Steampunk and Retro-Futurism: Three Anthologies and Three Approaches
January 30, 2013 § 5 Comments
I want to destroy steampunk.
I want to tear it apart and melt it down and recast it. I want to take your bustles and your fob watches and your monocles and grind them to a fine powder, dust some mahogany furniture with it and ask you, is this steampunk? And if you say yes, I want to burn the furniture.
Understand, I want to do this out of love. I love what I see at steampunk’s core: a desire for the beautiful, for technological wonder, for a wedding of the rational and the marvelous. I see in it a desire for nonspecialized science, for the mélange of occultism and scientific rigor, for a time when they were not mutually exclusive categories. But sadly I think we’ve become so saturated with the outward signs of an aesthetic that we’re no longer able to recognize the complex tensions and dynamics that produced it: we’re happy to let the clockwork, the brass, the steam stand in for them synedochically, but have gotten to a point where we’ve forgotten that they are symbols, not ends in themselves. (Steampunk Revolution, p. 401 e-book)
For the past five years, ever since I read the Ann and Jeff VanderMeer-edited Steampunk anthology, I have struggled to define in words my own convoluted and sometimes self-contradictory viewpoint regarding steampunk literature. There is something fascinating about imagining a recast society, one in which the horrors of the 20th century did not occur and that technological development took a path away from petroleum and instead kept developing steam as a basis for movement and energy. Yet too often, as Amal el-Mohtar says above at the beginning of her essay “Winding Down the House: Toward a Steampunk without Steam,” we have become too fascinated by the baubles of shiny, coppery valves and pistons that we fail to recognize that what too often occurs is a reconfirmation of certain detestable values: the glossing over of empire when stories are set in “exotic” quasi-19th century milieus where the steampunked Western “explorers” might as well be an unironic adaptation of the original Edisonades than anything else; a reduction of women (and men) into tight, narrowed gender roles commensurate with their gear-laden bodices and tophats and waistcoats; the reinforcement of capitalist values at its most virulent, laissez-faire extreme. For many, steampunk is little more than a dressing up of the shoddy 19th and 20th century economic and social exploitation in shiny, metallic clothing.
Yet for others, steampunk offers the possibility to blow all of these cultural underpinnings up and start, if not quite “anew,” then at least with a different template than the one that privileges traditional socio-political entities at the expense of others. In an article that appeared in translation on the popular steampunk site Beyond Victoriana in April 2012, Mexican steampunk writer “El Halcón Hodson discusses the revolutionary potential of steampunk for recasting the miserable, horrific 19th and 20th centuries so that for a Mexico, which had all of one glorious military moment in the 19th century after achieving its independence from Spain in 1821 (the expulsion of the French in the aftermath of Cinco de Mayo), the time could be imagined as being more than a series of calamities and near-total defeats at the hands of better-equipped nations. As he notes, it was the time of neo-imperialist colonialism:
But I dare to say that for those who live this kind of retro-futurism from the Third World, must be a little more difficult to imagine a glorious past drawn from the very distant past of their own 19th century. Just remember that the Victorian era was the era of colonialism. The steampunk retro-futurism of the Victorian era in England is diametrically different from Latin American’s Victorian era, for example, at least conceptually.
This is often reflected in the very limited amount of retro-futuristic works that are created in Latin American countries using their own past in comparison with the big paraphernalia based on countries such as England, France, Germany, Spain, United States, Russia, China, Japan or Italy, which were at the forefront of history when talking about colonization.
Even today, the legacy of neo-colonialism is very evident in the way the “global economy” is organized into producer/supplier roles, not to mention the complex ways in which steampunk writers from various countries listed under the outdated heading of “third world” struggle to find their own ways to express their hopes, desires, and dreams in a fashion that co-opts “steampunk” for themselves. In three anthologies published over the past six months or so (the above-mentioned Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution, edited by Ann VanderMeer; the Brazilian anthology Solarpunk, edited by Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro; and the Portuguese anthology Lisboa no Ano 2000 (Lisbon in the Year 2000), edited by João Barreiros), some of these concerns and reworkings of history to fit national imaginations that Hodson described in his essay can be seen.
Steampunk Revolution is perhaps the most-ranging of the three in terms of scope, as authors from across the world, both those writing in English and those whose fictions (in a few cases) have been translated into English, have contributed to the anthology. As editor Ann VanderMeer notes in her introduction, the concerns embedded in many steampunk fictions are now global: the effects of technology on our health and our climate, the lingering effects of violent socio-economic “conquests” of lands, and the eternal question of how do our pasts shape our futures. The stories she has chosen for Steampunk Revolution have a more “political” feel to them, perhaps because there are writers from countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore, each of which have their own legacy of 19th/20th century imperialism.
Some of the strategies employed by the authors in this anthology include the transmogrification of objects from a Western-oriented context to one that more closely fits the non-Western locale and its culture(s), as well as the transformation of history to reflect a history where the colonized were instead the resisters. Filipino writer Paolo Chikiamco’s “On Wooden Wings” combines these two strategies in a simple but effective beginning:
Had she lived in any other city, Clarita Leschot Esteybar might have suspected that Nur was being facetious. Even people who had lived in Jolo all their lives still marveled at its brass minarets, its narrow-gauge wagonways, the retractable sheets over its smaller streets and alleys. The city of Jolo had been a center of trade and commerce even before it was integrated into the Qudarat Sultanate, but in the century since the Spaniards had been repulsed from Zamboanga, the nature of its goods had changed. Junks from China and prahus from Celebes now sought the Fleet of Wisdom’s artifices and scholarly treatises more than the pearls and precious shells that used to be Jolo’s stock in trade. Clarita took great pride in being a part of the Fleet, the strength of the Sultanate. She just hoped that she’d be able to remain a part of it after today. (p. 46 e-book, opening page of “On Wooden Wings”)
Here there is little mention of Western powers; the Spanish were driven off a century ago from the Philippines and while there appears to still be a trace of their rule in personal names, the setting differs from the historical 19th century in the prominence of the (brass) minarets, the “wagonways,” and the trade with China. Chikiamco’s story stands out because the reader immediately is forced to picture a Jolo of the southwestern Philippines that is the center of a trade rather than a “faraway outpost.” This shift in perspective opens up possibilities for stories such as “On Wooden Wings” to challenge readers, because the underlying socio-political assumptions that such settings and people are “exotic” or “faraway” have been dismissed with prejudice and the reader is forced to accept a world different from what she may have imagined.
Yet despite stories like those from Chikiamco or Leow Hui Min Annabeth, Steampunk Revolution‘s main weakness lies in that despite its attempts to be more inclusive of authors writing from non-Anglophone traditions, the anthology depends so heavily on English-language compositions (very few, if any, of the stories that appear here are translations, if I’m not mistaken) that large swaths of steampunk literature, particularly that of the Hispanophone and Lusophone steampunk communities, just are not represented here. This is not as much of an indictment of Steampunk Revolution as it is an acknowledgement that despite the attempts in recent years to include writers from non-Anglophone countries, there is still a huge amount of steampunk literature being produced outside the US and UK that has yet to be translated for English-reading audiences.
Yet there are two Portuguese-language steampunk anthologies (I am aware of some Spanish-language anthologies, but have yet to read them, so my discussion here will be limited to Portuguese and Brazilian steampunk) that have come out in recent months that I think demonstrate two important developments that are largely absent from Anglo-American steampunk writing. The first anthology, Solarpunk, is a 2012 release from Brazilian publisher Draco that is the third in a trilogy of themed anthologies regarding energy/societal changes (the first, Vaporpunk (2010), was featured on Beyond Victoriana with partial translations done by myself and Fábio Fernandes) over a period of time. Set largely in an alt-contemporary Brazil, Solarpunk is an extrapolation of how (Brazilian) society would differ if solar energy were to become the new energy norm. It is, as editor Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro notes in his introduction, the conclusion to a “half-optimistic” trilogy of works that restructure and reconstruct a Brazil that assumes earlier the potential that it is beginning to display today as a world power.
Solarpunk takes the steampunk ethos of remaking contemporary objects and melds it with a more “futuristic” attitude similar to that found in more traditional SF narratives. Each of the nine authors in this anthology give their own take on the transformative power of this solar-powered cultural shift. In some, such as Antonio Luiz M.C. Costa’s “Era Uma Vez um Mundo” (“It Was One Time in the World”), the entire planet has been unified and fossil fuels have been greatly restricted by the United Nations due to global warming. In others, such as Carlos Orsi’s “Soylent Green is People!,” the future is seen as more frugal, more based on recycling materials than on the expansion of society due to new solar technology. This diversity in the ways solar technology is used represents a new direction in SF literature. The concerns expressed in many steampunk stories, particularly those originating from Brazil, are mixed in with futuristic settings. Instead of the “why not this instead of the historical past?,” the overarching question of “what if this occurs from present developments?” emerges.
This melding of steampunk’s alt-history, alt-culture with dreams of the future has great potential and Solarpunk contains several solid and a couple of very good stories. If there were a common theme, beyond the usage of solar energy to empower societal change, it would be the optimism that pervades most of these stories. Whether it is a crime story or a story of emerging world peace, there was this sense that the world was slowly, if not completely, becoming a more egalitarian place. The “great powers” of the 19th and 20th centuries do not figure as greatly here; the looming shadow of the Americans in particular is not as present here as it frequently was in 20th century Latin American socio-political literature. Instead of reimagining a past where the imperialist powers have had their advances checked, here in Solarpunk there is this sense that the imbalances caused by imperialism have been largely redressed. It is a small, but significant difference and perhaps one influenced here by Brazil’s growing economic and political power on the global stage.
If Solarpunk envisions a 21st century in which social changes occur in part due to technological advances, the just-released Portuguese anthology Lisboa no Ano 2000 (Lisbon in the Year 2000) takes a decidedly different approach. Edited by João Barreiros, who has three almost novella-length stories within this 438 page anthology that provide a sort of “skeleton” to the book, Lisboa no Ano 2000 is explicitly “retro-futuristic.” That is, the stories purport to tell of a Lisbon that never existed, that its past century diverged significantly from the historical 20th century. Lisbon at the dawn of this fictional 21st century is a city of Tesla towers, of dirigibles, of technology that is not dependent upon petroleum. It exists within a Europe dominated by Groß Deutschland, as apparently the Germans ended up winning some sort of World War I analogue, and yet Lisbon has managed to become the greatest European city free of German control. Although some of the elements perhaps are going to be interpreted differently by non-Europeans, it is possible to see parallels to the recent PIIGS debt crisis and Germany’s sometimes-autocratic approach to the Eurozone banking system and by extension, the European Union itself.
Lisboa no Ano 2000 is more unified than the other two anthologies; it is more of a shared universe collection of stories than disparate presentations of a similar theme. This has its strengths and weaknesses. At its best, the stories build upon one another in showing an alt-Lisbon that is, if not a great power, then at least a counterweight to the autocratic Germans. Within this shared context, stories of Lisbon’s technological achievements have a greater resonance due to this common backstory. However, the anthology at times felt a bit too bloated because the 17 stories by 15 different authors began to feel a bit too uniform at times, with not enough to differentiate themselves to the degree necessary for truly memorable stories. Stories that by themselves would be fine suffer due to this, as it just felt as though there were too many similar tales for the setting and that if the anthology were reduced in length somewhat, the anthology as a whole would be better for it. This, however, is not to say that Lisboa no Ano 2000 is a poor anthology, but rather that it is a decent anthology with a solid premise that weakens its potential impact by trying to cram too much into the book.
Yet despite the problem I had with its length, Lisboa no Ano 2000 illustrates a third approach to utilizing steampunk themes. Whereas Steampunk Reloaded focused on steampunk’s socio-political potential and Solarpunk takes the steampunk ethos of reinventing and redevelopment into a near-future setting, Lisboa no Ano 2000 comes the closest to realizing what Hodson noted in his essay about the potential of steampunk as a means by which citizens outside those of the Great Powers can reshape the past to provide a context in which their stories, their heroes can stand toe to toe with imperialist powers. As such, it intrigues me as a reader even despite my sense that it did not fulfill its full potential. In a more limited setting or maybe one that is more “open” in context, it could be a seminal work. As it stands, however, it is a flawed yet mostly enjoyable work that shows the burgeoning steampunk community in Portugal.
Although each of the three anthologies have their weaknesses, on the whole each of them are worthwhile reads because their approaches herald new developments within the global steampunk communities. For someone such as myself who is not too fond of the fetishized nature of many prominent Anglo-American steampunk stories, the tales told within these three anthologies were refreshing and hopefully they will be but the vanguard of the future stories to come. One can only imagine…or is that rip apart and reconstruct, like el-Mohtar advocates in her essay?