Steampunk – What it Isn’t
Hi, everyone, and thanks to Marie for the invite! Thankfully I’ve finally got my head together enough to be here!
I feel like a lot of the posts I write about steampunk are trying to explain what it is – but this time, I’m going the opposite way, and instead focus on two things that steampunk isn’t.
Steampunk isn’t necessarily Victorian. Steampunk can be set in the Victorian-era (even my series is a pseudo-Victorian period) but it doesn’t have to be. Other time periods are fine – other worlds are fine. Steampunk can be set in Feudal Japan, it can be set before (or during, or after) the European colonization of Africa, or before the conquest of the Americas. Anywhere, anywhen. The important bit is the steam, and writers can set an industrial revolution or technological advancement anywhere in history that they like. It’s science fiction, after all.
That doesn’t mean I don’t understand the appeal of the Victorian aesthetic and era. Oh, those corsets. All of that gorgeous tightened-and-buttoned-up clothing, just waiting to burst open. And I think that most writers in the West are probably most familiar with the Industrial Revolution in the west, and the effects of culture in that particular era/locations. But, it doesn’t have to be Victorian – which is a claim that I hear a lot regarding steampunk, and which isn’t necessarily true.
Steampunk isn’t wimpy. Whatever tone is taken with a steampunk work – light and frivolous, serious and dark – it isn’t a wimpy genre. There is the ‘punk’ aspect to consider, after all. That doesn’t mean every author/artist will make a full-on challenge of or comment on every political, social, gendered, racial, cultural, etc., aspect of their world, but as 21st century readers, writers, and artists referencing historical eras that are ripe for those challenges, we can’t ignore them, either. If a woman has no rights, it’s not enough to shrug it off and say: Ah, well, that’s the way things were back then. Modern steampunk writers are smart enough to address this . . . usually by making their heroines rebel against those constraints, or by pointing out other injustices and evils and recognizing the injustice and evil in them.
Steampunk can be an awesome way to give a voice to many, many people who didn’t have one, to show a different side of history through 21st century goggles. It doesn’t have to do that, and it definitely doesn’t have to preach about it, but anyone writing in this genre is essentially taking history’s balls, and giving them a little twist. Throw in adventure and mad science on top of that, and you’ve got a genre that isn’t for the faint of heart.
So I’m curious – is there anything that you think that steampunk isn’t?
From chapter two of HEART OF STEEL (November 2011) This includes spoilers for THE IRON DUKE. Yasmeen has a valuable sketch on board her airship, which once belonged to a man that she threw overboard into a mob of zombies.
Barker took his leave after finishing the drink Yasmeen owed him, but she stayed on, nursing hers until they were warm. Some nights in a tavern were meant for drinking, and others were meant for listening. Fortunately, nothing she heard suggested that word of the sketch had gone beyond Mattson and Kessler. She turned down one job—a run to the Ivory Market along the Gold Coast of Africa. Lucrative, but he hadn’t been willing to wait until she returned from England, and she wasn’t inviting anyone onto her airship before the sketch was in the Iron Duke’s fortress.
She hadn’t always been able to turn down jobs. Now, she had enough money that she could be choosy when she took on a new one. Even without the fortune that would come after selling the sketch, she could retire in luxury at any time—as could her entire crew.
She never would.
Midnight had gone when Yasmeen decided she’d heard enough. She emerged from the dim tavern into the dark and paused to light a cigarillo, studying the boardwalk along the docks. It was just as busy at night as during the day, but the crowd was comprised of more drunks. Some slumped against the buildings or slept beside crates. Groups of sailors laughed and pounded their chests at the aviators—some of them women, Yasmeen noted, and not one of them alone. The shopgirls and lamplighters walked in pairs, and most of the whores did, too.
Yasmeen sighed. Undoubtedly, she’d soon be teaching some drunken buck a lesson about making assumptions when women walked alone.
She started toward the south dock, picking out Lady Corsair’s sleek silhouette over the harbor. Familiar pride filled her chest. God, her lady was such a beauty—one of the finest skyrunners ever made, and she’d been Yasmeen’s for almost thirteen years now. She knew captains who didn’t last a month—some who weren’t generous toward their crew, or not strict enough to control them. Some who were too careful to make any money, or too careless to live through a job.
She’d made money, and she’d lived through hundreds of jobs during the French war with the Liberé: scouting, privateering, moving weapons or personnel through enemy territory, destroying a specified target. Both the French and the Liberé officers sneered when she’d claimed that her only loyalties were to her crew and the gold, but they used her when they didn’t have anyone good enough or fast enough to do what she could.
Then the war had ended—fizzled out. All of the same animosities still simmered, but there wasn’t enough gold left in the treasuries to pay for it. So Yasmeen had left the New World, returned back across the Atlantic, and carved out her niche by taking almost any job for the right money.
Lately, that meant ferrying passengers over Horde territory in Europe and Africa—a route that most airships-for-hire would never take. Sometimes she acted as a courier, or she partnered with Vesuvius when Mad Machen carried cargo that needed airship support, fighting off anyone who tried to steal it from them.
A routine life, but still an exciting one—and the only kind of settling down that she would ever do.
Yasmeen flicked away her cigarillo, smiling at her own fancy. Routines, excitement, and a particular version of settling down. She’d have to record that thought and send it to Zenobia—along with an account of the little excitement that was about to take place.
Someone was following her.
A man had been trailing her since she’d left the tavern. Not some drunken idiot stumbling into a woman walking alone, but someone who’d deliberately picked her out—and if he’d seen her in the tavern, he must know who she was.
But he must not be interested in killing her. Anyone could have shot her from this distance. Instead he tried to move in closer, using the shadows for cover. He needed lessons in stalking. Her pursuer paused when she did, and though he tried for stealth by tiptoeing, his attempts only made him more obvious. Of course, he couldn’t know that Yasmeen was at her best during the night—and that she had more in common with the cats slinking through the alleys than the lumbering ape that had obviously birthed him.
She’d only taken a few more steps when he finally found his balls and called her name.
The voice was young, and quivering with bravado. He’d either taken a bet at the tavern or was going to ask for a position on her ship. Amused, Yasmeen faced him. A dark-haired boy wearing an aviator’s goggles and short jacket and stood quivering in the middle of the—
Pain stabbed the back of her leg. Even as she whipped around, her thigh went numb. An opium dart. Oh, fuck. She ripped it out, too late. Pumped with this amount, her mind was already spinning. Hallucinating. A drunkard rose from a pile of rags, wearing the gaunt face of a dead man.
No, not a drunkard. A handsome liar.
Yasmeen fumbled for her guns. Her fingers were enormous. He moved fast—or she was slow. Within a blink, he caught her hands, restrained her with barely any effort.
She’d kill him for that.
“Again?” he asked, so smooth and amused. “You’ll have to try harder.”
The bastard. She hadn’t tried at all. And though she tried now, she sagged against him, instead—and for a brief moment, wondered if she’d fallen against a zombie. Each of his ribs felt distinct beneath her hands.
But zombies didn’t swing women up into their arms. And they didn’t talk.
“My sister sends her regards,” he said against her cheek. “And I want my sketch.”
“I’d have let you have it.” She couldn’t keep her eyes open. Her words slurred. “You just had to ask.”
“Liar,” he said softly. “You’d never have given it back.”
Ah, well. He was right about that. But he might have been able to talk her down to forty percent. She began to make the offer, but couldn’t form the words.
Blissful darkness swirled in and carried her away.
Today Meljean is generously giving away TEN packs of trading cards featuring her characters (See Rhys and Mina above), AND a copy of the anthology Wild and Steamy (out next week), which contains a short Iron Seas novella by Meljean. To enter the contest, answer Meljean's question above: Is there anything you think that steampunk isn't? Or comment on her post in some other way. The contest will close at midnight tonight and the winners will be announced tomorrow on this thread.