Steam, power and politics: talking steampunk with Diana M. Pho, Part 2

In Part 1 last week, I discussed the melee and milieu of steampunk’s political soul with activist and academic Diana M. Pho. There we found threads of progressive thought woven into the early scientific romances of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Flash-forward, it’s 2013 and Western democracy has launched invasions in the Middle East and, for want of a more mundane term, killer robots (drones) are performing extrajudicial killings on foreign soil. This week, we turn our attention to how this genre of bygone eras might reflect our own benighted times…

ANTHONY: Given the  West’s recent trend of military action,  Middle East occupation and drone strikes, it would seem that steampunk’s themes of empire, war and technology have never been more relevant…

DIANA: Yes, indeed these themes have been most relevant! The strongest examples of steampunk do not create cotton candy societies: realms of spun sugar indulgence and wish fulfillment. Because that would make for boring reading very quickly.

Steampunk as a subgenre is unabashedly rooted in our world. Even if it is an alternative form, it is still our world and its possibilities that the creator is commenting upon. And, as we become more integrated with technology and all of its possibilities (both creative and destructive), I think steampunk will still continue to remain relevant as a subgenre.

ANTHONY: This relevance is also pertinent in as much as the planet can’t seem to come to any pragmatic response to systems of constant growth and material obsolescence that render the ecosystem uninhabitable. What are the broad ecological implications of a genre powered by steam and built by hand?

DIANA: Historically, cottage industries have collapsed in the face of mass industry, and for society to scale back to becoming a more “handmade one” would also mean dealing with various other realities people may not desire. Mainly, the lack of accessibility to certain materials goods, because we have become accustomed to the lower prices of mass production (falsely created low prices, I might add).

The ecological implication is that more environmental destruction is created to get the raw materials needed for economic growth. The need for perpetual consumption is only created through our perpetual need to consume as a society (I have a lot of friends who have issues with capitalism for creating markets like this, and I can’t deny that).

Steam power isn’t necessarily the solution either, because, steam is still created by energy from fossil fuels. There is technology being created at low cost and high efficiency that can revolutionise society, especially developing ones. A couple of examples I can think of are power batteries that can charge in less than a second, or an all-natural mosquito repellant that can stop the spread of malaria in its tracks. Frankly, those technologies involve biology, solar and wind power, new forms of nanotechnology and plastics. Not steam power.

Naturally, we are living in a cyberpunk world that will eventually become a biopunk one (if we can save this plant long enough to do so). But how steampunks treat the concept of technological progress is valid: that the past held ideas that can still help if we look hard enough.

ANTHONY: Another particular piece of historical revisionism in the genre would be issues of gender. Recent young adult novels like Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel and Kady Cross’ The Girl is the Steel Corset would appear to be carving out a new female readership for steampunk. While some may write these off as Twilight in corsets (Steel Corset is published by Harlequin after all), these female authors are writing for female protagonists in uniquely female rite-of-passage narratives. Do books like these represent a new development in the progressive edge of steampunk?

As early as the 1860s, new technologies were allowing women to transcend the social limitations of gender... in as much as it was permissible to ride a bicycle sidesaddle while swaddled in slightly less constricting petticoats, corsets, chemises and gowns.
As early as the 1860s, new technologies were allowing women to transcend the social limitations of gender… in as much as it was permissible to ride a bicycle sidesaddle while swaddled in slightly less constricting petticoats, corsets, chemises and gowns.

DIANA: I think that for a long time, speculative fiction and fandom has ignored women, although we have always been there, doing stuff. The growing prominence of female authors in modern steampunk is because steampunk is a cross-over genre, and can involve other genres that have a strong female presence. Authors these days tend to be categorised under multiple genres anyways, and this happens with male authors too.  Remember, Scott Westerfeld started off as hard science fiction writer before moving to young adult and steampunk. Young adult, romance, fantasy, and mystery are all genres where writers have succeeded, and you get these writers who write for one genre now also becoming involved in steampunk.

In general, though, I think there is a growing recognition of women in the publishing and media industries. On the other hand, I also think that women are attracted to steampunk because it is a genre that overlaps with a wide range of interests: fantasy, history, and the visual arts. I have heard also that women creators like steampunk because it also gives a fascinating backdrop to talk about historic female oppression and compare it to how these issues are still pervasive today.

ANTHONY: Finally, after all the corsets and culture wars, why is it that you love steampunk?

DIANA: Oh my, I think I’ve already scattered all of my reasons why I love steampunk in my answers above! But, on the whole, I will say that the reason why steampunk draws my attraction is because it is a subgenre that is fascinated by contradictions. Steampunk is inspired by a time period when Western society believed in the best of the future, while suppressing the squalor of its time. I’m fascinated by Westernisation and industrialisation, and steampunk both celebrated and challenges the connection between both. At the same time, however, there had been this dynamic undercurrent of change and how new technologies have instigated that change. Steampunk acknowledges the importance of the past as a way to see the possibilities of the future…

Diana’s commentary can be found further in Anatomy of Steampunk by Katherine Gleason. You can read her excerpt here at Beyond Victoriana

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