We will be here forever
Do you understand?
Forever and ever
And ever and ever
We will be here forever
Do you understand that?
Get what I’m saying?
– KRS-ONE, “KRS-ONE Attacks!”
The essence of Black creativity in the shadow of the western world has been one of necessity and scarcity. “Make way out of no way” is the only consistent commandment from be-bop to hip hop, from STEM education to, finally, the science fiction that fueled many of those who sought it.
Steampunk, as defined by the fine people at Wikipedia, is as follows …
Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. Therefore, steampunk works are often set in an alternate history of the 19th century’s British Victorian era or American “Wild West,” in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has regained mainstream use, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power. Steampunk perhaps most recognizably features anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is likewise rooted in the era’s perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art.
A quick web search for “steampunk” will deliver tons of images, comic books, short films, cosplay conventions and discussions … and dangerously few people of color. Google Images has their first non-white person under the search for the term 18 rows down, a single spot of brown in a drawing with three white people. One might take this data and believe that not only are Black people (and people of color, by extension) not interested in the sub-genre, but that they have no place in it.
Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade disagreed.
Steamfunk: a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and/or African American culture and approach to life with that of the Steampunk philosophy and/or Steampunk fiction.
Their collection of short stories (nothing could be over 12,000 words) features the work of writers from the worlds of television, journalism and fiction, all positing a slightly more diverse world of fantasy and possibility than many have had access to in the past.
Anthology contributor Valjeanne Jeffers said, “Within this new genre we are witnessing the birth of worlds in which Black folks and that which moves us reign supreme. In short, Steamfunk is just as different from Steampunk as Black Science Fiction is from White science fiction. Imagine a Steamfunk hood, an antebellum South in which abolitionists fly airships. Or, as in my novel, Immortal IV: Collision of Worlds, folks living in a post-apocalyptic, steam-world with meta-humans…policed by androids. Now imagine each of these worlds predominated by folks of color: worlds in which Black, Native American, Latino, and Asian folks are not sidekicks but heroines, heroes and villains. That’s what Steamfunk is.”
Geoffrey Thorne, an actor and screenwriter with scores of credits to his name including Leverage, Star Trek: Titan: Sword of Damocles, Honor Brigade and more, said, “At some point in my lifetime I realized, ‘if I wished to see stories about people who looked like me engaged in the fanciful activities I loved in the books I devoured … the only way was to write them myself.’ That’s the best thing about being a writer; if you don’t like the world, just make up another one. So, I did. I did it a lot. I did it a lot A LOT and eventually came to the place I call THE OTHER COUNTRY. When you read the STEAMFUNK anthology, you will get a quick tour of the place and I hope you like what you see because that’s the point of that.”
Hannibal Tabu, weekly comics reviewer for Comic Book Resources and editor in chief of Komplicated at the Good Men Project, said, “When I started out, I didn’t even like steampunk. I didn’t get it. I’d seen the images and thought it was a little anachronistic — my eye was on tomorrow, not a brass-covered look at yesterday. However, I saw the amazing work Balogun and Milton were doing and, frankly, took it as a challenge to myself. Write a ‘steamfunk’ story I’d wanna read, one with possibility and pomp, science fiction extremism and atmospheric flourishes. Along the way I developed yet another Black female protagonist who thinks first and kicks butt, and along the way … I kind of got sucked in. It’s just another kind of thing to like, you know, like I am nuts about Star Wars or the Patternists of Octavia Butler. You’re not gonna see me in a bowler and goggles, but I now like these fantastic ideas way better than I did when they tried that abysmal steampunk Transformers series a few years ago.”
Davis himself said, “I hope to see it expand. Hopefully other writers and readers will see the possibilities and share their own interpretations. As for me, I have a couple of novel projects planned that are set in my alternate history steampunk country of Freedonia: From Here to Timbuktu, an action adventure novel and Unrequited, an action romance series. After that, who knows?”
What is “steamfunk?” It’s Kool Herc behind the turntables, it’s Coltrane taking a deep breath, George S. Schuyler’s smile as he put pen to paper or Obama stopping to take it all in after the second inaugural. Taking the pieces of whatever’s available and making it wonderful, be it soul food or impossible situations and characters, coming to you one scintillating syllable at a time. Now there’s another new way, a path to “the other country,” and you’re welcome to take a trip.
“… there is a deeper world than this
tugging at your hand …
— Sting, “Love is the Seventh Wave”
The Steamfunk! anthology is available now.
[Source: The State of Black Science Fiction]
Hannibal Tabu is, at best, a raving jackass. Father, fan, son, published poet, husband, journalist, brother, web producer, weekly comic book reviewer since 2003, author of the novels The Crown: Ascension and Faraway (both just five dollars) and all around internet gadfly. For more information, visit his virtual clocktower, The Operative Network.