Steam, power and politics: talking steampunk with Diana M. Pho…

Truthfully, I don’t know enough about steampunk. Sure, I read H.G Wells and Jules Verne when I was a lad in the last century. I’ve also worked on a steampunk comic book and I even own a brass raygun. When it came to the contemporary works of the genre however, my knowledge didn’t go much further than corsets and hot air balloons… and that just isn’t sufficient for a writer, regardless of how appealing corsets and hot air balloons may sound…

The steampunk genre invariably involves the modification of current and alternative technologies within bygone historical contexts… or big tubas.

So I read books. I delved into young adult fiction such as Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel and even the Harlequin teen novel The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross. Drawn to books which principally dissected notions of empire and gender, I soon bumped into a sharp piece in Overland, titled Leftist Constructs, by New York writer Diana M. Pho. In her secret steampunk identity, Diana M. Pho is known as Ay-leen the Peacemaker, an academic, activist and speaker on issues of social justice, steampunk and the fascinating points where they meet. Diana is also founder of Beyond Victoriana, a blog discussing multicultural steampunk and the prominence of progressive politics in the genre. Recently, I was blessed to be able to ask some questions of Diana and see if I could learn a little more about the genre.

ANTHONY: Now, I loved steampunk, well before I knew the word for it. Back in the 90s, my friends and I would often refer to it as neo-Victorian fiction. We were all drawn to it as a genre of wit, whimsy and untethered escapism, but many accuse steampunk of being escapist to the detriment of history. How do you see steampunk equipped for a larger role in popular culture? Are the hot air balloons just hot air? 

DIANA: Part of the appeal of steampunk is that it promotes a sense of wonder and awe about our history and technology. Sure, that can also be used to promote escapism, and I won’t ignore that there are people who see steampunk as “only” a form of escapism. I’ve met many more people in the steampunk community, however, who believe that steampunk is an artistic movement with a function beyond simple aesthetics.

Steampunk is happening now – and because people are so excited about seeing how the imaginations about the past affect their lives today, it becomes inevitable for people to associate steampunk with the world they are living in today. In addition to that, many people participate in steampunk because they can see how history doesn’t exist in a vacuum and see how it’s more than just a genre: steampunk can serve as social and cultural commentary about our lives at the very moment.  That’s partly the reason, I think, that people believe the steampunk aesthetic is optimistic: because it can blend the best parts of the past and the present to create an alternate reality. So, while escapism can be a reason why people are interested in steampunk, it isn’t the sole reason. And constructing better worlds should not be mistaken as a form of escapism.

ANTHONY: In regards to constructing a better world, you’ve suggested that the steampunk genre has roots in progressive ideology. The scientific romances of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne discussed the class system and imperialism respectively. A century later, Michael Moorcock also took issue with notions of empire in his nascent steampunk fiction. How have these progressive ideologies manifested in the genre’s most recent material over the last decade?

DIANA: I think the application of current progressive attitudes and social critique to steampunk works is one overarching example arguing for the progressiveness of steampunk. Whether they are films, books, or games – steampunk media has elements that appeal to social equality and challenge its historical backdrop.

Books in the last decade that fall on the progressive side include Gail Carriger, Cherie Priest, Jeff & Ann Vandermeer’s steampunk anthologies, Paul Guinan & Anina Bennett’s Biolerplate & Frank Reade series, and Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy.

I tend to be more interested in non-Western examples, because the creators are more interested in questioning the role of Westernization and its history of imperialist control. Many steampunk works haven’t dealt with the idea of why industrialization is equated with Westernization and Western social values, and why these values aren’t necessarily the best ones. Steampunk animes tend to question the concept of industrialization and imperialism a lot: Steamboy, Full Metal Alchemist, and of lot of Miyazaki films address these concerns. Even games like Bioshock and Fallout as well, because their worlds are dystopic due to steampunk elements. I should also mention the nonfiction works that talk about the genre as having a progressive slant too: The Steampunk Bible by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer and SJ Chambers, The Steampunk Gazette by Major Tinker and Bruce Rosenbaum, Steampunk: An Illustrated History of Fantastical Fiction by Brian Robb, Vintage Tomorrows by James Carrot and Brian David Johnson. All of these studies about the genre and community reject a conservative viewpoint.

ANTHONY: And the initial works that inspired the genre came from the belly of the imperial beast itself- Victorian England. When H.G. Wells wrote of Martian invasions, native peoples had experienced displacement, persecution and genocide at the hands of the British Empire. In the opening chapter of War of the Worlds, Wells draws a parallel between the British Empire and the Martians, referencing the Indigenous Tasmanians here in Australia who had reportedly died due to introduced disease, (the same fate as his fictitious invaders). In reality, the Indigenous Tasmanians were also subject to violence and persecution in a period known as the Black War. This raises the question, what might steampunk fiction look like from the oppressed spectrum of colonialism?

Biritish magnate Cecil Rhodes, not satisfied with his sense of ownership over Africa then declared his desire to "annex other planets."
Biritish magnate Cecil Rhodes, not satisfied with his sense of ownership over Africa then declared his desire to “annex other planets”… no doubt justifying the preemptive strike by the Martian tripods in 1898.

DIANA: That’s an interesting question, and I think that when we talk about imperialism and colonialism, 19th century European imperialism in particular, it is very easy to create monolithic “us versus them” or “coloniser versus the colonised” dichotomies. That one side is the villain and the other is the victim. The problem with this conceptualisation is that it is a very simplistic take on the effects of oppressive hierarchies upon a subject people. Imperialism was an effectively damaging system, specifically because it imposed an outsiders’ system upon an autonomous people, but also created social, political, cultural and educational structures that enforced the idea of the oppressors’ superiority in order to exploit the oppressed economically. So it is not just an oppressed people fighting off the invaders, it was an oppressed people also fighting ideas that they are not worthy: that their art, their homelife, their stories, their food, their clothing, everything that made them as a people would not be as great as what the conquerors have brought.

When I think of what steampunk from the colonised would look like, I also think about my own family history, and the decisions that my parents, my uncles and aunts, my grandparents and great-grandparents had made. This is why I feel so passionate about the topic, because very often in the Western world, it is easy to distance oneself from the life of a colonial subject if one doesn’t see how it has effected their lives directly. For people from formerly colonised (or currently colonised) countries, it is impossible not to see those effects.

So I think an interesting story from the oppressed would delve into that complicated mess. The fact that no one makes easy decisions as part of a colonial system of government. That, very often, the oppressed may choose to assimilate or become part of the system as much as others rebel…

Continued in Part 2.


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