Earlier this week I was contacted by the good people of Parliament and Wake, who have written an article about why steampunk matters. They asked me if I would like to share my thoughts on the matter, and so here I am.
I want to start by giving a little bit of background information for those of you that I haven’t met before.
From about this time in 2008 until earlier this year, I was the primary editor for SteamPunk Magazine. During my tenure there, I also helped to organise the Great Steampunk Debate, the idea of which was to discuss the political-versus-apolitical tension in the steampunk community. To give everyone a chance to talk to one another, and to learn.
I’ll be talking more about the GSD later on, but for now it is suffice to say that I come down firmly on the side that believes that steampunk should have a political agenda. In fact, I don’t think that it can avoid it.
Having said that, in the last year I have found myself getting increasingly frustrated with the resistance to this issue from a large part of the steampunk community. I grew deeply, deeply weary of having the same discussions over and over again. I got tired with the fact that I no longer felt as though I was making a difference, and that was a large part of the reason why I decided to stand down from my position as editor, and hand the reins back to Magpie Killjoy.
The piece that Parliament and Wake have written is a commentary on the purpose that they believe steampunk serves, the direction in which it is heading, and the problems that it is having along the way. In that respect, they talk an awful lot of sense and I agree with much of what they say.
However, I also find a lot of the rest of the article to be at best naïve, and at worst frustrating.
The way I read it, much of the article’s focus seems to be on the idea that steampunk should to be used to create a better (or several better) worlds for ourselves. That, by creating these better worlds, we are increasing the extent to which people can imagine a better future for themselves, and work towards bringing that about.
But they go further than that. They say:
“Writers are products of their times, so it’s no surprise that the twentieth century gave birth to as many science fiction dystopias as utopias; unfortunately, one can only go so far by listing all the worlds we don’t want to create.”
And that is where I part company with them. Because, as a woman and an activist, I cannot read utopian fiction. Steampunk or otherwise.
I cannot do it, because the whole concept of it alienates me. It is not part of my lived experience, and when something is not part of my lived experience I cannot engage with it, no matter how much I might want to.
My lived experience is that lie is hard. It is a war that I sometimes feel as though I’m waging against the rest of the world.
That is not to say that my life is a constant parade of endless human misery. There are some wonderful, beautiful, perfect things around me, and I try and fill my world up with them to the point of overflowing. But there is also the constant, daily barrage of hatred and anger in which I am told, over and over and over again, that my body is wrong, that I should submit to be judged entirely on my physical appearance, and that I should be scared of walking the streets alone at night.
Ninety percent of everything that I might want to read (or watch, or listen to) alienates me before I have even had the chance to think about enjoying it, because I am reminded time and time again that it is not there for me, and that I do not get to be a person in these worlds that are created.
And, you know what? It pisses me off. It pisses me off that I can’t adopt V For Vendetta as my battle-cry for change in the way that Anonymous has done, because it involves a gratuitous, traumatising scene in which a woman is tortured and brutalised ‘for her own good’.
It pisses me off that I can’t take part in the Occupy movement without facing the same kinds of discrimination that I face every single day that I get out of bed and try to go about my life.
That is why, when I create fictional worlds for myself, I gravitate towards the kinds of dystopias that Parliament and Wake are distancing themselves from.
There is a terrible secret at the heart of the creative process: Fictional worlds are not really fictional at all. Anything and everything that we could possibly use to fill them with is drawn from our own world and our own experiences, because there is no other way that we know how to create. That is why anything that is fictional (steampunk or otherwise) cannot be apolitical. We can never, ever detach ourselves from the world that we spend our lives living in enough to consider something completely alien to it.
With that in mind, the existence of so much dystopian fiction does not confirm that ‘if every vision we have of the future is dismal we’re guaranteed to live in such a future’. Instead, it tells us an awful lot about what we think about the world that we are living in right now, and where we are frightened that it might lead. It tells us stories of individuals who fight against that future, and strive to live in a world of peace and equality.
Imagining worlds in which that sort of struggle exists isn’t just important because it reflects the fight that so many of us are having in the world today, it is important because it raises awareness of the fact that those struggles exist at all.
That’s what’s at the root of why I cannot subscribe to the same view that Parliament and Wake are calling for. Perhaps they are close enough to the surface to be able to imagine a world in which that struggle has been won, but I am not. I spend too much of my life arguing every time someone thinks its funny to make rape jokes, talks about ‘obesity epidemic’ of fat, lazy people who need to get off their asses and stop exposing everybody else to how physically repulsive they are, or tells me that they think the police are right to kettle hoards of peaceful protesters and lash out at them with pepper spray.
I cannot conceive of a utopia in which I do not have to do that every day, and because of that I find far more comfort in stories where the world may be a dark and dismal place, but the battle is not yet lost.
To me, good stories (and good fictional worlds, for that matter) don’t preach, they question. They invite us to look at the world that we live in from a different angle, to resist the temptation to turn everything into absolutes of light and dark, or good and evil. They are no obliged to paint pictures of a better world, only to challenge the one that we live in right now. Or the one that we might live to see in the future.
Steampunk is not the whole of that pattern, but it is a part of it. And, in order for it to be part of the solution instead of the problem, those who wish to use steampunk as a vehicle for positive change are going to have to work together, even where they are fighting different battles. This is something that we are going to have to do, if any of us are ever going to stand a chance of achieving that equal, better world.
And so, when I read things like:
“A Steampunk comic book rich in ample bosoms and simple sentences may not rise to the level of literature, but if it popularizes the ideas presented in books by “better” authors, then it still must be counted a success.”
I am deeply and profoundly disheartened at the fact that this kind cooperation does not seem to be happening.
What are the ‘ideas’ in books by ‘better’ authors that are being talked about here? Because they certainly aren’t books about how women do not deserve to be objectified. Maybe those comics help bring about Parliament and Wake’s (and my own) need to see a world that is not overrun with rampant consumerism, but they certainly do not help my need to see a world in which women treated as human beings, rather than objects of sexual gratification.
They go on to say:
“If an escapist wishes to shout down Steampunk as apolitical but is willing to participate in a fantasy space in which European explorers interact on equal terms with women and indigenous peoples and in which pirates are ethically justified in robbing from exploitative industrialists – well, he can continue to believe that he isn’t endorsing a political movement, but for all the reasons we’ve discussed above, he’s still helping.”
However, as Dylan points out in his response to them, this ‘entirely misses the point that those women, those indigenous peoples, those pirates and those exploitative industrialists are there solely for the escapist’s benefit.’
He goes on to talk about how the best thing any of us can do if we want to make a difference is to educate ourselves, and to help to educate others about the inequalities that still exist across the world today. That is absolutely a part of the role that I believe fantasy and imagination has in our world, and I’m pretty sure that Parliament and Wake believe that too.
The problem, then, comes when when people attempt to create that sort of change without fully understanding the depth of the problem they are facing. It comes when feminists are only interested in achieving social equality for women, and don’t stop to think about how the same systems of oppression affect people of colour, or the transgendered. It comes when anti-capitalist protesters like the ones in Occupy Wall Street don’t understand the ways in which the ways in which the system they are fighting oppresses minority groups, and don’t think to give enough attention to combating that, as well.
Ultimately, that is where things fell apart when we tried to spark this kind of discussion in the Great Steampunk Debate. I was horribly naïve in my understanding of the way these different systems of oppression hurt people. People whose life experience is entirely different to my own. As a result, instead of creating a space where everybody could discuss these issues on an equal footing, I was a part of something where a huge number of people, that are used to having their opinions heard, shouted at the very tops of their voices, and those from minority groups were completely drowned out in the swell.
And I can already see the same thing happening in what Parliament and Wake are trying to achieve, even if I know that they are doing it with the very best of intentions.
If I want to say anything at all to them about why steampunk still matters, then it is this:
Steampunk matters because it provides an opportunity to foster change that is not unique, but that has the power to effect incredibly change through the way it dreams of worlds other than our own.
I think that we agree on that.
But if you want steampunk to matter because it does more than offer us a space to reflect on the role of technology in our lives or the extent to which we mindlessly consume, if you want it to be a place in which we can dream of a world where we are all truly equal, then we shall have to listen to all of the the groups that are harmed by the way that we are living now. We shall have to work to participate positively in safe spaces that are created by and for minority groups. We will need to fight to ensure that those groups are not alienated or drowned out on our websites, in our forums and our social network groups.
More than that, we will have to learn to support one another. To listen to and understand people whose lived experience is different from ours. We will have to work together: To create narratives and worlds that do not just support the rights and political agendas that we ourselves desire, but that foster an environment in which we can all strive towards equality.
And, when that is happening… Perhaps then I will be able to join you in your dreams of a utopia of airships, and exploration.