Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lao Steampunk Sundays: Further Considerations

As part of our ongoing series of discussions regarding the writing and development of Lao Steampunk, we recently asked about the viability of greenpunk where citizens of Lan Xang moved towards an eco-friendly society.

One of the questions for writers as we build the world of Lao steampunk will be what kind of characters populate such a society?

To answer that, we might take a look at the traditional professions Lao folk law believed were essential. According to Preeha Phinthong's 1982 Thai/Issan Customs, and others, a king was obliged to follow at least 14 laws, and a city ruler was to provide for the 14 auspicious qualities:
  • First, to have the ear of the city which means to have wise diplomats. 
  • Second, to have the eye of the city which means to have poets and wise men. 
  • Third, to have the core of the city which means to have monks or holy men who are knowledgeable in the Dhammic Disciplines. 
  •  Fourth, to have the gate of the city which means to have sufficient weapons for the city's defense. 
  •  Fifth, to have the foundation of the city which means to have able royal astrologers who can foresee future events. 
  •  Sixth, to have the root of the city which means to have brave and just royal relatives and administrators. 
  • Seventh, to have the crossbeam of the city which means to have courageous and strong military forces. 
  • Eighth, to have the wall of the city which means to have honest and faithful village chiefs. 
  •  Ninth, to have the beam of the city which means to have able and moral ministers and noblemen. 
  •  Tenth, to have the boundary of the city which means to have able ministers to take surveillance of the city boundaries. 
  •  Eleventh, to have the sense of the city which means to have wealthy merchants and businessmen. 
  •  Twelfth, to have the heart of the city which means to have able physicians and royal daughters. 
  •  Thirteenth, to have the resources of the city which means to have rich natural resources such as gold and silver mines, trees, and quality citizens. 
  •  Fourteenth, to have the clouds of the city which means to have the patron spirit of the city, the city post, and guardian deities.
Now, as you can see, there are a number of professions and callings that aren't listed here, but this doesn't mean they weren't essential to the society. Including several really obvious one related towards food production. But this already begins to provide a number of fascinating figures one can write about as they engage with Lao and falang technology.

There are a number of character types often found in more mainstream steampunk stories that would be worth considering for incorporation: 

Inventors and scientists, of course. The formal scientific method began as early as Ibn al-Haytham in the 10th century. He proposed "Truth is sought for its own sake. And those who are engaged upon the quest for anything for its own sake are not interested in other things. Finding the truth is difficult, and the road to it is rough." This would resonate with many who are following the 5 precepts of Buddhism.

As an interesting aside, the first working steam-powered vehicle was probably designed by Ferdinand Verbiest, a Flemish member of a Jesuit mission in China around 1672. It was a small toy for the Chinese Emperor, that was unable to carry a driver or a passenger. In real life, there isn't proof that this design was actually built, but it does mean that an alternate history story could plausibly introduce cars of varying levels of reliability in this era to Asia.

Explorers and guides. Personally, I've enjoyed telling stories from the perspective of guides to falang as a necessary counterweight to the usual Gunga Din and Pocahontas figures that typically populate literature. 

Falang Industrialists. Typically members of the middle class in the 19th century, they set up factories and drove a significant deal of commerce, interested in finding good, steady sources for raw materials. Should characters in a Lao Steampunk setting collaborate with these industrialists or would they be resistant to selling the diverse resources of Lan Xang to foreign powers? What would be the consequences?

Ressurectionists A profession restricted mostly to Europe, these were grave robbers who specialized in procuring parts or whole bodies for surgeons and medical students who needed bodies to study. What would bring them to Lan Xang?

Missionaries A significant amount of Southeast Asian politics was shaped by the actions of European missionaries during the 18th to 20th century. It's possible to write good Lao Steampunk stories without them, but they can also definitely be characters.

Of all of the characters common to mainstream Steampunk literature, this is one that can be among the most touchy to include, especially for post-colonial writers. My big caution would be that it can be especially difficult to put yourself into the missionary mindsets of the 18th and 19th century, whose motives and world paradigms are very different from ours today. But if you think you can handle it responsibly, interestingly and well, I'd say go for it.

Urchins have been a common character in Victorian literature, among the most well known being Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. It would be a stretch to bring one over from Europe, but on the other hand, Southeast Asian literature is filled with tales of orphan boys and girls and what they do to try to survive.

Thieves, Bandits and Pirates We talked a little about the Haw Wars and the Black Flag Army who eventually became the Black Flag Bandits in Laos while fighting the French and marauding the countryside. A Lao Steampunk story can examine even more possibilities, given the presence of airships, steamships and similar vehicles. The classic story of Captain Nemo, also known as Prince Dakkar in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island was the son of an Indian Raja. There are many interesting possibilities here.

Again, we're talking alternative history here, so the sky is the limit, but hopefully this is a helpful place to start. What are some character types you could see fitting well within a Lao Steampunk setting?

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