Calling Bollocks

So the Mad Hatter (@MadHatterReview) sent me a link to an article over at Tor.com the other day, saying he’d love to see my response to it, probably because he knows I rant like a pantsless hobo at the drop of a hat, and everybody enjoys a fireworks show.

It was 5am, and was on the wrong side of a half bottle of Gentleman Jack at the time, which would seem like fertile ground for a full-on psychobilly freakout, but surprisingly, instead of getting all angry-face ranty-pantsed, I wrote back to the Hatter thusly:

“Feels like a flamewar waiting to happen. Post is pure antagonism, from the title on down. Point of engaging would be…?”

And then I went to bed.

(Cool story, bro.)

BUT, the thought of it wouldn’t leave me alone. I gave it the 24 Hour rule. Hell, I gave it 48 hours. And in the interest of avoiding a flamewar, I’ve decided to respond here, where people can ignore me at their leisure. But I have to say something, because straight up, folks, this article strikes me as a work of astonishing ignorance.

The article btw, can be found here.

As I said to the Hatter, it’s pure troll-face from the word go. Apparently there’s a ‘problem’ with Asian Steampunk, being that authors/gamers/cosplayers ‘limit’ themselves to a narrow set of archetypes – a habit which western Steampunk (apparently?) avoids.

I call bollocks.

Firstly, I’m baffled anyone thinks there’s enough Asian-inspired Steampunk around for there to be a problem at all, other than the problem that there isn’t enough Asian-inspired Steampunk. AFAIK, Scott Westerfeld’s Goliath (released about 30 seconds ago) is the first major release with Asian-inspired SP to hit shelves, albeit set in the 20th, not 19th century, and the Asian section is only one portion of the book. Steampunk aficionados aren’t drowning in a sea of samurai and ninja – they’re surrounded by retroVictoriana and post-colonial Americana, with bustles and corsets and parasols as far as the eye can see. A body might be forgiven for thinking that it’s actually awesome for Steampunk creators to be exploring locales other than London or the Wild West.

Nevins however, claims these creators are ‘limiting themselves’ to certain Asian archetypes (samurai, geisha and ninja). First off, I’d like to know exactly which creators he’s talking about (mainly because I’d really like to read/see them – No examples are actually cited). Secondly, even if Nevins could pull a barrow-load of examples from the aether (see what I did there?), who the fuck says those creators ‘limited’ themselves?

Maybe they WANTED to tell a story about a geisha within a Steampunk framework. Maybe they WANTED to explore the notion of a ninja cabal in a steam-mechanized age – I don’t know, again, no examples were cited.

Nevins goes onto show us his Google-fu and cites a bunch of Really Cool Shit™ that 19th century Asian people got up to. Problem is, all but one of his examples are Chinese or Indian, which doesn’t seem to fit with his beef about samurai/geisha/ninja, given those are Japanese concepts (if you were writing SP in China or India, they wouldn’t fit), but moving on…

The real issue is that his entire article is based on the misconception that Asian-inspired SP creators have ‘little knowledge’ of all this Really Cool Shit™ Asians did, and that we’re all ignorant tools who believe everyone living in 19th century Asia slung a katana or was a high-priced courtesan.

Thanks, dude. But we can fucking read.

Pirates? Explorers? Really? Like this stuff hasn’t been steampunked to DEATH already? Would treading these already well-worn western roads with Asian protagonists really make a difference? Wouldn’t it be cooler to explore concepts that are uniquely Asian? Every culture in the world can trot out the hard-nosed reporter archetype or a pirate trope. You’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else on the planet that can boast the cultural tropes found in the Tokugawa Shogunate or Manchu Dynasty.

I appreciate the Wikipedia lesson, but maybe the creators who ‘limited’ themselves to these archetypes did so because they thought they might be able to do something excellent with them? Asian-inspired SP hasn’t really been done before, so almost anything they do in this sandbox is going to be new. But besides that, did George RR Martin ‘limit’ himself when he constructed a world on the same western medieval fantasy tropes (knights/kings/dragons) we’ve lived with since Tolkein? Did Patrick Rothfuss ‘limit’ himself when he decided to tell a story about a gifted man who studies at a magic university and goes on to become the most powerful wizard who ever lived? Can subject matter be considered a limitation at all, especially given the absolute dearth of Asian-inspired SP in the first place?

Is the wandering samurai trope any more ‘unimaginative’ than the wandering knight? Is an Asian sky-pirate somehow less clichéd than a white one?

Here is truth, and it is the only truth in this debate that matters: A great story is in the telling.

I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I’m drawn to these archetypes not out of some dipshit whitebread ignorance or acquiescence to the evil influences of Orientalism. I’m drawn to them because I find them fascinating. Because these cultures contain a beauty and artistry and aesthetic unlike anything else in the world. And if some people’s stories do gravitate towards these tropes, it’d be awesome if other folks actually read them before they declared every single one of them to be ‘limited’ and ‘unimaginative’ and ‘problematic’ based on their own narrow misconceptions.

(deep breath)

Just sayin’.

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About Misterkristoff

New York Times and Internationally Bestselling SciFi/Fantasy author, and master of drunken karaoke-fu. View all posts by Misterkristoff

18 responses to “Calling Bollocks

  • Kuri

    I also read the other blog and I have to agree. There is not enough Asian steampunk at all! I can not ever find any! I always hope someone would write a steampunk book or comic book set in Japan~~

  • TheGearCog (@TheGearCog)

    Amen!

    Short answer: Little tweeps in boxes with a keyboard and a monocle for judgement never a good info post make.

    Long Answer: Its boxes man. All the way down. Boxes and Boxes and Boxes.

    Its the longest post I have ever read trying so hard to explain why everyone else should use boxes to not write a box story about an asian box.

    Sigh.

    • misterkristoff

      Agree 100%

      Thing is, if you buy into Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, every story is just filling in boxes. There’s no new stories being told. It’s the same story, over and over again.

      All great stories are in the telling.

  • Sam

    But…but…he listed a whole heap of cool paragraphs that could be great stories so he must be cool. Oh. Right. Then he didn’t tell the stories. Didn’t write anything at all that was a story. Hmmm…sounds more like a petulant kid at Christmas who has opened his umpteen presents and can only think of complaining about the ones he hasn’t been given. “But Muuuuum….my friend John got Asian Steampunk with nifty cool Buddist sacred scroll hunters. I just got all these ninjas, samurai and geisha.”

    Cry more you little prick, ninjas, samurai AND geisha are all pretty effing cool in their own right. Sure Buddist scroll hunters WOULD be pretty effing cool too. Know what you could do? Take those great wikipedia moments and turn them into a story of your own. Don’t cast your anger to the sky as if the choices that authors make about what to write about should be all about what YOU want to read.

    Anywho.

    We gotta catch up again soon sometime. Maybe one day I will follow through on my threat to actually put my ass on a plane to visit. Maybe.

  • Victoria Dixon

    Wow, without reading the original article because I don’t have time to read something that sounds that under-researched, I’ll just say using tropes is part of the game.( It’s also a great way to introduce the reader to progressively more portions of that culture.) When an author finds a way to use tropes in an inventive way, I sit up and take notice. For instance, Allison Goodman’s Eon series. She got raked by some people because her world wasn’t Chinese enough. Dude, it wasn’t MEANT to be China. It is its own world with rules that have some basis in Oriental astrology, which I thought marvelous and inventive. Frankly, I’ve seen so little fantasy that uses Asian tropes (and even fewer that use Chinese) that I was ecstatic just from the fresh taste of her work. (Yes, I know the books are out there, what I’m saying is in comparison to the vast selection of western fantasy.) Complaining that someone’s over using Geisha or Samurai in their fantasy strikes me as the sound of an author who has yet to be noticed in their own work. I wish him/her well in that and hope that their attempt to delve even deeper into their chosen culture will be well received.

    • misterkristoff

      Oh the author did a bunch of research. Some of the ideas would make cool stories, too. I just don’t understand where he gets the balls telling other author’s they’re ignorant. Especially considering, as far as all my research indicates, the amount of Asian & Asian-inspired steampunk getting printed right now sits somewhere between ‘almost none’ and ‘sweet fuck all’.

      Allison Goodman’s stuff is on the TBR list. My god, this TBR list is so big it’s going to have its own gravity soon 🙂

  • Avid

    To paraphrase the original article: “I’m so much more worldly and knowledgeable than you ignorant steampunk writers and cosplayers! I haven’t actually written anything yet, but IF I DID it would be so much cooler and more original than your tired old stereotypes!”

  • zoraida

    I love Gentleman’s Jack. It makes me feel gentlemanly.

    Also, your novel would be the first Asian Steampunk story I’ll ever read and I’m thrilled. So everyone else can suck it.

  • James Nelson Smith

    Hmm, interesting. I don’t believe that Nevin’s was necessarily referring to literary SP fiction, but I think he was referring more to those who engage in the mere aesthetic of it. A version of this same thing has come up on another site in the incorporation of Native American imagery in SP cos-play.

    The fact is there is very little of any SP literature out there that incorporates any other cultures, but when people do eventualy tire of Western tropes I would rather see something other than the expected portrayal of “the other” instead of a repeat of the ’09 debacle. Case in point SP imagery is already cropping up in Hollywood (why they don’t make a full-fledged SP film instead of just tacking on the aethestic to every damn project that takes past in an historical setting is beyond me). In the trailer for the new 3 Musketeers which unfortunately is heavily influenced by SP, the first image I see is some f’in ninjas. Really?

    Come on some of the best SP I’ve seen in film is in Japanese anime, i.e Steamboy, Nadia, Castle in the Sky, and they have no AZN tropes. They play it straight. They actually try to incorporate some ideas. Before dismissing Nevin’s blog off hand, and think it would serve one better to look at it as a springboard pointing in a possibly new direction before going off and writing crappy stories with a Western slant on what a specific culture be like instead of doing some proper research. Afterall, who needs or wants a RaceFail ’11?

    • James Nelson Smith

      Crap that’s what one gets for mixing Brandy and no sleep. Yeah major typo fails.

    • Avid

      I don’t agree with your interpretation of Nevins intention. Nevins specifically lists a whole bunch of interesting character types which could be explored in a steampunk setting. The majority of those listed (in fact, practically all) have no visual/costume cues which could be picked up in cosplay. How do you cosplay a steampunk gter-ston when no-one knows what a gter-ston looks like? So I don’t see how Nevins’ commentary applies. There’s always the fact that the site hosting the blog post is a book publisher, so I don’t think it’s a big leap to conclude that the criticism is primarily directed at literary fiction.
      I concede that the criticisms of Asian steampunk as a genre could apply equally to film as they do to literary fiction, however, Nevins fails to cite any examples of either, which undermines the argument. You gave a specific example in an upcoming movie with which I totally agree – I’d much rather see a film about Mongolian book-smuggling, or female Chinese pirates (steampunk or not) that have ninjas inserted into a steampunk-y remake of Three Musketeers.
      As you point out, there’s not a lot of SP out there that isn’t English or American based. So it’s rather unfair, not to mention unwarranted, of Nevins to declare that there’s a problem with a sub-genre that’s only just emerging.\

    • misterkristoff

      Hmm, I’m not sure. I mean, the article was hosted on Tor’s blog – the context is literary. He does mention the word ‘literary’ along with ‘gaming’ and ‘cosplay’ – he seems to be pointing the finger at all three.

      But, there-in lies the major flaw with the article – he doesn’t actually cite any examples. So we don’t actually know what the hells he’s talking about, it just seems to be a random scatter-shot attack without anything solid upon which to base it. I find it baffling.

      I’m not sure about this ’09 debacle of which you speak, but if you could point me to some intel about it, I’d love to learn more. 🙂

      As for the blog-post pointing in a new direction, I’m still not sure why authors need to do that. The crux of Nevin’s article is that using these tropes is cliched and unimaginative, but NOBODY IS USING THESE TROPES in Steampunk atm. How can they be cliched? And moreover if you set a story in a feudal Japanese-inspired setting, how do you avoid them? Geisha and Samurai, at least, were intrinsic parts of Japanese culture at that point in history. NOT mentioning them out of some misguided attempt to avoid (non-existent) cliche would seem to be purely tokenistic. Proper research – yes I agree absolutely. Any writer needs to bury themselves in it. But according to Nevin’s article, even meticulously executed research into the period would still result in cliche if the resulting fiction mentions two of the most unique concepts of the period and era.

      Western audiences are fascinated by these tropes. We gravitate back to them time and time again. There’s something magnetic about them. A writer exploring them within a heretofore untapped context (steampunk, or any other) is something most folks will probably find exciting, rather than unimaginative. That’s the theory, anyways.

      I think the thing some people forget about steampunk? It’s supposed to be FUN. Some folks just take it far too seriously.

      Thanks for commenting by the way. It’s much appreciated! 🙂

  • Side Quest Publications

    Wow has it been so long since I’ve seen this article.

    I first came across your page, as well as the list you’re referring to, some time ago when searching for information on Asian Steampunk after a friend recommended the novel Stormdancer.
    She didn’t mention title or author at first, not until after I’d found your site, and I didn’t even realize until just now (while doing spring cleaning on my bookmarks), that you and that book’s author were one and the same. Lucky coincidence, or accurate indication of how rare Asian Steampunk is as a genre?

    Anyway, I read Stormdancer and loved it, I still need to get my hands on Kinslayer, and then I also have an “Advanced” Reading Copy of Endsinger that I won off of Goodreads.
    Incidentally, it was winning book 3 that put book 1 at the top of my “to read” list, and now the series is on my “must review/recommend” list.

    Referring to that list, I admit I would love to see an Asian Steampunk featuring those Mongolian book traders 😉 but I’ll agree… if it ignores, or even barely mentions, things that are uniquely Asian, then what really makes the story Asian?
    Setting doesn’t quite cut it, not if it winds up being the same story regardless of where it’s set.

  • Liz

    Long story about how I got here… but my mother and I watched the show Steampunk’d on GSN. She has been interested in the mechanical Victoriana since the original Wild Wild West.

    Anyway they did an Asian bedroom. One was Japanese and one was mostly Japanese (with a bit of China tossed in for…IDK flavor maybe) before they even started I turned to her and said “I think I would do Mongolia or maybe Siberia”

    I agree that there should be more Asian inspired Steampunk but every thing I have seen has been Japanese. This may be because of where I live, but I doubt it since when I searched Asian Steampunk I got the original piece on Tor.

    That said, my next novel will involve a steam powered, self pitching yert.

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