While I was researching and writing this entry, NPR (National Public Radio) aired a story about a father who wrote a short book about heroes for his son. “The one thing you need, in my mind, to be a hero is you have to help someone,” Brad Meltzer says. Meltzer goes on to say that one result of his research was learning that there are heroes all around us.
Heroes can be role models, and steampunk, in all its facets, can offer the world a wealth of role models. In those role models, we find people whose behavior and character can and should be emulated. Those people we hold up as examples we aspire to be like. Strength of character. Clear sense of right and wrong. Working to help others.
Role models are all around us, if we choose to look and see them. We can learn something of value from every person we meet. Sometimes, we can find all of the greatest characteristics in a single person: Honesty, compassion, knowledge, culture, and more. They can seem like a superhero to us, but one of their greatest strengths is that they are still a person, that they are fallible, just like the rest of us.
More often, we find an admirable trait, or a defining moment, in someone, something that we want to include in our own lives in some meaningful way. Maybe it’s being more considerate of others, or more helpful, or more outgoing. It could be speaking out against injustice, or crafting a solution to a problem, or leading others to a common goal. There might be something we want to accomplish like learning a skill, or teaching others, or building something new.
In steampunk narratives, we can learn lessons from and find admirable qualities in the fictional characters.
Captain Nemo – While the revenge-driven, anti-hero phase of Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea might be the first image which comes to mind, it would be the redemption-minded, altruistic version in Mysterious Island which makes for a better role model. As Mike Perschon cites in his analysis, Finding Nemo: Verne’s Antihero as Original Steampunk , Nemo recasts himself as “…an ecumenical and egalitarian humanist …” with “…an ethic of compassion and egalitarianism.” Nemo is a brilliant scientist with deep convictions about how life should be, and his journey of rebellion, revenge and redemption shows us how he sought to address the wrongs he saw in society and within himself.
Mina Murray – In Brahm Stoker’s Dracula , Mina is romanticized and idealized, characterized both as stereotypical Victorian woman , the perfect wife, upright and proper, and as a more modern woman, selfless, intelligent, and daring, when she works to help track down Dracula at great risk to herself. In Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen , Mina is recruited by British Intelligence to gather and lead a group in protecting the Empire from more unusual challenges, and while often still the epitome of Victorian propriety, she is also clearly a courageous leader with keen intellectual skills.
Agatha Heterodyne – Confident, daring, and with amazing optimism, the heroine of the Girl Genius web comic moves from one adventure to another, adapting to her current situation, making the most of the opportunities presented and making new friends in her travels. Everyone could benefit from a stronger positive mental attitude, and in taking charge of their lives by creating solutions instead of being blocked by perceived obstacles.
Victorian history is replete with role models of all types. It was an age of invention, industrialization, exploration, and war. In every area, there are people whose actions and attitudes are worth remembering and emulating.
Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was the husband of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Although his position as consort included neither public authority nor responsibility, Albert took on several public causes, including educational reform, the abolition of slavery in other countries, and the organization of the Great Exhibition of 1851. He led other reforms in royal political conduct, finances, welfare, and applying science and art to the manufacturing industry.
As President of the Society for the Improvement of the Condition of the Labouring Classes, he expressed a prime Victorian moral of helping everyone to better themselves – [It is the] “duty of those who, under the blessings of Divine Providence, enjoy station, wealth, and education” to help others not as fortunate. “The Condition of the Labouring Classes”. The Times, 19 May 1848
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, (1) was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke and is often regarded as the world’s first computer programmer following her notes about Charles Babbage‘s mechanical computer, the analytical engine , and the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine, calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. Ada Lovelace shows us that education, social and professional friendships, and a bit of forthright imagination can put us in an unexpected yet (ultimately) respected position of taking advantage of unforeseen possibilities.
Florence Nightingale – “The Lady with the Lamp” creatively and subtly shirked her family’s and society’s Victorian expectations of her as a “Lady” through secretive education and wound up creating modern nursing under the terrible conditions of the Crimean War. Her Notes on Nursing is still used today as an introduction to nursing. Afterwards, through her connections to the Queen and government officials, she exercised influential opinions on public health and the war office.
At every turn in our steampunk community, there are role models for each of us even in the most unlikely of places and people.
Looking past the usually cited founding triumvirate, there are authors of our narratives showing us how we can use our innate imagination and vision to create whole new worlds and how great people and society can be.
At every convention, dance, and local meet-up, there are people expressing their creativity in what they wear and the image they project. It’s not just about the visuals, however, it’s also about how it makes us *feel*.
Beyond the most famous names, there are those people who bring the aesthetic of steampunk to technology, whimsy, and the wide variety of visual arts. Here we see the physical results of experimentation as well as just making an effort.
And there are the voices of our community, talking about all of the various aspects and facets, the ideology and opinions, the rants and the raves. Bloggers and magazines for us to read and discuss topics of interest. In no particular order, here are just a few of many which I follow:
We only need to look around us to see worthy role models, and sometimes, we need look no further than in the mirror. As you go forth today in all of your best steampunk ways, remember that you might be a role model for someone else, too.
Kevin Steil is the creator of the steampunk news and information resource website, Airship Ambassador, the annual month-long global blogathon, Steampunk Hands Around the World, and is the curator of the online Steampunk Museum. He has been a guest and speaker at a number of conventions, contributed to several books, and has consulted for national media programs and events. He can also officiate your wedding!