Undustrial Revolutions

November 1, 2009

I got a chance to have a good conversation with several folks down at World Fantasy Con today, and though I didn’t see it, we were talking about the Steampunk panel, where Nisi Shawl pointed out that Steampunk is often a reaction against us getting into genre writing.

There’s some serious truth in this.

Sci-fi asked, “How does technology shape society?”, Cyberpunk asked, “How does technology enforce/break status quo?”, whereas Steampunk asks, “Is Colonialism excusable and/or a necessary evil?”

All of the above can try to dodge their questions by retreating into tropes and cliches, only Steampunk ends up answering the question even in evasion- retreating to a colonial culture and painting it as a golden age is not different than many history books or current news today. Expecting the fruits of colonialism whether through “Manifest Destiny” or “Just Because” is effectively the same answer.

Do we get to be people in these stories? Do we get to be more than a source or obstacle to resources? Are we co-creators of the world that is, or just people waiting to be discovered and enlightened from our benighted ways? The retreat into colonial culture either becomes an criticism or an excuse in the way it answers those questions- is “a product of the times” a horrifying concept to realize what it says about the culture or is it an excuse to normalize it?

Of course, the fact that the question is even where’s it at says a lot about how backwards the discussion is. Whereas Nisi pointed to it being a reaction to us in genre fiction, I say it’s more part of the larger trend in N. Americas and Europe- about pining for “the good old days” and backlash against changing demographics and immigration.

The fact that some of us subvert the trend and call it out is nothing new, and I expect will be the clash for as long as Steampunk exists as a genre.


  1. A thing that has bothered me about steampunk (ever since Ben explained to me what steampunk actually was), is that the answer to Is Colonialism excusable and/or a necessary evil?” seems to be “Yes, so long as it’s pretty and has gears stuck to it.” It’s like the people who are into facism because uniforms are so cool.

    • Pretty much. What’s interesting is that if you cut out the Victorian Era aspect- there’s over 30 years of cartoons, comics, and videogames full of retrotech, many of which come down on the side -against- colonialism- Laputa, The Mysterious Cities of Gold, The Dark Crystal, Final Fantasy 3, up to more modern stuff- Casshern and Avatar the Last Airbender.

      The interesting thing here, is that retrotech has been mainstream since the 80’s. The need to marry it to European colonialism is… a special brand of escapism.

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