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bookgazing ([personal profile] bookgazing) wrote2010-02-11 10:45 am

Race, History and Steampunk

Steam punk is, as far as I can see, essentially a form of alternate history; the history of mechanical invention has changed, but the social conventions of the historical period largely remain the same. This imposes certain limitations on the stories that the genre can tell, because it operates within realistic historical constraints despite messing about with the timeline of mechanical history. The limits history placed on women and the poor can be circumvented if authors disguise their characters, for example in ‘Leviathan’, which I started reading last night, a girl dresses as a boy to be able to join the armed forces. It’s not so easy for authors to make Asian, or black characters the heroes and heroines of steam punk novels, while upholding a realistic version of history. I’ve just read two steam punk stories set in Victorian London, where all the characters are white and I’m currently reading ‘Leviathan’ set at the outset of WWI, which also follows white main characters. In all three cases it’s hard to see how the authors could have set their stories in the worlds they chose and included a black or Asian character, without making a whole host of other characters extremely progressive for the time period.

I want to explore this issue a bit further, looking at both the challenges of creating a steam punk world with black, or Asian characters and the possible ways of getting around those problems. I expect this discussion could apply to Latino and Native American characters as well, but I’m in the UK so I’ll stick with the majority racial groups that you’d find here. It seems to me that the biggest challenge is that if steam punk is set in a historical version of the Western world then any black or Asian characters in steam punk novels would face immense prejudice, would likely not be able to own steam punk technology and would not be able to enter organisations, like the army, the government, or a spy ring, where they might have access to this technology. If an author tries to escape these plot problems by setting their steam punk novel outside of the Western world it might not be believable that other countries had the ability to create such advanced technology, as lack of financial resources, or the controlling forces of Western empires would surely keep them from technological development. It would be difficult to create a believable premise that allowed black or Asian characters to be the main characters in a steam punk novel, without making the plot and the world of the steam punk story convoluted, but it seems like a worthwhile struggle for authors to try.

It seems that steam punk has to be set in the 19th century, or early 20th century, which makes sense because this is the age of steam power, especially in Britain. So, unfortunately my first idea for avoiding problems of prejudice, ‘set steam punk in an earlier time period, in a non Western country’ falls down straight away. 15th to 16th century China seems the perfect non Western setting for steam punk, because the Chinese were leading the world in technology, art and production. At this time China had wealth, so it would have been financially able to develop steam punk technology. Due to the time period this is not an option for standard steam punk it seems, but it would be interesting to see general sci-fi explore this idea.

The idea of setting steam punk in other areas of the world during the 19th century is also impractical, at least when it comes to China. While watching ‘How Earth Made Us’ I learnt that China’s rich seams of coal (coal made the advance of steam travel and other technology possible) were never fully exploited as the British did, as it was nearly impossible to transport coal quickly from the mines to the towns by the coast, because of the geographical distance and the impassibility of the Yellow River’s rapids. Other countries never had much coal below ground and were less financially able to produce technology (recently I read an Indian authors thoughts about how the countries poor financial situation has prevented a tradition of Indian sci-fi literature from developing). Clockwork technology and other forms of mechanical advancement found in steam punk fiction could still be possible, but in order to place some steam punk technology in China and other areas of the world, an author would have to majorly alter the known world. That brings me on to a related second idea for putting black and Asian characters into steam punk narratives - ‘drastically alter the world as we know it’.

In steam punk an alternate view of how technology actually progressed is presented, but how much other alteration of history is allowed? For a kind of answer to this I’ll quote an informative blog post by
GD Flaksen, posted at Tor:

‘The line between steampunk and period Victorian is extremely narrow, and often the two are indistinguishable. They are separated only by steampunk’s status as science fiction, albeit heavily inspired by the historical fact of the Victorian period.’

So it appears that changing an entire society’s prejudices, or systems so that black or Asian characters are happily accepted is not an option for steam punk. However, if an author wanted to create some kind of radical mishmash of massively altered history and steam punk technology, this might result in an exciting novel. How strict can the guidelines for writing a piece of subgenre fiction really be anyway? The more important question is, would it be alright to provide this kind of extreme fantasy that departs from the way we know our world to be? Malinda Lo and David Leviathan have both created happy, gay accepting societies in their books, but is it appropriate to write such a fantasy with regards to race?

If keeping the rest of history the same is essential in steam punk my third idea is that authors could just ‘represent racial conflict as it was’ and explore ways of working this into a hero or heroine’s narrative. Slavery still existed until roughly thirty years into Queen Victoria’s reign and it seems like steam punk, which always contains some kind of adventure, would be the perfect genre for a slightly different twist on the story of slaves escaping. Indian soldiers were instructed to fight by the Empire during the Crimean War and WWI, which seems to present lots of opportunities for a heroic adventure story with an Indian main character. Chinese immigrants arrived in Britain and in America in Victorian times and while there would have been prejudice that doesn’t necessarily mean Chinese characters couldn’t be used as steam punk heroes and heroines. They might not own steam punk technology, but they could appear in steam punk society in prominent roles. Perhaps accidental, or illicit contact with steam punk technology could even be part of the reason for their adventure. It seems like this is a big barrel of complication and opportunity waiting to be tapped by writers.

Finally if authors find the barriers of prejudice cause too many plot problems they could try doing what historical fiction writers do with many female characters and ‘make an exception’. In order to make their heroines intelligent, fearless and financially independent, when society wouldn’t have educated or encouraged them, authors of historical fiction allow their heroines to be raised in exceptional circumstances. The skills and often the independent income they gain from an unconventional upbringing allow them to leap over the prejudices of society, although there is always the possibility of physical violence against them. I think in Victorian times there were a minority of wealthy black and Asian figures, as well as ex-slaves who earned high enough wages to support themselves in a reasonable style. There were also an even smaller group who found wealthy benefactors among the progressive factions of society. Now 19th century history is not my strongest subject, so feel free to correct me if making a character an exception to the rule would not be a realistic way to circumvent the limitations history would place on a black or Asian character. I did almost fail my second year because I never went to my Victorian history lectures.

Do you think there’s a way to include black or Asian heroes and heroines in the steam punk genre and do you have any ideas about how this could be achieved? Are there any great examples of steam punk without white main characters that I’m missing?

Edit: I googled around a bit and found this interesting article about race and steampunk which answers my questions about how much you can alter other areas of history in steampunk (short answer: yep it's all up for grabs, change what you like) and this blog called 'Beyond Victoriana' which talks about steampunk in other countries and in it's first post mentions Chinese technology that could be included in steampunk.