Iron Elephants and Electric Bicycles


ElecBikeSmMy Early Dreamers reading is getting past the easy stuff. In the category of Invasion Literature, I am not only getting out of English language works or translations to English, I’m getting down to the nasty stuff: racism and genocide. What else can you call it when Jack London heroically describes the annihilation by bio-warfare of the entire Chinese race, and the hunting down of the few survivors?

Elsewhere, we have “Capt. Danrit” with his “thousands of white pages soiled day after day by a national hero of France” (he was killed early in WW1, 21 February 1916), who cranked out more patriotic victory before the war than anyone else from 1888 to his death in battle. His novels are just huge, and he dumped them out like some Franco-military Barbara Cartland.

ElephantSmYou have to say this for the French science fiction/near-future war novels: they weren’t stingy with the illustrations. The ones here are all from L’invasion noire.

Now, I can understand a jingoistic Frenchman wanting to write revenge for the loss of the Franco-Prussian War (we’ve been known to refer to WWI as FPII). With the Napoleonic Wars not unforgotten, I can even understand a little indulgence in beating the snot out of the British, Royal Navy and all.

What keeps confusing me, though, is that racism then isn’t what we normally think of as racism. It’s huge and inclusive and has room to hate and despise millions more than most of us could manage to. The Russians are involved in getting the Japanese invasion of France going in The Yellow Invasion (and Chinese mandarins carrying the Japanese Emperor’s litter), and the Turks are lumped in with the Africans for a Black Invasion. It just has a grandiose lunacy to it that keeps me going, “Nah! This can’t be serious.”

Except, if you look around, there still are people running around, and filling up electrons on the Internet with spittle-spraying loathing of everyone outside their tiny little boundaries of religion, language, and national politics.

I know that a great deal of what is being done in the name of steampunk is just goofy good fun, and why not — it’s science fiction Snickers bars. But it occurs to me that science fiction and fantasy based in the 19th century is being as highly romanticized as the Arthurian high fantasy before people thought to bring it down to some really medieval explorations by inventing gritty medievalesque fantasy. Here in steampunk is a chance to remember how vast the gulfs, really, between that world and this in terms of how oppressive normal Euro-Western society was, and how far we have climbed from there — and how dangerously close we are to falling back into that dark place of automatic hatred. If Driant thought he had reason to fear Muslims and Africans, all Orientals including Russians — did he have more or less reason than we? How, facing that, do we keep before us what ugliness and evil that brings into our hearts, so that we do not slide back toward what he (and so many others) were?

We can still have our Snickers bars, but maybe sometimes we need to write or read the unpleasant, unromantic side of steampunk possibility, use what was there to look at racism, sexism, homophobia, and remind ourselves not to go back there, remind ourselves why we fought so hard to escape that world.

It’s a whole genre out there in early science fiction, from the roots of steampunk through dieselpunk-inspiring eras. I’m collecting a whole batch of Yellow Peril works, now, and the less common Black Peril shows up now and then. This is going to be slow going because I can’t take too much of this. It’s not like the romps around the solar system. Its more like skin diving in sewage. If anything, the occasional armoured airship and elephant, or electric bicycle corps gives one a break in the unpleasantness.

I hope you’re having a much more wholesome time with your books.

2 responses »

  1. I happened to read this kind of literature some years ago. Robert E. Howard wrote ‘Black Invasion’ stories (I remember Skull Face, which quite disturbed me) and I also read a novel from Edgar Wallace about some kind of ‘Yellow Invasion’. I don’t remember the title, I just remember I couldn’t read it to the end so racist it was.

    Your question is intersting: did he have more or less reason than we?
    I would also ask: how much choice do WE have in relation to our own time and what’s happening now? Choosing on a personal level is somewhat easier, it’s your choice based on your values and experience. But when it comes to entire populations? A people’s chaice is based on a multitude of different, diverse values and experiences, how much choice do a population really have in the face of history?
    (Celebrated the Holocaust Remembrance Day yesterday, would you guess? ;-))

    • Ah, yes, Edgar Wallace, author of White Man’s Burden/Sanders of the River novels, too (besides *King Kong*). I wonder which of the hundreds he wrote you read? Just so I can add it to my collection. This guy cranked them out like a minor-league Lester Dent. A novel in three days. If you think NNWM is fun, I hear there’s a group that goes for a novel over Memorial Day or some long weekend like that.

      I think not finishing reading these sort of novels would be a common modern response to them.

      “Celebrated the Holocaust Remembrance Day yesterday, would you guess?”

      Yes, I got this up just in time.

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