Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Politics of BATTLE FOR THE WASTELANDS, Or Putting "Punk" In Steampunk

As most of my regular readers know, I officially became a steampunk writer with my novel Battle for the Wastelands and its companion novella "Son of Grendel." Although those two books came out relatively recently, I'd been tinkering with them and pitching them for years (I completed the first Battle draft sometime in 2012) and I'd attended the Atlanta steampunk convention AnachroCon in 2014. One common concern I've heard re: steampunk over the years was that it was becoming too focused on aesthetics of parasols and dirigibles, with the "punk" angle (subversion of norms, challenges to authority, etc) neglected. In particular, the late 19th Century on which steampunk is based involved a lot of labor/class unrest that was supposed getting ignored in favor of fashion.

Between those comments I'd seen around and reading Killing For Coal in graduate school, I decided to make labor issues part of the worldbuilding in the Wastelands world. If you haven't read Killing For Coal, it's a fascinating look at the 1913-14 "Colorado Coalfield War" and its aftermath. Although it's mostly remembered for the Ludlow Massacre, in the aftermath of the massacre the striking miners proceeded to hammer the state militia (what would soon become the National Guard) for several days and workers in other trades began holding military drills and the like. That and the Battle of Blair Mountain were the closest incidents to outright socialist revolution in the United States I can think of. This is referenced in Battle when, in a meeting with his warlords, the villain Grendel talks about putting down strikes and the various commanders keeping forces at war footing--despite the vast expense--to avoid dumping hundreds of thousands of young men who know how to use weapons into the labor market. One reason the striking Colorado miners were such effective fighters is that many were veterans of wars in Europe. Although the first lord of the Northlands doesn't know about the coalfield war (I'm keeping it very vague as to whether this is our future, the future of a similar world, or something else entirely--think Stephen King's Dark Tower), he doesn't want similar incidents breaking out across his empire.

(Not only are Grendel and his cronies afraid of strikers being effectively able to resist the local police, the armies of lesser lords, or even Grendel's elite Obsidian Guard, but they're also concerned about their own soldiers following orders in the event they're sent against former comrades. The first Russian Revolution broke out when the soldiers refused to suppress food riots in St. Petersburg, after all. The film In Pursuit of Honor begins with a group of cavalrymen refusing to attack the Bonus Army outside of Washington D.C. because they'd served with those men in France, although I'm not entirely sure if that incident actually happened.)

Another plot plot in Battle is a small-scale war between two of Grendel's warlords that starts out over a labor dispute. One of Grendel's warlords is a straight-up mutant cyborg who breeds armies of mutants in the shadow of an "Old World" nuclear reactor. As part of a trade deal, he'd offered another warlord some to work in mines alongside more "normal" workers. The other workers went on strike and took to the hills with guns rather than work alongside "freaks," much like how racial violence accompanied labor disputes when black workers were brought in to replace striking white ones. The film Matawan covers one such incident, while I remember reading about a number of such instances in Making A New Deal. This ultimately escalated into a war between the two that sets Grendel looking for an outside enemy to keep everybody busy, something that will have consequences throughout the entire series.

Another "punk" element that's worked into the Wastelands world is the Jim Crow practice of convict leasing, chronicled in Slavery By Another Name. When Grendel united his homeland of Sejera through a dynastic marriage (and jackbooting those who objected), he made a very big deal about formally ending chattel slavery. But what dictator doesn't have forced labor? In addition to the usual labor camps and mines for political troublemakers and common criminals, both Grendel's overarching regime and private companies also lease convicts from lesser governments for forced labor. Convict leasing began after Reconstruction and continued all the way through World War II, a nice bit of period-appropriate dystopia. And considering how convicts under Jim Crow were viewed as more expendable than slaves (and in-universe there are references to convict laborers dying at high rates on certain projects), I imagine there'll be rebellions and the like should the opportunity arise.

Finally, part of the backstory for the defeat of the Merrill family--the last major independent power in the Northlands--was labor disputes. James Merrill, who was leader at the time, was preoccupied with mediating the concerns of business owners and workers and paid little heed to Grendel's growing military threat until it was too late. It's an underground labor movement that keeps his son Alonzo and his rebels supplied with equipment and trying to find a way to fairly deal with both capital and labor will become a problem for the son as much as the father in the second book.

The historical steampunk era was not just known for labor and class problems, but also an increasing push for women's rights. The first country to allow women to vote nationwide was New Zealand in 1893, while women won voting rights state by state throughout the 19th Century in the U.S. until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 guaranteed the right nationwide. This is touched on a bit when our oblivious hero Andrew Sutter, son of a prior mayor in his hometown, wonders why nobody asks his twin sister Sarah's opinion on anything the way they ask him and Sarah points out this should be rather obvious. 

(Although I didn't go into a lot of detail about how government in Andrew's town works, there aren't any women attending the town meeting on how to deal with the coming assault on the town by the extortionate Flesh-Eating Legion. This would strongly suggest women were either legally not allowed to participate in formal politics or it was Simply Not Done, since the town has been broadly self-governing since the Merrill dynasty fell but must provide tribute and conscripts to the Flesh-Eaters when asked. This might not be universal, since the surviving Merrill armies do field female soldiers and nobody seems to view that as particularly remarkable. To cite Eowyn's conversation with Aragorn in The Two Towers, those without swords can still die upon them.)

However, the main feminist plot point (so far) is the deconstruction of "it's good to be the king" in regards to the harem Grendel started up after the death of his wife. One of his concubines is Catalina Merrill, daughter of James and sister of Alonzo, who really, really doesn't like it. She exhibits some fairly overt symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from Grendel's attentions. Meanwhile, there's constant catfighting between the women and rival sons of different mothers plotting against each other, something that polygamous societies like the Ottoman Empire or ancient Israel were known for. This will only get worse later in the series. Although none of Grendel's women could be credibly described as 19th Century feminists, this does show how incredibly destructive this situation is. King Conan and his "luscious concubines" this is NOT.

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