Steampunk literature is a disruption of the historical narrative. When I’m creating a universe for my characters, I treat history like the icing on the cake. Or, sometimes, the rosettes. I am creating a world with airships, sky pirates, auto-baubles and appropriated Victorian aesthetics. I pick and choose which parts I borrow from our history and which parts to embellish.
So, I chose to base the Tales of the Captain Duke on a society where advancements in gender equality and intersectionality happened far earlier than those in our timeline, but I also wanted to ensure that the struggle for those achievements was not erased.
Enter Professor Georgina Jameson Sewell.
Professor Sewell* is the mad genius inventor of the story, a mentor to the protagonist’s brother, a character whose alliances are yet unknown but whose passion for her work is readily apparent. She is also missing a leg.
In a steampunk universe, particularly one with pirates, a missing leg is no big issue. There’s the classic image of the peg leg to work with, for one. The idea that a lost eye or limb is a minor setback, as long as you find a way to adapt and fight again. Pirates are rather inclusive when you think about it.
Professor Sewell takes that one step further, to change the very society in which she lives. A childhood accident led to her disability. However, thanks to her intelligence and perseverance, she never learned to see barriers—only possibilities yet to be realised. Her parents gave her books and encouraged her correspondence with the authors when the source material was inadequate. They supported her as she began to invent her own creations, including her magnificent clockwork leg.
Professor Sewell learned that she could shape her environment to suit her needs. That accessibility was a matter of challenging and overcoming systemic barriers. And why stop there?
In our universe, the social model of disability was coined in 1983 by the British academic Mike Oliver, and expanded over time by researchers and advocates around the world into our modern conception of the ways that society is structured to impede the differently-abled.
It can be something as simple as changing physical structures to include ramps, for wheelchair users. Or acknowledging the different but equally valid needs of a person with an anxiety disorder. Including translators or sign language interpreters for people who communicate in a different language. These are all ways in which we make our society more accessible and inclusive.
So, in a steampunk setting, what does accessibility look like?
In the Tales of the Captain Duke, Professor Sewell is the morally-ambiguous Tony Stark figure. She becomes one of the first students at Lovelace University, a school founded by Mary Somerville and funded by the heirs of Ada Lovelace. She pioneers the field of biomechanical engineering with her incredible prosthetics and reshapes the Victorian understanding of disability. The classic image of the crippled, impoverished veteran pushing himself on a scooter is undone, reshaped into a foreman supervising work at a factory on eight-foot legs. The Professor disrupts society with her inventions, and challenges her peers’ understanding of the possible.
This idea of possibility is also brought into play when she is challenged anew with helping a friend and ally injured in battle. Here, the wound is not only physical, but psychological as well. Professor Sewell learns to treat not just the mechanical impairments, but also those of the mind.
I won’t spoil anything as to how she achieves this end, but let us just say that overcoming barriers is a talent of hers.
As an author, I feel that it is important to critically examine the social structures we reproduce in our writing. Everything we put into our books, we bear responsibility for. Those choices are ours, good and bad, and we must take ownership of them, even as we grow and improve and write better stories. It’s a choice, to include characters who are different than us. To give them complexity and dimension. To dispute stereotypes and tokenistic representation.
Steampunk is particularly suited to encompass these kinds of decisions. The broader steampunk community has founded itself on inclusion, diversity and body positivity. But these are choices that we still must work to uphold, and do the difficult labour of ensuring that our work and our communities remain open to all.
Our work is not yet done. But the possibilities are endless.
*I would like to thank Brooklyn Marx, and acknowledge the work she did in reading over the early drafts of A Gentleman and a Scholar (Tales of the Captain Duke #3) for its accessibility content.
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/.