When you think of steampunk, do you think of Africa?
Most likely, you do not.
However, we hope to convince you (if you need convincing) that Africa has much to offer steampunk fiction. One stereotypical overview of steampunk is that it exists only to celebrate Victorian British society, including the cultural superiority of imperialism. However, there are also many loud voices inside the genre community who speak for cultural and geographical diversity, and that includes African influence. We hope to add to that clamor.
There are already excellent examples of Africa-based fantasy, science fiction, and alternate history including authors such as Steven Barnes, Mike Resnick, Tananarive Due, and Charles Saunders. Also, many writers from Africa include strong elements of the fantastic even in mainstream fiction, but that might be better termed magical realism. In terms of strictly steampunk fantasy in an African setting, there is a fairly limited sample, but we’d like to call your attention to the innovative webcomic Virtuoso by Jon Munger and Krista Brennan.
The excitement of practicing alternate history, including steampunk, comes from the fact that it’s common to see events of the past as inevitable. We generally assume, for example, that European powers overrun and colonize Africa in the late 19th century because there is no other reasonable historical possibility. It seems as if it is unavoidable for Africa to become a source for raw material for European factories that fuel the Age of Empire and the century of world wars. But that isn’t so. It could easily have happened that European powers decided not to spend their blood and treasure conquering Africa. Historical development in Africa could have been wildly different.
In a steampunk world, we can imagine the vast wealth and resources of Africa staying home in the 19th century to transform the continent’s societies, which are based on agriculture or trade, into great industrial nations. Despite certain strategic disadvantages that the African continent had versus Europe and Asia, such as low population and typically scattered settlement patterns, there was certainly a history of powerful, centralized states with the administrative hierarchy capable of leading an industrialization movement. Unfortunately, at the moment they might have done so in the late 1800s, European powers descend on them with superior military, transport, and communication technologies.
In order for Africa to play a central role in a steampunk story, the continent has to absorb and develop the technology that defines the genre. In our work, we come at the problem by creating an alternate history where the technologies of the Victorian world vanish from northern Europe, North America, and Japan because vampires devastate industrial societies in 1870. While northern Europe lay moribund in the one hundred and fifty years after the vampire conquest, the tropics become a hotbed of neo-Victorian Industrial Revolution.
Part of the fun and challenge of writing any alternate history adventure set in Africa is imagining potential changes to the continent’s history. Then, throwing Africa under a neo-Victorian steampunk lens means the possibilities are not just endless, but endlessly strange and wonderful. So when you think of steampunk Africa, it’s okay to think of Henry Morton Stanley lifting his goggles and saying “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” But imagine the other possibilities too. Think of caravans of Swahili land crawlers, loaded with ivory, steaming across the Tanganyika savannah. Think of gigantic factories carved into the volcanoes of the Mountains of the Moon fired by the forges of the Earth. Think of Zulu armies with repeating rifles and steam tanks. Think of Timbuktu as a megalopolis in the Sahara sun, made prosperous by trade routes where camels meet airships.
Just because it didn’t happen, doesn’t mean it couldn’t have. Dare to imagine outside the historical and geographical box…and maybe even outside the steampunk box, too.
Clay and Susan Griffith are the authors of The Greyfriar: Vampire Empire Book 1 (Pyr Books, Nov. 2010). You can read a preview of it here on Tor.com. They are a married couple who have written and published together for more than a decade. Their credits not only include several books, but also numerous short stories published in many anthologies, some featuring noted genre characters like Kolchak the Night Stalker and The Phantom. They've also written for television and published graphic novels featuring characters such as The Tick and Allan Quatermain. In addition, Clay teaches African history.