I’ve always kinda hated steampunk, but until last week, I could never quite articulate why.
For those who don’t spend all their weekends at the renaissance fair, “steampunk” is a school of retro-futurist sci-fi, a genre that imagines a world where supercomputers run on steam power and stovepipe hats never go out of style. It’s a fertile concept that’s inspired everything from graphic novels to real-life costumed meetups about airship technology. Unfortunately, it’s prone to the same straight white male defaults that pervade nerd culture and sci-fi — with the added challenge of addressing real-world global history and its omissions.
Enter the blog Beyond Victoriana, curated by one Ay-leen the Peacemaker. On the blog and at conventions, Ay-leen works to raise up overlooked authors, stories, and real historical figures, in the interest of “multicultural steampunk and retro-futurism […]”
[…] that is, steampunk outside of a Western-dominant, Eurocentric framework. All of the steampunkery here focuses on non-Western cultures, underrepresented minorities in Western histories (Asian / Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, First Nation, Hispanic, black / African), and the cultural intersection between the West and the non-West.
Erin Polgreen, curator of the similarly-minded Graphic Ladies comics blog, introduced me to Beyond Victoriana and spelled out its importance. Erin:
Well, think about it: steampunk glorifies white colonialist culture. All of the kooky gear, fancy clothes and other cosplay romanticize some pretty shitty things in terms of race, class, and gender: colonialism in the name of exploration, industrial exploitation, unhealthy clothing for women, etc. The primary reasoning behind it seems to be reliving a really shitty era because it’s pretty.
But the stuff Ay-Leen writes about is really interesting because she’s actually working towards a reclamation of sorts. Steampunk in this sense seems to be a chance to reject the narrative of impoverished savages and subjected women and reshape it to be more cohesive and empowering.
So: steampunk is shitty because it’s prettiness without awareness of social implications, but this blog is interesting because it uses steampunk as a means of opening up a dialog about oppression and empowerment.
Couldn’t have said it better myself — if you’ve got the power to rewrite history, why leave the most interesting parts unflipped?
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