Oct 3 2011 10:00am

Steampunk Will Never Be Afraid Of Politics

Illustration by Fabio Romeu for SteamPunk Magazine

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.

SteamPunk Magazine #3 cover by Suzanne WalshIn 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.

How indeed.

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.

Margaret Killjoy (@magpiekilljoy) is the editor of SteamPunk Magazine (@steampunkmag) and author of the steampunk choose-your-own-adventure book What Lies Beneath The Clock Tower.

Fabio Fernandes
1. fabiofernandes
Hi Magpie! I'm so glad SteamPunk Magazine is back on track! Expect a submission soon!
Richard Fife
2. R.Fife
Funny, I had never realized the whole "radically political" thing, and I write Steampunk myself! And sure enough, I look back over the stories and do see that they contain plenty of rebellion and anti-government themes. Or at least more liberal/pro-democracy themes in worlds controlled by oligarchs and the last trappings of royalty.

And to echo and even one up Fabio, submission already sent ;)
Matt Delman
3. Matt Delman
Good points, Magpie. I'd add that many of the more inventive stories do take that approach -- that it's impossible to be truly apolitical -- and use the non-traditional protagonist to communicate this message.

As a magazine editor myself, I'm always interested to see non-European and non-White protagonists come across my virtual desk. This isn't saying the White, European descent stories can't be interesting though, like you said.

In other words, I've got nothing really to add except my appreciation at the quality of your article.
Matt Delman
4. mordicai
Lets never forget that the operative word is PUNK. That is the germ that makes it steampunk & not, for instance, Victoriana.
Jaymee Goh
5. Jha
I find it fascinating how you immediately got a "how can steampunk be anti-colonial?" backlash, because when I first entered the scene, and critiqued the colonial remnants I found in much of what I saw, I was immediately told, "of course steampunk is anti-imperialist! We are so anti-colonial that racism doesn't even matter!" Even threads right here on interrogating imperialism quickly devolved into the usual "it's just for fun; nobody means anything by it" nonsense.
john mullen
6. johntheirishmongol
So, in other words, what you are saying is that if it doesn't agree with whatever views you have, you aren't interested in publishing it.
Matt Delman
7. MarshallGabe
While the Steampunk movement can certainly be called progressive the reason I hesitate to see it move in a political direction is because there are so many politics involved with the movement. Go to any convention and I'm sure you're going to find a decent number of Republicans as well as Democrats and Independents and Anarchists and so on and so forth. The greatest strength of Steampunk, in my opinion, is that there are so many different diverse voices that get mixed up in it all. That you go to an event and see everyone from 7 to 77.

Certainly the movement leans more towards the liberal side of the spectrum, and no one can argue it's progressive attitude to be inclusive, but it's also not out there to political ideologies necessarily. If someone of an ethnic descent or alternative life style shows up the action isn't to try and go, "See! We're better than you because we have this person!" It's to simply go, "Hi, how's it going? Welcome," and then go back to having fun.

Steampunk should be inclusive, should look beyond the norm, should include everyone who is willing to get along and have fun. Once you start getting into start to threaten that so I'm leery to say that it should be a major part of things.
Matt Delman
8. Jonah Knight
I think that's about right. I like the idea that steampunk has, at the core, a struggle of political systems. I'll mull that over as I write the songs for my next steampunk album.

I would think, though, that in stories where culture and society are integral elements, a similar struggle exits. Modern American stories that deal with culture have similar ideas. Heck, I'm reading some Conan these days and the clash of political(cultural) ideals are everywhere.
Matt Delman
9. Brian Thomas
I find it funny that some folks insist that the elements that were negative during the victorian era be ignored, erased or excluded from steampunk fiction. While I do agree that endorsing some of these elements like racism, national dominance and colonial explotation should be discouraged, not dealing with them at all is frankly NOT the definition of steampunk to me. Since many of these elements were at the core of victorian existence in several if not all cultures of the age(and not just the white male dominated ones) I personally would rather see works that deal with the concepts rather than ignore them, sweep them under the rug or pretend that a literary wand wave can solve them.
What makes a female steampunk commander, or non-eurpoean explorer intersting is the fact that they were NOT the historic norm. These make the steampunk fiction all the more interesting becasue it is introducing breaks from the historic. If the classes are not unbalanced in your steampunk universe then why is a clash of the classes interesting? If a nation is not surrounded by self motivated and imperialist neighbors then why is their own controlled exploration or expansion of any interest? Who ever said steampunk had to be utopian?
I fully disagree-steampunk is NOT about blanketly ignoring the negative aspects of the 19th and 20th century or censoring fiction that does not strictly either speak directly of overturning the historical status quo or only presents a utopian and frankly unrealistic alternative... so I for one will not bother submitting any works to a publication that has already decided that works that do not specifically condem the anglo male dominated realities of the 19th and 20th century as "non-steampunk".
Ay-leen the Peacemaker
10. Ay-leen_the_Peacemaker
Oopsies--double-post here.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker
11. Ay-leen_the_Peacemaker
@Brian: I think you and Magpie are coming from the same place here. True, he does not advocate sweeping the problematic elements concerning the 19th century under the rug, either. Moreover, however, I think he just considers *anything* that questions the historical norms of the era as being "radical," including your female commander and non-Western explorer.

I highly suggest you check out Steampunk Magazine's previous publications too, which also include the dystopian-friendly, how-to "Guide to the Apocalypse".
Jaymee Goh
12. Jha
MarshallGabe @ 7:

"Getting along" doesn't mean ignoring the fact that certain perspectives get more airtime than others, which can be very harmful for a movement that's trying to be inclusive. Heh.

By "politics" I assume you mean, partisan politics, with weird things like "democrat vs. republican"? It's true, steampunk shouldn't be caught up in that. However, talking about class issues is very political, in the sense that it's about deconstructing and deciding who gets the authority to influence other people's lives. As such, many things we talk about in steampunk are by nature political: challenging the aristocracy, subverting gender norms and racial lines... all these are commentary on how real lives are affected by societal trends and authority. Science fiction has always done this, too.

It's not about trying to be better-than-you, but trying to work towards a better world. Maybe that's not your thing, and it really isn't for most of the subculture, but steampunk has that potential to grow that way, so why not? Magpie isn't calling for a shoehorning of steampunk towards a specific ideological direction; the article simply points to the plain fact that steampunk can also always accommodate politics.
Matt Delman
13. MarshallGabe

You more or less nailed it when I meant Partisan Politics which can sometimes be a more blurry line than what we like to admit. I'd rather not see Steampunk become a political movement, though as a Social Movement it has great potential to help eliminate prejudices and help people understand cultural sensetivity...that I'm for. So long as discourse and discussion stand instead of simply trying to block out those we do not agree with. Education goes a long way.
Matt Delman
14. N. Mamatas
And now I shall spam you all by mentioning my novelette "Arbeitskfraft" in next year's The Mammoth Book of Steampunk features Friedrich Engels at the protagonist. When I showed it to some people, I got a number of people asking, "Engels? Was he a real person?"
Matt Delman
15. soru
I can certainly see how science fiction can be either right, left wing, or something else. It is a literature of ideas, and some ideas are political. I can, at a stretch, see how fantasy can reinforce certain conservative (or pre-current-conservative) norms. Add a few more 'pre-s' and you can get back to a kind of green politics that usually gets counted as a kind of leftism.

I just don't see how steampunk can possibly have anything meaningful to say about politics. It's relation to the real world is neither one of ideas, nor one of dreams. It's just a brand image, a product, a recycling of empty tropes, 15th-generation commercialised and stylised rebellion.
Matt Delman
16. Alexander D'Arata-Newby
Well, I must say that this is an interesting and well thought out article. I might even agree that what you're saying is largely true of steampunk writing (I haven't read much in the genre beyond Moorcock and Verne). That said, it really doesn't seem to reflect my interactions with the steampunk fandom. They seem, for the most part, to be solely in it for the clothes.

I'm also interested to see how many articles in part of Tor's "steampunk week" will be interesting and well thought out pieces of literary commentary (like this), and how many will be pictures of neat hats.
Matt Delman
17. Patrick M.
Off course conservatives like myself enjoy steampunk. Where offers a world were social norms were still, well normal and where the mass Statist horrors of the 20th Century did happen.
William Fettes
18. Wolfmage
It's all about emphasis. Nobody gets to claim total ownership over opposition to institutionalised malefactors, whether state-based or corporate. Both liberalism and conservatism have within their corpus of ideas and thinkers strong claims against all such forms of corrosive power – they just happen to emphasise a different mix. It is more modern partisanship and polarisation than anything else that leads people towards a zero-sum, monocausal view of the world that denies any scope for threats that are not comfortable ideological enemies. But whether you look at Smith, Mill, Hayek or Burke, to name a few, it is seldom the case that the original progenitors of these movements were as close minded as their most zealous followers centuries later.

For the liberal side, partisanship and alienation have influenced some people to be outsiders to the point of economic illiteracy, including anti-development, anti-free trade and anti-globalisation stances, which reject corporate power in a lazy way which refuses to recognise the benign and uplifting nature of markets with good incentives. Problematically this can led to a unhealth emphasis on the role of government as the solution to all problems regardless of the empirical case and the technocratic issue of public goods. For the conservative side, the equivalent of this kind of blindness is extreme fetishisation of government as the only source of evil, private property absolutism, contempt for the public service, refusal to acknowledge the way governments help constitute markets, and an inability to conceptualise corporate malfeasance as anything but an epiphenomena of government interference -- one of the interesting mass-delusions of the 21 Century.

Cyberpunk clearly falls closer to the liberal side because it usually posits a world where the state has dissolved into corruption and powerlessness compared to unchecked multinational corporations which exist above the rule of law.
Matt Delman
19. Jon Munger
Hey Ay-Leen,
Been a while-- What I see lacking in the steampunk subculture isn't a history of political movements (which, something like the Mormon church, steampunks tend to posthumously draft people into). It's a discussion of actual real world politics. The Steampunk subculture loves to talk about the Steampunk subculture-- is this book racist, is that hakama imperialist, and so forth. What I don't see is the same kind of in-depth discussion about the world at large. How did Adam Smith's theories pave the way for neo-classical and later neo-liberal economics? Why was Marx essentially ignored throughout the 20th century? What about the rise of the Anarchist movement, or the Labor movement, or the robber barons, and how does that create the world we live in now? Maybe these discussions are happening, but I worry that the entire genre ends up in an escapist cul-de-sac without some focus outwards.
Jaymee Goh
20. Jha
MarshallGabe @13:

Considering that the Republican platform from 100 years ago looks suspiciously like the Democratic platform of today, partisan politics aren't really useful delineations in steampunk.

Jon Munger @ 19:

Poor Adam Smith, is all I can say.

Actually, not really. I feel it's necessary to elevate the discourse in steampunk, but the problem I keep running into is, there will always be people coming into the conversation late and we'd have to have the same old 101 discussion. So we can't have cool discussions about Smith and neoliberalism, because we have to keep discussing why it's even relevant to have these discussions in "inclusive" spaces (gotta make everybody feel welcome, yo!). And then you get accused of being a pseudo-intellectual. Well, I have been, anyway.

Alexander D'Arata-Newby @ 16:

Oh, there are definitely a LOT of people who're in it for the clothes and fashion. And then they discover there's a political side and sometimes they get even more excited about it. Lots of times, though, nothin'. Worst case scenario, a shit ton of pushback. I've seen that worst case scenario quite a lot.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker
21. Ay-leen_the_Peacemaker
@Alexander: You'll see a little bit of everything this week, which I especially tried to emphasize with today's line-up. Have you gotten a chance to read Andrew Fogel & Lord Bobbin's articles today yet? Both provide alternate perspectives involving technology, fandom, and storytelling performances that I think have become equally as interesting for creative types in the steampunk community. Donna's article on fashion is more than just about pretty hats too. :)

@Jon: Good to hear from you too! I agree with Jha on this point too -- because steampunk is hitting a sudden growth spurt, you keep getting new people involved. Thought this can lead to repetitive 101 convos, the influx of new people can be very productive as well -- last con I was at, I ran into several politically interested folks who had never gone to steampunk events before, and were very pleased to know it wasn't all just a superficial love of Victoriana.

Moreover, there has actually been a couple of political rallies I've attended at steampunk events, which is *never* something I'd expect a couple of years ago. There was one back at SPWF supporting the Wisconsin strikers & unions, and another at Great New England Steampunk Exhibition supporting LGBTQ causes. I suggest looking up "Steampunk Emma Goldman" who is the gal that organizes these things, along with "A Steam-Powered Cause" which is a nascent activist movement in San Antonio, TX.

(Whether you can fully believe that effective rallies can be held at conventions, or whether the spectacle of steampunk diminishes the effectiveness of political activities is another story... and brings up a lot of interesting questions about the current state of political involvement for everyday people. I can talk *much* more about this elsewhere, though).
Matt Delman
22. Abigail N
I can't help but notice that except for grandfathering in Moore and Moorcock, you haven't given any examples of politically-conscious, anti-colonial steampunk. You're surely not unaware that the general perception of steampunk (as a literary rather than aesthetic movement, though the same accusation can be levelled at the latter as well) is that it either erases or ignores the social and political issues of the Victorian era in favor of having fun with goggles and gears. If you're going to argue that this is not the case - which anyway strikes me as rather contentious given how many works there are that bear this judgment out; at the very most you could say that it isn't always, or mostly, the case - surely you should give examples or novels and authors who exemplify politically-aware, radical steampunk?
Matt Delman
23. Lynda
@ Abigail N - I find Cherie Priest's steampunk novels have a political bent, dealing with working women, the conditions that the working poor would live under in this kind of society, and how technology and politics work together to create haves and, unfortunately, have nots.
Kristin Franseen
24. musichistorygeek
In my (admittedly limited) experience, some of the pushback to discussing Serious Issues in steampunk comes from the fact that people in general don't know how to critique something they love and still deal with the fact that they love it. I've experienced a kind of reverse steampunk/politics pushback with friends who are very well up on social issues and activism but totally uninvolved with/unaware of steampunk. If I try to explain why I enjoy it so much to them, the response is pretty much, "But you're idealizing sexism and racism!" and they refuse to listen to the good things (and potential good things) about steampunk. In their minds, any kind of positive depiction of the 19th century is just putting on blinders and ignoring the realities of Victorian history.

There needs to be a way we can work harder at coming to terms with the real problems present (in the 19th century, in our own time, and in our various steampunk reimaginings) and still enjoy ourselves.
Angus McLeod
25. AngusAMcLeod
Very thoughtful article, Maggie. As a relative newcomer to SteamPunk myself, but as a long-term investigative writer, activist and Civil-War reenactor, I would simply like to add that it is certainly understandable that so many in the "movement" will be almost automatically inclined to debate what is/is not appropriate "politically" in SteamPunk. Frankly, I'll leave those debates to them, since I've already heard far too many similar ones in Civil War groups, ranging from "stitch-Nazis" to total newbies, and all the "what-ifs" they all posit.

I would just like to say, fwiw, that one of the greatest appeals to me from my first awareness of the genre is that it is not only "futuristic" but imaginary, and those elements, imbued with the very essence of "punk," incline me to regard it as a tremendous outlet for radical, anti-imperial, anti-status-quo expression. Given my own record in that regard for nearly three decades now, I will leave it to the majority to savor SteamPunk for creative fashions, etc., but I truly love the almost-daily connections with others who find in SP an incredibly open outlet for these more "earthy" impulses. When you think about it a bit, this "dichotomy" is prevalent in almost every arena -- the "trend-exploiters" vis-a-vis the "tried and true."

What becomes for me less imaginary with the passing of every day is the imminent future when we all will be real SteamPunks while we're fending for mere survival. As I have said in Civil War reenacting for years, "It is great practice for what's coming..." The crinoline and taffeta will quickly fall by the way to be replaced with thinsulate and polypropyl, if you're lucky, and foam darts by more effective projectiles......
Matt Delman
26. Contrarywise
This is more or less exactly why I no longer give a fly feaces about steampunk (and why I'm making a nice bonfire out of my steampunk books).
There is a lot more to politics than what the politically obsessed steampunks are obsessed with, and a lot more to life (and what is important and/or interesting) than politics. I grew up during the (left-wing) politically obsessed 70s and had enough back then, thank you (and I didn't like punk in any shape or form back then either). No, I'm not conservative, but I'm no radical nut-wing either.
And there is a lot between thinking that steampunk is "a brassy veneer with which to coat the mainstream" and being a radical political activist requiring anything (of value) to be political.
Oh, and no, Verne ain't steampunk, and neither is H G Wells.
Matt Delman
27. Dan Holzman-Tweed
@soru/#15: I refute you thus:
Kristin Franseen
28. musichistorygeek

I care about steampunk a great deal, but I definitely agree with you that there needs to be more to steampunk politics (and discussions about politics in steampunk) than either "ooh, pretty hats!" or "steampunk-as-call-to-revolution."

For example, I like thinking (and talking and writing) about the political ramifications of researching and reusing 19th century ideas and imagery, but I'm the first one to admit that there's definitely a "that looks cool" component to what I do. The same holds true for fiction; if the characters and situations are only a soundboard for the author's political POV (even if it's one I agree with), it just isn't going to hold my attention. Yes, there is some sort of political component to steampunk (even if for most folks it's just recognizing that what we reclaim from the past has meaning), but it (ideally) should also be somewhat enjoyable.
Matt Delman
29. Tami Lear
I am not part of the Steampunk Culture, I only typed in Steampunk Politics in Yahoo because it feels like it could have a political agenda and then I found this. I just have to say that I'm impressed with the sincere discussions and debating on this page instead of flamewars. And while I may disagree with Magpie Killjoys politics I now have a new respect for Steampunkers. A top hat off to all of you!
Matt Delman
30. Bouillion Cube
The Difference Engine is my definition of the iconic steampunk novel. Given your restrictions, it would not have been accepted as a submission to your magazine. If you exclude everything that doesn't fit your political views to the point of rejecting a seminal work, ... You're not talking about steampunk any more.

It's like having a science fiction convention and banning Star Wars because Chewbacca was subordinate to white male captain. You come off as a bit silly. More doing, less thinking about doing.
Matt Delman
31. Nelson James
Was very happy to come across your blog, and I must say I wholeheartedly agree. The term Steampunk now has so many different meanings depending on whom you speak with that it's impossible to have a conversation without having to explain yourself. When any term becomes this obtuse, it almost becomes meaningless.

I of course approach the term from the literary and SF angle as I assume you also do. I understand the aesthetic appeal, though it only makes sense to me as a mere fashion choice. However even within the group of fans who look at it within an historical context, the trend of totally romanticising the Victorian era seems to be gaining prominence. It remains remarkable to me the gaps in knowledge of some steampunk afficiandos who can tell you every positive thing about the Victorian era, yet have no concept of the poor, the structure of English government (other than Queen Victoria) of even the ethnic make-up of England at the time. It is clearly time that someone makes an effort to rectify this situation, or in a few years I see steampunk as becoming no more than a fad, like 70's disco.
Matt Delman
33. ThePrussian
My response to this article:
Matt Delman
34. chrisnip
Here in Australia, one of our conservertive party members, and mining baron, Clive Palmer, has commissioned a full scale replica of the Titanic. I am sure he would be progressive enough to include enough buoancy devices for the third class passengers.
Another great steampunk politition would be Fidel Castro, The cubans continued to use and maintain their Steam powered rail, and sugar mill systems, under the U.S sanctioned trade embargo. This has demostrated the real possibility of a steam powered onclave, in the present century.
Matt Delman
35. fullcrumb
Like so many others interested in S.P. I was initially attracted to it by its comfortably shocking aesthetics. Though new to me, there was an underlying familiarity to the visual aspects of it. At the same time, standing right next to it, there was an uncertain sense of the future; or at least the future that I would like to see. The coexistence of these emotions has caused me to re-evaluate how I view humanity at large and how I conduct my own life. That being said, I believe that it is now considered a "tangible" thing and tangible things have the power to influence on a multitude of levels. I am not an expert on much of anything and I don't presume that I possess but an average degree of intelligence but it seems to me that the movement can be a very personal thing to a lot of people. Though largely un-defined, it means something, in some sense to every person on this page. To me the fact that the movement is so open to interpretation is the most exciting aspect about it. The question is where do we go from here? If we are not tolerant of each other, we are nothing.

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