Steampunk Romance: More Than Just Brass Goggles

On the surface, steampunk romance can be deceptive. One might think this subgenre is only about the romance, the setting, the characters, the hot sex, the action-adventure elements, and the aesthetic (e.g., brass goggles, airships, steam carriages, prosthetics, and infernal devices).

Steampunk romance has all the above elements and more, which means it also plays well with themes. Authors use a variety of ways to incorporate interesting themes into their steampunk romances. Often, the themes are explored right in the fabric of the romance itself. This subgenre is beautiful to imagine and also it stimulates our minds. Which, of course, leads to excitement in other places!

I’ve noticed a trend in steampunk romance when it comes to themes. Here are five that you’re most likely to encounter in this subgenre.

What it means to be human

A number of steampunk romances feature characters that have been modified in some way. Mainly the transformation takes place with the use of prosthetics or other artificial parts. Steampunk cyborgs, as it were. There are automatons as well.

Characters with artificial limbs or organs often face bigotry and prejudice during the story. As a result, they must decide on how to cope with the resulting feelings of shame or inadequacy. Readers of these stories are invited to question their assumptions about the nature of humanity. A related theme is how powerfully love can validate one’s self-worth and become a conduit for healing.

Books with this theme:
Skies of Steel – Zoe Archer
The Iron Duke – Meljean Brook
Far From Broken – J.K. Coi
The Iron Heart – Leslie Dicken
Far Too Human – Anitra Lynn McLeod
The Watchmaker’s Lady – Heather Massey (in the interest of full disclosure, that’s me!)

The environment

Given all the inventions, factories, and steam-powered devices found in steampunk romance, it’s no wonder that authors provide social commentary on the issue of pollution and the environment.

Characters might remark upon the dirty, smelly nature of a steam-powered carriage. Or they might notice the noise pollution generated by a particular invention. Corporate moguls, in their quest to become rich, blithely ignore the deleterious effects of their monstrous mining machines as they destroy the land beyond repair.

Books with environmental themes:
Wild Cards and Iron Horses – Sheryl Nantus
Iron Guns, Blazing Hearts – Heather Massey
Nights of Fire – Nico Rosso

Economics

In a general way, some steampunk romances explore the impact of technology on a society’s economic structure. What if all the factories were operated by automatons? What would happen to the displaced workers? Bonnie Dee’s Like Clockwork focuses on that theme front and center.

In the world of Zoe Archer and Nico Rosso’s The Ether Chronicles, the world is at war over the metal telumium. Instead of peace and prosperity, the goals are dominance and greed. The stories explore how love can lead to positive societal change.

Gender roles

The exploration and subversion of gender roles in steampunk romance is so ubiquitous that singling out individual titles is a moot point. Steampunk heroines in particular are a major way authors explore gender role themes. The alternate history setting gives authors freedom to place heroines in a wide variety of roles. These women often have jobs, command their own airships, invent devices, or are spies in service to their country.

Steampunk romance heroines frequently have an equal share of the action, especially if the stories have a strong action-adventure component. Their quests, their missions, and their decisions are moving many of these plots forward. Now that’s what I call progressive!

Pros and cons of technological advances

When faced with a new type of airship, steam carriage, automaton, or other device, heroes and heroines in steampunk romance sometimes struggle to determine whether the technology’s impact will be positive or negative.

If there’s a villain in the mix, the theme explores the idea of harmful technology. Other technologies are more neutral in that their impact has yet to be determined. Zoe Archer’s Man O’War heroes from her Ether Chronicles series are one example. The men are fused with telumium, a substance that makes them stronger and also powers their airships (think: a steampunk Captain America). But what will happen to these men when the war is over? What new role can they have during peacetime? Will they be able to adjust to a world without war?

In my new Western steampunk romance Iron Guns, Blazing Hearts (Lyrical Press), I explore technology-related themes through the character of Arthur the automaton. As the most advanced automaton of the time, the invention could potentially be used for good or ill. The key will be the integrity of the person in charge of such power. In the wrong hands, such an automaton could be developed into a weapon of mass destruction.

In all of these stories, we can only hope that the power of love prevails! I’d like to hear your thoughts on the subject. Did a theme in a book you’ve read have a strong impact on you?

Giveaway Time!
Leave a comment for this post and you’ll be entered in a random drawing for a chance to win a digital copy of Iron Guns, Blazing Hearts! Contest ends March 2nd. Winner will be announced by the author on this thread.

* Winner’s choice PDF, ePub, or .mobi.
* The deadline to enter is 3/2/2013.
* Please include your email address and preferred format.

Now for the blurb:
The West just got a whole lot wilder.

A woman on a mission… Scientific achievement isn’t enough for Violet Whitcomb. Life working alongside her renowned scientist father is filled with intellectual challenges, but what she truly craves is love and adventure. She’s resigned to a fate of academic pursuits…until a fateful trip across the American frontier changes everything. A rogue inventor known as the Iron Scorpion kidnaps Violet’s father and she alone is left to plan his rescue.

A man with a secret… Logan McCoy knows firsthand going up against the Iron Scorpion is suicide, but he can’t let Violet waltz into the villain’s lair alone. She may be a stranger, but she’s also the most compelling woman he’s ever known.

A perilous quest… Their attraction is undeniable, but their alliance turns contentious when Violet insists on including a third partner on their mission: her father’s latest invention and the world’s most advanced automaton, Arthur. The reason for Logan’s resistance isn’t clear until Violet comes face-to-face with the Iron Scorpion’s diabolical devices, and by then, it’s far too late.

About the author
Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express.
She’s also an author in the subgenre. To learn more about her published work, visit www.heathermassey.com.