Today we welcome Jon Heartless, author of Romanticism Lost.
The “Greying Down” of Culture
by Jon Heartless
Is anyone else worried about the ‘greying down’ of culture which seems to be increasing all around us? Society does it by scorning anything outside the conventional. Our employers do it by demanding that we wear their uniform, use their methodology, and even use their word forms when dealing with customers. Governments do it by promoting bland manifestos, even blander politicians, and only supporting media-friendly, populist policies which can all be measured and quantified. The UK Government is especially target-obsessed, and exhibits the belief that everything can be fed into a spreadsheet of tick boxes which will yield statistical data on every part of our lives. “Real life doesn’t comply with forms AH139 to VT9735 inclusive? Then reality is wrong. We have the paperwork to prove it…”
In short, we are being homogenized in a variety of ways, usually by having bits chopped off so we fit a pre-determined shape, and I’m rather peeved about it. It’s at times like this that I truly understand why a diabolical mastermind wants to create a death ray and zap everyone. It’s not an insane desire to take over the world; it’s just table-chewing frustration at the way we’re treated by those who have power over us. Give me a death ray and I would quite happily point it at the Houses of Parliament. Or corporate employers. Or the tabloid press, with its insular attitudes and hatred of anything unlike.
This got me thinking one day on what the Sherlock Holmes stories would be like if Conan Doyle were writing today. We’re used to the idea of Holmes and Watson receiving a telegram pleading for help, dashing off in a hansom cab to Waterloo, the luxurious railway carriage, the hiring of a dog cart at the rural station, the investigation, the deduction, and the unmasking of the villain. Can you imagine what that would be like in the modern world? Holmes would be prosecuted for breaching health and safety laws after lighting his pipe, while the criminal, after being unmasked, would be able to sue the consulting detective for slander, emotional belittlement, loss of confidence etc etc. And this pre-supposes Holmes could get anywhere near the crime scene at all with our modern rail companies, who seem to view the transportation of passengers as being a distraction from their true calling of taking our money in ever increasing amounts in return for an ever decreasing service.
From all this was born my novella, Romanticism Lost, and only after I’d written it did I realise that I had something a bit ‘steampunkish’. (Please note I hesitate to label it as a definite steampunk work, though it does feature a nineteenth century setting and a Calculating Man made from glass, brass, and clockwork). And this, finally, leads to the point of today’s blog: when we create something that doesn’t fit into a preconceived set of values or opinions, do we create something more imaginative, something more enjoyable, something ‘better’?
After all, if we sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a western,’ we immediately limit ourselves to a certain set of rules; cowboys, the sheriff, high noon etc. Even in a wider context we still do this – consider the British Empire. Immediately, our thoughts are channelled into a few well-established streams; it was good/bad, it did this, it caused that etc. So when we sit down to write steampunk, do we similarly limit ourselves to predetermined rules and thus a predetermined outcome?
I am in no way a steampunk expert, but I do know that it is now a genre, and genres often feed off themselves and in doing so they can lose originality. Witness the ‘steampunkiness’ of Doctor Who over the years, in which the past was represented by the Doctor with his Victorian/Edwardian clothing and old fashioned heroism, while the TARDIS was the new world of technology. Together they were incongruous, yet they worked. Now compare that to the modern day version, where deliberate quirkiness is forced into the concept, and you can see quite a shift in our creativity; we are retro-eccentric for the sake of it, rather than because it just happens to fit the artistic demands of the story.
Does this sort of thing limit us? And if so, is this true to the spirit of steampunk, which theoretically has no limits other than being set in an alternative, tech-heavy past? Are we now creating steampunk rather than creating something that can be labelled (often retrospectively) as steampunk? If we are starting with the intention that there will be warlords, airships, unconventional heroines, modern technology enclosed in Victorian aesthetic design etc, does this mean that we are sealing ourselves into a self-replicating loop?
I’m guilty of doing exactly this, incidentally, in that I’m writing a story inspired by Charles Stross’ blog complaining that the genre isn’t realistic enough about the horrors of the Victorian era. From this infamous rant, an idea lodged in my head about creating a steampunk story that does show the appalling social conditions of the Victorian age, and hence was born my work in progress, Steampunk Imperialism. However, I fear I am working to Mr. Stross’ agenda as to what the genre should be. I also fear that in trying to create a recognisable steampunk story I am heading through the door marked ‘Conventional’ rather than the door marked ‘Innovative’.
Given the individual artistic craft that goes into creating a steampunk-style computer, dress, or ray gun, it would be ironic indeed if we are succumbing to a rigid mindset on what is, and isn’t, acceptable. Is steampunk’s success going to be its downfall? Would it really make a difference if you could buy steampunk off the shelf in a supermarket? Is Steampunk really in danger of becoming SteamcorporateTM?
Of course, even is this is true, and I do emphasise I am only speculating here, you may well think it doesn’t matter, and you could be right. Some great things can still be achieved within the well-defined parameters of a genre, and in any case, it depends on what you want to do; are you writing a Dickensian tale of misery designed to show the inequality of Victorian life, or are you creating an adventure romp, or something which can inspire young readers, or something else again? There’s no law on this, just personal likes and dislikes.
Is Romanticism Lost a better work for not being bogged down in the minutiae of being a particular type of fiction? Or will Steampunk Imperialism be superior for having a definite genre and philosophy? (It certainly helps that I am interested in the Victorian age, although I am out of my comfort zone in setting the story at the start of the Victorian era rather than the fin-de-siècle). In the end, I suppose it all depends on the individual. And if that isn’t steampunk, I don’t know what is.
Speculation over, and I still haven’t reached a conclusion, but I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this and, more importantly, I also hope you continue to enjoy steampunk for many years to come, no matter what guise is presents itself under.
Romanticism Lost can be purchased direct from Double Dragon Publishing, or from third party retailers such as Kindle. My YA werewolf tale The Wolves of Androcolus will be available from BloodMoonPublishing.com shortly, under my pen name Barnabas Corbin. Steampunk Imperialism will hopefully appear one day, assuming it doesn’t depress me to the extent that I give up on it.