The steampunk genre is often used to provide social commentary on our present by means of the past. One of the ways it does this is by setting up dynamics of boundary disruption between timelines, cultures, and the self/other. It may sound obscure and theoretical, or—horrors—postmodernist in the extreme. But the disruption of these false binaries is a central and rich source of conflict and tension for the stories.
So let’s look at some examples of steampunk writing that sets up these dualities and transgresses them.
1. Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Stardust will always inhabit a special place in my heart and my dreams. I love the complex relationship between Tristran and Yvaine. I adore how Gaiman wrote the story almost as a thought experiment, taking on the mindset of a Victorian-era scribe writing English fantasy and drawing inspiration from his environment: a low wall in the middle of the countryside, a shooting star.
The film adaptation takes on a much more distinctly steampunk tone, particularly with the addition of Captain Shakespeare, but both do an excellent job of capturing the tension between our world and another, just beyond our reach.
In Stardust, this boundary is literal: a wall, bordering the magical realm of Faerie. The story is about the consequences of breaching that boundary, for better or worse. First, by Dunstan, resulting in a child who belonged to both worlds. Then by Tristran, not knowing that he was the key to restoring balance. And also, by Yvaine, divided from her home in the sky and her earthly form. They all transgress, and each transgression furthers their ability to overcome the physical and metaphysical barriers that divide them from their heart’s desire.
2. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Next we have a cultural divide in Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, an alternative history of World War II. It isn’t just the philosophical division between the Allied and Axis forces, but a technological one as well between the mechanical and biological, and a social one as Deryn inhabits a gender non-conforming space.
Deryn and Alek must work together to bridge their differences. Both are unable or unwilling to fulfill the roles deemed necessary for them. Both are seeking their own paths. Both discover that the societies of the Darwinists and Clankers and the world they inhabit is far more complex than they were told.
In this series, what initially seems to be starkly differentiated battle lines are blurred, and the focus is centered not on who is right and who is wrong, but their individual ethics and choices.
3. Soulless by Gail Carriger
In this book, the social mores of Victorian society are disrupted and amplified by the addition of a supernatural element. A comedy of manners begins from the first scene, with a rude vampire, a displeased werewolf, and Alexia—soulless and a spinster.
One of the primary delights of the Parasol Protectorate series is how deftly Carriger weaves the rigid social system with the supernatural classes. Alexia is an outlier in her family and society: her preternatural state renders her incompatible with the normal and paranormal, even as she and Lord Maccon realise their fiery compatibility with one another.
4. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
Finally, a classic of the steampunk genre, exemplifying the tension between past, present and future while also exploring questions of the human condition. The differentiation between the peaceful Eloi and the terrifying Morlocks.
Wells uses his time traveller to examine theories of what makes us rational, moral creatures. How distinct are our beastly, animal impulses from the pure logic of invention and industry? His experiment takes on the tones of the theories of his day, but give us insight into the hopes and fears manifested by these bursts of technological innovation.
And in this way, Wells bridges the divide between the Victorian era and the digital epoch in which we now live.
We become part of the narrative as we transgress the boundaries of past and present, by turns embracing and rejecting the leaps of innovation that sustain our lived realities. We pick and choose our gizmos and costumes and social codes, disrupting dualities while bonding over tea.
Steampunks look to the past, and see a future.
Rebecca Diem is a writer, music lover and nerd. She is the author of the indie steampunk series Tales of the Captain Duke, beginning with The Stowaway Debutante (2014), following the adventures of a defiant young aristocrat who saves a band of airship pirates from certain peril and talks her way into joining their crew. Her favourite feature of steampunk is its ability to disrupt and re-imagine both history and the future. She currently lives in Toronto, and is on a never-ending quest to find the perfect café and writing spot. You can find her at https://rebeccadiem.com/.