Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Steampunk’s Dialectic of Core and Periphery

Today I’m taking a wee holiday from banging the drum about women writing science fiction and fantasy to maunder over a contrast I’ve noticed in a certain subgenre between books set in Britain, and those set in and around the USA.

I’ve been rolling over some thoughts about the difference between steampunk fantasies set on opposite sides of the Atlantic for a little while now. (Ever since reading Lilith Saintcrow’s The Iron Wyrm Affair and The Red Plague Affair.) I’m not as well read in the subgenre as I wish I could be, but comparing Saintcrow’s steampunk magic, Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate novels, and T. Aaron Payton’s The Constantine Affliction to Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series and Felix Gilman’s The Rise of Ransom City (to take a reasonable selection of examples) leaves me with the impression that certain contrasts can be drawn. These contrasts are most visible when it comes to the treatment of geographic and political space. It would require closer and more academic reading than I’ve done to investigate whether similar contrasts can be mapped in social space, but I suspect that may well be possible, too.

Geographic and political space. What I really mean by this is the role of London and of 19th century British imperialism, on the one hand; and on the other, the idea of the 19th century American frontier and its interactions with both the size of the North American continent and the shape of American colonialism.

London is central to the dialectic of British imperialism and power, both as the political heart of the empire, and the place where a variety of populations marginalised by imperialism occupy space right beside their exploiters. The literary idea of Victorian Britain is London-centric. The industrial beating heart of Victorian Britain wasn’t London, of course, but the political and ideological heart was, and is. As a consequence, steampunk based within the British Isles tends to be influenced by, or to take on, a very urban cast. It’s the place where the influence of the gothic meets the Dickensian social morality play. London exercises a magnetic effect on these texts: if the bulk of the novel’s action doesn’t take place within its confines (or the confines of its alt-hist/fantastic analogue), like The Constantine Affliction, Carriger’s Soulless and Heartless, and Saintcrow’s Iron Wyrm and Red Plague, then it’s the place to which people go and from which they return. London is a pervasive presence, a looming metropolis that doesn’t so much send out colonists as suck them in.

Steampunk fantasy set within the British Isles is close kin to urban fantasy: in many cases, structurally and thematically, it’s closer kin to urban fantasy than it is to the novels set in the North American continent that also make use of the steampunk aesthetic.

The steampunk fantasy of the North American continent is rather different. Neither Priest’s nor Gilman’s novels orbit a fixed point of political or geographic significance: instead, it marries the aesthetic of steampunk to the thematic concerns of a more industrialised Western. Their towns and cities punctuate a landscape defined by its breadth. Their focus lies in frontiers and journeys, barriers and crossings: social and cultural ones, physical and geographic ones, political ones. Both Priest’s Clockwork Century and Gilman’s Rise of Ransom City also show, in their own ways, the influence of the American Civil War: where conflict at the level of political entities exists, the parties divide along a binary line: North and South for Priest, Gun and Line for Gilman. Contrast this with British-based steampunk fantasies, where political conflicts slide towards the uneasy, messy hodgepodge of the 19th century Great Game, and an imperial focus on the throne and the crowned head that occupies it.

For British-set steampunk fantasy,* then, London is the spider at the centre of the web, tugging on each of its lines in turn. But for steampunk fantasy set in North America, there seems to be no such looming presence: where narratives based in Britain are drawn inexorably into the capital’s orbit, North American ones spread themselves across the breadth of a continent. Their “web” is less a set of lines to and from a spatial and political centre than a network of occasionally-overlapping strands. No city rivals the imaginative draw of London.

*As in fact for a lot of fantasy set in Britain.

So, you tell me. Am I off my head, or do you see it too?


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

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