Welcome back! Today, I'm continuing my series about writing steampunk fiction. You're getting a small history lesson about the industrial revolution, but I promise it will make sense because steampunk usually has a big emphasis on industrialization. If you're going to write steampunk fiction, it's important to know this part of 19th century history. Fear not because I'll try to make this post very interesting. Did you ever wonder why steampunk has such a big fixation on gears? That part will make sense when you're done reading this post.
Steampunk landscapes usually have a very specific look. They're often industrial fantasies or industrial wastelands. One version is a neat and tidy utopian environment. The other version is a dark and gritty dystopia. Steampunk settings typically have a major emphasis on industrialization because it was a very important part of the Victorian period. Don't forget that Victorianism is one of the stylistic elements in steampunk fiction. Therefore, it makes sense to include other parts of the time period as well.
On a historical level, the industrial revolution was a highly progressive movement in manufacturing. It created mass production that was never done before. The industrial revolution also catapulted steam as the dominant source of power in Western Europe. Factories became a mainstream part of Victorian manufacturing and employment. These factories created huge quantities of textiles. For example, some types of clothing could be mass produced. Various goods were available in much bigger quantities, causing an increase in capitalism and consumerism. This is the primary reason why department stores were created. Clothes, furniture, bedding, shoes, and other household items were mass produced and sent to stores for sale. The industrial revolution also impacted authors and literacy in general. Paper mills and printing presses boosted the production of books in large quantities. Book stores became quite popular in Victorian England and the increase of paper goods also helped education as well.
Industrialization paved the way for other inventions, including the steam powered locomotive and steamboats. Both of these inventions revolutionized transportation. This was particularly important regarding trade and immigration. England created a lot of goods and transported it to other parts of the world, such as India and the far East. The Victorians also imported many goods from foreign countries back to the homeland. It was a highly profitable time period. What if someone wanted leave England and search for opportunities elsewhere? It wasn't very difficult back in those days. A person could hop on a steamboat and move to America or take a train ride to France for example. This dramatic change in transportation also gave immigrants the opportunity to work in Victorian England. After all, factories and other forms of mass production needed workers. It took a lot of employees to create those products. The 19th century also included other forms of production or employment, such as coal mining, gas lighting, cement mixing, glass making, and several agricultural jobs.
The industrial revolution was both a blessing and curse at the same time. It sparked an increase in employment and urbanization. Bigger productivity meant an increase in money. That meant workers could afford more food, better housing, and access to healthcare. Hence, workers and their families lived much longer. But industrialization had several negative elements too. Many working-class employees operated in horrible environments. It was not uncommon for workers to develop long term health complications from their time in factories and coal mines. Steam power is very dirty and many workers developed respiratory issues. The Victorians didn't have modern working standards. There was no such thing as minimum wage, life insurance, workers comp, vacation time, and everything we have in the modern era. Employers didn't have to provide safe working conditions either. Some workers suffered grievous injuries or even died on the job.
There were some additional problems during the industrial revolution. Urbanization became an issue for housing. There were almost too many people living in England at the time. Housing was quite crammed for working-class families. Sometimes there was more than one family living in a small house and many urban areas were downright unsanitary. There was also a huge spike in child labor. Do you think employees were responsible just because they made bigger wages? That wasn't always the case. It wasn't unusual for workers to spend their wages on alcohol, opium, and prostitutes instead of their families. It's sad, but true in some cases. Mass production also caused a sharp decline for independent craftsmen. There was no longer a need for individuals who made shoes, furniture, and other items that wound up in factories. The 19th century was basically the demise of traditional caste systems and career paths that were passed down from one generation to the next. People had more options that paid better and opened the doorway for promotions. This caused terrible animosity from craftsmen who lost their consumers. Some of these craftsmen formed violent uprisings against rival businesses. Many of these unemployed craftsmen became Luddites who destroyed industrial equipment. It was essentially a form of domestic terrorism.
Much of this material can be used in steampunk fiction. Industrial themes serve more than one purpose in steampunk stories. It’s part of the world building and often a source of conflict. On one level, industrialization is progressive and quite beautiful in a fantasy setting. However, it also brings up serious conflicts about working conditions, capitalism, and competition. It’s not unusual for a Luddite group or something similar to cause grief in steampunk fiction. Sometimes the employer is the main antagonist. Manufacturing could be controlled by a greedy tycoon who’s more worried about profit than the safety or mental well being of the workers.
It’s important to include enough fantasy and sci-fi elements too. Anything can be mass produced in steampunk fiction, including airships, futuristic weapons, submarines, and even cybernetic body parts. Basically, the author is creating fiction that has some influences from Victorian history. Manufactured goods can also be more elaborate in steampunk tales. For example, trains and steamboats can be more powerful and futuristic. There's a reason why people think about gears when they hear about steampunk. An industrial fantasy is going to have rotating gears in every nook and cranny. It's just part of the environment, culture, and overall aesthetic. Steampunk works really well when it’s over the top. In a way, steampunk is a bit odd because it’s both fantasy driven and realistic at the same time. Perhaps, this is true regarding other literary genres as well.
Congratulations! You survived another long winded post. I’m going to leave a few links, in case you wanted to learn more about the industrial revolution. Leave comments if you feel inclined. Next week's post is probably going to be a review for the new Jurassic World film. I've been looking forward to it for quite a while. Thanks for joining me and I’ll see you guys next week.
-The Industrial Revolution on Wikipedia
-Industrial Revolution from the Yale-New Haven Teacher's Institute
-Short Britannica Article
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