Having just come off the Victoria Day long weekend (the time officially to pay tribute to the legendary monarch of the 19th and early 20th centuries, though observed by most as the frequently rain-soaked start of camping season), I thought it would be appropriate to dedicate this posting in her honour by taking a look at speculative fiction of that era and its retro successors of today.
Queen Victoria (born May 24, 1819, died January 22, 1901) ruled from June 20, 1837 until her death. Hers was an era of great scientific advance and cultural upheaval that saw the flowering of benchmark works of speculative fiction from both within and outside the vast British Empire.
The SF of the Victorian age did a remarkable job of capturing the spirit of the times, a sense of awe and fear… Of what could be learned and the power attained, the immensity of what still was not known, and an awareness of a future full of consequences. These authors showed us how an entire culture seemed to feel like an explorer at sea, learning new currents, reefs and islands, becoming comfortable with what was newly attained and yet still gazing at the uncharted horizon with a mixture of eagerness for the riches beyond and the dread of dragons off the map. In going beyond the now and the past to gaze at the wider social implications for the future, while grounding their works in the concrete perspectives of individuals who readers could empathize with, SF authors of the era transcended their peers who only focused on the social ills or class naval-gazing of the day.
My top 5 favourite works of this era from within the British Empire are:
”The War of the Worlds” by HG Wells
”The Time Machine” also by Wells
“Idylls of the King” by Alfred Lord Tennyson
“The Lady of Shalott” also by Tennyson
”Dracula” by Bram Stoker
“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson
And there were a legion of other seminal works from outside the Empire, including my favourites:
“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” by Jules Verne
“A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” by Mark Twain
“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum
The zeitgeist of our modern Western culture is far different than that of Victorian times. We are more jaded, having split the atom, made powered flight commonplace and traveled to the moon, while still remaining trapped on this one world embroiled in strife and intolerance. But the memory of that freshness, of that time of boundless possibilities is still with us and conjures a wish to have it counterbalance our world-weariness, or at least offer the brief respite of nostalgia. Which is why the themes, settings, and general feelings of 19th century literature are still in use today (without the antiquated, overwrought language). Or, at times, authors will venture into the realm of alternate history, arming themselves with coal-fired steam engines and iron-clads with brass fixtures to pit Victorian-era adventurers against modern SF challenges in what we call Steampunk.
In print, we see great works like:
“The Terror” by Dan Simmons
“The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (graphic novel) by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill
“The Prestige” by Christopher Priest
(and even a nod to the past from Minister Faust in “Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad” in the form of Digaestus Caesar, one of the gang of villains who’s SF orientation is “Victorian scientific adventure fantasy”)
And this is just a list of personal cream-of-the-crop favourites, never mind the legion of other solid retro-Victorian tales out there.
There are a legion of film and TV references as well, based on works from the Victorian era or moderns stories set within it:
Film versions of the afore-mentioned ‘Oz, ‘Leagues, WOTW, Time Traveller, Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde, Connecticut Yankee, Prestige and LOEG,
“Steamboy” – perhaps the ultimate steampunk indulgence delivered in high-energy anime style.
“From Hell” – the Hughes brothers’ film based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel (which I classify as a genre work because the detective’s prophetic visions are an element of the fantastic).
The recent episode of “Dr. Who” where the Doctor must save Queen Victoria from a werewolf stalking a castle’s gloomy halls.
And, in a nod to my childhood, the cartoon series “The Secret Railroad”, about an old steam locomotive that takes a boy on journeys through time and space.
And steampunk has even made its way into the world of art: check out Erik’s Art, a very cool site where we’re presented with images of what “Star Wars” would have looked like if imagined by Victorians. Here are links to re-imagined renderings of:
Obi Wan Kenobi
The Death Star
Jabba the Hutt
Han & Chewie
So grab your top hat, hop in your airship, and raise a glass of your favourite refreshment in a toast to Queen Victoria and all the great literature (and its legacy) that her era left us.