Steam Problems

An artistic response to criticism is definitely time to walk the walk, not talk the talk. Part of why I adore the Iron Seas is because I think Meljean Brook responded creatively to a sense of the problems in two genres, steampunk and romance. Let me say a bit about what those are.

Steampunk is often lampooned for being shallow — or perhaps I should say, for a poverty of imagination. Steampunk costuming might include tidbits of Victorian engineering (like cogs) being pasted on as an accessory without any possible functionality — as teased by Kate Beaton, where a cosplayer shows off nonfunctional goggles and boots to one of the most famous engineering minds of the 19th century. The gears don't do anything; they are literally for looks only. In some sense all costumes are for looks only, so that sort of idle detailing should be forgivable, but there's something about the metaphor of gilt gears being pasted on boots for the fashion of it all that might ring true for much of the genre, beyond dressing-up. Like cogs without any real mechanism on display, someone could accuse the genre of pulling out certain working parts of a certain time period, without much thought to the consequences.

But what is steampunk? Silver Goggles puts the genre's definition and its pitfalls brilliantly.

Ask ten people to explain steampunk, get ten answers, because it is a culmination of three different groups who have connected through the Internet: Do-It-Yourself artists inspired by the Victorian science fiction movies of the 50s; costume players, or cosplayers who enjoy anachronistic dress; and writers using pseudo-Victorian settings.

Steampunk is often criticized for its reliance on comforting re-imaginaries of the 19th century, re-visiting the Industrial Revolution in order to have the exciting changes in technology without truly confronting the historical consequences. This is one factor in its appeal — steampunk doesn’t necessarily challenge us in our assumptions of history, but relies on them.

The generally accepted elements of steampunk, articulated by Mike Perschon, are neo-Victorianism, technofantasy, and alternate history. The major conceit of steampunk is to inject today’s technology into historical settings just to see what would have happened: how would people of the past have taken up this accelerated technology? What does it look like? It presents a way to think about the present through the past.

This description allows us to talk of steampunk as an aesthetic that can be applied to a variety of visual and narrative media. As a result, steampunk has also been called a creative arts movement, and a subculture. Combined with a performative aspect, we have people running around dressed in 19th century-inspired costumes, because dressing up is a lot of fun.

Claiming Narratives, Re-Telling History:
Bringing Southeast Asian Steampunk
to the World Stage

silver googgles

As noted above, there's certainly controversy about what steampunk is, but a good first start is the technology and society of the 19th century plus an aberration regarding technology, usually explored by the plot of the story. For example, I'd class April and the Extraordinary World as a film about a steampunk world, where the aberration isn't so much that there is a more recent technology plunked into the 1800's, but rather that there are many scientific innovations absent from April's present in the 1940's because each scientist on the precipice of a major discovery goes missing. The lacunae left in the 20th century by those absent inventors is explored in the plot and the setting generally; for example, one ramification of a world running on steam power for two centuries is major deforestation.

Beyond an emphasis on technology as the center of the world building of the story, the -punk in steampunk stories depends on family resemblance rather than a specific set of features, just as you find with cyberpunk. That is, the punk suffix might mean that the narrative will center on societal outsiders suspicious yet familiar with new technology — the punk is internal to the story, as it were. Or the punk might be the author playing around with a pastiche of history to produce the work, an external ‘punking it up’, as my mother might say of me sawing up the hem of a holey old dress with scissors. Punk it means different things, a noun for an outsider, a verb for taking something and remaking it, and steampunk works participate in the term in different ways.

If that makes the genre seem very broad and ill-defined, you might wonder how something so terribly nebulous could have an inherent problem. And that's just it: the problem with steampunk isn't inherent. Even so, I take one of the core features of steampunk to be focus on a particular time period ... and the problem with the focus on that time period is that there is a prevalence of authors writing about a slim part of the world during that time period, roughly, a bit of Europe and America, usually white Europeans and Americans, usually nouveau riche or aristocrats. A lot of art is like that. What makes an eyebrow raise about doing the more of the same art with the 19th century is that it was a time of incredible inequality across many different structural lines, gender, race, class, colony and colonizer, to a far greater and more explicit degree than encountered now. So a work about a time of great inequality that seems to have bowdlerized that inequality out of the story, out of interest in building its world, seems almost like a fantasy about inequality not being a concern.

Here would be the shallowness I referred to: steampunk can involve peeling select parts of a certain time period and repasting them in a way that is comfortably redacted. The emphasis is usually on Great Britain as a technological power, though the cruelties and class disparities of Charles Dickens (writing about that very same part of the world in the selfsame period) may not appear at all. The problem is that this period of time didn't happen in one place, and that even if it is argued that steampunk depends on technological reimaginings and Great Britain was the technological center of the world, this is fiction. A writer's imagination should be larger than a historical account ... and history didn't just happen in one part of the world. And even if it did, the world has never been merely white.

As the dominant political, economic and military power throughout the 19th century ended up being Great Britain, there's a tendency to imagine that the sun would never set on the British Empire if they had steampunk technologies.

History, however, is unpredictable.

How to Write a Steampunk Story

tv tropes

If they resemble this criticism, steampunk stories seem like lovingly reimagined parts of the Victorian era, about white people in Britain, in a world of white people in Britain, presumably written for white English-speaking readers. In the worst versions, they lack the teeth of excellent -punk stories: they do not really wrestle with the impact a certain technology has on society. This is presumably part of what made Victorian England initially fertile ground to punk up, as the era was rife with reactions to the technology of the Industrial Revolution.

If those are the problems, then I think this blog post puts the invitation to respond best:

The steampunk movement romanticizes a time period where imperialist and racist attitudes prevailed and many people were oppressed as a result of them. When Queen Victorian sat upon her throne, a lot of other Western powers were doing not nice things to people in Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa and the Western US, and now, a over hundred years later, people want to live in that time period again, or at least use it as creative inspiration.

So, a proposal to my fellow steampunkers, Asian and non-Asian alike: Steampunk subverts so much, so let’s have it subvert our histories too. Steampunk can be about airships and clockwork and the Crown and Nikola Tesla.

But let it also be about the Boxer Rebellion and King Chulalongkorn of Siam, and fighting the British Raj. Or let’s see what happened if China never had that policy of isolation and developed its own steam technology. Or have Indian sky-pirates shipping their tea and spices into England themselves. Or, more interestingly enough, play out imperialism within Asia: the China’s battles against Korea, Mongolia, or Vietnam. Or what about the rising competition between China and Japan?

And not to mention outside of Asia; I want to see techno Aztecs or steampunk in Liberia or Sitting Bull with an arm cannon.

Thoughts about Orientalism,
Imperialism & Steampunking Asia


Think of it as a press to be imaginative. If the only real constraint on the genre is it has to imagine the consequences of something different going on with technology in the 1800's, why, that century happened in the whole world. Explore more of it. This doesn't mean that a focus on Britain or America is inferior or bad or evil, but there's a great deal of care to bring to the story to make it not seem like a comfort food. The first work in the Iron Seas focuses on England as a recently liberated labor colony for the Mongolian empire, with much of the early action focusing on what colonization has done to London and her citizens through the eyes of an English woman of Mongolian descent. I'll say more about why later, but though this still seats the narrative in Great Britain, it remains very much a story about inequality in race, labor, and gender, and I take it to be trying to answer the call in Thoughts About Orientalism, Imperialism & Steampunking Asia.

Of course, more genres, more problems.