Diversity in steampunk

Posted: January 3, 2013 in Uncategorized
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It’s not uncommon for proponents of steampunk to call for more diversity in the genre. Whether it’s Steampunk magazine‘s stated desire for fiction that reflects diverse backgrounds, or Ann VanderMeer’s mission to show different takes on steampunk in Steampunk Revolution, it’s a familiar mission. Despite this, the steampunk I see is at least as centred on white western countries, especially Britain and the USA, as sci-fi and fantasy. For all its revolutionary cries, this is fiction dominated by first world white male characters.

Many of the reasons are probably the same as for science fiction and fantasy. The majority of influential writers and publishers, especially of English language work, are white guys, and this is self-perpetuating. There’s also an expectation, rightly or not, that the core of the readers fit this type and want to see characters like them. And there’s an element of cultural default, to which I’m as prone as any writer. In Britain, our ‘average person’ in any given piece of culture is white, male, and fairly well to do. Any deviation from this is a distinct characteristic, while these are used to represent the neutral. Of course they’re far from neutral, but we’re so used to this that it takes a conscious effort to depict someone different, and when concentrating on other aspects of writing we’ll often default to this for characters both great and small.

But I think there’s also something specific to steampunk. While fantasy literature as we currently see it was strongly influenced by European mythology, there are other mythologies to be drawn on when creating fantasy. For steampunk, this is harder. It’s a genre based on a nineteenth century experience of industrialisation and progress through steam-powered technology. That’s something that was experienced most accutely in Europe and north America, with privileged white guys as the main agents of change. Other parts of the world experienced that particular form of industrialisation in a more limited way, both technologically and geographically, and by the time industrialisation became a global norm it was already moving out of the era of gaslight and steam, into one of electricity and diesel.

This isn’t to say that we can’t explore steampunk from a myriad other perspectives. Whether it’s the role of women, children and the poor; shining a light on parts of the world that experienced that more limited, externally inspired industrialisation; or reimagining the industrial revolution as created by another culture. But there are less existing images and models to inspire and shape our work.

We should always aim for more diversity in what we write. It makes it more interesting, and expands the potential audience. But that’s harder work in some genres than others.

Anyway, if you know some good examples of more diverse steampunk, whether in literature or elsewhere, leave a message below. I could do with some inspiration to help me practise what I preach!

  1. everwalker says:

    It’s not something I’ve looked at much but I imagine that Indian or Chinese cultures could both work very well in streampunk settings. Both have a completely different mythology to draw on, and both have different approaches to an industrial or technological revolution. I’ve seen non-specific Asian steampunk work well in an RPG.

  2. […] Thoughts on reading and writing « Diversity in steampunk […]

  3. I’m rather taken with the idea of both those settings, especially India. With manga and anime, Japanese steampunk is the most common non-western stuff, but looking at the industrialisation of the current upcoming economic powerhouses could be really interesting. Time to go do some research. Thanks!

  4. Jonathan Taylor says:

    Steampunk’s strong roots in a historical setting seems to cry out for ‘alternative history’ storylines. Just pick your point of divergance: Song dynasty China was starting to make use of coal in an industrial way in the 10th century. What if El Nino never cut off the rainfall that fed the Mayan city states and they developed their own mechanical (but very non European) view of the universe? Imagine the round city of caliphate Baghdad in clockwork.

    • I’ve now written stories using all of these settings – a Song Chinese steampunk spy story; Mayan engineers diverting water-courses with solar-powered steam engines; a rotating Baghdad. Bring on the next challenge!

  5. Thanks for the cool ideas Jon. I particularly like the Mayan one, and have a bunch of books I use for research material. Rooting it in something beyond human control, like a weather system, feels powerful and intriguing.

  6. […] had a story I was working on, based on Jonathan Taylor’s comments on my diversity in steampunk post. But when I gave it to Mrs K to read, she found that the characters were weak and didn’t […]

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