Once upon a time, I wrote a story for an anthology of steampunk stories. For the sake of decorum, I won’t name it or go into too much detail, but its theme was essentially multicultural steampunk stories. When it came out I realised I was amongst a table of contents of almost exclusively white writer, and one amongst a set of stories featuring almost exclusively western protagonists having a grand old time exploring exotic new worlds. This did not go unnoticed. I was tacitly part of this, of course; my story didn’t break that mould, and so it was one of the earlier moments in my writing career (an overstatement if ever there was one, but let’s go with it) when I realised how narrow my particular storytelling sights were, and consciously course-corrected.
I’ve always adored steampunk. The combination of Victorian manners and gentility mixed with the wild absurdities of futurism and sci-fi (and more than a hefty dose of the gothic for good measure) has always ticked the boxes to me, and as somebody who marvels at other people’s ingenuity, the wealth of creative wonders (in clothing, in machinery, in art, in fiction) that comes from those involved in the steampunk community never fails to stagger me.
The appeal of Steampunk has always struck me as its ability to be escapist fantasy. More so than any other genre I think steampunk has the capacity to vanish inside it, reinvent yourself as a person out of time, free from the pressures of the modern world. And this is wonderful in many ways, but it can also a dangerous path to tread. After all, the roots of steampunk fiction is in the pastiching of colonialist literature, and there is a fine line between parody and propagating. Which was why, when I seized up on Clockwork Cairo’s theme of Egyptian steampunk, I knew I wanted to take a different approach.
Clockwork Cairo still has a generous handful of the good old steampunk usuals: we’ve got well-heeled detectives chasing artefacts around London; we’ve got airship pirates navigating the treacherous sands; we’ve got adventurers lost amongst the foreign alleyways of cities. But that wasn’t where I started when I began work on Clockwork Cairo.
Where I started was with writers who were telling stories about people more often overlooked. You can find many of them in the book, but if you haven’t encountered them before, run, don’t walk, to the work of Nisi Shawl (Everfair is a spectacular piece of steampunk literature that challenges so many of the preconceptions of what Steampunk is), to K. Tempest Bradford (who is frankly one of the most kickass writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with), to P. Djeli Clark (whose A Dead Djinn In Cairo might have been the finest story to appear on Tor.com last year), to Milton Davis (who at this point is practically synonymous with the steamfunk genre as well as the editor of the brilliant Steamfunk anthology), to the anthologies Steampunk World (edited by Sarah Hans), The Sea Is Ours (edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng) and, and, and… and I am barely touching the surface.
We should always be telling these stories, and people should always be reading them. My writers took the kernel of the idea – the vivid, dramatic world of Egyptian history – and invested it with a wealth of insight, of drama, of tenderness, and of excitement. Steampunk is a genre with worlds upon worlds within it, and it’s been a joy to explore a tiny corner of it. Hopefully you’ll find the same joy in reading it.
Clockwork Cairo is out June 1st from Twopenny Books, edited by Matthew Bright and featuring stories by Gail Carriger, P. Djeli Clark, Sarah Caulfield, Jonathan Green, Tiffany Trent, Zan Lee, Chaz Brenchley, David Barnett, Nisi Shawl, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, George Mann, Tee Morris & Pip Ballantine, Matthew Bright, Rod Duncan, Christopher Parvin, M.J. Lyons, Anne Jensen, John Moralee, E. Catherine Tobler and K. Tempest Bradford.