Gothic Steam Phantastic

Deus Ex Machina

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Technique's victory over religion?

I hang around a lot in the fantasy-scene, or more exactly: the fantasy world-builders scene. What strikes me there is the amount of religious and mystic aspects of these fantasy worlds. World-builders, game-designers and writers are all the same: they create pantheons, rituals, some kind of mystic awareness, spiritual feelings, there are temples in every town (and some more hidden in the jungle), priests are healers, psychiatrists, librarians, mid"wives" and gardeners at the same time and have thus a major impact on life.
This very religious part of the fantasy setting is not present in most science-fiction, let alone steampunk. By asking around, I gathered, and this is my opinion as well, that religion, or mysticism, or whatever it is called, is a natural part of human life; intelligent beings ask themselves questions like "Why do I live? What happens when I die?". So it must be rather strange that it fails to show up in stories where technique is more developed than in the average fantasy-world. The only thing present, might be some vague realisation of the Christian religion, and sometimes "the evil Islam".

But there must be more to it.
When I look at the world between 1800 and 1900, there are two very powerful religions, that thrive the culture that has embraced them into wealth and power: Christianity and islamism. Christian Europe with all its colonies was doing well, so was the vast Islamic realm of the Turks and the Persians. Christianity and Islam both have the will to "spread the word", the reason why both religions spread over the world. So why not "spread the word" beyond earth, into space, among the pagan aliens?
The more uncommon religions (to the western eye), also had their role on the surface of the Victorian world. In Indonesia, the Dutch colonials were confronted with "the silent force", Guna-Guna, a kind of magic related to the belief in spirits on the Green Islands. In the Caribbean, it was Voodoo and Winti that got entangled with normal life. In Africa, it were the witch-doctors that might have frightened or fascinated the colonial explorer.
Now, the more exotic religions might have their share in fiction, but Christianity and Islam stay much behind in my opinion.
There is just no way you can take the Orient Express and not be confronted with Catholics in Paris and Vienna, Orthodox Christianity in Eastern-Europe and Islam in Istanbul. And in a century were religion still was important, it cannot be that these foreign religions not somehow affect your own way of experiencing religion (Where can you go to church in Istanbul? Can you find a halal1 restaurant in Paris?).

The same goes for imaginary steampunk worlds. What happened to religion? If we observe the fantasy-worlds, we mostly see a mediaeval world, not unlike Europe in the Middle Ages, but without the Christian church, without Judaism, without Islam - the three religions that forged modern European history.
Usually, there is a worldwide pantheon of gods like the Celts or the Vikings had, sometimes even as large as the Greek-Roman pantheon. Each aspect of life has it's own god. The goddess of War, The God of Death, a God of Healing, a God of Love, the God of Thieves, you name it, you will find it. Other worlds, or cultures, might do with some New Age inspired "nature god" or spiritual "higher being". Monotheism as we know it is sparse in fantasy-worlds.
If these ideas are expanded to the science fiction and steampunk, there are interesting things about them: is there a god of steam? What is he, she or it like? Who does worship this god? Are there any special rituals? Have different machines got different gods? Are the machines somehow occupied by spirits, that gave them their own will? Are there spiritual evil beings that sabotage the machines, like the traditional gremlins2 ? Are there any sects that are violent like Luddites, against innovation, or more peacefully like the Amish, not willing to get involved with modern techniques? Is there a more romantic "back to nature" movement, that worships a nature-god? What about the mystic backgrounds of the free-masons, the Templers and other more or less mystic orders in our world? And are there possible superstitious rituals in trade and stock-exchange?
The possibilities are enormous. Yet I never seen them in a steampunk setting.

Oh, my god!

As for the gothic horror, the very base of traditional horror is the Christian religion. Many traditional horror-creatures have their origin in Christianity, or at least in the last centuries the creatures have been integrated in Christian lore. Frankenstein, Dracula, the werewolf, and many ghosts have in common that they violated the holy laws god gave to the world. Some died without the proper sacraments, some were sinners, some tried to be god, some were pure evil, but all have in common that they lost their faith somehow. Now many of these creatures can only be conquered by using Christian symbols: the vampires are afraid of crosses, prayers help against ghosts, holy water comes in useful, and even Frankenstein's monster gets quiet when loved (a Christian virtue).
Evil in gothic horror was in men and women themselves, when they disobeyed gods orders. Evil wasn't something alien, and has not psychic base. There was no reason to be evil, but your own will. And maybe that is what is most frightening in all those stories.
But in modern horror, evil has no longer a religious base. Why not? How can you raise a cross against a vampire, if you are not thoroughly religious yourself? If you don't believe in god, how can you have faith in the symbols that represent him? Now I don't claim that every vampire-hunter has to be a fundamentalist Christian, but some religious aspects in the life-style should be there.

Well, to conclude this, I think that getting religion into (retro-) science fiction and steampunk opens doors to new horizons. And because religion in natural among humans, it makes the settings more "real".

© Yaghish 2003

1 Halal is for Muslims what kosher is to Jews: food that is "clean" and made according the laws of the Islam.

2 Gremlins were the reason of machine failure in the second world war. Later, they were creatures that made machines, especially those "Made in Germany", malfunction.

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