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?