authors Leanne Renne Hieber and PJ Schnyder
By Elizabeth Keenan
Steampunk is much more than just pretty dresses and machines with shiny gears. For the authors and editors of the Ladies Who Steam panel at New York Comic Con, it’s a place to look at the world of the present through the lens of the past.
Moderator Ay-leen the Peacemaker (Tor.com) led Tor editor Liz Gorinsky, Orbit Books art director Lauren Panepinto, and authors Anina Bennett, Leanne Renne Hieber and PJ Schnyder through a spirited discussion of why steampunk appeals to women, both as readers and writers.
Steampunk’s popularity stems in part because it draws on so many different genres. Science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, and gothic romance all show up in steampunk literature, and it draws heavily on the aesthetics and fashion of the Victorian era to build its world.
Schnyder noted that steampunk can be more “steam” or more “punk.” For her, the genre is a place to explore individual freedom and antiestablishment behavior.
“It allows us to delve into the era, into a fantastic contrast of what they ought to be and what they want to be,” Schnyder said.
Although steampunk allows for a re-envisioning of women’s roles at the time, writers should not overlook amazing women who lived in the era, Hieber said.
“Women were at the forefront of civil rights, women were at the forefront of labor unions, women were at the forefront of that in the Victorian era,” Hieber said. “At heart, I’m not using characters from history, but I am using women like them.”
For Hieber, writing steampunk allows her to write books in the gothic romance style she admires, but to create characters who are not damsels in distress.
“These are female characters with more agency,” she said.
Gorinsky added that having agency was more important for female readers, as well.
“The modern readership has more women than men,” she said. “The standard damsel in distress will be discomfiting to a certain portion of the audience.”
Bennett, who writes with her husband Paul Guinan, noted that using steampunk to examine the present is “a classic science fiction thing.”
“I believe we’re in a new Gilded Age, and I hope it births a new progressive moment,” she said.
As an editor, Gorinsky said, she is often asked what makes something steampunk.
“It has to have a Victorian tone, whether or not it’s set then,” she said. “The prose feels anachronistic in a wild way. All of the authors I work with are able to take Victorian-like prose and translate it to a modern sensibility. I think there’s a much wider variance in terms of whether it’s sci-fi or fantasy.”
Beyond the tone, steampunk novels can run the gamut in terms of genre.
“When I’m talking to a steampunk crowd, it’s useful,” to subdivide the kinds of steampunk, Hieber said. “Because I want people to know that if you’re looking for airship pirates and technological elements.”
Bennett pointed out that not all steampunk is written in the same tone.
“As far as the prose goes, it’s written more like biography or pop culture history,” Bennett said. “Some of the journal entries are written in Victorian style, but the other parts are more modern.”
For Schnyder, much of steampunk’s appeal lies in its detail. “Whether it’s costuming, mechanics, or science, we appreciate the detail,” she said. “Although I write romance, I did research on airships.”
Representing this variety in style is one of the challenges of Panepinto’s job. She reads as much as she can of the book and talks with the author to get the right direction. One of her series is like Sherlock Holmes with magic, while another is set in a modern world where Queen Victoria still rules—because she’s a vampire.
“You have to figure out those things on the cover,” she said. “You don’t want all of your steampunk series to look the same.”
The role of women in the Victorian era comes out differently across the different kinds of steampunk, the panelists said.
“I’m not interested in tossing out the conflict,” Hieber said. “Conflict is at the heart of a good story. Tossing out the gender roles erases that conflict.”
Schnyder noted that strength doesn’t always have to be an anachronistically kick-ass character.
“You can address the traditional role of what they ought to be, and take them through the decisions that make them what they are,” she said.
In Bennett’s most recent book, Frank Reade, the main character is “kind of an ass,” who shows society’s flaws in a Stephen Colbert-esque way. His daughter subverts many of the gender roles of the time, mostly because of her father’s position.
“If you’re not addressing those roles, you’re doing it wrong,” she said.
When authors do not bring out gender issues, Gorinsky said, she queries them to find out where it is in the text—and often has them move it forward.
The Victorian setting isn’t just useful for raising issues about women, Hieber said. “White midde-class women have different situations than if you’re talking about a woman of color,” she said. “Steampunk that doesn’t mention class is missing out on a rich source of material.”