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The Intersection of Race and Steampunk: Colonialism’s After-Effects & Other Stories, from a Steampunk of Colour’s Perspective [Essay]

by Guest Contributor (and regular commenter) Jha

Steampunk! Variously described as an aesthetic, a genre within scifi/fantasy that sprouted from cyberpunk, and a subculture vaguely related to the goth counter-culture. Like many other things with vague origins and a tenuous identity that overlaps with others, it is hard to pin down what steampunk is.

The only that we can all seem to agree on is the aesthetic involved. In a way, it’s a lot like the SCA’s medieval roleplaying, trying to recreate the past with all the good stuff and none of the bad. For other steampunks, it’s a lifestyle movement, in which they transform practical items into works of art and live their lives with exquisite manners.

Here’s a good summary of the literary genre stemming from the 1980s, written by Lavie Tidhar. Cory Gross of Voyages Extraordinaire has a very comprehensive history, delving deep into not just the literary but also the film aspect of the aesthetic before the actual term was used and the evolution of the movement afterwards in literature, RPGs, graphic novels, anime and the general subculture afterward. In Steampunk Magazine’s first issue, the essay “What Then, Is Steampunk? Colonizing the Past so we can Dream the Future”, stridently declares, “First and foremost, steampunk is a non-luddite critique of technology. It rejects the ultra-hip dystopia of the cyberpunks—black rain and nihilistic posturing—while simultaneously forfeiting the ‘noble savage’ fantasy of the pre-technological era. It revels in the concrete reality of technology instead of the over-analytical abstractness of cybernetics” (4).

Steampunks express themselves with Victorian-inspired clothing (or costumes). Goggles, chains and pocketwatches are typical gear for a steampunk. Steampunk styles range from fastidiously neat (streamlined, heavy clothes typical of Victorian aristocracy/middle-class, e.g. anarchronaut) to greasemonkey bricolage (dreadlocks, the ‘airship pirate’ look, merging with more ‘mainstream’ punk fare, e.g. Abney Park). For a sense of the visual aesthetic, one should look to the 1999 movie Wild Wild West (although it’s a terrible movie) and the graphic novel League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore. Cory Gross discusses the two ends of the Steampunk spectrum in his essay “Varieties of Steampunk Experience”: Nostalgic Steampunk, which idealizes the Victorian era as it should have been, and the Melancholic Steampunk, which focuses on the gritty reality of the Victorian era, bringing to the fore the dirt and soot and grime (60 – 63). Japan has its own steampunk movement, the most cited example of its technology-focused aesthetic can be seen in the anime Steamboy. (I’m not going to touch Japanese steampunk in this article.)

Steampunk is still an emergent subculture, gaining ground fast with its DIY creativity and elegant nostalgia. Stephen H. Segal has a cute article on why steampunk is considered friendly, even optimistic despite drawing inspiration from what was a very oppressive era. As a genre that’s in its adolescence, the rules (if indeed any counter-culture has rules) haven’t been set in stone. But it’s getting attention anyway: the New York Times did an article on steampunk fashion last year.

This is where being a Steampunk of Colour comes in. Continue reading