In the exuberant appreciation of airships, corsets and polished brass, it is very easy to forget that steampunk has a suffix too. Etymologically speaking, the subgenre is only half revisionist Victoriana. The oft-forgotten "punk" opens it up to include themes of rebellion, resistance and change.
Cyberpunk, for example, is about the potential within digital technology and interwebby-style communications and how they provide a means to resist the globe-ruling government/corporate complex. Steampunk, when interpreted holistically, is not dissimilar - coal-powered eldritch science providing a means to shake up a stratified social and political hierarchy (which, fairly or not, is one of the literary hallmarks of the Victorian era).
Captain Frank H. Shaw's Outlaws of the Air was published in 1927, over two decades after the death of Queen Victoria and one decade after the end of World War 1, the end of the Victorian era. Still, despite its proximity to the "steam" period, the book should not only qualify as steampunk but also stand celebrated as one of the subgenre's best works.
The book is written in the familiar "Boy's Own" style. Outlaws is the first person narrative of Michael Forthright, a young teenager, "straight-backed and golden-haired". Michael's father and older brother both died in WW1 (the latter as a flying ace). His mother, broken-hearted by grief, soon passed away as well. Michael was left in the care of his aunt and uncle who, in the great tradition of the British coming-of-age novel, promptly chucked him into boarding school.
It is at school that Michael first begins to have altercations with authority figures. Michael can't stand "bullying" in any form - be it committed by other students or his schoolmaster. At the start of the book, he's on the run because he's given a royal thumping to one of his classmates in defense of a weaker classmate. There was bullying going on, Michael objected and, rather nobly, gave the perpetrator fisticuffs & whatfor. Knowing that the schoolmaster, a "cold-souled tyrant" will invariably rule against him, Michael has fled false justice to join the RAF. However, the RAF, not in the habit of accepting young boys, have kindly turned him down. Penniless, hungry, and despondent, Michael is faced with the unfortunate reality of returning to school.
With the appropriate karma, Michael's hatred of bullying pays off. He takes on a small-town thug over a crust of bread and a nearby man applauds his efforts. "I fancy my Raymond would have done much the same", the stranger declares and, with that, he adopts Michael to his bosom forever. To Michael, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. The stranger, Commodore Courtledge, has his own airplane and - better than yet - his own airship. After all his false starts, it seems that Michael will get a life in the air after all.
However, his newfound role on an airship isn't all roses and song. Commodore Courtledge once had a son around Michael's age, the oft-lauded Raymond. Also a pilot, Raymond died in a dubious plane during a training exercise, and, as a result, the Commodore is on a quest of vengeance against the cowardly "back-room generals" that wage war and the corrupt industrialists that abet them. More specifically, the Commodore is desperately seeking his son's former commanding officer, the shameless villain that ordered Raymond to fly the faulty plane.
The Commodore's weapon of choice is the Avenger, a massive airship filled with "Selsium gas", armed with deadly "Q Force" guns and wrapped in a special "protective colouring" paint found only in Central America. Not unlike 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (in fact, a great deal of Outlaws of the Air seems to be inspired by that volume), the author spends page after page describing the fascist utopia that is daily life on board this miracle of science. The airship is crewed by fine manly-men who spent their time working out in the onboard gym, cooking elaborate meals and reiterating their oaths of loyalty.
Everyone loves an airship.
The Commodore is possessed of a vicious temper and the occasional need to declare himself "Emperor of the World". His bouts of blind fury are terrifying, but always followed by a manic need to remind Michael how much he loves him, and how much Michael resembles the Commodore's poor, deceased son. As much as young Forthright enjoys his adventures, the Commodore's insanity makes him an increasingly unsettling companion.
Again, the issue of false authority rears its head. Michael's chivalric anti-bullying streak is magnified a thousandfold in the Commodore's violently anti-establishment mission. The latter persists in a blanket assault on all the trappings of governmental power, building up to a proposed "reign of terror [in which] we might use our power for good.... teach these angry overgrown children of nations that we hold the winning cards". Michael agrees neither conceptually nor in practice. He's a "Britisher" and sees his own country's national identity as a point of pride. More dangerously, whenever the Commodore is ready to vent his fury on a rival pilot or an RAF squadron, Michael risks his own neck by standing in the way. Repeatly, Michael guiltily invokes the name of the fallen Raymond in order to dissuade the Commodore from a course of deadly action.
The Commodore's revolutionary streak does not mean that he is wholly anti-authoritarian, as evidenced by the unquestioning loyalty he demands from his own crew. He insists on complete subservience. During the Avenger's maiden voyage, he provokes a conflict by driving the aircraft into a storm. The crew - panicked - begins to mutiny. The Commodore establishes his mastery by using the ship itself, taking it through a death-defying, stomach-churning series of rolls and dives. Exhausted and petrified, everyone submits to his authority. After this point, however the high the stakes become, there's no hesitance in their ranks. The Commodore has dominated them entirely.
There are two exceptions, both serving as further demonstrations of the book's explorations of authority. Outlaws of the Air is a loose journal of the airship's adventures around the world, side quests on the Commodore's mission of vengeance. One such adventure is the hunt for missing explorers at the South Pole. Despite the many distractions he's tolerated in the past, the Commodore refuses to allow the Avenger to be sidetracked for a humanitarian mission. Michael, helped by the ship's first officer, appeals to the Commodore's pity, and he reluctantly grants 48 hours to conduct a search. It isn't until the 48th hour that they find a clue, but the Commodore refuses to budge. The first officer won't let "Britishers" die on the ice so, with Michael at his side, the two rebelliously parachute to the ice and continue the search on foot. However furious he may be, the Commodore won't let Michael die and returns to save them (and, of course, the stranded polar explorers). He's furious, but grudgingly comes to realize that he was abusing his own authority and stands down.
Another second adventure sees the Avenger again in a mission of rescue. This time they're picking up a ship's crew from the Sargasso Sea. The new crew are a seedy bunch and the Commodore's investigations quickly reveal that they're actually bloodthirsty pirates and mutineers. A brawl breaks out and the mutineers are captured and tried. The Commodore sentences them to a cruel form of execution - they're stranded on mountaintops around the world and left to fend for themselves. Despite his own merciful impulses, Michael finds little pity for the conniving murderers who rebelled against their lawful authority. As he sees it, there's not only a clear (and fatal) difference between lawful authority and bullying, but also one between just rebellion and cowardly mutiny.
Outlaws of the Air wraps up in a surprisingly dark conclusion when the Commodore finally receives the opportunity to confront his son's murderer. His global perambulations with Michael have shown that the Commodore is a complex man. He's unwavering in his drive to seek vengeance, but his conscience (tinnily voiced by Michael, the embodiment of his humanity) keeps him procrastinating for tens of thousands of miles of winding travel. Just as he's ready to push the red button in his war on established society, the Commodore learns that there was more to his son's death than he ever believed. His son's honour and his enemy's villainy are the two foundations for his all-encompassing philosophy. When those fall apart, so does the Commodore.
In Captain Benedict, Raymond's supposedly dastardly former commanding officer, the author introduces a final species of authority. Benedict also blames himself for Raymond's death, but not because he was corrupt - rather because he was too kind. Raymond was keen to show off and flew the plane despite being expressly forbidden to do so. Benedict believes that if he had only been more strict, the disaster never would have happened. Although Benedict did nothing wrong, he blames himself for not being a more forceful authority figure. He is the reverse of the Commodore, whose extreme discipline frequently needs to be tempered with mercy.
Outlaws of the Air isn't all about rebellion. Fans of corsets and airships will also find a great deal to enjoy in this book. Captain Shaw plays fast and loose with science, much to the reader's delight. Mysterious Tibetan treasure and deadly rays of purple energy appear in every chapter, as well as aerial battles, polar exploration and the occasional violent melee. Although Outlaws of the Air is a children's book, it contains mature themes, critically examined by a self-aware protagonist. Despite Michael's boyish naivete, he both acknowledges and fears death. Possessed with the invulnerability of youth, Michael's not concerned about his own safety, he's kind-hearted and almost aggressively innocent. The death of others (no matter how villainous they may be) affects him deeply.
Although I suppose too early to be officially steampunk, Outlaws of the Air is still an example of the genre at its best. The book uses fantastical elements to create a story of near-possible adventure and imaginative exploration. Outlaws of the Air doesn't eschew the punk suffix, and uses those same elements as the backdrop to a discussion about authority and rebellion - themes no less important now than they were ninety years ago.
It is good to have the occasional reminder that steampunk can be more than just a fashion choice. Corsets and cogs may be eye-catching, but the real art is in the punk.