Dear Parliament and Wake: I Give You a Nine Out of Ten for Effort and Intent, But…

Parliament and Wake have written a long and pretty interesting piece on why they feel Steampunk still matters. Their thesis seems to be that in creating imaginary worlds that are better to our own, Steampunks can help to reshape the real world.

Steampunk and politics? You bet I have a rant coming up.

First of all, I don’t believe in ‘imaginary worlds’. Well, that’s a lie. Imaginary worlds don’t exist. I fell asleep thinking about this last night and the sheer impotent rage it generated inside me kept me awake for a long time. I’ve spent my whole life looking for imaginary worlds. Every single one of my thirty-one fucking years. And I can tell you, there’s no magical doors to Narnia. No one’s going to drop out the sky and whisk you away to a galaxy far, far away. There’s no computer hardware that allows you to step into your dream worlds.

There is only one world. There is only this world.

If you go to a Steampunk convention that’s held at sea-level, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking to Lord He-Haw and pirate captain Lady Dinglebat, acceleration due to gravity is still 9.98 metres per second squared. The speed of light in a vacuum is still 2.998 x108 metres per second. If body A exerts a force on body B, body B will still exert an equal and opposite force on body A.

Novels, comics, dreams, roleplay and everything else takes place in the real world, and is part of the real world. Escapist fantasy doesn’t let you ‘escape’ into anywhere. You’re still here. Maybe you’re in a bit of ‘here’ that you ignore most of the time, but you’ve not gone anywhere. It’s like walking into the spare room of your house: it may not be a room you think about much, but you’re still in the same house.

The salient point is that imaginary worlds are built from the substance of the every day world, and can only be as good as the materials they’re built from.

Take this, for example:

If an escapist wishes to shout down Steampunk as apolitical but is willing to participate in a fantasy space in which European explorers interact on equal terms with women and indigenous peoples and in which pirates are ethically justified in robbing from exploitative industrialists – well, he can continue to believe that he isn’t endorsing a political movement, but for all the reasons we’ve discussed above, he’s still helping.

It entirely misses the point that those women, those indigenous peoples, those pirates and those exploitative industrialists are there solely for the escapists benefit. Far from teaching the escapist important lessons about equality, it’s teaching him (it’s almost certainly a ‘him’) that other people exist for his benefit and amusement. This is reinforcing the message given to every privileged white Western man from the day of his birth to the day of his death.

And what if women want to play this escapist game? Well, so long as they wear corsets and are there for the sexual gratification of men, then fine, they can play. Or they can be mothers, of course. People of colour? Fulfil a ‘native’ stereotype and you’re in.

These escapist fantasies reinforce the systems of power and privilege present in our world and our society because, when you unthinkingly make your fantasies from the every day world, you unthinkingly reproduce every thing that’s good and bad in the every day world. And, what’s worse, this often-repeated veneer of equality makes people lap it up and be thankful for it. ‘Yay! I get to wear a rigid device that will alter the shape of my body to male-dictated standards of desirability at the cost of my health, my dignity, my independence and my life–but it’s okay because I get to carry a gun and say, ‘yaaarrrr! I’m finally free of male oppression!’

Pieces like Parliament and Wake’s are well-intentioned and welcome, but ultimately frustrating. They only scratch the surface and in doing so excuse–even validate–the crimes they’re arguing against.

P&W (hey, it’s 2011–none of us have the time inclination to type out long names any more) make the point that fiction such as 1984 can help us avoid undesirable futures. If they can, it’s only when the warnings they give are in line with the agendas of the current ruling elites–1984 warns us against a future controlled by totalitarian Socialists which, when it was published in 1949 at the start of the Cold War, was, I’m sure, a message very welcome by the corporate overlords of the day. And hey, the UK–Orwell’s country of birth–has about one CCTV camera for every 14 people in the country. I’m sure the Party would approve.

So, any fantasy built on rotten foundations is going to be rotten, and is going to make the rot further entrenched and even less visible. Imagining a different world is a way of avoiding the problems in this one.

The real power Steampunk has is to convince people go away and educate themselves. To educate themselves about how the systems of oppression were constructed and how they work in the real world.

Why Steampunk? Well, because so much of it is about the joy of exploration, of ‘the path untravelled’. When you start your Steampunk roleplay or novel or whatever, you have two choices: senseless ego-masturbation; or actually learning something. You can take what you think you know about the world and make it up from there, or you can go out there and find out what the world is actually like. Nothing worth a damn has ever been created by doing the former. Do you want your creation to be worth a damn?

The world as we’ve been taught it–society, history, race, gender, everything–is bullshit designed to ensure those with power keep it and those without power are gratefully subservient to those who do have it. History, progress, science, society, whatever you look at, it’s presented as a straight line ending up where we are now, a natural and inevitable transition. A slow and steady progress from barbarism to civilisation.

And that’s bullshit. When you start to look for those paths untravelled, time and again you find the reason why they weren’t travelled was because it would mean those with the power and money would have lost both. And when you find the means by which power was maintained, you find that the same things are being done by the same elites today.

In the nineteenth century, Britain invaded the Middle-East to civilise it, to bring an end to despotic rule and bring democracy. Sound familiar? The industrial revolution saw the profits of already-rich corporate owners put above the welfare and rights of their workers. Sound familiar? James Watt and Matthew Boulton used a technological innovation to achieve vast personal wealth, while systematically and successfully crushing any attempts by other individuals to innovate or create anything new based on Watt’s initial ideas, and in doing so arrested any technological progress for decades. Sound familiar? The Victorian period saw the explosion of advertising aimed at controlling the way women thought and felt about their own bodies… you get the idea.

So, Steampunk gives you two choices: you can swallow all that shit with an imaginary sugar coating; or you can take the chance to educate yourself, change yourself, and have half a chance to change the world.