Mon
Oct 5 2009 10:52am

The world is not enough...but it is such a perfect place to start

While steampunk is most easily summarized as “Victorian science fiction,” it is important to remember that this terminology is used to reference a period of time rather than a specific culture. While it is sometimes mistakenly assumed that Europe or the West must inevitably be the dominant subject of steampunk fiction, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, the blending of science fiction and alternate history found in steampunk make it possible to take the existing complexity and diversity of the 19th century world and bring non-European discourse into an even greater form.

Europe receives a great deal of attention in steampunk for understandable reasons. The Industrial Revolution began in England and spread to the Continent sooner than to most other parts of the world. However, many areas in Europe still wrestled with aspects of modernization: in Russia, the archaic institution of serfdom remained in place until the second half of the century, while “Germany” did not exist as a nation until the early 1870s.

The Americas are an easy place to move to after departing the European side of steampunk. The United States was second only to the British in terms of industrialization, and during the 19th century many of the other American colonies achieved independence from Europe. These represented new nations with unique cultures drawn from both native and European traditions. Haiti deserves a special mention as an independent republic ruled not by the descendents of Europeans but by the descendents of African slaves who had fought a revolution for both freedom and independence.

When discussing the Americas, one cannot forget the continents’ native peoples. While a number of Native American groups had already been subdued by the European colonies, the 19th century saw numerous conflicts as the new American nations sought to expand further into native territory. Even after absorption the dialogue continued, as native peoples adapted to their situation. In many cases this involved a fusion of cultures and goods. Adaptation is a key theme among the Native Americans, many of whom adapted to European-instigated changes better than the Europeans themselves, including in the area of technology. After the Civil War, the gun trade provided Native Americans in the West with repeating rifles, making them one of the most advanced cavalry forces in the world; at the same time, the United States restricted its cavalry to single-shot carbines while the Europeans held firm to their archaic obsession with sword and lance.

Africa is often overlooked when considering steampunk, which is a shame given that it was not colonized in force by Europeans until the end of the 19th century. For much of this period Africa was ruled by Africans, not only by local tribes but also by large and highly organized kingdoms and empires. Historically, the empires of Africa were cosmopolitan and possessed complex governmental systems, pre-industrial manufacturing and militaries that used metalwork, cavalry and firearms. Introduce pre-colonial industrialization and one has the perfect starting point for indigenous African steampunk.

Asia provides one of the finest examples of non-European “real world” steampunk, in the form of Japan. Historically, Japan modernized and industrialized with such effectiveness that it was able to supplant China as the dominant power in East Asia, then go on to defeat Russia (which at that time was a world superpower with eyes on Asian hegemony), and finally become an international power in its own right. Introduce the freedom of fiction provided by steampunk, and other nations follow. In China, the failure to modernize was in part caused by the Dowager Empress Cixi, who was reluctant to engage in full-scale reform. Remove her as a stumbling block to industrialization, and Chinese steampunk is free to blossom.

The so-called Great Game between Russia and Britain for control of Central Asia can be seen as a 19th century anticipation of the Cold War, and during this struggle the Asians themselves had significant roles to play. Many local rulers saw the competition as a means of pitting one European against the other in exchange for wealth, technology and power, and many times these attempts were successful. Afghanistan, Bokhara, the newly formed nation of Kashgaria, all engaged with the British and Russians as active participants. Even non-Europeans from outside of Central Asia were involved in the struggle: Indian explorers disguised as Buddhist pilgrims were employed by the British as spies and scouts in the region.

The Indian subcontinent is especially viable for explorations into steampunk in part because of its cosmopolitan nature and in part because of its position as a key portion of the British Empire. Its role as a British colony makes it a natural recipient of Europeanized steampunk, but this should not undermine India’s own unique voice in the genre. Remove the British from the equation (perhaps by a dramatically more successful Indian Rebellion in 1857) and a wholly indigenous adaptation of technology becomes possible. However, it must be remembered that India has a long history of absorbing and blending diverse ideas, belief systems and sciences, and there is no reason to think that it would not give a unique look and feel to its steampunk even while subjected to colonial rule.

Due to its position as a major crossroads of trade and travel, Southeast Asia possesses an incredible degree of diversity that makes it difficult to categorize. During the 19th century parts of Southeast Asia had already been colonized by Europeans, while others remained independent and were colonized as the century wore on. Others, such as the Philippines, fought wars for independence with varying success. Throughout its history, Southeast Asia has absorbed and combined diverse ideas, cultures and belief systems far more effectively and harmoniously than in other parts of the world, and as with India it is likely that steampunk in a colonized Southeast Asia would still develop a unique feel. At the same time, steampunk offers the possibility of industrialized pre-colonial nations in Southeast Asia, or even earlier and more successful revolutions set in the 19th century.

In the Middle East, the aging powers of Persia and the Ottoman Empire were still powerful enough to enter diplomatic consideration, and one wonders if the restructuring and industrialization of a steampunk influence might well have saved them. Alternatively, a steampunk world could see the Arab Revolt of the First World War occurring sooner or with greater success. The idea of a united and independent Arabia in the 19th century with cities and oases united by railroads or airships is undeniably steampunk.

It is especially pleasing to know that the wealth of diversity available to steampunk fiction has successfully translated into the steampunk subculture. Not only are people comfortable with exploring the diverse sources of fashion and aesthetic inspiration available to them, but the trend’s membership is diverse as well. While many subcultures find themselves divided upon ethnic, social or economic lines, steampunk has found adherents among countless different people of not only European but also Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Native American descent. Its ranks include members of the working class, the middle class, academia and even the independently wealthy, all of whom are united by a common love of the 19th century aesthetic and the steampunk genre.

If you are a writer, an artist or a costumer looking for sources of inspiration for non-European steampunk, consider these all viable starting points. However, the world is a big place and it would be impossible to provide a totally exhaustive list in so short a space. Look through the wealth of cultural diversity present in the 19th century and see what draws your attention. Add science fiction and you’re good to go.

For additional references and sources of inspiration, check the G.D. Falksen history tag over on Steamfashion.


G.D. Falksen is a writer and student of history who has given lectures on the steampunk genre and subculture. He is inordinately fond of swing jazz.  Further details can be found on his website, www.gdfalksen.com

This article is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
16 comments
Bill Siegel
1. ubxs113
Great article. I know many people have issues with the diversity of Steampunk. I sometime wonder if the relevant adjective in describing Steampunk wasn't Victorian and all it's English overtones but Industrialization and how that might effect the genre.
Jonathan Wood
2. JWood
This was a fascinating post. Inspired a lot of thought. Thanks for putting this up.
Erika A.
3. brownjawa
This article reminds me that I would like to see a steampunk world set in Mexico or California! :)
firkin
4. firkin
steampunk offers the possibility of industrialized pre-colonial nations in Southeast Asia, or even earlier and more successful revolutions set in the 19th century.

now you're talking.

i've never been too excited about steampunk as such; it's got some really neat looking stuff and as an aesthetic DIY hobby it seems cool enough, but i've never personally felt the big draw otherwise and few of the literary incarnations i've read have moved me. but as a tool for anti-colonialist alternate history stories, the whole thing suddenly has a lot more potential. what would the world be like if early science fiction machines had enabled Africans to fend off European colonialism, or forced a better outcome on the American plains, or supported a post-revolutionary industrial economy in Haiti?

thanks for this post!
Liz Gorinsky
5. TooMuchExposition
Man, I want to read novels set in all of these environments. What a lot of cool ideas!
Alejandro Melchor
6. Al-X
@3

I'm currently devising a steampunk setting where dictator Porfirio Díaz, in the dawn of his second and truly dictatorial term in Mexico, pushed the country's industrialization about the same time Tesla quit working for Edison and was looking for work elsewhere :D
firkin
7. Ay-leen
Thanks for this article, G.D.; I think that steampunk's cultural inclusiveness helps differentiate it from neo-Victorianism.
firkin
8. Lenfant
An oversimplified version of history. Steampunk at it's heart as a re-writing of history, from a logical basis. The only plausible version of the this would be taking the "Boxer Rebellion" and positing that they didn't just try to rip everything down, and made an alternate economy
firkin
9. soltaan
haha! i'm Indian, and i'm trying to imagine an Indian Steampunk era, and heck, it might've been quite cool!
firkin
10. SteampunkGypsy
This post about diversity opens so the door to many possibilities and should not be taken lightly... For Fantasy and Realities Sake...

If one is talking about Steampunk Concepts juxtaposed to Steampunk Ideals, the world of reality altered becomes endless.

Search Destroy Create
firkin
11. tasos
Check out the real Leader Greek fighter of the 17th cent. Check the hair-cut! This original image of this fighter is rejected by the official state :)
The name: Souliotis or Souliote


http://daskalosk.gr/AKASTRA14.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kostas_Botsaris
firkin
12. Blue Llama
The problem with some of these scenarios is the lack of a key strategic resource thats was absolutely vital to industrializing (and therefore, Steampunk). Easy and cheap access to coal. Without coal, none of the rapid advancing in the Industrial Revolution would have been possible. Part of why the Western world advanced so quickly was the massive amounts of coal in their borders. The Ottoman Empire (who did industrialize quite rapidly after the Crimean War) for example got nearly all their coal from their Balkan provinces. Places like Southeast Asia, Persia, Africa and South America did not have the native resources or capacity for coal production. The Ottoman Empire if they had started earlier and with more vigor could have gone Steampunk. China, if they had industrialized at all, would have become a 19th century powerhouse to rival even the British Empire. India also has that potential.
Marena Halisi
13. Messmer
So...make there be more coal. It's our story, we can do whatever we want.
firkin
14. Piechur
G.D.'s scenarios are based on the presumption that industrialisation would've been a better choice for non-European nations. This concept suggests that modernisation and adoption of western economy & technology (even if G.D. calls it 'indigenous') would be the only way to resist western colonialism, which in turn suggests that the western way of life is superior. I'd rather see scenarios assuming that european nations were less aggressive.
firkin
15. Piechur
It's never US, it's always THEM who need to change.
Suna Dasi
16. SunaDasi
Only just came across this article and am pleased to see G.D. Falksen made an argument in favour of a broader multi-cultural scope within the genre four years ago.

In 1999, the first League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic came out and I was elated at the re-working of Nemo's character, based on Verne's reference to his origins in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.
After that, I somewhat naively expected to see an increase in more multi-cultural interpretations in Victorian alternate and speculative fiction and the Steampunk fashion and social 'scene'.
From an Indian perspective characters I would have most liked to see/ read about were strong Indian women, Indian lgbt characters and Indian characters that break class or gender moulds (both male and female),mixed ancestry characters, etc.

In spite of pockets of modern alternate fiction set in non-Western surroundings featuring non-Western characters (I remember a short story involving the Aztec deity pantheon, one set in the Caribbean) and the use of exotic fabrics in Steampunk attire, such things weren't prominent at the time.

Over the past years, though, Ay-Leen of the Beyond Victoriana blog - among an ever-growing group of valiant others, but she was one of the very first! - has done much to boost multi-culturalism in Steampunk.
( I am hugely leaping over other people, event organisers and groups
who have done great things to further mutli-culturalism in Steampunk since, but I am aware of them!)

I've always been into Victoriana, the macabre, 19th Century adventure novels, the wonder and terror at the surge of industrialism and invention in the Victorian era, global maritime and British-Indian history.

As Messmer so accurately says: it's our story, we can do what we want. SteampunkGypsy's more gung-ho cry of SeekDestryCreate is perhaps apt, too...

So when I have the sense that something is underrepresented in Steampunk, it seems a lost opportunity to not do the one thing that is such a wonderful feature of the movement - its across-the-board DIY flexibility that could be so promising when it comes to this topic - which is have a crack at it myself.

http://www.steampunkindia.com

Ladies who are worth reading are: Shweta Narayan (Her The Mechanical Aviaray of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhamad Akbar is in the Steampunk Reloaded anthology), Priya Sharma (Rag and Bone is a wonderful gender-twisting short story, featured here on Tor.com)

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