Before we get to today’s guest I have some winners to announce.
First we have the bag ‘o swag and books from RT.
Next we have the copy of Colleen Gleason’s The Vampire Dimitri.
We have two sets of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack and The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder.
Finally, we have four copies of Andrew Mayer’s The Falling Machine.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Legends of Fantasy
Congrats on winning. Please email me at suzannelazear(@) hotmail to claim your prize.
Didn’t win? You can still win books by George Mann, Mike Resnick, Tim Akers, or Ren Cummins, or a prize pack of goodies including a copy of Blameless and a fan autographed by Gail Carriger.
Today we’re going to touch on a very important subject. A lot of people think “Steampunk” means Victorian. But that’s not true, Steampunk doesn’t need to feel or be Victorian at all. The great thing about Steampunk is that you can include people from all cultures and walks of life, Steampunk stories can be in any genre, any place.
But I’m not the best person to talk about this, so I’ve asked Jha Goh of the blog Silver Goggles to tell us more about race and Steampunk.
by Jha Goh
Hello, I’m Jha, and I’m a steampunk postcolonialist.
I talk about race and steampunk a lot.
I’m asked to talk about multicultural steampunk a lot too.
I’ve written about my problems with the term multiculturalism before. Namely, that I don’t think I’ve really seen it exist without a single dominant culture that overwhelms the non-dominant ones. This is not to say nobody tries (and in fact, promoting it is fairly integral to my work, so here is a site you should read!)
So today, I don’t really want to talk about those things. I’m a steampunk postcolonialist, and I want to talk about steampunk postcoloniality.
Steampunk, from the outside, looks like it’s all about Empire, you know? Charles Stross, famous very important science fiction literary figure, had a rant about it, which I think really points to two things: the ignorance of someone who’s not involved deeply in steampunk, and the impression steampunk is giving outsiders.
The first is easily ignored, or would be, if it wasn’t for the fact that shit like Stross’ rant makes us look bad, no matter how into steampunk we are. Steampunks glorify Empire, and Stross has the clout to spread this impression far and wide. We should be concerned about this.
We should also be concerned about the fact that this impression is one of the first that strangers and newcomers to steampunk get. Ask any one steampunk to define the genre, what do we get? Very often, the following words are part of the phrase: “19th century,” “Victorian,” “England.”
And there are, of course, purists who genuinely believe this. Amal El-Mohtar, whose story To Follow the Waves appears in Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories, received the criticism that her story wasn’t steampunk. Why? Because it’s not Victorian. (It’s set in a technofantastic Syria.)
Terminology matters. As much as I believe in being able to pin down specific boundaries and awesome easy terms, I also believe that many steampunks do not have an inclusive language that acknowledges the breadth and depth of steampunk—unless we’re talking about how far back our influences go (and many will cheerfully admit 19th century science fiction to the term, despite the fact that steampunk is a particularly modern concept).
And the current popular terminology used—“19th century,” “Victorian,” “England,”—signifies a very particular kind of steampunk: the steampunk associated with the glorification of Empire, a time of ruthless colonization, great poverty, gender inequality and burgeoning industrialization. At least once a month I see a comment that points to the imperialism that steampunk seemingly celebrates—it matters that this is what people immediately see when they come to steampunk. I don’t blame them. I resisted participating in steampunk for a long time too, because I just didn’t see a place for myself in it.
The work of postcolonialism is to examine the effects of colonialism, even after dominant powers have supposedly seceded. Through this work, we bring to light how colonialism has been embedded in the psyche of colonized peoples, so ubiquitous we don’t notice. We don’t notice when a developing country lionizes a First World country, passing it off merely as natural that of course, one would idolize the higher standard of living present in a First World country, without questioning where these standards come from, and why we think it’s a good idea to pursue those ideals in the first place.
My work in steampunk is two-fold: examine the effects of colonialism as it appears in steampunk, particularly white Eurocentric steampunk, and find little rupture points for those of us who have cultural histories of colonization.
Because, make no mistake, colonialism is present everywhere in steampunk: it’s when you go costuming and you find mostly English fashions with corsets and bustles; it’s when you go to a convention and you find mostly white people; it’s when you find that non-Euro steampunk is being performed by white people. Colonialism is present in the fact that the majority of high-profile names are white, or present as white.
Colonialism is also present in the fact that, when a person of color wants to represent his/her/hir own culture, the representation is blithely, thoughtlessly thrown up in accordance to and reinforcing the stereotypes that have permeated our understandings of racialized groups for so long. Commodification of your own culture does not get any more special meaning just because you’re a minority doing it, if it’s done for white people’s consumption.
Colonialism is also present in the fact that, when another person of color tries to do something more original, more true to one’s own culture, a white person can say, “actually, you’re getting it wrong,” without an inkling that this is microaggressively racist, ignoring the pain that comes along with knowing that one’s own culture is so devalued, one cannot do anything original with it without a powerful outsider saying, “you got your own culture wrong”.
Colonialism is present in the minds of people who will think, while reading this post, “you have a chip on your shoulder, dwelling on the past like that.” It’s also present in the minds of people who genuinely believe colonialism was a good thing, because it brought civilization (because, after all, there is only one standard by which to measure civilization).
Colonialism is present in the fact that I didn’t use to think like this, and that I wrote predominantly white people in my fantasy and science fiction since it just never occurred to me to write people who look like me (except in wuxia settings).
Nobody escapes it just because they’ve decided to adopt a fictional persona of a past that never was. That some folks think that so is magical thinking. It’s self-serving and delusional. Also, it hurts us who don’t get to leave behind our skin colour and other such ubiquitous problems with our personas.
I don’t expect steampunks to constantly be thinking about this issue while going about their fun. I certainly don’t myself. This shit is depressing. But I do expect more thoughtfulness about this issue. I want to see fewer dichotomies about how “other cultures are so much more interesting than mine” (I know you’re trying to be positive, but Other-ing is still Other-ing) and less explorers of the uncharted wilds (because, really, whose uncharted wilds are we talking about?). I want to see more panels and talks about historical landmarks like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Opium Wars and the Sepoy Mutiny and the genocide of indigenous peoples that highlight the conflicts that Empire imperialism to the world. I want to see more people whose lived realities are affected by such events invited to speak and listened to.
More than that, I do not want anyone to stop there.
Thanks, Suzanna Lazear, for letting me have this space.