While Victorian London might be the default home and first representative thought of steampunk settings and influence, there is still a whole nineteenth century world out there to explore, with unique cultures to experience and (steam)punk. Our literature and movies, fashion and materials design, and our own attitudes and actions, can directly benefit from the rich diversity of other locations, customs and ideas. The steampunk community and culture would be at a loss without including the rest of the Victorian era world. We are too creative to stay in just one city! Where can the steampunk Adventurers and Explorers (and Ambassadors) go? What can we learn about others, and in so doing, learn about ourselves?
With this expansion of focus and thought, it is important that it is done with the actions and intent of inclusion, not mere appropriation of a superficial look, nor the adoption of the spirit without the underlying meaning of peoples and their traditions. There’s a great deal of Imperialism and colonization to recognize in Victorian age history, and we should not trivialize that which is so valuable to others.
Onward then, from English countrysides and coastlines, to the Scottish lochs and Irish glens, German forests and French valleys, Spanish ports and Italian orchards. Further afield, there are Persian deserts, Turkish markets, and Indian Himalayas. Transylvania! Zanzibar! Tonga! Mechanicsburgh! Oh, wait. That’s already in use.
There are cultural roles to understand like Japanese ninjas, Native American spiritual leaders, and Russian Tsars , and traditional garments to try such as Chinese silk robes, Peruvian tunics, and Arabian thobes and ghutras.
Steampunk is all about “What if” in order to create our stories, fashions, and design. If new stories from steampunk authors look past the England-centric themes there is so much more which could be considered.
Who might have used a fully functional Difference Engine from Charles Babbage to assist Guatemala, Panama, and Santo Domingo in proclaiming independence from Spain in 1821?
How could steampunk technology help mitigate Ireland’s potato famine of 1846?
What creative steampunk weaponry would have ensured that revolutions in Vienna, Venice, Berlin, Milan, Rome, and Warsaw in 1849 succeeded?
Our form and fashion expressions of steampunk can include not only the visual aesthetic of other cultures but also share the underlying significance of the original inspirational source. How might we accurately and respectfully incorporate Maori tattoo designs , the neck rings of Karen (Kayan) tribes in Myanmar (Burma), and South African Zulu beadwork into the back story and clothing of our steampunk characters?
What would be the impact of steampunk technology developing in the African Plains, the Amazonian rainforest, or the Samoan Islands?
Recognizing the potential and opportunities, authors, makers and conventions are already exploring new possibilities for growth. As examples, unfortunately leaving out many others:
Cherie Priest sets her novel, Boneshaker, in an alternate version of Seattle. During a panel at Steamcon , October, 2009, Priest explained a bit of the thought research which went into shifting actual historical events in time to create a plausible cause and effect of events making the setting more believable and easier to suspend disbelief.
“what if China was the first to modernize during the turn of the last century, if China was the standard that other countries had to work towards, what would things look like today?”
Silvia Moreno-Garcia had her Mexican steampunk story, Distant Deeps or Skies, published in the webzine Expanded Horizons.
Cabinet of Wonders had a posting about the potential of Arabian steampunk, citing the engineering developments of Badi Al Zaman Abul I Ezz Ibn Ismail Ibn Al Razzaz Al Jaziri in the twelfth century.
Stephen H. Segal says in his Five Thoughts On The Popularity Of Steampunk:
“Sure, steampunk “proper” may simply be retro-alternate-19th-century science fiction — but in practice, writers and artists and filmmakers and musicians are all starting with this basic aesthetic and then mixing in some fantasy, some horror, some superheroics. We’re seeing steampunk pirates, steampunk faeries, steampunk Wonder Woman, steampunk Cthulhu cultists!”
The exploration of other locations, themes and design is underway and will continue to grow in evermore creative avenues, because steampunk is ever evolving and ever inclusive. When we know and understand what was happening historically around the planet in the Victorian age, and why, we are better able to incorporate elements of people, places, things and customs into our steampunk culture, to make more informed choices, and to bring along substantive meaning and reasons for a change or addition instead of just a simplistic and superficial “it looks cool”.
We can enjoy and express the visual aesthetic of non-English cultures, but it is also important for us to remember and respect the sources of inspiration. Take the best, but make sure you address the rest.
Kevin Steil is the creator of the steampunk news and information resource website, Airship Ambassador, the annual month-long global blogathon, Steampunk Hands Around the World, and is the curator of the online Steampunk Museum. He has been a guest and speaker at a number of conventions, contributed to several books, and has consulted for national media programs and events. He can also officiate your wedding!