Steampunk Fortnight

Stupid Things We Say

In front of maybe two hundred people, I said you could call steampunk a reactionary literature. I vowed to do my bit to head off the danger by writing a steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo. I told Michael Swanwick he would beg on his knees to read it.

This was last October at the 2009 World Fantasy Convention. I opened my big mouth during the panel “Why Steampunk Now?” while quite visible, seated on a nice, high dais next to Michael, Ann VanderMeer, Liz Gorinsky (gorgeously costumed), and Deborah Biancotti. I’d come to the con because of my two award nominations1, and I’d been stuck on this panel on a topic about which I was anything but an expert. And which actually rather squicked me.

Because while steampunk’s nonliterary components—fashion, art, music—are some of the most diverse scenes around, steampunk books and stories I was familiar with often seemed nostalgic for an imaginary vanished age of whiteness. Almost without exception they glorified British Victorian imperialism. They did this despite the fact that many of the cultural, scientific, and aesthetic elements steampunk celebrates had been appropriated from nations the British Empire conquered, and the related fact that the machinery steampunk focuses on had primarily been maintained by nonwhites.

When I discussed the panel with fellow Carl Brandon Society members, Doselle Young came up with the phrase “cotton gin punk.” I love this term—it’s so evocative of one of the important differences in how people of color relate to Victorian-era technology. Many times, our ancestors were quite literally chained to it.

So on the panel I:

  • Talked about Ogun, the West African deity who rules steel and engineering
  • Introduced the term “cotton gin punk” to the audience
  • Mentioned N.K. Jemisin’s then-unpublished “The Effluent Engine”2 and an episode in Steven Barnes’s alternate history novel Zulu Heart as a couple of examples of this newly-named subgenre
  • Made my rash vow to write a novel glorifying boilers and springs and rivets and dials, set on the location of one of the worst human rights atrocities in recorded history.

This week I began work on chapter five of that novel. It’s difficult. And fun. Difficult can be fun, you know. Rubber and bark-cloth dirigibles modeled on cacao pods, sailing down the Great Rift Valley. Oh yeah.

Steampunk and colonialismBut before I even began writing that book I found out more about POC-influenced steampunk stories. Because there was more to find out. Anyway, I had to: I’d been placed on yet another steampunk panel. This one, “The Politics of Steampunk,”3 took place in late May, at WisCon 34, and the list of my co-panelists again included Liz Gorinsky, who served as moderator. Theodora Goss and Piglet appeared on the panel; also, there were two other POC on the panel: Amal El-Mohtar and Jaymee Goh. Both in my prep and during the panel itself I learned things from them.

Jaymee was arrayed in a costume as beauteous as the one Liz wore at World Fantasy.  She also showed off a South-Asian-looking raygun she’d modded together, and introduced me to the Beyond Victoriana website, where Ay-leen the Peacemaker and her many co-conspirators discuss the intersection of steampunk with colonialism and what we can do about it.

Amal mentioned Shweta Narayan’s “The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar” appearing in issue 11 of Shimmer magazine, titled “The Clockwork Jungle Book.” “Mechanical Aviary” is a deeply satisfying tale following the currents of love, vengeance, and vindication as they flow between humans and singing windup robots. It’s set in Mughal India.

Maurice Broaddus sat in the audience, and having just read his August 2009 story “Pimp My Airship,” I had to do a shout out. Also in the audience was Jane Irwin, author/artist of “The Clockwork Game,” a steampunkish graphic novel about a faux-Turkish chess playing “automaton.” Jane had just started to wrestle with the insidious Orientalism of the period roots of steampunk; she did a lot of listening.

After the panel Jaymee gave me a postcard with a beautiful image from artist James Ng’s Imperial Steamworks series. I’m using his work on the cover of WisCon Chronicles 5, forthcoming in May 2011. WCC5 is the latest in a series of books from Aqueduct Press documenting documenting discussions that begin at and continue from WisCon events. The book will feature a report on the “Politics of Steampunk” panel and an analysis of that subgenre’s POC representation.

Shweta’s “Mechanical Aviary” will be reprinted in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s second steampunk anthology, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded from Tachyon Press, forthcoming in November. Also in that anthology: “The Future,” a roundtable discussion of steampunk including input from Ay-leen and Jaymee herself.

So at this point there is discussion: new ideas are being articulated, new questions are being asked. There is change: new stories are being told. Lately, in the world of steampunk, there is a chance to make a burgeoning art form more inclusive, more intricate, more verisimilitudinous. More fun.

People who move forward physically by walking must fall and catch themselves repeatedly. Moving forward intellectually means being willing to risk falling intellectually: being willing to say stupid things and then catch yourself. You catch yourself intellectually by making those stupid statements true, or restating them so they are right. Repeatedly. And moving forward.

Steampunk is in the process of constantly restating itself. And I will finish writing that novel.

1 No, I didn’t win in either category, though some other even better stuff happened to me while I was there. Yes, even better than winning two World Fantasy Awards. But that’s another post.

2 “The Effluent Engine” first appeared online at A Story for Haiti, where readers are asked to donate to Haitian relief organizations in exchange for the pleasure of reading the stories ther. It will be available in January within the pages of Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories from Torquere Press.

3 You can read a rough summary of that panel’s proceedings here, and an audience member’s reflections on it here.

Art courtesy of James Ng

Nisi Shawl’s story collection Filter House won the 2008 James Tiptree, Jr. Award and was nominated for a 2009 World Fantasy Award. She is the coauthor of Writing the Other, a founding member of the Carl Brandon Society, and serves on Clarion West’s Board of Directors. She’ll be a Guest of Honor at WisCon 35 in May 2011. Her blog is fairly active, and she has been meaning to update her home page.


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