Jared Axelrod is an author, an illustrator, a graphic designer, a sculptor, a costume designer, a podcaster and quite a few other things that he’s lost track of but will no doubt remember when the situation calls for it. He is a founding member of the daily flash-fiction website 365 TOMORROWS, and the writer and producer of two science-fiction podcasts, “The Voice Of Free Planet X” and the serial “Aliens You Will Meet.”
I Prefer My Steam Punked
by Jared Axelrod
Ashe, the protagonist on my graphic novel THE BATTLE OF BLOOD & INK is young, angry and poor. She spends half the book homeless. She spends the entirety of it trying to bring down an unjust government. Like the punk musicians and journalists of the last quarter of the 20th Century, Ashe believes in the power of violent speech to change the culture. She’s going to be heard, even if that means speaking with the volume and power of an explosion.
Ashe is a punk, or in the parlance of her world, a clouddog. She’s the rabble the upper crust dismisses, and her journey to be heard is the main thrust of the book.
Steampunk exists in a weird place. There is a lot to recommend it. The outfits are sexy, the DIY underpinning is marvelous, and the 19th Century itself was a time of exploration and discovery the world over. All of this makes for a fantastic fictional setting. But it also takes an overwhelming amount of inspiration from an increasingly narrow cultural conceit. The use of “Victorian” and “Edwardian” to describe steampunk is especially problematic. Not only because countries other than Great Brittan had a 19th century, but because tying the genre to white European royalty is exclusionary on both a racial and class level. I’m sure people who refer to steampunk as “Victorian Science-Fiction,” don’t mean to exclude people, but sadly the language does it for them.
I often wonder, though, if perhaps the biggest issue is that the exclusionary element IS part of the appeal of steampunk. I’m not saying that people get into steampunk because they want to be exclusionary. But it’s easy to fall into a focus on the upper class, and allow the dress and mannerisms of a wealthy Victorian to be celebrated. Even the scientists and explorer characters fit with in this umbrella, as those were the occupations of people of privilege.
This is understandable. Who doesn’t want to be part of a ruling class, even if only for afternoon? Or in time it takes to read a novel or short story? There’s no fun in dying of cholera, either, the end result of many a 19th century rabble rouser.
But there is so much to mine beyond wealthy Brits sipping tea and wielding rayguns. There’s one hundred years of history full of punk concepts! Things like cholera riots, gold rushes, suffrage wars abroad and at home, and the fight for the right of entire subsets of humanity to be treated as people. The status quo was challenged often in the 19th century, and often violently, and those challenges gave us the world we live in today.
Ashe’s flying city home of Amperstam is a fantastical place, set above a fantasy world. But within it is the grit and grime of police brutality, child-labor, kidnapping, torture, assassinations and everything else that kept an Industrial-Age city alive. And she’s fighting against, the only way she knows how. By making sure she’s heard.
I got a brand-spanking new paperback copy of THE BATTLE OF BLOOD & INK. Leave a comment with your favorite punk character in steampunk fiction, and I’ll pick on at random and send you a copy!