One of the strengths of science fiction and fantasy is its ability to visualise real-world problems. From metaphors for apartheid (Zoo City) to overpopulation (Stand on Zanzibar), genre fiction’s ability to dramatise issues is part of its eternal relevance.
Steampunk, for all its frills and fripperies, has made inroads into discussions of class and gender politics. (If nothing else, this seems to come with the territory with any fiction based on the Victorian period.) However steampunk has proven itself truly excellent when it comes to the representation of industrialization, and specifically, the consumption of natural resources.
The British Empire lived on coal - vast, terrifying quantities of the stuff. By 1914, nearly two-thirds of the world’s coal was mined in Britain, and one in ten British men were working in the coal industry. Although many books (from many genres of literature) have looked at the impact this made on working conditions and class struggles, what steampunk has done is investigate the underlying issues by actually anthropomorphizing the coal.
Jonathan’s Stroud’s Bartimaeus Chronicles tell the story of Nathaniel, a young magician in an alternate Victorian London. The trilogy follows his relationship with his summoned djinni, the titular Bartimaeus. Their interactions are alternatively charming and funny, with Nathaniel ambitions tempered by Bartimaeus’ cheek. The core of Stroud’s world, however, is surprisingly dark. The Empire is powered by magic. Magic, in turn, is the essence of the ‘demons’ (the broad term for all the spirits like Bartimaeus). Bartimaeus and his kin aren’t just slaves, their very being, their essence, drains away with every day they work. They’re both the miner and the coal, and the arc of the series develops as the demons grow more and more desperate.
The His Dark Materials trilogy adds a religious subtext into the mix as well. In Philip Pullman’s beautifully detailed world, children are connected to their shape-shifting animal familiars by invisible, magical bonds. The bond ostensibly represents their state of innocence. It also represents a possible power source. Throughout the books, children are kidnapped and severed from their familiars in order to harvest the strength of that bond. In this case, the children become representations child labor - losing their innocence (or metaphors thereof) in the magical workhouses. The religious (or irreligious) metaphor is obvious, but the sacrifice of adorable fuzzy magical creatures on the altar of mechanical power is equally striking. Would you still burn coal if it had big soulful eyes and a bushy tail?
Tad Williams’ The War of the Flowers goes a bit further down the slippery slope. Half the book is set in the contemporary ‘real’ world, the other half is in the kingdom of Faerie, a magical world with distinctly Victorian style. The ruling houses (all named after plants, in the best flower fairy tradition) have seen our world and are keen to match our technological prowess - at any cost. Of course, Faerie isn’t a realm with traditional power sources. Instead, the magic comes from the fairies themselves. The ruling families run the factories figuratively, the fairy proletariat literally. Although structured as a traditional high fantasy novel (down to the lost prince, back to claim his throne), the book’s industrial underpinnings merit a closer read.
Steampunk enables authors to examine the costs of industrialization from a previously unvoiced perspective - the fuel itself. Be it fuzzy-tailed, fairy-winged or filled with bad puns, these are three different representations of both the social and environmental costs. And nor are these the only ones - Ian MacLeod's Light Ages, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell, Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughterall take place in alternative Victorian histories where the Empire is powered by the consumption of magic... and magical creatures.
So make sure to turn the light off when you’re not using it - you’re wasting the fairies.
Jared Shurin is a judge for The Kitschies, the prize for progressive, entertaining and intelligent genre literature – now presented by The Kraken Rum. Jared is also part of the team at the geek culture blog Pornokitsch and the new genre imprint Pandemonium Fiction.