Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lao Steampunk: A theoretical approach

Although I tend to agree with a few colleagues of mine who say Steampunk is for Goths who discovered the color brown, it is possible that one day we'll see Lao Steampunk stories that examine themes of alternate history, influenced by the aesthetics of Victorian England (1837-1901, give or take a year or two.) and a technology principally based on clockworks, spring-propelled objects and steam engines .

If you can get past the risks of Orientalism and perpetuating Colonial stereotypes of an exotic Asia, there could be some very interesting material to examine. But I don't think it's been explored either well or seriously yet, especially centered from a Lao or Southeast Asian perspective.

Interacting with other societies in this setting, one would want to be aware of how they address racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, jingoism and homophobia among other values of the era. Some choose to ignore it in their stories entirely. I do wonder how Lao writers will take on the subject, given the many options and possibilities they have.

Building an authentic point for the historic timeline to diverge, a plausible possibility might take place around 1839, when the Vietnamese Emperor Minh Mang conducted experiments to make steamboats like the French.

By the end of Minh Mang's reign, 11 steamboats were created in three different classes, Heavy, Medium and Light.

In real life, the industry could not be sustained due to financial issues and social upheaval in the region. But what would have happened if things had been successful?  The outcome of the Nguyen-France War in what is now modern Vietnam might have ended very differently. Would the technology have spread to Luang Prabang, Vientiane or Champassak? Or perhaps, what if Minh Mang had failed, but research in the technology succeeded elsewhere? In an era of gunboat diplomacy, things could have been very different.

What would have happened if Lao had been successful in integrating steam engine technology into their society? Besides the likely rapid deforestation?

A writer could have a very interesting time exploring what the presence of  lighter-than-air airships, analog or digital mechanical computers such as the Analytical Engine might have had on events in Southeast Asia.

In all likelihood, authors will be divided regarding whether to stay with historical steampunk and use techniques of magic realism, or to just create all-out fantasy and science fiction, drawing on interaction with phi, nak, yuk, kinnari or any of the other classic creatures of Southeast Asia.  As Lao made efforts to balance relations between over 100 different tribes and foreign nations in the region, what could happen? Might some make it to the West Coast of the United States in such a world and be part of a Wild Weird West? Six Guns and Sticky Rice? Have Padaek-Will Travel? Lan Xang Dove?

It would take some research to really do it well, and a good understanding of history and technology to make it work, but it is not wholly impossible. How would you approach the genre?


Peter A. Smalley said...

Here's how I approach the genre!

This is my Orientalist Steampunk attire: vintage kimono, waistcoat, bullet bandolier, hakama, bowler.

The East is a rich vein for Steampunk, and I'm glad to see it getting some attention!

Jeannie Lin said...

Wonderful post! I found the bit about Emperor Minh Mang and the steamboats fascinating.
I wonder whether it has to be the Victorian aesthetic and Western technology that drives Asian steampunk or whether native Asian developments and ingenuity can be extrapolated. Probably the most fascinating would be a mix, but I'm just curious because when East meets West in steampunk discussions, it seems there's a capitulation that Western technology is better or more particularly, that emphasis on the Western aspects would lead to a richer Asian steampunk world. (Reference: recent steampunk anthology was looking for Chinese steampunk where Britain won the Opium Wars and took over China)
I found it interesting that in the aftermath of incursions by the British and Americans, that China and Japan studied Western firearms in an effort to regain dominance. In some cases this caused turmoil and backlash within the engineering communities. I believe some Japanese engineers were executed for studying Western methods during a particularly anti-Western period. (Sorry, no citation available at my fingertips. Was just an interesting tidbit I ran across)

I hope these discussions will soon be more than hypothetical and that a rich Asian steampunk cannon can start up.

Vulture said...

The european industrial revolution thrived in places where coal, limestone and iron ore intersect. Within modern borders, Vietnam has iron ore and limestone, They could have substituted forest charcoal for coal,and there is tin, bauxite and all sorts of other mineral resources which are currently feeding their economy. Those resources could have been put to use in previous centuries to power an eastern industrial revolution. Arguably a more sophisticated one because England was not nearly so resource rich.

Jeannie Lin said...

@Vulture - I found your comment thought provoking--"Those resources could have been put to use in previous centuries to power an eastern industrial revolution. Arguably a more sophisticated one because England was not nearly so resource rich."

Great point! The drive to colonize meant that Western powers were seeking to import resources from these other lands. What an advantage to have an abundance of resources at your fingertips. It's been argued that this historical abundance of resources -- including manpower -- made it less critical for nations such as China to keep up with technology in the period leading up to what was the Industrial Revolution in the West. (I do so appreciate arguments that are more sophisticated than "those countries were stuck in their traditional ways.") Scarcity inspires invention, no? In modern times we're seeing the intersection of resources with technological drive in the Eastern part of the world -- if we extrapolate what we see now happening in Asia with science and technology and then speculate back to what could have been then -- oh the possibilities! I do love thinking of the intersection of culture, technology & time.

Jha said...

I approach the genre with a sledgehammer!

No, actually, I take the approach that centers the so-called "Oriental" and refuses to posit Western tech as "superior" which, as Jeannie pointed out, happens a lot. I've been working on what it means to do non-Eurocentric steampunk for the last year and the more I consider the technological angle, the more I think that naturally-developing technologies from specific regions are necessary to develope a steampunk milieu.

However, given the colonial clashes, cross-cultural tech exchange still happened and the adaptation of colonial tech for the colonized's fights have happened (the Native Americans, contrary to popular imagery, used guns in fighting colonists, not tomahawks).

What makes steampunk so exciting for those of us with heritages in formerly-colonized spaces is we can envision different histories playing out for ourselves, and write culturally-specific stories for ourselves that takes us OUT of "West is Best" mindsets.

Some friends and I have done work creating a SEAsian steampunk milieu (Steampunk Nusantara) which fizzled because we're all busy with real life, but there's so much room for us SEAsian writers in steampunk, given the geography of the region. (, a general resource site for multicultural steampunk, is run by Ay-Leen, who's Viet-American.) Especially given the various empirical histories and rich trade routes that take us AWAY from Orientalist visions on what SEAsian would look like.

Welcome to the exciting world of SEAsian steampunk! ^____^

Paolo Chikiamco said...

Great to see other people thinking about steampunk alternative histories in Southeast Asia! In my work (based in my home of the Philippines), I've sourced the technological advancement in Islamic societies, and moved the period of timeline divergence to the eighteenth century, during a time of simmering unrest. I use the British invasion of Manila in 1762 as a catalyst, and to allow me to use certain elements of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.

Bryan Thao Worra said...

Your is definitely a great resource! I find myself now also contemplating whether or not Lao Steampunk would benefit from a greenpunk movement- a diverging conflict between preserving the forests and mountains and considering them finite resources even as other international interests continue to see Southeast Asia as a territory to be plundered and 'civilized.'

Rachael E. Stephen said...

Definitely an interesting topic.
I put myself in the category of fantasy/alternate history, because in the stories I write with steampunk elements, magic is the thing that changed the path of history. So the victorian obsession with spiritualists, magicians and the occult yielded actual knowledge about the "magic" of the world, and so society developed with it (sort of similarly to how the wizarding community in HP books evolved to use magic instead of science etc).

I know almost nothing about oriental/eastern steampunk, (I'm more immersed in the western variety, and by that I mean "wild west" as opposed to europe) but I'd be fascinated to read some in that particular subgenre, I think the potential is totally there for some really rich and interesting culture.

Jha said...

Bryan: Ay-Leen and I discussed the various terms we could use... "ricepunk" being more agricultural-based and "silkpunk" being more focused on cultural exchange (as would happen on the Silk Road!). (M'sian friends and I have bandied with "kelapank" - a play on the Malay word for coconut.) I think SEAsian steampunk would definitely benefit from a more nature-focused, agricultural-based approach, but... explosions are pretty cool, though. Have you seen Queens of Langasuka / Legend of the Tsunami Warrior? It's a Thai film, a kind of historical fantasy, which definitely has some steampunk in it!

Bryan Thao Worra said...

I'm gonna say that internally, Lao will most likely put their chips on XangPunk, a portmanteau of xang (elephant) and punk.

Xangpunk is an effective nod to the old kingdom of Lan Xang (Realm of a Million Elephants) and the role elephants played in the wild, the agriculture, social class, technology, legends and warfare of the region. The Lao words for steam and punk isn't as euphonious as the word calls for.

Ricepunk is a term I find too close to pejorative terms like Rice Rocket/Rice Burner. It's not out of the question, but I'd definitely be watching the tone when I heard it said around me.

Silkpunk is one I think has much more interesting things we can play around with.

Bamboopunk was tried, but it would quickly get shortened to Bampunk or Boopunk and then no one would know what the heck we're talking about.

Nagapunk or, using the Lao term, Nakpunk is in the top three in my book, since they're reasonably pervasive for the mainland region.

Victoriental is chucked right out the window in my book for any number of reasons I'm sure everyone else has covered already. :)