Nov. 4th, 2010

jadegirl: (honor)
Steampunk is having its moment in the sun these days, with appearances in major network TV shows and front page articles in metro-area papers; even Disney's hopped onto the bandwagon, releasing a series of sepia toned, gear adorned accessories. In a lot of ways, it's a very good time to be a steampunk. Being lucky enough to live in NYC I can't go a month without a steampunk gathering to attend, filled with live music, fashion shows, and authors reading new work.

Of course, brass tarnishes. Frequently, as any subculture comes into its mainstream moment, battle lines are drawn, and the subculture becomes a target for all sorts of ire. While having its moment in the sun, steampunk is also taking its turn against the wall. This can be a wonderful thing, actually. Any cultural movement needs to be interrogated, questioned, told it can do better, be better, and it must. Without this pressure, culture stagnates and become stale parody. Steampunk in particular requires a great deal of critique and interrogation, because of the problematic nature of the history it encompasses.

However, this pressure, this interrogation needs accuracy above all things, else it devolves into mere ranting and divisiveness that merely offends, silences, and sets the speakers up into camps, ending all possibility for communication. This phenomena is easily observable in many of the essays decrying the popularity of steampunk coming out of the Net at this moment. Many of the complaints about steampunk lack the thinnest accuracy, and are more than questionable.

I shall begin with the concept that steampunk is inherently forgetting or eliding the inherent ills of the 19th century. Please consider Steampunk Magazine, maintained by a collective of people who describe themselves are mainly anarchists, and whose fiction not only acknowledges the labor issues of the 19th century, but frequently revolves around labor riots, or the lives of those at the bottom of the social strata. Consider Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, whose protagonist is a single mother who works in a factory, and whose path leads her to living amongst those who have utterly rejected traditional society. These works are not in the least obscure, and yet NPR references a recent essay by Charlie Stross with a title that asks if we've forgotten the word “Dickensian”.

Some will even point to the clothing of steampunks as evidence that they are ignoring the epidemic levels of poverty in the 19th century. I beg your pardon, but are you really policing my clothing, attempting to tell me that I am ignoring my own lower class background? Isn't the concept of policing women's clothing (interestingly it's most often bustles and unisex items like top hats and goggles that are brought up as evidence of these failures of consciousness) fraught with enough issues that you might want to avoid it? Except, of course, in the case of cultural appropriation, but that's been addressed by better authors than I whose links I will include in the appendix.

Another frequent complaint is that steampunk is inherently a monoculture, ignoring the existence and perspectives of people and cultures outside of the British empire. This ignores and silences the voices of steampunks of color who are quite active in critiquing these issues. For example, if you Google “steampunk and race”, the first result is an article on Racialicious written by Jha of the Silver Goggles blog. Google “steampunk and imperialism”, and the first result is once again an essay by Jha, the fourth by Ay-leen the Peacemaker, of Beyond Victoriana. “Steampunk and Multiculturalism” leads back to Ay-leen, who recently won the Last Drink Bird Head award for Gentle Advocacy for her work in Beyond Victoriana.

These people are not difficult to find at all. My husband recently had a birthday party at which a few friends had their first introduction to steampunk. These friends happened to be women of color, and within a day one of them emailed me excited to have read Jha's The Intersections of Race and Steampunk essay. recently ended their “steampunk fortnight” which featured the work of Nisi Shawl, Amal El-Mohtar, Jha, and Ay-leen. They tirelessly engage in exactly the sort of interrogation I mentioned earlier, and without them steampunk would be much worse off than it is. Why is it that those who are writing their “Against Steampunk” essays seem to have no idea these people exist? The silencing of so much excellent and difficult work is distressing, to put it mildly. The act of silencing the voices of those who are working in the arena of addressing steampunk from a specifically multicultural perspective is fraught with privilege, especially when done by white authors. Considering the fact that much (by no means all) of this silencing is men ignoring the voices of women of color adds to the extraordinarily suspect nature of such work.

Some say that steampunk literature is shallow, more interested in the tropes of the subculture than any real literary merit. I must ask if they've looked at bookstore shelves lately. We have our paranormal romances, our wizard's schools, and now, steampunk. Like any other genre, the pearls are few and far between, but that is not a sin particularly inherent to us. It can and has been said of any genre.

Finally, the endemic nature of steampunk at this moment is often brought up as a problem. Over saturation is a complex question. How much of anything, be it paranormal romance, telepathic animal companions, wizard's schools, etc. is 'too much'? If gears are being slapped on any old thing in order to hitch a ride on steampunks coattails, is that a fault within steampunk? The wide world of marketing has followed this formula for a very long time.

Indeed, as I said in my opening, we are having our moment in the sun. Our current era resonates strongly with the 19th century – war and rumors of war, the movement of empires, the rising levels of poverty, social injustice, and the pace of technological innovation are all quite similar. Steampunk can be an attempt to own and remake these things, humanize our technology by making it aesthetically pleasing, work towards new ways of interacting with the world by learning from the injustices of empire, etc. This is the platform which some of us chose to stand on while trying to enact a better future.

Popularity fades, and soon steampunk will move back into the shadows, replaced by the next big thing. I'll stay, though. I like it here.

Further Reading, in no particular order and by no means complete:
Jha's The Intersection of Race and Steampunk: Colonialism’s After-Effects & Other Stories, from a Steampunk of Colour’s Perspective [Essay]

Ay-leen the Peacemaker's Beyond Victoriana: A Multicultural Perspective on Steampunk

Steampunk Magazine

Jha's Silver Goggles


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November 2010

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