Multicultural Steampunk

StormdancerCuttlefish by David Freer.The Steam Mole by David FreerCassandra Clare 'The Clockwork Prince'

What do all the above novels have in common? They all have protagonists that are of races other than white European or white American. Three of them are partially or completely set outside of Europe and America. They are all excellent Steampunk books. Unfortunately, because Steampunk is considered to be centred on the Victorian-era industrialisation of Britain and America, most books are set in the UK and the USA. This might seem to limit the racial palette of characters that can be considered character in the Steampunk literary genre. It doesn’t.

Technology and innovation weren’t (and still aren’t) limited to one part of the planet. It was happening (is happening) at different rates wherever any inspired and educated human being can tinker with tools and source good reference material. And if you have read Terry Pratchett’s ‘Raising Steam’, you know that even non-humans can get in on the fun. In the Victorian era, there was innovation occurring all over, in Asia, in Russia, in India, in South America and in Australia & New Zealand.

Of course, racism was a major issue in the Victorian era. The British Gentleman thought himself superior to every other race on the planet, including any person of British descent who was from the ‘Colonies’. This doesn’t mean that a Steampunk story has to reflect that ugly and outmoded attitude. In fact, I would recommend, in this post-colonial era, that you take to opportunity to write against that attitude.

Dorothy Winterman's Asian-influenced Steampunk outfit by Luisa Ana Fuentes.

Dorothy Winterman’s Asian-influenced Steampunk outfit by Luisa Ana Fuentes.

We now live in a global village. Why set unnecessary limitations on your characters?

At this point, I would like to bring up racial stereotypes. If you are going to have a multicultural cast of characters, do not resort to lazy writing and use racial stereotypes in the characterization of your protagonists, antagonists and secondary characters. As well, the race of a character shouldn’t be their defining characteristic, and make them ‘exotic’ or ‘other’.

In my own YA Steampunk work-in-progress, two of the three main characters are from mixed-race backgrounds, and one compounds the issue by being a colonial from Australia. This wasn’t a deliberate choice I made when I was first fleshing out the novel, but it became clear to me that I wanted both the characters to have a broader experience of the world than would be available to a British gentleman. This was made easier by giving them backstories that included travel to other countries without having the superior attitude of men from the British Empire; such an attitude would have interfered with their education from non-British sources.

Of course, this means more research, to get the details right. But think of the fun you will having exploring other cultures!

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Filed under Characterization, Steampunk, YA Work in Progress

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