Today we welcome Ray Dean!
A reenactor and educator, Ray Dean has delved into many eras of the past, but Steampunk speaks to her in a retroactive futurism that opens so many possibilities. Her blog, My Ethereality http://www.raydean.net, explores history, culture, war and love in eras and countries that might influence a Steampunk world
Countries… Culture… the Wicking Effect
by Raye Dean
When someone brings up Steampunk, most people immediately call up an image of bowler hats, bustles, monocles, corsets, goggles. Then next concept is Victorian alternative history/speculative fiction… and by saying Victorian… the initial connection is England. No argument there for me. I’ve had a longtime love affair with English history, especially the Victorian Era mainly because I have a long history in theater and costume, nuff said.
Still, there’s more to the world of Steampunk than a single country or culture. One of the clearest memories of High School was arguing England’s POV on Colonialism in a debate. Part of the mindset of my argument that England was seeking to, in a way, make the world England. The underlying idea for me was that making the world over in its own image was to make it something they could understand. Foreign was fine for quaint pieces of furniture, luxurious fabrics, spices and wild creatures fit for menageries, but it wasn’t England.
Colonialism is impossible in its purest sense. There is no way to take control of another country and its people without having ‘the Wicking Effect.’ What do I mean by that? I used to hand paint silk and when you add a color onto the fabric it will spread and continue to spread until it hits the end of the fabric or the wall of resist that the artist adds. Add another color to the mix and they’ll spread and mix and change together. The same happens with culture.
Put an Englishman in China, even if he continues to observe all the societal norms and keeps himself as ‘separate’ as possible, there is no way to avoid some sort of exchange of culture. Perhaps a Jasmine tea will become a favorite of his or he’ll use a silk fabric for his waistcoat that has a design motif common for the area. The locals in the area will change as well. They will pick up on his inflection, learn what his habits are and try as they might to avoid absorbing some of it… it will happen.
In the Shanghai Steam anthology this mixing or clash of cultures is a main point of a number of stories.
Derwin Mak (the author of “Flying Devils”) explains:
Steampunk tends to romanticize European culture and its technology of the nineteenth century. I heard one steampunk costumer say it was “nobler period.” Well, it was for some people. It was a nobler period than today if you were a white European who left Europe’s slums and colonized another continent. If you were African, Asian, or Native American, it wasn’t as glorious. The Chinese do not romanticize the nineteenth century as a golden era. Instead, it was the time of national humiliation and the uneven treaties.
I merged the two opposing views of the nineteenth century by basing my story on the Self-Strengthening Movement in the Chinese military. My story is about one of the ideological conflicts of the time.
In my own story, “Fire in the Sky,” I had set up my own alternative history:
There are more walls than wick as the English are viewed as an economic occupying force. The people that occupy the town have had to accomodate not only the English trade ships but the technology that came with them. In my opinion, there are few absolutes. In the case of the technology brought in by the English, there are those that accept it and those that turn their back on it, but even those that are eager to advance themselves with technology… it doesn’t always work for them. For me part of the fun of this mix and clash of cultures is the accomodations that have to be made. And when accomodations don’t work? You salvage what you can… and make do.
Emily Mah (author of “Last Flight of the Lóng Qíshì”) has another take on merging cultures:
Since mine’s post apocalyptic, much of the Chinese culture is only left in the aesthetics of the old technologies. The culture that inhabits the ruins left behind is a mix of different ethnicities who live as hunter/gatherers.
This isn’t just limited to the English in their travels and expansions. The concept of foreign also applies to immigrants.
Laurel Anne Hill (author of “Moon-Flame Woman”) had a different perspective:
The tremendous contribution of Chinese workers in the building of the U.S. Transcontinental Railway never ceases to impress me. Yet nineteenth-century Chinese laborers in the United States didn’t receive the respect they deserved. Immigrants were–and still are–often viewed as stereotypes. I wrote Moon-Flame Woman to depict immigrants as individuals.
Americans seemed to absorb other cultures faster, giving them footholds where a country like England wouldn’t see fit. A number of dishes that Americans ate during the same period were not from China. The Chinese cooks in America would throw together whatever odds and ends were around and earned itself a place in American stomachs and on many menus. The commonly accepted history of the ‘chop suey’ you see on modern menus comes from this very practice. Perhaps this hodge podge worked better in America because the country, as it was shaping up, was more of an immigrant nation.
When the Shanghai Steam anthology is released you’ll have the opportunity to delve into the nineteen short stories that add up to a unique Steampunk… and Wuxia… experience. As you read through the stories look for those moments when cultures crash and/or bleed into each other. Keep careful watch… one culture may just push back.
What cultures would you like to see come crashing into one another? What types of culture bleeds might happen when two foreign nations interact? Where can you add this idea into your own work?
Contributing Authors listed in alphabetical order:
Ray Dean “Fire in the Sky” http://www.raydean.net
Lauren Anne Hill “Moon-Flame Woman” http://www.laurelannehill.com/
Emily Mah “Last Flight of the Long Qishi” http://www.emilymah.com
Derwin Mak “Flying Devils” http://www.derwinmaksf.com