? That is a plausible hypothesis based on social psychology. But we might also ask: Could a great man have stepped in and calmed people’s fears and restored the airship to its noble place? In airship history it was to some extent the lack of a Great Man in America that prevented the United States from moving forward with an airship program of its own. Lagging behind the Germans in that technology, the Americans found themselves unable to build airships fast enough to compete. The military toyed with them, but no big capitalist stepped up to do what the Count von Zeppelin did in Germany – commercially develop airships as a mode of transport to compete with steamships.
Because steampunk is something like traveling back in time and changing history, the whole genre is serving as a thought experiment (often not very serious) into the way technological changes can alter the development of society. If the French and English had calculating engines to make their artillery more precise, would they have prevented Germany from ever uniting? That is one of the questions raised in Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine. (I wonder if the authors intended a reference to Derrida and the idea of différance – the infinite deferral of meaning in signifiers.)
The Roots of Victorianism
As for whether steampunk started in the moment Mr. Jeter coined the work, I don’t think anyone really believes it is that simple. Steampunk, it seems to me was nascent before the 1970s. I was there. I didn’t read any of the three supposed founders of the genre in my teens, but I was a retro-Victorian dressing up in very slap-dash DIY imitations of a Victorian gentleman’s costume. I assumed the manners of a gentleman as a sophomore in high school (1976) much to the delight of the bullies at my school who spent the entire year trying to flap my unflappability. Why? Because I was a fan of Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle. The Sherlockian culture was alive, well, and actually quite old by the time I discovered the Baker Street Journal. I was also a huge fan of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books. The admiration for the heroes of Victorian science fiction (and I include Sherlock Holmes in this genre), go back a long way.
It was in the 1960s that the seminal film adaptations of the novels of Jules Verne were made. In days without the Internet — What do we call it? The analog age? – movies in theaters were the biggest influences on popular culture. Most of the current steampunks know hardly anything about the 1960s culturally. They cannot imagine a world in which one had to see a movie in the theater and then watch vigilantly for its appearance in the television schedules. No videos, no CDs, no Netflix or Hulu. Indeed, it is far easier today to watch your favorite SF movie from the ‘60s than it was in the ‘60s.
It might seem anachronistic to call the Disney film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea “steampunk” or to say that Sherlockians dressing up and having high tea in their clubs were “steampunk.” They didn’t evolve out of teenage Goths or punk rock, or even cyberpunk. In the ‘60s, “punk” meant something like a young smartass, or juvenile delinquent. Sixties “punks” were not making a post-modern social statement. They were just shoplifting cigarettes and wearing their hair long to annoy their fathers. It was not punks, but hippies that everyone was worried about in the ‘60s. Free love and blue jeans and living in communes smoking pot – that sort of thing.
To the Establishment, the hippies were breaking down traditional Christian rules about pre-marital sex and the Puritan work ethic, not to mention getting high with a drug other than alcohol. “Countercultural” sounded dangerous and was not trendy within academia. On the contrary. Twenty years later, post-modernism and the culture war were all over academia and professors found themselves in the position of having to take sides over issues like feminism, racism, and even the possibility of fixed meanings for words. Subversive thought had become mainstream, and that angered a lot of conservatives outside of academia. The war started rumbling in the sixties as American values lost their homogeneity.
Against this cultural background, the oddball kid who was a Sherlockian and dressed up in a pith helmet, tall boots, and a riding crop, or an Inverness coat and deerstalker, a kid whose fondest dream was to have a real top hat – this sort of kid was a real rebel. Being a Victorian was practically the opposite of being a hippie, but it was also not conforming to the Modernist idiom of the man in the gray flannel suit working in a skyscraper and living in the suburbs.
A kid who pretended to be Captain Nemo or Phileas Fogg, was traveling back in time to the world of his grandparents, or even great-grandparents. Reactionary? Maybe, but it is hard to call a ten-year-old boy a reactionary. Nostalgia? Sort of, except that the longing for the past, for “going home” (as the original Greek suggested), was not about returning to one’s own past. It was about “going home” to a fictionalized period of history where one was sure one would fit in better. In that respect it was non-conformist.
But more than this. As Midwestern American kids — my friends and I in our mock frock coats and fancy dresses (yes there were ladies) — were not in fact imitating the world of our own grand and great-grandparents. Our ancestors were all farmers and merchants in the pioneer world of nineteenth-century Minnesota. We were imitating the British ladies and gentlemen of the world of Victorian England and her Empire. This world we knew not through the study of history but through Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and H. Rider Haggard. And more often than not, through movie adaptations of their works and Hollywood interpretations of costumes and the ethos of an age. Victorianism wasn’t about imitating real people of the nineteenth century. It was about entering a fantasy world based on the literature of the nineteenth century.
Was that ethos one of post-apocalyptic nihilism and despair? Did we think we were all doomed to be assimilated (and maybe improved) into the Machine, like cyborgs? Not at all. Victorianism took H.G. Wells’ Time Machine and used it to escape those looming threats of the “population bomb,” nuclear war, and Totalitarianism. It is true that while I was watching Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Time Machine, I was also watching The Six Million Dollar Man, which suggested that bionic limbs and eyes and so forth would be nice enhancements. But the Bionic Man and his female sequel were just a little like Frankenstein’s monster, and to get those bionic limbs you had to become quadriplegic and almost dead. They were heroes, but they were also unique. Everyone wasn’t becoming a cyborg, or merging their brains into the matrix, and the cyborgs weren’t taking over the world. (Well, only in Dr. Who.)
Victorianism in the 1960s and ‘70s was optimistic and Romantic. It valued the human individual. It exalted the cultured, well-bred, and intellectual man and woman in a way that mainstream society did not (in the Midwestern United States especially). Elegant clothing was emphasized instead of tee shirts and nudity. Which is not to say that anyone intended to adopt the legendary prudery of Queen Victoria and the British middle class. We didn’t even know about that.
We were attracted to a fictional world in which exploration and science did not pollute the air and water, or lead to nuclear annihilation. We knew that in reality the nineteenth century was the beginning of all the pollution and destruction of the natural world. But we were after a fictional world where all of those issues were simply bracketed and did not enter into the story. Oppression of the working classes, destruction of the old artisanal world of creation, disruption of rural life — none of this was part of that fantasy world. The world of Sherlock Holmes, Phileas Fogg, and Prof. Aronnax, was a world of class. As American kids, we didn’t understand the British class system as a present form of alienation. By “class” we meant that a man was cool and a woman refined — classy. If you were a gentleman you knew it, and you had a valet to help you keep well-dressed and clean. There was no oppression, racism, or sexism because, the movies mostly ignored those things. Imperialism had its bad points, to be sure, but it really didn’t enter into the story very directly. And anyway, the British Empire was a good empire, not like some. The old British Empire of the nineteenth century became a kind of metaphor pointing to the new 20th century American Empire, and saying “See we are like that – a superior culture spreading our goodness to sad, starving people in Asia and Africa.
The good side of the British Empire, taken up in films and books, was that it put the British into contact with cultures all over the world – especially Asia. There was still plenty of adventure and terra incognita then. In the 1960’s and ‘70s, as a boy, I had the feeling that everything had been discovered. There was no place to go as an explorer of the old school, except into space or under the sea like Jacques Cousteau. The best you could hope for was to become a writer for National Geographic Magazine, or to become a naturalist and study wildlife. The world was mapped. There were no more wildernesses that had not been visited and studied. Sure, there was more studying to do, but that wasn’t the same as the romance and excitement of discovering King Solomon’s mines or even the source of the Nile. A middle-class, midwestern teenager had little understanding of the adult business of career and earning a living. Which is perhaps why we could identify with British aristocrats and engineering geniuses. They just had all the money they needed in the movies and this was kind of our experience too when we were being raised and cared for by our parents.
For years, in college and graduate school, I lived the gentlemanly ideal as punk rock and cyberpunk passed me by almost unnoticed. My head was in the literature and music and culture of the past, in ancient and medieval history, in Dickens and Jane Austen, Keats and Tennyson, Mozart and Beethoven. As a result there just isn’t any “punk” in my steampunk. Cyberpunk seemed simply paranoid and bizarre – founded, it seemed to me on the belief that computers actually worked. With the Apple II and the early Macintoshes, that was hardly my experience. Far from growing up with computers and the Internet, I grew up with books and libraries. There wasn’t any Internet, so far as I was aware until I was quite well established in my ways. It came as a welcome improvement over the sort of laborious library searching and photocopying I had to do in grad school, but I never have seen the Internet as something that could possibly get inside my head and occupy all of my time. Machines were inherently unreliable. My Dad made a career out of fixing computers that failed to work.
The love of technology attached to Victorianism (for me) did not include computers or even automobiles. It was definitely not a love of steam-powered factories and coal mines, capitalism, empires or armies (except the cool pith helmets). Perhaps it should not even be called Victorianism at all. It was more like Verneism because it had nothing to do with who sat on the throne in London. This Vernean dream was a love of trains and balloons, gaslight, horses and hansom cabs. It was the immediacy of friendships made not on Facebook but on board a steamship, or in a gentleman’s club in London. It was a love of fountain pens and hand-written letters instead of phone calls. It was a love of the smell of a burning oil lamp, and the soft light it produced. A pipe, a cigar, with male friends, the smell of tobacco. It was the wish for a day before electric lights. It was a love of mystery expressed in fog and manly adventure that tested one’s mettle and gave one a chance to be heroic. The technology was in the background for the most part except in those cases when the hero of a story was an engineering genius.
Captain Nemo is the best example of such a technician-hero. Some critics read Nemo as a mad scientist, but he is far more complicated than that. He is a political exile who has escaped colonial tyranny and built a marvelous machine-home that provides for all his needs and the needs of his crew. Captain and crew have a very dynamic similar to that of gentleman and valet. The loyalty of servants is assumed and given freely in exchange for good treatment and even friendship. Yes, it might be considered a romantic reading of the class system, but it is also an ideal in which those who serve others (the majority of humankind) do so without being mistreated, and actually have fun adventures while serving. It is as much a romantic ideal of servitude as it is a romantic ideal of the gentleman-scientist. And it may be more historically accurate than a lot of Marxist literary critics think.
Mr. Sterling remarks in the Locus interview that steampunk is not “inherently literary” but rather owes its existence to network cyberculture. I understand what he means but do not entirely agree. I do think that steampunk, so far as it evolved out of earlier Victorianism in the Verne-Wells-Haggard-Burroughs resurgence in films and comic books is born of “literature” in its broad sense. Born of these cultural texts, as Derrida might say. It just took another ten years for the works of Sterling, Blaylock, Powers, and Jeter to emerge as the effect of this earlier cultural cause.
I do agree that the movement owes its present proliferation and diversity to the net. But I do not fully agree that steampunk required the net. Indeed, for pre-steampunk Victorians like me, sending letters written with fountain pens was much more fun. It was the new way to “meet” people and “talk” via the new telegraph system that allowed the eccentricity of scattered individuals or groups of friends to become a movement. Imagine my surprise when I discovered steampunk. I had missed the cyberpunk fad and was busy writing a doctoral dissertation when the Goth scene emerged. I was pretty isolated from pop culture because I was not that interested in TV and movies or bars and clubs. But by 2010 steampunk had filtered through even to me, and I discovered to my wonder that it had become a fashion and trend to don top hats and emulate the explorers and inventors of the Vernean dream of my childhood. The teenagers and twenty-somethings who have built the movement came at it when they were much more free to wear strange clothes. Cosplay emerged as a term in the 1980s, and as a practice earlier in Japan and at science-fiction conventions. I had been working at the local Renaissance Festival and donning my druid robes at Stonehenge without ever having heard the word cosplay. How different to be born into that world now! Perhaps that makes me a “born-again steampunk.”
Bruce Sterling attempts to define steampunk to be neither “about the future” nor “about the past” but rather as a “cybercultural, countercultural venture whose reason for being is to blur, subvert, erase or transcend those temporal differences. …[S]teampunk is a twenty-first century cultural space where the strictures of analog text can no longer define our relationship to the passage of time.”
Hi falutin’ talk. Maybe some Steamers today think they are subverting something, or sit around saying to their friends “Boy, I am sooooo glad our relationship to the passage of time is no longer defined by the strictures of analog text.” For me, steampunk is not about subversion and I never did think my relationship to the past was dictated by “analog” narrative structure. I was trained to be a literary critic, but didn’t like the gobbledygook. I went into literature because I liked books and stories and history and romance. It is the sensual, aesthetic, inward, imaginative pleasure of a fictional world that is orderly, has beautiful machines, and daring men and women who can engineer such wonders. Of course we don’t think about the awful working conditions of the lower classes or even the awful state of public sanitation. They are not part of the fiction. They are part of real history. Some like their entertainment gritty and full of vice and sadness. I like mine full of beauty, wonder, optimism, discovery, and dauntless courage. In sum, I prefer fictions about the human spirit working through technology, not technology replacing the human spirit.
But I sure am glad my relationship to time is no longer defined by the strictures of analog text.
Let me begin by saying that I don’t disagree with Marxist social critique of literature on ideological grounds. Although, a Marxist theorist would say that everything is ideological. Still, I can disagree with the beliefs of a system and not condemn them as beliefs. I feel the same way about Christianity: I disagree with some of the beliefs propounded by churches over the centuries, but I certainly don’t wish to suggest that the whole system of beliefs and faith is “bankrupt” as the Marxists like to say in one of their colorful economic metaphors. No doubt there is much I don’t understand, for I am always aware of my own areas of ignorance.
That said, my principal objection to social critics is that they so often sound like they are enforcing some political correctness on literature. It is all well and good to critique specific works of art as being marred by their classist or racist or mysogynist or imperialist advocacy. Literature that is written as propaganda is certainly lacking as literature (though it might be effective as propaganda). But if an author writes a book or an artist creates a work of art that merely reflects his own point of view as a member of a class, I question whether that is quite the same thing as, for example racisim or sexism. For example, Jane Austen writes about the English gentry. Servants are seldom mentioned and so far as I recall, never developed as three-dimensional characters. Is Jane Austen to be scolded and her work degraded because she neglects the working classes? Ladies will take baskets to the poor. Gentlemen will try to do things to help their tennants. But they still do live in their giant country houses, their family homes. Is the author to be condemned for the life of her characters? Surely not. Such criticism is not literary criticism. It is social criticism that treats literature as nothing but a cultural artifact of a particular time, and as such if it demonstrates the blinkered life of the gentry, then it is bad to read.
Take Anthony Trollope. He was a very marginal member of the middle class. His father owned land but lost it and the family fortune was lost in crazy schemes to start a business in America that was wholly unrealistic. Trollope’s mother saved the family from debtor’s prison by writing travel books. She became a prolific writer and successfully got her family out of England before the authorities could imprison them for debt. Anthony Trollope himself was saved from destitution by a series of opportunities offered to him by freinds. He worked as a minor official in the post office. But when he started, it was pretty grim. One might think that Trollope writes about aristocrats and the privileged. He does. But he also frequently examines the ways that people from moneyed families can end up with nothing and despertately must turn to the only alternative open for them — marrying money.
That theme is one of Jane Austen’s recurrent themes too. Readers may like Austen because of the love stories, but there is a quiet bit of social commentary going on too. No strident marxism or condemnation of the ruling class, but rather, the precarious position of those in the gentry, especially women, who are left without money and must marry to find safety from destitution. A lady who considers herself a member of the gentry does not want to see her daughter have to become a governess in order to survive. Austen shows realistic lives with humor and sensitivity, and they are no less valuable stories for not being about the proletariat.
Dickens, George Elliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell are examples of writers who delve further into the gritty underworld of the working class, factories, and lack of human rights upon which the British gentry depended. I find this makes good literature too. I don’t say it is better literature, though. It seems untenable to make aesthetic judgments about art on the basis of whether or not it acknowledges the existence and plight of the poor and the working class. Maybe it is because I am an American from the middle class, the bourgeoisie, but I don’t see any good reason to make such an argument. Certainly a great deal of popular literature now as well as in the 19th century may be categorized as Romance. Not the erotic stories that now form the genre called “Romance” but the older, more general meaning of the word. A romance was originally a tale of knights and ladies, villains and quests, and unconsummated love (or not) written for the ruling class. The troubadors started it with their heroic and romantic songs and stories created to intertain nobes at court.
Such stories were (and are) entertaining to people who are not themselves nobles. The whole idea of nobility may be considered as a trope, a fantasy. At best it is a sort of ideal, as in chivalric romances where knights rescue damsels rather than raping them. It is entertainment. Well, as more and more people became literate, such stories began to e written down and after the advent of the printing press, they were mass-produced as books. When did romances fall in the estimation of readers or literary critics? By some, they were considered too silly. Fantasy itself was condemned as putting a lot of crazy ideas into the head of (especially) young women. Men who read romances might encur some social critique from their peers, as wasting their time. In the 18th century, when reading books really became the thing, people (men at any rate) were being schooled to think that reasons and practical knowledge was what men should think about.
Reading romances might be all right for light entertainment, but they weren’t expected to make you think about the plight of the workers. That was what tracts were for. As the novel evolved as a distinct art form writers increasingly wanted to represent real life and as they themselves were often in that nebulous rift between classes, they were well positioned to bring the evils of a class system to the minds of the middle and upper classes — the moneyed classes, as we might say. A writer like Trollope was no aristocrat, nor a clergyman, but he wrote about them. He wrote about the nouveaux riches and the speculators too. He wrote about the real people he knew and put them into situations that were not at all fantastic, but nevertheless entertaining.
The Marxist critique thinks it is bad for people to read about themselves. White bourgeois people reading books with white bourgeois characters, or full of stereotypes of other ethnic groups or workers are considered to simply perpetuate evil ideas. The steampunk tendency to make characters people of rank — either noble rank or military rank — might look like the ruling class reading about itself. Or, worse, the bourgeoisie romanticizing the ruling elite to which they wish they could belong. Happy servants, or for that matter happy crewmen in ships, are romanticized — that is, they are not emulating the complexities of real life. They are presenting those under-classes as content to be in thier place, serving their masters. Jules Verne does this a lot in his books. The engineer or sceintist hero always has his man, his loyal valet. Impossible? Fantasy? Or merely a trope used in romance, the descendant of the knight and his squire?
Today we love stories like those in the TV series Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey, or the film Gosford Park. We often like police procedural mysteries too that delve into the spaces between upper and lower classes of people. Marxism thinks in terms of classes. Reactionaries think in terms of classes too. But a truly liberal approach will find a writer who grew up privileged creating fictional worlds that do represent the real world, and not just the world of romance. The genres that grew out of the old chivalric romances are the gothic horror novel, fantasy, science fiction (mostly), and fantasy (mostly), and of course the erotic love story sort of romance we have today which may or may not cross class lines but does not care about realisic representation of the evils of the class system. The realistic novel has come to be considered “real” literature. Literary fantasy is judged by its lack of romanticism. Which makes most of the work that appeals to critics very dark and dreary and depressing. If you read novels to learn about the evils of society, all well and good. But if you read novels to escape from the evils of society and the constant impending doom we live under today; if you wish to escape from nihilism and a society that seems to far from our ideal of an egalitarian world of prosperity for all; then you will want romance.
Which brings me at last to steampunk as a genre. It is yet a small genre, but it is clearly and emphatically a genre of romance. It is the younger brother of gothic horror, mysteries, fantasy, science fiction, and love stories. The purpose it serves is escape from the mundane, more or less unpleasant realities of life. The professional critic might prefer novels that show the gritty real world and all its problems, but to ask steampunk to do that is to ask it to step outside the genre of romance. And it often does. Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine is seamy enough, even though most of its main characters are of the privileged classes. One might say the whole novel is about oppression and the technology of oppression. It is also about the emergence of a new ruling class — the technological elite.
The question steampunk has inherited from science fiction (of which it might be considered a type) is that question raised by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: what responsibility do scientists, physicians, and engineers have for the consequences of their inventions or creations? What moral responsibility does the scientific worldview demand, if any? One of the things steampunk stories do is to point out that this moral dilemma of secular science began in the 19th century with the advent of the steam engine.
Not all was rosy at the con. I attended two panels dealing with the subject of steampunk. One was annoying, and the other OK. I left each of them early. The annoying panel was entitled “The Future of Steampunk” and included the writer Catherynne [sic] Valiente. She said she liked to talk and she wasn’t kidding. Apparently none of the three panelists was the moderator and so a problem emerged when Ms. Valiente (in particular) made some provocative statements that members of the audience wanted to rebut. Ms. Valiente has a rather abrasive manner and what she said might have seemed less offensive if it had been presented in less absolute terms. But the critique of steampunk came from her opinons presented simply as if they were right. She is, after all, one of the Guests of Honor.
The arguments were old and particularly tiresome to me personally. I heard enough Marxist and post-colonial criticism 20 years ago in graduate school. I do not disagree that literature is deepened if it includes all the people in a society and not just white people. Neither do I disagree that romanticizing imperialism seems reactionary. But I think that critics of steampunk broadly as a cultural phenomenon cannot mix up the cosplay with literature. Steampunks, if they are white, may assume an aristocratic or gentry character and costume without advocating for imperialism. Indeed, I would not dream of advocating anything — except perhaps top hats. But the knee-jerk indoctrinated Marxist cultural critic roots out “reactionary” elements with the same zeal that a Freudian critic roots out phallic symbols.
What is particularly irritating is when someone suggests that the literature of steampunk will not be good literature until it starts including more people of color and more gritty, realistic visions of the British Empire. What such a critic is hitting upon is that worst of all possible phenomena in literature: Romanticism! Our 20th century culture embraced Realism. At the same time, popular literature is mostly fantasy — that is romance in the broad original sense of the word. It has a love story and fantastical elements. Many books in the science fiction genre pride themselves on being “hard” sci-fi. That mode of realism can certainly be entertaining. But, I believe that most of them are “romanticizing” science and technology. They give the illusion of serious extrapolation but will most often swing one of two ways away from realism. One way is romanticism, the advocacy of the scientific view of the world and its premises, showing its power and glory. The other way shows the power too, but focuses on the bad side-effects and destruction of science. But this too is romance. It hearkens back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a seminal book firmly in the tradition of Gothic horror.
The critique of “white middle class folks pretending to be upperclass Brits” seems lame to me. More steampunkers are developing “explorer” or “scientist” characters, but the insinuation that this is somehow more virtuous than playing an aristocrat seems to be based purely in Marxist ideology. And why should all steampunks be required to be Marxists? Or materialists? Can we not play Tories as well as Liberals and Radicals? This notion that somehow writing stories that glamorize imperialsm is “dangerous” strikes me as a little sad. I think we have quite a lot of imperialism still going on, in its cultural form — and certainly chauvinism and jingoism. But if we are to write with Victorian England (or even simply the 19th century), then pro-imperialism and class snobbery are a part of that world.
I think the criticism really comes from a feeling on the part of writers and convention panelists that their audience is a bit dim. What they are disgusted with is people playing steampunk who have not bothered to research the world of the 19th century. They are, simply, objecting to the ignorance of people who just put on a top hat and a monocle and pretend to be steampunks.
One observation I found more interesting than all this classist line of discussion was a remark made by one of the panel to the effect that steampunk had no single authorial source. It is an organic popular movement. Those outside it consider it a fad and believe it is bound to go away or be co-opted by commercialism. Maybe. Writers may stop being interested in the idea as too many other writers try to jump on the bandwagon. Readers may tire of it too, the way they tired of cyberpunk. But writers are still writing cyberpunk novels. Catherynne Valiente is one of many “punks” who like the idea of “punk” and really couldn’t care less about steam engines. And a good point was made that of all the novels yet written in the steampunk mode, few if any deal with steam engines.
There was some productive conversation indeed, and I took some notes for my novels. One panelist remarked that steampunk is dead as soon as it is the subject of a panel at a conference. A joke. However, I personally would like to see steampunk discussed in a panel that is better organized than the ones I attended today. Why do people on a panel come without any presentation? Why do they suppose the audience is there to listen to them talk to each other? The hands in the air should give them a hint. The panelists at the second steampunk panel I attended were better about calling on raised hands. As so often, though, when I raise a hand it is to respond to something just said by way of disagreement or correction. If one has to wait ten minutes before getting called on, the moment is gone. Oh well.
Today was the second day of ConVergence, the big Minneapolis Sci-Fi and Fantasy convention. First time I have attended. I have been enjoying much of what there is to offer. There was an excellent presentation this morning by two gentlemen explorers with wonderful costumes, who had done work reconstructing the Nautilus from Verne’s description in the book. Mostly good — especially the engines — I only had one quibble and that was in the raised placement of the spar. This was done on the basis of the description of the hole in the Scotia being 4 feet below the water line and Nemo’s claim that they were just floating on the surface when the Scotia ran into them by accident. Add to this account, the engineering argument against Arronax’s (or maybe Nemo’s) statement that on the surface only a tenth of the ship was above water. The “spindle” shape of the hull, the gentleman said, would float higher in the water. Now, I am inclined to think that could be adjusted to any depth desired by means of ballast.
Now, I thought he was saying that the hull would ride higher in the water, yet he thought it impossible for the hole in the Scotia to be where it was if the spar were centered at the front of a conical hull. The hull is 8 meters in diameter or approximately 25 feet. Now, there is a problem with the translation of the measurements in the English translations of Leagues. Mercier Lewis simply used the same numbers and changed “meters” to read “yards.” So, did Verne actually write that the hole in the Scotia was four feet below waterline? But let’s say it was. if the spar were at the center of the conical front of the “cigar-shaped” vessel, and this center was four feet (or shall we say one meter) below waterline. Then the Nautilus’s waterline was running at the 3 meter mark approximately. That is, if the radius of the circle is 4 meters at its widest point, then the centerline of the cigar sits at 4 meters depth. If the spar was four feet (or one meter) below waterline when the Scotia ran into it, then the Nautilus was floating with 7/8ths of its body submerged. This is not the 1/10th that Nemo states, but it is reasonably close, and as I said, Nemo could choose to float at any degree of height above the water up to its maximum, at which the spar would, I imagine be at the waterline, or a few feet below it.
So, I do not understand the presenter’s reasoning, even thought I have complete respect for him and admire his drawings. It was the best organized presentation I have seen, and the bits of engineering knowledge were interesting to know. The presenters were occasionally disparaging about Verne’s “getting the engineering wrong,” and yet I thought they did a very good job of showing that in fact he got it right, but just didn’t describe it all perfectly. They concluded that he did not seem to be writing from a three-dimensional sketch of the submarine.
One objection was that electrical batteries could not be made powerful enough to propel such a vessel at 50 knots for 20,000 leagues without refeuling or replacement, and the 50 knot speed was unrealistic. I am always amazed that people take Verne’s writing to be intended as scientific education. I doubt if it ever was. The recitation of fish species in Leagues cannot be intended to really educate the reader. It is central to the development of the character of Conseil and the cataloging way he looks at nature. The recitation might have inspired some readers to study marine biology, but the novel itself could hardly be seriously considered educational. So, the fact that he includes fantasies of engineering that we have not been able to build ourselves in the subsequent century, is rather beside the point. If we had built such things, they would cease to serve as fantasies of engineering. They were supposed to be fantasies, but using a great deal of realistic descriptive exposition in order to make the fantasy work better — to make it seem real to the reader.
I wonder that they did not consider that Nemo might have run engines on steam generated by electricity — the same principle used by nuclear submarines. A powerful enough heat source and efficient enough engine could feasibly (if fantastically) have give enough power to move the sub at 50 knots. The engineer-critic of literature wants all the engineering to be accurate and feasible, or at any rate complete. Verne leaves out much (thank goodness for the sake of the narrative), but what he does give us makes his book so spectacular.
The desire to criticize science-fiction writers when they “get the science wrong” is a strange sort of criticism. But as the readership of science fiction has become more and more versed in the sciences in schooling, the willing suspension of disbelief is harder if an author neglects known facts. A lazy sci-fi writer who doesn’t bother to calculate the volumes and displacement and workings of a fantastical ship will be pounced upon for it. For engineers or those savvy in science, the novel may be spoiled. We might see a similar breaking of that suspension of disbelief if an author set a book in a real-life setting and the people who actually live in the place find mistakes in his geography.
My own fictional Yorkshire in the Emily Glass books could easily run afoul of such criticism. Someone might quibble over my maps of the water levels, or over geological and geographical features of the dale country that do not match up with the real world. But from my point of view, it is fiction. The elements of realism are added for a particular effect. The element of the changed seashores is also a means to an end and nothing is served by trying to justify details with scientific data. Yet, somewhere, sometime, I suppose my books will be subjected to the same scrutiny. I only hope I can do it as well as Jules Verne.