For some people, Steampunk isn’t Steampunk unless there is some connection to jolly ol’ England, but I find this view to be unreasonably limiting. The period surrounding the Industrial Revolution in England saw unprecedented opportunities for travel and exploration, and the people of Western Europe became fascinated with (sometimes fictionalized) accounts of these journeys. These travelogues were definitely influenced by the culture of the observers and can tell us just as much, or in some cases more, about the writers than the places they actually visit.
For instance, Jules Verne’s contrasting characterizations of the phlegmatic Phileas Fogg (English), the emotional and adventurous Passepartout (French), and the short-tempered, violent Colonel Stamp Proctor (American) from Around the World in 80 Days, as well as the unflappable Hans (Icelandic) from Journey to the Center of the Earth, are all attributed to their country of origin. He and Arthur Conan Doyle also capture classist attitudes that were prevalent at the time in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Lost World, respectively. In both of these stories, there are the people who are really considered people (the aristocrats, scientists and journalists) and those who are barely regarded as such (servants, fishermen, crew and porters). When reading The Lost World, I was particularly struck by this when at one point a character laments being left “completely alone” by his comrades, when in fact there are several native people carrying his gear only a few feet away.
These attitudes were very real and abundant, and it is one reason that there are people who openly criticize Steampunk. They believe that to laud the writings and styles of those times is the celebrate this kind of bigotry and narrow view of the world. I completely disagree. Steampunk is a chance to confront issues like increasing wealth disparity and racism that still exist today. We’ve made some great social strides in the last 100 years, but we are still far from having “fixed” these problems, and fiction is a wonderful way to open the discussion, not to mention the minds of readers. As authors, we can create any world we want, be it “true” to the times we want to reflect, or acting as a direct confrontation to the ideals of that period.
As you probably know, one of the best places to find information about multiculturalism in Steampunk is the Beyond Victoriana website, but if you have never visited I highly recommend it. This the blurb from their homepage:
The Nutshell Explanation
“Beyond Victoriana is the oldest-running blog about multicultural steampunk and retro-futurism–that is, steampunk outside of a Western-dominant, Eurocentric framework. Founded in 2009, Beyond Victoriana focuses on non-Western cultures, underrepresented minorities in Western histories (Asian / Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, First Nation, Hispanic, black / African & other marginalized identities), and the cultural intersection between the West and the non-West.”
One of my favorite features of this site is how many videos of panels and discussions they have posted. Here is just one of the may they have to offer.
I also enjoy the work that Suna Dasi and Yomi Ayeni do over at Steampunk India. The relationship between England and its various colonies during the Victorian era is a fascinating bit of history and cultural intersection. I missed connecting with Suna while I was in the UK last summer, but I did get a chance to chat with Ayeni while he was selling and signing books at Weekend at the Asylum in Lincoln. I picked up one of his books, The Arrival, and I plan to review it a little bit later in 2015, but the world of Clockwork Watch goes much deeper than just the three books. Ayeni is actively engaged in “transmedia” which involves telling a single continuous story across many different media including online participation, live theater, and film as well as books and graphic novels.
But, there is a lot of the world that was never colonized by the Brits, and there were fascinating things going on during the time period most often involved in Steampunk. Bulgaria, for instance, has a very interesting history. Since living here I have seen distinctive 19th century architecture from the neo-Byzantine period and learned about the turmoil and uprising against the Ottoman Empire during the 1870s. Another place I have called home this year is Greece, which faced impoverished conditions in the 1890s that forced many of its people to the flee to the United States in hopes of finding a better life. Spain had an Empire that rivaled England’s and was in turmoil after Napolean’s occupation (1808-1814), paving the way for multiple uprisings and changes of leadership. History is full of stories just begging to be told through a Steampunk lens!
The mid to late 1800s also saw an unprecedented “opening” of Japan. Britain had colonies as far east as China, but Japan had remained totally isolated from the rest of the world until the American government negotiated the first trade agreement in 1851. By 1854 Japan was doing a brisk business in Western Europe, and items like silk and kimonos were all the rage. There are some beautiful examples of this in the Victorian and Albert Museum in London. According to an article published in 1854, “In view of the events that have followed, the ending of Japan’s self-isolation and opening of the country, first to American commerce and later to world-wise intercourse, must now be regarded as an achievement of momentous consequence, far exceeding in important all that even the most prophetic statesmanship of the time could foresee” (Matthew C. Perry)
Steampunk itself has recently gained traction in modern day Japan, and they now hold their own Steampunk events.
And let’s not forget that there was racial and cultural diversity within English-speaking countries. The experiences of free and enslaved Africans in the US in the period surrounding the American Civil War would have been very different than those of their white counterparts. Out West it was largely Chinese immigrants who built the railroads, and the fight for the Alamo (1836) resulted in a victory for Mexico.
Bringing in some of this diversity can really add depth and interest to a story or costume, and you can be sure that many of the people living during the Victorian era would have been very aware of these goings on.
Want to see more images of multicultural Steampunk? Check out this post.
Looking for more fun ways to “punk your steam?” Read the series!
Have you found good examples of racial and cultural diversity in any Steampunk works? Please leave a comment!