I first consciously got into steampunk back in 2004. It was the perfect aesthetic lens for my interests: history, mad science, genre fiction, the underclasses, and radical politics. It was steampunk, really, that helped me realize how awesome it is to be classy yet poor, that we can celebrate individual and communal ingenuity without babbling on about how great this or that nation or empire might be.
Now, seven years later, I’m constantly amazed by how many people, including some of the most die-hard steampunk adherents, seem to believe that steampunk has nothing to offer but designer clothes. There are people (a minority, I would argue, just a loud one) who act like steampunk is simply a brassy veneer with which to coat the mainstream. But sorry, whether folks are happy about it or not, there have always been radical politics at the core of steampunk.
Perhaps our two most famous antecedents are H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Wells believed strongly in creating a stateless society and dismantling capitalism. As he stated in his 1908 socialist book New Worlds for Old, “Socialism is the preparation for that higher Anarchism; painfully, laboriously we mean to destroy false ideas of property and self, eliminate unjust laws and poisonous and hateful suggestions and prejudices.”
Verne, less radical, still brought us the anti-civilization touchstone Captain Nemo. He also, near the end of his career, wrote the hard-to-find-in-English The Survivors of the “Jonathan,” which pits a man who’s motto is “neither God nor master” against the limitations of his anti-authoritarian beliefs when the character helps survivors of a shipwreck establish their colony in South America.
Personally, my two favorite steampunk pioneers are Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore, both anarchists. Moorcock’s late ‘70s Warlord of the Air series is arguably the first truly “steampunk” work, complete with automaton soldiers fighting against the tsar, airship battles, and black liberationists taking over Washington, DC. Alan Moore’s politics seep into his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, too, though perhaps taking more subtle forms.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the first consciously steampunk works were radical as well, since steampunk as a genre is born of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk was a reaction against the arguably imperialist and often problematic science fiction of its time. Cyberpunk was the punking of science fiction, introducing as it did the corporate dystopia and a strong sense of class struggle, taking the stories away from interspace travel and back towards the problems here on earth.
In 2006, I put up a website and a call for submissions for SteamPunk Magazine. I wrote something to the effect of “we have no interest in misogynist, racist, or pro-colonial work.” This, to me, doesn’t sound like asking for very much. After all, I was interested in steampunk, not neo-victorian recreationism, not fantasies about the times when the white race seemed even more dominant and unstoppable than it is today. But the backlash was immediate: “How can you be anti-colonial and be steampunk?” one commenter asked, and his voice was echoed by others.
Colonialism is antithetical to everything that steampunk is. In its way, I would argue that colonialism is the quintessential anti-steampunk. Colonialism is a process that seeks to force homogeneity upon the world (to speak nothing of its racist assumptions). Steampunk is one of many, many movements and cultures that seeks to break that homogeneity.
So yes, steampunk is political. I’m known for getting quite worked up about this, and it’s possible I’m a bit infamous for being one of those, if you’ll pardon the pun off of my name, killjoys who is always trying to talk about politics, philosophy, and the deeper meanings of steampunk. But what I suggest is this: if you believe you are being “apolitical,” what you are doing is supporting the status quo.
The best comparison I can think of is in literature. If a woman is a protagonist, it’s “women’s literature.” If the protagonist is a man, it’s just literature. A straight, white, able-bodied cis-gendered man is the status quo. There’s nothing wrong with being a straight, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered man, but there’s no reason it’s the default for every story ever written. If your protagonist is in a wheelchair, your story is suddenly considered to be about the fact that your protagonist is in a wheelchair, because that’s not the status quo. And there will be people who will complain about your attempt to force politics down people’s throats for it.
The same applies more broadly: yes, you can be mad at me about writing revolutionist fiction. But for every story of revolution, there are a dozen more about serving the king blindly. Serving an un-elected dictator blindly is somehow considered apolitical, but if I write about assassinating him for virtue of his position of absolute power over my life and death, I’m crazy.
A month ago I resumed editorship of SteamPunk Magazine, which I’m excited to bring back from its year-long hiatus. At the moment, we’re collecting submissions for issue #8. Not every story we run, not every article we print, needs to be some impassioned call for revolution. But there are a lot of us who are dedicated to making certain that steampunk stays true to its roots as a genre and subculture that isn’t afraid to question the underlying assumptions of mainstream culture and come to its own conclusions.