Writing Steampunk

Gail B. Williams

I’m not often moved to write articles, usually it’s fiction for me. But I was intrigued by the two “Who Killed Steampunk?” articles here and surprised by some of the responses. All genres have their ups and downs, and I’m hoping any steampunk downturn will soon turn around. Again, like the original article, I am restricting this to written steampunk only.

Nick’s articles made me think. They made me wonder what was my unwritten agenda? When I started writing the Shades of Aether series, I just wanted to write a light-hearted adventure (under my other author name I write dark gritty crime and I needed a break from that). The books started as an adventure and forbidden love story, but grew into something more. While I created that, I didn’t analyze or worry over it. It just came about organically.

My main character is a woman and a scientist who struggles to be taken seriously as either. Does that indicate a feminist agenda? Actually, it means I needed a foil for the original lead man. Besides, I’m writing steampunk, one of the leads had to be an inventor. It couldn’t be a man, because that would have been too easy in 1875, so it had to be the girl.

One of my main character’s brothers is a homosexual. Does that mean I’m promoting the LGBT+ cause? For this character, I needed a reason strong enough for family censure, but not something that made him “a bad ‘un”. So, I considered 1870s law and the story potential in the anti-gay legislation of the time. I thought a gay character to a modern readership would seem more unaccepted than unacceptable.

Of the two male leads, one is Jewish. Does that mean that I’m promoting a philosemitic agenda? I didn’t know even Jenson was Jewish until halfway through drafting the second book, when it became blindingly obvious that he’d been Jewish all along, I just hadn’t noticed (and it all stemmed from my realizing he didn’t eat bacon).

The other male lead is a battered husband. Yes, it happens now and it happened than, it’s just not often talked about. Does that mean I’m trying to raise awareness of abusive relationships? Being married to the wrong woman was always a part of the character’s backstory. The violence came about because it was a way to carry the hidden into the light. It works within the story.

The battering wife has all sorts of stability and personal issues. Does this mean I want to highlight mental health issues? There’s a huge backstory to this marriage, which comes out in the third book, but while I wasn’t knowingly championing mental health issues, the harsh and really unpleasant realities of the way Victorians dealt with mental health have a major impact on the situation in the books. I chose this because, again, I thought it worked for the story.

One of my main character’s brother-in-laws is black. Am I promoting racial awareness? Actually, in this case, yes. History has been whitewashed. Way more black people lived in Victorian London than is generally acknowledged. London has always been a bubbling cauldron of populations and ideas. While I felt no pressure for racial inclusivity, I did want to see a particular character’s reaction to it.

My main character’s chaperone is 88 years old and feisty. Does that mean I’m pro-age? Maybe, but this character was really a last-minute addition and making her an aging and loving relative avoided the need to introduce her at length.

One recurring character is a hunchback. Am I working to promote a positive view of the physically handicapped? The second male lead is accepting of the whole range of humanity, so his friends include a male-dressing lesbian and a hunchback. Of course, there’s more to both characters than those titles, but there’s always more to people than the labels we stick on them. This was a way to demonstrate one character’s inclusivity.

I have characters discussing suffrage. Is this feminism in action? Suffrage was a big topic at the time. It would have been strange not to have intelligent female characters discuss it at least once.

My main character encounters prostitutes and berates police officers. Does that mean I have a social issues agenda? Again, both actions were demonstrations of the main character’s nature. Part of which is that her circumstances have made her who she is, so it’s her politics coming through.

Politics wasn’t on my mind when I was writing the Shades of Aether series. I try to make my characters and the situations they find themselves in real and believable. If you enjoy my work, great. If you don’t, fair enough. We’re all different. If you don’t want a diverse range of characters in your novel, don’t have them. If you want to forward an agenda, do, but accept that others may feel differently. Not all steampunk fiction needs to include all things. Not all books need to have an agenda. Steampunk is, and should be, about giving room to people across the spectrum of human experience and possibility.

Inclusivity is what drew me to this genre. Tolerance is what will keep it alive.

Did I have an agenda in writing my books? Yes — to entertain.

Click here to read our review of Shades of Aether and here to read our review of the sequel, Echoes of Aether. Also visit Gail’s website.

5 Replies

  • Dear Gail,

    In your comment on Who Killed Steampunk, your statement was in my eyes like “there are no borders to Steampunk, and thus I have all kind of characters in my work”.

    When I replied there, I wanted to make the point that Steampunk, nor Science Fiction, nor Literature in general have boundaries on the characters. As a matter of fact, it really doesn’t matter to me what kind of characters a story has, as long as it is a good story. Why don’t you have a Martian or an Automaton as a character? After all, there are no limits, and especially an Automaton would make it Steampunk for me.

    Because that is the point: there are boundaries for Steampunk, because if everything is Steampunk, there would be no Steampunk at all. From your comment I do not exactly understand what makes your work Steampunk. A kaleidoscope of characters is certainly not the difference between Steampunk and other genres, because I see this often in regular Science Fiction.

    So what makes Steampunk in literature Steampunk for you? I am not convinced a mad scientist/inventor is an obligation. Why do you call it Steampunk and not Science Fiction, or Fantasy, or Literature, or Romance or whatever?

    What I am worried about is your obsession with characters and how you stress they are in a way not “normal”, but minorities.This is what I often see in English Science Fiction (and it is taking over Dutch Science Fiction as well). It is like you put in minorities because it makes your book special or something, something to show off with. To show that you indeed are one of the good guys, as reaction on all male chauvinist pigs, who only have white hetero cis-male characters in their stories.
    I am a writer as well, and I usually have a set of non-normal characters, but I never stress it. You will find out if you read between the lines. Like the non-normal persons in my surroundings, they don’t grab the attention as being ab-normal, but when you hang out with them you will learn that in some ways they are different.

    For me, what you do is actually killing Steampunk: don’t talk about things that make Steampunk Steampunk, but just use your white pride that you can exploit any kind of minority in your work. I mean, “the guy doesn’t eat bacon so he’s a Jew”? Seriously? Does it make any difference to the plot or the Steampunk content of the story? If not, why mention it, and stress it? And isn’t that a bit of cultural misappropriation?

    Your main character: that is quite the stock character of Steampunk. Every other Steampunk story has a main character like yours. it’s a worn cliché. Does that make your story steampunk? And if, what about your freedom to use any other kind of character? And come to think of it: why do you limit the story to Victorian England/Londen? Why isn’t your main character a black woman of royal decent in Cairo, searching for the remains of the Library of Alexandria, with her Chinese eunuch friend and a silly old gay Martian?

    Meanwhile, writes who try to add a white hetero cis-male character in their story for inclusiveness, are scorned racists. And as a white man, you can’t have Cairo – or anything more exotic than your hometown – as a setting because that is racism too, as in cultural appropriation (I learned from a steampunk blog called Silver Goggles).

    Well yes, that is what is bothering me about Steampunk. Never a good conversation anymore about how you can build a self-driving steam-powered car, or what kind of effect it would have if our Information Age happened in a Victorian society, or what could have been if Youth Culture like rock’n’roll or punk evolved in 1850. It all revolves around this identity literature nowadays, and I don’t like that at all. It’s not what I want to read about when reading Steampunk.
    Again, I don’t mind any kind of minorities in any story (far from, you know the Yashim Togalu stories by Jason Goodwin?), but serving these characters should not be the main dish in Steampunk.

    So I certainly hope your next blog is about the inventions your characters have to deal with.

    • I can’t speak for Gail, but the reason I was glad to publish her story is that we’re having a debate about minority representation and politics in steampunk and it’s worth hearing from a published author on the topic. She’s not saying that’s what makes her novels steampunk. She even specifically mentions at the end that her primary “agenda” as an author is to entertain.

      Read our reviews of Shades of Aether and Echoes of Aether, if you haven’t yet — or, better yet, the books themselves. I think you’ll find they’re plenty steampunk.

      • Gail, if there is a “problem,” I don’t think it’s your fault. I think we have been so beaten down as writers, and it’s been burned into our brains that we must be as “inclusive” as possible all the time it’s become a habit and compulsory to such an extent we don’t even realize that we’re doing it.

        One of the problems that so many fiction writers face these days is that for them to be considered “relevant” is some circles they have to include a grocery list of tropes and stereotypes.

        You need an ensemble cast of characters that must include {Insert_PC_list_here}… and if you don’t include ALL of them you will be lambasted for not being “inclusive” And if you get those characters wrong, you are labeled as a “bigot.”

        You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

        One of the reasons why so many of my articles are so long too often is that I try to be as “inclusive” as I can and cover every aspect of an argument because I know there is going to be one angry critic who will call me out if I don’t mention or address “the other side.” A commentary that should have only been 6 paragraphs long turn into 18 paragraphs long because I’m trying to be “nice” and cover everything.

        There comes a point when you just have to quit writing or say screw it and live with the “Infamous” label. Nothing I do, say or write will prevent “Call Out Culture” in our “Woke Society” from finding fault in anything I publish.

  • One of the problems with Steampunk (and, yes… there are a few) is that you’re not allowed to criticize some of the “Darlings Of Steampunk.”

    Steampunks are becoming so scary and damn boring at the same time because if you actually have the nerve to say “I’m sorry, but in my personal experience you’re incorrect” to the wrong person who has “protected status” you’re ruined in “The Steam Community.”

    If one of these people are being rude, ignorant, or ignorant and you try to correct them or call them out on it, and these people have some position of authority (such as being on some panel approval committee?) you’re screwed and could find yourself banned.

    Or someone could claim victim-hood if they have a lifestyle or orientation that’s different than yours. By merely voicing your opinion you are committing an act of violence against them via mere speech or written words because you’re don’t belong to the “correct” group or have the proper status.

    Case in point, I am not allowed to tell someone who belongs to the LGBTQ community that I don’t agree with their opinion on “apricots” without being called a homophobic, racist bigot who is enjoying his white privilege. There are people who can now say absolutely anything with impunity and I’m supposed to say nothing.

    Let me clarify here and make sure that you understand what I’m saying – I have to preemptively state that the LGBTQ members of Steampunk are not ruining steampunk! That’s just one example in the context and theme of this conversation.

    I used to think that criticism of Social Justice Warriors was a joke, but they have taken it to such an extreme that if I wrote “I dislike the taste and smell of sour milk” I’m sure someone will pounce on me for my backward thinking.

    There are those who just want to just merely lecture and “educate” people who are on “The Other Side” and have everyone who doesn’t want to be lectured and spoken to removed. I might agree with this person on 9 points, but because I don’t agree with them on this one specific point I’m a bad guy who needs to be doxxed, deplatformed and expunged from a group or website.

    It’s come to the point when I find myself giving up and I won’t discuss some topics because too often I’ve been purposefully misinterpreted. I have to take such care to be as vague as possible so I don’t offend the “wrong person” while choosing each word extra carefully to make sure that I’m as clear as possible. I have to weigh my content down with qualifiers and my “bona-fides” so you know “exactly” where I’m coming from, there’s no brevity or conciseness. What’s the point when no matter what I say on some issue people will look for reasons to be angry with what I say even when there are none.

    In short, Political Correctness is one of the things that have spoiled Steampunk for me. It hasn’t happened to Dieselpunk, yet.

    Regards – Eric.

    • I’ve had the same experience. After writing the “Who Killed Steampunk?” piece, I was called a racist (of course), “the child of a skinhead” (seriously) and “someone who obviously doesn’t care about people who aren’t white and straight”. When I responded to that to point out I’m gay — and, by the way, being accused of not caring about gay people is frankly a little offensive to me, but I let that slide — I was told that white people don’t get to “use” their own “marginalization” when they’re “called out”.

      Which wasn’t the point at all, but I guess when you’ve built your whole identity around the belief that you’re a victim, it’s hard to see how you could ever victimize others.

      The world is not that black-and-white, though. You don’t have to choose between critical race theory and white supremacy. If that’s how you see the world — if you’re not with me, then you’re against me — that’s not promoting “diversity”, that’s fanaticism.

      And if you do force people to choose, then don’t be shocked if some of them give up. We are still talking about steampunk, after all, a hobby. People can just walk away. But if you warn that’s what’s happening, like I did, according to the fanatics, that makes you a racist and a homophobe.

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