I enjoy a lot of older fiction, fiction that has stood the test of time and still permeates the zeitgeist of modern literature as it’s influence is still felt in modern fiction. This should come as little surprise to anyone, given my ongoing love/hate relationship with Lovecraft’s works, and those occasional retro-reviews I have done over the years H.G.Wells, Verne and early Moorcock among others. It’s hard not to see the influence of all three writers on the writers of modern steampunk. Just as it is easy to draw lines of influence between the novels of Gail Carriger and Jane Austin. True Jane Austin’s finest works were somewhat devoid of werewolves, vampire, dirigibles and clockwork ladybug assassins, but it is Austins satirical view of London society, its mannerisms and the character flaws of Elizabeth Bennets family, can be seen in Alexia Tarabotti’s own family the Loontwill’s. (BTW if you have not read Gail Carriger’s novels I highly recommend them.)
There is a problem or two when reading older fiction, which is the problem of projecting modern sensibilities on to works of fiction written in a different era. Modern attitudes to race, gender, and sexuality are sometimes harsh judges of the writers of yesteryear, and sometimes these judgements are entirely valid ones. Regular readers of the Lovecraft side of this blog will know I often have a hard time with the old tentacle hugger because his political views on race and gender were not just ‘of their time’ but more often than not far to the right even for their time. I’m not saying Lovecraft was a Nazi, but he certainly shared a degree of their world view, and it leaks out in his writings more often than one would like. Tentacled star spawned horrors that eat the mind are all well and good, but the racism in the likes of ‘The Horror at Red Hook‘ I could cheerfully do without, and I like that story.
This is however far from just a Lovecraft problem. Old H P may have been a tad to the right of the 1920s, but he was not that far to the right comparative to his time. Similarly when you’re reading 19th-century novelists like Wells, Verne and Haggard you need to adjust that intrinsic world view you’re carrying around with you to account for a somewhat different view of imperialism and the colonial world than you most likely hold in these latter days. These writers are of their time, their views were the prevailing ones, or indeed surprisingly progressive for their time. Take Haggard in his first novel King Solomon’s Mines, an undeniable classic. Early on in the novel, in the first chapter, in fact, the narrator and main character Alain Quartermain tells the reader…
…he (Quartermain) refuses to use the word “nigger” and that many Africans are more worthy of the title of “gentleman” than the Europeans who settle or adventure in the country…
Which threw me in both directions when I first read it, because it suggests that the ‘N’ word was in common use (which to be fair it was) and held known negative connotations (which again it always did). While telling the reader that Quartermain’s opinions on ‘the natives’ were complex and not at all what you might expect of a white colonial in southern Africa in 1885. Indeed much of the book’s relationship with race is summed up with that one sentence. While there are plenty of 19th-century attitudes expressed in regards to the difference between white colonials and black natives, at no point when reading KSM do you actually feel actually uncomfortable on matters of race, even with the ever-present backdrop of the white masters and their native subordinates and having read other writers from the same time, that’s surprising.
Indeed having read ‘She’ which Haggard wrote some two years later it is all the more surprising as the difference between white and black characters in that novel is far more pronounced. ‘She’ presents a far more imperialist view of race and suffers a lot for it. Indeed it hard to accept the two books are by the same writer. The main characters Holly and Vincey have none of Quartermains egalitarianism. Frankly put I would happily sit around the campfire with Alain Quartermain, smoke a pipe and trade stories any time, but I would go out of my way to avoid Horace Holly, the narrator in ‘She’. Which is a shame in some regards because ‘She’ is easily the more interesting novel from a steampunk, proto-science fiction point of view. While King Soloman’s Mines more or less invented the lost world genre, ‘She’ took the concept and ran with it to create something truly unique in comparison.
Don’t get me wrong, I recommend both novels, particularly if you are looking to write in that Victorian, imperialism era and want a feel for the dark mystic of the African continent at the time. If you can put your modern preconceptions to one side and read them with an open mind to an extent ‘of their time’ they stand up to any modern novel. Surpass more than a few I have read, these are classics for a reason, books that are 130 years old are not still in print if they are not, but you have to be able to accept the past is imperfect.
I write, among other things, quite a lot of steampunk, which means one way or another I have to work around 19th-century opinions and ideas. And sure I cheat slightly with Hannibal Smyth as his world is set a hundred or so year after King Solomon’s Mines, Hannibal is steampunk in a world a little closer to our own, so it was easy to tone down the 19th-century ideologies a little. But Hannibals is a present past of equal imperfection. Hannibal is just a little more like Quartermain than he is Horace Holly. Indeed Hannibal is almost modern in his preconceptions, even if his world definitely isn’t.
I have a much tougher job with my other steampunk WIP Maybe’s Daughter which is more firmly set in the same time period as She and KSM. But then one of the main characters in Maybe’s Daughter is a woman of colour, and so matters of gender, race and imperial colonialism are hard to avoid, and I am not looking to avoid them. Nothing would have stopped me from making Eliza Maybe a lower-upper-class white woman from the chattering classes, that easily fit into 1880’s London society and drink tea with her little finger raise at a right angle, but making her Eliza TuPaKa the working-class daughter of a Polynesian engineer call Maybe because his former employer and colleagues could not get their heads around his real name, just makes for a far more interesting character to write.
The past is imperfect, but imperfections are sometimes what makes for the most interesting characters, just as reading the novels of the 19th-century means your laying your self open to reading a far from the perfect view of the world, but it doesn’t stop the stories been among the most enduring and interesting you will find. As long as you can accept those imperfections for what they are, mere the past imperfect, while the stories themselves remain astounding…