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“the first Marxist steampunk”

Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull
Glen Truax

November 26, 2015

Review of Freedom and Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull
This little bombshell has been variously described as the “the first Marxist steampunk”, and “an adventure for young Hegelians” (although the thought of meeting a 12 year old Hegelian is a little terrifying). More importantly, it brings up the question: Is romantic love selfish? Is it counter-revolutionary? I’ve seen interviews with former Chinese Red Guard members who would roam the countryside, beating the ever-loving shit out of young couples who displayed public affection, the logic being that the lovers in question were drawing energy from the revolution and concentrating solely on themselves.
Obviously I beg to differ, and Freedom and Necessity backs this up. Most relationships aren’t so self-absorbed as to ignore the world around them, and the ultimate goal of a revolution is freedom – the freedom to work, the freedom to rest, the freedom to love. Love isn’t about being a brood mare for the state – it’s about an equally fulfilling state of harmony between individuals.
Freedom and Necessity takes place in 1849, the year after the failed European revolutions and the subsequent backlash. The English Chartists (namely the ladies and gentlemen who wanted Universal Suffrage, fair pay, equitable working conditions) were in disarray. One such Chartist wakes up in the middle of the English countryside, with absolutely no memory of the previous two months. He begins correspondence with a family member, starts reading Hegel in his free time, and begins to piece his life together. In the process he begins correspondence with his female cousin, who devotes herself to figuring out just what the hell happened during those months. A natural trajectory occurs, and romance blossoms. It should be noted that Friedrich Engels makes a guest appearance, which simply adds to the overall sense of lunacy that reigns in this wonderfully overstuffed book.
As mentioned, this is not an easy read – it’s epistolary, which means the text consists of letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, etc. Of course, there’s a rhythm to the narrative, and once you wrap your mind around the unnecessarily opaque writing style, it’s easy to fall into the storyline.
The authors Steven Brust and Emma Bull are both known for their fantasy, rather than pseudo realistic portrayals of revolutionary upheaval. But the two genres seems to go hand in hand, as both of them deal with the rupturing of accepted reality, and a cautious optimism about times to come. It is not a coincidence that Steven Brust is a self-avowed Trotskyist and Emma Bull is left liberal. They share hope, and the romance they’ve created is heartening and enchanting.

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