Working in the Industrial Revolution

Working in the Industrial RevolutionA review of Brent Nichols’ “The Harpoonist” in Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction edited by Dominik Parisien (Exile Editions, 2016)

By Derek Newman-Stille


Despite the disabling effects of the Industrial Revolution and the number of limbs lost in the desire to mechanise, most steampunk doesn’t examine the relationship of disability to the technological gadgetry that is employed in the genre. Brent Nichols’ “The Harpoonist” looks at the intersection between disability, the drive to mechanise, and labour movements. 

Alice O’Reilly has been working to change the way that labour is conceptualised in Gastown. As a woman who has been dismissed from numerous jobs due to her desire to unionise, she is aware of the impact that factories have on worker bodies, observing the repeated way that the Industrial Revolution has consumed worker bodies in the capitalist desire to produce and make as much wealth as possible. O’Reilly and other workers gathered funds together to try to create a factory that would be without bosses, totally geared toward ensuring an equal distribution of wealth in addition to safe working conditions. 

When she meets Henry McClane, she assumes that he is another person who has been disabled by unsafe working conditions and a lack of protection for workers. She assumes that his hand was damaged in a workplace accident and that he was dismissed after he was no longer able to operate the machinery, and he allows her to believe this in order to keep his past a secret. 

Brent Nichols creates a group of people who have gathered together in support of a common, community good in defence of powerful, mob-run groups that seek to maintain the wealth of the community in the hands of a few people and employ gangs to take down any competition for their own wealth. O’Reilly’s factory workers are one group of defenders of the common good, seeking to build safe working conditions and illustrate that a factory for the mutual benefit of the workers can work out. The other group of community defenders are a superhero group that employs technology to accommodate their disabilities and also to fight crime. Rather than allowing themselves to be hurt and controlled by the machinery around them, both groups seek to harness technology for their own purposes, using machinery either as a means to better support workers or as an accommodation for disability that has the added benefit of augmenting the human body. Nichols brings attention to the duality of technology – it’s ability to either work toward control and support the groups in power, or its ability to imagine new ways for oppressed people to create conditions of mutual support. 

To discover more about the work of Brent Nichols, visit his website at http://steampunch.com/index.html

To find out more about Clockwork Canada, visit Exile’s website at http://www.exileeditions.com/singleorders2016/clockwork.html

And Dominik Parisien’s website at https://dominikparisien.wordpress.com/clockwork-canada-anthology

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