Last year, after Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution came out, acclaimed SF critic John Clute wrote a review that bounced from the essay that editor Ann VanderMeer graciously had me rewrite for inclusion into the anthology, "From Airships of Imagination to Feet on the Ground." In that piece I wrote a long call-out of steampunk, not merely of the performative aspect, but also of the literary, the communal, and the creative aspects. Clute sidestepped my criticism by focusing on the literary, the "roots" of steampunk, as it were. To quote:
...the extremely loose set of fictions that were retroactively treated as taproot texts for late-century/new-century Steampunk were in fact pure story, certainly if storytellers are most subversive of hegemony when they tell bad news with what looks like a smile but is not, for the original Steampunk texts are precisely not a nostalgic immersion in some polished-brass, utopianized version of Victorian England requiring only a twitch of the kaleidoscope to come true.
There are two claims about the texts from which steampunk was coined in this sentence bubbling over with long words that I certainly would have been told to re-write by any professor and editor of mine: 1) they were "pure story" (a term that could be read to mean either "totally divorced from reality" or "so real it hurts"); and 2) they called out the terribleness of the Victorian times for what they were. And, from what I understand, this is how we get an anti-hegemony writer like Michael Moorcock (and somehow his work from the 1960s which would later influence his Nomad of the Time Streams series will be relevant, because literary lineage). As well as a plethora of other writers who form, I suppose, the canon of "early" steampunk.
In my recent qualifying exam, the professor in charge of my science fiction reading list asked me, why did I have a list of "early steampunk", in which I listed the three mainstays that I keep hearing about—namely, Blaylock, Jeter and Powers (all of whom are among the many authors that Clute cites). I have to admit I was hard-pressed to answer, because I included them mostly because their names kept coming up in common discourse surrounding the origin of the term "steampunk," not because I actually thought they contributed anything specific to the aesthetic beyond the name. They are the core of the steampunk origin myth: bar buddies writing stories set in similar milieus. KW, in his introduction to new editions of Infernal Devices, mused that this kind of genre formation is generally what happens when two or more books happen to look similar. I agree with him.
Clute, in his review, ostensibly agrees with me. He is also invested in the idea that steampunk tells off Victoriana; that steampunk as a subgenre does not condone romanticism of the 19th century. To this end, he cites all the writers he believes contributes to this project of demonstrating that steampunk is, at its heart, an anti-hegemonic subgenre—for UK writers, at least; we shall put aside the fact that most of the writers he has decided to list are American authors. I am sure that almost all the "early steampunk writers" that Clute cites are straight white men. I'll allow that my knowledge of this group is not comprehensive, and that some of them may be gay or may not be considered white outside a North American/British context.
In addition, when Clute highlights stories from Steampunk Revolutions itself, he has chosen those by Nick Mamatas, Ben Peek, Jeff VanderMeer, Jeff Ford and N.K. Jemisin as examples of stories which do the work he thinks steampunk is supposed to do. Yet the full list of contributors to this otherwise-excellent anthology includes, to the best of my knowledge, 10 white women, 13 white men, 2 men who are likely to be read as white in North American/British contexts, 1 non-white man, and 6 women of color. Again, I may have mistaken a couple of people's identities in this count, but it is the overall pattern that is important.
Before I continue, let me reiterate the overall point of my essay in this anthology: that steampunk tends to uphold the hegemony of Eurocentric, able-bodied, cis, straight, predominantly male perspectives. That steampunks must work harder to dislodge this hegemony. That when people excluded from these perspectives work together, great things can happen, not just in story, but also in reality.
When I wrote the essay, I was not interested in the roots of steampunk. Nor was I only focusing on costumes found in the steampunk subculture. I was, and still am, interested in the fruits of steampunk, in terms of narratives, policies, intra-community interactions, microaggressions, considerations for the marginalized. I am, at heart, an identitarian reactionary. I was frustrated with four years of hard work ignored, and I was also impatient to see change enacted with some tiny changes in attitudes and behaviours that would have tremendous results. I was perhaps mistaken in assuming that they would at all be tiny.
I wanted, and still want, steampunk to be something that the margins can claim. Where we are in multiple conversations with history regarding common narratives of technology, science, politics, gender, cultures, community, and the capabilities of humanity. These are conversations that I have seen occur on the margins over and over again. I'm not the first person to talk about it, and I cite Ella Shohat and Robert Stam's 1994 concept of polycentrism regularly.
What Clute has done, purposefully or not, is to re-center this hegemony of straight white male writers, citing them as the root of steampunk. He highlights majority white male writers. In side-stepping my point about needing to see more stories from the margins, he proved it: the problem of cis straight white male perspectives being continually centered to the exclusion of other perspectives continues even in steampunk, which I love for its potential to do otherwise.
We don't actually want stories of people being nice to each other, Clute claims, nor stories where conflict resolves peaceably, because those aren't, by implication, real stories. He says this as if it is a universal truth, which I suppose a long-time writer like Clute gets away with saying; in the meantime I figure what we want are a variety of stories that speak of different ways of resolving conflict, of living with each other. It just so happens that complacent people can afford to demand a specific kind of story that will jar them out of their comfort, and those of us who are discomfited would like to see our intensely conflict-driven lives playing out on the printed pages because it tells us that we are not alone.
The early steampunk stories were really subversive, Clute insists, so it's very important that we acknowledge them, these clever white men who write "pure story" (my goodness what a term). It makes me wonder if Clute has ever been to a steampunk convention—at every con I have attended and presented at, I have been hard-pressed to find books being sold in the merch room: usually one vendor, and a couple of authors marketing their own works. If I have discounted the large part of books that steampunk might call its own, it is not from caprice, but from long-term immersion in the community to determine its priorities.
Clute reiterates this hegemony. He does not merely dismiss the work I am attempting to do; he is part of the system that works to to undo it entirely, especially writing on a wider platform like Strange Horizons.
But he agrees with me, Mr. Clute does, enough to acknowledge that when I say "mere aesthetic" I am speaking from a hegemonic position, so by implication I, the woman of color academic, am speaking from hegemony. But let us not dwell on these tiny microaggressive details, and stick to his larger point. Which seems to boil down to "but white men!"
He is proving my point, and doing it well.
This piece first appeared at Silver Googles.