Friday, November 12, 2010

MRP Adventures: Usable Primary Works

I'm not one to re-invent the wheel, so when Ay-Leen asked me in the last post (the srs one, not the squee one) about how I would define steampunk literature, I immediately thought to Mike Perschon's well-defined-oft-redefined definition of steampunk: an aesthetic that evokes neo-Victoriana, technofantasy and retrofuturism. I'm not that much of a masochist that I'd try to create my own definition, and I tend to agree with Mike on this definition. It is, thus far, one of the most useful definitions out there that allows for applicability to a great variety of works without being draconian, but is still pretty easily sighted. 

But this is a project that focuses on race and representation in steampunk literature, as well as the potentiality of postcoloniality, which means that although I've read some nifty-ass books that use the steampunk aesthetic (Court of the Air being a wonderful example), I need to narrow down the literature. 

Firstly, of course, the books I'd use would have the steampunk aesthetic. This isn't a big deal. Mike Perschon has done most of the legwork in maintaining a list of primary works that are canonically considered steampunk, so I'll be ripping off his list shamelessly. 

Secondly, the books would have a strong sense of alternate history attached to it as well. Postcoloniality is a state of departure from a particular official narrative; the books I'm looking at should also attempt to depart from history as we know it.

Thirdly, the books would ideally, in order of importance: A) take place in a non-Western European / Western European-derived / white setting for some significant length in the story, AND/OR B) have significant non-Western European / Western European-derived / white cast members with speaking lines, AND/OR C) depict interaction between white characters (if any) and non-white characters in some significant length in the story, AND/OR D) address issues of colonialism / imperialism. (Henceforth, using this system: A [], B [], C [], D [])

Fourthly, they'll have been published within the last ten years, i.e. starting from 2000. This is to narrow down my problems in hunting down books. I'd love to do a literature review of all books that fulfill the above requirements, but I only get 40 - 50 pages for my MRP, so that'll just have to remain a blog project. I'm not averse to books that'll be published within the next 7 months. 

Thus far, the list looks like this:

Peshawar Lancers, by S.M. Stirling -- A [Y], B [Y, by all reports], C [dependent on B so, Y], D [?]

Mainspring, by Jay Lake (sigh) -- A [Y], B [Y], C  [Y], D [N]

Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi (sigh) -- A [Y], B [Y], C [Y], D [Y]

Tentatively, these are the books I would like to add but am not quite sure yet:

Clockwork Century novels, by Cherie Priest:
Boneshaker -- A [North America as constructed by colonizers], B [N], C [Y], D [N]
Dreadnought -- A [North America as constructed by colonizers], B [Y], C [Y], D [~Y]

Gaslight Dogs, by Karin Lowachee -- A [secondary North America that is beginning to be colonized], B [Y], C [Y], D [Y]

Behemoth, by Scott Westerfeld -- A [half-half], B [Y], C [Y], D [Perhaps]

Books that have potential but since I know too little about them for now, I can't file them yet:

Crystal Rain, by Tobias Buckell (I have to say though, that cover is SPIFFY)

Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve

I'm kinda annoyed that the books under Tentative are the books that I would file in the Doin' Shit Right folder.

I am not averse to using short stories as primary texts, either:

Pimp My Airship, by Maurice Broaddus -- A [Y], B [Y], C [?], D [?] (Will be filled soon; I need to re-read it)

The Effluent Engine by NK Jemisin -- A [New Orleans, with alt-history Haiti], B [Y], C [Y], D [Y]

The Last Rickshaw by Stephanie Lai -- A [Y], B [Y], C [Y], D [N]

Brilliant, by Georgina Bruce -- A [Y], B [Y], C [Y], D [N]

These short stories, however, are significant because they don't only include POC perspectives, the way Windup Girl and Gaslight Dogs do, but actual center non-white characters as the focal characters. Because they center these characters and have few or no white characters, the discussion of imperialism is less important. I do want to have a section specifically about this sort of fiction as examples of how a postcolonial approach benefits writers using the aesthetic to FAIL LESS. I do think postcolonial steampunk can deliver very sound critiques of imperialism, but I think, honestly, in the end, the point is to imagine a world where we don't have to critique imperialism. I mean, I like kicking sand into the eyes of white colonizers trying to take over the sandbox, but ya'll, sometimes I want to be left alone to build sandcastles without colonizers knockin' 'em over, y'know?


  1. Crystal Rain: I had no idea why you were including it until I looked at the cover again -- despite the dirigible, it's not something that I would think of as steampunk. Not neoVictorian, not retrofuturism. Maybe technofantasy, but even that seems a stretch to me. Certainly, once you move away from Crystal Rain into the other two novels, the series is very much space opera / cyberpunk.

    That said: A[Y] B[Y] C[can't remember if there are non-cameo white characters] D[worldbuilding backstory only]
    The other books in the sequence have more direct discussions of imperialism/colonialism, but in a space-opera context.

    Boneshaker disappointed me because it could so easily have been a B[Y]. Nice to see that Dreadnought did better.

    ...and I can see from your ABCD system that I need to read Gaslight Dogs.

  2. I'm not sure I want to include Crystal Rain, for reasons you mentioned. But I'm still curious about it enough to want to track it down. I mean, WUG isn't necessarily steampunk either, but it's still useful due to the technofantasy angle.

    Yes, Boneshaker definitely could have done so much better. I'm also glad that Clementine is going to get developed into a larger project as well. I think if Priest wanted, she could pull of a POC-headed cast, so it's actually a bit disappointing that she hasn't done so already. I'm holding out for a Huey/Zeke adventure.

    You can read my review of GSD here ^^

  3. Cherie Priest's Clementine, which is out now via subpress and for e-readers does a much better job as well. A [North America as constructed by colonizers], B [Y], C [Y], D [~Y]

  4. Oooh, Clementine is available for eReaders?! Thanks for the info! *NOMS* I'd still want a paper copy (because I like to use post-its all over the books I'm using - you should see my copy of Gaslight Dogs) but this really good intel!