Steampunk Heroines: A Rant

There are a hundred other things I could be doing right now but instead I'm jotting down notes about a (first ever) steampunk short that's been nagging me for several months. There are two reasons for this madness.

First: I am nearly always disappointed by the portrayal of women in fantasy. Be it "sword and sorcery" fiction, science fiction, cyberpunk, steampunk...the heroine is too often a spunky feminist or a sex object (or both). If you like that, sure. I don't.

Authors who write heroines of this type into steampunk fiction lose not only my admiration of wow, this person has a published book! but also my suspended belief. Granted, there are many forms of "steampunk," indeed, the genre's definition is highly debated. I'm talking about the Victoriana alternative reality setting -- your girl should not walk and talk as though she's from this reality of 2011. Worse still, she should not think like someone from the twenty-first century and yet possess the mannerisms of Victorian Era England. It's just confusing.

I want, and I think most people want, two simple yet hard to deliver aspects of steampunk. 1) A heroine you not only admire, love, and can identify with but also someone you aspire to be. She has passions and desires like the least of us, driven by motives like the best of us, but also possesses heroine qualities that inspire and encourage us. 2) As much believability as possible. Mad scientists, giant war machines, airships, zombies are all very well if they happen in a believable context -- a writer must remain true to his or her creation. Imposing modern attitudes on an eighteenth or even nineteenth century society...wrecks the party.

Three examples come to mind: The Difference Engine -- good book, I enjoyed it, but I'm not interested in re-reading the escapades of a courtesan. Full Steam Ahead -- not so good, incredibly mouthy heroine. Boneshaker -- fun read! Not the expected stereotype heroine but she, and everyone else, did not speak like nineteenth century folks.

The second reason: I love steampunk. Do I need any other reason to write fiction in tribute to the genre?

I am not so confident that I can write a story featuring a heroine of such noble caliber as described in the above paragraph, but I am confident that I'll have a good time! The general concept is still sketchy, but blogging about it always inspires me and creates a kind of contract -- now I have to follow through and do what I said I'd do.

Not to reveal too much, but I'm delighted to share a brief list of the aspects of my story that I know so far. Subject to change, of course.

England, 1834 (Playing it safe. I'm comfortable in this century).

Posh family loses oldest son in the Napoleonic wars (Lord Nelson featured? Perhaps. No promises)

Dirigibles (yay!)

Automaton (Daedalus Standard, DaV model 1815. His name is Arlo ((Faerie Queene reference))

Inventions (of course)


  1. Hear, hear!! It all gets so predictable. I like to read about women who command my respect. Real women can do that without being trampy or disrespectful to others.
    The Victorian women (real ones not fictional) commanded a lot of respect from their husbands and community through their quiet strength.
    And I agree, people need to be historically accurate not superimpose 21st mores on a previous time period.

  2. Amen, Sharon! Steampunk has so much good potential for some great storytelling because of the rich history it draws from. Thanks for backing me up -- always good to know I'm not crazy :)

  3. Glad you cited Boneshaker as being better than most at not following the trope that's disappointing you, as Cherie Priest came to mind as I was reading but long before you got to that title. I like Priest's follow-up to that one (Dreadnought,) too- probably more than the original. How about George Mann's "Affinity Bridge" and/or "Osiris Ritual?" Any opinions there?

  4. Yes, 'Boneshaker' is rather in a class all to itself.

    And yes, I have opinions about George Mann! I have only read Mann's first book and disliked it enough that I wasn't interested in the second. The characters are flat, the plot contrived, and the writing quality is poor....awash in adverbs and cliches. So, no, not a fan :)

  5. I cut this particular Gordian knot by setting my steampunk series in the 16th century Mediterranean region, with my heroine coming from Morocco, re-imagined as an advanced matriarchal nation.


  6. Boooooo!!!

    It's not a coincidence that heroines are "Feminist sex symbols".

    Real-life heroines are typically strong, archetypal feminist icons.

    As a result, they also become sex-symbols, because they're objects of adoration.

    Take Amelia Earhart. Strong, independent, self-sufficient. All the makings of a feminist, and yet also a sex symbol for her time.

  7. Hmm, Steve, I agree that isn't a coincidence for our culture to see heroines that way -- I'm lamenting the fact that it is.

  8. Exciting to anticipate your writing. Good discussion.

    1. Thanks, Robert! But like most things, it's turned into an enormous project. Hopefully I'll get it finished soon!