Overweening arrogance aside (I won’t lie, writing that title made me giggle out loud, it was late, and I proceeded to practise the evilest laugh I could muster, only to fail miserably), I have come to the conclusion that the alternate history aspect of steampunk is one of the most delicious lures, ever.
This may appear to be a follow-up to GD Falksen’s lovely post on the possibilities of steampunk beyond Europe, but it’s not. I’ve talked about this issue before, and I want to talk about why this is important to visible minorities, particularly those engaged in predominantly-white spaces like North America and the UK.
In the first place, it is not easy to find people who look like us in science fiction to start with. The overwhelming majority of writers are white, as are an overwhelming majority of characters. Maybe the overwhelming majority of readers are also white, but considering that science fiction is read world-wide, I really doubt this is a case of writers writing for an audience like themselves. So it is in steampunk—most early Victorian science fiction feature white characters. Captain Nemo is a notable exception, being an Indian prince fighting against English imperialists. However, Captain Nemo was originally meant to be a white character (due to politics, his nationality was changed).
For those of us living in majority-white spaces, it can be isolating, not to mention disheartening, to notice we are the only visible minorities in the room. It can drive some away, too. Not only that, but because we steampunks of colour (henceforth referred to as SoC) are not a monolith, just as PoC vary in thought and personality, merely finding another SoC is simply not good enough. We’re not going to be bosom buddies just because we have different skin colours from the norm in the room.
Often, we find ourselves assimilating into the larger host culture, wearing clothes that may not reflect what we feel inside, in order to fit in. But I’ll make it clear, corsets may make me look good, but they can never make me forget that I am, in face shape, skin colour, appearance, and upbringing, an Asian (specifically, Malaysian-Chinese).
Those of us involved in anti-racism can see pattern after pattern of diminished power for visible minorities, dismissed as isolated incidents that do not reflect the values of the culture at large. We recognize that we are colonized and have no choice but to go along with what the dominant culture wants, because it’s not like we can go back to wherever we come from. For many of us, we come from here, where you are, too.
So some of us, we imagine alternate worlds where we are not the colonized and our heritages are intact. We imagine worlds where the East discovers the West, and worlds where racism isn’t built into the institutions that run our world. For those of us less optimistic about that possibility, we imagine worlds where the clash of cultures is more minutely observed, where issues of race are acknowledged as relevant, where simple colourblindness is not a solution. We imagine strategies where we tackle racism head-on and are invigorated rather than worn out, where we challenge marginalization.
In an alternate world, when I walk into a room of steampunks, I find steampunks who are drawing inspiration from all walks of life and all corners of the world, not just Victoriana. In an alternate world, I do not have to deal with crap from Neo-Victorians who insist that steampunk originates from the Victorian era and if it’s not Victorian, it’s not steampunk. (Hard to believe, but it’s true: these people do exist, and they’re annoying.)
That is part of the beauty of steampunk: in alternate worlds, we could revel in multi-culturalism and fight about how it really looks like, and our politics would be different and not Euro-centric, and the Western hegemony wouldn’t exist because Africa and Asia would have had steam power on par with the British invaders/visitors/traders/tourists, and we are not cultural curiousities.
That is part of the beauty of the steampunk aesthetic—our cogs and gears and clockwork and other such hard technology which we can touch and mold and manipulate and shape belong anywhere and everywhere.
This is also part of the beauty of the steampunk community—Neo-Victorian pedants aside, most steampunks really are not interested in limiting steampunk. It just so happens, though, that no one really pays attention to the issue of race in steampunk.
Ours is the world where we walk next to our white peers without feeling effaced, and participate on our own terms. Ours is the world where our voices are heard and taken seriously, instead of being told that we’re “looking for racism where it doesn’t exist.” If you’re anything like me, being from another continent and all, ours is the world where fiction is not limited to being from over the ocean about people who do not look like us in cities that are not like ours doing things we would never have done because in our cultures we do things differently.
Alternate history is a huge part of steampunk. It is where our present knowledge is applied to the ignorant past in order to dream a better, more enlightened future.
Or at least, more varied worlds than what we currently see. We can do that, right?
Jha is from Malaysia, which gained independence from the British in 1945, and she grew up reading scifi which wasn’t written or set anywhere on or near the peninsula she grew up on. Imagine her surprise upon finding that some British writers had, indeed, written stories set in Malaya. No scifi though.