Spinning Gears: What Would Steampunk Look Like Outside of Europe?

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I’ve often wondered what steampunk would look like if it (and we, as I’m more than a fan of steampunk, I wholeheartedly embrace it as a subculture) had more opporutnities for perspective outside of victorian-era Europe. Of course the euro-centricity of steampunk is natural; the idea stemmed from the wonder of what the past, present, and possibly future would look like if the industrial revolution had been built on steam and steam-powered technologies instead of the dominance of coal-fired and gas-powered technologies that we adopted instead. If steam still powered our cars and massive airships still roamed the skies, for example. The very idea comes from the technologies prevalent in Europe during the Edwardian and Victorian eras.

That being said, it’s not like Europe was the only part of the world to play with steam-powered technologies, and if that rose to prominence in Europe, I’d be curious to see what some of the other prevailing regional technologies could have arisen in other parts of the world without the same influence of Europeans at the same time periods. In other words, what would a steampunk-style Asia look like? Or Africa? Maybe South America? What would a steampunk Incan or Aztec city look like? How about a steampunk (or equivalent technology) Masai tribe? What about a steampunk Japan (we got a brief glimpse in a skit in the collection of Anime shorts called Robot Carnival where a steam-powered, wooden giant “robot” built for a Japanese festival faces off against a western steam-powered invading robot come to crash the ceremonies.

Videos and more thoughts behind the jump:

A Tale of Two Robots: Part I:

A Tale of Two Robots: Part II:

Thankfully, I’m not the first person to think these things, and writing for Tor.com, blogger Jaymee Goh has run down this idea in a number of different columns, but most notably the first one I read, titled In An Alternate World, I Could be “Cosmic Goddess”. She says:

Overweening arrogance aside (I won’t lie, writing that title made me giggle out loud, it was late, and I proceeded to practise the evilest laugh I could muster, only to fail miserably), I have come to the conclusion that the alternate history aspect of steampunk is one of the most delicious lures, ever.

This may appear to be a follow-up to GD Falksen’s lovely post on the possibilities of steampunk beyond Europe, but it’s not. I’ve talked about this issue before, and I want to talk about why this is important to visible minorities, particularly those engaged in predominantly-white spaces like North America and the UK.

In the first place, it is not easy to find people who look like us in science fiction to start with. The overwhelming majority of writers are white, as are an overwhelming majority of characters. Maybe the overwhelming majority of readers are also white, but considering that science fiction is read world-wide, I really doubt this is a case of writers writing for an audience like themselves. So it is in steampunk—most early Victorian science fiction feature white characters. Captain Nemo is a notable exception, being an Indian prince fighting against English imperialists. However, Captain Nemo was originally meant to be a white character (due to politics, his nationality was changed).

For those of us living in majority-white spaces, it can be isolating, not to mention disheartening, to notice we are the only visible minorities in the room. It can drive some away, too. Not only that, but because we steampunks of colour (henceforth referred to as SoC) are not a monolith, just as PoC vary in thought and personality, merely finding another SoC is simply not good enough. We’re not going to be bosom buddies just because we have different skin colours from the norm in the room.

Often, we find ourselves assimilating into the larger host culture, wearing clothes that may not reflect what we feel inside, in order to fit in. But I’ll make it clear, corsets may make me look good, but they can never make me forget that I am, in face shape, skin colour, appearance, and upbringing, an Asian (specifically, Malaysian-Chinese).

I strongly suggest taking a look at that linked post in there too, which I think cuts to the core of multi-ethnic steampunk possibilities, at least in my mind. Goh explains that this isn’t a mandate or a crusade against some kind of subtle racism, it’s just a curiosity of what the rest of the world would look like if the lens of steampunk subculture were lifted back a bit to see more parts of the world than its current –and natural– focus on Europe. She explains her ethnic descent, personally I’m African American and would love to see what the alternative history lottery may have in store for a never-colonized Africa, middle-east, or Central and South America. What if the Aztec and the Mayan people were still thriving, even today? What if the Zulu Empire never fell at the hands of the British? What if Chaka Zulu had been triumphant to the bitter end?

The alternate history lens is very frequently used as more than a tool for historical analysis and crystal-ball curiosities: it’s too often abused as a way for an author to project what they’d prefer society look like today as a result of something specific that they wish were different (most notably referenced in the writings of people who espouse what America would be like if the South could have ever possibly won the Civil War, or if Nazi Germany or Japan had prevailed in World War II – usually as a way to sugarcoat and write out their own fantasies) and I suppose there’s an element of that here as well, but my desire is more the “what if” both socially and technologicially than the projection of a utopia that meets my personal world-view.

I’ll let Yoh conclude and then hand you off to her post, because I think she does it fabulously:

So some of us, we imagine alternate worlds where we are not the colonized and our heritages are intact. We imagine worlds where the East discovers the West, and worlds where racism isn’t built into the institutions that run our world. For those of us less optimistic about that possibility, we imagine worlds where the clash of cultures is more minutely observed, where issues of race are acknowledged as relevant, where simple colourblindness is not a solution. We imagine strategies where we tackle racism head-on and are invigorated rather than worn out, where we challenge marginalization.

In an alternate world, when I walk into a room of steampunks, I find steampunks who are drawing inspiration from all walks of life and all corners of the world, not just Victoriana. In an alternate world, I do not have to deal with crap from Neo-Victorians who insist that steampunk originates from the Victorian era and if it’s not Victorian, it’s not steampunk. (Hard to believe, but it’s true: these people do exist, and they’re annoying.)

That is part of the beauty of steampunk: in alternate worlds, we could revel in multi-culturalism and fight about how it really looks like, and our politics would be different and not Euro-centric, and the Western hegemony wouldn’t exist because Africa and Asia would have had steam power on par with the British invaders/visitors/traders/tourists, and we are not cultural curiousities.

That is part of the beauty of the steampunk aesthetic—our cogs and gears and clockwork and other such hard technology which we can touch and mold and manipulate and shape belong anywhere and everywhere.

This is also part of the beauty of the steampunk community—Neo-Victorian pedants aside, most steampunks really are not interested in limiting steampunk. It just so happens, though, that no one really pays attention to the issue of race in steampunk.

Ours is the world where we walk next to our white peers without feeling effaced, and participate on our own terms. Ours is the world where our voices are heard and taken seriously, instead of being told that we’re “looking for racism where it doesn’t exist.” If you’re anything like me, being from another continent and all, ours is the world where fiction is not limited to being from over the ocean about people who do not look like us in cities that are not like ours doing things we would never have done because in our cultures we do things differently.

Alternate history is a huge part of steampunk. It is where our present knowledge is applied to the ignorant past in order to dream a better, more enlightened future.

Or at least, more varied worlds than what we currently see. We can do that, right?

10 thoughts on “Spinning Gears: What Would Steampunk Look Like Outside of Europe?

  1. Sue Lange

    This post gets to the core of what makes science fiction in general a much more important genre than what the readers, writers, publishers, and movie makers realize. SF allows for any possibility: cultural, logical, historical, physical. As such it can be used for experimentation in illustrating alternate lifestyles, alternate attitudes, and alternate cultures. It can be the embodiment of the alternative. And it often is. Feminist science fiction has been around for longer than steampunk science fiction. Feminist sf has always asked the question: why can’t our world, our culture, our ideas be something other than the status quo?

    Steampunk is an offshoot of science fiction so there’s no reason why it can’t, like feminist science fiction, embrace the “other.” And by participating in it, the punks, the others, the non white consumers and doers will ensure that that happens.

    The thing about steampunk is that currently it’s a fad that has captured the imagination of many more people than the core sf crowd. And that’s because it is an aesthetic movement with a punk attitude.

    Personally I could care less where the stories take place, what the values are, what the plots are, who the characters are. I like the aesthetics which are not restricted to the British Isles only. The history of textures and materials and steam probably followed the same path throughout the world. Good ideas travel fast. Any place in the world can be a setting for a steampunk story. Especially since it’s an alternate history type genre. You can make any rules up and watch them play out.

  2. David

    Ooh, there’s a lot of food for thought here. I’m glad you brought attention to the observation.

    It’s also interesting that you say the alternate history lens is abused to project what an author would prefer. I’m not sure we have to call that abuse, let’s just read such stories with a grain of salt.

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  5. davidd aka puuikibeach

    Being, like, a guy and all, and quite a shallow one at that, I’m having a tough time concentrating on the central issue here after the young Asian girl mentions how good she looks in a Victorian-era corset. Uhm… pix, pleeze!

    I’m also wondering why she felt it necessary to mention that detail. Not that I’m complaining. Just… wondering.

    As far as the ethno-centricity of steampunk is concerned… okay, so… maybe some non-white writer should WRITE SOMETHING to fill the void! Miss Cosmic Goddess (I’d love to hear that “evil laugh” — I bet it’s hard to summon an orotund cachinnation whilst confined in a corset!) claims “the overwhelming majority of writers are white.” If this is indeed the case (arguable; I suspect there are quite a few Chinese writers out there who simply are not widely published in the English-speaking west), it makes sense that there would be comparatively little “non-white” steampunk SF. After all, a cardinal rule of writing is, “write what you know.” The days of Mark Twain and Joel Chandler Harris are long past. Today, were a “white person” to dare try to write from a non-white perspective, that sorry soul would render him or herself a target for no end of potential abuse for being “inauthentic,” “imperialistic,” “demeaning,” or, of course, “racist.” If significant “multi-cultural” genre fiction is to emerge, it will need to come from non-white writers to be taken seriously, or to be accepted at all.

    Where are these writers? I could be crass — okay, I WILL be crass — and say that Amy Tan and other “minority” writers are too busy with the “chick lit” market to bother with SF or steampunk, ‘cuz chick lit’s where the money is! Or they’re writing heavy drama “oh my poor oppressed family lineage” non-fiction overstock table fodder. Or they’re churning out rap/hip-hop lyrics. WAY more money there than in chick lit, I’m sure!

    Or, rather than writing “science fiction” stories, non-whites are seeking education and getting real jobs in technology, engineering, medicine… yes, in REAL science! Those legions of new college graduates in India are not sitting around like us pathetic white fanboys (yeah, I guess I’d better mention here that I’m white… and male… since we seem to have a need to share our racial heritage in this discussion; also, that will allow you to completely dismiss everything I say, while laying on the guilt-trip about killing the buffalo, exterminating the Indians, enslaving the Africans, and nuking the Asians) watching Japanese anime films about EUROPEAN-LOOKING people in steampunk settings.

    Which, I think, is an interesting point to bring up. If steampunk “should” be multi-cultural, who better than Miyazaki to multi-culturalize it? Yet, the steampunk-ish films by this Japanese director/producer — Castle in the Sky, Porco-Rosso, Howl’s Moving Castle — have a decidedly European look to the characters. Wha’s up wi’ dat, brah, as da local kine peeps might say here in my little multi-cultural community? If the Japanese guy who pretty much brought the “steampunk aesthetic” to the attention of the masses doesn’t see fit to multi-culturalize the genre, who else is gonna do it? Or do it effectively, anyway?

    All that being said: I think multi-culturalzing steampunk is a GREAT idea, with significant historical precedent, particularly in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. For example, a quick glance at russojapanesewar.com turns up intriguing tidbits like: “After all, Japan was a newly emergent country, whose naval officers might have been trained in Britain and her army officers in Germany, but several of those officers had begun their careers wearing armor and brandishing swords.” The Japanese pretty much stomped their European opponents in that little conflict, using the might of their new, steam-powered navy to send the Russians back to Vladivostok. Steampunk samurai warriors — it’s FACT, not fiction… but it’d make an OUTSTANDING fact-based springboard back into fiction!

    Also, are we forgetting the upcoming “Avatar” movie? Not the Cameron CGI thing, but rather the “Last Airbender” film due out next year. The trailer had me hooked, starting as it did with the shot of the monk in the Asian monastery, and then traveling out the window to reveal a flotilla of “steampunk” battleships bearing down. I SO wanna see that flick, based on that one visual!

    Where do people of Spanish heritage fall in this “multi-cultural” debate? Some demographics categorize European Spaniards as “caucasian,” others do not. The reason I ask is, I’d like to see a Filipino steampunk saga — the indigenous Asian people of The Philippines were oppressed and betrayed by both the Spanish and the Americans, and then tragically and horrifically conquered by the Japanese in the Second World War. Yet the Filipinos were able to fight the U.S. to a standoff during the Spanish-American war, after helping the U.S. defeat Spain (or something like that — it’s complicated). Then they took the best bits of Spanish and American culture and integrated it into their own. Imagine if the the Filipinos put together some kind of steam-powered technology to assist them in their struggle for autonomy? And what if they’d adopted the best bits of Edwardian fashion sensibility while they were at it?

    Y’know, the “fashion” angle might be the real allure to the Euro-centric version of steampunk. I’m sorry, guys ‘n’ gals, but hey… those (largely white at the time) Brits dressed better than everyone else in the world in the late 1800s! Steam-Zulu or Steam-Aztec or Steam-Aboriginal might be interesting from a sociological perspective, but to our current aesthetic, their clothes just weren’t that great! There’s a reason that pith-helmets, brass goggles, and corsets feature so heavily in the steampunk world — it’s freakin’ fun to wear the stuff! And it’s fun to visualize the characters in the stories wearing the stuff. If you take your Asian or Aztec or whoever characters and put ’em in riding boots and wire-rimmed Windsor eyeglasses, you’re selling out the “cultural authenticity” in exchange for “steampunk cred.”

    Now, there’s a guy who would totally back you up if you want to say it’s not about the clothes: Jess Nevins, author of “The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana” and companion volumes to each of the “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” graphic novels. Mr. Nevins posts on LiveJournal from time to time, and has been known to vent quite vociferously on the subject of the “cosplay” version of steampunk versus the original literary intent of the genre. In short, and I believe I’m being accurate here, steamPUNK was, like cyberPUNK before it, a venue for social commentary; the original tales were set in Victorian Europe, not because of the clothes, but because of the great social injustices taking place during the Industrial Revolution. In one of his last posts on the subject, Mr. Nevins suggests that he’s giving up on trying to clarify the issue. Steampunk has come to mean pith helmets and brass goggles, it’s more about the aesthetic than it is about the underlying themes, but any attempt to discuss the issue quickly degenerates into bitter, angry flaming.

    Speaking of which, I do trust, dear readers, that what I type here is in no way taken as bitter or flame-ish. My crassness is (largely) tongue-in-cheek. Of course, satire is an effective method of helping people look at ideas in ways they may not otherwise have done, so I am not above an occasional (usually misguided and ineffective) attempt at embedding more than a dash of cynicism in my comments. And I like to think that I recognize the same in the writings of others.

    I feel, however, that the no-doubt-lovely-in-her-Victorian-corset Ms. Goh undermines the credibility of her argument with her corset remark. If she’s genuinely sincere in her quest for “cultural authenticity,” why is she basing her personal “steampunk aesthetic” on European designs? Shouldn’t she be visualizing a natural steam-influenced progression of Malay-Chinese style? A quick internet search suggests circa 1900 Malay-Chinese fashion included sarongs for men, and frequent use of metallic embroidery in clothing and footwear. Perhaps the metallic embroidery angle could be integrated into a steampunk motif — micro-Tesla-generators in shoes for levitation, or communication systems enabled in garments? In my cursory search, I don’t find any mention of “corsets” as a culturally authentic foundation garment among late-19th-century Malay culture.

    Mayans, Aztecs… I dunno, is it just me being an ignorant white guy? Or did they mostly wear loincloths and feathers? Maybe some golden jewelry if they were head honchos? That won’t endear you to the steampunk crowd at the next Con. In fact, they’ll probably run you out of the joint for daring to dress like a character from a Mel No-Longer-Politically-Correct Gibson film. Would steam-powered Aztecs have naturally developed an affinity for top hats and monocles? Yeah, sure, they could have! But we will never know, because the steam-Conquistadors reduced every last one of them to atoms with their Blund-Aether-Disrupto-busses.

    [email protected] those Spaniards. They MUST be white guys — they killed everybody they came in contact with! (Except for The Queen’s Royal Navy, of course!) And it’s sad that the steam-Malay’s hadn’t shared their metallic steri-ionizing embroidery expertise with the steam-Aztecs; that might have helped them fight off the other scourges the steam-Conquistadors brought with them: steam-smallpox and steam-syphilis. I could pull Dr. Ehrlich and his magic bullet into the discussion, but he’s a European white guy, and we’re trying to get away from all that.

    Anyway, my understanding of the original context of “steampunk” (what’s my “steam cred” for being so audacious as to proffer an opinion? Errr… I once received a very nice email response to a note I addressed to James P. Blaylock?) as a “movement” suggests to me that, indeed, multi-culturalism SHOULD be an INTEGRAL part of the genre, as cultural gulfs, whether racial, social, or economic provided the original impetus for the stories. The Victorian trappings were merely window dressing, period detail to enhance realism. Over time, however, the style has taken precedence over the substance. Today, “steampunk” means brass-trimmed gadgetry and figure-flattering ruffles & frills, parasols and pith hats, jodhpurs and corsets, put to use in what might better be described by the outdated term, “scientific romance” yarns. Much of the serious “social analysis” has been diluted by petticoats and titillation.

    So bring it on. I, too, would love to see more “multi-culturalism” in the steampunk genre. And this means more than simply drawing Captain Nemo wearing a turban. C’mon, Hadji on “Jonny Quest” was more culturally authentic than that! (Besides, James Mason IS Captain Freaking Nemo, end of discussion, period!) Let’s see something from non-white writers, so the white guys won’t have to take the flack for misrepresenting other cultures. You leave it to us white guys to bring multi-culturalism to steampunk, you’re just gonna get another Fu Manchu retread, kinda like Ming the Merciless…

    … who, now that I think about it, although being a villain, could be considered a strong multi-cultural representation in proto-steampunk popular culture.

    Intriguing post, Mr. Halophoenix! And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to click on some Jaymee Goh links. I’m hoping for some Euro-Pacific steampunk fashion photos, you see, perhaps something suggesting a Hashiguchi Goyō/Charles Dana Gibson collaboration….

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  7. Jha

    Glad you liked my article. =) Have you come across Zulu Mech? It’s a graphic novel, and it’s African-inspired technology. You can find the teaser / trailer here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J92_61-o_mU

    As for Davidd’s query: “Wmaybe some non-white writer should WRITE SOMETHING to fill the void” What the devil do you think we are doing? Twiddling our thumbs? Unfortunately, the publishing industry that reaches an international audience, helmed by the giants in America, tend not to favour minority authours much. We fill in the holes the best we can with what little we have. The problem, however, is larger than the steampunk community, larger than the publishing industry.

  8. Alan Henry Post author

    Jha – I absolutely loved your article, and I agree with you entirely; the notion that the fix to any lack of diversity in any arena is that the under-represented simply need to “try harder” is at best uninformed and at worst malicious – it entirely ignores the concepts of privilege, and talks past the reasons why anyone is under-represented in the first place. The problem is bigger than it appears.

    That being said though, I will absolutely definitely check out Zulu Mech! Thank you so much for pointing me in that direction, and thanks for the link to your blog! I’ll keep up with you. Thanks for dropping by!

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  10. James Nelson

    Old topic, but I’m pretty sure as new PoC get interested in Steampunk and the Victorian era they’ll find it like I did. What gets me is that my research has shown that there were prominent blacks in England during the Victorian era, that any Victorian would have known by name. Somehow they never get mentioned in film, during Steampunk gatherings. People like Mary Seacole, or Ida B Wells, Coleridge Taylor — you could name quite a few. In no film that I can recall set in Victorian or Edwardian England do I ever heard of these people let alone see PoC anywhere. It’s no wonder most white steampunks are under the impression that for Blacks to wear victorian threads we have to just be playing make believe. So while I would like to see more Steampunk outside of Europe, I’d also like to see the true Victorian Europe that did include PoC.

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