Article: Aztec steampunk

So, I’ve recently noticed I started writing Aztec steampunk (“Memories in Bronze, Feathers and Blood”, up at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, “Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders” forthcoming in Interzone, and “Prayers of Forges and Furnaces”, which I haven’t sold yet). I’ve had several people mentioning how it’s a bit odd to be mixing Aztecs with the steampunk aesthetic, and that set me wondering about where I was coming from when I was writing that kind of stuff.

Insofar as I can express it, it goes like this. Those steampunk stories I’ve read (and I’ll say right here and now that I haven’t read that many of them and don’t consider myself a steampunk expert, not by a large margin) derive a strong appeal as sensaofwunda stories with a retro feel: you have goggles and all sort of tech from dirigibles to odd-shaped machines involving steam and brass; there are explorers and archaelogists, wealthy spinsters and anarchists, mechanical men and proto-computers. In many ways, what I’ve read harkens to the early SF, that of Verne and Wells (and, to a lesser degree, to the US pulps): thrill-filled rides with cool science and tech, in a 19th or early-20th Century setting strongly derived from England’s Victorian era. And it seems to draw its energy from the same buoyant enthusiasm that characterised much of the late-19th-early-20th century: the age of inventors tinkering in their private labs, the age of intrepid explorers and sportsmen, the age when the world seemed to expand through science, and life in the future first seemed so rife with the possibilities brought by technology.

I’m not criticising. I’m a huge Verne fan, and I do find this tremendous fun. I read and enjoyed The Difference Engines, and Boneshaker, and other short stories in the field. But the thing is, I can’t write those stories. I’m a born pessimist, and not much of a person for fun and thrills. My fiction naturally gravitates to the serious and the weighty, and I suspect humour is always going to remain a minor component of my stories. So this particular side of the 19th-Century–fun and fast and filled with cool things–just isn’t my stomping grounds.

But that doesn’t matter, because I know another 19th Century. I’ve seen it in books and history lessons, and in movies. It’s the century of industrialisation, for good or for evil, which means tremendous scientific advances, but also the industrialisation of work procedures: the 19th Century is the century of people uprooted from their land for the backbreaking, depersonalised work in factories and workshops and mines; the century of urchins and destitute single mothers in London. Just take a look at one of the 1842 reports of the Royal Commission on Children in the Mines. You don’t even have to read between the lines to find the labour conditions at the time. They’re not fun. They’re not thrilling. They’re just plain inhuman, so much that they horrified even the people of the time (who were much more inured to hard labour than we are today).

It’s also the century of mass war: I won’t say that war was fun in the previous ages, but the 17th-19th Centuries are the first to feature large, ordered armies drawn from widespread conscription facing each other on battlefields, and to feature widespread massacres. The 19th century is the century of the Crimean War, and of Florence Nightingale: we remember her for her role in founding professional nurses and advocating hygiene in hospitals, but the wounds and deaths she dealt with were in horrific–not in their nature, but by their scale. Soldiers died in their thousands, not only of war wounds but also of massive infections. This century acts as the precursor to WW1, which marks the move from a perception of war as heroic to war as a terrible, cruel thing. The monuments to the dead in France, for instance, bear messages like “to our children dead for their homeland”: the soldiers become victims reaped by death, instead of heroes. There are just too many dead to consider them heroic anymore.

And, finally, it’s a century of inequalities. It’s a century of colonised people vs. colonisers; of white men relentlessly battering at other civilisations in order to take them over: the century of opium wars, where China desperately tried to resist the mass import of the corruption that was opium within its borders; the century of Indochina relentlessly nibbled at by the French until its kingdoms cease to exist; the century of the Indian Raj, built and run by white men who created their own subculture rather than attempting to understand the local belief system and society; the century of colonies carved out of Africa without regard for the locals.

And, even among the colonisers, it’s the century that, to me, symbolises divisions of class and sex: between the well-off and their servants, and between men and women. It’s a bundle of conflicts that should explode, kept into place by a good dose of hypocrisy and an exarcerbated sense of class and place. I think it’s very revealing that you find so many manuals of etiquette around that time period (I’m mostly thinking of England here; I’m a little hazier on the situation elsewhere), which explain what is appropriate and what is not in a given social situation: there are always things that are done and not done in any society, but most of the time they’re inherent to the background and do not need spelling out–at least not in such relentless detail.

It’s this underbelly that I’m interested in exploring: the dark side of progress and wealth, and for me, it feels pretty natural to transpose it to other nations with another history and another set of values. It seemed interesting to suppose the Aztecs would survive into the 19th century, and to wonder what would have happened when they hit their own industrial revolution. War and the technology of war were natural candidates to bring up in “Memories in Bronze, Feathers and Blood”, and religion and industrialisation show up both in “Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders” and “Prayers of Forges and Furnaces”. And when I get the time and energy, I’ll probably deal with the other stuff, too (though some of the colonisation and sexism stuff already show up in the Xuya stories, especially the novel).

In the meantime, if anyone has got recommendations of steampunk stories or novels that tackle some of the issues above–or any other comments about steampunk (as I said, I’m far from an expert), I would love to hear them.

(Tim Akers’ work, set in the city of Veridon, occurred to me after I wrote this blog post, and it’s a great example of steampunk that hits a lot of the right buttons for me: it’s dark, and it doesn’t shy away from the consequences of its setting)


  1. To some people, mixing up Aztec and steampunk may sound odd, but I love it simply because it’s new and resonant and so much of everything you read now is another riff on the same melody. I’m all for more of what I liked before, but I like more reading something that startles me and shows me something I HADN’T thought of. Your fiction does that for me. It leaves questions, mysteries, leaves unturned, and yet satisfies. Not odd in the least. 🙂

  2. Well, I have a couple of recommendations…
    First, Steampunk Magazine ( publishes fiction which makes a point of telling the stories of the underclass, the exploited. They also publish how to make things pieces and articles on history and politics. And it’s free to download!
    Second, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthology ( It’s worth it for the introduction alone, but the fiction is outstanding.

    Now, Steampunk… heh. Everybody has their own opinion on what it is. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a blending of an aesthetic (the steam) and a politics (punk). The steam is all the gadgets and gizmos and leather and brass. The punk is about giving individuals power over their own lives. This means people having the skills and means to grow their own food, make their own clothes, their own power etc without having to rely on a centralised provider. And having technology that you can interact with, can maintain yourself. That’s why a lot of Steampunks are also Makers. And the other thing of course is knowledge. People understanding the society they live in and the invisible chains that bind us–race, class, sex, sexuality, all of that. You can’t very well be free while you’re carrying around an invisible knapsack, can you? 🙂

    Put those two together, you’ve got Steampunk. Of course, in Britain we’re still labouring under a lot of the sins of the Victorians, so it’s a perfect chance for us to go back and pull it out by the root.

    So yeah, you really weren’t far off at all, at least according to my definition. Personally, I really don’t like Steampunk that’s all steam and no punk.

    Sorry about the long comment…

  3. Megs: *blush* Glad to hear it 🙂
    Dylan: Oooh, tbat sounds like a nice magazine. I’ll read it when I have some free time (conceivably next year, at the rate things are shaping up…). Thanks for the rec!
    I had no idea the “punk” part of steampunk referred to that. It does make sense, now that you phrase it that way. I’m not a big “steam” person either, but give me punk anyday…
    Not sure I agree about people growing away from centralised power, though. If we go by historical setting, the 19th century is pretty much all about centralisation. Before, you could grow your own food and make your own clothes (though you paid taxes to the Church/the local lordling/the Crown…). After both Industrial Revolutions, you could get anything you wanted–as long as you had money. I do agree there’s a brief period where people were boldly seizing science for themselves, though (which is what I think you mean by the power to Make), and making their own weird and wacky contraptions, and that’s part of what made this century so uplifting. (both good and bad, I guess, as in a lot of time periods…)

  4. Well, you’ve got to remember that the Victorian Age was also the age of Anarchy and socialism. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the First International in France, Propaganda of the Deed, Karl Marx, the 1848 revolutions, the Second Republic, the Third Republic… The consoladation and centralization of power was a huge drive by the elites of the nineteenth century, but there were people fighting tooth and nail against it. We’re still fighting the same battles with the same ideas and the same tools today…

    Also, I should probably say that I really liked, “Memories in Bronze, Feathers and Bronze”. I love the idea of the mechanical birds holding the memories, really love it.

  5. Ah, ok, in that sense–reaction against the ongoing centralisation. I misunderstood, I thought you were talking about reaction to an earlier social development.

    >Also, I should probably say that I really liked, “Memories in Bronze, Feathers and Bronze”. I love the idea of the mechanical birds holding the memories, really love it.
    Aw, thanks! Glad you liked it. It was a fun story to write.

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