Iron Dreams

When I wasn’t writhing in agony over the weekend (and now, 18 hours after my emergency root canal, I’ve gone from totally miserable to just a bit miserable), I noticed quite a few folks at the convention who were attired in steampunky, high Victorian fashion. I’ve been aware of the steampunk movement for a while, of course, but have never really been interested enough to pay it much mind. I always figured that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla — heck, some folks even like Brussels Sprouts.

But recently, blogger/writer Lavie Tidhar pointed out that a romanticization of Victorian Britain tends to gloss over certain more problematic aspects of that culture, from imperialism to the problem of prostitution (the cynical among us might suggest that Jack the Ripper did more to solve the latter than Gladstone could have dreamed.) In fact, Tidhar went so far as to suggest that steampunk risks becoming “fascism for nice people.” All this is further complicated by the fact that Tidhar has also written a fair amount both about and within the genre.

In a post yesterday, Tidhar observes that the response to that comment has been … um… heated, but also finds an interesting (if ominous) quote and engages in a nifty bit of Spinradian alt-history. Check it out.

H/T: Spinetingler, via Facebook.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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16 Responses to Iron Dreams

  1. Withywindle says:

    I loathe this whole move to say “you can’t enjoy X because it’s associated with Y”. You shouldn’t go to a RenFaire without thinking deeply about the Suffering of the English Poor. The SCA must begin every session with a rousing self-education lecture on the extermination of the Prussians. Each toga party should begin with an apology for the Rape of the Sabine Women. No one should read a contemporary novel without first reciting in unison, “Liberalism is abortion with a smiley face.” There is, indeed, an authoritarian hermeneutic in the whole move; and perhaps more to the point, its the hermeneutic of a semi-educated, self-important jerk. As for the third-rate Spinrad pastiche, it merely continues Tidhar’s extended embodiment of Godwin’s Law.

    • profmondo says:

      Withy, I too thought of Godwin when I read Tidhar. I think one of the first (Echo on) Moments… of… Clarity (Echo off) about all this was when I read Saint with a Gun, William Ruehlmann’s 1984 screed that contends private eye fiction (with its emphasis on violence over ratiocination) was essentially vigilante fascism. At that moment, the “Oh, come on” switch flipped in my head.

      As I said, I found Tidhar more intriguing because he actually writes some of the stuff.

      • Jeff says:

        Just for kicks, I think I’d enjoy seeing someone argue that there’s a creepy political or ideological edge to steampunk. As someone who’s always assumed that it was merely an aesthetic rather than a worldview, I have no idea whether I’d agree or disagree, but a provocative tweet and a “Man in the High Castle”-esque short story don’t add up to an argument–or even a hypothesis that an outsider like me can mull over.

  2. Andrew Stevens says:

    Glad you had the same reaction I did, Withywindle. Love of steampunk (which, in all fairness, I must confess I have never read a word of myself) is fairly obviously love of the Victorian aesthetic and atmosphere, not admiration for the era’s political philosophy (which, in any event, is a great deal more admirable than Mr. Tidhar thinks). Got to say Mr. Tidhar’s post didn’t leave me with any desire to read more of his stuff. Pretty clearly not a deep thinker, obviously an insufferable snob (one is forced to wonder if there are any cultures, past or present, which Mr. Tidhar would not judge morally inferior to his own greatness), and the creative stuff wasn’t terribly creative.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Tidhar tweeted: “Steampunk is fascism for nice people”. That is not a critical dialogue. That is a slogan. He tweeted one single phrase. Other people have taken up his faux-injury with literate comment. Tidhar was being obnoxious and was caught out being obnoxious.

  4. Jan says:

    Whew! Thank goodness I’m not a vegetarian! Someone might accuse me of being a fan of Hitler or something. *wipes brow melodramatically with one hand while clutching pearls in the other*

  5. Withywindle says:

    1) Is what he’s written any good?–Maybe it condescends too. 2) Even if it is good, so what?

  6. Andrew Stevens says:

    Also, does anybody have any clue how the word “fascist” can be applied to Victorian England at all? I assume he’s just using the word as an all-purpose curse word, which is enough in itself to disqualify his opinions from serious consideration.

  7. Withywindle says:

    Oh, I can do that. Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, is quite good on how with the fading of Christianity a cult of power-worship rises in England, Carlyle and others, expressed in a raw and nasty imperialism justified rather transparently on might-makes-right grounds. Fascism, as various have said, is the twentieth-century application within Europe of nineteenth-century European behavior to non-Europeans. You can make a cogent argument that acknowledges differences sufficiently to make a persuasive case for the similarities.

    • profmondo says:

      As in, “Whatever happens, we have got/ The Maxim gun, and they have not.” — H. Belloc.

    • Andrew Stevens says:

      So the argument is they were liberals at home, fascists abroad? I suppose a case could be made for that. (Not saying I buy it though.)

      I’m not sure I agree that Victorian imperialism was very frequently justified on might-makes-right grounds, but I would concede that a specialist historian would know more about that than I do. The use of Carlyle as an example is troubling, though, since the reaction to Carlyle’s “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question” was exceedingly hostile, indicating that he was a member of a fringe minority and not in the center of the culture.

  8. Withywindle says:

    Houghton wrote a good book, but I haven’t read it in twenty years. He made a good case for Carlyle as not tangential and not alone–but further details are blank. But it wasn’t a stupid book, and it wasn’t a simple-minded one.

  9. Andrew Stevens says:

    I believe you. I do think it’s easy as an historian to thoroughly investigate a fairly fringe phenomenon and convince oneself it was widespread, especially if one begins with the thesis that it was widespread. Hell, you can see that with people trying to interpret their own culture, never mind a past one, seeing an extreme point of view (which they disagree with) and believing it is commonplace. Obama just had a goodly part of the left convinced that there’s some sort of massive undercurrent of support for banning contraception, although I can’t name a single person who actually holds that view.

    My own take on the era is that colonialism begins with purely commercial motives and a moral motive (Kipling’s White Man’s Burden) was added later along with national pride and the like. The racism here was a fairly genteel one, radically different from the racism of the Nazis, So while I believe it’s a plausible thesis that the practice may have been fascist (and indeed may have given rise to fascism), I am not convinced that it was supported by an explicitly fascist philosophy. However, I could be so convinced.

  10. Withywindle says:

    Not explicitly Fascist–more akin to Fascism than is comfortable. More akin to it than, say, liberalism. I’m looking at the chapter titles in Amazon now–Optimism, Anxiety, The Critical Spirit–and the Will to Believe, Anti-Intellectualism, Dogmatism, Rigidity, The Commercial Spirit, The Worship of Force, Earnestness, Enthusiasm, Hero Worship, Love, Hypocrisy. I think what I’m remembering most are “The Worship of Force” and “Hero Worship”, but also bits of “Anxiety” and “The Critical Spirit and the Will to Believe.”

    I certainly think the British Empire was largely authoritarian, and often quite murderous; but (to repeat an old critique of Jonah Goldberg) it’s the political institutions that matters more than the ideas. If you don’t have a mass Party taking over the state, talking about Fascism seems a bit hand-waving, no matter how many ideas you have in common.

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