Steampunk: Punks fuck it up, not suck it up

August 5, 2008

My good friend Oyceter breaks it down:

And if steampunk is centered on Victorian England, where does that leave everyone else? I want to be in steampunk too, but not if my friends and I are mysterious Oriental girls smoking opium or Indian widows waiting to be rescued by rich British travelers or savages in Africa awaiting civilization by missionaries.

And then follows up with an awesome IBARW discussion on how media affects us globally, so it’s never “just a movie” or “just a book”


  1. I’ve been thinking about the same issues. Do you happen to have any resources where one could find reference for 1800s-era POC fashion? Old photographs, etc?

  2. Not off the top of my head. If you find any, can you link back here? I’m more interested in 1920’s-40’s POC fashion, as the few pictures I’ve seen are hella dapper.

  3. I don’t like steampunk for this reason. It’s nostalgia for Colonialism dressed up as the kewl new thing for geeks. And not even dressed up that well.

    I remember saying this to Alexis and she was like “But … Avatar is steampunk! And you like Avatar!” My gut response was “no, it’s not!” And then I realized that without the colonialism, steampunk is unrecognizable to me as a genre. That’s telling about me, the genre, or both.

  4. Though, ironically, Avatar has colonialism too 😛

  5. True, but it’s problematized colonialism, which is key. It’s also based on both recent history and current events, and is in no way nostalgic. All these things help.


  6. True.

    I guess most of my experience with Steampunk is either a) much more fantastic, or b) heavier dose of self awareness (like, League of Extraordinary Gentlmen), that it doesn’t really dive as much into Merry Ol’ England as a focus.

    In general, I see 3 general elements to Steampunk, of which the romanticizing of the Victorian Era is one, but the fetishizing of the clothing and weird gear tech being the other two.

  7. I’ve only done research as far as the African diaspora but there were many merchants, sailors, domestics (of course) all living in England at the time. Far back as Queen Elizabeth really.

    This is only one African that I know of who became the favorite of the queen and played on equal terms with the royal children: Sarah Bonetta Forbes. Queen Victoria was her godmother.

    These things happen they’re just not documented all that well. Though really, the above just reinforces the colonialism issue.

  8. Avatar is steampunk???

  9. Willow…

    Yep. The Fire Nation builds all kinds of fire/steam powered things- tanks, drills, boats, airships, etc. The Earth Nation is not so Steampunky, but they certainly have enough anachronistic tech to sit borderline to the genre. And then, of course, there is the one episode with the glider folks who moved into the abandoned Air temple and built gliders and such.

  10. Yeah, I was thinking about how steampunk glorifies Victorian culture while glossing over colonialism, extreme inequality and social injustice… then I found this webcomic


    and LOLed, because this is exactly what a Victorian-era superhero would actually have been like.

    (BTW, this is apparently drawn by the same person who does the extremely boring and mediocre newspaper comic “Sally Forth”. I guess he takes all the ideas that he couldn’t get away with doing in the newspaper, i.e. all the funny ones, and puts them into webcomics.)

  11. Oh, another random thought that just occurred to me.

    “War of the Worlds” could be considered one of the founding works of the whole SF genre as well as that era of SF which forms the inspiration for steampunk. “War of the Worlds” can be read as commentary on colonialism, with the aliens as the colonists and the British as the colonized.

    So… if H.G. Wells himself was able to understand the dark side of his own society, why do his nth-generation literary descendants have so much trouble seeing it?

  12. Well, actually that’s something I’ve pointed out a lot about American sci-fi, that alien invasion is basically projection about being on the receiving end of colonization/genocide.

  13. Bankuei:

    I guess I thought of Avatar as fantasy with lots of lovely Chinese elements and big ugly metal ships. The metal made more sense to me as something fire could mold than as ‘steam punk’. Huh.

    I’d never thought steampunk could be all that interesting before.

    I blame Will Smith.

    Also! You so hit it on the head that with American SciFi (and something I mentioned about Ellis’ New Universal) it’s always ‘They’ve come. They believe/are/can prove they’re superior. They’ll wipe us out!’

    Randomly & Semi On Topic. The first time I watched NuWho with my then roommate she couldn’t buy into the alien invasion – because they were invading London. She was all “It’s London! It’s not Washington DC. It’s London! How are they going to take over the world from there?!”

    It made me realize that colonialism -still- influences me – when I said “Uhm, Seat of Power for the British Empire; such as it stands.”

  14. I haven’t seen NuWho, so I really can’t speak to specific context, but…

    If I (group of hypothetical aliens) wanted to take over the world, but didn’t want to jump into the shitfest that is the biggest military power to start it off (since, they tend to prepare for the revolution), it makes sense to go for their next best allies who have almost as good intelligence AND won’t be nuked by said world power.

    Of course, that’s overthinking it. They went for London because it’s Dr. Who, just as much as aliens attack the US in US sci-fi (except when they’re going to wipe out a continent, in which case, they attack China).

  15. They went for London because it’s Dr. Who

    That’s the very concept she had trouble getting. She didn’t understand a SciFi/Space Opera show, with such a huge following, that involved the British. To her NuWho made no sense because while in the 60’s Britain still had colonies in modern day London (England in general as well) as a focus just made no sense to her.

    She really couldn’t grasp her own Ameri-centric view because it was just too boggling.

    That and she kept wondering why they hadn’t just updated the Daleks the way BSG had updated the Cylons. I couldn’t even get into the whole fx-spoiled vs nostalgia because I was still going ‘But Dr. Who’s a British show.’

    It was a bit of a shock for me the things she noticed first. But when, upon spying K-9 she openly mocked – we agreed to disagree and not discuss. I later dropped the series after S1. But her reaction stuck to me.

  16. The thing that has always gauled me about Steampunk is that I rarely see the punk in it. In fact, I see the opposite of punk in most of it.

    I dunno, maybe its just me, but the word “punk” means the underclass, the dispossessed, the alienated, the angry, the ugly, and the brutal. Steampunk, to my little brain, thus should be full of stories about the other side of Colonialism, about the folks who were ground under by the steam age, about those who were being pushed under the harrow by the birth/growth of nationalism, racism, industrialism, and all those other isms.

    Instead most of the genre seems to be about the coolness of Victorian, not the punks of the Victorian age, but the ruling class and the ruling ideals. Its ever so much less steampunk and more Steam Hegemony.

    Which, considering that I just saw a commercial that called Fallout Boy one of the greatest punk bands ever, is probably in keeping with the wholesale sellout of punk.

  17. Exactly.

    Specific to roleplaying, I feel “punk” is mostly added to mean some kind of genre mashup, or, if they’re feeling generous, anachronistic pomo attitudes to some other time period.

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