First Proposal Under the Cut. Feedback appreciated.
The paper will examine works by such writers as Neal Stephenson, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, Cherie Priest, Mark Hodder, George Mann, Scott Westerfeld, Dexter Palmer, and/or Pablo Bacigalupi, (among possible others) in an effort to unpack the use of images of empire and colonialism in some steampunk fiction. It will not attempt to be a complete reading of colonialism for the steampunk genre, but rather will compare and contrast the interrogation of empire in selected texts.
The paper will examine the use of specific, loaded images of empire—especially but not limited to the British Empire—in ways that only occasionally address issues of class, gender, colonial exploitation, and the real history of European domination of the New World, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
In many of the above authors’ works, polymaths, engineers, and artists—both historical and fictional—are often presented without any sense of the loaded images of empire nor with any sense of the real history of decadence and domination done in the name of empire. Rather, Sir Richard Burton, Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace, Brunel, Darwin, Babbage, and any number of fictional “artificers” create bespoke solutions to seemingly any and all Victorian problems that in many cases continue to plague our world today. And while this play with innovators and innovations are thought provoking and often offer potential real world solutions, nonetheless, the play with technologists and technologies may reinforce the colonial paradigm of Anglo-American superiority.
In my view, Stephenson and Gibson and Sterling’s works offer more thorough critiques of efforts to fetishize the clothing, social codes, and other cultural values of the Victorian era by not simply adding brass and/or steam accoutrements to a sense of optimism that the real historical excesses of the original Victorian Age can be avoided through the re-application of polymaths’ minds and invention of any needed or possible technological innovation. In short, many steampunk texts employ the images of the Victorian Era empires without a critical eye towards the colonial economic and political realities that supported the historical (and contemporary) empires, nations, and regimes because of the fun authors can have playing with the period’s artifacts, characters, and history.