1.- The interviewee
James Richardson Brown is a renowned Steampunk author, jeweler, maker, 3D artist, sculptor and strongman. Creator of ‘The Sydeian Coalition’ steampunk/science fiction series, he has been featured in such places as Oxford University Museum of the History of Science, Wired, BBC, Sky News and many others. In addition, he is one of the main promoters of Steampunk and Steamgoth in the UK and worldwide.
2.- Steampunk and Steamgoth
Dear James, welcoming you to our brief interviews’ series is really exciting. Not only because you are a prominent figure of the international Steampunk scene, but for your involvement in the development of Steamgoth. We have recently published a blog post about this subject entitled ‘Steamgoth in a nutshell’ and would love to go deeper into it. So let’s begin the interview!
Q.- There is no doubt that you have had an outstanding role in the development of the British Steampunk scene since its early days. You hosted the UK’s first steampunk meet-up in 2007, you have written educational articles, and even given demonstrations of Steampunk fashion and sculpture. Would you tell us a bit about the Steampunk scene in UK?
From the 21st century perspective, Victorian era may seem a time of good manners, adventure and discovery. But if we take a closer look, this period may become less bright… or even very obscure.
5.1.- The dehumanization of society
Most employment was to be found in the newly industrialized cities, so many people abandoned their rural roots and converged on the urbanized areas to seek work. Large numbers of both skilled and unskilled people were looking for work, so wages were low, barely above subsistence level.
London was not an exception, but the epitome of this situation. As depicted by Charles Dickens, families had to put children to work at an early age, or even turn them out onto the streets to fend for themselves; there were also numerous homeless, destitute children living on the streets of this city. Great wealth and extreme poverty lived side by side because the tenements, slums and rookeries were only stones thrown from the large elegant houses of the rich.
What to say about healthcare. Operations were horrific procedures until 19th century: most patients died from post-operative shock, infection or loss of blood. With protagonists like Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch or Florence Nightingale, this century gave birth to modern medicine, featuring anaesthesia and the development of both antiseptic and aseptic operating theatres among the most powerful new techniques. These advances supposed outstanding changes… for those who could afford them. There is no need to say that ordinary people were not so fortunate.
‘In London, in 1830, the average life span for middle to upper-class males was 44 years, 25 for tradesman and 22 for laborers. Fifty-seven of every 100 children in working class families were dead by five years of age’.
Source: A Victorian Obsession With Death
La fée verte (the green fairy) inspired artists such as Ernest Hemingway, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Amedeo Modigliani, Vincent van Gogh, Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley and Alfred Jarry. Drugs became both a blessing and a curse.
Victorian society was open to the occult and secret societies flourished. The Steampunk universe has not remained in the sidelines of this influence and it can be tracked in emblematic works such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comic book series written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Kevin O’Neill, publication of which began in 1999) or the movie ‘Sherlock Holmes’ (2009) with the appearance of the fictional Temple of the Four Orders, featuring the layered symbolism of imagery such as sphinxes, alchemical symbols, pentagrams, crosses…
4.1.- Occult Science
19th century was a period of renewed interest in magic, considering it the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural entities or the forces of nature. European colonialism put Westerners in contact with India and Egypt, re-introducing exotic beliefs and renewing interest in exotic spiritualities (Hindu and Egyptian mythology frequently feature in 19th century magical texts).
19th century is usually recalled as a time of science and technology. Referring to my article ‘Spanish Steampunk 2012 AD’:
’19th century gave birth to the professional scientist (the word scientist was first used in 1833 by William Whewell) and it was an era of invention and discovery, with radical developments in the fields of biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics, among others. We cannot obviate three intellectual factors that destabilized the European society: Darwinism (the biological description of human nature), the Freudian theory (that pinned human action on primordial drives) and Einstein’s theory of the physical world (that challenged the Newtonian world order)’.
Scientists and inventors like Charles Darwin or Samuel Morse changed the world forever, it is undeniable. Scientists like Nikola Tesla, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace’s are among the most acknowledged by the Steampunk community. Yet in a century seemingly built on reason arose a profound interest in the supernatural. An in-depth analysis is beyond the purpose of this blog post, but let’s have a look to some concrete fields.
3.1.- Magnétisme Animal: Mesmerism
Franz Anton Mesmer (May 23, 1734 – March 5, 1815) was a German physician with an interest in Astronomy, who theorised that there was a natural energetic transference that occurred between all animated and inanimate objects that he called magnétisme animal (animal magnetism) and other spiritual forces often grouped together as Mesmerism.