The allure of steampunk
2008 was a year of steampunk resurgence in science fiction. What’s steampunk, you ask? Steampunk can be broadly defined as Victorian-era science fiction featuring steam-powered technology. Think oversized gears, majestic airships, visionary inventors, automatons, clever gadgets, and tales ranging in tone from grimdark to light-hearted action-adventure.
The increase of titles wasn’t huge, but was significant enough that more readers started paying attention. But one published book stood out from the rest of the offerings because the story also featured a romance: Dru Pagliassotti’s Clockwork Heart.
Discovery of Clockwork Heart inspired me to write a post called Steampunk Is The New Black on 9/22/08. The reason? I wanted something that wasn’t being offered in significant numbers by publishers, namely, steampunk romance.
It was pretty much a given that traditional steampunk would be unlikely to include a romance, let alone leading female characters, People of Color, and characters with disabilities. I knew I had to look elsewhere for those elements. Since there were so few titles available, I began advocating—and I wasn’t above the occasional begging—for steampunk romance through blog posts and any other way I could get the word out.
Others must have been thinking along the same lines, because in an astonishingly short amount of time, romance authors and publishers answered the call.
These days, we have various steampunk romance anthologies from publishers like Samhain, Carina Press, and DAW. Meljean Brook, Zoe Archer, Nico Rosso, Cindy Spencer Pape, Beth Ciotta, and Kate Cross all launched steampunk romance series. You can also read stand-alone stories by authors such as Nathalie Gray, Pauline Baird Jones, Leslie Dicken, Katie MacAlister, Bonnie Dee, Christine Danse, and more.
Combining steampunk with romance became a groundbreaking and envelope pushing venture. How so? Well, steampunk romance, as a niche genre, gives authors the freedom to encompass a wider variety of perspectives. Defining it was a work in progress, so authors were free to experiment with characters and plots that hadn’t been attempted before (at least in terms of published stories).
Because of the intersection of steampunk technology and a budding romance, the genre can explore issues such as the impact of prosthetic limbs on intimate relations. When one has two artificial legs, such as hero David Kentewess from Meljean Brook’s Riveted, activities able-bodied people often take for granted—like lovemaking—require a different strategy.
Steampunk romance offers the opportunity to challenge our assumptions about people with disabilities (e.g., that a person with a prosthetic limb isn’t whole, or is ugly/inferior compared to an able-bodied person). These tales can also deliver a heroine made extraordinary by virtue of her prosthetic, like Kalindi MacNeil from Zoë Archer’s Skies of Gold.
Steampunk romance is a very young genre. Given the popularity of Victorian England as a setting, chances are slim that authors will venture beyond Great Britain very often. But some authors are ahead of the curve, like Lisabet Sarai with Rajasthani Moon and her short story Green Cheese (Steamlust: Steampunk Erotic Romance anthology).
Does steampunk romance have the potential to feature more People of Color? Yes. Currently you can read Nico Rosso’s Nights of Steel, and all the titles mentioned above for racial diversity. Steampunk romance has room for far more such stories, however.
One final glory of steampunk romance is its heroines. This is a genre populated by smart, adventurous, progressive, and sexually confident women. They’re inventors, spies, airship captains, pirates, and engineers. They love action-adventure, and they especially love sharing it equally with the hero.
From this point forward, I invite authors to keep writing steampunk romance, and that they do so with all kinds of diversity in mind. We’ll be all the more richer for their creativity.