Someone else already wrote up excellent notes from the Politics of Steampunk panel at Wiscon. So here are some of my further thoughts.
I was fascinated by the panelist introductions, as they each mentioned what they thought Steampunk is. “Negotiating a more beautiful past,” A E-M. “Magical technology,” JG. “Turning a computer into a question,” TG. “A reaction to the entry of minorities into science fiction,” JG. But I was more fascinated by the panel composition. Panels at Wiscon are usually composed of more women than men. But it has been my personal observation that the panels with the word “politics” in them tend to have more men on them. This panel was six women. Additionally, three of the six women were people of color. I was especially heartened by this, since the racial politics of steampunk make me twitch.
The most fascinating thing, though, was that two of the women were steampunk cosplayers. They came up through the fashions and do-it-yourself movements. I welcomed this because, as open and accepting as Wiscon is, cosplay has not yet found a home at the convention, and I’m not sure why. I personally think cosplay is an invaluable tool for interrogating the Isms — making personal statements with your dress and manner and body is absolutely a manifestation of The Personal Is Political. Questions of racial and ethnic identity, sexual display, gender identity, ability or disability, cultural appropriation — ALL of these things can be addressed and engaged through cosplay, and I wish more people would do so.
The panel addressed why they thought Steampunk was the thing of the moment. P mentioned that the Victorian era and our own time are both collapsing empires. TG amended that somewhat, saying that our time certainly has a narrative of collapsing American Empire, whatever the truth may turn out to be. But the two times have a lot in common — economic depression, enormous social unrest, shifts in production and distribution of wealth, a global political landscape punctuated by small wars worldwide. JG brought up the fact that the Victorian time was the height of white supremacy worldwide — which is more complicated than it looks. The British Empire was incredibly culturally diverse, most of it through appropriation. Britain was obsessed with orientalism, with the fetishization of The Other. Curry became a British national dish during this time period. London was the heart of the world, and the world — in all its colors, languages, sights and sounds and tastes — came to London. To be sneered at, true. To be used and used up, true. But the existence of other lands and peoples was more visible to the Empire than at any previous point. Familiarity breeds contempt is a folk wisdom cliche. But familiarity also breeds familiarity.
Yet I am still stuck on the economics of Steampunk, the economics of the Victorian Era, their expression through Steampunk, and the economics of the cosplaying communities today. (As the panelists pointed out, any sort of Steampunk cosplay is any expression of privilege — either you have the time and means to make and build your own gear, or you have the money to buy it from artisans.) The power and splendor of Empire are built on a worldwide network of exploitation. Of taking everything from other countries — wood, coal, metals, grain, labor, people, animals, everything — and sucking it into the maw of Empire. Feeding the people at the top at the expense of the people, usually people of color, in far-off lands. It was true in 1880, and it’s true today. I want to see more Steampunk that explores and acknowledges this, and I was incredibly heartened to hear that the panelists of a host of forthcoming works that engage and explore these aspects. The author, Nisi Shawl, in particular, mentioned some in-progress works that made me clap in anticipatory glee.
All together, this panel made me very hopeful. It seems the interrogation of Steampunk is in progress. I want Steampunk to be examined and explored and called to account for its actions. I love the fashions, I love the ideas, I, too, love the idea of the lone hero-inventor who can Save the World With Science. If we are going to save the world, Science is one of our foremost tools.
But collective action and collaboration are the other half of the equation. The problems of the world are manifestly greater than any lone hero-inventor can manage. This is why I am both drawn to the fantasy and repelled by it. I take comfort and refuge from my world of dying oceans and food supplies under siege in the stories of lone mastery over the elements of nature. But I don’t merely want escape. I also want stories that provide visions of a world saved by people working together. I want stories like Warren Ellis’s Global Frequency, in which ordinary people save the world. I have the Global Frequency logo tattooed on my shoulder; this is how strongly I believe that we collectively contain our own salvation. This is how strongly I believe that we find the road to our future over and over again, against sometimes ridiculous odds. Listening to the panelists discuss the problems and joys of Steampunk, listening to them talk about forthcoming works, about the communities of Steampunk, I was given hope that the Steampunk fiction of the next few years will provide more of the stories I want to read.