Oct 28 2010 4:41pm

Do Goggles Block the Sun? Steampunk in Africa

Steampunk in AfricaWhen 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.

Virtuoso by Jon Munger and Krista BrennanThere 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 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.

Fabio Fernandes
1. fabiofernandes
Nobody thinks of the so-called Third World, but I think one of the functions of Steampunk is just to act as an eye-opener of sorts, to get readers to acknowledge the existence of the Other, be it an alien, a black man, a Latino, a (fill in the blanks).

The same thing is happening in Brazil - most probably all over Latin America, but, as in Africa, Latin America is far too big for a single analysis to encompass.
2. Sumayyah
Excellent! I shall research this immediately.
3. Foxessa
It's impossible to buy these premises if one looks at the history though.

The European Industrial revolutions and their foreign empires were capitalized by the slave labor they extracted from West Africa and exported to the New World. They began doing this already before Columbus arrived at la Hispaniola.

For example, in the 17th century, Charles II's Royal Africa Company not only extracted profits from the slave trade, but also extracted Ghanaian gold back to England. Granted this gold was small compared to the enormous amounts of precious metal the Portuguese and Spaniards extracted from Mexico and the South America, but it wasn't inconsiderable either. This helped finance rebuilding London after the Great Fire, and Lord Buckingham to pay for the new English navy, among other things.

Love, C.
4. Gerry__Quinn
And if rebuilding London after the Great Fire, or building the English navy had been a bit more expensive, the Industrial Revolution would never have happened?

If sub-Saharan Africa had vanished from the map a thousand years ago, the butterfly effect would have ensured that history would have been different. I doubt whether it would have had any major direct effect on the wealth and prosperity of the West, though.
5. MWarhol
One African author whose work might lend itself to a steampunk treatment (albeit a bizarre, hallucinatory, and probably more fantastical than science-fictional one) is Amos Tutuola. I'm thinking of My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and The Palm-Wine Drinkard, in particular.
6. Foxessa
I said without the slave labor profits extracted in o so many areas and ways from West Africa, from the Sahell down into the Congo and Angola, the industrial revolution would have happened far, far, far, later. Just as the manifest destiny fulfillment of the U.S. populating all of the middle of North America would have taken far, far, far longer.

There's a reason African Americas can speak seriously of reparations for slavery. This country, and many other New World regions such as the Caribbean, were largely built, and I am speaking literally, on their backbreaking, killing labor. The life a cane slave averaged ten years. In other words, a sugar cane plantation's slaves were replaced with a new unit every ten years, if not sooner. Particularly in the Caribbean, those profits taken out of their bodies were by and large taken back to England.

A small scale example of what that early - middle slave trade meant to England alone was that London and the navy could be rebuilt without debt, and very very very quickly.
7. hanely
Africa...steampunk - what if the Eygptian culture of the Pharaohs continued and grew - what would they use Steampunk mechanisms for...? That would definitely effect the British Empire's influence in Africa...uhm
8. Gerry__Quinn

Saying so does not make it so. While I am no historian, I can see no obvious connection between the history of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the institution of slavery. And when the international slave trade - or some of it - was abolished, the European powers do not appear to have suffered much of an economic shock (although places such as the Caribbean, and indeed some African nations where slavery was and remained endemic, did so) . If slavery was so essential to their economies, giving it up would surely have caused more problems!

Nor did places where slaves were sent to end up richer than places where they weren't - indeed, the converse would seem to apply, and not just to the Atlantic slave trade but the other slave trade systems which have occured in just about every populated region of the globe.
9. Foxessa
8. Gerry__Quinn

Yes. You are no historian. Check out the research.

While I am no historian, I can see no obvious connection between the history of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the institution of slavery.

10. rawill

History is chalk-full of nasty bits. Large components of the labor force in the Caribbean (and elsewhere) were indentured Irish—life expectancy: under seven years. Slavery has been a global institution in nearly all cultures for most—if not all—of human history, and it continues today in many parts of the world.

Point is no one can speak seriously of reparations for slavery, or any other historical atrocity. What your people did to my people, andvice versa, generations ago has no bearing on how we interact and live our lives today. The sins of the father cannot be laid upon the children—else we all are condemned—every one.
12. David Ducorbier
I am a white author who wrote a Steampunk short story and am currently working on a novel based on the Zulu Empire. The short story was featured in New Orleans by Gaslight and it was titled Arms R.A.C.E. It's central character is a Zulu prince named Kwambe who is embroiled in a conflict with the British Empire and its desire to own the Zulu's new element Africaanium which is a power source unequaled in the Victorian Era. I have always loved the old Zulu movies and I was tired of the Brits always winning and I wanted to write a story glorifying the Zulu Empire. So I am in full agreement that Africa provides a wonderful backdrop and is full of military strategy and history that is not widely known and gives a writer an advantage of bringing "new" material to readers that history has relegated to obscurity.

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