Racism and PC in Steampunk and Spec Fic

This blog is to put my two bits in a conversation on the Vision list. We were discussing to what extent (or even if) considerations of stereotypes and concepts of Polictical Correctness apply within our genres.

This is a public forum, so we’re wearing our opinions on our hats like that game where you have to guess who you are. Actually, maybe not so public if only I read my blog 🙂

What I love about Spec Fic is that you can push the boundaries to anywhere. You can have women that are men, or both, and anything in between. On the other hand, you find many total stereotypical characters in some works (the manly men and busty heroines or weak damsels) and exploitist fantasies played out across whole societies. Then you’ve got parts of the audience (and writers, too?) who are just there for the explosions. I love that diversity.

Just gunna make three points.

1. Stereotypes make annoying characters. In spec fic, I am interested to read about different races/cultures/sexes both real and invented. If you write about real ones I think you should consult with people from those groups for both authenticity and fairness. (Was that one point or two?) If they say ‘Don’t touch this,’ I think you should follow their wishes, or try to find someone from that group who will collaborate with you.

2. As writers and creative individuals we can invent the future. Yet, our words might not be used as we plan, Eg. Jesus.

3. ‘PC’ was (in the 70s?) used tongue-in-cheek to mock the political appearance of fairness, Eg. the token woman on the board. What we’re really talking about is giving the under-represented a fair go.

I’m still struggling with Steampunk, but there does seem to be a lot of whitey-white skin. I say shake it up.

Debate away. I love hearing these debates 🙂



21 thoughts on “Racism and PC in Steampunk and Spec Fic

  1. Onya Helen! Glad to see someone’s taken up the invitation to discuss this. I’m armpit deep in edits right now so I probably shouldn’t linger, but just wanted to say thanks for taking it up. Was kinda saddened to see it so quickly disintegrate and then be shut down altogether on Vision. Is that a sign of how far we’ve still to go as a society?

    I understand the reasons it was shut down, but I kinda think it was a tad cowardly, too. If we can’t have these discussions in the open as a spec fic community, how are we supposed to progress with this stuff? That said, some basic ground rules do need to be laid, I reckon, if the discussion is to have any hope of being productive. I do think Sean and Cat were right in pointing out that discussions as to the nature and merit of ‘PC-ness’ were off-topic (if kinda related, sorta, at a stretch).

    The topic I was wanting to focus on was specifically about the challenges of working with a genre like steampunk, particularly with a setting that is reminiscent of victorian-era Australia. I was hoping to discuss these challenges with others who are also sincerely wrangling with them. And I mean whole-heartedly, brain-hurtingly, self-enquiringly WRANGLING. Not just spewing out the same old defences for the same old attitudes.

    I raised a similar question on Justine Larbalestier’s blog and she recently answered me here if anyone’s interested: http://justinelarbalestier.com/faq/writing-faq/#comments
    If I am to further involve myself in this discussion, I’d most prefer to do it with folks who have read the above beforehand, who are willing to get a handle on where I’m coming from before leaping into the ‘debate’.

    I found Justine’s response really helpful. I especially appreciated being pulled up about the use of the term ‘Oriental’. I had been feeling uncomfortable about using it, but was locking myself into it with the idea that it was ‘historically accurate’. Rather than feeling peeved at not being able to use the word in order to not offend anybody, I felt the opposite, I felt liberated! I realised it was silly of me to feel burdened with the term just because it was a word they used back then! And I felt pretty ignorant for not realising quite how repellent many people find that term. I have read a bunch of Edward Said and co’s stuff on Orientalism – it’s not that I was ignorant about the negative connotations of the term – I just hadn’t tuned into the thoughts and discussions of actual Asian folks around the current use of the term.

    The whole joy of steampunk can be like a re-writing of history, a re-claiming, a re-invention of it. It’s not a simple process, by any means. It can feel like a damn fine line to walk between that kind of re-invention/subversion of victorian-era exploitative attitudes/norms, and just pretty-ing up what was undeniably destructive and ugly. There are pitfalls and quagmires EVERYWHERE, but that’s kind of the adventure of it, too. Not for the faint-hearted, and maybe only for the foolhardy!

    Ok!!! Back to the adventure/struggle!


  2. BeyondVictoriana.com, colouring up steampunk since late 2009. You’re welcome.

    For a small sampling of non-white steampunk works out there, pls click here. You’re welcome, again.

    Is steampunk still Whitelandia? Yes, this is not a debate. Do POC steampunk writers have trouble even getting exposure for their work? Yes, this is not a debate. Do we exist? Yes, yes, this is so not a debate.

    Other problems with racism in spec fic in general include the difficulty of getting non-white works out to the buying public (apparently publishers say the reading masses don’t care for non-white stories), whitewashed covers (marketers say fewer people pick up an “ethnic” character on the cover), lack of POC in control of markets in general.

    Political Correctness as a term was hijacked. Here’s a little PDF of a blogpost that explains how:

    So, basically, “politically correct” is a hue and cry raised to say “you are infringing on my fun”, to which my most basic response is, if you think being “politically correct” is a bad thing, then clearly, you’re not putting much thought in your work or actions, you’re not examining how your work could cause harm through reproducing and perpetuating racist stereotypes, you think so little of your work believing it has no effect as a cultural product, and that your right to be free is more important than other people’s right to not get hurt by you stomping around.

    To me, it’s not a matter of “to what extent our works are PC”… it’s a matter of what injustices we choose to address in our work and how we educate ourselves on these issues. I make a specific effort to write non-white characters as main characters, and include as few white characters as possible, to offset the overwhelming whiteness in most spec fic, from a postcolonial perspective. I do this as a person from a postcolonial, neo-colonized country, to offer people a vision of how things could be without Western European/white North American ideals necessarily dominating the ideological framework. But I also consider sexual norms and mores, and some issues of disability and how to equalize them in spec fic. I read up on race relations and crip theory, as well as first-hand accounts from POC and PWD on how they deal with prejudice and discrimination, how they articulate these experiences. (This also means it’s difficult for me to sit down and actually write fiction, but self-education is a lot of fun!)

    I’m not keen on authenticity because then it leads to policing behaviour: that’s not REALLY ETHNIC! I’ve had Asian-American friends accused of not being Asian enough, by white people, simply because they don’t speak the language or something or another. You pick a setting, you people it with well-crafted characters, and try to keep true to their humanity, and let your audience nitpick for you whether or not you spoke truth to a character of their culture, and if you didn’t, accept that you fucked up and do better. This shouldn’t be hard, but apparently it is for a lot of people.

    And that is my little intersectional third-world WOC contribution to your debate.

    1. Jaymee – I find myself in complete agreement with your last paragraph, but I wanted to run a little maths past you. I ran the figures a few years ago, and things have only got worse. There are in the US approximately 1 currently published by large publishers sf/fantasy writer per 250 000 people. Of those 1:4 made it past he 3 book hurdle, ie. 1:1 000 000 becomes a regularly published author, that you are likely to come across (the print run for the others are often 4-7K – not likely for most people to even encounter. For newbies back then the odds were about 1:3000 of selling. Call it 1:10 authors writing steampunk (it’s not that big a sub-genre). There are rough 310 million people in the US. So call it 31 likely-to-encounter currently publishing steampunk from one of the big six. More or less 5% (by number not reading taste, which should be considered, but no figures) of the US pop. are Asian American. Call it 1:20. So there should be 1.5 (or 1 or 2) Asian American Steampunk writers in the 31 or 6 any one time getting published at all. I suspect this is not true. But … is that bias aimed at you? Was your book rejected because of that? Possibly. Or possibly it’s just that yours was not the one of 3000+ subs that actually did get picked. Any newcomer has 0.03% probability of picked – or there is 99.07% chance it WON’T be you that is special snowflake. That doesn’t mean I think you shouldn’t try, or you might not be brilliant, or that Steampunk from a different viewpoint might not be brilliant. But does mean that actually you may just be hitting the same brick wall as 10 of thousands of other writers. It’s easy to ascribe to malice what can actually be the normal crap we all wade through, if you don’t know everyone wades. Seriously, nobody gets a free pass. There is no sekrit handshake for all white Americans. It’d be nice to see more, different viewpoints, but you, personally are not likely to be a victim of malice, and in percentage terms bias may be smaller thatn you imagined.

      First question – are there 600 Asian Americans actually submitting manuscripts every year? (I don’t know how popular the genre is among Asian Americans. It could be unpopular because they feel excluded, and thus they’re not writing and submitting those proportions. Or not.) And second question: how generally accessible are those stories? Lets assume that some of them have an appeal principally to an Asian American audience. Well, a noob selling 5K to a general audience (lets assume that’s 1/3 of the US pop. – about 100 million people) is a pretty reasonable achievement, these days. So now let’s assume that the editor or accountant making the final decision (both of whom are of course quite possibly totally wrong) thinks a book is likely to have little appeal outside the subgroup he feels will be the target. 15 million Asian Americans say… and at the same proportions that would imply sales of… 750 books. Now – here http://coalfiredcuttlefish.wordpress.com/ – I ran some figures on costs. That’s a serious financial disaster. (e-books are more plausible and a lot easier, financially).
      While the editor like to see the book published, the accountant might just be saying ‘no’. And he might both be wrong. There might be a huge market or it.

      I’ve never been one to admit defeat, and I am not encouraging you to do so. But I think you need to be able to show editors that the interest and sales are there. My own advice is to make sure it is widely accessible, but that’s really up to you. And accept it’s going to be, as we have all found, tough. Best of luck with it.

      1. I think Jaymee is, at least in part, talking about actually published steampunk writers (like herself and me, for example!) who still have trouble getting exposure, and keep running up against the “All the steampunk is white” commentary when ours isn’t.

        Now part of that is that we’re writing short fiction, but it does get tiring to keep hearing that we don’t exist, when our work is out there. And I think this is a point orthogonal to your maths.

      2. Shweta – I did run short fiction math too, in about 2004, but the changes there are even more complex. I’m kinda passionate about short fiction, as i believe it is the best training ground for novelists, besides a great area in its own right. I try to put my money where my big mouth is and spent nearly five years as an unpaid volunteer (I was the Art director, and read a little slush) for a short story magazine. We had some fairly serious financial backing, we had a shoo-in audience of about 3000. We bought (for real money, not the typical – up to 25 cents a word) every ‘name’ from Asaro to Zettel, Barnes to Weber – and we still couldn’t really get much above the 5K thresh-hold. My figures are a bit out of date, but for the few very biggest short fiction mags (in which you’d have to appear quite a lot of times to be known) were around 20-25K of ephemeral circulation. That’s about the same as a solid midlister (historically mag circulation ran to 125-150K at their apogee) So: my point about being the 1 in a million to actually get noticed is still more or less correct. The sad truth (and I speak as a guy with ?26 ‘professional rates’ shorts sold) if I’d never written novels no-one would know I existed. As is, with my best selling novel having sold 75K, and basically never having sold less than 20K since the first book, having got onto WSJ and locus bestseller lists a few times, and most people still don’t know I exist. So: I get your point, I sympathize, but if as someone who has sold about a third of a million books and still gets ‘never heard of you’ most of the time, it is possible that it’s not bias of any sort, but really that they haven’t heard of you. And yes, it would be a good thing if they did. But I don’t know how do it for myself.

  3. Sorry for the shutdown on the list – admin/exec doesn’t currently have capacity to monitor/moderate and we don’t have rules to govern when conversations start sliding sideways – (love to have more vigorous infrastructure, so if anyone wants to run for exec… 🙂 I’m glad to see the discussion is continuing, though! Sally’s original point was interesting and I was sorry not to see it discussed further. I hope the useful wrangling still takes place, and this way we can link to it if it does 🙂

    1. Don’t be sorry. You do a great job. I don’t really understand why it was shut down, but I respect your wisdom. It’s cool to have it out in the open, too, so anyone can have a say.

  4. Awesome links, Jaymee, thanks so much! I am with you hundred percent re’ the frustration of accessing works by PoC. I HUGELY appreciate the link to list of online works.

  5. Sally, I think the greatest problem that people have with steampunk, whether performing or writing it, is the idea that the fun and the not-fun can mix. The most compelling steampunk stories I’ve read, among them NK Jemisin’s Effluent Engine, Karin Lowachee’s Gaslight Dogs and Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, all have one thing in common: heavy research into actual history, and an acknowledgement of that history. It’s not just a “hey, cool setting, let’s plonk a story in here!” sort of attitude, but a strong “this history is compelling and important to share. We have all the resources at hand to understand how and why it came about” and it is up to the writer to make that understanding of the real, often under-discussed history shine through the fiction.

    And I think that’s where a lot of steampunk writers fall short for me; there’s a desire to be fun and/or gritty in steampunk, but there’s little confrontation with actual history beyond “wow, life sucked in the past”. That’s not to say that you can’t write a good story with just that premise as a starting point, but the way we view the past speaks a lot to how we view the present, and a compelling steampunk narrative tackles the very uncomfortable past with a very uncomfortable understanding derived from what we now know in the present.

    Partly also because this very uncomfortable understanding from the present also involves researching what actual people of today have to say, or have said, about the state of things. And people of colour, in North America especially, have been writing and talking and educating about the issues of unequal power dynamics, racism, and identity for about two hundred years. There really ought to be no reason to not know about these things, but because of the way racism permeates everyday living, it’s an uncomfortable process just learning, and privileged people often want it watered down as much as possible, which completely defeats the purpose of the education.

    I’d like to say I’m with you in wrangling this issue, but I’m afraid I’m only doing it in academic terms at the moment.

  6. Oh, glad to hear you speak highly of Leviathan, Jaymee – I’ve been wondering how that shapes up in this dept. My 12 yr old son has read the first two books and is avidly awaiting the third. I haven’t read them yet.

    And I’d LOVE to be exploring this stuff academically … but I think I need a little clear head-space first! I made an attempt at focusing my Honours thesis on such matters but because I was so deep in the manuscript I was finding it really hard to do both things at once (the Hons is on hold for now!) and you know, work and be a single mum and stuff! What kind of ‘academic’ do you speak of? Are you doing doctoral level stuff or beyond (even beyond the ‘Academy’)?

    I thoroughly agree with you re’ combining the fun and the not-so-fun! Done well, it can be the funnest fun, I think – the deepest, most enriching and soul-rewarding fun.

    I am still feeling my way into steampunk, and writing fiction in general, so the way I am approaching this stuff is tentatively. I deeply hope that that won’t end up coming across as weak or cowardly or light-on. I just want to tread slow and careful, and maybe project by project, work by work, make my way deeper and braver into the thick of things.

    BTW – forgive my ignorant/ludditely ways, but I’m curious as to how you came across our little discussion, way over here on the other side of the ocean (I’m presuming you’re in the US?)? I really appreciate you engaging with us!


  7. Helen, the biggest problem is finding any common ground on the basic defining terms of the debate. For example neither your idea of what the term it means nor the Zuky one are what most people think the term means (look it up, I suggest). And um, it’s certainly not seventies (outside of China, where yes, it meant in line with the political power of the day and was, by the powers that be, considered a good thing. Having once associated with doctrinaire Stalinists who thought I should be disciplined for questioning their understanding dialectic materialism (which Karl Marx and I would have agreed was wrong), I can tell you that if there was ever an antithesis to what sf is about, or what anyone should avoid, anything that got that stamp of approval is a clue).

    Anyway, my reply ran to three pages (and that was just dealing with definitions) so rather than overwhelm your thread, I’ll work on it a little more and post it on one of my blogs. I’m all for giving EVERYONE a fair go. (and if you’ve read my books or know my background, you’d know I have a fair claim to this) I believe that the concept of PC had something going for it, but it has floundered into quagmire and it’s actually, rather than helping, hindering that fair go. Unfortunately to fix the problems we have to be prepared to accept they exist or could exist. If the doctrinaire PC police close the debate down rather than admit there might be a problem or even discuss it, well, it’s not going to change.

  8. The only thing I took away from the Vision Writer’s discussion was a comment someone made where they said: “I sold a story featuring Aboriginal characters to a magazine (?) and then they pulled it saying somebody might be offended. So I used the Na’avi instead” There followed a PC gone mad comment, etc.



    I wanted to write back “Err, Aboriginal people?” but since the general feeling seemed to be that Aboriginal people live ouit in the desert and bang sticks together whilst living in their humpies and never read themselves in the White Man Magic printed word, (not that they actually find time to read, busy playing the didgeridoo and all) I only tut-tutted.

    Man, somebody.

  9. Welcome Claire and Dave,

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Dave, I look forward to reading your blog. Post a link here, or I will if you don’t mind. I think varying definitions can be worked around, after all, most words have varied meanings and connotations. Even if everyone is discussing slightly different things related to race/culture and spec-fic, I think it’s worth airing opinions–which tend to be strong on these matters.

    The things you said on Vision about having a great story with a few grains of subtle message rang true to me.

    Claire, I struggle with how to interact/interface with Aboriginal culture, as I feel related to it and I have a great interest in their stories and beliefs, yet am not permitted by the owners to engage creatively with that world. I think mainstream culture could benefit from some Aboriginal ethics. However, I realise it is not my culture to share, and I have not lost what Indigenous Australian’s have lost, and I would not want to steal anything further from them. Are you Aboriginal?

  10. Gosh, I think I’m way outside this debate. Helen, when I read your blog in my email I didn’t have all the context that the above comments have given me. I was going to make a comment about world building and having to first create social stereotypes that our main character can set about tearing down. It doesn’t really fit here.

    On indigenous matters, I think we are just at a stage where there are still open wounds, and o the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples need to properly establish their own cultural identity in our European dominated culture. Fair enough they get that happening in their own right without others muddying the waters. Time will let that happen. In the meantime it has a feeling of leaving a creative? void about current cultural encounters in this realm.

  11. I feel an urge to disagree re’ the creative/cultural void you speak of, Janis. Indigenous Australians are telling their stories and have been for some time. I dunno about their identities needing ‘establishing’, either! But I agree about the lingering wounds, and the ongoing ramifications of inequity and disenfranchisement that are the results of colonisation/invasion and institutionalised racism (white australia policy etc etc).

    We have some amazing Aboriginal writers who engage with/express the mythic and the magical (for want of better terms) and what we might call ‘speculative’ of course can have different reverberations/meanings in Indigenous cultures.

    I would point to Sam Watson’s ‘Kadaitcha Sung’, Kim Scott’s ‘True Country’ and Alexis Wright’s ‘Carpentaria’ for starters. I am sure there are many others. They may not be labelling themselves speculative or anything like that, but they are here and telling powerful stories in powerful voices. Like Jaymee said – there’s an inbuilt racism in the publishing industry that assumes things like – people aren’t interested in reading books with black people on the cover. It’s an industry that is dominated by one particular cultural perspective. But that doesn’t mean that there is a void. It just means it can be hard to hear the other voices, when they’re being squashed and hidden from view.


  12. Thanks for your comments Sally. The void I was referring to was not a lack of in indigenous voice, but the lack of a the cross cultural one. Anywhere there are taboos about writing about another culture, that perspective and voice (from the outside culture) is lost. If, because I am of European origin, I am discouraged from writing about our indigenous culture, there’s a disconnect. That’s how things are, and that’s OK, but it does leave a void/gulf/chasm. In ten years time it will probably be different. That’s what I was trying to say.

    I’m glad that you say there is a strong indigenous voice and that it does not get drowned out by the rest. Maybe I need to listen out for it a bit more.

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