In 1987, when KW Jeter penned a simple letter describing his books to Locus magazine, his words were prophetic: ‘Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective … Something based on the appropriate technology of that era; like “steampunks,” perhaps’.
Since then, steampunk has become a recognisable aesthetic movement. Inspired by nineteenth-century science fiction and fantasy, it explores the speculative possibilities of technology in an imagined past. These fictive narratives usually centre on the historical causalities stemming from an augmented Industrial Revolution; a well-known literary example is Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, a book that posits a computer age in the nineteenth century. As a style applied to today’s technology, steampunk humanises modern design, creating beautiful, haptic-oriented modded laptops, home appliances and technological gadgets. Much of the ideology behind steampunk redesigns has been influenced both by the Maker movement, which infuses Victorian-era style with a DIY and upcycling sensibility, and the imaginative play of speculative fiction.
Multiple media inspirations have also diversified the aesthetic, ranging from classic science fiction writers like Jules Verne and HG Wells to action-adventure television programs such as Wild Wild West and The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., to fantastical, dark films like Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s City of Lost Children and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Steampunk art features in museums and galleries, neo-Victorian trends grace fashion runways, Oamaru in New Zealand has declared itself the first-ever ‘steampunk town’, and Justin Bieber sings in a gear-operated Santa’s workshop run by automatons.
But what does this cultural turn towards the nineteenth-century mean? After all, the Victorian era was characterised not only by industrial growth but imperialist expansion, social upheavals, trans-Atlantic slavery, child labour, oppressive gender roles, and Social Darwinism and eugenics.
Steampunks tend not to idealise the past, despite being fascinated by this conflicted history. Just as cyberpunk – the sci-fi term that inspired Jeter’s ‘steampunk’ – involved conflict with shady multinational corporations and the authoritative state in a techno-infused future, today’s steampunk community flips the bird at Victorian norms, dismantling history and exposing it as the construct that it is. In steampunk, colonised nations overthrow empires, mechanical innovation ends slavery or child labour, women don corsets on the outside of their dresses and become adventurers independent of men.
Yet, while most steampunks generally support a revival of nineteenth-century aesthetics as a response to modern alienation, many don’t like to acknowledge that their attitudes could be considered ideological.
But reinterpreting history is always a political move, whether that’s admitted or not. Maybe the refusal of politics by some steampunks is rooted in their wilful ignorance about how the personal becomes political. Maybe they only think of politics in terms of petitioning for signatures, marching on Wall Street or freeing dolphins from fishing nets. Maybe it’s because they associate political action with the messy Bigger Picture (and Bigger Failings) of the state.
The progressive roots of steampunk can be traced to its literary inspirations, first and foremost, nineteenth-century scientific romances. The poster boy for Leftist radicalism in Victorian science fiction is, of course, Verne’s Captain Nemo, a political exile who sails the world funding anti-colonial movements. That anti-colonialism got a reboot in the 1970s with Michael Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air, one of the early forerunners of the steampunk genre. The first book to be properly tagged as steampunk was Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine, whose world is cynically dystopian as opposed to naively romantic. Alternative histories like those of Moorcock, Sterling and Gibson connect the present and the past to make readers think about how change came about, providing critique by playing with the narrative scope of history.
Several current steampunk writers continue to be explicitly progressive. Sci-fi author and civil libertarian Cory Doctorow has been preaching the steampunk word on the tech and culture website Boing Boing for several years now. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s books on steampunk fiction and culture – in particular The Steampunk Bible, Steampunk Reloaded and the upcoming Steampunk Revolution – all engage actively with politics. Counterfactual history books are another way of critically exploring the imaginative what-ifs: Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett’s Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel and Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention are two examples of well-researched alternative histories that strike a balance between entertainment and explorations of the darker side of Victorian imperialism. There’s also Hugo and Nebula award-winner Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, which portrays an alternative America where the Civil War has run ten years longer and frontier Seattle faces a zombie invasion. Her books are adventures that feature strong and gritty female protagonists, even as they deal with immigrant populations and America’s ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery.
Escapism has been the primary charge levelled at the steampunk movement, with participants accused of romanticising the Othered experience by reliving a Victorian past. If you talk to some DIY steampunks about their Great White Hunter outfit and how it echoes the White Man’s Burden, you sometimes get shot down for ‘bringing politics in’ (or ‘being too sensitive’). Equally, some idealise the cyborg body in the form of modded wheelchairs or false prosthetic limbs without ever acknowledging the experiences of people with disabilities.
Both instances reveal how subversion in steampunk involves anachronism – and not all anachronisms are progressive. The technology may be forward-thinking even as the attitudes may remain staunchly retrograde.
There are, of course, satirical advantages in maintaining unchanged historical attitudes in art and storytelling, particularly if by doing so you address how these ideas have evolved (or not) into today’s twenty-first century. Yet the approach can also be problematic. Some steampunks have, for example, embraced ‘Victorientalism’– the exoticising of non-white, non-European Others in imitation of their portrayal in Victorian adventure stories. Tales about imperialism risk glorifying the conquering European, especially when nostalgic play is indulged by those with a racial or ethnic background that hasn’t required them to question the benevolence of intrepid European explorers and the martial forces that followed in their wake. Creative choices of that kind do not simply replicate but perpetuate pre-existing attitudes about the non-Western world, which is why a leftist steampunk ideology must be aware of the pitfalls of nostalgia.
DIY’s intersection with class privilege is an additional complication in the political messiness of steampunk ideology. The steampunk tinkerer’s ability to instil a renewed sense of refinement into everyday objects is typically only possible for those with high incomes or the luxury of spare time supported by economic stability. The difficulty of sustaining the DIY lifestyle in developing nations or low-income communities is often dismissed by those who celebrate the rugged individualism of the inventor or tinkerer. The modification of mass consumer goods also ignores the level of exploitation necessary to provide the raw materials for steampunk communities. To quote Cory Doctorow: ‘We’re celebrating the great artistic freedom of the West and what arises from it is the greatest migration in human history and tens of thousands of children chained to machines on the other side of the planet, firing one container ship full of Nerf toys and Happy Meal items per second’. Steampunk’s love of materialism, even an individually crafted materialism, can obscure the economic disparities that enable steampunk modders to transmit their ‘punk’ philosophies.
The ideology of steampunk is, however, still nascent, and its participants will have more than enough opportunities to incorporate social justice into the conversation. There are already several activists and organisations fostering that atmosphere. Most notable is SteamPunk Magazine, founded in 2007 by anarchist Margaret Killjoy, whose mission is, in the words of contributors Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective, ‘rebuilding yesterday to ensure our tomorrow … We are archeologists of the present, reanimating a hallucinatory history.’
On the anti-racism front, there’s my multicultural steampunk blog Beyond Victoriana, and my colleague Jaymee Goh’s postcolonial blog Silver Goggles. Monique Poirier, a member of the Seaconke Wampanoag tribe, does advocacy work in the steampunk community, while other organisations and publications, such as The Steampunk Workshop, the San Antonio Neo-Victorian Society and A Steam Powered Cause, actively support progressive goals.
Furthermore, steampunk’s humorous self-reflexivity can package political messages as disruptive theatricality. There is a sense of irony and satirical bricolage inherent within the steampunk aesthetic that makes it perfect for advocacy though performance. Just as Stephen Colbert satirises a conservative pundit, or culture jammers like the Yes Men sneak into corporate conferences pretending to be conformist suits, steampunk aficionado and Occupy Wall Street activist Miriam Rosenberg Rocek performs as Steampunk Emma Goldman. Inspired by the Jewish anarchist and social reformer (‘An activist helping you to put your politics into your steampunk, and your steampunk into your politics’), Rocek has organised rallies that echo historical, fictional and present-day labour strikes as well as modern-day causes such as gay rights.
Another steampunk performer and activist is Bruno Accioly, the co-founder of Brazil’s Conselho Steampunk, a nation-wide network of steampunk clubs; his steampunk confronts Brazil’s history of totalitarian oppression. I would also classify myself as a political performer and anti-racist activist, working in the persona of Ay-leen the Peacemaker, a Tonkinese Buddhist assassin-for-hire who specialises in shooting French imperialists in the face.
Stephen Duncombe argues for this type of political engagement in his book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. In it, he describes ‘ethical spectacles’ as a form of creative activism that is ‘directly democratic, breaks down hierarchies, fosters community, allows for diversity, and engages with reality while asking what new realities might be possible’. Steampunks may enjoy dressing up as airship pirates or noble explorers, but they can also use their characters to interrogate the progression of modernity. As performance theorist Jill Dolan suggests in her work Utopia in Performance, ‘progressives can once again persuade one another that a better world doesn’t have to be an out-of-reach ideal, but a process of civic engagement that brings it incrementally closer.’
What needs to be emphasised, then, is that the methods fostered by steampunk are political – but not necessarily because the community will grow like the Occupy Movement or instigate another Tahrir Square. Steampunk builds grassroots networks of like-minded individuals who tend to be imaginative, are willing to learn from others and have an invested interest in education, history and culture. Steampunk communities promote micro-changes that contribute towards a renewed sense of personal ethics and community responsibility. While steampunk may be preoccupied with the past, it is a community supporting the belief that we do not live at the end of history but are constantly reconstructing it for the better.