Nothing to See Here, Steampunk Is Doing Fine!

Many steampunks prefer to stick their heads in the sand than deal with problems in the community.

Mauro Cerati artwork
Art by Mauro Cerati

My “Who Killed Steampunk?” story from April continues to make the rounds with an unfortunately common reaction being to stick one’s head in the sand. Many people seem to believe that because they’re still doing steampunk, or because there is a well-attended steampunk event in their region, the entire movement must be doing fine.

The introduction to a recent op-ed by performer Professor Elemental in The Steampunk Explorer goes so far as to reassure readers that not only “everything is fine,” but steampunk is “better than it ever was in fact.”

It contains no evidence for this “fact”. I’m not even sure it’s what Elemental believes. In his op-ed, he recognizes that blogs and message boards have disappeared (although I think he’s overly optimistic when he writes, “Fewer blogs and message boards about steampunk means there are fewer blogs and message boards, not less steampunk”), that events have been canceled, and he has noticed the same attitude I blamed in April for “killing” steampunk: a tendency to scrutinize every steampunk costume, creation and story for signs of Eurocentrism, imperialism, misogyny and racism.

As Elemental puts it:

Subcultures like ours don’t do well under extreme scrutiny.

Middle ground

Given that its draws its inspiration from the nineteenth century, steampunk has inevitably struggled with issues of race, sex and sexuality. A lot of early steampunk was Western and white. The style did attract reactionaries who longed for a time when white men ruled.

But the pendulum has swung the other way. One steampunk event was recently canceled after it preemptively banned any attempt at “cultural appropriation”, which extended to Asian-Americans being forbidden from wearing Asian steampunk outfits. It became such an imbroglio that the organizers decided the safest course of action was to not bother at all.

Write a steampunk story centered on white characters in the British Empire and you’ll be accused of racism for ignoring people of color. Write your next story about a black woman visiting Meiji Japan in her airship and you’ll be accused of racism again, for what makes you, a white person or a man, think you can write about the historical experience of black women?

Question the wisdom of turning steampunk into identity politics and you‘ll be accused of being a racist, an imperialist, a racist again, a skinhead, of siding with oppressors and only caring about white and straight people. This typically coming from the same people who claim they want to make steampunk more “inclusive” (and apparently can’t conceive of a gay man who doesn’t share their politics).

A lot of it goes the other way too. Women and people of color in our community have reported abuse and harassment. Another steampunk event was canceled after the organizer was accused of sexual misconduct. You only need to read the daily news from America to know that racism is still very real.

The trouble is that there’s little room for nuance between woke activists who are determined to rid steampunk of such injustices and those who doubt the problems are structural — or, in some cases, doubt the problems exists. (Count me among the “probably/hopefully not structural”.)

As somebody who is interested in both steampunk and politics, I don’t mind having these debates. My worry is that most people do. They came to steampunk hoping for an escape from the heated politics of our time and discovered that the only difference is that our politics have some gears slapped onto them. It is dispiriting to some, and they are moving on.

Who cares?

Elemental doesn’t care if the result is a less popular steampunk.

Who cares if no one wants us? We never wanted them anyway.

I do. I imagine so do many artists, authors and organizers, who wish they could devote more of their time to steampunk. That requires them selling more artworks, books and tickets — and if we have a segment in our movement that’s actively turning people away who don’t do steampunk “right” by their politics, that’s hurting the very people who make steampunk.

Turning steampunk into pop culture isn’t the only alternative to being a niche. A few years ago, we were attracting mass-media attention. Now we’re operating under the surface again. If you don’t think that’s a problem, fair enough. But if you agree with me it is, then we need to reckon with the causes.


Add Yours

Thanks for another interesting article. But be careful, you’re interfering with some people’s God-given write to hate!
And 69 comments! There goes Sunday afternoon.

I think that this is an issue that is spreading across writing in particular. You only have to look at the rows around broad YA writing, (a genre which often knocks up against or overlaps with steampunk writing), with authors being praised for having diverse characters in one book only with their next book being savaged for culturally appropriating.

Like a lot of liberals I want all writing to be open to all. However, I accept that there have been decades and centuries of restricting opportunities to white men, that mean that many feel we need a period of just BAME, LGBTQA people and women within these categories, being in a dominant position. That is not only in what is written but also in terms of the entire industry around publishing and, in terms of steampunk, crafting, art and events as well. Without this counter-balance, there is a sense that in the history of culture, the white men have still won as they held the dominant position for so long.

I worry that even woke authors alert to the risk of cultural appropriation, will be restricted to writing only about things over which they have personal experience or that comes from their personal culture. This raises many challenges. For a start, none of us can be from 19th Century cultures even if we study them in depth, because we are 21st Century people. Every year, fewer people can even represent 20th Century cultures. Someone who was even a child in the Second World War, will now be in their late 70s/early 80s.

The other thing is that if we are all only able to write about our own culture/gender/sexuality without being accused of appropriation, it effectively inhibits fictional writing, because we can only be a sub-set of these and we need a diversity of characters, so effectively only life writing, rather than fiction, will be permitted.

I have a sense that this issue will not be resolved for some decades to come and then only if those who have been seen in a dominant position, primarily white men, cease writing entirely and stop running events. Only then, will the field be open for the counter-balance over many years to reduce some of the anger that is felt about the oppression in preceding centuries. This is one reason why I have ceased writing steampunk fiction and have not completed my trilogy. To do so would just be to throw myself as a white man, even if I try for a diverse character list, into the maelstrom that is liable to rage and spread across all writing genres in coming years. Resolution will only come some decades into the future.

If you want to keep the steampunk genre alive, it may be time for the running of this website to be handed over to a woman of colour and probably LGBT. As ‘The Mammoth Book of SteamPunk’ (2012) showed there are a range of authors in those categories who may be interested and more joining each year. If there is not such a move, it is probable as highlighted here that Steampunk will simply wither away and will feature as an interest for just a few SF and Fantasy authors who are willing to risk challenges for what they write.

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