With the increasing contact with the East and its ensuing colonization, people in the West became increasingly fascinated by this strange new world. For centuries adventurers, novelists and romantics had been interested in these lands beyond the horizon. Europe had all been explored and people became more and more familiar with the world they lived in. The Orient was still a realm of mystery, inhabited by alien people, exotic and sometimes cruel, with customs that Enlightened Europeans thought of as barbaric; a place where time had apparently stood still.
An age long orientalist tradition of those who studied the East has in our times been criticized for its presumed bias and even racism. In the realm of steampunk fiction however, we can safely recreate the Orient as it was described and depicted by nineteenth century authors and artists who might never have actually seen it. In steampunk all the myths and miracles of the East that enchanted the Victorians can come true.
How Westerners perceived the Orient depended very much on where they came from. For the British, the East was India and the journey there represented an unbroken reminder of British dominion. From Gibraltar to Egypt to Calcutta, Britannia ruled supreme thus traveling and writing about the lands beyond the Mediterranean meant for the average nineteenth century Briton seeing and describing the accomplishments of his Empire.
Unlike the sons and daughters of the Empire, the French traveler felt lost in the East. Between West Africa and Indochina, France possessed no colonies. Rather the Near East reminded the Frenchman of defeat and humiliation with Napoleon’s desastrous adventure in Egypt still fresh in memory. The French perception of the East was perhaps therefore somewhat more romantic than the British; it was a place of “memories, suggestive ruins, forgotten secrets, hidden correspondences, and an almost virtuosic style of being,” writes Edward Said in his relentless critique, Orientalism (1978). By the turn-of-the-century, the French had unquestionably lost the colonial race from the British. Their disappointment expressed itself in a greater interest in fantasies and fables than the Orient itself. These were the orientalists seeking a “paradise lost.”
To the nineteenth century westerner the Orient must indeed have seemed a paradise from the paintings and novels that reached him. Those who were able to actually travel eastward were sometimes disappointed to find it not quite the fantastic realm they had imagined it. Nonetheless many western adventurers and imperialists did fall in love with the East. Its lands, its people and its cultures enamored the western mind with a strange affection that was oftentimes frowned upon by fellow Europeans. Scores of officers enjoyed to “go native” amid the bustling bazaars and still the dark jungles lurked with mystery and danger. The Orient never quite lost its charm entirely.
As the realms of the East are all different, so Victoriental steampunk must differ depending on where it takes place. Where the deserts of Arabia and the mountain ranges of Central Asia evoke visions of ancient castles in fata morgana and deserted monasteries atop lonely barren peaks, the jungles of India and Indochina invite adventurers to search for the boobytrapped remnants of lost civilizations while temples and palaces loom beyond, in the land of Cathay.
Japan is perhaps the only non-Western nation where steampunk has become truly popular. Some of the genre’s quintessential anime installments were produced there, including Kia Asamiya’s Steam Detectives (1998) and Gonzo’s Last Exile (2003) and Samurai 7 (2004), the latter based upon Akira Kurosawa’s renowned 1954 film, Seven Samurai. But steampunk has moved far beyond the realm of fiction in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Japan was the first Asian state to modernize according to Western standards and up to this very day, it is the most thriving and prosperous. Because of its simultaneous devotion to tradition and embrace of modernity and technology, Japan makes for an excellent playground for steampunk fiction.
Similar to steampunk, in Japan “Lolita” and “Aristocrat” fashions evoke the look of times past. Lolita has developed into an entire subculture influenced by nineteenth century children’s clothing as well as costumes from the Rococo period and elements of gothic while the Aristocrat, or Madam, fashion draws inspiration from the wardrobe of the Victorian and Edwardian upper classes.