Monday, May 9, 2011

The politics and aesthetics of steampunk

In a recent fit of rampant websurfing -- signing up for Twitter has made me infinitely more aware of just how much there is to read out there -- I came across James Bridle's fabulous blog. As a recent owner of a Kindle (but an eternal lover of the printed page) I've been looking for some interesting thinking about the changing nature of information and materiality. But while there will be more on that subject in future posts, it was a series of posts by Bridle about 'bookfuturism' on HiLobrow that initially caught my eye.

In the second post, Bridle discusses the politics (or lack thereof) in steampunk. Having spent much of March following the conflict that ensued after steampunk magazine Gatehouse Gazette published its "Victorientalism" issue -- and yes, that is exactly as bad as it sounds -- the relationship between the the aesthetics of nostalgia and the politics of social history has been on my mind. From N. Ottens' "In Defense of Victorientalism":

[Issue #11 of the Gatehouse Gazette was written] to redeem, if only for a moment, if only in the space between our computer screens and our imagination, the inaccurate, the imperfect and the improper but the oh so romantic and beguiling fantasy that was Asia before we actually knew it. 
Is this disdainful and snobbish and patronizing? Perhaps. But then, isn’t all of steampunk? We blissfully reminiscence about imperial grandeur, shuffling aside the slavery, the segregation, the tyranny and the bloodshed there were also part of it. We are only too willing to recreate, in our writings and in our costuming, the tastes and sensibilities of the Victorian upper class, ignoring, very often, the misery of the poor and the desolation of the oppressed. Is it obnoxious? Probably. Is it offensive? No. Because steampunk is fiction, not research. 
As much as the average steampunk enthusiast doesn’t pretend to fully nor faithfully reconstruct the past, Victorientalism makes no claim at objective study of Asian cultures. Ay-leen believes that there would be no problem, “if the political and social effects of Orientalism were dead and gone,” but should we feel embarrassed for telling certain stories and enjoying a distorted nostalgia because there are still plenty of xenophobic imbeciles out there who might think we’re serious? Surely not!
This argument -- that reveling in the aesthetics of an era does not mean embracing the unsavory politics of that very same -- doesn't hold water. The forcible severing of politics and aesthetics in the essay leaves much to be desired; we know from Said's Orientalism (at the very least) that this particular Gordian knot is not an easy one to cut. The enjoyment of this 'distorted nostalgia' for a vision of the world that did not only appear in books and stories, but was also actively used to marginalized and oppress should be something that gives us pause.

On the other side of the discussion, is sci-fi author Charles Stross' objection to the recent influx of steampunk into the SFF sections of bookstores nationwide. His essay, 'The Hard Edge of Empire' starts out with the somewhat off-putting claim that there's too much steampunk these days, but quickly abandons that tack for the more compelling argument that the aesthetics of early industrial modernity in fiction often overlook their genesis in an era that was not particularly pleasant for the majority of its inhabitants. After spending the weekend reading George Orwell's harrowing The Road to Wigan Pier and Rebecca Harding Davis' Life in the Iron Mills, I'm inclined to agree. From Stross' essay:
You probably think I'm going a little too far in my blanket condemnation of a sandbox where the cool kids are having altogether too much fun. But consider this: what would a steampunk novel that took the taproot history of the period seriously look like? 
Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans' Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn't bring release from bondage... It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King's shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. 
The question here is not whether or not we should be writing science fiction that has steam-powered computers in a Dickensian other-London, but whether or not our fiction should have to deal with the socio-economic ramifications of the industrialism from whence the draws its taste for clockwork and brass. The best steampunk stories at least tangentially touch on the question of where the resources that produce the steam come from.

This valorization and aestheticization of nostalgia doesn't exist solely in the realm of genre fiction. Television, film, fashion, and music have all gone gaga for times past in recent years. But genre fiction, which so often holds up a mirror to contemporary society and demands that we take a good hard look at the way things are, has an unique opportunity in steampunk. Situated within a literary tradition where world-building is often (almost) as important as character development and plot, steampunk writers -- and the retrofuturists who poach from them -- have the chance to perform an autopsy on the socio-political birth of technological modernity. Moreover, they have the opportunity to re-envision industrialism in such a way as to make evident the ways in which the 'oh so romantic and beguiling' fantasies of Victorian imperialism, class hierarchy, and colonialism are deeply and directly implicated in our contemporary moral and social imaginations. To engage uncritically with the legacy of this era, and instead reduce it to an apolitical aesthetic to be spray-painted on science fiction at will is not only missing an opportunity to use science fiction to its full critical potential -- it also continues a narrative in which the erasure of the labouring bodies behind technological advancements is par for the course, both in genre fiction and outside of it.

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