My last story, “Who Killed Steampunk?“, provoked a lot of comments, both here and on social media. I’ve tried to read all of them, but I couldn’t respond to everyone individually, so let me follow up here.
Most of the criticism fell into one of three categories:
- You’re ignoring the convention and music scene.
- You’re trying to force your view of steampunk on others.
- You’re blaming “social justice warriors” and providing a refuge to misogynists and racists.
Each of these arguments deserves a more thorough response than fits in a tweet.
“Conventions and music is where steampunk lives now”
I began the article by excluding the convention and music scene from my analysis. My interest is in art, fiction and the online fandom. I didn’t want to write about something I don’t know well. Many of the responses argued that conventions and music is where steampunk lives now.
If that’s true, then perhaps it’s not steampunk that has died but the steampunk I used to know.
Authors joined the discussion to report that publishers have become less interested in steampunk fiction. That suggests there is less demand for stories. Others pointed out that I didn’t mention the 2018 film adaptation of Mortal Engines. That’s my bad, although I’m not sure that movie proves steampunk is doing fine. Others yet agreed that the attempt to turn steampunk into a far-left ideology had scared away newcomers and soured oldtimers.
Steampunk has changed. There is far less of the steampunk I grew up with.
Which is a good segue to…
“You’re trying to tell us what to do!”
Most steampunks agree that self-appointed gatekeepers did more harm than good. Anyone who has read Never Was, and The Gatehouse before it (not all the critics have; I was also accused of not having done my homework when I’ve been writing about steampunk since 2005), knows that we’ve always kept an open mind about the definition of steampunk (examples here and here). We fought — for years! — against those who tried to write steampunk rules and force them on others (examples here and here).
It’s hardly fair to accuse me of gatekeeping when I resisted gatekeeping from the moment I became involved in steampunk.
I deliberately ended the article with a call to experiment and push the boundaries. (A few readers admitted to not having read to the end, but that didn’t stop them from criticizing.) If the result is that steampunk changes in a way I personally dislike, that’s too bad for me, but steampunk doesn’t exist for my sake. It belongs to all of us. I’ll keep doing my thing, you do yours, and we’ll see which of us thrives. Maybe we both will.
“You’re providing a refuge to misogynists and racists”
The argument is by resisting the politicization of steampunk, I make it possible for misogynists and racists to hide in it. That’s not what I want, and the discussion in the last couple of weeks has clarified for me exactly what it is I oppose: I am against steampunk as politics, not against politics in steampunk. (Longtime readers may remember that we explicitly allowed politics in our message-board community, the Smoking Lounge, when The Steampunk Forum at Brass Goggles banned it and we devoted an entire issue of our e-zine, the Gatehouse Gazette, to politics and steampunk.)
What I’ve resisted is the attempt to turn steampunk into an ideological movement. Steampunk appeals to people of different political beliefs. I am not an anti-capitalist and I like steampunk. Those two are not contradictory.
What I don’t object to is the effort to raise awareness around issues of gender and race and get steampunk to seriously engage with them.
To my regret, I did in the past. When it was pointed out to me some years ago that steampunk content we shared here uncritically recreated Victorian-era stereotypes of Asia and the Middle East, it didn’t cause me to change my mind. Instead, I became defensive. It wasn’t until years later, when I reread the arguments from an emotional distance, that I realized the critics had a point. (That’s when I wrote “Changing My Mind About Victorientalism“.)
The reason I didn’t realize it at the time was that I felt besieged. I was ignorant and naive and suddenly people were calling me a racist and a bigot across the online steampunk community. I was added to a list of “problematic subculture celebs“. People vowed never to read me again. My instinct in the face of all this was not to admit I might have made a mistake, but to hunker down.
I share this not because I enjoy pointing out my flaws, but because I see the same thing happening today and it still drives people away. Make one wrong remark and people you’ve never met or heard of — and who know nothing about you other than the offensive thing you’ve said — will find you on social media, shame you, sneer at you and, if you’re really unlucky, blacklist you. I don’t think this is proportionate. And I know it’s not how you get people to own up to their mistakes.
Some have argued that the feelings of those on the receiving end of bigotry matter more, and that is a fair point. I don’t mean to equate white discomfort with racism. Others have suggested that steampunk may be better off without bigots and racists, especially if it frees up space for marginalized groups. I think that’s too black-and-white. People are not unredeemable. Most want to do the right thing and can be persuaded — but you have to assume good faith.
Nobody is under any obligation to. If you’re white and you want to talk about race, it’s your responsibility to educate yourself first. (I certainly should have nine years ago.) If you’re a man and you want to write from a woman’s point of view, maybe ask a few women for advice? Same if you’re straight and want to write queer characters or if you’re able-bodied and want to write a disabled character.
But what if people don’t? I can understand patience is sometimes too much to ask and staying quiet is not always an option. I also think outrage can be counterproductive.