Friday, December 3, 2010

Considerations on Steampunk Culture

I've been thinking a lot about the culture of Steampunk lately. This is something I do pretty much all the time, but my work with Doctor Fantastique's and Flying Pen Press and this blog has made that even more of a consistent thought than it was before. My life is steeped in Steampunk now, which isn't a bad thing in the slightest.

Random side note: I'll be hosting regular Steampunk Chats on Twitter starting today at 9 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time/6 p.m. U.S. Pacific Time focusing on the Literature side of the genre.

Anyway, back to the main topic: The culture of Steampunk has, up to this point, appeared to focus on a very narrow view of what can be done with the genre. I know the beginnings place the primary setting of First World Steampunk in Victorian England. I get that, especially because England was the center of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions from 1750 to 1920. There are some stories that expand on this -- Boneshaker and Native Star among them -- but those stories appear drowned out among the standard Victorian London stories that proliferate in the genre.

It's important to note that I'm not saying the stories set in Victorian England are bad. In fact, there are some of them that are very, very well-written and interesting. But their predominance is somewhat bothersome; especially because there's a whole wealth of source material throughout the period of 1750 to 1920 that writers of Steampunk could use to make very, very interesting stories. I'm of course excluding Fantasy World Steampunk from this discussion because it's ... well ... Fantasy World and different topics apply there (not that Fantasy World Steampunk is automatically better than First World Steampunk, just that I'm ignoring it for the purposes of this argument).

The dominance of England-set stories is why I love something like Virtuoso so much. If you don't know the comic, it's set in an Africa that runs on the Steampunk mechanics of cogs and gears and springs. Seeing an African-based Steampunk world is extremely refreshing, as is reading Karin Lowachee's The Gaslight Dogs, where the Steampunk focuses on a tribe of Inuit-esque people in a far northern landscape.

I love the England-set stories as much as the next fan of Steampunk, but seeing them all over the place has led me to wonder how often we can really see the same First World setting over and over again. Granted, it's not really the same because different authors write different stories, but having everything taking place in an alternate version of England has always led me to wonder what else was going on in the rest of the alternate world. Was China the same? Was Africa? What about Latin America?

In fact, there's a thought -- show me a Steampunk story where the Mayans, Incas, or Aztecs have developed steam power independent of European involvement, or maybe in response to European involvement. Show me a world where the great tribal civilizations of the Americas pushed out the Spanish invaders by using steam-powered mechanical suits or clockwork weaponry they invented based on the technology of the people who conquered them.

Write me an India where Punjabi rebels fight against the British using steam cannons and mechanical machinery cobbled together from stolen parts. Or drop me in the midst of a Steampunked Japan during the Russo-Japanese War, but give the Japanese some special mechanized weapon to use against the Russians. Or maybe you're thinking of something set in China during the years of the Boxer Rebellion; or Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

And when it comes to the clothing at cons, I would love to see someone taking a Steampunk brush to traditional garments from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Native Americans, and the African-Americans brought to the Americas via the slave trade. Show me a cosplayer who creates a character that comes from a Steampunk Jamaica and I will be very interested; something like that is why the work of folks like Monique Poirier and Ay-leen the Peacemaker is so important to the culture.*

My point is that the world's a whole heck of a lot bigger than Merry Old England, with a wealth of stories to tell and adventures to experience. Why would Steampunks, who are part of a subgenre/subculture that defies explanation, decide to limit themselves to one country? Why not spread around the world and show how inventive we can be?

* No slight intended to Jaymee Goh or any of the dozens of other Steampunks of Color floating around the aether. Those were simply the first two people I thought of.


Clare K. R. Miller said...

I can in fact point you to an Aztec steampunk story: "Memories in Bronze, Feathers, and Blood" by Aliette de Bodard. I believe her first novel, Servant of the Underworld, is also Aztec steampunk, though I haven't read it yet so I couldn't say for sure (it is definitely Aztec, as are many of her other short stories).

I've also been really wanting to read some steampunk set in India. It seems like a setting that's really ripe for steam and subversion, even to someone like me who doesn't know much about the history! (That would be why I'm not writing any, just hoping to read it.)

I'll be watching this post for other suggestions. Come on, fellow writers, you can do it!

Jha said...

No slight seen; I don't do the cosplay myself, so it's easy for me to sort of slip under the radar.

However. A-hem.


I shall also begin keeping a record of such works that aren't available online, once the semester has stopped eating me.

Anonymous said...

I also just finished Tobias Buckell's Crystal Rain, which is a steampunky novel set in a Caribbean-esque world where they are battling "the Azteca."

It's a fun novel, and one that actually has a classic-but-unexpected *science fiction* element to it as opposed to the magical fantasy element that you usually see in current steampunk novel.

The review for this book will be up next weekend :)


Anonymous said...

Great chat on this topic at #SteampunkChat this evening - thanks for hosting, Matt. For those who missed it, read the transcript at

Harry Markov said...

I was actually quite asleep when this went down, so I missed it. Stupid time zone difference. Blargh.

Anyway, I want to see more of that what you are saying. I'd love to see Egyptian steampunk.