You can Steampunk Revolution, but Revolution will Never be Steampunk

Posted by 28th January 2011

That will be tonight’s #steampunkchat topic: steampunk and revolution.

ETA: Chat session was, I think, a success. Thanks to all who attended, and special thanks to Scott Westerfeld for his contribution on such short notice! Here’s a transcript for those interested.

Let me explain this title. 
Revolutions and rebellions are, by their nature, painful things. They come about from oppressive environments. They are started with discontent people who band together to overthrow their conditions. 
Wikipedia defines revolutions as “a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time,” which I don’t have to tell you is an incredibly flawed perspective. Revolutions turn power structures upside-down, but often, it means a replacement of one elite with another elite. 
But revolutions must occur, because the alternative is to be silent and sit still while an oppressive regime erodes the rights of the community. 
Steampunk as technofantasy, steampunk as retrofuturism, steampunk as eco-critical position, steampunk as alternate history, steampunk as roleplaying subculture — could never truly encompass all that revolution entails. 
Right now there are revolutions happening all over the place. I’m not entirely keen on discussing revolution, particularly with relation to steampunk, because I’m not interested in applying a Western gaze to the revolutions happening now in Tunisia and Egypt (if steampunk isn’t Eurocentric, then Beyond Victoriana and this blog wouldn’t exist). You are wholly encouraged to educate yourself and keep abreast of the happenings.
In steampunk literature, however, there can be an undercurrent of discontent and unrest, in terms of class, if not also race. Sterling and Gibson‘s Difference Engine, for example, has an atmosphere for political unrest (which I’m not going to claim to understand). Westerfeld‘s Leviathan illustrates how the Serbs were scapegoats for starting WWI, building off the unrest that was building between the governments of Europe at the time, and in Behemoth shows the protagonists working with revolutionaries in Turkey (referencing the unrest with the Ottoman Empire that, in real life, manifested in the Young Turks Revolution). 
Perhaps on a more familiar ground, Stephen Hunt‘s Court of the Air depicts a revolution of Carlists, paralleling Marxism-inspired movements, overthrowing the Jackellian government. The Carlist movement, however, proceeds to re-create the citizens, “equalizing” them forcibly — an example of how revolutions, even with the best goals, re-create the same oppressive conditions that the previous hierarchy enforced. 
What does revolution look like in a steampunk setting, in which industrialization has begun? Why would revolutions happen then? How would such a revolution differ from the revolutions we have seen happen in the past? How would accelerated technology be harnessed, either by governments suppressing revolts or the masses pushing back against oppressive regimes? 
Terms for Discussion:
This is not the space to ask “how can we steampunk revolution?” without asking the accompanying questions of, who’s revolting? Why? What are the systems in place? 
This is not the space to draw real-world parallels without critically engaging the importance of their happening, their significances to today’s geo-political landscape, and their effects on the real people that lived then.
This is also not the space to play conflict resolutions officer. Show some respect for real events and tread with care. 
What’s happening right now in Egypt and Tunisia is important, because it behooves us, as writers and consumers of steampunk cultural product, to be mindful of how large-scale changes in just a few aspects of life can affect whole societies. It is imperative that we not create a spectator sport of painful events that are borne out of oppression, even as we speculate on how we might reproduce such events.
See you all tonight.

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