Friday, January 28, 2011

You can Steampunk Revolution, but Revolution will Never be Steampunk

That will be tonight's #steampunkchat topic: steampunk and revolution.

ETA: Chat session was, I think, a success. Thanks to all who attended, and special thanks to Scott Westerfeld for his contribution on such short notice! Here's a transcript for those interested.

Let me explain this title. 

Revolutions and rebellions are, by their nature, painful things. They come about from oppressive environments. They are started with discontent people who band together to overthrow their conditions. 

Wikipedia defines revolutions as "a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time," which I don't have to tell you is an incredibly flawed perspective. Revolutions turn power structures upside-down, but often, it means a replacement of one elite with another elite. 

But revolutions must occur, because the alternative is to be silent and sit still while an oppressive regime erodes the rights of the community. 

Steampunk as technofantasy, steampunk as retrofuturism, steampunk as eco-critical position, steampunk as alternate history, steampunk as roleplaying subculture -- could never truly encompass all that revolution entails. 

Right now there are revolutions happening all over the place. I'm not entirely keen on discussing revolution, particularly with relation to steampunk, because I'm not interested in applying a Western gaze to the revolutions happening now in Tunisia and Egypt (if steampunk isn't Eurocentric, then Beyond Victoriana and this blog wouldn't exist). You are wholly encouraged to educate yourself and keep abreast of the happenings.

In steampunk literature, however, there can be an undercurrent of discontent and unrest, in terms of class, if not also race. Sterling and Gibson's Difference Engine, for example, has an atmosphere for political unrest (which I'm not going to claim to understand). Westerfeld's Leviathan illustrates how the Serbs were scapegoats for starting WWI, building off the unrest that was building between the governments of Europe at the time, and in Behemoth shows the protagonists working with revolutionaries in Turkey (referencing the unrest with the Ottoman Empire that, in real life, manifested in the Young Turks Revolution). 

Perhaps on a more familiar ground, Stephen Hunt's Court of the Air depicts a revolution of Carlists, paralleling Marxism-inspired movements, overthrowing the Jackellian government. The Carlist movement, however, proceeds to re-create the citizens, "equalizing" them forcibly -- an example of how revolutions, even with the best goals, re-create the same oppressive conditions that the previous hierarchy enforced. 

What does revolution look like in a steampunk setting, in which industrialization has begun? Why would revolutions happen then? How would such a revolution differ from the revolutions we have seen happen in the past? How would accelerated technology be harnessed, either by governments suppressing revolts or the masses pushing back against oppressive regimes? 

Terms for Discussion:

This is not the space to ask "how can we steampunk revolution?" without asking the accompanying questions of, who's revolting? Why? What are the systems in place? 

This is not the space to draw real-world parallels without critically engaging the importance of their happening, their significances to today's geo-political landscape, and their effects on the real people that lived then.

This is also not the space to play conflict resolutions officer. Show some respect for real events and tread with care. 

What's happening right now in Egypt and Tunisia is important, because it behooves us, as writers and consumers of steampunk cultural product, to be mindful of how large-scale changes in just a few aspects of life can affect whole societies. It is imperative that we not create a spectator sport of painful events that are borne out of oppression, even as we speculate on how we might reproduce such events.

See you all tonight.


  1. I have written extensively on this subject at The noteworthy articles pertaining to this article are: Born in 1920, 1929: The Year the World Ended, and The Great Disconnect.

    The first two articles are about the shift in the zeitgeist from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth and the ongoing conflict between the two.

    The Great Disconnect is about the disconnection of Aesthetics from the other four branches of philosophy. Most Steampunk consumers enjoy the aesthetics of Steampunk because its fun to play high-tech Victorians, but they reject the values and philosophical principles that made the Victorians great. In other words, its all show and no substance. A revolution needs more than a cool look, it needs a philosophy.

    As for Eurocentricism, the use of that word betrays you are a child of your age. I mean no offence, because so am I. The concepts of cultural relativism, multiculturalism, and diversity are all post-modern constructions that any Neo-Victorian should reject.

    The Victorians had a deep curiosity, love, and fascination with other cultural expressions. In fact, the first Indian restaurant opened in Britain before the first fish and chips shop, and Victorians elected the first British-Indian member of Parliament.

    The difference is that the Victorian held certain values and principles to be true regardless of cultural background. Those who excelled were deemed great and those who did not were rejected. There is not enough space here to go into these values here, but suffice to say that they are the ones that created the modern world. They are things like hard work, perseverance, the importance of character, reason, education, freedom, and property rights.

    The modern approach of cultural relativism rejects such standards and accepts all cultures as equal regardless of moral outcome, and any approach that even hints at the greatness achieved by Western Civilization is rejected as Eurocentric or racist.

    I highly recommend the book Inventing the Victorians by Matthew Sweet for a clearer picture of the Victorians. He strongly hints at the smear campaign against them that has led to the false image we have today of them.

    I mention this because I see many people who identify themselves with Steampunk providing a disclaimer against the Victorians to distance themselves from a negative image that is largely false.

  2. Logan. Stranger. Hold up. Did you just identify steampunk with Neo-Victorianism? Because steampunk has evolved FAR beyond its neo-Victorian image (if indeed it ever was). Steampunk, as a literary genre and as an aesthetic, is seeing a Renaissance of sorts

    This is NOT a Neo-Victorian blog. My definitions of steampunk are distinctly post-modern. If you recognize that Victorians created the modern world, then you also recognize that they are responsible for the systemic racism and remote imperialism that still occurs today. That is what I work against.

    Contrary to plebian opinion, people are capable of recognizing greatness while decrying flaws. It's not enough to celebrate the greatness of Western Civilization without also celebrating the greatness of other cultures that Western Civilization has traditionally trod upon. That is what makes the act Eurocentric. It is also not enough to celebrate Western Civilization without also acknowledging the damage it has done which echoes today. That is what makes the act racist.

    The Victorians were not perfect. They had their insecurities and flaws and prejudices as much as any modern person today. I cut them slack because they didn't know better. I expect my audience to, though.

  3. I do not get the impression that revolution is what you are after. You do not want the car to stop or turn around, you want it to go faster. For you to say that you are working against racism and remote imperialism is not to say anything controversial or remotely revolutionary.

    I once met a man who was filled with sentimentality concerning the history of the Native Americans. I failed to persuade him of the fact that the modern world that he so fully enjoyed would not have been possible if not for Western Expansion. To sound like a clichéd villain, you cannot make an omelette without cracking a few eggs. His hypocrisy rests in his inability to make the connection between the crime and his benefiting from the crime.

    I mention this because much of the greatness of Western Civilization rest on a set of principles that are today unfashionable. One being that no race or nation is inherently right, therefore many are wrong. So what determines the right from the wrong? Should the right take precedence over the wrong?

    As for Steampunk and Neo-Victorianism, I do agree with you. They are not the same. The difference between us is that I see Steampunk as having become worthless because it lacks the philosophical core of Neo-Victorianism. Without that core, people can contrive Steampunk to be whatever suits their purposes.

    I see many parallels between popularity of Goth in the 2000's and the popularity of Steampunk. People want to define it according to their fancy without any substantive core and they take offence at any attempt to impose meaning.

    This is why Steampunk will never provide you with a revolution. First, your ideas are not revolutionary and second you are contriving Steampunk to fit your beliefs.

    No, the Victorians were not perfect, but in studying them all these years I have come to the conclusion that despite our technological superiority, they were far superior to us in most respects. This is where you and I differ. I embrace Steampunk as modern technology fused with Victorian zeitgeist. But you patronise them by "cutting them slack" and apologise for them.

    Finally, what was meant by "stranger"? Hardly making someone feel welcome. It is quite obvious that we are strangers and will remain so for we will not agree on much and as you have made a poor impression.

    We are both children of this age. The difference between us is that I have rejected it and endeavour to follow older examples. You embrace it. Just bear in mind that as I fight for revolution; you are fighting for the status quo. May the best man win. I won't be visiting you again to post or read a reply. Good night.

  4. ... Where on earth did you get the idea that I'm looking to steampunk for a revolution? Moreover, where did you get the idea I'm defending Victorian racists when I'm not the one espousing their beliefs? And... revolution is embracing OLD ideals that have been proven to be false and fallible AND responsible for the creation of today's status quo? Wow. I mean. Just. WOW!

    Yeah, okay, come into someone's space and give them weird logic that indicates you haven't read anything written by them and then complain when they refuse to make you feel comfortable. I guess I understand that.

    WOW! I hereby grant this comment the Most Mindblowing Comment In This Blog's Existence.

  5. "May the best man win. I won't be visiting you again to post or read a reply. Good night."

    That is indeed an honourable way to proceed in an intellectual debate. I have seen such reactionary arguments used to defend liberalism (in the historic sense), but never such a stance applied to neo-Victorianism and labelled as a "revolution."

    For instance, the argument that the British Empire brought technology and modernity to the colonized nations (see the Native American example above), citing the example of South Africa as the most technologically/economically advanced nation in postcolonial Africa. My response, of course, pointed to the situation in Zimbabwe. To use Logan's example, the Native Americans I grew up with here did not get the benefits of the "modern world" and European expansionism, because they lived (and still live) in isolated reservations with appalling conditions, without clean water or even electricity, only reinforced by the alcoholism resulting from abuse in residential schools in the Canadian (British North American, let's say) attempts at forced assimilation into western ideals.

    Steampunk, from what I've read, never came about as a replication of neo-Victorianism on the basic ideological level, but rather a critique of the Victorian legacy wrapped in a retorfuturist framework. See Michael Moorcock's "The Warlord of the Air", one of the earliest examples of steampunk, which is, in fact, a damnation of the British Empire and western culture. It's only recently, I find, that steampunk has taken on the core of neo-Victorianism, I believe quite unconsciously, instead of being the "worthless" (as Logan would have it) form of expression it was before.

    -Michal Wojcik