Is Steampunk Elitist? A guest Post by Mat McCall

Facebook is a strange place, mostly people post unimportant stuff, like what they are about to eat, where they are about to eat it, who they are eating it with, their daughter getting her Master’s in Education, and of course cats…

Once in a while however someone writes something on Facebook worth reading, other than my daughter getting her master’s degree. As my friend, fellow author and careful groomer of a fine muttonchop beard, Mat McCall had such a moment of profundity recently, I badgered him to let me reprint it as a guest post, because on occasion when people have something to say it is something worth listening to. This is such an occasion. So, I’ll shut up and let Mat take over for a while…

Is Steampunk elitist?

In my time involved in the Steampunk community, I have been asked one question several times. Sometimes in the form of observations and sometimes as straight-out questions. Basically, the question goes something like this; “Why do Steampunks always dress up as wealthy Neo-Victorians? What about the workers and the poor, why don’t Steamers dress up like them?” This question then is often followed up by something like; “Isn’t that just snobby?”

The assumption seems to be that Steampunks only view their fictional past, and their hobby, through the elitest eyes of the pseudo-upper middle class, and thus are not celebrating the fact that all the great strides in cultural achievement are wrought by the hands of the working class.

In fact, Isambard Kingdom Brunel never built a single bridge, he designed them, he engineered them, but he never built one. The workers did, poorly paid, ill-treated, undervalued and unrecognised, it was their blood, sweat and tears that built Brunel’s dreams. Why then don’t Steampunks celebrate them?

Or is it just about putting on your best frock coat and corset and getting your picture taken?

It seems a good question, and I can only really answer it for myself.

Firstly, there are actually a lot of Steampunks who explore the engineers, workers, and even chimney sweep roles of their Noe-Victorian imaginings. A lot explore the darker side of their worlds taking up personas of criminals and rogues. And of course, soldiers. None of these are affluent roles.

For me though, and I do not think I’m alone in this, it is both a matter of choice and inspiration. My inspiration comes from the novels of Verne, Wells, and others. Their characters were not the landed or industrial rich, but reporters, scientists, academics, and adventurers. In that, they were better off than the poor working class, but still often outsiders and oddballs. From Verne’s Professor Otto Lidenbrock to Wells’ Mr Cavor to Fleming’s Commander Caractacus Pott.

I admit, though I’m no inventor, but I identify strongly with them as outsiders, though I do not attempt to Cosplay them. Nor any of my own literary characters for that matter.

But the true reason I personally do not portray character personas of the poor working class of a pseudo-Victorian age is that Steampunk is escapism for me. Escapism from the real world.

In my real-world life, I have experienced poverty, both that of being virtually destitute to living the hand-to-mouth life of the working poor.

I was homeless at 7 years old; my mother went without meals on a regular basis to feed us. She wore the same coat and broken glasses for most of my childhood so we could eat and have shoes on our feet. I’ve worked in the factories, I’ve shovelled shite, and washed it off clothes, beds, and floors. I’ve cleaned the toilets.

I do not wish to ‘cosplay’ something that I have lived through. I don’t want to pretend to walk around in dirty, shabby clothes, broken shoes, and torn coats, because I once, in fact throughout my childhood and adolescence, had to. It was my reality.

And, I think, from what I know of so many of my friends within the Steampunk community, my experiences, as an outsider and knowing poverty, means that we probably do indeed shy away from those roles and characters. Not because we denigrate them, or devalue them, but because they would be too close to the brutal realities of our lives.

For most Steamers, Steampunk is pure escapism with a nod to a history that never happened and a genteel idealism beyond any reality.

And Thank you Mat.

Mat is far too humble a man to say this, but he is a fine writer of books, the third of his Steampunk Mars trilogy is eagerly awaited, as is the sequel to Annis the first book in his heroic fantasy series.

I have previously reviewed all three of Mats novels (links below) if you have not read them then you so do yourself a favour and read my reviews, then go and read his books, as they are frankly wonderful. He also has a short story appearing in the tenth Harvey Duckman Anthology, which pleases me greatly.

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