rodo: feet from an old photo (feet)
Rodo ([personal profile] rodo) wrote2010-03-15 08:22 am

What the hell is wrong with genre fiction lately?

OT: [personal profile] lian, how did you survive the last week? Translating OTW texts can be so exhausting. And after two hours, German kind of stops making sense in the same way a newspaper picture breaks down into pixels if you stare at it for too long.

At least it distracted me from all the profic fail that's going around for a while. Victorientalism. Who the hell thought this was a good idea? Out of curiosity, I read the first article, because it's my area of expertise. Sort of. I should just stop reading what people who haven't taken Japanese Studies write about Japan. It never ends well.

It also proves that you shouldn't write about samurai if you learned everything you know about them from The Last Samurai.

The article has basically nothing at all to do with Japan and all to do with the West's idea of Japan. It's about how Japanese culture enriched the West with its otherness (as if that's all there is to it). It completely ignores the fact that these Japanese cultural exports were shaped by the West, to a degree. It's all about an exoticised idea of Japan's past, how we repeat these tropes again and again and how this is a good idea! Japonism at its finest.

The samurai had been masters of Japan for more than three-and-a-half centuries. They had evolved their own unique culture, fighting style and weaponry. Everything the modern world had to offer must have been anathema to them.

Oh so wrong (btw, wasn't it more like 650 years? I seem to remember a Kamakura shogunate around 1200). Not only were Western ideas imported to Japan during the Tokugawa era, many of these scholars were samurai and they definitely thought there was something to Western ideas (believe me, I had to read some of their stuff - the original Japanese). The people who were responsible for the Meiji restoration? To a large part samurai from Satsuma and Chōshū. They were also responsible for all the reforms that stripped the samurai of their privileges, which was what the Satsuma rebellion was mostly about.

I realise that this picture of the noble warrior is really popular, in Japan as well as the West, but I just hate it when people think that perpetuating the stereotype is the best idea ever. It's othering (in the case of the West), distorting and romanticizing. It glorifies a past, and that, in my experience, always has a political dimension. It's about how horrible it is to live in the now (and the West), how bad it is that the past was stolen and it negates other things: samurai had the right to kill commoners that offended them. During the Tokugawa period they were mostly bureaucrats. A certain type of ritual suicide was abolished because it wasn't actually considered a good thing back then that the vassals went with their daimyō when he died. The four classes didn't include the eta and hinin, whose descendants are still discriminated against today.

I haven't read any steampunk yet (that I know of), even though I am interested in theory, but attitudes like this are really off-putting for me:

[S]teampunk allows us to reject the chains of reality and all the racism and guilt associated with it, to explore anew this imagined world of sultans and saberrattling Islamic conquerors; harems and white slavery; samurai, dragons and dark, bustling bazaars frequented by the strangest sort of folk. Isn't this, after all, steampunk's very premise?


Can somebody please point out something that is not wrong with this? All I'm seeing is "I want to be a racist without feeling guilty" (and I'm vaguely reminded of Avatar - the same thing in blue, literally). Am I the only one who would like to read steampunk that doesn't glorify the past?

I think I really have to write this steampunky (or would it be dieselpunk or plain old Alternate History?) plot bunny I have. It's a) about women, b) Wilhelminian, not Victorian, c) one of the women is black and everyone else is at least a little bit racist, including the other sympathetic main characters, d) one of the women is a communist. Unfortunately it would mean a crazy amount of research about Wilhelminian Germany, the First World War, women in the early 20th century, communism, the German colonies, lock picking and so many other things.

And this post doesn't even touch upon the sci fi writer who thinks that stories only exist if they're in a language he can read (= English) and published in a format he has access to.
anehan: Elizabeth Bennet with the text "sparkling". (Default)

[personal profile] anehan 2010-03-15 02:54 pm (UTC)(link)
OT: lian, how did you survive the last week? Translating OTW texts can be so exhausting.

I've been asking myself how you guys did it. I translated an article yesterday for a translation course I'm taking. It took about three hours (with breaks), and after that my brain was mush. I can't imagine what it'd be like doing it day after day.

As to the rest of your post, I offer *headdesk* That steampunk quote... Oh god.
jaaaarne: Photo of a seagull in flight, with slight motion blur. (Default)

[personal profile] jaaaarne 2010-03-15 03:27 pm (UTC)(link)
Japanese history is your area of expertise? :)
jaaaarne: Photo of a seagull in flight, with slight motion blur. (Default)

[personal profile] jaaaarne 2010-03-16 05:47 am (UTC)(link)
That's great! :) I majored in Ancient history of Japan and Japanese mythology. Danced around Izumo mythology mostly. Combined with archaeological data it gives a bit of a material to chew on concerning the origins of Yamato. All in all, Japanese history is one hell of an interesting study.
lian: Klavier Gavin, golden boy (Default)

[personal profile] lian 2010-03-15 10:17 pm (UTC)(link)
I simply translate verrry slowly. I'm always amazed at how fast you are, it always took me an hour or so for even the shorter texts!

and its just, you know, only with having read a couple of manga (Rurouni Kenshin!) and a handful of random Wikipedia articles on Japanese history, even *I* realize that there's something majorly off about claims like these.

also, [personal profile] deepad poetically, beautifully mocks the Victorientalism notion as it deserves.
starlady: (compass)

[personal profile] starlady 2010-03-16 03:20 am (UTC)(link)
*hats off to you for the translation* I hate that point where it stops making sense, because it usually comes after I've gotten into a groove and I irrationally feel that if I keep going I can still produce something worthwhile, which just isn't the case.

*reads the "Japanese history" quotation* The ignorance, it burns. I don't even know what else to say to something like that--it's clear the writer hasn't the slightest fucking clue that they haven't a clue. There's just not even anything to engage with.

Anyway, you should totally write that story. The research for my own steampunk story/stories is going to kill me, but better that than thoughtlessly reanimating and reinscribing all the oppression of the actual era. For me personally, I think the attraction of steampunk is its glorification of changing the past (and indeed, the glee with which it frequently does so); I don't see the point to the exercise at all if it doesn't change the past, to paraphrase Tom LaMarre in a slightly different context. But if steampunk doesn't imagine alternatives and revisions--not (necessarily) utopian, mind--to the (usually systemic) oppressions of the period, I can't tell how it isn't just dressing up those oppressions in a new coat with goggles and brass trimmings.
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[personal profile] linkspam_mod 2010-03-17 11:33 pm (UTC)(link)
This post has been added to a Linkspam roundup.
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[personal profile] jhameia 2010-03-18 01:45 am (UTC)(link)
The articles were of an Orientalist bent: that is, they're all about What White People Think About Asia, & Not About Asian People Per Se. So, they certainly are in keeping with the theme. Dude you were talking about, though, majors in film studies. I don't know if that helps.

As for the main question.... :D "Not much more wrong than usual!"

Thanks for weighing in ^^ This post was a great read.
jhameia: ME! (Default)

[personal profile] jhameia 2010-03-18 08:19 pm (UTC)(link)
The editorial flatlines the whole thing. Once I got over being angry at the editorial, the rest were all meh-inducing. It's safe to say you didn't miss anything.

But the writer of the article's apparently open to disagreement. I have no idea what he's talking about, having not read it closely, but you might!
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[personal profile] valarltd 2010-03-22 02:19 pm (UTC)(link)
Here from Fandom news.

NO! that is NOT the basic premise of steampunk. (Whoever wrote that is woefully unread in the genre)
The premise of steampunk is an argument with the science fiction of earlier eras. It's about using Victoriana to make statements about our current time and place.

Use the Victorian racism to make statements about our own racism. Have strong female characters, but make them exceptional and having to fight the whole of society, including friends and family.

If you just want to write ooo, shiny/corsets/bustles/brass gadgetry and frockcoats without exploring the punk side, you're doing Edisonades or Gaslight Romance. (Nothing wrong with the latter, written a couple) But calling it Steampunk, when there is no punk is a disservice to the genre and your own work.

Your bunny is rather dieselpunk, but I say do the homework and go for it.
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[personal profile] franzeska 2010-04-10 09:07 pm (UTC)(link)
This reminds me, perhaps somewhat obscurely, of what the creators/actors/etc. said about the motivation behind The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. They commented that Westerns tend to be about looking to the past and some golden age that was passing. They wanted to make one where the characters are eager about the future. (The show is exceedingly steampunk-y in some ways, though it's not the classic example people point to.) It was a ridiculously lighthearted show, so it kind of ignored racism in the sense that no plots revolved around it and no one spouted any slurs or fake-y tv replacements for slurs. However, that also meant that it didn't resort to waving the hoary old trope of the Indian Hater at the audience.

One of the main characters was a half black half indian guy who had previously served in the US army, and there were some Chinese side characters--both realistic and appropriate given the time period it's set in and given that the characters are sort of nominally based out of San Francisco. They also went to Mexico several times and ran into appropriately Mexican characters there. (And, yes, ok, a lot of these characters are over the top parodies of the ones you find in cheesy adventure novels, but all of the white characters are too, and everyone was pretty three-dimensional and developed considering the type of show it was.)

I'm sure plenty of people would still take issue with parts of it, but it was a billion times better than most stuff that's identified as steampunk, and I just don't understand why. 19thC London/Paris/San Francisco/wherever were full of more than enough interesting diversity to populate a dozen genres of historical fiction. I just do not get why it's so freakin' impossible for people to incorporate any of that into steampunk. I mean, clueless foreigners blundering around bazaars and getting themselves in trouble due to their extreme orientalism strikes me as fertile ground for plot conflict. Chinese magicians cynically manipulating gullible white audiences in London would be an interesting topic. There's no reason this couldn't be a really fun genre, and yet it's mostly just a vortex of racist, poorly-researched suck.

I think I hear my stack of steampunky manga set in the Taisho/early Showa period calling me.