Just stick some cogs on it (and we’ll call it racist?)

So, some time ago there was one of those brief kerfuffles over calls for more diversity in steampunk fiction and art — some steampunk fans want more people of colour in the genre, while others read this as people calling them racist just because they like a fictional genre that tends (nowadays) to take a (more-or-less) uncritically positive view of 19th-century Europe.

This made me think of three things:

  • Steampunk celebrates (loosely) European, particularly British, history and culture without having an overt racist element. That is pretty rare, and you can see how that might appeal to people who are attached to their cultural heritage but don’t want either to give house-room to racists or constantly beat themselves up.
  • But the way in which steampunk (in its modern meaning) does this is to elide the context within which technology developed in the 19th century. And that context is one of colonialism; kind of unavoidably so.
  • But that’s the nature of historical or historically-inspired fiction. If you don’t focus on some aspects of the history and ignore others, you don’t have fiction, you just have a history lesson. Take Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance. No one (that I know of) objected to the lack of a scene where Jack Sparrow cruelly tortures some Catholics.

Of course, there are grounds for complaining about the way in which historical texts focus on things — so, for instance, most westerns dodge the presence of African-American cowboys like Nat Love. And that sucks. If people want to point out that most steampunk fiction elides the nasty aspects of a 19th-century setting while sort of dishonestly retaining its surface trappings, that’s fair. And if you’re going to ignore racial injustices in that era, the easiest way to do so is to remove their effects. So there’s no grounds for complaining if people want cyborg Ghost Dancers who really are bulletproof, or an elite regiment of Sikh mech pilots.

I’m not necessarily convinced about that first point, that the sanitisation of Victorian history is why steampunk appeals to people, mainly because a) not all steampunk is like that at all, and b) I think most people are attracted to it at a very simple aesthetic level. After all, this is the main criticism of steampunk fans — that they’re attracted to the appearance of technology but don’t really care about how it functions; that’s the “stick some cogs on it” meme. If people don’t care about how machines work full stop they’re hardly gonna care about how they work in their social context.

Anyway, yeah. Just thinking out loud again.


Just stick some cogs on it (and we’ll call it racist?)

2 thoughts on “Just stick some cogs on it (and we’ll call it racist?)

  1. I think my main criticism of Steampunk is when it is massively culturally appropriative – especially with the fetishisation of all things Asian (particularly Chinese/ Japanese). Additionally, with it being such a purely white aesthetic it erases all the people of colour who were in Europe, it’s not like everyone here was white.

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