On why nostalgia for the past sucks


Originally uploaded by etherflyer

In his recent post “The hard edge of empire”, science fiction writer Charlie Stross describes his unhappiness with the lazy assumptions underlying some steampunk.

What is steampunk, you may ask? Wikipedia’s definition is concise.

Steampunk involves an era or world where steam power is still widely used—usually the 19th century and often Victorian era Britain—that incorporates prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy. Works of steampunk often feature anachronistic technology or futuristic innovations as Victorians may have envisioned them; in other words, based on a Victorian perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, art, etc. This technology may include such fictional machines as those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne or real technologies like the computer but developed earlier in an alternate history.

Stross doesn’t have problems with the aesthetics of steampunk, or even with steampunk as a genre. Rather, his problems are with the background assumptions underlying much recent steampunk fiction, an ill-judged nostalgia for the past falsely imagined as more romantic, more interesting, better than the past.

Maybe it’s on its way to becoming a new sub-genre, or even a new shelf category in the bookstores. But in the meantime, it’s over-blown. The category is filling up with trashy, derivative junk and also with good authors who damn well ought to know better than to jump on a bandwagon. (Take it from one whose first novel got the ‘S’-word pinned on it — singularity — back when that was hot: if you’re lucky, your career will last long enough that you live to regret it.) Harumph, young folks today, get off my lawn ….

But there’s a dark side as well. We know about the real world of the era steampunk is riffing off. And the picture is not good. If the past is another country, you really wouldn’t want to emigrate there. Life was mostly unpleasant, brutish, and short; the legal status of women in the UK or US was lower than it is in Iran today: politics was by any modern standard horribly corrupt and dominated by authoritarian psychopaths and inbred hereditary aristocrats: it was a priest-ridden era that had barely climbed out of the age of witch-burning, and bigotry and discrimination were ever popular sports: for most of the population starvation was an ever-present threat. I could continue at length. It’s the world that bequeathed us the adjective “Dickensian”, that gave us a fully worked example of the evils of a libertarian minarchist state, and that provoked Marx to write his great consolatory fantasy epic, The Communist Manifesto. It’s the world that gave birth to the horrors of the Modern, and to the mass movements that built pyramids of skulls to mark the triumph of the will. It was a vile, oppressive, poverty-stricken and debased world and we should shed no tears for its passing (or the passing of that which came next).

I chose to illustrate this post with Robert’s picture of a tombstone standing in a Toronto cemetey, commemorating a child who died before her eighth birthday, for a reason. Robert’s description of the photo says what needs to be said.

We forget, when we wax nostalgic for a ‘simpler time’, the human cost of that simplicity. A child’s death is rare now, and a terrible tragedy — yet our grandparents remembered a time when such tragedies were common.

Margaret McLevin, who died aged 7 years and 10 months, would not have died so young today.

We are very lucky. Sometimes we forget that.

Nostalgia sucks; a rounded appreciation of the past matters. In the case of steampunk, author Nisi Shawl blogged about his writing of a steampunk novel set in the Congo Free State, that most catastrophically genocidal of steampunk-era colonies. Stross goes into more detail at the end of his post.

Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans’ Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn’t bring release from bondage. (Hey, this is steampunk — it needs zombies and zeppelins, right? Might as well pick Zombies for our single one impossible ingredient.) It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King’s shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers’ fortunes. In other words, it’s the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home.

The 21st century has its problems, but it`s fundamentally better. I`m not saying that the mindless optimism satirized by Voltaire in his Candide is a better response, but I’m convinced that optimism and an appreciation for the extent to which human societies have progressed is far better than “remembering” falsities.

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2 Responses to On why nostalgia for the past sucks

  1. jnutley says:

    I take off my shelf a book of history: “Bury the Chains” by Adam Hochschild.


    I also own, and have read his book about the Rape of the Congo: “King Leopold’s Ghost”

    In “Bury the Chains” we follow the progression of the world from a condition where individual humans can own each other anywhere in the world (1787) and dispose of their health and life as they see fit at the time; to a condition where slavery is banned outright in England, in retreat throughout Europe, and soon to be ended on the North American continent as well (1846). That change, unique and unprecedented in world history, was brought about primarily by the exertions of British Abolitionists.

    In “King Leopold’s Ghost” we are told of an Englishman, E.D. Morel and an Irishman, Roger Casement who between 1901 and 1913 organized a successful international outcry against the Congo genocide, and managed to have the Belgian Government enact major reforms in treatment of the natives.

    When I consider these two histories, I am in no way sympathetic to Mr. Stross’s condemnation of Victorian British society (contained in the final paragraph you quote). There are evil and small minded people in every era of humanity. I do not see the utility of making their outlook and activity the byword for their era.

    I’ve always seen Steampunk as an attempt to recapture the sense of wonder the Jules Verne was so apt in producing. Mr. Stross’s rant against a bumper-crop of poorly performed books sounds reasonable. His vision of Victorian England is much to influenced by Mr. Marx, I recommend significant doses of Dickens and Austen.

  2. rfmcdpei says:

    “When I consider these two histories, I am in no way sympathetic to Mr. Stross’s condemnation of Victorian British society (contained in the final paragraph you quote). There are evil and small minded people in every era of humanity. I do not see the utility of making their outlook and activity the byword for their era.”

    True. I’d be quite willing to agree with you that 19th century Europe was much improved over 18th century Europe, but likewise 20th century Europe over the 19th. (Were the world wars really so much worse than the 1792-1815 wars, never mind their overseas aftershocks?) There’s good in the past, but it’s record isn’t as good as our time’s.

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