This is a guest post by Steven R. Southard. Want YOUR article featured here? Submit a guest post!
For many, steampunk is all gears and corsets, airships and goggles. It’s all about a time when technology was new and anything seemed possible, the optimism of an age of discovery and stylish machinery. That may be steam, but it ain’t punk.
For steampunk fashionistas, those who dress like quasi-Victorians, or those who tinker around making Jules Verne-style watches, guns, furniture, computers, etc.—for all of them, that positive, cheery view of steampunk is fine. They can have their steampunk entirely free of punk.
But if you write steampunk, then to be true to the genre, you really should punk it. Once I get done telling you what that means, you’ll probably want to anyway.
The ‘punk’ part means the story has a rebel who’s opposed to the existing socio-political order. At least one character needs to strive against the prevailing norms of the time. You’re writing a story, so you’re going to need conflict anyway. This clash between your rebellious character and the world can be the main conflict or a minor one in the background; it can be an external conflict or a conflict inside the character’s head; but it should be there.
If your story is set in a quasi-Victorian setting or a Wild West setting, these societies had plenty of norms a character could oppose—antisemitism, chauvinism, child labor, classism, colonialism, economic inequality, ethnocentrism, glorification of war, imperialism, monarchism, racism, sectarianism, sexism, snobbery, xenophobia—the list goes on and on. Of course, our modern society is not entirely free from all of these attributes. Not yet. That means your story, though set in an entirely different society from ours, can have relevance to contemporary readers.
For example, there’s a punk element in my short story, “The Commeteers.” It’s set in 1897 and a planet-destroying comet is on a collision course with Earth. There are no space shuttles or nuclear bombs available in the 19th Century, just steampunk technology. No single nation can afford the price of the planet-saving mission, so numerous countries insist on participating. The hero has to overcome his xenophobic distrust of foreigners (and other obstacles) to succeed.
“Ripper’s Ring” is my mix of an ancient Greek legend with Jack the Ripper. I punked it by contrasting the rich and poor neighborhoods of London, as well as juxtaposing nobles with commoners. The story’s Scotland Yard detective sets aside societal norms and pursues Jack out of a sense of justice alone.
As a final example, “After the Martians,” is my examination of how World War I might have ensued using weapon technology left over after H.G. Wells’ Martian invasion. The story’s young protagonist begins with an unrealistic, glorified notion of war, a common sentiment in pre-World War I times.
Maybe you didn’t like the sound of that ‘punk’ syllable at first, but I’ll bet you’re warming to it now. I got those creative lubricants flowing through the gear meshes, didn’t I? Whether you’re writing a short story, novel, or screenplay, when you write steampunk, please don’t leave out the punk.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Submariner, engineer, and Jules Verne enthusiast, Steven R. Southard pens stories that showcase people as toolmakers, gadget-masters, dreamers and tinkerers, creators of devices and victims of them. He’s written ten published steampunk short stories, some for single sale and others as part of anthologies, including Avast, Ye Airships! He’s also crafted tales in the clockpunk and dieselpunk genres. Learn about Steve by visiting his website, following him on Twitter, or visiting his page on Facebook , Goodreads, or Amazon.
The Steampunk Cavaliers has long accepted guest posts for invitation, but we want to do something bigger and better! We are officially open for submissions from ANYONE, about ANY steampunk related topic.
Check out our guidelines below and shoot us an email today to make YOUR contribution to the Steampunk Cavaliers:
Guest Post Guidelines
Guest articles can be on any topic related to the steampunk genre or the Victorian era. Topics that do particularly well tend to center around the darker and more political aspects of steampunk and the Victorian era. These can take the form of historical articles, articles examining trends in the steampunk genre, or recommendation lists of books/films/games that explore specific aspects of the Victorian era (I.E. 5 great books that use steampunk technology to challenge strict Victorian norms).
For ideas, send 2-4 sentences to diannalgunn @ gmail.com explaining what you want to write about and why you’re the person who should write about it.
Full articles should be 350+ words long (there is no maximum word count) and focused on a single aspect of the steampunk genre or the Victorian era. All completed articles should be sent to diannalgunn @ gmail.com. Please send them as .rtf, .doc, or .docx documents. Articles should also be accompanied by 1-4 relevant images, sent as separate attachments, an image of you and/or your work, and a 3-6 sentence bio. Include links to your website and any social media channels you want shared as well.
If you contribute high quality articles on a regular basis you will eventually be invited to join as an official contributor. This means you get an official account on our WordPress blog, and first dibs on any open weeks. Your image, bio, and links will also be added to the SteampunkCavaliers‘ “About” page.
My First Steampunk Series
These are the stories of how all kinds of creators have been drawn into steampunk, featuring their first steampunk event and the reasons why they love the community. The only requirements are that they’re 350+ words long (no maximum) and that they come with at least one picture.
Before submitting, please take a moment to check out our previous My First Steampunk guests:
The aether comes up every so often in steampunk. Often, it’s used as a hand-wavy thing to explain all manner of strange technology or effects the same way ‘subspace’ is used in Star Trek. Am I guilty of using the aether to hand-wave things? Oh yeah, big time. However, the aether is actually a real concept, albeit an outdated one.
The word aether comes from Ancient Greece and was used to described the air-like substance present in the realm of the gods. It has been used to describe various concepts as physics developed as a science. Issac Newton solidified the concept of the aether as a substance that filled the universe at the end of the 1600s. As we all know from the story of the falling apple, Issac Newton developed the first equations that described the effects of gravity. However, while he could describe the effects of gravity, he was left with the mystery of how gravity works.
Newton’s laws of motion describe the way forces work on objects and the inertia of mass, but gravity didn’t really fit in. What force was acting on that famous apple to make it fall to the ground? So Newton created the concept of a substance that filled the universe. In this theory an object’s mass caused this substance to flow toward it. Other objects are then caught up like a log in a river. Newton moved away from this idea latter, but the concept of a universe-filling substance persisted and came to be named ‘aether’.
In the 1800s, new discoveries brought back the idea of the aether in a big way. During the last half of the 1800s, the Victorian age, a number of scientists began to develop the equations that described electromagnetism that would formulate into Maxwell’s equations. An outcome of this work was that electromagnetic radiation (light, radio, microwave, x-ray, etc…) propagated at the speed of light as a wave. That brought of the question of what was waving. Sounds waves waved air, ocean waves waved water, so what did light or other forms of electromagnetism wave? The aether provided the answer.
It seemed like a solid theory, but then scientists started running experiments to detect the aether. The best known of these was the Michelson-Morley experiment. In this experiment, they measured the speed of light in perpendicular directions. If the Earth was moving through the aether that filled the universe, the speed of light would have to be a little different in the two different directions. Think of it like measuring sound while moving through the air. In this analogy, consider the Earth as a boat moving at a good clip. On the top of the boat we affix a device to make a sound and two detectors, one 10 feet away toward the front of the boat and one 10 feet away toward the side of the boat. We’ll also assume there is no wind. When the sound gets made it will radiate through the air in all directions at a constant speed. However, the detectors on that moving boat are also moving through the air. The sound is lot faster than the boat so it will still reach both detectors, but not at the same time. So while the sound is moving at a constant speed, the speed we measure at each detector isn’t the same. The point of the experiment is not to measure the actual speed of sound, but to show that the source and the detectors are all moving through the air.
However, the Michelson-Morley experiment showed no difference in the detected speed of light between the two directions. This result really puzzled scientists at the time. It would take Albert Einstein and his laws of relativity to finally explain the results. Between relativity and quantum mechanics we now understand the nature of electromagnetic waves isn’t the same as sound or water waves and the concept of something waving doesn’t apply. We also gained a new understanding of gravity that saw the effect of gravity as warping space rather than making a substance flow toward mass.
With relativity and quantum mechanics changing the way we saw the universe, the idea of an aether faded away to become a relic of the Victorian age. Nonetheless, recent observations of the universe have suggested an unknown energy, called dark energy, filling empty space and accelerating the expansion of the universe. Maybe the aether will rise once again.
Erik Larson was born in Manhattan — the Kansas one — and raised mostly in Topeka Kansas. He went to college in San Antonio at Trinity University where he earned a degree in physics. After the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider, he decided to seek his fortune with software engineering instead.
Eventually, he gained an interest in writing his own fantastical tales and has written three fantasy novels. Cog and the Steel Tower is the first one ready for public consumption. He normally goes by the name Erik Larson, but decided on W.E. Larson for a pen name since there is already a well-known author with his name.
Today’s article is part of a series called “My First Steampunk”. To learn more about the series – and apply to be featured – scroll to the bottom of this article.
My first exposure to basic steampunk Victorian elements goes back to the mid-1970’s. In primary school, I was part of an educational trip to the Missouri History Museum to study the 1904 World’s Fair. I was assigned to do sketches of fashion of the fair, and from that moment, I was hooked on history.
A couple of years ago I was a little bit stunned to have a reader tell me that my first book, a steampunk western, “triggered” some bad emotions for her. For those who don’t know or haven’t heard that phrase, in very simple terms, a trigger refers to the effect, like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that something has on someone. For example a pop of a cork can sound like a gunshot, and for someone that’s been affected by gun violence, this can be rattling.
This article isn’t to argue whether triggers exist or that people are being overly sensitive by darker works of fiction, rather these comments reminded me that my steampunk books are not sweetness and light. On Amazon they’re marked for adults and I tell buyers at book signings that they’re not YA (Young Adult) or for children. I don’t sugar coat my themes. Most of my characters are spies and spies need to thrive in any environment, including the underbelly of society.
Like their gothic novel cousins and authors like Poe, there are many steampunk tales that have dark sides. Authors like China Mieville and Cherie Priest use underworld themes. And there is plenty of inspiration in the real past to provide gritty fiction. The gilded age wasn’t all gold and progress, manners and etiquette. Let’s examine some of these darker shades of brown. And if you’re easily offended or grossed out, now is the time to stop reading. There now, you’ve been warned, we shall continue, starting with a few basics.
Unlike most bodice rippers, life (and death) in the 1800’s was rough. Watch Victorian House to see a pretty accurate depiction of the following:
Most people were poor and diseases were rampant.
They didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity.
Children worked alongside their parents, often up to sixteen hours a day.
Not everyone could be educated, many were illiterate.
Corruption was rampant.
Even death was hard. Many were buried in pauper’s graves. A death in the family was the only event important enough to get a picture of the family for most people. So they would scrape money together, keep the body cool, and then take pictures with other living relatives. Sometimes they painted “eyes” over the eyelids to make it look like the loved one was still “there” or put the body in a relaxed position.
I used one such occasion like number 6, in one of my own books. As a young character steps off a train into the Wild West, the first thing she sees in town is a man in a coffin getting his last “good side” taken. Creepy, I know.
So a further delving into the dark side…
Drugs-Down the Rabbit Hole
During Victorian times in London, one could walk into a chemist’s shop and walk out with cocaine, laudanum, arsenic, cannabis, and several other toxic concoctions that could knock out an elephant, let alone cure what ailed them. By the 1840’s, hypodermic needles were invented, so morphine and heroin could be injected. So much for the “new” opioid crisis, eh?
Because the sun never set on the British Empire, including parts of Asia, drugs were plentiful and easily accessed. Coca Cola really did have cocaine (direct from cocoa leaves) from its development in 1886 until 1929. No wonder all those Victorians smiled in those early soda pop ads. Many enjoyed a visit from the “green fairy” or absinthe. Remember, that during these times, there weren’t many filtering or buffering processes for drugs or liquors, making them particularly deadly.
Just like people today, Victorians got hooked and suffered the consequences. Ada Lovelace was known to be addicted to laudanum (tincture of opium mixed with water or wine) that she took to treat her asthma. Writers from Charlotte Bronte to Charles Dickens, to Oscar Wilde, and of course Lewis Carroll used. Carroll’s trippy images still inspire imbibing youth today. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock indulged as did Doyle himself. He wrote of one addict, “when the fit was on him, made use of an opium den in the farthest East of the city.”
Poor addicts turned to crime and slums were filled with lives ruined by repeated use. Fatal overdoses, especially of small children, were common.
Fashion Victims and Industrial Nightmares
Even those who led clean lives could not escape some of the perils of living in the 1800’s. Clothing and makeup was made from arsenic and lead. The much desired hues of bright green paint and dye were both flammable and toxic. One of the first models for arsenic facial powder died of an arsenic overdose. Green foam poured from her mouth and the whites of her eyes also turned green as she died.
Crinolines and dresses were incredibly hazardous. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lost his wife as she perished from burns the day after her dress caught fire from a lit match or lighting paper. He wrote, “How I am alive after what my eyes have seen, I know not.”
Nine ballerinas died after one of them brushed against a lit candle on stage at the Continental Theatre in Philadelphia. She was close enough to the other dancers and their flammable mohair crinolines, that they were combustible within seconds.
Large ladies hoops were also hazardous for various reasons. Southern preachers warned their flock that the hoops were sinful, especially since a hefty breeze or sitting down too quickly could cause exposure of their undergarments. Scores of women were sucked under train wheels or caught in carriage wheels by oversized skirts. One of my own great aunts was run over by a trolley car. During the Civil War, many a southern belle hid guns, ammunition, and supplies under their immense garments.
Men didn’t have it much easier. Cravats and ties caught fire from cigars and pipes and often ignited men’s facial hair. Top hats used a mercury sealant to preserve the fur which seeped directly into the skull and brain of the wearers, and especially the millinery workers, who became shaky and delusional at work, which coined the phrase mad hatter.
Other production workers suffered. Combs were made of flammable celluloid. Women’s hair would catch fire if those combs became too hot. Men who used heated razors were warned not to use celluloid combs. A whole celluloid comb factory in Brooklyn exploded when the building overheated.
Max Blanck and Isaac Harris owned many garment factories. Two of those, the Diamond Waistshirt Company, were believed to be burned to the ground for the insurance money. But the real tragedy was when their last company, Triangle Waistshirt , caught fire on March 25, 1911. The building was not up to code. A laundry hamper caught fire. The fire hose on that floor was rotted and the valve rusted. There were only four elevators and two fire escapes. One fire escape was blocked off and the other could only support 4-5 people. 145 women died. Many threw themselves down the elevator shafts when the lifts stopped working, or jumped out windows and crushed firemen and equipment below.
Gruesome. So on a lighter note:
Entertainment and the Devil’s Opera
Opera could seem to be stuffy, especially when only wealthier people could afford it. But in reality, Giuseppe Verdi wrote “Stiffelio” in 1850, about adulterous German Protestants. It was censored. And one his most famous pieces “La Traviata” was about a fallen woman, a courtesan named Violetta Valery. Sounds pretty saucy.
So if listening to music was sinful, dancing was far worse. Waltzes were “morally decadent” due to how the women flung themselves around in scant attire with men allowed to hold them at the waist. “Only Pagans danced like that”, according to one stick-in-the-mud minister.
He probably would have completely lost it if he’d seen any of the Can Can ladies at the Moulin Rouge. The Can Can was originally performed by French courtesans to encourage the finest suitors and first performed at the Rouge in 1889. Dancing mixed with champagne parties during the Belle Époque drew the ire of many a preacher man. But then again, worse things did happen…
The Skin Trade
Sex in the Victorian and Wild West eras was far from “lie still and think of England”. Anxious women suffering from “hysteria” were given treatment in the form of newfangled mechanical vibrators, because of all things, male doctors were complaining that their hands were getting tired from “manual stimulation”.
Unfortunately, slavery was legal for much of the century and so was prostitution. In the mid 1800’s, there were approximately 80,000 working girls in London. Some of them were literally girls because the age of consent was 13. It wasn’t until 1885 that the legal age was raised to 16. There were even “sporting guides” that gentlemen could order a lady of the evening or have a “quick hand at it”, like a Victorian version of Playboy. In my own works, I have many a prostitute that act as spies, as pillow talk provides some of the best intelligence.
On the other side of the pond, St. Louis, Missouri was the first city to legalize prostitution in 1870. There were said to be over 5,000 ladies that earned a living helping men with their desires. Even Mark Twain commented on “the immemorial mile of cheap foul doggeries” just north of downtown in a slum area known as the Wild Cat Chute. Officials who’d tried to stop it on the state level ended up sleeping with many of the local entertaining inhabitants.
It was a very good living for those ladies who were attractive or worked for Madams like Eliza Haycraft. Eliza was said to be worth $250,000 (4.7 million in today’s money) when she passed away and 5,000 people attended her funeral. She purchased a premium plot in the famous Bellefontaine Cemetery; enough space to hold twenty bodies. However, because of her oldest profession, she was told she could not be buried there. But after Eliza spoke of the possibility of having conversations with the cemetery directors’ wives, she was sold the plot, later to be marked “Civil War 27”. However, the grave could not have a formal tombstone and it was to be located in the back portion of the grounds. But, as fate would have it, due to modernization of roads in the 1930’s, the entrance to the cemetery was moved—to where the back used to be. So in death, even Eliza made it to the front.
Eliza inspired me. Prostitutes make some of the best interlopers. The things men say in and outside of the act…but to carry on…
Still by 1879, legal prostitution had failed. The licensing was corrupt and social diseases among the military were so bad that men had been considered not fit for battle (on both sides of the pond). The poorest women were also addicts and slums were ripe with VD. So The Social Evil Hospital was started to take in the wayward women.
However, some light did come out of all this darkness (as oftentimes happens in my own novels). The name of the Evil institution was changed to St. Louis Female Hospital, where on June 3, 1906, a poor African American washer woman, Carrie McDonald, gave birth to Freda Josephine. Freda would soon go by her middle name, and became Josephine Baker, one of the most famous women in the world.
I hope you enjoyed this foray into deeper shades of brown. For myself, without the bleak undertones, there cannot be light or redemption. There cannot be a hero without a villain. And heroes are not heroes until they are tested and make their way through the darkness.
-Victorian Slum House/BBC/PBS
-Missouri Historical Society
-St. Louis Magazine/Harper Barnes
-Mental Floss/Bess Lovejoy
About the Author
Victoria L. Szulc is a multi-media steampunk artist/writer who regularly displays her work at 1900 Park Creative Space in the historic Victorian neighborhood of Lafayette Square in St. Louis, MO. She spearheaded and curated the first Steampunk Broken Hearts Ball Masquerade and Art Show in St. Louis and directed the first Steampunk Fashion Show at the Big River Steampunk Festival Masquerade in Hannibal, MO in 2017. Victoria’s third steampunk novel, “A Long Reign” was in competition for the 2017 Amazon UK Storytellers contest and was an Amazon/kindle bestseller. Victoria is currently working on the third part of the Society Trilogy, “Lafayette to London”.
Today’s article is part of a series called “My First Steampunk”. To learn more about the series – and apply to be featured – scroll to the bottom of this article.
Love, like steampunk itself, is not a static thing. It grows and changes over time, as the object of love also grows and changes. If you’re lucky, the love grows more beautiful instead of fading.
My friends Will and Jason liked steampunk, way back when we were all in our twenties. It was a natural obsession for two history nerds. They danced historic dances and started shaving with straight razors after seeing the 2007 Sweeney Todd movie. Both men had sideburns (and, I presume, a steady hand). Because of Will and Jason I was vaguely aware of the steampunk scene: clothes and cogs and marvellous machines.
When I was a kid, back in the long ago, I would scour the elementary school library for any and every book on aircraft. One of my third-grade art projects featured a construction-paper airplane with a proper airfoil. In other words, I was into flying machines of every variety in a very serious way. However, nothing quite filled my nerdy heart like airships.
Let’s face it, while airplanes are remarkable machines, the experience of traveling in those fixed-wing speedsters of the skies isn’t that much different than traveling by bus. There’s something about the idea of traveling in a machine more akin to a floating hotel that sounds simply spectacular. It’s no wonder they are a staple of the steampunk universe.
There was little doubt that I would include an airship in my first steampunk story, but I had to think about how a steampunk airship would actually work. The story was aimed toward middle-grade readers and the airship is merely a backdrop for a small part of it, so I had no intention to include lots of details, but I wanted what did show up to make at least some sense.
The first item to figure out was what type of airship it would be. Airships basically fall into three categories: blimps which hold their shape purely with air pressure, semi-rigid airships which also hold their shape with air pressure and include some metal structure to distribute forces, and rigid airships whose shape is defined by its metal structure (sometimes called Zeppelins even though the Zeppelin company wasn’t the only manufacturer of such machines). Weight is everything with airships so the less of that heavy structure the better. However, as size increases more structure is needed to deal with the loads the airship has to carry. This means that when we look toward history, all the truly large airships have been of the rigid variety. If large airships were produced today, advances in engineering would likely result in the use of a semi-rigid design to reduce weight. My airship needed to be big, so a rigid design was the only possible choice.
That led me to the tricky part. How do you propel a huge airship? In the real world, airships were powered with internal combustion engines rather than the external combustion engines that powered the age of steam. External combustion means burning fuel to heat water in a boiler to produce the steam pressure that powers the engine. That means a heavy engine and plenty of hot flame. Heavy is always bad in an airship and flames… well, everyone knows about the Hindenburg.
As far as weight goes, I think it means that steampunk airships need to be big. A huge airship can carry enough lifting gas to support the structure needed for a powerful steam engine and boilers. The airship would need to carry water as well, but that is historically the case anyhow. In order to control altitude an airship needs to be able to change either the amount of lifting gas or its weight by adding or removing ballast and that ballast was generally water. Removing water for an airship is easy enough, you just release it. Adding water is less obvious, but it can be added by capturing engine exhaust and condensing the steam in the exhaust back into water. A lot of engine exhaust is water vapor. The United States Navy had some large airships for a short period of time (like the USS Macon that served as a flying aircraft carrier) and they relied on capturing water from exhaust to manage altitude. So a steam-powered cousin of those big U.S. Navy airships would probably be larger and slower to carry the same load, but it seems plausible.
Now about the whole flame thing. The best lifting gas for an airship is hydrogen–it’s the lightest element after all. Unfortunately, hydrogen really likes to burn which makes the airship a fireball waiting to happen. There’s a reason that the big airships that used hydrogen for lift mounted their engines outside of the hull.
Well, the obvious solution is to use helium–the second lightest element–as the lifting gas. Unlike hydrogen, helium doesn’t burn and is quite effective at smothering fires. Unfortunately, there’s a problem with helium. Now, helium is about twice as heavy as hydrogen for a given volume, but that’s less of an issue then you might think. Lift in an airship is produced by displacing air and air is so much heavier than either helium or hydrogen that the difference between the two doesn’t have a huge impact. The real problem with helium is the supply. Hydrogen is easy to produce from water so there’s no problem filling the vast volume of an airship. In fact, hydrogen airships would just vent off hydrogen as it consumed fuel and became lighter during a journey. Nobody had to worry about replacing that hydrogen before the next trip. Helium, on the other hand, can’t be produced unless you happen to have a fusion reactor handy. The only significant source of helium is as a by-product of drilling for natural gas. In current times, there’s actually a fair amount of concern about the helium supply. There might not be a lot of airships around, but helium is an important coolant for superconductors.
The infamous Hindenburg was originally intended to use helium rather than hydrogen, but the Germans didn’t have access to enough of it. They also considered surrounding a central section of hydrogen gasbags with helium, but the supply was too short to make that work as well. When the U.S. Navy deployed its large airships, helium was used since the United States had a much greater helium supply than Germany. Maybe the Germans couldn’t make the idea of a hybrid airship work because of their helium shortage, but the idea could work for my imagined steampunk vessel.
With a hybrid design, my airship started to make sense. It would be bulky and slow compared to its real-world counterparts, but using helium to provide a protective layer around its dangerous load of hydrogen meant that the flame and boilers could be used with a plausible degree of safety. Even if hydrogen leaks, it goes up keeping it away from the engine mounted below.
Carrying all that hydrogen meant that it doesn’t even need to carry a separate supply of fuel. It can burn its hydrogen to heat the boilers and power the ship. As I mentioned earlier, Airships normally carried water for ballast and the steam from powering the engines can be captured or released to help control altitude. Since most of the lifting gas would be hydrogen, I can better hand-wave around where all the helium comes from to support fleets of such machines.
With a bit of thought and research, I felt I could justify my steampunk airship. That’s a very good thing since airships are awesome.
This month I’d actually like to review a book I read several months ago, Cog and the Steel Tower. The lovely W.E. Larson sent me a free copy in exchange for my honest review, and after several months of thought, I’m ready to share that review with the world.
Let’s start with the blurb!
Thirteen-year-old Cog loved getting her hands greasy in her Uncle’s workshop and building the occasional mud-cannon before the return of her mother knocked her life completely off its rails. Before long she’s stowing away on a royal airship and tricking her way into a dream apprenticeship with the Queen’s master engineer by pretending to be a boy. But her situation takes a dangerous turn when she discovers a plot to assassinate the Queen and throw the kingdom into war.
If she can keep her identity a secret despite her best friend developing a crush on her alter ego, unravel the deadly conspiracy, and keep the demanding master engineer happy, then maybe she can have the future she’s always wanted. Keeping hidden identities and saving kingdoms may not be the same as fixing a steam wagon or an auto-mechanical potion mixer, but Cog has a set of precision screwdrivers and she isn’t afraid to use them.
Follow Cog’s rollicking adventure as she uses her wits and ingenuity to find friendship, trust, and justice in a colorful but sometimes unforgiving steampunk world full of mechanical mayhem.
Cog and the Steel Towerfeatures several of my favourite steampunk tropes: the tomboyish girl tinkerer, the young woman who wants to avoid arranged marriage at all costs, airship stowaways, and educational apprenticeships that serve as the perfect way to show off all the steampunk-y goodness in the author’s world.
All of these tropes combined to make Cog and the Steel Tower a fun, often rambunctious adventure. If you’re looking for a light read to take your mind off all the awfulness in the world, Cog and the Steel Tower is perfect.
That said, I personally found Cog and the Steel Tower disappointing. Its use of archetypes and familiar tropes was brilliant, but it missed several opportunities to deeply explore and challenge those tropes. Cog herself–and, we later find out, the Queen–challenges the awful restrictions on women, but fails to actually create change. She becomes an exception, rather than a reason for a new rule.
I’ve written before about how I long to see more punk in steampunk, and Cog and the Steel Tower was very much the opposite. Cog did rig up awesome devices from found parts in a very punk way, but that was about it. Her only reason to challenge or even question the strict gender and class rules of her world was because she personally wanted to be an engineer and wasn’t allowed. And the Queen, who challenged gender norms to get into her position, has failed to champion other women’s rights.
This is at least partially because Cog and the Steel Tower is middle grade, and people assume kids aren’t interested in the deeper political realities of Victorian-based worlds. I think this does a massive disservice to kids, who are quite capable of understanding and tackling those challenges. It assumes they can’t think deeper rather than encouraging them to develop those thinking skills. And I think we need to do better by our kids.
But it does also bring up another problem I’ve had recently: virtually all the steampunk I’ve found has either been middle grade or YA. Where are all the adult protagonists? Specifically, where are all the adult woman who have already–and permanently–rejected their roles in their society and built new ones? Are we to assume that all these badass little girls grow up to be perfect Victorian women? Based on the lack of badass woman role models in these books, I’m pretty sure those are the assumptions.
So, my review in one sentence: Cog and the Steel Towerwas a lot of fun, but it brought my biggest issues with the steampunk genre as a whole to the forefront in a big way. To be honest, it’s kind of put me off the genre for a little while. But I know steampunk can do much better, and I’m excited to find stories that break the mold.
Does Cog and the Steel Tower sound awesome to you? Do you know any steampunk books that really challenge the tropes I talk about here? Please let me know in the comments section below!
I don’t believe in fate, but I do believe in the power of a single moment to drastically change the trajectory of a person’s life.
I was back in my native Minnesota for a visit, and a friend happened to have a show the same weekend. I always thought of her as a singer. But she’d recently started to perform with a burlesque troupe. Or, what she said was more accurately described as “nerd-lesque.” In addition to the sexy strip teases, the performers usually chose something from geek or pop culture to integrate into the act.
That month, they’d chosen steampunk as their theme. At the time, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I can’t remember now exactly how my friend defined it for me, but I do remember that when she told me about steampunk I thought, “Wow! All those things that I love have a name?”
My buddy decked me out in a corset and a pair of goggles, and we headed to the show. Much to my embarrassment, halfway through the evening one of the stage hands pointed out to me that I had somehow managed to put my corset on upside down! She got me straightened out (pun intended) with a quick “corset 101” lesson, and now I always know to look for the garter rings if I’m not sure which way is up.
It turns out that steampunk and burlesque are a great pairing because the steam era saw a heyday for the art form. The performers did a combination of traditional burlesque, like a feathery fan number, as well as some geekier reinterpretations of pop songs with a steampunk spin.
The night was fully of spunk and silliness, and as I delved into steampunk in the ensuing weeks, I found out that these were crucial ingredients to what made steampunk, steampunk. The aesthetic, with its leather, lace, and mixed metals, certainly caught my attention. But I think what really reeled me in was the whimsy.
It took me a few years before I really took any steps to join the steampunk world. Between my first foray and 2013 when I started my first steampunk website, a lot changed. I won’t go into the details, but when I got to the other side of the tunnel, I found that I needed some magic infused back in my life.
Steampunk served as a gateway to get me thinking in a more creative and hopeful way than I had in years. But most importantly, it got me writing again. The look of the fashions and gizmos, but also the themes of the genre, captured my imagination and soon I found I couldn’t keep the words off the page.
And even two novels and over 500 articles later, I see no reason to stop.
About the Author
Phoebe is the pen name of a Steampunk-loving vagabond and aspiring novelist. She spends the majority of her time doing research for her novels about a relapsed con woman in gas lamp America, or writing articles for the Steampunk Journal. In her free time, she enjoys playing tabletop games and watching aggressively bad movies with her husband and tiny dog, and tearing the films to pieces with snarky commentary a la MST3K. (Though admittedly, the dog doesn’t add much in that department. His comedic timing is rubbish.)
I’m not a newcomer to steampunk, though nor have I been here from the start. I can remember with clarity what drew me to the community/genre/lifestyle that is steampunk. It was a book. The cover read Soulless and from page one I was hooked on this hungry heroine and the world that Gail Carriger had built from the familiar London streets. I was reminded of Dianna Wynne Jones with a dash of Terry Pratchett, and I was in love. From there, it was only an internet search away from this term I’d never heard before.
Now, as a teen I was a goth, and there is that old standby that steampunk is what happens when goths wear brown but I don’t hold to that logic. steampunk is a community that envelopes aspects of goth, and the two intermingle though do not always overlap. Discovering a community that combined my love of history, costuming and literature was…like coming home. It was like I’d always been searching for this ephemeral thing and here it was, right in front of me.
My roommate and I discovered there were a few steampunk groups nearby (Airships) and went to a couple of meet and greets, but it was not until we went to our first convention that I would say I had my first proper introduction to the community at large. It was the inaugural Steampunk Symposium in Cincinnati, Ohio. Held in a hotel that had many of recalling moments of The Shining, the atmosphere was actually rather perfect. It was cold enough that all those layers of pseudo-Victorian costume weren’t unbearable.
I attended every panel I could fit into my schedule, though now they all sort of blur together. That first convention was exhausting. I really wasn’t well prepared for it, as my only previous experience with convention going was a few hours here and there, not a full weekend. I remember best sitting in the various lobbies and hallways and just talking to other people. It’d been a long time since I had felt so comfortable talking to strangers. But if there was a single person responsible for pulling me into the community to stay, well, I know exactly who that is and I met her for the first time at that convention.
The amazing Leanna Renee Hieber, who truly changed my life’s trajectory. Fantastically theatrical, Leanna’s reading of her novel reminded me even more of what it was that I loved so much about writing. And with every year I attended the convention, I got to know Leanna a bit better. I got to see her triumphant republication of Strangely Beautiful. She encouraged my writing. I was also incredibly fortunate to connect with Emily P. Bush, author of the Steampunk children’s book hit SteamDuck. I have her to thank for pushing me to take my writing further in her writing workshops.
Thanks to them, I am now part of the team (with Sophia Beaumont) leading the literary track for Steampunk Symposium next year. Something I never could have considered happening. I get to be the person helping newcomers to the steampunk world. I get to be the person pushing writers further. I’ve come such a long way from the day I picked up Soulless. Since the day I stepped into that probably haunted hotel for my first real steampunk convention. I will never regret taking those steps. In steampunk, I found new friends. I found a community to work with. I found the stories of my heart all over again.
About the Author
Ash is an artist, author and cat mother currently residing in the Heartland. She spent her college years tromping about in tombs and museums, though that passion didn’t play out. When not writing or plotting new ways to torment her characters, she can generally be found attempting to garden.