The Ends of Empire: Australian Steampunk and the Reimagining of Euro-Modernity

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Abstract

The rise of steampunk – speculative-fiction works set in a Victorian or pseudo-Victorian world marked by steam-powered technology – has led to a range of debates about what the genre is, what it does, and, more significantly for this paper, what it fails to do. Drawing on a range of steampunk works set in Australia, we explore the extent to which steampunk is able to grapple with coloniality, both in the Victorian period from which it draws and in the colonial present in which it is set. Is steampunk condemned to limit itself to a western-technocratic teleology or is it capable of critiquing or even circumventing colonial pasts? After setting out steampunk’s adherence to the problem-spaces of Euro-modernity, we focus closely on works by D.M. Cornish, Meljean Brook, and Dave Freer to highlight three ways in which authors writing Australian steampunk highlight non-hegemonic subjectivities and settings: secondary worlds and their historical distance, the mediated spaces of alternate histories, and the foregrounding of colonial brutalities in a traditional steampunk setting.

Steampunk is a contested genre. Born in the late 1980s, steampunk is less of a subgenre with clear and specific boundaries, and more an amorphous mélange of signifiers, including tropes of a Victorian or pseudo-Victorian setting punctuated by anachronistic clockwork/steam-powered technologies or technology-like magic. Whether set in our own (primary) world or an imagined (secondary) world steampunk often operates on alternate-history principles, where a point of divergence creates a radically new historical timeline that facilitates technological and socio-cultural variation from our own history. Yet beyond these signifiers, steampunk remains subject to debate: is it the sickly cousin of cyberpunk, devolving into ruffles and romance? Is it a vibrant maker-culture, to which the fiction itself is secondary? Is it an uncritical observation of, in Simon Joyce’s term the Victorians in the rearview mirror? Since the explosion of steampunk works in the early 2000s, it has been critiqued for being all of…

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Published 3 December 2018 in Genre Worlds: Popular Fiction in the Twenty-First Century. Subjects: Colonialism & imperialism, Genre fiction, Modernity, Steampunk.

Cite as: Mills, Catriona and Geoffrey Hondroudakis. ‘The Ends of Empire: Australian Steampunk and the Reimagining of Euro-Modernity.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 33, no. 4, 2018. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.cca231af02.