Steamfunk, Sword-and-Soul and Afrocentric Fantasy

While reading about Black characters and authors within the speculative fiction genres, I came across two terms: “Afrofuturism” and “sword-and-soul”.

I was more familiar with the first term, at least in reading about how African-descended writers incorporated vivid and challenging mishmashes of aesthetics and cultural experiences into their science-fiction writings, including Samuel Delany and the late Octavia Butler. But the latter term – “sword-and-soul” – was something less familiar to me, but it appealed to me a bit more.

Sword-and-soul?” As in, “sword-and-sorcery”, but with Black people in it, set in Africa?

Then I searched into it, found several articles which helped to explain what is meant by sword-and-soul: “fantasy fiction which involves African/African-descended people and their mythologies in the same way that ‘sword-and-soul’ revolves around people of European descent and their mythology.”

This intrigues me. Finally, a term for the type of fantasy fiction I was looking for, even though the genre has only been revived and expanded from just one writer – Charles Saunders – to an entire publishing label – MVmedia – thanks to an Atlanta-based professional chemist and part-time writer, Milton Davis, who has taken strategic advantage of the e-book era to publish Afrocentric SpecFic.

Finally, we have “sword-and-soul” as another fiction genre to geek out over!

Steamfunk and the Question of Continuity

While we’re on the subject of Black SpecFic, I looked at the subgenre of “steamfunk”.

Again, it’s similarly set in the “steam” era of the 19th and early 20th centuries, just like the pseudo-Victorian “steampunk”.

But that’s it, though. Unlike the striking visual difference between Sword-and-soul and Sword-and-sorcery, the art used in current works of Steamfunk largely harkens to Steampunk’s Victorian-era European aesthetics. Why?

Instead, shouldn’t there be a continuity between steamfunk and African-themed sword-and-soul?

I cite Nickelodeon’s Avatar franchise for its setting in a pan-Asian fictional universe. The first series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, takes place during an earlier period that’s wedged somewhere within ancient/medieval (“sword-and-sorcery”) Asia with a bit of steampunk mixed in at certain points. The second series, The Legend of Korra, takes place 100 years after the Avatar, in a world that is between steampunk and dieselpunk, but still within a very pan-Asian setting and with harkenings to the “past” of sword-and-sorcery.

I think the way that Nickelodeon’s Avatar franchise handles this historic continuity from the medieval to the steam era within a thoroughly pan-Asian fictional universe is a model that can be followed for an “Afrocentric” fictional universe. Avatar, which I guess could be described as “sword-and-chi”, has a sense of alt-history chronology and technological succession that those who write Afrocentric SpecFic really need.

Simply placing Black characters in pseudo-Victorian-era garb, or medieval armor, is not enough. Let’s start with the aesthetic of Sword-and-Soul and work our way forward.

Sword-and-Soul in Fantasy Art

Finally, when talking about aesthetics, I feel that Fantasy Fiction Artworks, especially works which are commercialized, are seriously lacking in the inclusion of People of Color (PoC). The artistic depiction of sword-and-sorcery themes, at least here in the U.S., are typically steeped in medieval European culture and aesthetics. But I think there is precedent in works like Avatar for the medieval aesthetic to be shaken up and made more diverse.

The issue raised by the initiative against the “whitewashing” of lead characters in Nickelodeon’s Avatar franchise brings to mind just how non-diverse that modern fantasy fiction tends to be, or at least the commercial challenge faced by artists and writers of fantasy fiction which is affirmatively diverse in skin color. Avatar is perhaps the most groundbreaking Western-authored fantasy fiction franchise in terms of PoC inclusion, as the story universe of the franchise is set in a highly-inclusive pan-Asia-Pacific setting, pulling together anagramic ethnicities, languages, kingdoms, topologies, geographies, climates, skin pigments, clothing, cuisine and so on from the entire continent and almost all ends of the ocean.

With its ongoing realization of a newer pan-mythos from the entirety and vicinity of Asia, Avatar and other similar franchises have ship-tons-plenty of written history and mythology to draw from.

Unfortunately, as a PoC of African descent, I feel incredibly jealous for this pan-Asia-Pacific setting. I don’t feel that Africa, as a continent, lends as well to such an expansive pan-mythos as does Asia or Europe. Africa doesn’t have the the sort of geographic or climatological expanse that is endemic to the Asian continent, nor does it have the heritage of written language which is endemic to both Asian and European peoples, nor do its peoples – including our ancestors – have the best experience or history of relaying their own mythological, spiritual or artistic canons on their own terms, nor do Africans have the history of mass settlement outside of the continent like Europeans (the slave trade still constitutes the primary historic source of the African diaspora in the Americas).

Hence, for developing a fertile space for fantasy art and fiction, African-descended artists and writers who are conscious about PoC inclusion have more of a reason to improvise and derive. I guess that’s where Sword-and-soul kicks in.

On the Internet

These galleries provide good sources for PoC-affirmative fantasy fiction, and I’ll add more links in the future:

And MVmedia, Milton Davis’ publishing label, is the premiere house for Sword-and-soul fiction. Please check it out.


Author: Harry Underwood

Website designer, blogger. Columbus, GA. #LGBT #p2 #wordpress

5 thoughts on “Steamfunk, Sword-and-Soul and Afrocentric Fantasy”

  1. Steamfunk is not just Steampunk in Blackface. I have written Steamfunk stories set in Ancient Afrika and in 1970s California. We don’t limit Steamfunk stories to 1837-1901 – the Victorian Era – and in Steamfunk, we tell stories that previously went untold in Steampunk. Stories about Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver and Stagecoach Mary.
    Here is an article I wrote on the subject a while ago:

    Thank you for the shout out for Sword and Soul! As an author of the genre who has a Sword and Soul novel – Once Upon A Time In Afrika – published by MVmedia, I am quite excited to read this!

    1. Hi Balogun, thanks for commenting and I’m especially interested in your work!

      I would be especially interested in reading your Steamfunk stories set in Ancient Afrika. Do you have a choice selection of stories in that intersection?

      And I also don’t think that Steamfunk is “Steampunk-in-Blackface”. The fact that seriously-plotted works of fiction are being written about believable characters in relatable settings would place Steamfunk the furthest away from a caricatural appropriation of skin color like Blackface. And I read a linked post on your site which addressed the Victorian centricity of Steampunk as having largely omitted the egregious abuses of that time, so I definitely feel that.

      But it’s like, outside of focusing on those abuses, I think the combo of “Sword-and-soul + Steamfunk” has the potential to take us “out of this world”, so to speak. It can place us in a differently reality where the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa are divided into multiple landforms and continents, the development of technology on each continent could progress differently, and African mythologies (especially their creatures) can come alive and really, I guess, “funk it up”.

      But I definitely understand that Steamfunk is a very young subgenre, and it has a lot of room to grow outward to those stories that, as you said, went untold. I think that this youth of the subgenre would describe the whole gamut of Afrocentric alt-history SpecFic, and it’s something that I would want to write for (if I had the motivation to write fiction, which I kinda suck at).

  2. Thanks, Harry!
    One story you can find in the Ki-Khanga Sword and Soul Anthology (and also a version in Steampunk World) is The Hand of Sa-Seti. This is a Steamfunk / Sword and Soul Mash-Up that I believe you will enjoy in addition to the other stories set in the world of Ki-Khanga, an Afrikan world created by Milton Davis and me.

    1. Just bought the Kindle version and read the story you mentioned, and while reading it aloud while waiting in the car earlier, I visualized the interactions of the characters. While parts of it had me thinking I should have read the anthology from the beginning to understand the intrigues, the story really does a good job of setting a skilled African engineer/warrior against supernatural odds (and political intrigue), and placing this drama within an “Afrikan” context.

      I haven’t read something like this before, but this mashup is a pretty good start.

      So yes, to quote Will Smith, “now that’s what I’m talking about.”

      1. I’m glad you liked it, Harry and look forward to your thoughts on the rest of the Ki Khanga Sword and Soul Anthology.

        Thanks, so much, for your support!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s