Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Paper 2, Projecting Victorians into the Future Through the Works of H.G. Wells and Steampunk, Jan 8, 2007

This is the seventh post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This is the second major essay that I wrote for Professor Andy Sawyer’s Genre Definitions module in the MA in Science Fiction Studies program at the University of Liverpool. I condensed this essay into a briefer presentation that I gave first at the Faculty and Postgraduate School of English Seminar and then in Cambridge at Anglia Ruskin University’s SF and the Canon Conference [more details here].

In this essay, I work with texts that span the genre’s history from its proto-stage with H.G. Wells to its contemporary postmodern phase with Neal Stephenson. I explore the origins and meaning behind steampunk.

I spoke recently with Hal Hall about my Recovered Writing project. He had a similar idea to collect the papers at the major conferences. I might turn his idea to my own work and include my past presentations as a part of my Recovered Writing project.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Andy Sawyer

Genre Definitions Module

8 January 2007

Projecting Victorians into the Future Through the Works of H.G. Wells and Steampunk

Contemporary steampunk science fiction (SF) is best described as “the modern subgenre whose sf events take place against a 19th-century background” (Nicholls 1161).  These stories recall the early influential works of H.G. Wells.  In his future stories, Wells projects the people, customs, and culture of his own time, the late nineteenth-century Victorian era, onto the future.  Wells’ “A Story of the Days to Come” is a powerfully illustrative story of that type.  Using this as a model, I argue that this is representative of one of two types of steampunk narrative.  The first, like Wells, projects Victorians forward into the future.  I call this type, “Wellsian steampunk,” and a significant example of this would be Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.  The second type does the opposite and places present and/or future science and technology into the Victorian past.  I call this “hard steampunk,” because these stories best fit the accepted definition for the subgenre.  Ted Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters” is a prime example, and it presents a solid contrast between these two types of steampunk stories.

            Wells’ “A Story of the Days to Come” serves as a model for the Wellsian variety of steampunk as well as the basis for steampunk and SF in general.  Also, this story and Wells’ other science fictional works are important to English literature.  This is one work in which he demonstrates, “the ability he shared with Dickens of taking subliterary forms and transforming them into intelligent literature” (Bleiler viii).  Additionally, he combines, “credible characterizations and a good story vehicle with the exposition necessary to a utopia…for the first time in English literature” (Bleiler viii).  His story is about people working their way through a utopian future (arguably dystopian), but along side that narrative, “he seems to have been the first to recognize that a society different from our own will have different social dynamics, and that the plot must grow out of the stresses peculiar to each imaginary society” (Bleiler viii-ix).  Therefore, Wells recognized the importance of sociology to developing a SF story set in a utopic or dystopic future.  However, Wells also realized that the estranging qualities of his story needed to be connected to his present, which generates, “His basic situation…that of a destructive newness encroaching up on the tranquility of the Victorian environment” (Suvin 208).  Thus, he projected the Victorians along a trajectory into his imagined future, which resulted in the estranging character of the Victorians in a future surrounded, and in some ways consumed, by new, far-future science and technology.

First published in 1899, Wells’ “A Story of the Days to Come” is set in a technologized London in the early twenty-second-century.  The narrative concerns the fall of a young couple from the heights of the middle class into the dregs of the blue clad workforce and their miraculous re-ascent to the class of their birth by the self-motivated sacrifice of one of the woman’s earlier suitors.  Important themes within the story that identify this as a projection of Victorians into an imagined future include the Victorian obsessed young couple, class division, and the emerging technocrat.

The young couple (Elizabeth and Denton) is obsessed with Victorian artifacts and ideals.  One example of their obsession is the fact they resist their society’s conventions of using the latest audial and visual technology and choose to “read and write…and instead of communicating by telephone, like sensible people, they write and deliver…poems” (Wells 198).  Later, when they leave the city, “she wore a new dress of white cut in an old-fashioned pattern,” which is a contrast to the “pleasant pink and amber garments of air-tight material” that her father wears (Wells 194 and 212).  When they enjoy their independence as a middle class couple, they, “joyfully [buy] early Victorian treasures, veneered furniture, gold-framed steel engravings and pencil drawings, wax flowers under shades, stuffed birds, and all sorts of choice old things” (Wells 224).[1]  Thus, these two future Victorians clearly desire to live two hundred years in their past.

Connected to their desire for the past is their identification as Victorians transplanted into a future they are unprepared to meet.  During a powerful scene where the two encounter their first hailstorm, they “[seize] hands, these children of the city [and run] down the hill to their home in infinite astonishment” (Wells 216).  They are “children” not only of the city, but also of time.  As identified as forward flung Victorians, they are children of an advanced “age of cities” (Wells 219).  Their world is continually made helter-skelter after they reenter “the city that had swallowed up mankind” (Wells 220).  They are unprepared to deal with the reality in which they find themselves, because they engage Victorian ideals and cling to an alien past.  Therefore, their literal fall from the heights of middle class comes about, because they do not actively engage the future, but instead look back to the past.

Elizabeth and Denton’s fall from the middle class was not as terrible as it could have been, because “the new society was divided into three main classes” (Wells 221).  Wells copies the growth of the three classes from the Industrial Revolution and their solidification during the Victorian era.  The novella’s class system included, “at the summit slumbered the property owner, enormously rich by accident rather than design,” “the dwindling middle class [including] the minor rich,” and “the enormous multitude of workers employed by the gigantic companies” (Wells 221-222).  Additionally, the division is greatest between the lower and middle classes, which the narrator reveals by saying, “[Denton’s] taste would have seemed extreme to a man of the nineteenth century.  But slowly and inevitably in the intervening years a gulf had opened between the wearers of the blue canvas [indicating lower class, Labour Company workers] and the classes above, a difference not simply of circumstances and habits of life, but of habits of thought–even of language” (Wells 236).  In this passage, Wells establishes the amount of separation between the two most widely divergent classes as well as continue to reinforce his ideas about the perils inherent in the future of class division that he establishes in The Time Machine (1895).[2]  This reinforces Suvin’s observation that, “Wells’ first and most significant SF cycle (roughly to 1904) is based on the vision of a horrible novum as the evolutionary sociobiological prospect for mankind” (208).  The “horrible novum” in this example is the distancing between classes, which generates a conflict illustrating how, “the conflicts in his SF are therefore transferred–following the Social-Darwinist model–from society to biology” (Suvin 217).  However, the author links the poor of the future to those of the Victorian era when he writes, “In the refinement of life and manners these lower classes differed little from their ancestors, the East-enders of Queen Victoria’s time” (Wells 209). Therefore, Wells imagines that time produces a widening of the gap between the lower and middle classes, but the class members maintain a connection to their respective Victorian class members.

Associated with the Victorian era, early capitalist monopolization, and the middle class is the rise of the technocrat.  With capitalism’s greater reliance on science and technology at the turn of the twentieth-century, scientists and engineers began to accrete greater political power and some believed that they were better equipped to deal with the problems facing humanity such as war and class struggle.  Wells’ most fervent technocrat in “A Story of the Days to Come” is the last doctor that Elizabeth’s former suitor, Bindon, visits at the end of the novella.  After nonchalantly informing Bindon of his impending and social Darwinian necessitated death:

We hardly know enough yet to take over the management…Science is young yet.  It’s got to keep on growing for a few generations…You won’t see the time.  But, between ourselves, you rich men and party bosses, with your natural play of the passions and patriotism and religion and so forth, have made rather a mess of things…Some day…men will live in a different way…There’ll be a lot of dying out before that can come” (Wells 257).

After hearing his doctor’s monologue, Bindon considers to himself, “That these incompetent impostors, who were unable to save the life of a really influential man like himself, should dream of some day robbing the legitimate property owners of social control, of inflicting one knew not what tyranny upon the world.  Curse science!” (Wells 258).  Despite his protestations, this illustrates a power play between ideologies.  Also, Wells was not behind any one group who might choose to use the new sciences of the Victorians as Bleiler points out when he writes, “Wells was not optimistic about the future.  He believed that power had escaped moral control, and that injustice was in a position to perpetuate itself indefinitely with the new tools created for it by the physical and psychological sciences” (vii).  Thus, Wells projects his concern over social control through scientific developments of his day into the future populated with Victorian characters that have to deal with the consequences.

Neal Stephenson extends Wells’ work through his Wellsian steampunk novel, The Diamond Age (1995).  The story is about a nanotechnologically driven near future that follows in the footsteps of Stephenson’s earlier cyberpunk work, Snow Crash (1992).  The complex narrative primarily follows a young girl, Nell, who learns about life through a specially constructed teaching device known as The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, which is designed by the artifex engineer named John Hackworth.  They live in a world pieced together where, “the processes of decentralization, fuelled by a collapse in place-based politics, win out to produce a sprawling, centreless urban landscape composed of small claves” (Kitchin and Kneale 26).[3]

Even though Stephenson follows Charles Dickens’ narrative style and use of chapter headings, he most closely follows Wells’ model of projecting Victorians into the future by creating the transnational group or tribe known as the neo-Victorians.  The neo-Victorians are a group identified by their dress, morals, etiquette, and speech to closely align themselves with English culture of the Victorian era.  Becoming a neo-Victorian does not depend on national allegiance, but it does depend on meeting certain requirements and taking an oath.  Hackworth (middle class technocrat) has a conversation with Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkle-McGraw (an upper class, landholding Equity Lord) about why Hackworth chose to be a neo-Victorian:

My life was not without periods of excessive, unreasoning, discipline, usually imposed capriciously by those responsible for laxity in the first place.  That combined with my historical studies led me, as many others, to the conclusion that there was little in the previous century worthy of emulation, and that we must look to the nineteenth century instead for stable social models.

Well done, Hackworth!  But you must know that the model to which you allude did not long survive the first Victoria.

We have outgrown much of the ignorance and resolved many of the internal contradictions that characterised [sic] that era (Stephenson 24).

Neo-Victorianism is a “behavioral discipline that [they] impose upon themselves” (Stephenson 23).  Therefore, they believe that nineteenth-century English cultural values and mores are superior to anything else that has come along in the intervening years, and therefore, they chose to “emulate” the Victorians while resolving “internal contradictions.”

However, this group is not without its issues such as the restriction of news based on social status.  Stephenson writes, “One of the insights of the Victorian Revival was that it was not necessarily a good thing for everyone to read a completely different newspaper in the morning; so the higher one rose in the society, the more similar one’s Times became to one’s peers’” (37).  This example of double talk indicates another form of social control and stratification through the access to, and flow of, information.  Thus, the neo-Victorians are not literally Wells’ Victorians transferred into the future, but they are a logical extrapolation of that culture in the future with embellishments to their conception of what it meant to be Victorian.

Stephenson approaches preparing the young for the future from a different tact than Wells.  Nell, the young, lower class girl with a copy of The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, grows up to be a knowledgeable and capable young woman who is destined to lead an army of women against the existing male-dominated power structure.  The reason that the Primer is constructed in the first place is because Finkle-McGraw wants Hackworth to design a subversive teaching aid for his granddaughter.  Hackworth realizes the true nature of the Primer when he thinks to himself, “Finkle-McGraw, the embodiment of the Victorian establishment, was a subversive.  He was unhappy because his children were not subversives and was horrified at the thought of Elizabeth [his granddaughter] being raised in the stodgy tradition of her parents.  So now he was trying to subvert his own granddaughter” (Stephenson 82).  Conservatism is at the core of Victorian thought, and one of the most highly regarded neo-Victorians, Finkle-McGraw, wants to radically alter the system from within through education with new technology (The Primer).[4]  Finkle-McGraw came to this plan after realizing that his success derived from his real-life experiences gained prior to becoming a neo-Victorian, and he wanted to endow his granddaughter with similar success derived from her teachings gained from the Primer.  However, it ends up affecting his granddaughter, Nell, as well as a quarter-of-a-million Chinese girls.  Thus, The Primer is a symbol for preparing the neo-Victorians to face a future that Wells’ Elizabeth and Denton could not face as is made clear at the end of “The Story of the Days to Come” when, “Denton’s thoughts fluttered towards the future in a vain attempt at what that scene might be in another two hundred years, and recoiling, turned towards the past” (Wells 261).  Nell has no such “recoil” from facing the future.  Thus, Stephenson presents hope for the future, however ambiguous, in opposition to Wells’ lack of faith in humanity’s future.[5]

Nell’s destiny and future success is afforded by the work of technocrats such as John Hackworth and Finkle-McGraw.[6]  The very basis of everyone’s life, nanotechnology, is the technocrat’s “gift” to humanity, because it’s a technology of equalization.  For example, after Nell and her big brother, Harv, run away from home, Harv says, “For starters, let’s get some free stuff” (Stephenson 216).  The author goes on to write, “They made their way to a public M.C. [matter compiler] on a street corner and picked out items from the free menu:  boxes of water and nutri-broth, envelopes of sushi made from nanosurimi and rice, candy bars, and…huge crinkly metallized blankets” (216).  Underlying the gift of nanotechnology is the fact that the megacorporations and black market handlers such as Dr. X control much of it.  Even in a nanotechnological future, there is still a cost associated with using specially designed items created by nanotechnology, and use of the Feed, “a bundle of molecular conveyor belts” that move molecules from the Source to matter compliers (Stephenson 8).  Additionally, the nanotech designers such Finkle-McGraw and Hackworth and kingpins such as Dr. X draw on the Feed in order to build the future molecule-by-molecule.  The technocrats may not rule the world, but in this story, they set about subverting their world’s status quo by empowering an orphan woman to lead an army of orphaned girls, but the one way of completely reinventing the world through the Seed, a nanotechnological device that would work like a plant seed except on a larger scale and for making all sorts of fantastic things, is left ambiguous at the end.  This ambiguity reflects how, “social and personal struggle persist, as does material need, despite the highly developed capacities of nanotechnology” (Berne and Schummer 466).  Thus, Stephenson provides no clear future utopia with Wells’ technocrats regardless of the power they yield in a completely technologized society unbounded by post-capitalism.

Traveling in a temporal direction opposite that of Wells’ “A Story of the Days to Come,” and Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, is Ted Chiang’s short-story, “Seventy-Two Letters.”  It’s about a Victorian past constructed in a world where golem-like engineering and homunculi are realities.  Within this alternate history, the nomenclator Robert Stratton, who automates inanimate objects by using the kabalistic seventy-two letters, is faced with the problem of the human species dying out unless there is a way to combine his science of nomenclature with the biology of human reproduction.  As Smith points out, “Chiang’s primary method is to change underlying natural laws or symbolic systems, creating worlds and situations that are fantastic to us but utterly rational to the characters that must live with them” (par. 3).  Chiang does exactly this:  he alters “underlying natural laws” within a nineteenth-century, Victorian setting, and the characters within his imagined world rationalize these changes by employing science and the scientific method.  Furthermore, Chiang states, “[the story is] based on certain out-of-date ideas about the natural world, but they’re science fictional because the characters in them follow a scientific worldview” (Smith par. 25).  Thus, the story has fantastic elements, but they are set down and followed in a scientific manner through experiment and mathematics placing the story in the realm of SF.

“Seventy-Two Letters” is described as, “one of the finest representations of the SF subgenre of steampunk” (Beatty par. 2).  Using the comparative definition of steampunk that states, “while cyberpunk works in a setting of late capitalist decay and anarchy, with computer technology as its primary trope, steampunk revisits nineteenth century capitalism, especially Britain, and its primary trope is the steam engine,” I extend this to mean what I call “hard steampunk” (Beatty par. 2).  Chiang’s “Seventy-Two Letters” and other hard steampunk stories follow this more accepted definition of steampunk.  Thus, Chiang’s story of returning to the Victorian past follows a different temporal focus than Wellsian steampunk, but it does so in order to explore issues of the present through the past instead of taking the present to the future.

Despite the differences of past and future in hard steampunk and Wellsian steampunk, Chiang’s story engages many of the same themes found in the works by Wells and Stephenson.  The obvious connection is the use of Victorian setting and characters.  This unifying element of steampunk is described by Beatty as, “this magical Victorian England is the other side of a metaphor.  It is what we are being compared to, via the golem and nomenclature, so that we can reconceptualize two things in our own time:  the economy, and science on the broadest level” (par. 21).  Thus, the otherness of the Victorians actually allows the reader to reconceptualize the here-and-now, and I agree that this is true for steampunk in general.

Beatty’s use of the “economy” evokes the conception of capitalism as presented in these works.  Free trade, wages, and ownership are connected to the class systems described in the works by Wells and Stephenson.  Chiang also employs social stratification to develop the plot of “Seventy-Two Letters.”  The middle class Stratton wants to mass produce powered looms at a cheap price through the use of dextrous automata, because, “Cheap cloth is bought at the price of worker’s health; weavers were far better off when textile production was a cottage industry” (Chiang 190).  He desires to improve the conditions of the working, lower classes.  However, Master Sculptor Willoughby resists Stratton’s plans, because he feels, “these automata of yours would put sculptors out of work,” and, “disrupt our entire system of manufacturing” (Chiang 191).  Thus, the story reveals the complexity involved in mass production and how the consequences from one change can wreak havoc upon other elements of the system.  Additionally, Willoughby, though an artisan, represents the impediments to change within a sufficiently complex industrial-capitalist system such as the one that had developed by the middle of the nineteenth-century.

“Science on the broadest level” connects to both social stratification and control through the efforts of the technocrat.  There are three powerful technocrats in “Seventy-Two Letters,” and they are Stratton, Dr. Nicholas Ashbourne–Stratton’s former college professor, and Lord Fieldhurst–“a noted zoologist and comparative anatomist, [as well as] president of the Royal Society” (Chiang 194).  Fieldhurst, building on the prior work of French scientists, confirms that the human species will be sterile in five generation unless there is scientific intervention.  He employs Ashbourne, and later, Stratton, to discover a method of using nomenclature to “animate” dormant ova within women.  However, his plan is to control future births, thus ensuring separate ruling and working classes, as well as conjuring the specter of social Darwinism.  In his position with substantial government connections, he is a powerful technocrat, but Stratton and Ashbourne secretly devise a way to ensure unrestricted future births through the use of a recursive epithet that obviates control by Fieldhurst.  Therefore, Chiang, evoking Wells, presents a dim future for the past at the hands of elitist technocrats, but salvation arrives from a compassionate technocrat, following a model more closely aligned with Stephenson.

Genre building, like Chiang’s nomenclature, depends on the proper application of names.  Through these examples, I have identified two types of steampunk based on their chronological focus of looking forward to the future or backward to the past.  It is a subtle, but important, difference between Wellsian steampunk and hard steampunk.  Additionally, grounding their differentiation in the canonical works of H.G. Wells adds greater import to the models that I have described.  Thus, based on these two delineations, further scholarly work may be conducted in the steampunk subgenre of SF by employing a descriptive naming convention such as this, thereby achieving a greater level of critical review on existing and future works.

Works Cited

Beatty, Greg.  “The Bridge Between Truth/Death and Power/Knowledge:  Ted Chiang’s ‘Seventy-Two Letters.’”  Strange Horizons.  16 April 2001.  25 December 2006 <http://www.strangehorizons.com/2001/20010416/ted_chiang.shtml&gt;.

Berne, Rosalyn W. and Joachim Schummer.  “Teaching Societal and Ethical Implications of Nanotechnology to Engineering Students Through Science Fiction.  Bulletin of Science, Technology, & Society 25.6 (2005):  459-468.

Bleiler, E.F.  “Introduction to the Dover Edition.”  Three Prophetic Science Fiction Novels of H.G. Wells.  New York:  Dover Publications, 1960.  vii-x.

Burstyn, Joan N.  Victorian Education and the Ideal of Womanhood.  London:  Barnes & Noble Books, 1980.

Chiang, Ted.  “Seventy-Two Letters.”  Stories of Your Life and Others.  New York:  Tom Doherty Associates, 2002.  179-239.

Kitchin, Rob and James Kneale.  “Science Fiction or Future Fact?  Exploring Imaginative Geographies of the New Millennium.”  Progress in Human Geography 25.1 (2001):  19-35.

MacKenzie, Norman and Jeanne.  The Life of H.G. Wells:  The Time Traveller.  London:  Hogarth Press, 1987.

Nicholls, Peter.  “Steampunk.”  The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  Eds. John Clute and Terry Nicholls.  New York:  St. Martin’s, 1995.  1161.

Smith, Jeremy.  “The Absence of God:  An Interview with Ted Chiang.”  Infinity Plus.  2003.  25 December 2006 <http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/inttchiang.htm&gt;.

Stephenson, Neal.  The Diamond Age.  London:  Penguin Books, 1996.

Suvin, Darko.  Metamorphoses of Science Fiction:  On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre.  London:  Yale University Press, 1979.

Wells, H.G.  “A Story of the Days to Come.”  Three Prophetic Science Fiction Novels of H.G. Wells.  New York:  Dover Publications, 1960.  189-262.

—.  The Time MachineThree Prophetic Science Fiction Novels of H.G. Wells.  New York:  Dover Publications, 1960.  263-335.


[1] The consumerist theme in these three works deserves its own study in a separate paper.

[2] In The Time Machine, Wells reveals a far future where the classes are divided on evolutionary grounds.  The pleasure seeking Eloi on the surface evolved from the bourgeoisie, while the underground workers, the Morlocks, evolved from the working classes.

[3] Stephenson’s sprawl is in opposition to Wells’ high walled cities.  This idea of city building can be connected to the respective author’s ideas of bounded social structures that are further described in this paper.

[4] Using technology to change female lives in a future connected to Victorianism is connected to the fact that, “Technological advances changed women’s social and economic roles in nineteenth-century England, and polarised [sic] the life experiences of working and non-working women” (Burstyn 30).  Those changes were not always necessarily empowering, but it reflects the historical and SF observation that new technologies effect social change.

[5] Finkle-McGraw’s character is partially representative of Wells, in that he wants to shake things up, just as Wells, “eagerly used alien and powerful biological species as a rod to chastize [sic] Victorian man” (Suvin 209).

[6] Nell’s anti-Wellsian, hopeful ascent from humble beginnings is another Dickensian element of Stephenson’s novel, and as in the works of Dickens, Nell’s destiny is the exception rather than the rule.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Liverpool, Recovered Writing, Science Fiction
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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