MRP Adventures: Semantics

Posted by 26th October 2010

While considering how best to go about my MRP, I wondered what it meant, really, to write postcolonial steampunk. My reading of science fiction and postcolonial writings in general is woefully insubstantial, but nonetheless, I still wonder.

Larry Pinaire at mused, “What I fail to understand is the relationship between the Steampunk era and science fiction. When I think of science fiction, mankind’s future, good or bad, usually comes to mind. I am troubled at the idea of looking back to see forward. Maybe I’m just old.”

I responded, “Science fiction is the perfect vehicle for addressing topical issues, current issues, and how they could be addressed in another time/space. Steampunk merely uses the time/space of the past, and the issues of the past still have reverberations today, so why not go right to the root to address them?”
Parliament and Wake had another thought-provoking comment: “An alternate thought experiment (for such are the stuff of science and science fiction) might question whether it was rather the grisly abuses and dark excrescences of the 19th century that ‘made the ‘progress’ of the 20th century possible’. A secondary hypothesis of such an experiment might be: whether clinging blithely to the clockwork optimism of the age of empires condemns the cannier, more cynical subjectivity of our own time to a stillbirth.”

Which brings me back to postcolonialism, and how to marry this very postmodern, present concept to steampunk, so rooted in the past, that era whose industrial age from which our current, somewhat post-industrial, civilization erupted from.

Some of you may have read my short story “Between Islands”, in which I went right to a root of British colonization in Malaya – I say a root, because while Captain Francis Light’s annexing Penang is most certainly one of the Great Events that set us on course for colonialism, it’s not the only one, but feel free to disagree – and started a thought experiment in which Pulau Pinang was never taken over, and is instead taken over by a Peranakan Cina woman. It’s a thought experiment which needs continuation, but I stopped short, for several reasons:
1) Is not what I’m doing here an experiment in pre-colonialism?  
2) Can I, as someone who grew up heavily invested in English-language Western European literature, really do justice to a pre-colonized Malaya with powers of self-determination?
3) What does self-determination look like, really? Readers of my various blogs may be familiar with this theme: What does independence truly look like, when the borders, aims, and visions of my country are already set within a pre-determined system of success which hinges on a wider set of standards we have little say in?

Perhaps I’m wrapped up in words, because I believe language is so important, these turns of pre- and post- do make a difference, do add a nuance which are worth exploring. It is because of this that whenever I embark on a discussion of “what steampunk is,” I find myself talking about the contexts. Jess Nevins pointed out to me that the steampunk of the 80’s, from Sterling, Jeter, Powers and Blaylock, is rather removed from current steampunk. The former is tied closely to cyberpunk; the latter more closely to Victorian pulp and, as Cory Gross has argued before, a manufactured aesthetic from the 20th century. (I can’t find where he said this, and I don’t have time yet to go trawling through his extensive blog for the particular post.)

While communicating with Jess Nevins (have I mentioned how extraordinarily nice this man is? My God he’s so extraordinarily nice!), he wrote, “‘steampunk’ as a label for fiction seems to be less [clearly defined]. Depending on how you use it, you could claim any number of influences.”

How I personally came to steampunk is multifaceted, but how I steampunk is less so: my investment in it is literary, with little performativity involved. As such, I have to trace my own genealogy of steampunk, and my stances and approaches towards steampunk provide clues: I have an appallingly anti-globalization stance, and though I hate economics, much of my thought seems centered around multinational industrialized commodifying imperialism and its effects on cultural politics. (Did I just write that? Let me choke back up my academicized tongue.)

What I need to do, then, is figure out: do I situate the steampunk aesthetic within postcolonialism, or situate postcolonialist thought within steampunk? Will the effects be different? Or am I simply dealing with a push-me-pull-you?


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