Crack open a clockwork tale about a teenage steampunk sweetheart and don’t be surprised if she’s shucking her skirts for pants, piloting air-based contraptions or generally giving all proper Victorian societal conventions a kick in the rear. She might allow the corset to stick around, but only for sartorial reasons.
While not all steampunk heroines are quite this flagrant about defying standards, they are all armed with something wonderfully refreshing amidst the young adult (or YA) paranormal swamp: Moxie. When they can’t wear pants or take the wheel, expect a smart, sassy verbal assault.
The steampunk subgenre may be just initially capturing the attention of mainstream readers, but it’s one authors like Scott Westerfeld, Cherie Priest, Kathryn Smith and Gail Carriger have embraced and fueled the last few years.
For Priest, it all started during her Texas history class in public school. After finishing a novel on the rollicking history of the state, Priest approached her teacher.
“How come there weren’t any women in Texas?” she asked.
“Oh, there were women in Texas, they just weren’t doing anything very interesting or important,” Priest recalls her teacher saying.
But as Priest likes to say, “We were all there.”
“These awesome women who made great contributions kind of got left out of history books,” she said. “Steampunk is a hell of a way to bring that back.”
In her YA Clockwork Century series, Priest places real people, like the infamous Belle Boyd, in the rough and tumble world of an alternate America. In the 1880s, the Civil War is still raging and airships deliver supplies. Priest actually toned down aspects of Boyd’s life that made her seem like a 21st century feminist so she wouldn’t be accused of writing a “modern” character.
Priest’s inspiration not only stems from proving that women had purpose in Southern U.S. history, but reading authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and F. Marion Crawford. She also identified as a Goth in her teens, embracing the inherent theatricality of it.
“When I was a tragic young Goth, it was a pasty-young-white-boy thing,” she said. “Steampunk is all-inclusive – men and women both love it.”
Across the pond, Kathryn Smith’s steampunk heroines are rolling on their striped stockings, wearing steel corsets and kicking butt in shorts and trousers while rolling through the streets of London and Whitechapel on velocycles.
“In a steampunk world, women can be anything,” author Kathryn Smith, who writes as Kady Cross, said. “The Girl in the Steel Corset” is the first of her YA Series, the Steampunk Chronicles. Smith believes that Finley Jayne, her lead protagonist, and her friend Emily, are two of the strongest characters she has ever written.
“I can have this heroine chasing down bad guys, tinkering in her workshop, and basically doing things normally reserved for a male protagonist,” she said, referring to a future steampunk romance release. “Being able to write these interesting woman has been amazingly fun.”
Smith originally pitched the Steampunk Chronicles as “'Teen X-Men’ meets ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.'”
While Finley embodies Smith’s opinion of steampunk – “wonderful and terrible at the same time; a contradiction,” she also presents an empowering heroine. The beginning of the book puts Finley, a servant, in a corner as she faces down the unwanted advances of her employer’s drunken son, who intends to hurt her in more ways than one. It’s safe to say that the young duke loses the fight.
Although Finley has a very fictional duality (think Jekyll and Hyde), these empowered female characters aren’t out of the realm of possibility. Like in Priest’s Clockwork Century series, they are based on real women that history has ignored. Since steampunk is largely motivated by reclaiming or rewriting history, it was a perfect fit.
“The steampunk movement is partly about messing up the stuffy ways of the Victorians,” Scott Westerfeld, author of the popular Leviathan series, said. “Adding anachronistic technology and modern social mores to that very constrained period is a bit like bringing a flame-thrower to a tea party.
“In many steampunk works, history is rewritten in a very positive way, with women - and other people who suffered under imperialism - given roles and powers beyond their historical station. It's a way of reclaiming history, and rewriting the roots of our modern world.”
One of Westerfeld’s main characters is Deryn Sharp, a young woman who masquerades as a boy to serve as an airman in the British Air Service during an alternate history version of WWI.
“History gives lots of examples of woman pretending to be men in order to serve in the armed forces,” he said. “In 1914, a young British woman named Dorothy Lawrence disguised herself as a man and worked as a sapper on the front lines.”
Westerfeld grew up reading a series called “Boy’s Own Adventures,” what he describes as century-old teen novels he discovered in his parents’ attic. He loved the action and adventure packed into each story, but they were missing one key component: female characters. This provided powerful inspiration for his Leviathan series, which pits the mechanical, machine-driven “Clankers” of Europe versus the Darwinists, who have taken evolution to a whole new level.
“In ‘Leviathan’ I wanted to recapture some of their old-timey spirit, but at the same time give girls a place in that world of adventure and derring-do.”
Author Gail Carriger still gives the lead character in her Parasol Protectorate series a sense of independent swagger while protecting her ankles from being scandalously exposed.
Her character Alexia Tarabotti is a bluestocking of Italian descent who has a knack for using her parasol as a weapon and lives with one major problem: she’s soulless. She also befriends vampires and werewolves, but her dress code adheres to Victorian expectations.
“My steampunk world is still restricted by the culture of the time period. I do use it as an opportunity to play with gender roles and academic achievement in women, but I would have done that in my books with or without a steampunk element,” Carriger said. “It is certainly true, however, that writers can use the intrusion of an alternate technology to highlight or imply an intrusion of an alternative culture more empowering for women.”
Regardless of whether it really comes down to skirts versus trousers, steampunk fiction, like other evolving subgenres, is what each author makes it.
“There is nothing punk about letting other people tell you about how to participate in your hobby,” Priest said.