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Steampunk for the Win: Being a Primer on Writing about the Steampunk Phenomenon while eschewing Assorted and Sundry Forms of Ill Mannered Fail


Gonna write about Multicultural Steampunk? Don't fail, son.

While many have described Steampunk as "Victorian" in nature, and much of it is, this has never told the whole story. Steampunk enactment and presentation often rejects the rules Victorians attached to sex, race, class, ability, orientation, and every other axis even as it explores and riffs on them. including the very axiom of Victorian/British/European/White supremacy. Steampunks such as Ay-Leen the Peacemaker, the folks at Steampunk Magazine, selkiechick at Steampunk Debate, Austin Sirkin, Jess Nevins, and Jha, have been at the forefront of this movement-within-a-movement, writing and doing Steampunk in ways that explore heritages that a widely diverse population brings to this type of undertaking. This cannot but challenge white Steampunks to interrogate how we do Steampunk in order to find ways that don't recreate the oppressions of the time from which we draw.

These writers' efforts are not going unnoticed, as evidenced by Ay-Leen's blog Beyond Victoriana receiving the coveted Last Drink Bird Head Award from Jeff Vandermeer for "Gentle Advocacy: In recognition of individuals willing to enter into blunt discourse about controversial issues." Steampunk places heavy emphasis on the principles of active participation ("Do It Yourself!"). Thus, it is
to be expected that as more white people remember that there is a world beyond Europe and people beyond Europeans, that we too become inspired by those people and places.

Therein lies a hazard.

The sad fact is that history did happen. People did things, built systems of empire and oppression that have ruled and shaped how our disparate cultures have interacted. Like it or not, those structures are still around today and will be until they're taken apart. If we are not aware of them and do not actively work towards that deconstruction, they cannot but shape our interactions as well. This deconstruction is tricky because part of how those systems operate is by making themselves well-hidden from the privileged class. Another is way they operate is
by creating and reinforcing a dynamic in which the oppressed are expected to work for the benefit of the privileged.

Some will shy away from this because they fear it will "harsh their squee." To them, I assert that not only is this an opportunity to refine your squee, but to squee one's squee without harshing someone else's squee. Everybody wins.

This is not intended to be a full discussion of how privilege operates; better writers than I have documented that quite extensively (see below), and the Gentle Reader is encouraged to examine those works closely. This essay, then, is intended to suggest ways that we in Steampunk who occupy a position of privilege along some axes can go about engaging fully while attempting not to perpetuate patterns of privilege. It is simply good manners, indeed basic decency, that we do so because if we do not we must face the certainty that we will be ruining Steampunk for our fellow travelers. I by no means suggest that this list is exhaustive, or that by adhering to it one will be able to completely exit systems of oppression. This is merely a start.

  1. Research thoroughly. It is difficult to overstate the important of good, rigorous research. From programming to painting to martial arts, it is a truism that one must understand the rules before one attempts to break them in the name of innovation. Steampunk is all about breaking rules in the name of innovation. Research is key. Moreover, one cannot give credit (See point 2) to what one doesn't know about. Marginalizing or silencing someone out of ignorance changes nothing of the fact that one has silenced or marginalized them. Worse, it gives one's work a shoddy appearance, and Steampunk is no place for shoddy work.

    The cultures of the world are living things with meaning for living people. Part of the history of oppression are the practices of misappropriation and commodificaton. It behooves us to apply rigor in finding better ways to interact even when, as Jha notes, we can't get away from these things completely. Good research minimizes the chance of inadvertently stealing something to which one is not entitled.

  2. Give full credit. Show your work in all its glory! It's especially important in cross-cultural inquiries. Europeans had (and often still have!) a most unfortunate tendency to assume they were the only people in the world whose work counted. The quintessential example is the absurd notion that an explorer who comes across a continent inhabited by millions of people can be said to have "discovered" it. There is no reason to recreate it in Steampunk. Just as it is appropriate and commonplace to thank one's parents, it must be common and expected practice to acknowledge those who have gone before intellectually. The most common failure mode here is to write about multiculturalism as if it's an undiscovered country waiting for white Steampunks to start getting into rather than something that Steampunks of color have been doing for years. Good scholarship demands no less.

  3. Respect that some things are simply not there for the borrowing. Research is always necessary. However, it is not necessarily sufficient. There are some things that no matter how well one researchs them, no matter how carefully one recreates them, there is simply no way to use them respectfully because they are reserved to the culture. For example, there is absolutely no way for someone who is not Maori to get or imitate Ta Moko without giving the gravest
    of insults
    to the Maori and (the Maori have it) to their own families. For an example closer to an American home, if one wears a current United States military decoration, one had best have been awarded it.

  4. Be cautious of Imperialism and Colonialism. One person's Glorious Empire is another's detested genocide. If one's words cast the world beyond Victoriana as the target of the next wave of colonization, one is not writing about multiculturalism, but engaging in Orientalism. One is not re-imaging the past, but replicating it. We mustn't sweep these things under the rug, either: they happened and we have to own that.

  5. Avoid the urge to self-congratulate The Victorian age saw the promotion of any number of social justice movements: Abolition of slavery and child labor, unionization, so-called First Wave Feminism[1], women's suffrage, etc. This is not an example of any particular enlightenment in the age. Indeed, I can think of no stronger condemnation of the privileged classes then that "Shall we permit women to vote" and "Shall we enslave people" were considered worthy topics of debate, let alone the subjects of great and bloody controversy. And if those controversies are damning, what then shall we make of the widespread uncritical acceptance of "manifest destiny" or "the great game"?

  6. Don't pretend to blindness. One who claims to be colorblind (or genderblind, etc.) is very likely fooling themselves -- and no one else. We don't live in a colorblind society. We are not brought up in a colorblind society. Pretending that's not the case doesn't make it go away. Even if one were able to magically unlearn the messages that the entire society bombards with every single day -- a dubious proposition -- there's a whole society around that one that is by no means blind. If one really enjoyed such blindness, one would still be in a position of receiving privilege at the expense of others. For example, if I was blind to the fact being white means I'm less likely to be pulled over for Driving While Black it wouldn't change the fact that other people are pulled over for it. Nor would it change the fact that I benefit from reduced police scrutiny because they are otherwise focused. Worse, if I were to pretend to such blindness and insist that everyone act as if such blindness were prevalent in society, there'd be no way to talk about an oppressive practice that benefits me at the expense of others. That doesn't deconstruct privilege. There's another way claims of blindness reinforces rather than deconstruct privilege: pretending to be colorblind if not white, or orientation-blind if not heterosexual, etc. in this society can literally get one killed.

  7. Don't confuse a poor writing style with the authority of scholarship. As I've said, one of the privileges that one gets for being white, male, heterosexual, etc. is being regarded as more authoritative. There are a number of writing and speaking tactics that have historically been regarded as the province of authority and formality: the passive voice, tortured sentence construction, and gratuitous verbiosity are three examples. At best, this is the mark not only of poor authorship and even poor scholarship -- the hope is often that by taking an authoritative tone readers will not notice more substantive flaws in the narrative. At worst, it is a vehicle by which one asserts one's privilege. It's entirely possible that this is completely unintended on the part of the writer: it can be a matter of training, for example. However, when it comes to privilege, impact is far more important than intent. If course, if one is researching and giving credit to one's sources and predecessors, such tricks are not needed! This creates the opportunity for the aspiring author to write something they would want to read. We can write in a way that engages the audience, that casts one as a person speaking to people rather than a would-be professor addressing a lecture hall. The passive voice should be avoided.[2] Eschew obfuscation.[3] When one has more fun writing it, audiences will find etter things in one's writing to debate then whether the author's blandness is more comparable to sawdust or shredded cardboard.

  8. Be wary of the privilege of getting paid for the fruits of other people's labor. One of the social advantages of occupying a privileged position is having your voice be respected above others with the same qualifications. When we speak, people are more likely to listen to us than if the exact same things had been said by someone less privileged. Indeed it's a repeatably observable phenomenon that someone will say something in a conversation and get rebuffed only to have someone more privileged repeat the point and be heeded. Leveraging that privilege such that one can get paid -- especially full time -- for doing what equally qualified people cannot is rather sketchy.

In sharp counterpoint to the cyberpunk literature that inspired it, Steampunk is markedly optimistic. Like most SF, cyberpunk peers ahead. Steampunk looks back and imagines what could have been better, and perhaps this can show us what can be better. Like an excursion into uncharted territory, we don't know what we're going to find. Perhaps if we can take this opportunity to avoid the mistakes already made, we will have achieved something. At worst, we'll find novel and innovative mistakes,
and that too is progress.

What follows is a very incomplete list of resources for further reading on avoiding hurting one's friends through privileged behavior:

[1] Even this term ignores the feminism of women like Abigail Adams and Mary Wollstonecraft.,

[2] I did that on purpose.

[3] What? [4]

[4] OK, I meant to do that, too.

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