Re-Reading “Promised”

The narrative in “Promised” by Nisi Shawl is complex and yet subtle. It brings about in the narrator, The Reverend Lieutenant Thomas Jefferson Wilson, and in the reader a true sense of the purpose of post-colonial thought. Although this can be, and was in my case, missed unless one knows what to look for, readers that truly loses themselves to the story will find their own mind turned towards the same direction of Thomas’s wonderings. In Thomas’s narrative, we find someone who learns through practical experience, rather than study, that the practices, beliefs, and lives of indigenous people are as much real as those of his own nation and people.

This is the beauty of using stories to educate, rather than studies and lecture. It provides a “living” experience for the reader, one that is deeper than simply reading about a concept. Although we studied the concepts of post-colonialism after we read this story, it was through this story and others like it that we truly understood the desires of post-colonial writers. To use a term from Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, it’s through stories that we grok, or take the understanding into our being to be part of us. After studying more about post-colonialism, I know how to communicate intellectually what I have learned in this story, but only through the stories that we “experience” these desires first hand. In this we come to know the need of others, and make it our own. In this we learn that a fight needn’t be in our back yard for us to want to assist. It’s through the stories of others that we find out that all people, regardless of cultural identity, race, gender, economic class, or even past actions are deserving of humanity, of having their rights and liberties protected, and have the right to tell their own story.

Are We Not People? If You Cut Us, Do We Not Bleed? (Note: Trigger Warning)

TRIGGER WARNING: This blog is about the social concept of dehumanization, and can be troubling for some. Please read at your own discretion.

“It was to take if you didn’t think of them as people. If you imagined they were just one more commodity. That they didn’t think or feel. That they hadn’t once loved and laughed and dreamed of bright and wonderful things. It was easier to take if you could manage that. Somehow.” –Kin from Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer, pages 261-262.

The concept of dehumanization is laced throughout history and literature. Taking away a person’s “humanness”, their right and ability to call themselves or to be called a human being, has roots farther back than perhaps anyone will know. Today this action is taken with the words “just” and “only.” Those who believe themselves to be superior will use these terms often, and the ideals behind them as well. “They’re just sluts.” “They’re only soldiers.” “Boys will be boys.” “That’s just how it is.” These forms of rhetoric have been used to justify centuries, no, millennia of atrocities to those of social minority. The most extreme measure of dehumanization is genocide, when a whole population can be agreed upon by those with any and all power to be sub-human, and are exterminated for it.

However, that type of dehumanization is fairly easy to catch, especially once historians get involved. If propaganda appears to be similar to that of the Nazi Party in post-World War I Germany, it usually rings alarm bells. However, there are much more insidious forms of dehumanization that are not only popular, but lauded in our society, though the subjects of these actions change based on the subculture of those perpetrating it. At this point, our society is so individualistic and hateful that if you have not yet been a victim of these actions, you probably will be.

When we studied the lecture “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Adichie, we learned the problem with the word “just.” There is no such thing as a person who is “just” something, or “only” something, and for the last time that may be how it is, but that doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be. As students of history and literature, and as agents of our own minds and actions, we must strive to remember that every person is still a person. We must not be willing to sit by and accept in our own minds an ignorant assessment of a group of people as “just” anything. This isn’t an easy task, and it’s not one that can be done overnight, or with complete success. However, why are we in college if not to learn how to continuously improve our minds and actions?

The Lotus must bloom, or must it?

“But be sure you do not eat the blood, because the blood is the life, and you must not eat the life with the meat” (Deuteronomy 12:23)

Technology within the world of Stormdancer relies on a single component above all else: Chi. Chi is refined from the blood lotus plant by the Guild, a plant given that name because in order for it to grow, a fertilizer of the bodies of living beings must be used. After all of the livestock is harvested from around the nation without the citizens’ knowledge, the new livestock comes in the form of slaves, and even the Guild’s own members who die. With the reliance on such a horrible fuel, can the technology be useful without such horror?

The answer can be found in the creation of Kin for Yukiko and Buruu: Buruu’s mechanical wings. The simple fact is that the “highest” technology may require Chi, but it’s clear that the artificers can make even more complex technology that does not require such fuel. The airships and powered armor cannot, in their current state, be run outside of the use of Chi. But a variety of other technologies in this world, including the respirators, clockwork mechanisms, and of course the mechanical wings. There is clearly a possibility of making something that either runs on a different fuel, or runs off of clockwork that can be wound from a water wheel, perhaps like the one seen below. This could breathe life back into the motor-rickshaws and even airships that would act as transportation.

Water Wheel

A water wheel hooked up to and providing power to a large clockwork mechanism.

“That Uniform is a Disgrace to You!” Or: Problems with portrayals of military personnel in Steampunk Literature

The film Steamboy serves to show an interesting, and for many disheartening, problem within Steampunk literature. A common thread within post-colonial thinking is to focus on the problems caused by the military expansion of the colonial nations of the Victorian era and later. This then bleeds to a general distrust, and even hatred, of anything to do with the military. This is not a completely common thread throughout all of Steampunk Literature, but rather the focus of a wide selection of stories within Steampunk, and many other post-colonial literary genres.

The strong distrust of the military can be easily shown in Steamboy through the narrative of the story. Although it is made fairly clear that the Steam Castle (or Steam Tower) is constructed as a marvel of science, without any direct military capability other than as a carrier, the rest of the tools developed by Edward Steam are clearly military in nature. This is them linked to the ethics of the war-profiteering O’Hara foundation, as well as the opposing military group outfitted by Doctor Stephenson. Both these groups are shown throwing away the lives of soldiers, endangering civilians, and even threatening the British Crown without any reasoning better than profit. This clearly immoral behavior is contrasted by the saintly, almost deified, Ray Steam, and his idealism about science.

This can be contrasted with other stories within the same genre, or even so close as the media of Steamboy: Steampunk Anime. The story of the Elric Brothers from Fullmetal Alchemist shows a different view of a military structure. Although it is clear that the government of Amestris is portrayed as evil, there are many who serve in that military for non-evil reasons. Roy Mustang, who endeavors to change Amestris for the better seeks to do so through the military, not by assuming that one must “fight fire with fire,” but rather by assuming that those who volunteer for such service, if led by example and without unnecessary deception, would in fact fight for what was best for their nation. Individuals are evil in this narrative, rather than the sweeping generalization about militaries the world over in the more typical Steampunk narratives.

The Gate To Knowledge

            “This portal… I know it contains every secret alchemy has to offer. However, it’s also lead me astray. I saw the truth that lies within it and I became convinced I could solve everything with alchemy. But I couldn’t possibly have been more wrong. That was just arrogance.” – Edward Elric

 TheGateFMA

            The access way to great knowledge, whether it be fruit, a portal, or a literal door, is a common idea within literature. The short story “Forty Piece” by Lucien Soulban features one such gate. It is the entrance to the Brass City, a place once home to a culture that far exceeded the rest of the world in technology, or as those in the world of “Forty Pieces” would say, steamcraft. The gate itself is a piece of steampunk technology, standing locked and buried for millennia, and even once uncovered revealed its secrets to no one but those who truly sought the truth from all angles, such as the story’s protagonist Tariq. Knowing the writings of the one man who died supposedly understanding the secrets of the Brass City and other seemingly unrelated lore from before the advent of the Abrahamic traditions allowed him to see how it worked.

Steampunk Technology is usually made up of two major portions; the first is a clearly understandable portion, usually with easily viewed inner workings so that a common man can understand how it works, and the second is something that can only be considered magical. It is the perfect joining of these two pieces that allows Steampunk literary artists to create the technology that fills the steampunk world. The Gate is one such piece of technology.

The Gate’s inner workings are not clearly visible, but once it is working, they are audible. That is, as one who has discovered its secret works to open it correctly, the clicks and whirs of the steamcraft underneath can be heard. It is these gears and pistons and other such components that unlock the door and allow it to swing open. The magic in the door is how it must be opened. In order to understand the riddle inside the door, Tariq must put together three ancient pieces of literature: a book, a symbol, and a poem. The book is the journal of Abd-Es-Samad, who had once visited the city. He left the clues necessary inside his writings, but not clearly understandable.  The symbol is the number Forty. As Tariq remembers, Forty is a symbol from before Judaism, Christianity, and Islam existed, and it simply means “a great many.” The final piece is the poem “The Conference of Bird”, eluding to the type of metal important to the door: silver. From these three ideas Tariq synthesized an answer: press the great many silver birds on the door and it will open.

How is this magical? Magic is simply that which cannot be completely understood, but can be studied and used. Tariq did not have access to the original knowledge that led to the creation and locking of the door. However, he did understand the signs left behind, like pieces to a puzzle. Despite the fact that he couldn’t prove these to be true aside from directly practicing them, unlike how technology must be tested before used, he could understand them and use them. Like the magic words spoken over a spell book, his magic opened the gate to knowledge, and he and those with him descended into the Brass City.

Searching for Deeper Steam, or “Do You Even Steampunk, Bro?”

I’m going to be honest here. Killer of Enemies, a young adult novel by Joseph Bruchac, is not what I would consider steampunk, at least, not on the surface. It obviously lacks the stereotypical steampunk tropes such as brass goggles, gears, airships, or any steam powered technology to begin with. The closest this novel comes to showing any of these typical pieces of steampunk imagery is the brief mention of motorcycle goggles. However, this particular novel is one of the focal points of the Steampunk Literature course I’m taking.

If It's Not Covered In Gears, Is It Still Steampunk?

How does this story relate to steampunk at all? The best explanation is to look at how steampunk writers and scholars are defining the term. In the anthology Steampunk World, Diana M. Pho writes about an interesting truth regarding steampunk: “steampunk has become synonymous with an emergent idea in today’s literature – the cross genre… Nothing is simply ‘Steampunk’ after all – it is steampunk and alternate history, or mystery, or romance, or horror, or what-have you” (Pho 20). In this sense, Killer of Enemies falls under the steampunk umbrella quite comfortably. It seems to exhibit the necessary requirements to be a young adult novel, a post-apocalyptic novel, and a speculative fiction novel. If Steampunk is truly synonymous with cross-genre, then this novel definitely fits in.

However, there are other Steampunk elements in the novel that don’t require such semantic wrangling to bring it under Steampunk’s literary wings. As you may have gathered from my previous post, “The Good Professor Punks the Punks”, perhaps one of the most Steampunk idioms is that of a relationship with created objects. Lozen, the heroine of Brucharc’s novel, clearly holds that ideal near to her heart. Repeatedly she considers her tools, especially those given to her by someone she loves, to be close companions. For instance, when speaking of those clearly not-brass goggles, Lozen notes, “ Maybe I don’t need them all that much. But I really love them. My dad gave them to me” (Bruchac 128). A true love for the created is clearly a Steampunk ideal, and Lozen embodies this perfectly.

Works Cited:

Bruchac, Joseph. Killer Of Enemies. 1st ed. New York: Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, Inc., 2013. Print.

Pho, Diana M. “Introduction: Going Global or Re-Engineering Steampunk Fiction”. Steampunk World. Ed. Hans, Sarah. 1st ed. Dayton, OH: Alliteration Ink, 2014. Print.

The Good Professor Punks the Punks

The western world of humans is one fraught with inequalities. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, signed July 4th, 1776. Repeatedly, our society as proven that despite these words having been adopted as our national doctrine of belief, we have not lived out this doctrine, even on a governmental level. In 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution stated that rights could not be denied, abridged, or removed by any government in the US “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It was not until 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment that such rights were protected from discrimination on the basis of sex. In 1990, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, those with physical and mental disabilities gained similar protected status

Today, struggles to see equality are still present. There are powerful social movements to see sexual orientation, gender, and veteran status become protected statuses by law. These same movements are closely tied with movements to remove discrimination against minority races, females, and disabled persons that still exists despite federal law. Most of these movements have realized that such action cannot be undertaken by the government alone, but must be a change throughout society.

This brings me to the two articles we read for today’s class, and the link between them. The first was Diana M. Pho’s “Introduction: Going Global, or Re-Engineering Steampunk Fiction”, from the book Steampunk World, edited by Sarah Hans. To create a supreme oversimplification, this introduction serves as a herald’s trumpet to the massive variety of Steampunk stories held in this anthology, and helps to define the genre in another new way. The second article was Professor Calamity’s “My Machine, My Comrade” originally published in Steampunk Magazine, Issue #3. This is a plea from the good Professor for all those who read to help create a world in which the created things of the material world are treated with respect, and dignity.

The link between these two is actually more of a break, when it comes right down to it. The history of Steampunk given by Ms. Pho notes the importance of the term “punk.” Those of “punk” movements have a knee jerk reaction to defend those to whom society gives the short straw with anger and near hatred. This can be seen in many of the modern “punk” equality movements, in which the loudest of the group (though not the majority) will scream that those who do not belong to such a movement are lesser because they do not know their suffering. This is a common theme among many speculative fiction stories, in which the oppressed become the oppressors. Examples include males becoming a slave-class of “breeders”, whites becoming dependent on other races due to their inferior physical and psychological prowess, and the treatment of “heteros” as morally repugnant non-humans because of their choice to love only the opposite sex.

Compare these movements to the writings of Professor Calamity here in their plea for mechanical dignity. Such writings from a privileged status, in this case human, regarding an unprivileged status, machine, would be considered horrifying, condescending, and outright disrespectful if they were written about another group of humans. A heterosexual writer calling for dignity and respect for alternate sexual identities is more often told to “check his privilege” (read: “shut up”) rather than to continue his plea. This creates that break, or as it can properly be seen, a punk of punk. By reversing the knee-jerk reaction of “let the little guy get some,” it seems that Professor Calamity has introduced an interesting new twist in the history of Steampunk: fighting for true equality, rather than supremacy. This is an idea foreign to most westerners, which is probably why most of our “equality” movements tend to be at another group’s expense rather than seeking to raise the standard of living overall. I can only hope through authors like the good Professor, and the influence of the worldwide Steampunk movement, true equality, with dignity and respect for all, can at least be realized in art and fiction, so that it might be realized in the material world.

Introductions!

Greetings and salutations,

I believe it would be fortuitous to explain what this blog is. It will begin with the works required of me in a Steampunk Literature course. Beyond that, we’ll see how it goes.

As always, keep flying.

Draknus X