In my previous post, I wrote about how it could be possible for a 19th century isolationist Japan to adopt steam technology and manifest its own industrial revolution akin to the Victorian societies presented in most steampunk literature. This installment thus aims to explain the panku in steampanku.
The earliest works in the genre sought to send a message about sociopolitical issues. Verne and Wells brought up topics of imperialism and technology, and their effects on both society and the environment. Joshua Pfeiffer suggests that this aspect of the steampunk story, while much stronger at its roots, are starting to become lost with time, and perhaps with the growth of its popularity.
I tend agree with him, especially so with this concept of steampanku. I myself admit that my interest in this genre hybrid was inspired by the works of James Ng, and not to bash on his work, as well as deviantart. But it was what it was, merely art. Merely an aesthetic. I craved for the social commentary that was brought upon by the likes of Downer’s “The Last Concubine” and even to a lesser extent, Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha.” If I wanted to write for this genre, I wanted write for the entirety of it, fitting both aspects of steam and panku.
If anything, the state of Japanese culture throughout history is unique in itself; throwing a literal monkey wrench into the equation can open people’s eyes regarding exactly how different Japan was from the rest of the world.
Expansionism versus Isolationism
While the Victorian works spoke out against British expansionism, Edo Japan was entirely isolationist, namely the complete opposite. What strikes me as fascinating is that two polar opposites in national policy could lead to similar forms of corruption and amorality. Such examples of this are the eradication of the growing Christian population in Japan, slavery and sex trade of foriegn women, and racism in general.
One issue that may arise from the effects of isolationism is a sense of cultural homogeneity. In a society that is structured on the family and the clan, the importance of the individual is secondary to the group. In the context of steampunk, this notion may be challenged. The concept of invention is tied to individuals, isolated minds. The success of said individuals can have undertones of rebellion against the basic mores of Japanese society. Alternatively, the concept of collectivism can be spun amorally by depicting a shogunate that completely enslaves its citizens in the wake of industrial revolution.
Between the omnipotent and omniresourceful emperor and shogunate of Edo society and the enthralled farmers of the outskirts and underbellies of the metropolitan cities, there is a huge gap. This gap can either widen or shrink with the introduction of steam technology. It is up to the author to determine which outcome holds true and show why through the reaction of the story’s characters. Otherwise the story would hardly be steam, but instead full of hot gas.
Gender roles in society can be examined through the use of point of view of characters of differing sexes within the same environment. Prominent females in 19th century Japanese society may include the wives and daughters of royalty, or even the concubines and geisha that service the patriarchs. As a romance/coming of age novel, “The Last Concubine,” this issue was examined within the context of the Shogun’s harem and the politics between women that ensued. In a steampunk context, the worth and value of a woman could be questioned through the introduction of machines that make their assets less useful. Once again, think Memoirs of a Fully Automated Geisha.
Not Actually Punk?
The themes spoken above are just one of many topics that can be explored and examined in a literary sense in the writing process. However, the term punk is one that is hotly debated. For all intents and purposes, steampunk can just all be about Neo-victorian magical cosplay as a tor.com commenter sarcastically suggested.
But there is an idealism that is generally agreed upon by the community. The sense of creativity, a do-it-yourself attitude that can turn ‘impossible’ to ‘implausible’ to ‘possible’. That is essentially what speculative fiction is all about, harnessing that raw imagination and using it as a form of expression, communicating the deepest cores of our beliefs and passions.
This is what steampunk is about. For me, this is what steampanku is about.