Chris Wong Sick Hong is the author of the story “The Festival of Flame” that appears in the anthology Gears and Levers 1 from Sky Warrior Publishing.
I think he raises an interesting issue—one that steampunk is both susceptible to and capable of looking at critically. Chris is also the author of the novel Dick Richards: Private Eye and has a story in the anthology Zombiefied: An Anthology of All Things Zombie.
I’ve read that some steampunk stories treat the idea of “the white man’s burden” a bit naively. If you haven’t come across the term before, the white man’s burden is the Victorian idea that Western Europeans and those of Western European descent–in this case, the proud masters of steam and steel–because they have superior technology, scientific understanding and personal virtue, should go out of their way to help less fortunate people and cultures. On the face of it, it’s an altruistic enough motivation, but that’s not how it was used in history.
Time and time again, it was used as an excuse for conquering peoples — “we have to subjugate them in order to teach them proper civilization”–stealing and looting natural resources — “these people can’t possibly spend this money wisely, so it’s our duty to take it for ourselves” — and generally being dicks — “we have this burden because we’re superior, so it’s okay to treat them as less than human than us, because they are.”
This is important because, with its roots in Victorian culture, steampunk is just as susceptible to the racism, violence and hate as the era it hails from. In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, the values of hard work, perseverance and scientific progress guided British (and U.S.) life, and the mastery of steam and steel transformed people’s lives, not always for the better. In their zeal to improve life, they were more than willing to destroy anything that didn’t fit into their vision of a “better” future.
When the European nations, including the U.S., started trading with China, they ran into a problem. The government of China frowned on trade, made the foreign merchants jump through hoops, and considered everything not Chinese to be barbaric and not worth having in the first place. On the other hand, Westerners loved the fine china, teas and spices from the Orient. The countries of the West were losing so much money they were afraid of going bankrupt.
Their solution? To make a long story short, they got China hooked on drugs (opium, the plant both morphine and heroin come from) in the interest of profit and progress. When the Chinese government tried to put a stop to it, they declared war. Due to their superior technology, the Europeans won. 40 years later, sick of the foreign conquerors extorting their people through unfair treaties, the Boxers rebelled.
Understanding different cultures is difficult enough without a history of war between them. And during war, it’s all but impossible. The Festival of Flame takes a look at an alternate history where the Europeans still conquered China, but did so with all the technological wonders steampunk is known for. On the eve of the rebellion, a Boxer assassin, bolstered by cultural mysteries stretching back millenia, tries to save his homeland, to make things right. But with all the misunderstandings, violence and hate, is a better future possible?