Getting Out of London

While Victorian London might be the default home and first representative thought of steampunk settings and influence, there is still a whole nineteenth century world out there to explore, with unique cultures to experience and (steam)punk. Our literature and movies, fashion and materials design, and our own attitudes and actions, can directly benefit from the rich diversity of other locations, customs and ideas. The steampunk community and culture would be at a loss without including the rest of the Victorian era world. We are too creative to stay in just one city! Where can the steampunk Adventurers and Explorers (and Ambassadors) go? What can we learn about others, and in so doing, learn about ourselves?

With this expansion of focus and thought, it is important that it is done with the actions and intent of inclusion, not mere appropriation of a superficial look, nor the adoption of the spirit without the underlying meaning of peoples and their traditions. There’s a great deal of Imperialism and colonization to recognize in Victorian age history, and we should not trivialize that which is so valuable to others.

Onward then, from English countrysides and coastlines, to the Scottish lochs and Irish glens, German forests and French valleys, Spanish ports and Italian orchards. Further afield, there are Persian deserts, Turkish markets, and Indian Himalayas. Transylvania ZanzibarTongaMechanicsburgh!  Oh, wait. That’s already in use.

There are cultural roles to understand like Japanese ninjas , Native American spiritual leaders , and Russian Tsars , and traditional garments to try such as Chinese silk robes, Peruvian tunics, and Arabian thobes and ghutras.

Steampunk is all about “What if” in order to create our stories, fashions, and design. If new stories from steampunk authors look past the England-centric themes there is so much more which could be considered.

Who might have used a fully functional Difference Engine from Charles Babbage to assist Guatemala, Panama, and Santo Domingo in proclaiming independence from Spain in 1821?

How could steampunk technology help mitigate Ireland’s potato famine of 1846?

What creative steampunk weaponry would have ensured that revolutions in Vienna, Venice, Berlin, Milan, Rome, and Warsaw in 1849 succeeded?

What if Mary Shelley’s Modern Prometheus had actually been Paul Guinan’s Boilerplate ?

Our form and fashion expressions of steampunk can include not only the visual aesthetic of other cultures but also share the underlying significance of the original inspirational source. How might we accurately and respectfully incorporate Maori tattoo designs  , the neck rings of Karen (Kayan) tribes in Myanmar (Burma),  and South African Zulu beadwork into the back story and clothing of our steampunk characters?

What would various aspects of steampunk look like with an influence of Chinese ceramics, African ivory carvings , or Incan or Mayan art and architecture?

What would be the impact of steampunk technology developing in the African Plains, the Amazonian rainforest, or the Samoan Islands?

Recognizing the potential and opportunities, authors, makers and conventions are already exploring new possibilities for growth. As examples, unfortunately leaving out many others:

Cherie Priest sets her novel, Boneshaker, in an alternate version of Seattle. During a panel at Steamcon , October, 2009, Priest explained a bit of the thought research which went into shifting actual historical events in time to create a plausible cause and effect of events making the setting more believable and easier to suspend disbelief.

James Ng talks about his artwork, steampunk with a basis in Chinese culture, in an interview with Jaymee Goh. In it, James says he wondered:

“what if China was the first to modernize during the turn of the last century, if China was the standard that other countries had to work towards, what would things look like today?”

Bruno Accioly co-founded the Steampunk Council to create and promote Brazilian steampunk.

Michael Redturtle describes his thoughts in how he came to create his Native American steampunk outfit with a guiding principle of “Native first, steampunk second”.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia had her Mexican steampunk story, Distant Deeps or Skies, published in the webzine Expanded Horizons.

Cabinet of Wonders had a posting about the potential of Arabian steampunk, citing the engineering developments of Badi Al Zaman Abul I Ezz Ibn Ismail Ibn Al Razzaz Al Jaziri in the twelfth century.

And of course, Jules Verne gave us Captain Nemo who was actually Prince Armitage Ranjit Dakkar from India, a leader of the Sepoy rebellion against colonial rule in 1857. (See here , also)

Stephen H. Segal says in his Five Thoughts On The Popularity Of Steampunk:

“Sure, steampunk “proper” may simply be retro-alternate-19th-century science fiction — but in practice, writers and artists and filmmakers and musicians are all starting with this basic aesthetic and then mixing in some fantasy, some horror, some superheroics. We’re seeing steampunk pirates, steampunk faeries, steampunk Wonder Woman, steampunk Cthulhu cultists!”

The exploration of other locations, themes and design is underway and will continue to grow in evermore creative avenues, because steampunk is ever evolving and ever inclusive. When we know and understand what was happening historically around the planet in the Victorian age, and why, we are better able to incorporate elements of people, places, things and customs into our steampunk culture, to make more informed choices, and to bring along substantive meaning and reasons for a change or addition instead of just a simplistic and superficial “it looks cool”.

We can enjoy and express the visual aesthetic of non-English cultures, but it is also important for us to remember and respect the sources of inspiration. Take the best, but make sure you address the rest.

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Published in: on April 25, 2010 at 7:54 am  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I love this – we need to look wider for inspiration if Steampunk is not to descend into cliche. My inspiration largely comes from early SF and other literature which examines space travel in an anachronistic way – “what if this culture or that time period had discovered the ability to explore space and other planets”. It’s not an uncommon inspiration I suspect and dominated by European literature. This could certainly be cross fertilised and kept fresh by my own imaginings of, for instance, a 19th century Japanese lunar expedition. Thank you so much for writing this, it was just the imaginative shake up I was looking for.

  2. I choose to do an Anglo-Irish lord as my persona as it’s part of my heritage, a way of incorporating a past that never existed (as my ancestors were tenant farmers that came to the US to escape the Potato blight – which BTW was as much the result of classism – something else Steampunk stands against) with the present. I would love to see a Steampunk samurai complete with googles, gears and swords. Or a Steampunk Zulu warrior with a ray gun in one hand and his iklwa (the traditional thrusting spear) in the other.

  3. I totally agree!!! I love the “proper” setting of Steampunk but I’m glad it’s just as acceptable to stray away. I think Steampunk is one of the most imaginative genres of Sci-fi. Excited how much it’s exploding, just wish I found it sooner <3

    Great post! :)

    Claire

  4. Sorry to be years late, but I just found this. I came to the genre about three years ago, after half a century of writing fantasy and sci-fi without success. I was aware of steampunk for a long time, but it just suddenly “grabbed” me by the throat, and hasn’t let go yet. I found London to be overpopulated with great stories, and moved my work to the East African colonies, where I do a short story series that can best be described as “imagine that Jules Verne had written Firefly. There must be something to it, as the first story has been published, with an option for the rest. You really nailed it; every other genre takes place everywhere on earth and beyond. Why not ours?


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