#60 Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories — A Roundtable Interview, Part 1

Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories is a very unique anthology for a variety of reasons. By unique, I’m not stating that this anthology is tailor-made for only a specific target audience (though it may scream “niche” to the average reader.) Still, upon first impression, a reader might wonder: would someone who isn’t queer or female or a romance lover still enjoy this book? Torquere Books, known for its queer and alternative literature, may be jumping onto the growing steampunk bandwagon that is gaining speed in the publishing world. And, some people might fear the worst after steampunk Palin– is Steam-Powered just another trend-hopper?

No, it is not. To think so would do a great disservice to the quality of work contained within this volume, and the literary thoughtfulness from both the contributing authors and Steam-Powered‘s editor JoSelle Vanderhooft.

These stories feature the work of several prominent and up-and-coming writers in the SF/F world. It starts off strong with N.K. Jeminsin’s The Effluent Engine,” previously published on her blog for the A Story for Haiti fund-raising campaign, and also includes the work of Georgina Bruce, D.L. MacInnes, Sara M. Harvey, Beth Wodzinski, Rachel Manija Brown, Shira Lipkin, Matthew Kressel, Meredith Holmes, Teresa Wymore, Tara Sommers, Mikki Kendall, Shweta Narayan, Mike Allen, and Amal El-Mohtar.

Reading through this collection, I’ll be honest: I wondered how many would just be all-female bodice rippers. How many would be whimsical tales of wish-fulfillment with just more pretty corsets and maidens swooning into each other’s arms? Not that queer women shouldn’t have those options available in the overwhelmingly heteronormative romance world, but since romance isn’t my immediate cup of tea, I was afraid of running into nothing but re-hashed tropes or historical Harlequin novels with airships.

I was pleasantly surprised by the variety I found here.  This collection did contain some stories that played with the typical romance tropes that romance readers have always enjoyed. But the attraction of the collection showed how the shades of romance varied as much as the locations, the writing styles, and the plotlines. You can have your grit and your slice-of-life alongside your adventures and sugarspun fluff.

More importantly, romance, though it played a part in all the stories, was not always the central component of these stories. None of them choose the Twilight-esque relationship scenario and not all have a “riding into the sunset with roses & buttercups” ending. More than about romance, this anthology is about relationships: dangerous and moving, frenetic, complicated, wistful, and conflicted. These female romances in the stories show characters who discover how wonderful connections can be or how they can be something to mourn, how they can bloom in unexpected places, or simply fall apart.

I was going to write more to explain how incredibly diverse and engaging I found these stories. But instead, I’ll let the below profiles & interviews speak for themselves.

JoSelle and several authors from this collection took the time to answer some questions about their stories and the beside-the-scenes look into their writing. Below is the first half of our roundtable interview with authors Sara Harvey, Amal El-Mohtar, Mike Allen, Matt Kressel, Shira Lipkin, Teresa Wymore, and Shweta Narayan. On Monday, the second half of the authors’ interviews will be posted along with some additional questions answered by JoSelle.

About the Authors:

Sara M. Harvey (“Where the Ocean Meets the Sky”) describes herself as “an author, a costume historian, a college instructor, and a designer of theatrical costume as well as wearable art fashion.” Her dark fantasy series from Apex can be bought through their store Convent of the Pure and The Labyrinth of the Dead. Check out her website at www.saramharvey.com.

Amal El-Mohtar (“To Follow the Waves”) “I’m a first-generation Lebanese-Canadian, though presently an ex-pat; I’m in the third year of a PhD program at the Cornwall campus of the university of Exeter, writing on representations of fairies in Romantic-era writing. I’m an editor as well as a writer and poet; I’ve co-edited Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry, for the last four years, as well as guest-edited an issue of Mythic Delirium. I also play the harp, am a Sagittarius, and a consummate drinker of tea.” She is the author of The Honey Month short story collection, and has work in Apex Magazine’s Arab/Muslim issue, Weird Tales, and Strange Horizons. Her upcoming work will be included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Thackeray T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, and Ellen Kushner and Holly Black’s Welcome to Bordertown, next year. More info can be found on her Writertopia Profile.

Mike Allen (“Sleepless, Burning Life”) wears lots of hats; by day he is the arts columnist for his city’s newspaper. Evenings and weekends, he’s a writer of fiction and poetry and an editor of same. Mike edits both the Clockwork Phoenix: Tales of Beauty and Strangeness series of anthologies and the long running poetry journal Mythic Delirium. His fiction has appeared in places like Interzone, Weird Tales, and the DAW anthology Cthulhu’s Reign, and been adapted for audio at Pseudopod and Podcastle while his poetry’s popped up in spots like Pedestal Magazine, Strange Horizons, the Nebula Awards Showcase anthology series and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year. He’s won the Rhysling Award for best speculative poem three times, and has been a finalist for the Nebula Award for short fiction. More information can be found on his website, Livejournal, and Facebook.

Matt Kressel (“The Hands that Feed”) is an IT guru by day and a writer, editor, and publisher by night, or vice versa. He publishes and edits the magazine Sybil’s Garage and published the World Fantasy Award-winning Paper Cities, An Anthology of Urban Fantasy. He co-hosts the KGB Fantastic Fiction reading series in New York City alongside Ellen Datlow and he’s the happiest when making something. His short work can be found in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Weird tales, the anthology The People of the Book, an anthology of Jewish-themed fantasy and science fiction stories, and the upcoming anthology Naked City, edited by Ellen Datlow. More of his work can be found at www.matthewkressel.net.

Shira Lipkin (“Truth and Life”) writes mostly urban fantasy (as in fantasy set in a city, not paranormal romance), science fiction, and comics. She is also an activist, working primarily with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center; she does community mobilization and outreach, public speaking, and volunteer training and recruitment, and she’s working on a nonfiction book about how to dismantle rape culture in her spare time. Most of the rest of her energy goes to her awesome teenage daughter, who has recently started getting into steampunk herself. Visit http://shiralipkin.com for a complete list of her work; she’s also been known to post random flash fiction on her Livejournal.

Teresa Wymore (“Under the Dome”) “Mostly, I’m a reaction. Everything about me is fluid, so who I am is wrapped up less in what I do, how I do it, and who I do it with than in my inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. The blessing of age is that less of my existence depends on knowing that difference.” She has been published in anthologies with Bella Books, Thunders Mouth Press, Cleis Press, Torquere Press, and Drollerie Press. She also have several novels coming out from Drollerie, including Darklaw (the first of an erotic fantasy trilogy) and Stilicho’s Son (historical about Late Rome). She also has a number of shorts and illustrations on my website http://teresawymore.com.

Shweta Narayan (“The Padishah Begum’s Reflections”) was born in India, and lived in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, The Netherlands, and Scotland before moving to California, where she’s currently trying to pull apart her own issues of privilege, assimilation, and postcolonial identity (and sometime in there, finish a dissertation). Shweta also writes, draws, analyzes language and comics, and squees about equally at science geekery, layered stories, crafts, small children, and high tea. She has currently got three other stories set in the same universe as this one: “The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar”, in Shimmer’s Clockwork Jungle book, and reprinted in Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded; “Sultana Lena’s Gift”, in Realms of Fantasy’s April 2010 issue; and “Eyes of Carven Emerald” (also available to read on SF Signal) in Clockwork Phoenix 3. Her Big Eye-crossing List Of Everything is at http://shwetanarayan.org/bibliography.html.

***

How do you define steampunk?

Sara: Steampunk, to me, is the “good parts” version of 19th century history where the costumes are amazing and the people are awesome and the world is a place full of optimism and hope.

Amal: I recently wrote an article about steampunk for Tor.com (Towards a Steampunk Without Steam), and find that in about 1000 words I didn’t quite define what it was so much as what I didn’t want it to exclusively be. So, trying that again: I define steampunk as something that engages retrofuturistically with tensions and anxieties similar to those we can identify in Victorian England — around industry, new technologies, mechanisation, urbanisation, class rights and riots, social justice — but which are not unique to or limited by it. I want to see it explode sub-genre boundaries: if we can conceive of fantasy without Western-style dragons, why not conceive of steampunk without steam?

Mike: I’ve always thought of steampunk as fiction that imagines recognizably low tech devices evolved to the point that they meet the qualifications of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous indistinguishable-from-magic dictum. Victorian fetishism need not necessarily apply.

Matt: To me, steampunk is an aesthetic that can be applied to anything, be it fashion, sculpture, fiction, etc. At its heart, I think it’s a romanticization of a period of history where science and mechanization seemed to promise infinite possibilities. It often encapsulates a spirit of adventure. And steampunk also, it seems to me, is a kind of alternate history where Shockley and Pearson never invented the transistor.

Shira: Differently than most, I suspect. I was puzzled when JoSelle solicited a story from me for this anthology – “You know I don’t like steampunk, right?” And I do like steampunk as an idea and as a concept, but the execution has turned into “neo-Victorian with some gears glued on.” Cyberpunk was one of my first genre obsessions, and I grew up punk myself, so when you use the “-punk” suffix, I expect a certain amount of actual punk aesthetic, and I don’t think we’re seeing that enough; I’d like more of that.

Teresa: I define steampunk by its contradictions: gleaming gears of progress produced by parochial minds; a spirit of adventure set free by a culture that legitimizes colonialism; scientific discovery given meaning by a dogmatic religion. Although steampunk stories often focus on utopian dreams, I find the nightmares more compelling, because the price of progress is always human suffering. And how is inequity made acceptable? The 19th century answered that question with abominations like phrenology and social Darwinism, while today, we have pseudosciences like evolutionary psychology. Steampunk is a perfect genre for exploring such questions, whatever your world.

Shweta: I generally try not to define things, because I hate being wrong, but I think of Steampunk as a sort of tension between the cultural narratives we have and those we could have had. I see the alternate technology/mythology/metaphysics as vessels for that (as well as sources of squee), and the doily-covered horror of dominant 19th century narratives as the thing we’re in conversation with.

What was the inspiration behind your story?

Sara: I am a native of the San Francisco Bay Area and grew up on tales of Emperor Norton. I have been dying to use him in a story somewhere. While I love the “traditional” English Victorian setting of Steampunk, I was really drawn to a non-European setting. And personally, when I think “Victorian,” I think of San Francisco, especially the architecture of the homes in the city! Plus, the Dickens Christmas Fair happens every holiday season in San Francisco, so for me, it was a natural correlation between time period and place.

But still, I had some initial difficulty trying to come up with a really good story that had depth and interest. I didn’t want the story to fall flat and be just two-dimensional. I even wrote a blog post about my struggle with this particular tale over at Apex’s blog. And what I realized was not to try and make a story about a lesbian relationship, but to people the world with amazing folks in a fascinating setting and, oh yeah, the two main characters are both ladies and totally into each other.

It started with a bumpy plane ride into Oakland airport in the driving rain. And I saw these barges anchored in the bay, waiting out the storm. It looked like the plane was about to land on one of them and this lightbulb went off and I started to jot down a story about a dirigible captain trying to bring an airship onto one of these landing barges during a terrible storm. Now of course the ship needed a captain….and it just opened up for me form that point onward!

Amal: It happened in stages. Originally I’d had a very different idea, but as the deadline for the story neared I was crumpling beneath the weight of research that idea required. One day I was sitting in a cafe overlooking the harbour, writing in a journal to my friend Claire Cooney about how I didn’t think I could write the idea I had, and was feeling the need to do something completely different, when I became aware of a woman sitting some distance away, near the door.

I couldn’t stop looking at her hair. In that moment, I knew that I had at least a piece of the story I would write, and knew that it would be in a world where long, loose hair was shocking and strange, and had an inkling of what my protagonist would be like, as well.

Just about a week later, while on a train returning me to Cornwall after a pretty extensive bout of travelling the land, I started thinking of dream-devices and what they might look like, how they might work. I can’t
say for certain what sparked this, except that I was looking out the window while on a moving train, and in so doing was no doubt glancing against a world of ideas accessible only when one is in motion.

Mike:  Two distinct concepts met in “Sleepless, Burning Life” and became hopelessly, violently entangled. One involved a cult built around a goddess who could never sleep, a story idea I’d batted about for a bit that never quite caught fire on its own. The other involves an obsession I’ve had since childhood with the idea of a clockwork universe made literal in all of its concentric spheres, moved by gears the size of stars or even galaxies. The idea of a quest to pull the pin that makes the universe come undone has popped up in other things I’ve written, and here it became something more metaphorical — the goddess herself is the pin. Let her have the oblivion she craves, and the universe falls apart — perhaps.

Matt: I wanted to explore a steampunk universe from the point of view of minority characters. In “The Hands That Feed” the protagonist is a Yiddish-speaking Jew on the Lower East Side of Manhattan who hires an immigrant from Gujarat, India, and they fall in love. I also wanted to explore the moral assumptions that come with privilege. Mostly though, I wanted to have fun. I think at the core of steampunk is a sense of adventure and possibility, and so I tried to emphasize those elements in my narrative.

Shira: JoSelle wanted non-British steampunk, and I was happy to oblige! I tossed around a number of possible locales, but I kept coming back to Prague; Victorian-era Prague was so nifty! I fell headfirst into too much research (there were revolutions! and innovations!), until I realized that if given my head this would spin out of control into a novel, and besides, I still didn’t have *characters*. So I looked at what else Prague’s known for, pulling from my Jewish upbringing. Golems. Why would a nice Jewish girl build a clockwork golem? And then I had Rivka in my head telling me why.

Teresa: My inspiration was The Island of Dr Moreau (HG Wells) and its interest in human exceptionalism: what makes us different from animals is an awareness of, and striving for, an ideal. The shadow side of idealism is that we cleanse ourselves of baser desires by projecting them onto others. Humans have a terrible capacity and unquenchable thirst for sensation and power. In “Under the Dome”, the shark-grafted Alice is disenfranchised and lives for the moment rather than for a future she doesn’t believe she has. Her passion, her power, is destructive rather than constructive, and her violence has nothing to do with the animal inside her. She doesn’t absolve her humanity by blaming the beast inside. What makes her most privileged makes her most guilty. In that way, with that honesty, she’s a hero, but the rest of the world holds fast to a “natural” stratification of races, classes, and species.

Shweta: I’ve been writing these stories about a mechanical bird who tells stories and meddles, and realized she would have Issues with the British Raj; I happened to be coming up with the resulting alternate-history sequence when Jo asked me to write a story for this book. At which point the mechanical Mughal empress of my alternate history fell into focus, going “Well you didn’t think I was straight, did you?”

So, er. I suppose the inspiration was voices in my head.

***

Read Part 2 of their Roundtable interview on Monday, where we talk about writing processes, where steampunk is heading, and featuring our exclusive interview with editor JoSelle Vanderhooft.

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10 responses to “#60 Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories — A Roundtable Interview, Part 1

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  2. damebluestocking

    added everybody to my reading list. thanks for the heads up.

  3. Professor von Explaino

    I am looking forward to getting this collection. On your recommendation I pre-ordered it so, being in the antipodes, I can expect it anywhere from now until 4 weeks from now. Your description of the variety I can look forward to is welcome, the idea of romance being explored in both steampunk and an unfamiliar relationship style are also selling points that interested me.

    Reading the above, though, your mentioning Steampunk Palin may be pushing the friendship somewhat ;)

  4. chelseagirl

    I was already looking forward to this collection; now even more so! And yet I just tortured myself by ordering a hard copy; somehow I think this is one I’m going to want on my shelves, not just on my Kindle . . .

    I wondered a little about Teresa’s reference to “scientific discovery given meaning by a dogmatic religion” because doubt and loss of faith in the wake of Darwin, the fossil record, etc. are such a big part of religious discourse in the Victorian era. But it’s clear that she and all of the contributors know their stuff and have really thoughtful approaches to steampunk — can’t wait!

  5. Lisa

    Thanks for the heads up about this collection! I can’t wait to read it for myself, and I’m happy to know about such a great little non-corporate press!

    • Lisa

      Hmmm . . . and I wonder if there is something about a collection that seeks to examine the taboo (i.e. women’s sexual desire for each other that is _not_ about male spectatorship) that then prompts simultaneous interrogation of other interesting categories of identity and the social/economic power dynamics at work in the way those identities function in the Victorian period and now?

  6. Pingback: #61 Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories — A Roundtable Interview, Part 2 | Beyond Victoriana

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  8. Aaron

    Are these stories actually steampunk, OR are they romance in a steampunk setting? There is a difference. I’m not bashing or being negative. I’m just pointing out that this often happens – a genre is only used as a setting and that the story is not actually of that genre.

    Just a thought, and I appreciate you bringing these stories to our attentions!
    Thank you!
    Aaron

    • Depends what you mean by “actually steampunk.” I usually go by Mike Perschon’s definition about steampunk being an aesthetic (which is why there are steampunk romances, mysteries, horror, etc, etc).

      If you’re asking whether these steampunk stories only use the props around a romantic story, I’d say no, because the use of steampunk isn’t a shallow application of gears in the bedroom, but fully formed integrations of mechanics and history into each story. I will say, however, that some stories use steampunk in a hard sci-fi sense (“Under the Dome”), while others use a more fantasy approach (like “Sleepless, Burning Life”). Other stories are more light sci-fi plus other elements, like Jemisin’s “The Effluent Engine”, which can also be seen as a historical espionage thriller with a romantic element rather than just romance. Not all of the stories are just about “girl-meets-girl”, “girl-gets-girl” sort of plotlines, either, if that is what you were asking.