The Past is a Horrible Country

I was recently on an alternate history panel for the World Fantasy Convention. Technically, it was about alternate history and fantasy, to wit…

“Alternate history has long been the domain of science-fiction writers, but it is now being enthusiastically colonized by writers of fantasy, who are bringing in magic, dragons, and the full panoply of the uncanny into what used to be an orderly and rational sub-genre. Who’s doing this and what’s going on?”

Actually, I don’t think it’s that big a deal. A lot of alternate history has had or assumes magical elements. It goes all the way back to Robert Heinlein and his story, Magic Inc. I’m not one of these guys who draws hard and fast lines between fantasy and science fiction, or fantasy and magical realism, or whatever. All of Speculative Fiction simply assumes that at least one thing, and sometimes many things, goes unnatural and you take it from there.

I just want to talk about one thing that struck me during the panel, that I never got a chance to talk about.

Steampunk. I find it interesting, but the entire steampunk genre seems to be in the process of being colonized by, or is entirely colonized by Fantasy. Blame it on Kim Newman and his Anno Dracula perhaps, or the novels Gail Carriger, or the Weird West subgenre. But as often as not, when you’re reading steampunk, there’s strong fantasy elements – ghosts, vampires, goblins, weird creatures, magic, etc.

I think part of that is that when you’re writing in this genre, you’re reaching back into the literary traditions of the ‘weird tales’ of the day, and it all starts to melt together.

But there’s another element to consider.

Victorian, England was a pretty horrific place.

Seriously. For one thing, it stank – the place was awash in the stink of urine and shit. What kept the entire city moving was horses, and horses shit and pissed as they go. Every street you had all those lovely hansom cabs going up and down was liberally sprinkled with horse piss and stool, worked right into the cobble stones. Along with that were a large population of dogs, cats, chickens, the occasional cow, all of them doing their business freely. Add to that an immense population of humans, a relative shortage of potable water, and the place reeked. The Thames was essentially an open sewer.

Everyone in London was burning coal to heat their homes and do their cooking. Every household had a chimney belching soot into the sky. Those miasmic London fogs of the era were actually early smog, vast amounts of smoke and soot hanging in the atmosphere, turning everything black, including your lungs. A lot of people died from tuberculosis and other lung infections. It was just nasty to breath.

Throw in massive poverty of a scale we can’t imagine, people working in horrific conditions not much better than slavery, working eighteen hour days at hard labour and slowly starving to death, child labour, men and women being ripped to shreds by the machineries, people living in appalling conditions, literally eating poisoned garbage, living in slums that were literally falling apart as they were built, everything toxic and unsanitary and utterly ruthless and murderously awful.

All that stuff by Blake about Dark Satanic mills, or all that stuff we read about in Dickens, those weren’t novels, those were how people actually lived – gangs of feral children stealing or begging under masters, or orphanages where children were literally starved to death, just horror and degradation everywhere you looked, and hard to sugar coat.

That was the nice part. Women forced into prostitution, selling themselves for the equivalent of pennies, and dying toothless and broken in their thirties. Men broken and destitute, trying to scrape enough money together to rent a rope, not a bed, a rope to sleep against for the night. Chimney sweeps, bodies crippled, coughing out their lungs before they were twenty. That’s when things were fine.

The not so fine? Massive, massive epidemics, sweeping regularly through slums of poor people, overworked, fed garbage, living on tainted water. Actual horrific famines, like the Irish famine, some of which decimated entire populations. Wars, wars of conquest, rebellions, really toxic drug trafficking, all kinds of deep nastiness.

Sure, there were nice parts and nice places, particularly if you were in the middle and especially the upper classes. But for a lot of people, life was pretty brutal.

And, I’m not sure how to put this delicately… But people weren’t very …. ‘woke’ back then. Society back then was racist as fuck. It wasn’t the American racism of slavery and subsequently Jim Crow, though we had that in America. But the British, the French, the Italians, the Germans, the Belgians, the Dutch, the Spanish, Portugese, they were all just assuming natural superiority and the right to conquer and rob the shit out of anyone and everyone whose stuff wasn’t physically nailed down.

By the standards of the ‘enlightened’ folk of the 21st century, the people of the 19th were just wall to wall monsters. And it wasn’t just the racism, the imperialism, the warmongering, the predatory capitalism – gay people went to jail, if they were lucky, women had fewer rights than cattle, it was a society whose genteel pretensions were awash with hypocrisy and violence.

So if you’re going to write steampunk, that poses a problem. I mean suppose you do manage to ignore toxic fogs that rot your lungs, the ever present stench of urine in every street, the corrosive effects of poverty and unregulated industrialism…

Well, you still have to deal with the fact that most of your protagonists and supporting characters are going to be raging racists, sexists and homophobes. If they’re middle or upper class, they’re likely to be even worse. The average dock worker trying to feed their family, they don’t have time to worry if the person they’re working shoulder to shoulder with is black or Indian or a woman. But move up the social order, it’s going to get toxic.

So yeah, there’s a problem with steampunk in that just about everyone you might write about is likely to be a toxic bastard.

So what do you do?

You have to soften it for modern sensibilities. So with steampunk, not just remarkably advanced technology, and fashion, but overall, less filthy and poverty and disease ridden, less toxic and predatory, less openly racist, less insanely misogynist…. less awful.

If you start doing that, I think that what happens is that you open the door to more and more fantasy in steampunk, that you’re moving further and further away from anything harsh and realistic, into a more open ended, fluid psychic landscape, where you can throw anything and everything in, where it becomes permissible to mix and match elements.

The future of steampunk is fantasy, it has to be fantasy, because otherwise the source material is unbearable.

But then again, perhaps that can be applied to a lot of fantasy.

I’ve noticed, if you look at the works of Glen Cook, Miles Cameron, Scott Bakker, Joe Abercrombie, David Keck, George R.R. Martin and many others, everyone is working with fairly thinly veiled settings around a fairly narrow era of European History. Yeah, sure, they change the names a bit, introduce magic, but you can recognize the rise of Islam, the Crusades, Renaissance Italy, England, France the war of the Roses, etc.

I’m sure that they’d all be offended if I accused them of sugar coating history. Indeed, most… all of them depict the grit, the exhaustion, the struggles of medieval life.

But let’s face it, these were eras of famines and diseases, when entire marching armies got laid low by dysentery. There were no toilets in Versailles in real life, so everyone at the gorgeous French palace took to shitting and pissing in corners, and the whole place reeked. Everything stank, filth and vermin was everywhere, you could die from a scratch, medical care was as likely to kill you as not, and by the time you were twenty, you could count on bad broken teeth, warts, abscesses, moles and scars, and by the time you were forty or fifty your body was pretty much breaking down. And in this world, the cruelty, the ignorance, the unthinking blinkered assumptions. It’s all just nasty and vicious and really deeply unpleasant.

The past that our fantasy landscapes are built upon was world where rape was less controversial than eating a sandwich, where lice and scabs are a universal constant, where heroes shit themselves to death. Where just about everyone was, measured against modern sensibilities, was some kind of monster.

I can’t really blame anyone for smoothing those rough edges off, for reaching past that and selectively choosing how to build their worlds. I can’t fault anyone for blowing up England to the size of a continent, or introducing magic or dragons of various forms, melding folklore and mythology. In the end, stories are stories, and fantasy and science fiction frees us to tell them the way we want, to explore themes and ideas, or just adventures unencumbered by the limits of mundane history.

Personally, I like history. History, like travel, broadens the mind, and the field has developed wonderfully in the last half century, in terms of breadth and nuance. I’d recommend history to anyone, particularly the ‘woke’ and to those too embedded in the hear and now. The truth is that the past was often a horrible place, full of suffering and degradation, and our ancestors were often horrible people.

Yet, they endured, they struggled and suffered step by step, to try and go somewhere, to be better. There were many steps backwards, many times they fell, entire peoples were consigned to extinction, the horror was unrelenting.

But they tried, and sometimes succeeded. Generation upon generation spent thousands of years pushing back against the darkness. Should we judge them, from our vantage point of privilege or security? I don’t think so. Judgement of the past is pointless.

I find it interesting that even as the study of history has become more nuance, that as fantasy has become grittier and rougher, that we as a society have become so much less tolerant of nuance. And so, we embrace fantasy landscapes that resemble the past, but are rather nicer.