As promised, here is the second half of the final questions I posed to students in my Steampunk first-year seminar at UC Davis. This was the essay portion of the exam, and their answers were thoughtful.
Instructions: Take a position for or against one of the following statements.
1) “Steampunk rarely has any real science content, and therefore it is wrong to classify it as science fiction.”
Setting science fiction in the past does seem rather odd, doesn’t it? This question attempted to get students to really think about that. They noted stories, like Mary Brown’s “Selene Gardening Society,” which really is about science’s problem-solving capacity. Moreover, that story tackles a very real problem of global ecology. At its best, steampunk can provide a fantasy “past” as backdrop while considering today’s most pertinent and touchy subjects. This is, of course, what most good science fiction has always done (original Star Trek, Octavia Butler’s oeuvre, et. al.)
2) “Steampunk fashion perpetuates the objectification of women as much or more than other kinds of fashion.”
This one had some great responses. A number of students noted the plethora of strong female characters in stories, and saw fashion as an extension of that trend. From their perspective, steampunk’s independent, D.I.Y. ethos gives women a chance to rewrite history. Other students pointed out that women’s steampunk fashion seems to be all about corsets and pantaloons (i.e., the underwear’s on the outside), which led to their skepticism. They also pointed out that real Victorian fashion was all about covering up women’s bodies, often in painful, mobility-crushing ways.
3) “While steampunk fiction frequently features heroes who use steampunk prosthetics to enhance their disabled bodies, steampunk film relegates disability exclusively to villains.”
Along the way, several members of the class noticed this trend. I’m particularly interested in it. The stories, from Steam Man of the Prairies to Boneshaker and beyond, nearly always portray characters with mechanical body parts as heroes, as people who use technology to rise above their limitations. What about films. We have Arliss Loveless from the Wild, Wild West film, Long John Silver from Treasure Planet, the clockwork baddie from Hellboy–all villains. I’ll need to ruminate on this one a bit.
4) “Steampunk is primarily a white, Eurocentric genre. It’s Victorian English or American “Wild West” settings focus on an era when Anglos held the most power in terms of culture and capital.”
This assertion still dogs steampunk fandom. There are many non-Eurocentric steampunk stories already in existence, and we’ve seen a clarion call from editors from the past few years for more steampunk with underrepresented ethnic characters. Despite this, the genre does keep returning to London and “the West”–about as whitebread as it gets. My students, however, had no problem listing off a number of minority/marginalized characters in the stories and films we analyzed. As one student noted, the problem seems to be about settings rather than about diversity of characters.
Overall, I was pleased with my first-year students. They were willing to be critical of a genre they seemed to enjoy, and had no troubles supporting their opinions with pertinent examples. I will probably add new readings or exam questions if I teach it again. Suggestions are welcome.