Four Steampunk Clichés

Too many steampunk novels take pointless airship voyages, are set in London, feature female characters who feel constrained by their circumstances and automatons playing the violin.

4. The airship

The airship journey in a steampunk novel is almost always pointless and generally brings the story to a crawl. It’s just that blimps, aerostats and airships are slow-moving balloons and don’t do all that much for the imagination. It feels like steampunk authors, at times, think they have to go through in a balloon ride to ensure that the audience knows it is steampunk.

Even airship battles are for the most part boring. An exception to the general pointlessness of the airship in steampunk stories would be the Clementine from Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (2009). In this story, the airship serves the purpose: it helps get in an out of Seattle to harvest the yellow gas that turns people into zombies.

3. London setting

Stories set in London make up a large portion of what is considered steampunk. This isn’t always a bad thing, but these stories seem never to stray too far from one another.

London was the largest city in the world in the Victorian era and a likely spot for a setting, but it is a big world. Steampunk stories set somewhere other than London, whether real places or imaginary, are better.

2. The out-of-place female character

The girl who doesn’t fit in Victorian England and wants to do masculine things and build machines. This character cliché is almost always written by a man. It wouldn’t be so bad except that it is done in every other story. All Men of Genius by Lev A.C. Rosen (2011, review here) is guilty of this, and it is by far the worst work of steampunk ever written.

Female authors do a much better job of writing female steampunk characters since they don’t apologize for writing women who like being women. The female protagonist in Gail Carrigers’ Soulless (2009) is more in line with a real woman and not a Victorian tomboy. Thus making for a much more interesting character story.

1. The automaton playing violin

The scene with the automaton playing the violin is done over and over again. An automaton playing the violin doesn’t add anything and just shows how unaware an author is of the genre. Or it shows the author was a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan. The Affinity Bridge (2008) and The Doomsday Vault (2011) are guilty of this, but there are plenty more. 

This story is part of the archive of Steampunk Books, Kevin Steele’s website of hackneyed steampunk book reviews and lists (2016-20). Click here for the full archive.

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3 comments

  1. Interesting, but I strongly disagree. I’ve never read a story with a violin-playing automaton, but I’d love to, plus airships, London settings, and out-of-place women, preferably ALL in the same story!

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