My Steampunk Problem

I like the idea of Retro-Futurism. It’s just fun. The technology of our time is very dear to us all. There is nothing more personal than the smartphone we put in our pocket, or the screens we stare at. But the present is boring, and the future worries us, at the very least.

The Past! That was fun, right? When we merge nostalgia, technology and pulp fiction we get awesome, genre bending worlds. All other -punks aside, the one I’m talking about right now is Steampunk. In my opinion, this subgenre is one good movie away from being mainstream. I said good movie. So that doesn’t mean The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Van Helsing, or Wild Wild West.

If you’re unfamiliar with steampunk, essentially, it’s applying Victorian-Era aesthetics to modern day technology. Of course it gets deeper than that, but I don’t think I’m doing it a disservice at all by describing it that way. Yet, therein lies my problem with it.

Victorian” refers mainly to England, when the empire was under Queen Victoria’s rule in the late 19th century. It was the very peak of the Crown’s power over the rest of the world. The United states was recovering from a bloody civil war and hadn’t secured its place as a global power yet. The industrial revolution would not happen until after the turn of the century.

Despite those facts, SteamPunks are many amongst geeks here in the states, and elsewhere. Go to any Con’ and see how many leather corsets, goggles, and little hats you see. They might be pirates, adventurers, aristocrats, whatever. Take a look at what’s popular amongst YA fiction. Watch Felicia Day’s YouTube channel, tell me she’s not influenced.

Do you see the disconnect I have? I’m being all hipster-y about it. I really don’t care how much exposure it’s getting, beyond my already standing problems. If you haven’t caught it, this genre is, for the most part,  inherently Euro-Centric, make that Anglo-Centric. I am of Mexican/Spanish heritage. See it yet?

I’m not accusing steampunk or fans of as being racist. Don’t get me wrong. Of course I understand that nationalism has nothing to do with liking the look, or enjoying the stories. What I’m saying is I have a problem personally identifying with a genre that has very little to do with my own heritage, and in turn, part of my identity.

It’s the same problem I have with Tolkienesque fantasy. Those stories are all derived from the history and folklore of Western Europe. I’ll talk more about that on another day.

I don’t have this problem with Dieselpunk, which takes aesthetics from the time after the Industrial Revolution (Art Deco, BioShock, Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow). I can say that, as it’s very based in American history, which I identify with more, being a third-generation American (my grandparents were born in Colorado and Nebraska).

I must say here, that I’m not saying I don’t like this genre, I just can’t connect with it like so many of the fans I see. I’m not complaining as much as stating a point.

I know for a fact that I’m not the only one of my kind with this problem. I direct your attention to this awesome article I found on the blog The basic gist is that many Chicano/Latino/Hispanic people who want to claim fandom of Steampunk take aesthetics of what was going on in our history, instead of Anglo history: The Mexican Revolution.

This was no insignificant event. Some history, from the article:

The independence of Mexico triggered the independence of eight different countries. After the fall of the first Mexican Empire, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and the republics of Yucatan and Chiapas, which later were re-annexed to the Republic of Mexico, declared independence. The Republic also still retained the territories of Texas, New Mexico, and southern California.

So, for my little conundrum, following in the footsteps of others might help:

Interestingly, it is this point in history that many Mexicans use as basis for its aesthetics and steampunk characters. This later time period that we know of as the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century also acted like a late call to join the spirit of technological renovation and industrialization that had been held by the European powers. The Mexicans of the late nineteenth century conceived many elements of progress and technological heritage from the French, who were a major presence in the country’s development during this century. Both the fashion and lifestyle, cuisine, style of education, politics, economics, and technology came from the French style.

But here’s where I make all this for naught: I don’t care. Steampunk is huge right now, and I can only see it getting bigger. Like I said, one good movie, most likely in the next year, would solidify it’s popularity for the time being. All the purists will hate it for stupid reasons, while everyone else will enjoy wearing their little hats. As for me? I’m going to watch from the sidelines.

Though I have found my entry point, what I’m saying is that I don’t need it, want it, care for it. Again, I have no problems with the stories, the fans, the aesthetics. It’s just not for me. I think it’s because it’s looking to the past. I’ve never been one for nostalgia, especially nostalgia of a time I’ve never experienced. And it’s always confused me why the Victorian era appeals so much to women. It’s so easy for them to forget how little freedom women had at that time. Maybe it’s empowering to erase that fact from current retro futurism. Just as it’s easy for people of other heritages who don’t share direct heritage with English descendants.

I hate to just chalk up everything that people like about it to a “look.” I understand how cool things look when it’s all wood and leather and steam powered. The anachronism of a steampunk Iron Man suit is intriguing confusing and exciting all at once. But without the connection that comes from heritage of any sort, I’m left confused and hoping there’s more. For the sake of how I see the fans, more than just “it looks cool.”

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4 thoughts on “My Steampunk Problem

  1. I’m going to write a long comment about myself…

    I decided, on a whim, to write a steampunk novel. I’m a woman so my protagonist is a woman and as I built up my story things changed. And as a white woman, I didn’t really “think” about making my characters diverse but then the Hunger Games came out and people were in an uproar about Rue being black, which was infuriating because she’s written as black and why would a character’s skin tone matter that much? From the white perspective, I enjoy books from multiple racial points of view, but throughout all of history, being white has meant being privileged.

    So, what does this all mean to my novel? Set in “New London” which is on another planet, I had the opportunity to break the mold–women are equals and so are other races. My plot focuses on a group of teenagers that set out to explore their planet–and I started changing their names, their skin tones, their backgrounds, etc. My main character isn’t just a white girl, she’s Arabic, inspired by this famous girl My other forefront characters are Chinese, half-black, Spanish, and Indian.

    TL;DR, I agree and decided to try to change that with the racial make-up of my WIP.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Ravel says:

      I can see how that can be challenging for a white woman. I commend you for striving to make such a diverse group of characters. My challenge really isn’t race, but a disconnect from the heritage.

      I love that photo and I think it’s awesome that she was inspiration for your main character. Thanks for the feedback.

    • I have tried to incorporate a bit of heritage as well! 🙂
      I don’t want to be untrue to the characters so that’s a worry, but one reason I picked steampunk as a subgenre is the idea of exploration and adventure. If it becomes a series, we’ll meet more neo-earth cultures, but for now I have pulled in the passed-down heritage of songs for the African-English character, and my main character’s mother has a tribal background, which is a huge plot point (spoilers!). I find other people’s cultures fascinating and a great source of fun if I can bring them in accurately.

      If it’s a case of heritage for you, break the mold! I would love to see what you could do with steampunk and a Hispanic heritage–day of the dead golems, maybe?

  2. tvgilbert says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the topic. I think more of this type of dialog is crucial to where steampunk can go in the future. Unfortunately the anglo-centric approach to steampunk is really something of a crutch for the genre, but I don’t believe that it needs to be, or is, in most cases, the defining element of the genre. Even though I’m a white man, I’ve always felt that the heritage of steampunk was tied more to literary history than to national history, though I admit the distinction is somewhat subtle. In an article I recently wrote ( ) I discuss why I think that steampunk is really an exploration of culture today and not nostalgia for the past. If your interested in multicultural perspectives on the topic there are a couple good blogs : , steampunk Emma Goldman at , and the anarchist oriented steampunk magazine at

    The mainstream iterations will most likely disappoint as it really gets rolling, but these links represent a lot of the DIY segments of the movement that I think will continue to address a lot of the issues that you bring up well after the popular movement has come and gone.

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