Pax Anglia: The Self-Imposed Limitations of Steampunk and the Gaslight Romance

by J.D. Harlock

(This article was originally published June 2021 by Interstellar Flight Press)

Steam and blood paved the way for the British Empire to become the largest of its kind in human history. Under its dominion, societies of varying races, cultures, and ethnicities were invariably altered by the British presence on their soil. Though the rest of the world has tried to wipe the memory of Imperial Britain from their collective past, English writers’ obsession with the empire “on which the sun never sets” spawned a multitude of intrinsically connected speculative genres built around the styles, technologies, mores, practices, ethics, and accomplishments of the Victorian era. The most popular of these are the sci-fi-inclined, Steampunk, and its fantasy-centered counterpart, the Gaslight Romance—whose origins date back to the Victorian era itself. 

Yet, in spite of their age, their popularity has never waned, as western writers continue to enthusiastically indulge in them as they have for more than a century now—at one point producing magnificent works of fiction that either thematically explored their setting in interesting ways or spun wonderful yarns with little else on their mind beyond entertainment. 

Though early works were firmly set in the British Empire, over the years, fantastical counterparts became more commonplace, being treated with the same validity as the real-world location and, in turn, demonstrating that it was the aesthetics of the Victorian era that defined these genres and not the location itself. But eventually, the frontier and the Gilded Age–the Victorian era’s real-world counterparts across the pond—were appropriated (becoming a common fixture of these subgenres with tropes of their own)—and it became clear that the British Empire, nor its aesthetics, were required in order to write in the genre  

Yet, in all this time, there’s been a lingering and noticeable lack of stories set outside of the Anglosphere with indigenous protagonists, and as Steampunk works and Gaslight Romances rehash the same tropes to tell stories that are appallingly similar to one another, one cannot help but mourn the lost opportunity served to writers who insist on their “novel” Holmesian escapades or their massive multiplayer crossover of a who-is-who in Victorian literature.

Time and again, the genre has shown itself to be increasingly malleable in its setting, and this is not without a historical basis. The 19th century saw an unprecedented level of globalization, in which many European empires spread to every corner of the globe. But even though certain colonies like India or Egypt are featured, they are seldom the primary setting. More often than not, these locations are reserved for tidbits peppered at the beginning of a work to highlight its protagonist’s adventurous nature by using exotic locales and cultures as set dressing. While non-speculative works tend to be increasingly scrutinized for their orientalist tropes, genre fiction seems to have evaded the watchful eye of academics and is all the worse for it. 

That begs the question, in a genre that bends science and history to its will, why does it seem more possible for computers to run on coal than for the Steampunk stories and Gaslight Romances set outside the Anglosphere to be told from the perspective of the indigenous populace, or more pressingly, why hasn’t the genre been as embraced by people outside of the anglosphere to tell their own stories?

English is the most widespread language today with writers from all over the globe, but examples of Steampunk and Gaslight romances set outside Great Britain or the U.S. and from the perspective of the indiginous populations are scant. It’s only natural to assume that very few people can enjoy subgenres of fiction that paints them as savages waiting to be saved or secondary characters in their own conflicts. The fact that most English-language science fiction and fantasy writers are white does little to explain how absurdly rampant the use of these orientalist tropes has become.

This is all the more troubling when one considers how negligible the thematic ambitions behind the genre have become to modern writers. Gone are the days when the genre explored the ideals and pitfalls of the 19th century as Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen once did. The aesthetics of Steampunk and the Gaslight Romance have now become a quick-fix that genre writers use to separate their works from the glut of high fantasy that permeates the market. This preoccupation with lighter and softer versions of a bloody era—whose obsession with wealth, power, and status created a nightmarish, puritanical society mired in sexism, racism, classism, nationalism, ableism, ageism, antisemitism, islamophobia, orientalism, homophobia, xenophobia, limited social mobility, poor working conditions, and income inequality—robs it of its power to challenge the perceptions of its audience. Initially, the genre conveyed its ideas by highlighting just how little has changed in an age we now consider barbaric. Now it plays host to increasingly absurd flights of fancy that would not be bothersome had they not come to dominate the genre.

There is no doubt that speculative writers have overlooked these genres’ potential for global stories, and it’s a shame when you realize that their ability to host atypical protagonists and settings allows writers to recount and recontextualize our colonial pasts in novel and complex ways. And yet, it seems that people of color must always find themselves in loincloths, spear in hand, or snake-charming in a turban, or rubbing their hands nefariously with engorged buck teeth, or riding out into the sands of time on a camel in a fez. 

Always….

J.D. Harlock is an Arab writer/editor based in the Lebanon. He is the the Poetry Co-Editor at Solarpunk Magazine, Poetry Editor at Orion’s Belt, the Outreach Manager at Utopia SF Magazine, and the Social Media Manager at The Dread Machine. You can find him on Twitter @JD_Harlock.

Published by Solarpunk Magazine

Creating a new and better world through speculative literature.

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