Category Archives: Essays

Steampunk Hands Around the World: Good Gears and Good Works

This article is part of Steampunk Hands Around the World international event, running between Feb 2nd and Feb 28th. For a full listing of events, check out the Airship Ambassador blog.

steampunk hands around the world logo

Over the years in the steampunk community, I’ve seen its potential to work together for more than shared fandom reasons to impact the larger world around us. The community’s Maker influence could be a cause why: if people like to fiddle around with machines out of junk, their tinkering becomes a physical demonstration of how people can re-think an object to make it work better, breathe new mechanical life into it, as well as making it aesthetically pleasing in its functionality. I’ve seen that attitude transfer to other works that steampunks have done. On top of that, the types of people who are involved in the community — tinkerers, artists, educators of all stripes — create a space where ideas bounce off of one another, and perhaps, that creativity which stirs up a person’s inner initiative to try and change a bit of their own lives then spreads into other aspects of life too.

It’s not surprising then, that several initiatives have started up in the community with the aim of social and public betterment. I won’t deny that I have a certain perspective about this, given the people that I associate with tend to value ways that explore social causes, whether it be through increased artistic literacy, media critique and representation, environmental or political causes, or education. Many of these people are friends of the blog and you can check out their work here. Various steampunk conventions also have had a charity fundraiser at their event, as what usually happens at events such as TeslaCon, Dragon*Con’s Alternate History Track, and Steampunk World’s Fair. For Steampunk Hands Around the World this month, I wanted to highlight some various ways that the steampunk community is giving back, to show that we’re more than a group with a retrofuturistic side hobby.

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What Happens When We Speak: On Con Harassment and Fandom on Tor.com

Image Courtesy of the Back-up Ribbon Project

“So I heard that you won Tumblr,” a coworker joked with me the other day.

He was referring to the maelstrom of activity that was triggered when I posted about my con harassment experience at New York Comic Con by the film crew of the YouTube web series Man Banter, hosted by Mike Babchik. I won’t reiterate everything that happened, but kept pretty good documentation. Other industry professionals and geek news sources had done the sametooThere is a petition out, created by the activist group 18 Million Rising in order to hold Babchik’s employer, Sirius XM Radio, accountable for his actions since Babchik had gotten into the convention using his job credentials. Since the incident happened, New York Comic Con had assured that they will tighten their safety policies, and I even had a nice wrap-up interview about making convention spaces safer with NYCC show manager Lance Fensterman.

Okay, that ugly event got all wrapped up with a nice li’l bow of resolution; we can leave this in the fandom corner until the next big misogynistic thing that happens to women at conventions hits the fan (but oh wait, it just did as I typed this). At this moment, I feel like I can voice something that I’ve been holding in this whole time: I am lucky. And it shouldn’t have to be that way.

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Steampunk, Technological Time & Beyond Victoriana: Advocacy and the Archive

In the hubbub of the past week, I completely forgot to mention my participation in Journal of Victorian Culture Online‘s . Check out an excerpt below, and follow the jump to read this academic article online.

Thanks to Prof. Lisa Hager and the editorial board of the JVCO for giving me this opportunity.

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Steampunk studies is an outlier in Victorian scholarship. In fact, steampunk subculture can arguably be called “neo-Victorian” or even “non-Victorian” in the way that it defies strict adherence to a certain periodization or topic relevance. Steampunk is an aesthetic movement inspired by nineteenth-century science fiction and fantasy. Over the years, however, that umbrella phrase has expanded to include speculation outside of an established time-frame (such as post-apocalyptic or futuristic), outside of the established geography of the Western world, and even outside of history (as with alternate history and secondary fantasy worlds). How can we, then, describe the relationship between steampunk academic work and Victorian studies?

[Read "Steampunk, Technological Time & Beyond Victoriana: Advocacy and the Archive" on the Journal of Victorian Culture Online]

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“The Legend of Old Smoke” A photo-story by Pavan Krushik

Pavan Krushik, a digital and photographic artist from Bangalore, India, contacted me recently about his latest photo-story “The Legend of Old Smoke.”  As Krushik explains, the story “revolves around the adventures of a Legendary steampunk warrior Cecilia who caught up in the events of a world changing war sparked by the sciences discovered decades earlier.”

The artist also excitedly talks about the inspiration that drew him to the steampunk aesthetic: “The City of Lost Children (La Cité des enfants perdus) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet is the movie which actually made me fall in love with Steampunk genre. I felt an alternate universe and a fictional era like steampunk should really exist in our generation to escape from reality. I was so fascinated and impressed by this movie and started watching every other steampunk-themed number ever since. I have always been intrigued by Steampunk because of its emphasis on Science and Invention. I love this genre for its dynamic feel, industrialization, fashion and technical evolution. I’m a big Sci-fi fan in general. Other movies like Hugo, A Series of Unfortunate Events, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sherlock Holmes, The Golden Compass and many other Victorian-period style numbers also have influenced me so much and not to forget the novels of my favorite writer HG Wells, especially ‘The Time Machine’. I have always enjoyed creating new worlds of my own and Steampunk is one prominent way, and I dare say a very versatile one at that, to express myself. Very suiting for me since I have always been a sucker for the Victorian era. :)”

Enjoy the story below!

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1
It is an age of steam and sorcery. Her name is Cecilia, daughter of a famous scientist in Old Smoke who was killed in a spate of assassinations for his invention of latest steam powered machinery to curb the environmental problems. Now she’s on the brink of fury. She’s not evil, but likes the thrill of revenge.

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Radical Dirigibles- Black Socialists, Anarchists, Reformers and Airships–Guest blog by P. Djeli Clark

[Note from Ay-leen: Cross-posting P. Djeli Clark's blog The Disgruntled Haradrim. Happy May Day everyone!]

black CPUSA

Pictured above, members of an African-American acting troupe who journeyed to the Soviet Union to star in a film in the 1930s. The group was led by the young Louise Thompson Patterson and included amongst them the poet Langston Hughes

“Socialism is the preparation for that higher Anarchism; painfully, laboriously we mean to destroy false ideas of property and self, eliminate unjust laws and poisonous and hateful suggestions and prejudices.”–H.G. Wells

“Steampunk will never be afraid of politics,” declared writer and Steampunk Magazine editor Margaret Killjoy in a well-read 2011 article. In it, Killjoy pushed back against any notion that steampunk was merely about brass buttons and brassieres–though it’s that too. Tracing the long history of political thought, and political radicalism, in the genre, she pointed to the early works of Jules Vernes and H.G. Wells, and the more modern anarchist tendencies of Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore. Killjoy went on to declare steampunk as even inherently anticolonial; in its re-imaginings of our historical past steampunk was “antithetical” to colonialism, the latter being “a process that seeks to force homogeneity upon the world” while the former “is one of many, many movements and cultures that seeks to break that homogeneity.”

Indeed, steampunk (beyond even its literary creations) has sparked numerous discussions and debates on race, slavery, colonialism, gender, class and sexuality. More than any other genre of speculative fiction, it forces us to confront our more immediate past, and has an active cadre that launches criticism upon anything that appears to fantasize, apologizes or fails to acknowledge the disparities and inequities of these by-gone eras. It makes steampunk a fractured genre, where the donning of a simple article of clothing or a decision to write about some obscure bit of the past, can spark debates or whole blogs on racism, cultural appropriation, gender inequality and [insert-your-privilege-here]-splaining. And that’s a GOOD thing.

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Yes, I Did Stick a Gear on It: The Illusion of Steampunk Performance — Guest Post on Steampunk Canada

Note: Thanks to Countessa Lenora for the opportunity to write this guest post for her blog!

The actual “Peacemaker,” my signature steampunk weapon

My Peacemaker was originally a chalking gun. I admit it. It’s pretty obvious to anyone who looks at it for more than ten seconds. Sometimes, people think it was a cookie gun, and I don’t mind that either. I like cookies.

There has been an unusual attitude, I’ve noticed, about the creation of steampunk props and the role of functional art. I’ve seen dismissive railing against “stick a gear on it” for physical artistic creations, the trumpeting of modded computers and iPods over spray-painted Nerf guns. I have no issue with beautiful functional art or people to have creative ambitions (and yes, that song based on the concept is pretty cute). But, as a performer with cosplayer roots, I never fully understood the ridicule. Because, a prop is a prop is a prop and as long as it helps you perform, whether the steampunk prop shoots real lightning or falls apart after being out in a rainstorm, as long as it enhances your artistic performance, it is a good steampunk prop.

What is, then, “steampunk performance?” A better way of phrasing would be that “steampunk performs.”

[Read the rest on Steampunk Canada]

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The Jewish Refugee Community of Shanghai: 1938-1949–Guest blog by Historicity (Was Already Taken)

Shanghai, China, Jewish refugees in one of the "homes" established in Shanghai to house those who succeeded in escaping from Europe via East Asia in the 1940s

Shanghai, China, Jewish refugees in one of the “homes” established in Shanghai to house those who succeeded in escaping from Europe via East Asia in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of the Yad Vashem photo archive. Click for source.

German Jews did not immediately begin to put their emigration papers in order after Hitler came into power, or after the passing of the Nuremberg Laws, because as far as they were concerned they were fully assimilated Goethe reading, WWI fighting German citizens. They could not believe, and would not believe, that the country they loved would turn against them.

Hitler introduced his anti-Jewish legislation slowly over the course of the 1930’s, giving German Jewry time to rationalize each new piece; this especially held true for Jewish men, as they tended to work in traditionally Jewish occupations. Jewish women, however, through the regular contact with gentiles allowed to them by their place in the home sphere, became aware of the “social death” being imposed on them by Nazi legislation long before their husbands took notice.

In the wake of the mass arrests of Jewish men during Kristallnacht, it fell to these women to free their husbands—typically from Dachau. Nazi officials would not release men until their families provided proof that they would depart from Germany immediately upon their release. Thus, not only did women have to rescue their husbands, but they also had to navigate the emigration process by themselves. Due to the complex legal frameworks enacted by possible destination countries to keep Jewish refugees out, it was immensely difficult for Jews to secure visas out of Germany, and it became even more difficult when they were confronted with the massive exit tax Jews were forced to pay before leaving.

There was, however, one destination which had not put up legal roadblocks to fleeing Jews: Shanghai—this had more to do with the decentralized and highly colonized nature of Shanghai than it had to do with any sort of altruistic sentiment. While the Chinese government had the right to demand to see emigration papers before new arrivals would be allowed to enter Shanghai, this was seldom enforced. Thus, to get to Shanghai, all fleeing families needed were boat tickets. For this reason—in accordance with the necessity to present proof of emigration to Nazi officials before male family members would be released—Shanghai became the only option available to some of the families of incarcerated men.

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Politics in Steampunk – A Sampling (aka “Why it Matters”)

Roger Whitson_1

Interrupting this blog for a special bulletin — or, rather, a bit of an intellectual endeavor. I’ve been talking with Dr. Roger Whitson of Washington State University about steampunk — and he is currently working on an MLA Special Session proposal on the subject — and what came up in our discussion was the role of the social media and how it fosters and records the process of cultural change. Steampunk, which has been both upheld as a ideological movement and downplayed as an apolitical fashion trend, is only as politically substantial as people make it to be. But the use of the aethernetz, however, democratizes the power of social opinions and magnifies the power of these conversations.  More importantly, however, all of these conversations create a more transparent picture of what cultural politics are actually happening on the ground, and opens up more possibilities of challenging “entrenched institutions”, as Roger explained to me, “…it is a politics that is removed from the exclusive analysis of the academic, the editor, and the expert, and placed into the hands of everyday people using social media.”

How can we gauge the political potential of our imaginations in the steampunk community?

Thus, Roger asked me to submit a brief response — at most 250 words — in reply to his questions: “What role do feminism and queer politics have in steampunk? What role should they have?” in order to assist his article on steampunk fandom and the digital archive.

And of course, being a steampunk, I rebelled, and, instead, unleashed this question to my fellow readers. To show a sampling of what political awareness the community has (and the application of that awareness to steampunk) I posted the above blog to Beyond Victoriana’s tumblr and another one to its Facebook page.  After the jump, I do give my response, but it cannot be one made separate from the responses of many, many others.

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Black Empire: George Schulyer, Black Radicalism and Dieselpunk–Guest blog by P. Djeli Clark

[Note from Ay-leen: Cross-posting P. Djeli Clark's blog The Disgruntled Haradrim]

blackempire3232011Sometime in the 1930s, a black journalist is kidnapped in Harlem by the charismatic Dr. Henry Belsidius, leader of the Black Internationale–a shadowy organization determined to build a Black Empire and overthrow the world of white racial hegemony with cunning and super science. Journalist George S. Schulyer’s fantastic tale was written in serials in the black Pittsburgh Courier between 1936 and 1938 under the pseudonym Samuel I. Brooks. It quickly found a loyal following among African-American readers, who saw in Dr. Belsidius and the Black Internationale a heroic, sci-fi tale of black nationalism, triumph and race pride. The newspaper was surprised at the serials’ growing popularity, and pushed for more–sixty-two in all. Yet no one was as surprised at the story’s success than George Schulyer who, disdaining what he saw as the excesses of black nationalism and race pride, had written Black Empire as satire.

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Steampunk Hits the Mainstream (Again) on Tor.com

(a.k.a. The tempest in a teapot.)

This past week, the steampunk community expressed both apoplectic shock and exuberant clamoring over a press release from IBM’s Social Sentiment Index predicting that steampunk will be a retail trend from 2013 – 2015. After that announcement, the media picked up and ran with it, as the media usually does: Forbes reported the news, followed by Time, and soon all of the sci-fi and geek blogs were buzzing about the “discovery” of steampunk by the rest of pop culture. Even James Blaylock, one of the old-timers who started the subgenre with K.W. Jeter and Tim Powers, put in his two cents on HuffPo to explain what steampunk is to the masses.

Of course, with every new wave of attention, the steampunk community is reminded of all of the other times when people thought the aesthetic movement was hitting the mainstream (for good or for ill). Remember the elation when The New York Times covered it? Or how many cringed when Steampunk Palin went viral? Or how about that Justin Bieber video? (Click at your own risk.)

And wasn’t rococopunk being praised as the next big thing a couple of weeks ago?
[Read more in “Steampunk hits the mainstream (again)” on Tor.com]

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