Steampunk is usually associated with Europeans — and with a fascination with the glories of imperialism. So when a group of Singaporean writers put together a steampunk book, what will the results look like? And how about when you forbid "angst-ridden misery?" Jess Nevins investigates.
The Happy Smiley Writers Group is a group of seven writers located in Singapore. Through their Two Trees Pte. Ltd (http://twotrees.com.sg/books.html) micro-press they have published three science fiction anthologies since 2009. Their latest, The Steampowered Globe (ISBN 978‑981‑07‑0549‑7, SGD$18), is a steampunk anthology.
Part of the surprise comes from the collection's very existence. Literary steampunk from Singapore? Obviously, there are a number of science fiction writers in Singapore and more generally in Southeast Asia, but nearly all of the steampunk short stories and novels published so far are from Western writers. I thought The Steampowered Globe would be an excellent opportunity to discover how Southeast Asian authors viewed steampunk and wrote it, and what the differences might be between steampunk written in the West, from descendants of the colonizers, and steampunk written in the East, from descendants of the colonized.
Maisarah Abu Samah, one of the two editors of Steampowered Globe, said that
the state of steampunk in Singapore is still budding...mostly people are exposed to it due to video games and books. Besides online influences, cosplay conventions are one way to spread what steampunk is for all the subculture fashions appear in them. For the writers in this anthology, some of them knew what steampunk was while others just read our explanation and references on what it was in our submission call page.
This raises the question: Why do a steampunk anthology? Add to that the fact that the guidelines for submissions to the anthology read, "No depressive ending, no preaching, no agendas, no angst-ridden misery." Aub Samah said,
We placed that at the back of the book because depressive endings with angst‑ridden misery is prevalent here in local (Singapore) publishing. The bestsellers tend to be depressive woe is me cultural stories. It would have been okay if it wasn't just that but there you go, we wanted an anthology that was a smack in the face to show that genre fiction exists besides literature texts. This anthology was to prove that yes, there are writers here who write science fiction, steampunk or genre fiction and that it is okay to write that. It is difficult to publish genre fiction here as people don't think it is commercially viable or that no one wants to read them since they're not assessment or text books.
What were the results? A 144 page, seven story anthology with a high rate of success—high by any standards, not just those of a writers group micro-press anthology. The fact that so many of the stories succeed is a tribute both to the Happy Smiley Writers Group and to editors Abu Samah and Rosemary Lim.
"Morrow's Knight," by Viki Chua, a self-described "mild-mannered university student," is the most traditional of the stories: set in Victorian London, a dirigible inventor and mechanic loses her scientist/inventor brother to murder, but she comes to suspect that while his body is gone, his soul is not. Chua said that her goal was to add to the numbers of female engineers in fiction, and she succeeded in the character of Helena, the protagonist of "Morrow Knight." If the plot moves along predictable lines, it does so smoothly and pleasantly.
"Captain Bells and the Sovereign State of Discordia," by "scientist-turned-writer-turned-video-journalist" J.Y. Yang, is less traditional in a number of ways. About the pursuit and capture of the captain of a nation-state zeppelin by a pair of trackers in the employ of the Lord Overseer of the Malayan Colonies, "Captain Bells" takes several of the usual steampunk tropes and upends them: the trackers are lesbians rather than heterosexuals, steampunk's usual fetishistic obsession with imperialism is replaced with a disgust with the cruelty of imperialism, and the trackers ultimately join the revolutionary zeppelin captain and his independent country zeppelin rather than maintain the status quo. In less capable hands "Captain Bell" would have read as a programmatic paint-by-numbers story, but Yang's anti-colonialism, and the trackers' same-sex relationship, are nicely understated. For Yang, the story came first, and it shows.
Claire Cheong's "No, They Dream of Mechanical Hearts" is the story of a maker of "labori" (androids) and how one of labori achieves independence. Cheong's passion for social justice shows in her examination of how android servants might be treated, and her characterization of the protagonist is strong. "Mechanical Hearts" is not as smoothly told as the other stories in the collection, nor is the plot particularly complicated, but Cheong is 16 years old, and I think the story is impressive considering her age. She will be an author to watch in the future.
"How the Morning Glory Grows," by Mint Kang, a Singapore-based freelance writer, examines one possible way in which police work would be conducted in a steampunk Singapore. Hackers, mecha, bio-engineering morning glories, and overworked and underappreciated police populate the tale. "Morning Glory" is an entertaining combination of police procedural and steampunk which Kang treats with a light touch which enhances the story.
"Colours," by Yuen Xiang Hao, is the only fantasy story in the collection, but the fantasy elements of "Colours" are minimal — only a pair of new countries in a roughly Napoleonic War-type setting. Yuen said,
Using fictional countries was more for my own peace of mind than anything else; I intended to use the British professional army as a model, but at the same time I wanted a slightly higher level of technology (percussion cap instead of flintlock), and also battles in areas that were nontypical of the Peninsual wars. In the end, I decided to base Ferra loosely on "our" Switzerland to act as a touchstone, but what I had in mind didn't truly fit our world.
The result is a gripping war story told from the level of a sergeant in a line of battle, which functions as an effective rebuke to steampunk stories' obsessions with gentlemen adventurers and the socially-elevated. "Colours" does not shy away from the grim realities of war, does not slight the experiences and motivations of enlisted men, and does not have a pointlessly negative ending.
Ng Kum Hoon's "Help! Same Angler Fish's Been Gawking For Eight Minutes" is a clever story of an applicant for a corporate position and an interview gone disastrously wrong. The most lighthearted of the stories in The Steampunked Globe, "Help!" is a delightful story, professionally told, with a twist that I, at least, did not see coming. Moreover, the author pays more attention than many steampunk stories to actual science, with the advantage that "Help" has a veneer of credibility often missing. I will make a point to search out more work from Ng in the future.
The best story in The Steampunked Globe is Leow Hui Min Annabeth's "Ascension." About an elderly Ada Lovelace and her last days in the service of the Dowager Empress, Leow's story is wonderful. Its strong characterization matched by solid research and world-building make me want to see it expanded to novel-length. "Ascension" one of the best, most concise stories I've read in months.
Two other aspects of The Steampunked Globe are worth noting.
The first is that five of the seven stories are written by women. According to Abu Samah, this was not a deliberate choice on the editors' part, rather a reflection of the gender composition of the Happy Smiley Writers Group. Nonetheless, given the attention paid in recent years to gender imbalance in Western science fiction anthologies, it is worth noting that the first steampunk anthology from Singapore did not fall into that trap.
The second is that this is steampunk written by the descendants of colonized rather than the colonizers. While the guidelines for the anthology steered the authors away from politically radical messages, the stories nonetheless show a consciousness of issues like colonialism and oppression which are too often lacking in Western steampunk. For this the authors are to be commended.