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My BlogCatalog BlogRank Wikio - Top Blogs - Literature

Writing Steamy Punk – Sex and Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century by Lavie Tidhar


Writing Steamy Punk – Sex and Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century


By Lavie Tidhar,
author of The Bookman

One of the cool things that came through on Twitter this week was a link to Little Death Ray, a place selling nothing less than steampunk vibrators.

I suspect people have the idea sex toys, or sex aids, are a new thing. In fact, they’re as old as sex itself. When I write, my research tends to sprawl, snatching up curious tidbits from this place and that. And one of my favourite reads had been The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity 1500-1800, edited by Lynn Hunt.

Take dildos, for instance. “In the 1660s, imported Italian dildos, as well as condoms, first became available in London,” says Hunt. Much of Covent Garden – indeed, much of London itself – was built on the money made from prostitution (of both a male and female kind), with the Garden itself serving for a long time as London’s premier red light district. Moreover, the interaction between sex and science goes back a long way. Another book that has acted as inspiration for my own modest attempts at Steampunk literature had been Gaby Wood’s wonderful Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life. I want to quote, well, myself, from an earlier article on the subject:
“From the beginning,” as Hunt notes, “pornography had close ties to the new science as well as to political criticism.” (Hunt 30). Furthermore, both Hunt and Wood draw links between sexuality and science: Hunt notes that “one sign of this new experience of sex was the use of what are now called sex aids,” (1) while Wood describes the fetishism that seems to have affected not only the inventors of mechanical beings (from Vaucanson to Edison, of whom more later) but also created two unique forms of sexual “perversions”: Pygmalionism and Venus Statuaria.

Venus Statuaria, as described by German sexologist Iwan Bloch, is, simply put, “the love for and sexual intercourse with status and other representations of a human person.” (Bloch in Wood 132). Pygmalionism, on the other hand, “involved women pretending to be statues”. (Wood 132). Bloch then concludes by discussing the links between the early sex toys, (also mentioned by Hunt), to the android makers of the Enlightenment. “There exist true Vaucansons in this province of pornographic technology [who] prepare entire male or female bodies [...] such artificial human beings are actually offered for sale.” (Bloch in Wood, 133)
So science is not only intimately (ha!) linked to sex, but it even creates its own unique fetishes with it. How wonderful! Imagine these robot-makers of the past, creating the very first sex dolls, perhaps mechanical, perhaps imbued, if you will, with a Babbage engine for a mind. That last, short sentence above conjures, to me, an entire fantastical world of desire and artifice – and how can a steampunk writer fail to write about exactly such things?

I can’t, of course. And while I see my books – The Bookman, just released in the states, and Camera Obscura, which is coming out in May – as targeted at what my publishers called “post-YA”, they are not devoid of – and, to an extent, shaped by – this view of the past-future.

In Camera Obscura, my heroine, Milady de Winter (who is modelled, rather, on Cleopatra Jones) has to find a murderer stalking the streets of Paris. In the course of her investigation she arrives at a place called The Clockwork Room:
Picture a place of gleaming chrome and burnished leather. A place of polished brass, mute carpets, the smell of pipe tobacco and expensive cologne, the tinkling of a piano player. Picture men in smart evening wear, congregating in their masks. Imagine champagne flutes, the bubbles twinkling in the glass, the hum of machinery, cries – of pleasure, or pain, it’s hard to say – echoing, sometimes, from the upstairs rooms. Hosts and hostesses move throughout the room mechanically, touching a hand here, a shoulder there, refilling glasses – sexless creatures, as beautiful and perfect as a blueprint made flesh.

[...]

Every now and then one masked member of a party might break from it, ascend upstairs, up the wide curving staircase, and disappear into one of the private rooms, where love is enacted, perfected, a clean and sterile thing, a union, however temporary, between human and machine.
If humans are themselves machines – which is what Julien Offroy de La Mettrie says as early as 1747, in his seminal L’Homme Machine – then what happens when we make machines? How would they think? How would they act? How would they love?

With steampunk, I am able to discuss some of these things. Just as I can talk about colonialism, or race, or what it means to be human – just so long as the story I tell is also (hopefully) exciting, in the way those old stories – from Sherlock Holmes to The Three Musketeers or Around the World in 80 Days were exciting when I read them as a kid. Victorian fiction, famously, shied away from sex, and that is one reason, paradoxically, for why it was so prevalent in it – Dracula is, first and foremost, a tale of repressed sexuality, after all (and as successive generations of vampires, up to and including Twilight, clearly show). By taking on the 19th century we actually talk about our own 21st, a century that was shaped – politically, morally, geographically, technologically and – yes – sexually – by that earlier age. Edison’s quest to create a perfect mechanical doll, Lucy Westerna’s desire in Dracula, the fetishization of South Pacific islanders in the art of Paul Gauguin, all join together to form a narrative of sexuality still relevant to us today.

And not to mention, they are great fun to write about!


1 “In the 1660s, imported Italian dildos, as well as condoms, first became available in London.” (Hunt 30)

References

Hunt, Lynn (Ed.) The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity 1500-1800. Zone Books, 1996.
Wood, Gaby. Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life. Faber & Faber, 2002.
Tidhar, Lavie. “Androids and Other Undead: The Vampire as a Product of the Enlightenment”. Apex Digest, Vol. 1. Issue 7, 2006.
Tidhar, Lavie. Camera Obscura. Angry Robot Books, forthcoming, 2011.

---------------------

Israeli-born writer Lavie Tidhar has been called an “emerging master” by Locus magazine, and has quickly established a name for himself as a short fiction writer of some note. He has travelled widely, living variously in South Africa, the UK, Asia and the remote island-nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Lavie's Steampunk work includes the just released The Bookman and Camera Obscura, which will be releaed in May 2011.


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1 comments:

Foxie said...

And if you fancy going a bit deeper down the rabbit hole, there's SteamyPunk.net. Not read any myself, but I hear it's very good...