Sunday, May 2, 2010

Clockworks and Corsets

By Lisabet Sarai

First of all, I must admit that I stole this title from a novel by Regina Riley, who was a guest on my personal blog recently. I thought that it captured nicely the essence of the hot new sub-genre that is our topic this week: steampunk.

According to Wikipedia, steampunk is “is a sub-genre of science fiction and speculative fiction, frequently featuring elements of fantasy, that came into prominence in the 1980s and early 1990s. The term denotes works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used — usually the 19th century, and often Victorian era England — but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date.“ Note that originally steampunk was viewed as a sub-genre of science fiction. In the past year or so, however, there has been an explosion of interest in using the neo-Victorian, proto-technological settings of steampunk as a background for stories that primarily focus on sex and romance. Currently the Erotica Readers & Writers Association's submissions page lists two calls for steampunk; another just closed on April 30th. I expect that we will be seeing many more stories involving dirigibles and mechanical computers, brass spectacles and pneumatic messaging systems, steam-powered dildoes and spanking machines, in the coming months.

Steampunk erotica offers the advantages of a Victorian setting—sexy, constraining undergarments and a frequent recourse to corporal punishment—while allowing more leeway with historical fact. One could, for instance, postulate a steampunk universe in which someone has developed a safe and effective contraceptive. How would that change a world in which impulsive surrender to desire frequently resulted in the disaster of unwanted pregnancy? Or consider the tendency for Victorians to be publicly prudish while privately licentious. What if a steampunk universe included the sort of capabilities for remote surveillance that are available today? Would the official morality intrude into the bedrooms, stables and gentlemens' clubs that are staples of Victorian erotica? Or would the ubiquitous eye of Big Brother present new exhibitionistic and voyeuristic opportunities for those so inclined?

In fact, I am currently working on a steampunk erotica story myself. However, I'm finding that the burgeoning popularity of the genre is squelching my creativity to some extent. As usual, my reaction to a fad is to want to do something completely different. On the other hand, I'd obviously like my contribution to be accepted. I'm finding it challenging to be original without stepping completely outside the bounds of the genre.

I loved Gibson's and Sterling's The Difference Engine and Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (which I would classify as steampunk, though Wikipedia does not). I actually haven't read any steampunk erotica or romance. That's probably a good thing, though it may mean that I'll end up with something that doesn't fit the editor's parameters.

When I saw this topic, I'd hoped to have a brief excerpt from my story to share. Alas, at this point I don't even have a title. All I have is a couple of characters, a skeleton plot, and an image: a slender half-Chinese woman, corseted and clasped in rich silk, making her way on foot through a muggy, odiferous Hong Kong night, gaslights haloed by mist, garishly lit airships crisscrossing the dark sky above her advertising shops and restaurants. She is on her master's business, delicate business—and she dare not fail.

I figure I can set my steampunk tale in Victorian Hong Kong, at the height of the Empire, and still not violate the requirements of the genre. And I'm sure that commercial interests would quickly take advantage of new technologies, just as they do today. Since this is erotica, I'm confident I'll have the opportunity to lift my protagonist's voluminous skirts or perhaps unlace her stays. And I have some tasty notions for applying clockwork and steam to the manufacture of sex toys.

So perhaps all will be well. I'm looking forward to reading what the other members of the Grip have to say on this topic. Perhaps one of you will enlighten me further about this genre—or even inspire me.


  1. A timely post as I am pondering tackling a steampunk themed story too.

    Sadly, I too am a novice at the genre, though I have long been fascinated by the actual steam era (yes, I was that kid who played with toy trains.)

    As such, I won't be able enlighten you on the genre. But I will say that your setting and the imagery of your story sounds sensual and intriguing. All the best with bringing it to life!

  2. Hello, Craig,

    Thanks for your comment. The problem with starting a new genre is that you tend to be much too influenced by others' work.

    I have read some actual steampunk scifi, so I have the mood, I think.

    Good luck with your story, in any case.


  3. Hi Lisabet!

    I have never thought that much about steampunk until the subject came up for this week. I have an interest in alternate histories, and I grew up reading Jules Verne and HG Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs. And there is something undeniably butch about derigible pilot goggles.

    I want to write about steampunk erotica, but I think the steam powered sex toy theme has already been done pretty well, so I'm not sure.

    Good post. I'll be curious to see how you do with this genre.


  4. I can't wait to read your story. Steampunk set in Hong Kong strikes me as being so perfect.

  5. Lisabet,

    Great post. This really should be an intersting week.


  6. Steampunk is a great genre to work in! I really enjoy the feel and fun of working with over the top steam powered technology and screwing with the traditional views of Victorian chasteness. Good luck to everyone on their steampunk tales and have a great steampunk week!


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