Steampunk Fortnight

Towards a Steampunk Without Steam

Winding Down the House

I want to destroy steampunk.

I want to tear it apart and melt it down and recast it. I want to take your bustles and your fob watches and your monocles and grind them to a fine powder, dust some mahogany furniture with it and ask you, is this steampunk? And if you say yes, I want to burn the furniture.

Understand, I want to do this out of love. I love what I see at steampunk’s core: a desire for the beautiful, for technological wonder, for a wedding of the rational and the marvelous. I see in it a desire for non-specialised science, for the mélange of occultism and scientific rigour, for a time when they were not mutually exclusive categories. But sadly I think we’ve become so saturated with the outward signs of an aesthetic that we’re no longer able to recognise the complex tensions and dynamics that produced it: we’re happy to let the clockwork, the brass, the steam stand in for them synecdochally, but have gotten to a point where we’ve forgotten that they are symbols, not ends in themselves.

Now, I am a huge fan of the long nineteenth century. I am a scholar of the long eighteenth century, which, depending on whom you ask, begins in the seventeenth and overlaps with the nineteenth, because centuries stopped being a hundred years long in the twentieth–which is, of course, still happening, and began in 1914. But the nineteenth century holds a special place in my Lit Major heart. When, about ten years ago, I began to see the locus of the fantasy I read shifting from feudal to Victorian, swapping torches for gas lamps, swords for sword-canes, I was delighted. I was excited. There was squee.

I could write about this, I thought. I could write about how steampunk is our Victorian Medievalism–how our present obsession with bustles and steam engines mirrors Victorian obsessions with Gothic cathedrals and courtly love. I could write about nostalgia, about the aesthetics of historical distance, and geek out!

And I could. I have, to patient friends. But I’m not going to here, because I think we’re past the point of observing what constitutes a steampunk aesthetic, and should be thinking instead of deconstructing its appeal with a view to exploding the subgenre into a million tiny pieces. We should be taking it apart, unwinding it, finding what makes it tick–and not necessarily putting it back together in quite the same way. In fact, maybe we shouldn’t put it back together at all.

A case in point: I was recently asked to contribute a story to Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories, an anthology that does what it says on the tin. I wrote a story in what, to my mind, would be a steampunky Damascus: a Damascus that was part of a vibrant trading nation in its own right, that would not be colonised by European powers, where women displayed their trades by the patterns of braids and knots in their hair, and where some women were pioneering the art of crafting dream-provoking devices through new gem-cutting techniques.

Once I’d written it, though, I found myself uncertain whether or not it was steampunk. It didn’t look like anything called steampunk that I’d seen. Sure, there were goggles involved in gem-crafting, and sure, copper was a necessary component of the dream-device—but where was the steam? My editor asked the same question, and suggested my problem could be fixed by a liberal application of steamworks to the setting. Who could naysay me if my story had all the trappings of the subgenre?

Syria, you may be aware, is a fairly arid country. There are better things to do with water than make steam.

So to add that detail would have meant acknowledging that steampunk can only occur in Victorian England—that it is bound to a time and a place, without which it must be something else. It would have meant my Damascus would be London with Arabic names tacked on, and that Syria could not participate in the exciting atmosphere of mystifying science that characterised Britain in the same period without developing precisely the same technology. It would mean that the cadence of my characters’ speech would need to change.

I changed other things. I gave my protagonist an awareness of world politics. I raised the stakes of the technology she was developing. I tried to make my readers see that the steampunk with which they were familiar was happening somewhere within the bounds of this world, but that I would not be showing it to them, because something more interesting was happening here, in Damascus, to a girl who could craft dreams to request but rarely dreamed herself. And my editor liked it, and approved it, and I felt vindicated in answering the question of whether or not it was steampunk with, well, why not?

I submit that the insistence on Victoriana in steampunk is akin to insisting on castles and European dragons in fantasy: limiting, and rather missing the point. It confuses cause and consequence, since it is fantasy that shapes the dragon, not the dragon that shapes the fantasy. I want the cogs and copper to be acknowledged as products, not producers, of steampunk, and to unpack all the possibilities within it.

I want retrofuturism that plays with our assumptions and subverts our expectations, that shows us what was happening in India and Africa while Tesla was coiling wires, and I want it to be called steampunk. I want to see Ibn Battuta offered passage across the Red Sea in a solar-powered flying machine of fourteenth-century invention, and for it to be called steampunk. I want us to think outside the clockwork box, the nineteenth century box, the Victorian box, the Imperial box. I want to read steampunk where the Occident is figured as the mysterious, slightly primitive space of plot-ridden possibility.

I want steampunk divorced from the necessity of steam.


Amal El-Mohtar is a Canadian-born child of the Mediterranean, currently pursuing a PhD in English literature at the Cornwall campus of the University of Exeter. She is the author of The Honey Month, a collection of poetry and prose written to the taste of twenty-eight different honeys, and the winner of the 2009 Rhysling Award for her poem “Song for an Ancient City.” Find her online at Voices on the Midnight Air.

Image of spherical astrolabe from medieval Islamic astronomy courtesy of Wikipedia.

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