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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...


Steampunk, because it's an aesthetic & a subgenre inspired by a time period fraught with a complex social and political history, is never apolitical. The nineteenth century was a time of intellectual achievement, innovation, and geopolitical expansion. At the same time, that greatness came at the expense of slavery, oppression, social inequality, and racism. These problems did not go away once the Victorian era ended, and in fact, the social scars are still visible upon our society today. So when speaking about steampunk from non-Eurocentric settings, difficult issues about race, class, marginalized histories, and cultural appropriation will be addressed.
- From "Mission Statement," Beyond Victoriana by Diana M. Pho (Ay-Leen the Peacemaker)

Several years ago, one of my readers commented on the "steampunk-esque" flavour of one of my stories. The comment intrigued me, because this reader clearly felt that this was a positive feature, and in one of those quirks of the universe, I had never heard of steampunk. In truth, I couldn't imagine what steampunk could be, since my stories come mainly from my own idiosyncratic interests and creations. So, as any person does nowadays, I turned to my favoured web browser and ran a query in my preferred search engine. The results of that first query reflect the definition Diana Pho provides at Beyond Victoriana very well. In fact, if a neophyte to the genre/movement isn't careful, it is very easy to think there is nothing but aesthetics going on. Fashion designers bored with the so-called "modern" look, everybody fed up with everything being remade as a glass box or a stainless steel box, houses included.

I have read a wide range of commentators on steampunk, both people of colour and others, who have leaned towards dismissing steampunk as little more than imperialist, sexist nostalgia. There are undeniable elements of this. In fact, one of the best ways to see the variety of steampunk and how it has rapidly transformed, is to read the Steampunk short story anthologies edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. The likelihood is high that the stories in the first volume will turn your stomach. Those early stories represent the absolute worst of the materials I have seen, heard, or read. However, they are important to read if you're interested in producing steampunk works yourself, because the origins of the literary genre, and what you may be working against, are important to know. And they will also demonstrate that steampunk has genuinely come a long, positive way and has real positive potential, especially when you read the next two anthology volumes.

The earliest steampunk writers appear to all be white men utterly pissed off to be unable to freely reproduce racist, sexist, and homophobic tropes anymore. So their stories are full of them, and chock-ablock with wish-fulfillment fantasies in which the victorian era never really left, the sun never set on the british empire (or at least, it somehow transmogrified without difficulty into the american one), white men were the definition of human and everyone else subordinate, you name it. These alternate futures are beyond ugly, and "dystopian" is too pretty a word for them. Indeed, this seems to be the point. The stories have a flavour of épater le bourgeois right out of the earlier decadent movement in literature.

Then something curious happened. However offputting early steampunk could be — and you didn't have to be bourgeois to be put off by it — certain core ideas struck cords heard far beyond those original disaffected writers. The sound stretched beyond white men, beyond "white" north america, beyond europe. The nostalgia for a past where white meant might and right was real, but it could not stifle the power of imagining an alternate past, which is really a way of imagining an alternate future. The original analogy drawn in early steampunk between loss of control of the machine and loss of control of oppressed peoples was clear. It also resonated with the problem of current technology, which is being designed and redesigned specifically to disempower and deskill the people using it. Within a steampunk framework, it is much harder to pretend that "the technology" is doing this all by itself, because "artificial intelligence" can't be used as an updated wizard's curtain. Silly steampunk picture.

I should also add that another key element in the rise of steampunk is the extraordinary greed and stupidity manifested in the copyright frameworks of north america, england, and much of europe. This is where the majority of early steampunk writers are from, and where manipulations by large media corporations like disney have nearly shut down additions to the public domain, the great pool of works that have fallen out of copyright. This means that the majority of older works that can be safely quoted and reworked in a story, costume or whatever that may even make the artist money must come from earlier than 1923, the arbitrary cut-off year for the public domain in the united states. If we head off and check the dates of the victorian and most recent edwardian eras, those are 1837-1901 and 1901-1910. Even a preliminary and less than formal totalling up of the ranks of early steampunk authors immediately confirms their affinity for fiction specifically from this era, including stories and novels by Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells, their intense allergy to women's works from the same period, and their origins in the united states and britain.

Yet, I have said next to nothing about aesthetic so far. Nothing about the role of leather, brass, and polished wood. No snark about goths discovering the colour brown or renegade SCA members fiercely reclaiming "anachronism" to punk the proceedings. No indeed. This came a bit later on, from what I can tell, although it has proliferated even faster than steampunk storytelling for many good reasons, like affordability and accessibility. My first sense of it came in part through gorgeously illustrated steampunk anthologies (not just the Vandermeers'). It wasn't just the novelty of pictures in "adult" books either. These pictures were intense and elaborate, well worth spending some time to look at, and usually were accompanied by smaller illustrations integrated in the text, elaborate drop caps and so on. They were something different again from what one of my favourite artists, Edward Gorey, created according to his own vaguely victorian/edwardian sensibility.

Part of the draw of the steampunk aesthetic is I think, the tactility of the materials involved, as well as their different appearance and connotations. In his latest book, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, David Graeber briefly discusses the stripped-down, bland appearance of early video games which seems to dictate the modern design aesthetic in workplaces and homes. He wasn't discussing steampunk, but he has put his finger on (no pun intended) a key element of the development of the steampunk aesthetic. So much of what any of us see from day to day is boring. The argument from "naturalness" is a red herring. Anybody who genuinely thinks brass is natural should really stop and rectify that misconception right away. Doron Swade in The Difference Engine, his account of Charles Babbage's life and the project to build a modern replica of Difference Engine No. 2, noted the importance of the machine's parts being shiny wherever they were visible. People perceived such highly polished parts more positively, and we humans do seem to have an inherent appreciation for shiny yellow-red colours and/or smooth, polished surfaces. But more than this, the eventual machine was interesting to look at. People couldn't see everything about how it worked, but could appreciate its intricacy nonetheless, and were intrigued by the sounds it made as it worked. What victorian machines had going for them, whether or not somebody off the street could understand them, was that they were interesting to look at and hear. Often there was an obvious place for an operator or a spectator to touch and operate the machine. Compared to their modern counterparts, they seem almost garish with their fancy fittings, high polishes, and carefully proportioned segments. How ironic these latter features came primarily from accident.

The person who explains this all too briefly is engineer and writer Henry Petroski. Originally, there was no such thing as technical drawing for engineers. Before the days of thick textbooks on the subject, together with restrictions on which pencils, rulers, and graph papers budding engineers could use, and before engineering was fully professionalized, engineers had to do something else. Many followed the example established by the usual story of the renaissance featuring artist-engineers like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo. They took regular drawing classes, taught themselves, or didn't bother with drawing at all, though this last was much rarer. By the late 1700s on, it became possible to take architectural drawing, where the students learned how to draw stock elements to work up the views accompanying building plans. These elements included various imitation graeco-roman bits including pillars and metopes, as well as stylized bushes and trees. When faced with producing engineering drawings, the engineers trained in architectural drawings repurposed those stock elements, and eventually machinists and woodworkers reproduced them. This was no bad idea. Cladding one technology in the forms of a more familiar one can be traced right back to the first stone buildings with wood grain carved into parts of the roof and doorways. Early television sets in giant wood cabinets reminiscent of sideboard cabinets are another example.

There is more than this history and accident to steampunk's aesthetic appeal though, much more. It may be one of the best practical challenges to the corporate claim that art is a luxury. Not just any kind of luxury either, but a luxury of monumental cost and size, requiring high security to keep safe, and preferably produced by an artist who died impoverished because they were paid no more than a pittance for their work. After all, if we have all dutifully read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we have also learned that few people indeed are truly creative, and fewer still produce real art, and art had better be "real." In steampunk we have a whole movement arguing that art is no luxury, and expensive, monumental, and expropriated are all options (invidious ones) and far from requirements. It is no trivial thing to find ways to produce art other than writing in ways based on recycled and inexpensive materials, which free people to experiment and make mistakes as they learn. Steampunk artists are also among the first I know of who show examples of things going wrong and how they repurposed the results and learned how to avoid their original mistake. This is by no means universal, but it does help create the sense of steampunk art as accessible and respectful of human frailty and diversity.

The topic of human frailty and diversity brings us back to steampunk as one way of reimagining the past and the future, because it is precisely the disrespect and contempt for human frailty that lies at the heart of much of current social conflict, let alone the technology debate which is inseparable from it. Many technoboosters can be counted on to trot out the Luddites whenever they want to shame someone into accepting some new gadget or way of doing things. The writers for magazines like Wired and Ars Technica are as unlikely to have learned much about the Luddites as any of us, but as it happens the Luddites were not the stupid machine breakers they have been depicted as by the official winners of the struggle they took up. The Luddites were thinking people who realized the purpose of the machines was to put them out of work and depress wages. The new machines actually overproduced shoddy product that could not be sold in the beginning, so it sat and rotted. However, the factory owners were obsessed with reducing costs, and the cost they couldn't find a way to reduce easily was that of human labour, even once it was thoroughly divided into tasks requiring as little skill as possible. Which meant, the people had to go, and machines had to replace them. The ultimate illogic of this is still being denied by capitalist fundamentalists.

The other reason factory owners wanted to get rid of labour by people was because once they couldn't ignore things like health, safety, and fair wages, they insisted they were being robbed. This is nonsense, and reflects intense greed and contempt for people unlike themselves. A mistake cost money, an illness cost money — these human frailties were costly and inefficient. Plus, people were bored by tasks rendered into their simplest and supposedly most efficient form, exacerbating the occurrence of mistakes and injuries. And it was hard to get the right people, they were so frustratingly diverse. A distinctly non-machine example of the trouble with getting uniform enough employees is the fur trade. A key job requirement if you wanted to work for the old fur trade companies and be paid, apart from being male, was being no more than five feet to five feet four inches tall. Otherwise, you took up too much room in the canoes that formed the original backbone of their shipping fleets, and were too tall to carry the canoes efficiently over portages.

Mass production technology is the key feature of the so-called industrial revolution, and it is still held up as a sort of secular miracle. It seems cheaper and more efficient, and no doubt in some places it is. It has done wonders for key technologies like washing machines, which probably did more to ease the burden of one of the heaviest tasks forced almost exclusively onto women in western society. But when applied to clothes and shoes or any other item that humans need to fit them, mass production technology creates tremendous problems. The trouble with mass produced ready to wear items strikes everyone who does not match the mythical people corresponding to the selected production sizes, or who was rather hoping for something other than a bog standard cotton t-shirt and jeans. Not looking like you wear a uniform everyday when you aren't in a uniformed job is not a luxury either, and again this comes up as an element of the steampunk discussion. Not every clothes modder is a steampunker by a longshot, but in my experience at scifi and steampunk conventions, steampunkers and those who make costumes to attend these events in general are modders by choice as much as by necessity. And funny as it may sound, it is a pretty neat feeling the first time you successfully make something fit, and the modification seems like it was always there. "DIY" has become a cliché and something looked down on as something for "the poor." Yet it is a more complex phenomenon than that, because even the most skeptical DIYers are surprised by how empowered they feel at finishing their project successfully. The draw of this as it is expressed in steampunk is clear, especially since it doesn't require a political analysis as an entry badge.

I distrust universalizing statements proclaiming our inherent mutual humanity because they are uni-directional — they do not make everyone more like me, they make everyone more like you. And I do not want that.
- From "I Didn't Dream of Dragons," by Deepa D.

Now we get to the trickier part, the political, and deal with other than the "mainstream" part. I am definitely not part of the "mainstream": female, person of colour, lesbian, writer, scholar. Plenty of disqualifiers there. That's even before dealing with questions of self-presentation and their political meaning. So on finally figuring out what steampunk was, at least notionally, I had to ask myself, why does this appeal to me? If steampunk is just a sort of mass whine for the lost empire where men were white, heterosexual, and allowed to rape and pillage at will, what could possibly be in it for me? Thankfully even with the smidgen of information I started from, it was clear steampunk was not a whine for a past that never really was to start with, though all too many parts of the fantasy had and have a basis in reality.

If you've poked around on this site at all, you may have noticed that I have a fondness for hacking stories that would be cool except for the sexism, racism, and homophobia into something more fun, at least for me to read. Steampunk as a genre of writing has huge potential in this very way, as one more approach by which those who have been oppressed by hegemonic narratives turn them upside down. This is hard to do, sometimes impossible on the first couple of tries. How tragic is it that science fiction/fantasy as usually constructed is supposedly so open to people other than white males, yet they give no sense of this possibility for the most part? (Sorry folks, Star Trek doesn't cut it.) Deepa D's essay, quoted from above — and if you haven't read it yet, trust me, it is well worth every moment you spend reading and savouring it — lays out beautifully just how constraining mainstream fiction is for those of us who are not "mainstream." She notes how she tried to write a standard fantasy story, but was foiled by the usual european dragon and inn tropes. Most of all though, she recounted her own and her classmates' struggles to write stories that featured children like themselves.Silly steampunk picture.

I can relate to those stories all too well, despite being from an entirely different former british colony and having a completely different linguistic and ethnic background. All through elementary and high school, I wrote fiction assignments that left me feeling frustrated and confused. In elementary school they regularly featured a green eyed pirate with black hair, though I can't remember a thing else about them or how I came up with the combination, except that it was random. The teacher literally read out from a sheet of paper, "Make up a character. What is their eye colour? What is their hair colour? What do they do?" Deadly boring, and two questions never asked: "Is your character a boy or a girl? What colour are they?" Of course they never asked that, because the assumption was that the character was a white boy. Yes, these two questions and the possibilities they open are still too limiting, but I would have ripped my eyeteeth out for them because otherwise we were all stuck writing stories about white boys. (And yes, would probably have insisted on having my character be purple and a girl. Like most kids at that age, I liked to find unexpected or obnoxious technicalities.) In highschool of course we were expected to write about white men. I got so frustrated with it all that I wrote a short story that deliberately gave detail about the narrator's surroundings down to the spray of gravel on the road two blocks down from their house, and nothing at all about the narrator themselves. The narrator was present, but erased. Which was exactly how I felt. My very white english teacher did not approve. She completely got what was amiss with the narrator, but could not appreciate or accept that that was a bug not a feature, literally the point of the story. To this day, I am baffled by her refusal to dignify the story with the recognition that it took serious effort to achieve that effect, even though I have all manner of rationalizing explanations to choose from now.

This is part of Deepa D's point of course. If "universalizing" is a one way process and makes me like you, then that makes me invisible. I'm sick to death of being invisible, of having my stories erased and ignored. Go figure, here is a new thing called steampunk, which is no panacea, and yet by its nature it pushes the non-mainstream out front. No matter how hard people work to write new edisonades (a type of early steampunk centred on an Edison-like main character) or whatever, the nagging questions come up. How can there only be white people in this story? Where are the women? Do adults just hatch out of eggs full grown? What is up with the assumed crypto-christianity? Yes, the real victorian era didn't ask those questions, and yes, steampunk won't save the world. But it is one of the best drivers of genuine discussion of complicated topics in oppression, identity, and history so desperately needed by all of us now as we get ready for the big changes ahead.

  1. Which stopped being google when it became wholly an advertising company and let slip its interest in developing technology for military purposes.
  2. Not "worst" in the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes movie sense either. To this day whenever I think about that movie I can't help but wonder what the hell happened to the scriptwriters who managed to come up with it. Even the Wolverine X-Men Origins movie didn't inspire that reaction for me, and it was awful too.
  3. The resurgence of illustrations, not just photographs in adult books is a phenomenon in itself. It seems to be part of the explosion of the graphic novels, first generation comics, and even the e-book. It's as if a huge number of adults finally burst out in frustration, "Picture books are not just for kids — and by the way, good kid's picture books don't condescend to kids or adults!" I think it's a genuine resurgence of the illuminated manuscript, where the illuminations themselves told a story, and not necessarily the same one as the text. Furthermore, the pictures can be looked at carefully and won't vanish if you blink or the battery runs out.
  4. An excellent essay expanding on the issue of the lack of tactile interest and pleasantness in current technological aesthetic is Touchscreens Have No Hand by Edward Tufte. (As a matter of fact, you can't go wrong reading anything of Tufte's.) Also, have a read of Bret Victor's A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design. Practically speaking, I suspect that the "glass screen" monomania of current interaction design is a reflection of mainstream cultures that are both hypersexualized and violently anti-touch and anti-movement.
  5. I recently had the strange experience of reading a person who declared the project showed that Babbage's machines could never have been built because victorian era machining technology was too poor. Which was odd because, that is exactly the opposite of what the project showed. It showed they certainly could have been built, but the effort was sabotaged by the combination of Babbage's personality, his first machinist's personality, and the bull-headedness of english society.
  6. I am honestly baffled by the positive response so many people have to Csikszentmihalyi's writing on creativity. In his major book on the topic, he seems to utterly deny creativity to anyone but a very narrow population selected based on a set of criteria redolent of classicism, sexism, and racism. On one hand, he wanted to show that being a successful creative did not mean a person had to be mentally ill. This is a very good thing to show, though the stereotype of the mad artist (and incidentally the mad scientist) dies hard. On the other, a person who wishes to make art and is looking for encouragement should run as far and fast as possible from the book.
  7. The definition of "real" art provided in published books varies sharply with what a very narrow segment of the population of the Earth is willing to pay money for at a given time.
  8. Seriously, if you'd like to see this in an actual book written up officially, see Servants of the Honourable Company: Work, Discipline, and Conflict in the Hudson's Bay Company, 1770-1870 by Edith I. Burley (Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1997).
  9. With all the obsession with accurate period detail in steampunk sited in london — which is a bit of a cliché place to place a steampunk story — with nobody even remotely checking out key resources on the experience of women or even writing women, which are emblematic of the struggles of white english and american women. A gruelling and excellent resource on this is the classic, huge study by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yes, it really is available at the Internet Archive for on-line reading and even for downloading.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2020
Last Modified: Friday, November 3, 2017 16:30:38