It saddened me recently to see one of my favorite genre writers, Lavie Tidhar, posting about the backlash he’s gotten for comments made about some historical issues with steampunk. Steampunk, after all, is quite popular and heavily influenced by history, with stories often set in the time periods of the Victorian age when steam tech was new and popular. And to my mind, Lavie’s comment is merely a suggestion that there’s a responsibility writers have in using history. I find it hard to believe anyone would question that.
From Lavie himself, the attacks began over a tweet. “ I see Steampunk as “Fascism for nice people”. He adds in this post: ”This was partly borne out… from the disconnect I feel at what that term, “steampunk” has come to represent in recent years and the worrying (to me) political and ideological implications of it.”
Okay, well, let’s look at the Victorian period. Wikipedia defines it thusly: “The Victorian era of British history was the period of Queen Victoria‘s reign from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901.” It further adds that “the era was a long period of peace, known as the Pax Britannica, and economic, colonial, and industrial consolidation, temporarily disrupted by the Crimean War in 1854. ” This is the period where 15 million people immigrated to colonies like America from England alone. During this time, British troops occupied Egypt in a bid to control the Suez Canal. During the latter part of the period, we have the Age Of Imperialism, defined by Wikipediathusly as: “beginning around 1870 when modern, relatively developed nations were taking over less developed areas, colonizing them, or influencing them in order to expand their own power.” It further states: “The bulk of British emigration, trade, and capital went to areas outside the formal British Empire. A key to the thought of Robinson and Gallagher is the idea of empire ‘informally if possible and formally if necessary.’…Europe’s expansion into territorial imperialism had much to do with the great economic benefit from collecting resources from colonies, in combination with assuming political control often by military means.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but just looking at those little bits, I see lots of political and ideological implications. I’ll leave it to you to do further research but let’s examine what we have so far. There’s clearly a movement by Western nations of power to dominate less powerful nations and exploit their resources. In doing so, I’d assume there was an assumption being made that the dominating country’s destiny was superior to the dominated country’s destiny. It’s not as if they went in invited. They went in by military force. They took what they wanted and used it as they would. Looking back centuries later, we can clearly see the result of many of these policies. African nations continue to struggle for political stability. Most have a level of corruption in government which still seems shocking to us now but which is very much modeled after the historical colonial governments which once ruled there on nepotism and favoritism at the highest levels. Just like their colonial masters, the current African leadership take everything they can from the land and government, including money, etc. and use it to benefit themselves and their friends without concern for the country left behind. This is a pattern echoed in the history of African nation after African nation: Ghana, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, etc. Don’t believe me. Do some research. We taught them the ideology of imperialism and colonism and they continue to live by it today. In many cases, the lack of development or the slow development of these countries is largely due to this practice. Do we not bear responsibility for that at least by implication?
This is just one example and there are many others. I haven’t mentioned the racism, poverty, classism, injustice, etc. which were going on around that. Knowledge of the injustice, poverty, bigotry, etc. of the past is very much a part of informing our response to such things in our present world. How can we really address the issues well without this historical knowledge?
You see, I do think we have a responsibility for the history we use in our fiction. We should be responsible to represent it accurately, which means not only getting the facts straight and correct but understanding the underlying issues as well: philosophies, ideologies, cultural mores, etc. The research is available and plentiful, much of it even free over the internet. The responsibility is ours to take the time to seek it out. When used well, history can enrich fiction in many ways. When used poorly, it can make that fiction a laughing stock. It can also lead to misinterpretations and misunderstandings about history which are dangerous. Would it be okay for someone to write a fictional portrayal of Nazi Germany that ignored the Holocaust and instead glorified the unity and prosperity it brought to Germany? It’s a fact that Naziism united Germany in a powerful way. Yes, there were desenters, but part of its rise to power is the restoration of patriotic pride in the German people by the Nazis which brought people into line and encouraged their support. And yes, with that power came a level of prosperity Germany had not seen for many decades. Yet, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, they have suffered losses far more devastating. Sure, the rise to power and patriotic unity came before the killing of Jews and happened while many Germans remained ignorant of the mass killings occurring in their midst. One could spend hours analyzing and speculating about how they could have been so blind, I suppose, but it did happen that many Germans were shocked by the later discoveries of the darkness at the heart of Hitler’s reign.
Should we ignore the negatives then and emphasize the positives?
This is just one example. I could offer many others. I think there is a responsibility for the use of truth in fiction. Because truth has power and truth lends a poignancy and even a authenticity, a sense of reality, and a credence to your fiction like nothing else. When we use history, if done believably, people start to regard the fiction as factual without often having the ability to discern the fictional from the true. Thus, using history has its advantages and disadvantages, because in using it, we also become historians of a sort and bear a responsibility for how we educate readers about that history, or, you might say, reeducate them about it. Don’t we?
I don’t have easy answers for this but I do know that, while I love steampunk, I think the cultural mores and ideologies are a very important part of it and must be taken into consideration in writing it, as Tidhar seems to suggest. I really think when that doesn’t happen, it shows a lack of respect and responsibility both. Sure, you can set your novel in a different period and employ steampunk tropes. There are different implications that come with that. I’m dealing with it myself in my epic fantasy The Dawning Age. But if you set it in a specific historical period, accuracy and fact become so much more important a part of the world-building canvass. And I think it would be remiss not to consider them in depth. Part of the reason we have Holocaust deniers and others ignorant of history is because of a failure of our educational system to do this at times, I believe, as well as a failure societally to consider the implications of our history as relevant, informative lessons for us today. “The past is the past,” we say, as if those ignorant forefathers were plagued by so many odd ideas and notions we’d never be susceptible to. If we continue with such attitudes, I fear history will repeat itself in horrifying ways, don’t you? Some lessons deserve to be remembered forever.
I’m sure some will disagree with me about Tidhar’s comments and my interpretation of them. I’m sure some will disagree with my insistence on responsibile use of history. There’s always naysayers, but I stand by it nonetheless. The implications steampunk and Victorian elements have for some people might be similar to reactions many have when someone uses Swastikas. It’s offensive by implication. For those who know the history behind the steampunk era, careless use of that history is the same.
I do believe we have a responsibility for using history in fiction with accuracy and our best efforts to get it right. Slight modifications for storytelling aside, that shouldn’t include ignoring issues of colonialism, imperialism, classism, etc. It’s perfectly fine to admire and adore periods of history but let’s not ignore the warts and faults in doing so. If we do, we are not only contributing to misinformation but, in a sense, we are adding our endorsement to what went on by writing it off as unimportant. And we may well be teaching others to forget historical lessons that shouldn’t be forgotten. I, for one, wouldn’t want that responsibility on my conscience.
For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.