Wishing for more Punk in Steampunk

Image taken from PixabayAs I’ve begun to explore steampunk more,  I’ve noticed a disappointing trend in the books and movies in this genre. They seem to have forgotten the heart of steampunk: the punk.

This is perhaps because steampunk is a genre with many distractions. It’s easy to get caught up in the airships, the tools, the corsets, and many creators do. Writers spend page after page lovingly describing these things(and many do it quite well); comic book artists pour hour after hour into every image.

What they forget are all the other things that make the Victorian era such a fascinating one. They skip the political intrigue and religious conflicts inherent in the time. Their characters create inventions and go on grand adventures that change their lives but rarely seem to impact the world around them. Often their stories even reinforce the highly structured class system and oppression of these worlds.

This is in some ways the opposite of a common problem found in other subgenres of science fiction and fantasy: the chosen one who goes on a grand quest to save the world. Steampunk stories are great at choosing characters who are only slightly larger than life, who are awesome because of their personalities and skills rather than because they are “chosen”, but it doesn’t give those characters the same opportunities to prove themselves.

I believe we can do better. I believe steampunk fiction is at its best when characters use their steampunk creations to subvert the Victorian-esque cultures they live in, the way punk music subverted the existing culture of music in the real world. I want to see characters who make their place in the world instead of finding it, and I want to see characters tearing apart the class systems and governments that oppress them. Most of all, I want to see steampunk worlds that grow and change.

The steampunk aesthetic is wonderful and airships are fascinating, but steampunk is about so much more than the superficial. In our own world steampunk communities are some of the friendliest out there. They are creators of all kinds, professionals and hobbyists, fat and thin, white and black. They are incredible people who are changing the real world, one tiny step at a time.

Steampunk characters should be allowed to do the same.

Know of any steampunk books like this? Got one of your own? Tell me about it in the comments section below!

Dianna Gunn is a freelance writer by day, a fantasy author by night, and a steampunk fanatic all the time. Her debut YA fantasy novella, Keeper of the Dawn, is set to release in spring 2017. She blogs about books, creativity and life at The Dabbler.

25 thoughts on “Wishing for more Punk in Steampunk”

    1. Thanks! I think it’s especially confounding that this happens in steampunk stories when you consider how DIY focused the actual steampunk community is.

      And I’d love to read Grigory’s Gadget! Maybe you could send a review copy to diannalgunn@gmail.com? (I like .mobis as I have an old and cranky Kindle)

  1. I agree. I think sometimes the Steampunk community gives us such joy that we try and keep it politics free. But in our fiction we need that turmoil so we can challenge the status quo.

    I am putting the finishing touches on a Steampunk trilogy where each book centers on a woman who takes a man’s place as steamship captain, airship captain, and railroad engineer respectively. But I felt the politics of feminism was not enough punk so each book has an additional political element – International relations on the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas, tribal duties in a rapidly colonized American west, and the fight for energy dominance exacerbated by bad Scottish/English relations. It all makes a delightfully complicated mess for my characters. And gives me a chance to explore what it would take to build the better civilization we model at events.

    1. It’s true–and I think we need to bring these conversations to light more in the steampunk community as well. Imagine what would happen if all the steampunks put as much energy into resisting the status quo as they do into their beautiful costumes.

      And your trilogy sounds wonderful! May it find a wonderful publisher and eventually find its way into my hands!

  2. “I want to see characters who make their place in the world instead of finding it, and I want to see characters tearing apart the class systems and governments that oppress them. Most of all, I want to see steampunk worlds that grow and change.”
    This–all this–yes!
    Many people do romanticize the Victorian Era, but it had a laundry-list of problems. (Just like any other era, really.) That’s why I like Kara Jorgensen’s steampunk novels. She deals with these types of issues.
    Chris

    1. I think the Victorian Era’s beauty is largely in its problems–and how quickly the shape of those problems changed as the industrial revolution began.

  3. My Society Steampunk Series features a female main character that is recruited to become a spy in an MI6 like organization. When I sell my book, I make it clear that my series is for adults: sometimes there are scenes of violence, sexual situations, and the darker/grittier side of steampunk. It is, however, balanced with some sweet and romantic Victorian sentiments. I’d welcome your review!

    1. I think the Victorian era itself was a strange blend of romantic concepts and bizarre/horrifying ones. We need to have both for our steampunk to honour the world it’s based on.

  4. I agree, and maybe just because I grew up in the punk rock era. While part of the appeal of the genre is the airships and corsets and invention, the best of it contains some kind of social commentary. Some authors are better at this than others. Cherie Priest comes to mind.

    That being said, there’s also something to be said for spinning a ripping good yarn as well. For my own work, which your welcome to view at http://www.steampunka-go-go.com, I try to achieve this balance of adventure with some sort of subtle message. Whether or not I do so is up to you.

    1. This is the third time someone’s recommended Cherie Priest, think I might have to bump her up the eternal To Be Read list 🙂

  5. A real eye-opener, Milady! My series features people doing “different” jobs (from the traditional), some on the run, some in social rebellion, and creating their own places in the world, but no one really takes on the system or stands convention on its head; it’s been called “steampunk light” by some reviewers without saying why. I believe you may have done that. Now my task is to figure out the “how.” I’m prepping a new series; it’s a perfect time to learn.

    This is my first time to your site. It will become a regular stop, and go on my Recommended Reading list as well. A most excellent and useful dissertation!

    1. Glad I could be helpful! And to be clear, there’s nothing WRONG with steampunk light–we need light stories just as much as we need dark ones–I personally am just bored of it.

  6. Thank you for a very interesting article; I fully agree with your concerns. I feel that an important point about novels is that they should have a connection to problems and issues in real life, rather than being well crafted and elaborate but escapist, and this can be hard to find.

    I wonder if you would care to read my gaslight romance ‘Berlintoxication’ about oppression and rebellion in Berlin in the late 1880s? A review in Gearhearts Mag (http://gearheartsmag.blogspot.de/2014/09/berlintoxication.html) recommended it ‘for those who wonder where the “Punk” part of “Steampunk” has gone. Here it is, dancing through the streets with circus performers and a clockwork bear.’

    I would be happy to send you a review copy, or the novel can also be found on Smashwords (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/429230). It is only available as an e-book at the moment, but might come out in print at a later date if there is sufficient interest.

    Thank you!

    1. I must say, I find the term “Gaslight romance” kind of disturbing in light of what “gaslighting” actually means… But this looks like a really interesting story and I would love to review it! Please send a .mobi copy to diannalgunn@gmail.com, as my Kindle is a cranky old man that doesn’t like reading anything else.

  7. What about Steamboy ?? It is not a book, but it matches !

    And, there is the RPG “Exil” taking place in a huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge steal city on Exil, the oceanic moon of the planete Forge, with a really interesting society

  8. There does seem to be quite a lot of gender-related commentary in Steampunk, but I agree that many writers don’t use it as an opportunity for much in the way of taking a stance/expressing a viewpoint outside of “wow! shiny….” 🙂

    I’ve seen some lately that are trying to address different sort types of “others”, such as the Steampunk World and Steampunk Universe (in production) anthologies. The first is all non-western, and the second is specifically geared at characters/stories with physically or mentally different individuals, so there is a lot of potential there. Now, how they use the opportunity is a different question!

    1. I think a lot of writers just throw in a badass female lead(or Very Important Secondary Character), comment a few times that it’s unusual for her to be so badass, and leave it out that without actively challenging any of the assumptions.

      Will have to check out these anthologies, though! One of my goals for this year is to read more anthologies as I’ve recently started writing short stories.

  9. Although it won’t be out for a few months, Full Throttle (Accent Press) is a YA steampunk motor racing adventure that examines the vast gulf between the wealthy elite and everyone else.

    The protagonist is a 16 year old girl condemned by her working class background and disability to suffer a life of hardship, with no real chance of escaping her life because of a lack of opportunity for any who are at the bottom of the social order.

    The background is motor racing, where rich and titled gentlemen roar around in steam powered races, inspired by the wealthy Bentley Boys of the 1920s. So, plenty of punk and steam 🙂

    1. Sounds like this could either be a really amazing critique of steampunk worlds or another superficial YA story that makes me want to bash my head against the wall. Guess I’ll just have to find out the hard way 🙂

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