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Points To Consider When Writing Your Neo-Victorian Future Society (Part 1/2)

by ◊ 2 years ago 5 Comments Switch View

When it comes to science fiction, I tend to like books that have slightly unusual settings. I don’t mean that I’m completely averse to futuristic cyberpunk megacities where gigantic corporations have turned life into a conformist nightmare, just that I’d be reading a book like that in spite of the setting rather than because of it. I love it when authors try to do something a bit different than ‘Present day but with all the dials at 11′.

That’s why I was initially intrigued by this review of Lia Habel’s Dearly, Departed. While the plot doesn’t really seem like my kind of thing, the setting is at least intriguing. Futuristic Neo-Victorian America? Yes, please!

Although my inner pedant is forcing me to object to that comma. I don't care if it's technically correct - it SOUNDS weird.

There are two main reasons why this kind of thing makes me break out the Kindle. Firstly, and most obviously, I have a background in history. Studying the past gives you a much greater ability to create a realistic sense of the future, so it’s always a treat when I come across an author who has decided to base their speculative society on something from our own history. Secondly (and I wish I could flash a big ‘SELF-INDULGENCE’ alert here), my own work in progress takes place on a colonised planet with a society that bears more resemblance to the early 1900′s than it does to the modern day.

You can probably imagine how much time I’ve spent trying to make sure that my ‘Neo-Victorian’ society makes sense. (Although I guess it’s closer to Neo-Antebellum America in some ways; as you’ll see in a minute, you don’t have to limit yourself to strict periodisation.) You can’t just throw in a few retro touches alongside standard-issue spaceships and holograms and expect the whole thing to gel together. Readers will notice, which is what happened in that Book Smugglers review. But fear not! There are a few simple points to keep in mind when writing this kind of story, which I will now proceed to describe in mind-numbing detail.

Yes, I’m turning ‘a few simple points’ into a big two-part blog post, because that’s just the kind of generosity you’ve come to expect from us at the Intergalactic Academy! Part one is below, and can be perused at your leisure. Part two will be up on Wednesday.

1. What exactly do you mean by ‘Victorian’?

Wikipedia defines the ‘Victorian era’ as ‘the period of Queen Victoria’s reign from 20 June 1837 to her death on 22 January 1901′.

You can just toss that out the window right now.

See, in the popular Western consciousness, history goes something like the following:

Prehistory (Cavemen) —> Like, really old (Ancient Rome/Biblical times) —> Medieval (Knights and castles) —> Something something (No more knights, but we’re not at guns yet) —> ‘Victorian’ era (can last anything up to 200 years) —> World Wars (They were close together, right?) —> ‘The fifties’ (super conservative; need not have anything to do with the actual 1950′s) —> Modern day (you’re in it)

This is wrong, obviously. But that doesn’t matter, because most of your readers are going to know jack squat about history beyond what they learned in school. When people talk about something being ‘Victorian’ – or in this case, ‘Neo-Victorian’ – they’re talking about it having a certain flavour. Capturing that flavour, even if it isn’t historically accurate, is often a lot more important than getting things factually correct. Just ask Shakespeare; his plays set in Ancient Rome are very fast and loose with history, often incorporating anachronistic Elizabethan terminology or ideas that make no sense in context. But they had the appropriate Roman flavour, which is what mattered.

You can afford to be even less specific if you’re writing a future society which is merely like the Victorian Era. In fact, sticking too rigidly to history would probably be a bad idea, since no society perfectly recapitulates anything from its own past. Think long and hard about whether your fictional society really needs to draw from just one specific time period. Do you really want to write a futuristic ‘theme park’ version of a specific century, or do you want to create something which first and foremost makes sense in its own right. You can achieve a sense of the past having re-emerged without being slavishly devoted to a certain era, after all.

Having said all that, there are a few practical concerns you should keep in mind that pertain specifically to a Victorian-ish setting…

2) From whence the class structure?

This is the big one. We have an abiding fascination with the heavily-stratified society of the Victorian era, which is why Downton Abbey is so popular. The whole upstairs/downstairs shtick just doesn’t resonate quite as well in any other historial period. (And yes, I realise that Downton Abbey isn’t technically set in the ‘Victorian’ era – remember what I said about flavour?)

How long do you think it will be before a publisher describes one of their upcoming releases as 'Downton Abbey IN SPACE'?

I really shouldn’t have to say this, but you can’t just import the Victorian class system wholesale into your future society. It didn’t just spring into existence fully-formed; its specific characteristics evolved over a very long period of time. Unless your hypothetical future society went through the exact same evolutionary steps as Victorian-era Britian (and it didn’t), they will not be identical.

That means you don’t get the Peerage, the House of Lords, the Noble titles, or anything that reads like a renamed version of any of those. Seriously, come up with something original.

You can have landed gentry, but you need to work out why they’re landed and why they’re gentry. These are two separate issues, so I’ll tackle them independently:

2a) How much land, and who owns it?

The ‘landed gentry’, as the name implies, were a class of people who owned large estates and could live exclusively off of the income generated by those estates. How did they do that? They sure as shit didn’t get their hands dirty tilling the land, in case that wasn’t obvious. No, they rented out their land to tenants, who would then farm the land and pay rent on it. This could become a point of controversy if the rents got raised and someone got kicked off the land that their family had lived on for several generations. (Note: Class conflict is the best kind of conflict. Use it!)

Again, I shouldn’t have to point this out, but you cannot have landed gentry if your story takes place on a space station. You also probably can’t have it if your future society possesses widespread mechanisation; cramming tons of people on to relatively small plots of land makes no sense if you’ve got combine harvesters, after all.

Another point to consider is how your landed gentry came to be landed. Was it parcelled out to them by the government a hundred years ago, to be passed down from one generation the next ever after? Was their a ‘land rush’ in the early days of a new planet’s colonisation that led to extremely well-entrenched families owning gigantic swathes of valuable farmland? (Full disclosure: this is what I’m going with in my own WIP.) This matters, because it’s going to have a profound impact on your society’s concept of social mobility. If wealth/power are equal to land, and land can be bought at a high enough price, then anyone can (technically) become wealthy and powerful if they buy enough land. If it’s restricted to people of a certain class, however, then it will be impossible for someone to climb the social ladder even if they have the means to do so.

2b) How many titles, and where do they come from?

If you want to have Dukes and Duchesses and the like, you need to work out how much weight those titles carry. If your society is ‘new’ (as in it exists on a newly-colonised planet/after an apocalypse) then titles probably won’t mean much; they might have been granted to favourites of the new government, or they might have been auctioned off to the highest bidders. If your society has a much longer history, though, then have a noble title might be a highly-coveted honour.

Does your main character strive to join the ranks of the nobility? Is such a thing even possible? You need to know this stuff! Even if it never comes up in the plot directly, you’ll benefit from having details like that in the back of your mind while writing.

That’s all for today! Come back on Wednsday, when I’ll have part two of this little series. As always, leave your thoughts/additions/disagreements in the comments!

About the Author

Sean http://www.seanwills.com

I came to science fiction relatively late, being a bigger fan of fantasy during my teenage years. Now I enjoy speculative fiction of all kinds, particularly anything with a literary bent. I studied English at NUI Maynooth in Ireland, and now write science fiction for teenagers. Follow my exploits at www.seanwills.com. View all posts by Sean »

Discussion - 5 Comments:

  1. From one history nerd to another: preach it, brother!

    I have to admit, the “Something something” era is my own favourite. Are there futuristic societies with flavours from all the various eras mentioned? Because it occurs to me that Dune is a bit Renaissance-y, or maybe more feudal (don’t hit me if it’s not; it’s been a long time). Does anybody dip into the Classical era? Are there any particularly interesting futuristic societies with a strong historical flavour that you’d recommend?

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    • I think Dune has aspects of both the Renaissance and Feudalism, depending on which part of the story you’re talking about! Although I only ever read the first book and its been a long time, so I’m not the best one to talk about it.

      (Of course, that won’t stop me from using it as an example in the second part of the post :P)

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    • Sheri S Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country played a wee bit with Classical influences – not so extensively that I’d call it a strong historical flavour, but interestingly done.

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  2. “” Medieval (Knights and castles) —> Something something (No more knights, but we’re not at guns yet) —> ‘Victorian’ era (can last anything up to 200 years)””

    “Something something”. Sigh. Most of my high fantasy would fall into the “something something” (they would actually more properly be considered equivalents to a world where the Roman Empire didn’t fall, no dark ages, just continuing improvement of tech – except with the considerable variations that working magic would bring). My social structures are definitely not feudal and there is a far great mobility of individuals (I write non-modern tech, relatively egalitarian worlds). And yet people, when trying to describe them, often fall back on the term “pseudo medieval”. Even my bi-normative world has been described as pseudo-medieval! That “something something” gap just doesn’t seem to exist for many people.

    I started putting more guns in my high fantasy as a way to signal that this is not a “knights and castles” era.

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    • Yes, we definitely need more guns in fantasy! They’re not nearly as recent an invention as most people think, so it’s not any sort of stretch to fit them into most high fantasy settings.

      I also have a soft spot for ‘What if the Roman Empire never fell…?’ stories, although of course the whole thing with the Roman Empire ‘falling’ is also a good deal more ambiguous than most people think. Still, it’s a fun idea!

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