What is Steampanku? – Part II

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.

Individualism

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.

Classism

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.

Sexism

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.

Advertisements

Silver Tiger, Part One

Author’s note: This is my response to the Saucy Wenches Podcast writing prompt of Paper and Tiger. It is also my first foray into the Steampanku genre.  I hope you enjoy; any and all criticism would be greatly appreciated, since it is still just a first draft.

Silver Tiger, Part I – Minako

The firebox of the Silver Tiger hissed as the last coals were added for the night; the fire stoked and its smoke flooded the room, disrupting the vision of its crew, and carelessly escaping through vented windows, dancing alongside the rest of the train as it churned along through the eastern sea road.  The last remnants of the clouds dissipated as it collided with the rear car.

“It smells like burnt fish and dead mouse.”

Minako sighed as she looked out into the night sky from her seiza kneeling position.  It felt like she had been riding for months on end.  She shifted her weight from to side until her left leg turned numb, switching left and right as she felt fit.  In front of her was an elegant pine knee-high table, food strewn in front of her and the other dining guests.  Her stomach grumbled.  She refused to eat.

Her words were lost in a sea of chatter amongst the other dinner guests, aristocrats from old Kyoto, all too fascinated with the novelty of the steam engine on which they rode.

“This thing is surreal,” said the owner of a famous inn for magistrates and travelling daimyos.

“It’s long and elegant, like the River Kiso,” said a renowned cartographer.

“It’s giving me a stomach ache,” said Minako.

The dinner party finally turned their heads at the girl’s direction.

“Mii-chan!” Her mother scolded, “Do be polite!”

Minako lowered her head with false apology.  “I’m sorry kaa-san, but the concept of rail travel is foreign to me.”

A man wearing a simple kimono of blue and green checks chortled.

“Yes, Misako-sama.  The train’s designs were taken from the Dutch, yet its aesthetic Japanese.”

Ichiro Yoshino, the grand architect of Gintora, the Silver Tiger now had the attention of the entire room, and he let them know about it.  He reached into a pouch sewed on the inside of one of his sleeves and procured a thin, elongated smoking pike and lit it, taking a sensual drag and letting out a cloud of smoke similarly shaped to the ones coming out of his train.

Gintora is a work of art.  We took from the Dutch the basic principles of steam locomotion; the boiler, the firebox, the smokebox, the valve system, the gears, the cylinder, the wheels.  Everything on the inside is European, but the people know yet of it.  All they see on the outside is Japanese; the frames tempered from metals mined out from inside Mount Fuji, the panels made of the best-harvested lumber from the forests outside it.  No commoner can see the differences; all they see is pure Japanese quality whenever the Silver Tiger rolls by their village.”

Minako scoffed inwardly, hardly impressed with Ichiro’s display of self-satisfaction.  She was born and raised exposed to the old man’s work, having lived in the Emperor’s palace her whole life.  She cradled her arms to herself as she remembered pictures of her home as Ichirio droned on about the train’s lavish design.  As a chill from the night scenery crept onto the back of her smooth, exposed neck, she shivered, remembering the coldness of the winters in her private chambers in the Emperor’s palace, reactively heated by nearby vents.  Back then, she welcomed the luxury, but was haunted by its rumbling, which seemed to echo throughout the whole palace.  She remembered the halls lavishly decorated with old paintings and poems inked on archaic canvases, and the emerald hue of carefully pruned bonsais; their beauty perverted by indoor tracks that ran endlessly from hall to hall, tea-serving automations, platforms and chairs on self-propelling wheels, and the tumbling of a boiler room in the lowest levels of the basement, eerily drumming a beat of change in her father’s empire.  BADOOM.  BOOM.  BADOOM BOOM.

The sounds from her memory suddenly merged with the sounds of the locomotive as it entered a stretch of open desert.   CHUGGA CHOOM.  CHUGGA CHOOM.  CHUGGA CHOOM.

Minako snapped back to reality, instantly setting her mind back on her dinner, just in time for Ichiro to finish out his long-winded speech.

“Tonight marks the maiden journey of Gintora, and what better occasion than to transport Minako-sama from Kyoto to Edo for her wedding.”

Minako’s mother beamed.  Her chest rose with pride as she took a sip of tea with the signature grace that all Empresses before her exuded.  A wedding between her precious daughter and the Shogun would become her legacy, a marked moment in history that would signify change in Japan forever, a change she did not understand, but readily accepted, if it meant eternal glory for her family.

The rest of the dinner party followed suit, continuing with poetic banter about the pre-boom days in Kyoto, and how moving everything of political worth to Edo was the right thing for Japan as a nation.  If it weren’t for the Shogun and his pro-industrial decree, they probably would have been forced into signing the open-door treaty with the pink-skinned beasts from across the ocean, landing on Japanese shores in Black Ships several years ago.  With Minako’s arranged marriage to the Shogun Lord’s son, Deikyo, Japan’s pedestal as an industrial power in the East would be cemented for generations to come.

Minako, however, had other plans in mind.  She gently dabbed her mouth with a handkerchief, and turned to the Empress.  “Kaa-san, I will return shortly, I must freshen up.”

Her mother nodded, “Alright, but please take Sabu with you.”

From the corner, appearing as if from nowhere, a ball-jointed, doll-like figure rolled on wheels towards Minako, nearly tipping over at times due to the rocking of the boxcar.  It slowly raised one arm towards the princess, then rotated on its waist towards the paper screen door.

“P-lea-se, co-me, th-is, way, desu.”

Sabu the rotated again on its waist, angling its wheels parallel to the dinner table, and slowly rolled on its own towards the slider, calculating and adjusting its path along the way.  Misako followed suit, trying her best to conceal her bewilderment of the obscene situation.  She bowed politely to Sabu, literally number three, in a way that she would to a living person.  Finally, she was gone.

Misako disappeared into the dim corridor outside of the dining room.  She carefully treaded through the tatami, past pairs of paper gaslights, carefully examining the characters painted on each.

Progress.  Future.  Enlightenment.  Power.  Change.

Misako was forever haunted by these words, suddenly overcome with grief.  She escaped to a dressing closet equipped with a gold-framed mirror, its border chiselled into a circular dragonscale pattern.

She stared at her reflection, gazing upon saddened azure eyes, rounded cheekbones, and full pouting lips, pink like the cherry blossoms of her garden back home.  Minako reached out towards the full-length mirror and ran her hands down the image of her kimono, soullessly manufactured silk from a factory in Nara, south of the old capital.  It was coloured in vibrant shades of purple in the background, the foreground depicting a geisha holding a telescope and looking into the stars.  She was beautiful.  She was melancholy.

I cannot live in this Japan anymore!

She turned around and saw the portcullis of the room and struggled to push.  As it opened with a creak, the howling wind crashed into the dressing room with violent temperament, throwing Misako off-balance temporarily.  She grabbed tight onto the brass frame of the circular window, and pulled herself towards the opening.  She set one foot on a nearby furnace, slipped, and nearly stumbled to the floor, hanging by her arms on the opening.  She kicked off the pair of lacquered geta on her feet so that the tabi underneath would get a better grip.

On her second attempt, she finally climbed high enough to manoeuvre her way through the window, and positioned herself just enough so that she could take one last look at the scenery as it blurred past her, as expected of the Japan she no longer knew.

With one last effort, she looked up at the full moon to pray her last goodbyes.  And when she did, she could not see the moon goddess.  She saw demons.

Bandits.  Riding atop the roof of the Silver Tiger.

What is Steampanku? – Part I

Perhaps the most fascinating feature of Japanese culture is the ability to take an outside influence and amalgamate it with their own rich heritage to make a unique, yet ostensibly Japanese phenomenon.  This effect is seeded in its relatively isolationist beginnings and resulting opening up to the world after the arrival of Commodore Perry and his “Black Ships.”

It is particularly interesting that the arrival of Perry during the late Takugawa Shogunate (1853-1867) and the resulting Meiji Restoration that resulted from it (1868-1912) intersected nicely with the Victorian era (1837-1901).  This parallel between two contrasted histories that both experienced industrial revolutions during a reasonably overlapped period allows room for great discussion in the field of speculative fiction, namely Steampunk.

Perhaps the reason why Steampunk was primarily associated with Victoriana was due to the fact that science fiction in general was born in England by the pens of Verne and H.G. Wells.  The two fathers of SF postulated a future of machinery, invasionism and romantic voyage, while infusing the romanticism of their non-genre counterparts.  Meanwhile, in Japan, literature was shaped primarily by their own brands romanticism and classicism.

It would only take a century after Wells for Japanese Science Fiction to take form in its own uniquely Japanese aesthetic.  With the worldwide popularization of Gundam, Evangellion and others, the meccha was the foremost symbol of Japanese technological speculation.

But the problem in trying to associate meccha with steampunk is the technology involved in creating such beings.  Steampunk was speculative in the simplicity of the technology available at the time, whereas meccha was penned during an age where the Japanese were touted as technologically ahead of the rest of the world.  It was only natural for both genres to be essentially different.

But what if we reversed the roles?  What if we set the industrial revolution as originating in Japan, or more logically, reaching and taking off in Japan long before the Black Ships?  Realistically, this is a plausible train of thought, considering that the Japanese were not isolated in the most literal sense of the word.  Rangaku, or literally Western Learning, had its roots in Dejima, the sole foreign outpost in Japan during the isolated years of the Edo Period.

It was due to their connections with the Dutch that the Japanese learned of technology as it was being developed in Europe.  This means the Industrial revolution.  While idealistically traditional, the pursuit of technological advancement in Japan was strictly under the table, mainly against the wishes of the emperor and shogunate.  One notable example of this is Wadokei, or Japanese clockwork.

Wadokei, or Japanese Clock

Wadokei, or Japanese Clock

One can imagine the possibilities of Japanese ingenuity and artistry when extrapolated to more grander designs.  In particular, note the artistry of Japanese automata, or Karakuri Ningyo:

Japanese Automata, or Karakuri Ningyo

Japanese Automata, or Karakuri Ningyo

If automata were originally constructed to serve tea, imagine the other functions that could be imagined and realized through speculative Japanese fiction.  Think Memoirs of a Fully Automated Geisha.

The steam in steampunk is fully applicable to Japanese speculative history when looked at through these avenues.  However, while similar to Victorian era technology, the punk aspect is the ultimate difference maker in the genre, one that would make Bafuku Steampunk stand on its own apart from Victorian, and perhaps my favourite aspect of the genre.  But that will have to wait until another day and another post.

Welcome to Steampanku!

This is the first post of steampanku, my personal fiction blog centered around steampunk written in a completely japanese aesthetic.  There’s nothing much here at the moment, but as soon as I start writing more and more, I will post finished stories and drafts (mostly drafts).

In anticipation of NaNoWriMo 2009, I will also use this blog as an avenue for discussion regarding this strange hybrid genre that I suddenly became fascinated with.

If you are interested in Japanese Historical Fiction, as well as Gaslight Pulp fiction, then look no further than Steampanku!  I hope you enjoy your stay, and I look forward from hearing you in the future!