Oct 27 2010 1:01pm

Stupid Things We Say

Steampunk and colonialismIn 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  • Mentioned N.K. Jemisin’s then-unpublished “The Effluent Engine”2 and an episode in Steven Barnes’s alternate history novel Zulu Heart as a couple of examples of this newly-named subgenre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.

Rev. Dr. Christopher J. Garcia
2. JohnnyEponymous
That panel at World Fantasy was the best I'd ever seen. I wrote an article mentioning it for Exhibition Hall issue 3, I think. Still want to read The Effluent Engine really bad.
John Ginsberg-Stevens
3. eruditeogre
Great article, with lots of inspiration and resources to check out. Thanks!

I have an uncompleted story in this vein set in an India where the British get forcibly evicted several decades early, entitled "The Last Sunday Flicker," about a young boy dealing with the sudden upending of his world in the wake of this change, which is enabled in some ways by steampunkish advances being turned against the British, and partly by greater success in indigenous organization and resistance. This piece has given me some valuable food for thought for it. Thank you!
[da ve]
4. slickhop
Loved this.

*Mosies away to locate The Effluent Engine*
Matthew Austern
5. Matthew Austern
Interesting coincidence: you posted this the same day that Charlie Stross posted his angry rant about the reactionary politics of steampunk, which (among other things) imagined what a revisionist steampunk novel might look like, one that takes the perspective of the colonized seriously.

The difference, of course, is that he put this in the category of "Novels I will not write," and you're actually writing a novel. I'll definitely want to read it when it comes out.
Emma Bull
6. emmabull
I cannot, cannot, cannot WAIT to read that novel of yours. And I can imagine at least a little how difficult and how exhilarating it's being.

An analysis of class in steampunk would also be interesting. The industrial revolution created the working class, and workers simultaneously suffered and benefited from the technology steampunk celebrates. One of the things I'm intrigued by in Cherie Priest's Boneshaker is the way it sifts through class issues, over at the corner of the reader's eye: where the Boneshaker originated, who lives in the world it produced, how one person tries to impose an old hierarchy on the new environment.

Also, Doselle is a freakin' national treasure. *g*
Madeline Ashby
7. MadelineAshby
This is the thing that first bothered me about steampunk, actually -- this fetishization of a "simpler" time. But I had hoped that the point of steampunk was to write a more inclusive alternative to a history and culture of marginalization. Taking back the corset, as it were, and empowering it. At least, that's what I figured the appeal was. But now I'm not so sure, and I'm really happy to read posts like these that interrogate the genre from within the genre.

And finish that book! "Rubber and bark-cloth dirigibles modeled on cacao pods, sailing down the Great Rift Valley," are far more interesting to me than an elegantly-tooled pneumatic tube.
Alex Brown
8. AlexBrown
I complained about this very thing at a panel at the Nova Albion con earlier this year. Well, not so much complained as begged for people to stray off the current path. Being one of those people forced to mark "other" on every form I have ever filled out, one of the reasons I haven't delved more into the literary aspect of steampunk is that, frankly, I can only read about so many straight, middle to upperclass white people.

There's a whole world out there that existed (suffered?) under the Victorian Era, and a whole world out there that didn't. Hell, dozens of countries are going through their own personal Industrial Age RIGHT NOW. Why not write about that?

But it's still a newish subgenre so I have faith that this dearth will soon be a moot point. Your book being a prime example of that, Shawl :) I also think that now that steampunk (and Paranormal Romance, for that matter) is reaching the "far corners of the world" we'll see a lot more multiculturalism and alterations of the sex/gender status quo:


And articles like this:

And blogs like this:
Fabio Fernandes
9. fabiofernandes
You WILL finish writing that novel. And I WILL definitely read it!!!
Matthew Austern
10. isabelline
I wish to read this novel *now*. Incidentally, I have just read a prerelease copy of Steam-Powered, which does a great job of looking at steampunk from the POV of colonialized nations. The first two stories are the gorgeous New Orleans story by N.J. Jemison that you mentioned and a vivid adventure by Georgina Bruce set in the Egyptian Empire. It is so much fun reading steampunk that surprises me, that tilts the steampunk viewpoint in a new direction.
Nisi Shawl
11. Nisi-la
Thank you so much for your comments and encouragement. Yes, this is fun work. Let's do it!

Matt, I appreciate the link to Stross's blog. I left a note there.
Matthew Austern
12. Paul Genesse
Dear Nisi,

I loved your steampunk panel at World Fantasy last year. You literally inspired me to write a steampunk story featuring a strong black woman. The story, The Nubian Queen is coming out in a few days in the new DAW Books anthology, Steampunk'd, edited by Jean Rabe and Martin Greenberg. The story is alternate history Earth and there are no white people in it at all. Thanks again for your inspiring words last year and good luck cranking out your own steampunk novel.

Paul Genesse
Matthew Austern
13. Shweta (not logged in)
This is a wonderful column. Also, I WANT your novel.

And thank you for the shout-out :)

@eruditeogre -- if this is a short story and you want a(nother) beta reader, feel free to poke me when you have a draft, 'cause that sounds great. I'm shweta shwetanarayan org.
Matthew Austern
14. Christopher Johnstone
I can't decide whether I think Steampunk is a redeemable genre. I suppose that it is, or rather, given the right author and philosophy all genres are redeemable in some way. Le Guin's work alone seems to stand to attest to that.

But Steampunk has so very many flaws and they go beyond simplistic or dreamy backwards depictions of society, sex, class or race. The fundamental philosophy seems as prone to anti-modernity and anti-science to me as any green hills fantasy. I believe strongly that things like low childbirth mortality rates and antibiotics fall into the category of good things, yet there is that strange and powerful trend in current speculative fiction (and Western society) to view science in an almost universal negative light, and I think Steampunk is a part of it. A sort of Frankenstein-domain in which all science is eventually hubris.

It seems to me that Steampunk is at least in part appealing because it harks back to an understandable era in which both society and technology were 'simpler' (society wasn't, technology perhaps more so). Everyone understands how a cog works, but I bet if you're reading this there is a good chance that you don't actually understand all the physical processes of the computer you're reading it on. If you live in the West your life has almost certainly been saved by antibiotics or vaccines many times already, yet unless you have specialist training you very likely don't know how antibiotics work at a molecular level. The irony of vaccines is that they have been so successful that people are now safe to engage in a delusion in which vaccines are not only unneeded, but via labyrinthine intellectually-laziness, they are a conspiracy to give everyone Autism. I wonder if part of the reason we look back so much is because it is discomforting to live in a world where it takes study and hard thinking to understand the things you rely on for your everyday life. Most people I suspect have a sense of that their control over reality is slipping away with every new scientific advancement that they don't understand.

Of course, we've always looked back with fond eyes on Golden Ages. It seems to be a part of the Western condition (I don't know enough about other storytelling traditions to say that it is human condition--I actually suspect from what world folklore I know that it isn't). Atlantis and Hobbiton and Steampunk land all sit side-by-side and they all suffer under thoughtful scrutiny.

And now I'm rambling and probably not making a lot of sense so I'll just leave it here. I will say that your Congo novel sounds like one of the few Steampunk novels I'd pick up and read. I find myself still left wondering, however, if you might be better served putting genuine intellect and imagination into a less bankrupt landscape of fiction. If I offend, I apologize. I certainly don't mean to.

Matthew Austern
15. Foxessa
With this, I could deal.

Mostly steampunk just drives me crazy from historical and other viewpoints.

Ogún -- not only engineering and war and one of the opener of the ways, but as you know in Spanish, engines are 'ingenio.' Ingenious. Like the people eaten alive by the mining, cane and cotton ingenios.

Of course, he does have other roads, and these can be seriously evil and destructive.

Love, C.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker
16. Ay-leen_the_Peacemaker
I've always thought that steampunk can be more interesting as a subgenre if its focus relied more on questioning the roots of modernity and the impact of technology on society than imagining being an airship pirate (though you can still be an airship pirate *and* question the roots of modernity/ technology too).

I would love to read that future steampunk book of yours! Looks like the pressure is mounting... ^_~

And thanks for mentioning Beyond Victoriana. I had no idea why my site stats suddenly spiked until I saw this link.
Nisi Shawl
17. Nisi-la
Thank you again, pretty commenters. And all you I shouted out as part of the original post deserve the respect and attention and then some.

@Christopher: No offense taken. Since I have no particular attachment to steampunk as a milieu, your dislike of it doesn't hurt my feelings.

I do think that part of what attracts me to working on this novel is that it is work. It's taking a lot of forethought, a lot of research. Seems to be just what I need at this point in my career.

You should know that this steampunk wip (current title is "Everfair") is my fourth novel. The first three are finished and under consideration by editors. None of them are set in what you describe as a "bankrupt landscape of fiction," so rest easy--I am putting my "genuine intellect and imagination" (Thank you!) to work in lots of different settings and genres.

I am writing what I want to write, and very much enjoying the effort it demands of me.
Matthew Austern
18. James Ng
Hey Nisi

Good read and thanks for the art reference : )

James Ng
Matthew Austern
19. Tansy Rayner Roberts
Hi Nisi!

I'd love to see some steampunk with more diverse characters and settings - I think it's just what the sub-genre needs (well, most sub-genres, but I agree absolutely with the case for this one in particular). I recently really enjoyed "Clockwork Fairies" by Cat Rambo right here on which revolves around a young woman of colour in the Victorian era, who is a talented inventor and artist.
Matthew Austern
20. Ex-LTA Aviator
What's all the stuff about airships? They were not part of the Victorian era or Industrial Revolution, and they were certainly never powered by STEAM! Airships were a 20th-century internal combustion phenomenon (see for the history). And what's the fascination with gears? During the industrial revolution power was transmitted with leather drive belts, and gears are mostly associated with a later period of technology.
Nisi Shawl
21. Nisi-la
Ex-LTA Aviator: I don't know why airships are so closely associated w/steampunk (and don't get me started about zombies because I will go all black on you). I do think airships are so cool, though. I bet it's a case of geek love.

I feautre a nonsentient-but-alive dirigible in "The Blazing World," one of my three previous (unpublished) novels. It's powered by genetically engineered rice. So I had already succumbed to the lure of airships prior to beginning work on the Belgian Congo steampunk novel.

Yes, steam-powered dirigibles are completely unfeasible. Mine won't be.

As for gears, probably another case of coolness outweighing authenticity.

I am doing a lot of research. Thanks so much for the pointer.
Matthew Austern
22. JeffV
Yay, novel! And Stross, too, it looks like.

Worth noting that the Mike Moorcock's Warlords of the Air addressed specifically the concerns of empire in the late 1970s, that Joe R. Lansdale's steampunk novels tend to correct for the Edisonades, that as someone mentioned Cherie Priest's novels are definitely socially/politically aware, and even the three who started it all, Jeter and Blaylock and Powers, were thinking about class issues to some extent, and that feminist steampunk stories by Cat Valente and Margo Lanagan, at the very least, appeared in recent years. Also, novel-wise, Gaslight Dogs by Lowachee, and even a novel I didn't particularly care for, Aurorama, do wrestle with the issue of colonialism. And there's more my feeble brain can't recall at the moment. I don't believe that writers have been unaware of these issues--I think it's more that writers and readers coming to the genre late may have missed this material or be forming an opinion from an incomplete sample. It's really too broad-based to be generalized about, like most things.

This Next Wave from a multicultural, non-white perspective, though, is clearly one of the only things that's going to stop it from all going stale fast. It's part and parcel, I think, just of having more perspectives across SF/F than ever before--so many great new writers coming up.

It's also worth noting that there's influence on the fiction coming in from the subculture--which, as you note, is inclusive--and that means also untapped potential in other directions, like the influence on fiction of the ideas of tinkers/craftspeople familiar with Ruskin's arts movement, or makers who like the idea of the repurposing grotty industrial revolution tech for a sustainable future, etc. The DIY outlook of SteamPunk Magazine, which links up nicely with a progressive outlook generally. Many different foci for interesting politically/socially aware renovations, especially since our own technology today isn't particularly clean, is still often obtained by exploiting workers in other countries, etc. So some partial parallels can be drawn.

Oh yeah--there's also a site by a guy working on a steampunk novel set during the golden age of Islamic scientific invention. Now that excites me greatly, as a history buff having long been fascinated with that era. It might just mean that to truly explore retro-futurism speculative fiction of this nature has got to leave the 19th century entirely. (Yep, heresy to some, I know...)


Matthew Austern
23. Jackie M.
This article needs a full bibliography...
Matthew Austern
24. Delux
“cotton gin punk.”

This phrase is fabulous.
Matthew Austern
25. Christopher Johnstone
You should know that this steampunk wip (current title is "Everfair") is my fourth novel...

I was ranting a bit, but nonetheless, this makes me happy. I'll keep an eye out for news on your completed titles as well as the steampunk work too.
Matthew Austern
26. Cynthia Ward
Nisi, thank you for a very interesting post. A great deal to think about here.

Lots of interesting comments, too.

"Rubber and bark-cloth dirigibles modeled on cacao pods, sailing down the Great Rift Valley."

Oh, yeah, do I wanna read this!

Matthew Austern
27. tomaq
Hmm, I'd been wondering if steampunk had become a self-referential dead-end. Not while Shawl's on the case.
Madelon Wilson
28. madelonw1011
I became enamored of Steampunk after reading/devouring China Mieville's PERDIDO STREET STATION. I believe it was the use of non-human characters that drew me in, kept me reading, and at the end, wanting more. I get the whole Victorian thing, but totally agree doesn't need to revolve around it.

I look forward to your book.
Matthew Austern
29. branchandroot
Actually, I think airships make fine sense provided steampunk is a global phenomenon--which seems the best way to make sense of steampunk technology in general. Surely China would have developed airships.

"Steampunk is in the process of constantly restating itself."

And this is what I like about the genre. I'll look forward to your additions!
Matthew Austern
30. Babar
This is in response squarely to the post, comments aside.

I'd like to point out two key things:

First, Steampunk as ART is about the aesthetics of craft - its a reconnection with the idea of technology transcending utility (an idea beloved by the Japanese/Shinto view of the world - hence the genre's popularity there, and arguable modern birth). This perspective died in the West in the trenches of France and Belgium, and was devoured by the insane interpretations of the gospel of Klauswitz and Marx (I'm pretty sure neither of them personally loathed art with the same fury beheld in Western culture since then). So from an Artistic sense, its about reviving this perspective and giving it a chance to live again. Victorian culture was the apogee of this merging, in some ways, if for nothing else its so well-documented, relatively recent, and contains numerous examples of cool gadgets and visions for what could be possible.

On the other hand, there's a REASON why the word "-punk" is in there. Its an evolution of Cyberpunk, which was ALWAYS about the rise of technocratic totalitarianism and an inevitably dystopic future for humanity, cursed to suffer the consequences of a world they themselves constructued. Steampunk media strongly feeds that meme - the anime "Steamboy", the online comic "Steam Girl", Alan Moore's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen", even Disney's "Atlantis" - that technology should be about beauty, but that it conflicts with humanity's ingrained desire for power and dominance. Well-written Steampunk straddles the line between these two, and in some ways mitigates the ruthless human-hatred of Cyberpunk, while still exploring the dangers inherent in high technology's impact on society and the individual.

Yet since Steampunk is revisionist history, it also offers the writers the chance to reimagine history "as it should have been" politically and culturally. A great example is the the table-top game Space 1889 (from the 80's) - Europeans go to explore space, and avoid most of the colonial holocaust of the late 19th century on Earth. Of course, there still is the issue of colonial warfare for access and domination of the inhabitants of Mars, Venus, etc. who are certainly used as proxies for the actually horrors of European imperialism in the 19th century. BUT - it offers a world where such horrors could have been avoided, at least on Earth.

And while it may be easy to dismiss this as the self-whitewashing of Europeans and their descendants (pun intended), on the other hand it does give us the chance to lay the groundwork for a world where technology IS NOT used to brutally oppress the Other, but is designed and intended to benefit everyone. Within Steampunk a world can be imagined where technology could have been used for better ends, not merely to facilitate class warfare, racial hegemony, sexism and elitism.

Which, to be blunt, it is still being used for even today.

So, in summation, we can cry about anything we want to. But if we're actually going to improve things in the real world, the only way to do it is to dive into controversy and try to wrestle decency out of it. I don't think anyone who's into Steampunk is unaware of what happened during the Victorian Era (it was an era of brutality, violence, prejudice, fear and destruction, to be put it mildly), I think what's truly amazing is that they are capable of seeing what's beautiful and good in all that madness and bringing it forward into the world we live in today. God knows we need it.

It is said that those who write the past control the future. If we want to change our relationship with technology and science in the here and now, perhaps reimagining the possibilities of the past as it looked forward to the future (our now) is the place to start.

I for one would believe so.
Matthew Austern
31. LPA Poster
Um, the cotton gin actually made life far easier for the people who picked cotton. It was a liberation to them in many ways. Did the person who coined the phrase actually know what a cotton gin is and what its role in history was?

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