Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Dystopias and the Bleakness of the Future-Past

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a Dystopia as "an imaginary place or society in which everything is bad." Merriam-Webster goes a step farther, and calls it "an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives."

On one end of the idea spectrum, we have Utopias, where everything is good and right and everyone lives in peace and harmony. On the precise opposite side, we have the Dystopian visions where the world is dark and fearful, and the powerful use the weak until they are dried up like day-old bread. Dystopias are police-states, fascist nations, and places where the forces of evil are in power oppressing all those who would resist them.

First-World Steampunk, where the story takes place in an alternate point of our own history, focuses quite heavily on dystopian settings. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling takes place in a dystopia brought on by terrorists who want to eradicate the new high technology of the meritocracy. These Luddites craft an environment of anarchy and terror that they believe will bring Britain back to the pastoral Utopia they so crave.

Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters operate solely within a dystopia. The "gods" of the title rule over the human citizens of the Whitechapel district of London with steam-driven force. They steal children in the night for work in the factories, and have mechanized soldiers who enforce their martial law on the populace.

Jules Verne wrote a dystopia, Paris in the 20th Century, which went unpublished for more than a hundred years. The story was written in 1863, but was only published in 1994. In it, he told a story of Paris in 1960, where technology and business were the only things shown any value, and art and music had become extinct. The hero, Michel, strives to be a poet, but he is born too late and dies when he finds it impossible to fit in.

H.G. Wells, who wrote the dark side of Scientific Romance, also composed some dystopian tales. His The Time Machine details a future society where the Eloi are kidnapped by the Morlocks and used up in the same way many dystopian governments do to their people. Wells also wrote When The Sleeper Wakes, which details a future dystopia where the leaders of society are hedonistic and shallow.

Even Jack London, more famous for The Call of the Wild, offered up a dystopian novel in The Iron Heel (1908), where he details the rise of the Oligarchs and their command over North America.

To Steampunk, dystopian fiction accentuates the terror crafted by adherence to Gothic literature and the dark side of Scientific Romances. Boneshaker tells of a dystopia within the walls of ruined Seattle; Whitechapel Gods does the same with London; and The Affinity Bridge's slums may as well be a microcosm of the worst sort of dystopia. That where monsters the government is powerless to stop rule the streets.

Thursday: Jack London's The Iron Heel


L. T. Host said...

I think dystopian fiction is what turned me off to a lot of books from that era. I don't like bleak worlds, and too-powerful governments, and downtrodden masses. At least, it's generally not what I reach for when I want a story.

But there are some great stories out there in the genre, I admit.

Matthew Delman said...

L.T. --

You could kind of, sort of say CaN has some dystopic elements. It needs to in order for the MC deposing the government to make sense. Well, that and I based the worldview off the Nazis. So dystopia more or less goes hand in hand.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Ah, dystopias. And the Eloi and Mordocks! This could be my most favorite post yet.

I'm fascinated by the current run of dystopian YA novels - all that is bleak and awful in the world has come to rest with our teens. But then again, it was my favorite type of read (SF dytopias, mind you) in my youth as well. Something to balance all that bright eyed hope, I guess. Or more likely, a cautionary tale to use as a guidepost: Don't Do This. Here There Be Dystopia.

Must go write now. :)

Joshua McCune said...

I love dystopians, though I prefer the ones that aren't too full of themselves.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I have a Dystopia/Utopia dipole in my current Steampunk WIP where my character's country is being fought over by a fascist racist neo-Nazi (or would that be proto-Nazi) dystopia and a modernistic capitalistic democratic Utopia. Who ever wins control of the country will gain a lot of power, so it's a critical acquisition. And of course my characters have to go from one extreme to the other before they can figure out which course to take.

Adam Heine said...

I love a good dystopian setting. Really bleak ones can be depressing (cf. 1984), but there's so much conflict available in a dystopia. Who doesn't like a good "Fight the Man" story?

Matthew Delman said...

Susan --

I'm glad to have inspired you. And that is curious now I think about it. I wonder if dystopian fiction is becoming more commonplace since it's coming up more in YA.

Bane --

Yeah, the ones who get all preachy and add in social commentary are kind of a bit much for the most part.

Iapetus --

Ah yes, I forgot about that! I'd call them proto-Nazis because they're more a direct root form of Nazism rather than proper Nazis themselves (if I'm remembering correctly what you told me about the story).

Adam --

The interesting thing about dystopias is that the hero is almost universally someone already living in that bleak setting. Having an outsider come in rarely happens, as opposed to utopian stories when it's typically an outsider coming into the utopian setting.

Adam Heine said...

Good point, Matt. Again, I think that's because that's where the conflict is.

Dystopia == inherent conflict.
Utopia == no conflict; requires external force.

Alternatively: Utopia == actually a dystopia hidden beneath a shiny veneer; conflict could go either way (internal or external)

ggray said...

Even though Dark City was written by director Alex Pryas and was meant to be a movie and never a novel, to me it's one of the most disturbing dystopias out there (well after 1984).
Thanks for writing this and filling in this angle - I hadn;t thought about steampunk from this viewpoint at all and helps a lot ot understand the genre better.