Monique the Geek (moniquill) wrote,
Monique the Geek

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IBARW Offering: Steampunk!

So it's International Blog Against Racism Week again, and this year I am actually getting off my lazy ass and posting something on the topic rather than just reading and cheering.

And as my current obsession and writing project is Steampunk based, that seems as good a place to address as any in Fandom at large.

For the uninitiated, Steampunk as defined by Tv Tropes: Retro-style Speculative Fiction set in periods where steam power is king. Very often this will be in an Alternate Universe where the internal combustion engine never displaced the steam engine, and as a result all manner of cool steam-driven technologies have emerged, ranging from the plausible to Magitek with a Hollywood Science Hand Wave. Sometimes combined with the work of Charles Babbage on mechanical computers to produce a kind of retro Cyber Punk set entirely in the Victorian era or a close analogue, minus the exploitation.

Emphasis mine.

First, some Linkspam:

Aedh wrote a post discussing some of the problematic aspects of Steampunk:

“...Part of the motivation of Steampunk was to recapture that sense of extreme wonderment about the advances and power of science and the sense that the world was full of boundless possibilities and that there was no problem that science couldn’t solve. The thing is, that’s where I get off the train and go home; because that sense of poking at the odd thing until it yields its secrets with complete confidence that this is a good thing has never really appealed.”

Naraht posted a rumination on the topic thereafter with some yummy links, and brought this up:

“...The glorification of explorers and adventurers in the late nineteenth century mould isn't something that can be viewed in isolation. Deep down, or perhaps not so deep down, there's a sense in steampunk that having an empire must after all have been rather fun.”

Also check out Naraht's posts here and here.

Forthwritten took up the discussion and added this:

“In celebrating the figure of the adventurer and explorer, steampunk buys into certain assumptions. One: that there are places to explore and discover - the idea that a land can only be discovered by your culture, and has been previously unexplored even if people have been living there for centuries...I know what role I [as a POC] played in the Victorian psyche, and it disappoints me that steampunk doesn't do much to challenge that. ”

Mightyfastpig over at Circlet says:

“As a literary genre, steampunk is a reaction to the modern world, particularly the historical uncertainty of the post-Soviet Union world. We've got a black president, we've got computers in our shoes, we've got people living in space, we've got extrasolar planets, we've got people who make a living playing video games. We've also got economic collapses and ecological crises and robot mercenary armies. Even if you're an optimist, the world is just changing so fast that any attempt to make a reasonable projection of the future of our world becomes daunting, for fear of something that is lapped by reality or just looks ridiculous.”

But the problematic parts by now should be clear: A whole lot of Steampunk enthusiasts want to play with the whizbang gadgetry and the pretty pretty clothes and don't want to worry about the hugely problematic reality of the time period they're playing pretend in. And problematic it is.

Victorian Era, which most Steampunk focuses on, means 1837-1901. This means, among other things:

Child Labor.
Epic Poverty.
Colonialism, Imperialism (Often played with. Seldom treated seriously.)
The Irish Famine.
Epidemic Illness (Cholera etc.)

For American Settings Especially:
Manifest Destiny
The Trail of Tears and Indian Removal in general (Read: Genocide)
The Civil War
The Chinese Exclusion Act

It's not all light bulbs and typewriters. As well it shouldn't be. To pretend that it is is disingenuous, and when we write new worlds and new histories of our real world it is and should be the responsibility of writers to treat the reality they're poking at via speculative fiction with respect.

Which is why I have a giant problem with Steampunk that pretends that no bad things ever happened. And Steampunk that writes the past as shiny utopias without addressing the bloody great ramifications that such changes would necessarily have on the time line.

I have a problem with Steampunk in which neither the author nor the reader are ever asked to stop to consider who's mining the coal for the glorious steam engines. Who's building the dirigibles. Who's laying the track for the glistening new transcontinental railroad and what land is it being laid through.
History is political.

Now, to resurrect a dead horse using strange archaic magics and necromancy with electrodes and inexplicable colored liquids in oddly-shaped glassware and probably-unnecessary brass bits only to beat it dead again, I bring up
MammothFail, wherein Pat Wrede wrote a story of The American Frontier(tm) without the problematic and Squeekilling 'Genocide of the Indigenous People' writing them out. So that they never were. I wrote about it here.

This is exactly the kind of thing we don't need.

Set 'Right after the Civil War', The Thirteenth Child is just a poke and a nudge away from being Steampunk. It certainly falls squarely into the discussion of how we rewrite history in ways that are truthful.

Stop and think about that for a second.
Fiction should be truthful. Fiction, at its heart, when it does things right, is the art of using lies to tell the truth. When it fails to do that, it becomes -shitty fiction-.

And after a lot of rumination, and my own twisty relationship with Steampunk, I have decided that I can do better and shall.

See, I like the Steampunk aesthetic. I like the whizbang gadgetry and the pretty pretty clothes. But I also like exploring socially problematic situations and casting light onto historical ugliness and exploring realistic and truthful ways in which things might have gone differently. And this doesn't mean they always went well.

In my developing 'verse, which I plan to set several novels in at various times and following various characters, technology got a kick in the pants and The Age of Enlightenment had a slightly different effect on Western Culture at large. There are steamworks and clockworks and dirigibles. People wander around in lovely fashions and gather at salons. Some history-dickery is arbitrary. Some is intended to be repairative. But this is the current working plan.

Women (white, landed, married) were granted suffrage in the constitution itself. In 1790 the first wave feminists successfully negotiated for the vote for unmarried or widowed women over the age of 18. In 1800 voting rights were altered to allow non-landed individuals to vote if they could prove residency (read: in practice, at the mercy of local voter registration, with all the associated racism, classism and ugliness).

Tecumseh was not killed in 1813 and America utterly failed to break down Tecumseh's confederacy. This ultimately resulted in an indigenous union and revolution. In 1812 the Newly-formed nation of Okla'Homma/Westland allied with Canada and they're now a binary power that is on par with and in some ways greater than the current US. Contact effect means that they're progressing technologically in largely the same way that the US is. They are engaged in trade agreements with China, Japan, Mexico, and Russia as well as the reconstruction US. They remained nominally neutral and uninvolved during the civil war, but granted asylum and potential provisional citizenship to slaves that crossed their borders. (Also? Mississippi River piracy. With shiny guns and steamboats. The government does nothing to aid or hinder this.) Black people compose up to a 2% ethnic minority in Okla'Homma, multiracial people up to 10% (Census data is limited). I also intend to fully explore technological development by and for indigenous people on their own land in their own nation and in their own ways, because one of my GIANT pet peeves is the assumption that contact effect somehow doesn't and shouldn't apply to Indigenous folks and that left to their own devices they'd have stuck with Neolithic-level technology forever even as they watched their neighbors build clockwork trains...because apparently NDN's are incapable of self-motivated technological development or something. (My NDN's invent maglev trains and photovoltaic cells. In the 1870's. SO THERE.)

As to the honest exploration of science fucking up? In my world Union scientists invent a nuclear weapon in 1863. Bombs were dropped in Montgomery, Richmond, and Atlanta on April 1, 1865 (The April Fool's Day Calamity). The war was declared officially over on April 9th. At this time blacks were granted full citizenship including voting rights. Prior to this there was no official status concerning the citizenship of nonwhite people in the Union, and citizenship was largely determined by class and locality (Read again: on the personal whim and judgment of the people at voter registration).

Radioactive fallout has left most of the southeastern US an uninhabitable wasteland, and continuing ramifications are still being explored. There's your shiny, dangerous 'unexplored territory' to cover, in a realistically horrifying way. There's a lot of scientific interest in why MILLIONS of apparently unaffected people died in the weeks following the bombs. Everyone = scared shitless of the possibility of these bombs being used ever again. The world stands aghast, and the scientific community is equal parts 'What Hath We Wrought' and 'OMFG WE ARE LIKE UNTO GODS.'

There are still slums.
There are still immigration issues.
There's still epidemic illness, and eugenics, and quack medicine, and child labor.
The world is brass-plated and full of cogs, but it's also full of grease and soot and starving urchins. Science is not infallible. Race issues abound.

Steampunk can do better. I'm trying. I'm not the only one pushing for exploration into new and different ways to use the genre:

Squirrelmadness has an excellent post on African Empires.

Lindra found an amazing source of Chinese Futurism.

Natania Barron explored how American-set Steampunk in general differs from and expands upon the Anglophile sort.

There's a lot of direction to move in in Steampunk. It's a relatively new genre and one that's still being defined. We can definite it in inclusive ways if we want to. If we try to. If we don't just go with the whitewashed status quo that dominated Sci-fi/Fantasy in general for DECADES (and in many ways continues to do so)

We can do better.
Let's do this thing.

ETA: From the comments kate_nepveu recommended the awesome essay at Racialicious: The Intersection of Race and Steampunk: Colonialism’s After-Effects & Other Stories, from a Steampunk of Colour’s Perspective

Tags: ibarw, literature, racism, steampunk
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