Getting "Steamed" about the steamy in steampunk

My first big experience of steampunk was at Steam Powered, the Northern Californian Steampunk convention. Among all the entertainments and attractions we've come to expect at steampunk conventions, exhibitions, and the like, was a session on BDSM: how to tie your lover to a bed and not hurt them in the process. In addition to an interest in kink, subsequent research journeys to the Bay Area for steampunk events demonstrated a connection between steampunk culture and burlesque, which has gained ground in other areas in North America. The erotic flavor of Dark Garden's fashion shows can't be denied, nor can we cite "corsets on the outside" as a return to Victorian ethics. In short, many expressions of steampunk are sexy or sexualized. There's nothing intrinsically erotic about steampunk, but the neo-Victorian aspect presents an opportunity for writers of erotica that's simply too good to pass up: the perceived sexual repression of the nineteenth century, and the more expressed underbelly we've come to discover, is a gold mine for writers of erotica.

Color me surprised then, to find my readers somewhat divided in their appreciation of this past month's content. Granted, I went more for erotica than romance, but this was primarily because I got in more reading on the iPhone than I did off hard copies. All the erotica I had to read was sent to me as eBooks, so I got through that quicker, and was able to write about it sooner than the romance.

But it was interesting to see yet another facet of steampunk where people want their steampunk a certain way, and don't like it when it deviates from that model idea. This is the heart of my response to Katie MacAlister's Steamed, which generated some controversy in steampunk circles with its unlicensed use of steampunk images for a book trailer, and was derided as being written by someone from outside steampunk who looked in on steampunk from the outside. Again, as I commented in my post on Steampunk Erotica, this sounds a lot like religious rhetoric: Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and the Islamic community, writ small. My dislike of Steamed has nothing to do with whether or not Katie MacAlister "gets" steampunk. The number of writers who are doing steampunk right now, but aren't part of the steampunk community, are numerous. Steampunk darling Tim Powers responds with bemusement at his inclusion in steampunk events: he is not part of the community, yet produced one of the "classics" of steampunk, The Anubis Gates. I don't like Steamed much because I think it's poorly written: it's a clunky cross-hatch tale where a steampunk fanboy crosses over into a steampunk world. References to Abney Park in the opening chapter are so thinly veiled as to be laughable, definitely demonstrating that Katie MacAlister's understanding of steampunk was mediated through web search, not research. Yet apparently a number of people really liked it, and it proved to be their doorway into the wider world of steampunk. I've met quite a few folks who sheepishly admit Steamed was their first steampunk read. Stop being sheepish people: some people's first foray into fantasy wasn't Tolkien, but Terry Brooks. I celebrate Shannara for making Middle-Earth accessible to weaker readers.

All this to once again say, let us declare a moratorium on transcendent language in regards to steampunk. Enough with essentialist ideas about steampunk needing to be something. People often misunderstand my goal of definition as essentialism, but there is a difference between defining by observation, and defining by desire. I don't need steampunk to be anything. In truth, if you look back through this blog, or read my article, "Finding Nemo," you'll discover I've already had to revise some of my ideas. I started out thinking the punk/oppositional politics was intrinsic to steampunk literature: it's not. Some books have it, others don't. Appeals to etymology are pointless: the punk in steampunk doesn't mean anything. All the punks who keep saying "you're using our name, expect some bad-ass shenanigans to ensue," are as misguided as Christians who keep bemoaning the loss of "Christ in Christmas,"  as though secular celebrations of that season don't have a cultural reality and validity all their own.

Likewise, I could have come up with some clever way of responding to those who want their steampunk G-rated with an etymological pun on "if you don't want your literature steamy, maybe you shouldn't be reading steampunk." That would be ridiculous. Steampunk isn't inherently polite and prudish, nor is inherently sensual and steamy. Steampunk is an aesthetic: this month, I've investigated its application to romance and more often, erotica. Peter Tupper's The Innocent's Tale is good writing, erotica, steampunk, or not. It utilizes familiar science fiction tropes, but enlarges on them through strong characters and clever world-building. The BDSM aspects won't be for everyone, but as I learned at Steam Powered, they clearly appeal to someone in the steampunk community. If it isn't your brand, don't smoke it.


  1. In addition to an interest in kink, a number of people I met that weekend were transgendered. I spent the entire weekend thinking I was talking to a female, only to find out I was dead wrong.

    Just a heads up, but assuming anyone's gender (especially transgender individuals) without asking them is considered offensive - if people are transgendered, then please either accept their presentation as their gender or politely ask them as to how they wish to be referred. Making assumptions of what one's gender is erases that person's identity and can be considered a form of transphobia. Those women you were talking to all weekend may in fact be women, regardless of what physiology they have.

    -Signed, a Steampunk TransWoman

  2. Thanks for the correction, Sabrina. My wording didn't convey at all what I really was trying to say, so please accept my apologies. As I look at again, I can see how my Albertan bias has slipped in there, conflating transgendered with erotic, when that isn't necessarily the case. I might as well say I met people who were heterosexual, for all that invoking transgendered meant there. As someone who comes from a pretty conservative area of Canada (we're sometimes referred to as Texas North), I make that error when I'm not thinking. I've excised the portion from the article, but I'm keeping these comments as testimony to the need for good change in perceptions. Again, thanks for your comment, Sabrina.

  3. Perhaps an easier way to look at it is to separate gender and sex. Sex is whether you were born and still currently posses an inny or an outy in the underwear. Gender is your self-constructed or social-constructed range of 'feminine' and 'masculine' traits. My best friend has a sex change so, even as a fellow Albertan, I have a familiarity with some of the sensitivities associated with the split between gender and sex.

  4. You show remarkable restraint in your look at Steamed. I thought it was a TERRIBLE novel, and I know a couple of folks at work who read it as their first Steampunk novel and have never made the venture back. It must have been popular: they were selling it in the grocery store a few years ago.


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