Diana M Pho is a scholar, activist, blogger and founding editor of the award-winning Beyond Victoriana. She recently earned a Masters in Performance Studies from New York University. Her article ‘Leftist Constructs: on steampunk and progressive politics’ is featured in the current issue of Overland. I spoke to her about the pull of the steampunk movement today, politics, blogging and more.
In your article, you trace the coinage of ‘steampunk’ to 1987, but the movement seems to have taken off fairly recently. Why do you think there has been this upsurge of interest in the genre?
I think the movement has taken off for several reasons.
First, a lot of people recognise parallels between our current cultural moment and the historical one of the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century was an era of dynamic changes as Western society shifted from being pre-industrial to industrial. Currently, we are witnessing a similar shift as developed nations are going from industrial to post-industrial (or, as some would call it, an ‘informational society’), and, additionally, as many developing societies are also going through their own transitions into becoming fully industrialised nations. During any major technological shift in history, people hold a mix of fear and wonder about the possibilities of the future, especially as society changes culturally, economically, and politically. And people are connecting the dots between the dramatic changes of the nineteenth century and similar changes we are facing today.
Not only has that, but the steampunk aesthetic movement addresses the dissatisfaction the average person feels in relation to technology today. Our lives are encapsulated in little boxes – smart phones, net books, e-readers, television, etc – but I think people feel alienated by this technology despite the fact it has become integral in their lives. Seeing the moving gears and the functional bits in steampunk, however, puts the human touch back into the machine.
I think today we live in an age of precarity, much in the same way that the Victorians thought of themselves in their own time. Right now, world economies are in flux, the job markets unstable, people are feeling more dissatisfied with the state and the security of basic needs in their own lives. The reaction to that – a mixture of nostalgia for an age of adventure, plus a sort of wistful optimism towards ‘taking the best of the past and bringing it to our present’ – is what drives steampunk.
You write about getting ‘shot down’ for talking about politics in discussions with some people in the steampunk community. What do you think is the biggest difficulty in challenging such attitudes? Do you think these attitudes are starting to shift with the emerging progressive steampunk blogs, novels and performances you mention in your piece?
I think the biggest difficulty in challenging these attitudes is the impression that you’re being a killjoy or don’t have a sense of humor if you choose to think about the serious implications of the topics steampunk addresses. However, I think that the emergence of a more vocal progressive presence in the steampunk community has affected people’s attitudes – at least those in the community. I only hope that as mainstream sources pick up on steampunk, outsiders don’t make assumptions that we’re all about colonial nostalgia or uncritical romanticism.
Can you tell us a little bit about your blog, Beyond Victoriana? What led you to start the blog?
Sure! Beyond Victoriana is the oldest-running blog on multicultural steampunk. It started off as a personal project of mine in 2009 in response to the Euro-centric portrayals of steampunk I kept seeing, and especially in reaction to RaceFail 2009. (RaceFail was an expansive internet conversation in the science-fiction community about the representation of people of color and cultural appropriation in the genre.) I then realised how Euro-centric the steampunk genre was at the time, and more importantly, how the voices of people of color seemed to be silenced when steampunks talk about ‘possibilities outside of England’. What Beyond Victoriana works to do is contribute to the conversation, not only by highlighting the lost, obscure and oppressed histories that the dominant Euro-centric culture overlooks, but also by serving as a platform for marginalised groups to speak about their own experiences and histories. I’m pretty proud to say that we consistently feature guest bloggers from around the world coming from all sorts of backgrounds, and I am constantly looking for new voices that need to be heard.
How does your blogging on steampunk compare to your academic writing? Do you find you are writing for very different audiences?
I think that to some extent, there is overlap in what I do (it is all steampunk after all!), but for academic audiences, I get to look into more theoretical aspects of my work than with a general sci-fi audience. I still enjoy blogging and writing for both. But more and more, I see how my blogging feeds into my academic work, specifically because I’m so tied into the larger subcultural community. Thus, I can really get a sense of the fandom conversations that play into larger questions that I address academically. It’s all very exciting!
You mention many novels in your article, but for someone new to the genre, is there any one in particular you would recommend as a good place to start?
Oh my – that’s a hard question, actually, because I usually recommend steampunk books based on what that reader already likes. That’s the ‘magic’ of a steampunk aesthetic – you can get steampunk romances, mysteries, adventure tales, literary speculative fiction, young adult, comic books, etc. If I had to mention one book, though, for someone to read to really get a holistic sense of what steampunk subculture is like, I’d have to recommend Jeff Vandermeer and S.J. Chamber’s The Steampunk Bible, which covers everything from books and film to fashion and music. But, if you were looking for a fictional read, I’d actually recommend two books that cover the ‘lyrical and literary’ and the ‘adventurous romp’ ends of the spectrum, respectively: China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker.