Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Race in Speculative Fiction

I came across this article by Jha on the Intersection of Race and Steampunk. It raises some interesting questions. Since Steampunk is based on the Victorian era, when colonialism and repression of indigenous races was rife, how do you translate this for a modern sensibility?

The author says:

'I’m aware that other steampunks come to the subculture differently. Our stories are as diverse as our backgrounds, our reasons for participating are many. Interests tend to overlap in steampunk; we’re all geeks in some form or another. Reasons for being drawn to the subculture are various: a love for history, a love for speculative fiction, the giant robots, the ray guns, the fabulous clothes.'

But the fact remains that the steampunk genre is romanticising a period when anyone who wasn't a white protestant male, was repressed. How accurate do you want to make a story, to give it the flavour of the time? I'm currently writing a story set in approx 1840, during the settlement of Australia where everyone is racist to some degree. I expect the reader to be mature enough to see it as characterisation, not my personal endorsement.

When Le Guin wrote the Earthsea books she set out to create fantasy characters of colour, but she wanted the reader to identify with these characters before they realised the characters were coloured so that the average readers of the period would not be put off. So she did not slip in the colour of their skin until the story was well under way. Yet, when the TV series was made, the producers managed to white-wash her characters, which did not please the author at all.

How do you handle the ticklish question of authenticity of historic characters without crossing the line and making them all touchy-feelie?


MataPam said...

You've got a big gap between "Never questioned the excellence of the British Race" and the hatred that lies under true racism.

You can show various white (Good Guy) characters as blind to the prejudice around them, a bit shocked by it, completely oblivious asses and so forth. But so long as brutality toward the indigenous people is limited to the Bad Guys, and the indigenous people are shown to be clever, intelligent, observant and so forth, no matter the lower level of tech, it shouldn't distress any readers with any grasp of historical attitudes.

Ben Godby said...

If you're writing steampunk, you're not so much writing about a "racist" time period, as a time period that never existed at all. Steampunk being selective history with various strangeitudes mixed in to the record, you are by no means obligated to reproduce the period's exact social qualities. Egalitarianism, I think, is every bit as odd as steam-belching golems; why not try it?

Lucius said...

Take some time and enjoy Kipling's stories about India. Seriously. Doing so will establish a frame like few other things. While you can argue that he's racist on occasion, it's also clear that he cares deeply about the people he supposedly holds in disdain.

It's also good to realize that colonialism was, like most things, both good and bad. In most ways, colonial governments were much better than what they replaced, and significantly improved the life of the average citizen in the areas they controlled. (Well,for the most part. This obviously doesn't apply to Belgian imperialism under Leopold, for example.) Which isn't to say that colonialism was good, either. But most of the really bad stuff that can be laid at its feet took time to develop, and we have the benefit of hindsight.

I've found this piece has lots of useful perspective: http://www.city-journal.org/html/13_2_oh_to_be.html

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Rowena - and the link to someone writing Australian steampunk, YAY!

I've just finished the research phase of my own Aussie steampunk novel (set in 1853-1854), and although the historical racism is rampant I was surprised to find a number of real individuals who'd still be considered open-minded today. Many fine ladies grew used to nude Aboriginal company, and would chat with them comfortably. Governor Philip himself was speared by an Aborigine (probably their way of punishing him for invading - and probably done very carefully in order to NOT kill him) and did not seek revenge, which seems to indicate a surprisingly profound understanding of Aboriginal ways. There are lots of other examples.

My basic strategy is to simply write characters that are way ahead of their time (in some areas and not others, or I'd be guilty of over-modernising) - and I'm thrilled to discover that I'm being selective rather than completely unrealistic.

Plus, many people say that the "punk" in steampunk means we can throw out the stuff we don't like, and I think that's mostly fair. The genre would be pretty boring if we didn't have women throwing off their fetters with historically-inaccurate ease every time.

Louise Curtis

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


What you say is true. I'm also trying to write from the POV of an unreliable narrator.

He's someone who justifies his own actions with selective editing of his past.

Just because I like a challenge. Sigh.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Even if the steampunk era never existed, it still has to feel real to us as readers.

I look for a Victorian sensibility, as part of the fun is that repression or emotion and stiff upper lip.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Lucius, I love Kipling's stories.

They gave me such an appreciation for a culture and a time!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Louise, I had read about the spearing of Governor Phillip.

I'm finding the period a really rich vein to tap.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I have different races and authentic to the time in my magical British Empire series. Unfortunately a big argument on why the Maasai girl SHOULD NOT go to India probably caused the editor to drop the books on the floor. C'est la vie.

Kate Paulk said...

We can start with "race is not culture is not race" - the British of the Victorian era/mindset were a specific *culture* whose members were raised to consider themselves superior. That culture had a fairly strong caste system, and anything not "of the culture" was the lowest of the low, generally graded according to how CLOSE they got to British norms.

Oddly enough, "colonials" (descendants of Brits born in the "colonies") were closest, and tribal cultures (who also happened to have the darkest skin at a time when dark skin was associated with being lower class and *dumb*) were furthest away. Instant racism.

Gosh, funny how that happens.

Kate Paulk said...


Since at least one of those reasons was the treatment the Maasai girl would get from the Indians, it's hardly surprising.

Synova said...

When I first heard someone complain that "steam punk" was bad because "Victorian" was bad I just thought, "wow, someone trying to ruin everyone's fun, what a surprise."

Maybe it's something about the science fiction community itself, because Historical romance writers don't seem to have these immense traumas.

Lets be serious (and honest) for a moment. Were the Victorians more racist than the Greeks? What other time in History is acceptable to have fun with? Shall we talk, oh, Japan? Maybe we shouldn't be so *comfortable* with Japanese cos-play either.

And I'll nit further... during the times that repressed anyone who wasn't a white protestant male, most all of the white protestant males living were also repressed.

It could be argued, I think rather easily, that the Victorian era was typified by people who responded to the boom in technology and resulting greater societal wealth by pushing ideas of social responsibility toward the unfortunate. Literacy, schools and benevolent societies. Abolitionists and Suffragettes, eventually.

True enough, this is from wikipedia: "The Victorians are sometimes credited with 'inventing childhood', partly via their efforts to stop child labour and the introduction of compulsory education. As children began to be able to read,.."

So, if that can be trusted, Victorian era "shame" can be applied to newfangled compulsory education and children's literacy. It can be applied to Charles Dickens moral lessons about the poor or Anna Sewell's plea to treat working animals humanely.

It seems to me to have been a time when people could see the world changing before their very eyes and react with wonder. Which is what is so appealing about it. People started to have modern attitudes about any number of things. That the transition was rough at times is testament to the change, and ought not be allowed to be a condemnation of the era.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sorry to hear this, Sarah.

There was an article in the SFWA magazine about using your backlist to sell from your web site as a source of income.

When you have a book/series, that you know is good, but it doesn't fit anywhere with a traditional publisher it makes you wonder about releasing it into the wild and receiving 70% back from sales.

Have you considered doing this with the British magic series?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Kate, I've done research into the treatment of the Irish by the British and it was appalling.

Too bad if you were Irish. Too bad if your grandfather was British, but he was given an Irish estate and you were born in Ireland, suddenly you weren't British enough.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


MBE is still in print. As such I don't have rights to it back to sell. Unfortunately I don't have ALMOST any of my backlist back.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Synova said:

'It could be argued, I think rather easily, that the Victorian era was typified by people who responded to the boom in technology and resulting greater societal wealth by pushing ideas of social responsibility toward the unfortunate. Literacy, schools and benevolent societies. Abolitionists and Suffragettes, eventually. '

This is so true. And in those days everyone was treated badly.

In Australia we have the stolen generation. Really several generations of part aboriginal children who were taken from their parents and put into institutions where they were treated badly. But the same was done with white children, who were taken from their poor mothers, or had no mothers.

They were treated badly by the people running the orphanages, right up until abortion and the unmarried mother's pension came in.

Then those orphanages closed. There was one on the hill near where we live. Now it is a convent or an old folks home. In the last five years people my age and older have come out to tell the horror stories of their childhoods in this place and the church has apologised to them.

It was a different time. The human rights that we take for granted didn't exist.

Anonymous said...

PS My blog today reviewed the 20 books I read as steampunk research. The top three (in my opinion) were "Victorian London" by Liza Picard, "Who Invented What When?" by David Ellyard, and "Black Kettle and Full Moon" by Geoffrey Blainey for everyday Australian lives. "Savage or Civilised?" by Penny Russell (on early Australian manners, including Aboriginal manners) was fascinating too.

Synova said...

Rowena, That sounds a bit like Indian Schools in the US. They seem to have been nearly universally horrific. I think it was mostly a case of the people who mean well doing the most harm. The idea seems to have been to bring native americans into the new culture, an effort at inclusiveness, actually, but it was done by stealing native children and locking them up in residency schools and punishing them a lot. Beware of those who torment you for your own good, and all that.

To bring this back to writing... I think that once one gives up on the notion that good intentions mean good results and bad results prove bad intentions, it's not that hard to show people holding outdated notions as good people with kind hearts even if the results are now understood to be rather horrible.

Lucius said...

I don't really have anything to add at the moment. I just felt the need to applaud Synova's excellent posts.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LoL Lucius.

Synova, you have a fan!

Mike said...

I'm going to go along, sort of, with Synova. I lived through some of the racial turmoil in the 60s in the US, and one of the scary things to me occasionally is talking with someone younger who says something like "Well, it wasn't really that bad, was it?"

That's when I get to witness to things that I lived through (imagine being a teenager and getting a letter telling you that you are in the crosshairs, and will be shot if you don't stop being friendly across race lines? That's just from talking to a young man my age. And knowing that in fact people were being shot?).

Anyway -- it seems to me that one of the possible approaches is to show exactly how painful the times were, without hiding it. And show people why even "good" characters went along with it, or didn't see it. Racism, sexism, and religious intolerance were parts of the social structure.

Maybe a different kind of gritty realism to mix with the romanticism?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


this is what I'm trying to do with my Outcast Chronicles books.

I'm trying for a more realistic fantasy.

Dave Freer said...

Hmm. The coal-fired submarine, and the steam-mole (my MG stories in a noir steampunk environment) deals with both the racial issues in steampunk universe, and the enormous environmental impact of coal (yes, oil is better). And it's pretty anti-Imperial (The British Empire being the bad guys)

So I guess I'm stuffed before I start.