Steampunk and the Heroine’s Journey: Part Three

The surprising impact of Steampunk novels on The Heroine’s Journey

A series by Mary Sheridan


Dwell in possibilities.

Emily Dickenson



Diversity does not precisely describe what is needed in today’s literary market.

Humanity is naturally diverse by virtue of the unique characteristics that both divide us and bring us together. Among the most visible are gender, sexual orientation, faiths, culture, and geography. We are diversity. We own it. Lobbyists who ask for “more diversity” are essentially asking for something that we already have, and such subtle, ineffective use of language risks confusing the issues at hand and creating barriers to progress.

What we do need is representation for the distinctiveness that 7.2 billion individuals add to our civilization.


In the absence of hard data, simple observation tells us that the majority of novels and films from influential Western creators have white male lead characters. Although that is starting to change, the increased presence of heroines and people of multiple ethnicities still do not resemble the demographic truth. Wildly successful Bollywood movies (Slumdog Millionaire) and YA novels (The Hunger Games, Divergent) show the potential for success of multicultural and female-led entertainment across demographic borders. Still, millions of people do not see themselves represented in fiction.

When we break down continental ethnicity statistics from 2014, 60% of the planets population are Pan-Asian. People of African ancestry are second with 15%, and European Caucasians are next, at 11%. That leaves only 14% of the world’s population scattered throughout North and South America and Australia. A closer look reveals what, for some, startling trends are emerging. For example, recent reports indicate that Caucasians will soon be a minority ethnic group in the United States – perhaps the largest source of “white male” fiction in the world.

The 2014 world estimate of the gender divide is a ratio of 1.014 males to 1.0 female. While there are no empirical data regarding the gendering of characters in adult fiction, observation and anecdotal reporting indicates that the representation of female protagonists remains far below that virtual 50-50 split. While the number of female heroines as well as female authors are on the rise – particularly in YA and Steampunk fiction – representation of a great many other minority groups still wait for higher visibility, for inclusion.

Publishers and authors are being pressed to represent minority and marginalized people in leading roles. The persistence of these demands indicates that the needs of many, or even most, are not yet being met.

Indeed, that is the heart of the matter.


Johnamarie Macias from The Wookiee Gunner, offered a thoughtful perspective on the state of representation of diversity. Her eloquent insights are not limited to genre fiction, but apply to literature as a whole:

“Imagine a modern world filled with unlimited potential and possibilities. It sounds similar to ours, but in our world, there are limits in place and possibilities that are curbed by those who seek to mold the world according to unequal and archaic standards. Diversity is a victim of such thoughts and actions. No matter where you look or turn, diversity is all around us, and simultaneously, nowhere to be found. Most creators and storytellers fall back on old ways, never looking outside the box and testing the waters for something new. Hence, our lack of books with diverse characters, films starring non-white actors, and representation in various other aspects of our society. Acknowledging diversity is essential to enrich and broaden our horizons. Without that, we fall into a loop of unoriginal and lackluster creativity, harming our own growth as a civilization and robbing ourselves of unique and untold experiences.”

Change is a contemporary enigma. Modern civilization has developed a techno-culture of planned obsolescence in which people not only accept new changes in technology they live in breathless anticipation of the next generation of devices. While still-serviceable gadgets are replaced without hesitation, proposals that would bring evolution to personal beliefs, dated standards, or familiar ways of life are more often met with fear, frustration, and resistance. Although humanity has grown more aware of diversity, the issue of inclusion remains a largely unwanted nemesis that faces sometimes violent rejection. The cost of allowing such attitudes to persist, as Johnamarie Macias points out, can profoundly affect our future.

Imagine a world without diversity; a world in which every person is the same.A multitude of Science Fiction books and films explore this theme, often with the distinctiveness of each individual being intentionally suppressed or removed by force to create homogeny, usually through subjugation, tyranny, and cruelty. When heroes are revealed and rebels fight back, we cheer their triumphant defeat of conformity.

The popularity of this type of rebellion suggests that human beings, on some levels, naturally acknowledge and value their unique qualities, which serves to highlight humanity’s duplicity: people commonly fear the loss of their distinctiveness and resist oppression, yet by commission or omission, they are also the oppressors. Humanity excludes others either because it wants to, or because it is resistant to change.

Increasing representation in fiction is one way to help replace cultures of exclusion and marginalization with societies where inclusion is common practice. Storytellers (authors, publishers) must expand their creative work, and readers need to support and create a market for more novels that represent diversity. Greater representation is a responsibility shared by everyone. Like any other issue that is repeated and reinforced, if inclusion is written often enough it can become normative.

Individuals quite naturally want to read stories in which they can envision themselves as the hero or heroine. Until that magnitude of saturation is reached, human beings will continue to author their own discontent.


The award-winning website Beyond Victoriana was created by Ay-Leen the Peacemaker, aka the remarkable Diana Pho, who works tirelessly to promote and educate about multiculturalism in Steampunk. She makes powerful observations about the unique role Steampunk can play in helping to improve representation:

“Steampunk fiction, essentially, focuses on the alternate possibilities of science, history, and industrialization. But, often, people think about only Western, European histories and white historical figures as being valid subjects in speculative fiction. This idea reveals a lack of cultural imagination, enforced boosting certain stories as being the most “interesting”: people of color and their histories and non-Western cultures are stereotypically seen as “timeless” and “unchanging” so they are not “as interesting” to speculate upon. There is also the assumption that only the West had industry and technology worth talking about. Or, even more worrying, it is because people simply don’t *know* how all of these non-European histories or histories about marginalized people. Steampunk stories give people from marginalized backgrounds the opportunity to bring their stories to the spotlight.

Moreover, Steampunk stories rely on readers to become familiar with the histories they are playing off of. So when a story is about India colonizing England, for example, it is a story talking about the effects of colonization and imperialism and a critique of the Raj. When you see women as inventors and mechanics in stories, or even people wearing corsets *outside* of their clothes, it is a commentary about gender roles in society. When stories talk about industrial revolutions, and where those revolutions come from and who they affect — these stories about danger and adventure are also touch upon the ramifications of how technology changes our society, for good or ill.

Moreover, Steampunk as a genre, because it has a retrofuturist bent, can tackle these problems in history (and alternate history) in a way that comments upon our present social, political, and economic problems as well. History doesn’t exist in a vacuum after all, and we are not only products of history, but are living examples of what our future histories can become.”

Diana Pho makes a compelling case for Steampunk fiction’s potential to be a leading genre in the representation of diversity. Yet among the opportunities, Steampunk also contains paradoxical aspects.

Steampunk fiction is a complex genre. The predominant view of Victorian England centers on a white populace with many advantages denied to minority and marginalized peoples. A good example of this privileged Caucasian dominance is the league of famous writers of Steampunk’s foundation novels who are, almost exclusively, white males. Mary Shelley was a rare female Victorian author of importance. But in another literary corner was Mary Anne “Marian” Evans who wrote several classic novels using a masculine penname, something she felt necessary in order to gain acceptance and freedom among her writing peers. Marian Evans was “George Eliot”, who wrote Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss.

Perhaps the most difficult Steampunk paradox stems from its built-in retrofuturism. A necessary reach into the past often calls for authors and audiences to enter places where the ghosts of oppressed ancestors await. In the dark aftermath of countless forms of cruelty or oppression, the cries of mistreated yet often silent or hidden populace are still heard and felt. Those with the courage to visit that past may discover gut-wrenching pain that is difficult or impossible to overcome: valid personal struggles that many in the mainstream (e.g., white descendants of the British Empire) know little about, or may prefer to overlook.

Insight: Scars of Oppression

A fictionalized compilation of several true stories for illustrative purposes.

In a 2013 blog post, a thoughtful young New York college graduate wrote bluntly about her reticence to participate in Steampunk culture. She read dozens of novels, loved the costumes and was interested in design, and generally well-informed about the active alternative culture in her community. Yet she did not feel comfortable becoming a Steampunk.

Her barriers were very personal; her blog entry raw and painful to read. Through her grandmother’s family records, she knew that her ancestors had been slaves, a few had been murdered before abolition, and one – a young child – had been kept locked in a cellar for several years. There were so many stories about abuse and death among members of her family that she was not able to consider growing closer to a culture that primarily represents the Caucasian Victorians who were her ancestors’ oppressors.

Engaging with the Victorian era’s hierarchical society was so filled by white skinned people and dominated by masculinity that it can be an intimidating barrier to inclusion.

In order to encourage Steampunk novels to further diversify from their predominantly white Western cultural history we must acknowledge and respect the irreversible “secrets” in history’s closets and globally accept responsibility for representation. Through careful stewardship of history, Steampunk fiction can continue to provide a platform to showcase our diversity; to tell heroic tales of Malaysian space explorers and Eskimo time travelers. It is imperative that we not shrink back from this challenge but instead listen to the stories passed through generations of cultures around the world. Within Steampunk’s broad, flexible framework there are a multitude of opportunities to use this expansive history to positively influence the future.



”Steampunk as a genre has expanded significantly over the past few years, and I do see more stories that are non-Western or focus on marginalized people. But I would like to see more stories that actively question the role of imperialism (and not only European imperialism).

I’d also like to see adventure stories highlight other figures other than the usual suspects (Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage). I want to see George Washington Carver herald as a leading innovator (as much as he was in actual history!). I want the Buffalo Soldiers or Sacagewea or the Chinese immigrants tackling the frontier. I want the Ghost Dance movement or the Boxer Rebellion succeeding. I want Ching Shih, the notorious female pirate of the 19th Century, lead a fleet of Chinese airships. I want to see Frederick Douglass as a time traveler. There are so many stories and heroes from history who hadn’t had a chance to shine, and I’d love to see those stories get Steampunk’d too.”

~ Diana M. Pho (Ay-leen the Peacemaker)

Representation of diversity is conceptually simple: accept, learn about, understand, and celebrate the unique qualities that all individuals bring to civilization. In practice, of course, achieving this on a global scale is more complicated. For centuries we have endured or even nurtured cultures of exclusion. The creation of inclusive societies is long overdue, and changing perspectives through fiction can play an important role in helping to move humanity away from ugly, exclusive comfort zones toward the inclusion of all people outside of mainstream populations. Any other path severely limits humanity’s potential.

Representation and inclusion are two winding roads less traveled, but for Steampunk writers, there are ways to straighten the curves.

Among an unending supply of inspiring historical figures – famous and unknown; of every ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, faith, or distinctiveness – there are incalculable stories to be told. Bring those figures forward in time, write them into fantastic adventures, and each one could be read by someone, somewhere, who will smile and think, “That could be me.”.




After a century of masculine domination of Science Fiction through to the development of subgenres like Steampunk, women are the rising star writers in this complex, fascinating alternative cultural phenomenon. How do they merge tightly-laced Victorian corsets and the freedom to alter history through their writing?

Among the women who write Steampunk are those who openly challenge Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey with their own design for a parallel Heroine’s Journey that Campbell himself thought unnecessary. Does this mean that a true Heroine’s Journey myth is gaining momentum – and acceptance?

Mary Sheridan is a former ER and Trauma nurse with a life-long passion for real and imagined adventure – usually on horseback. Her right-brain enjoys fangirling over genre books and films; her left brain has finally given up trying to bring order to that chaos. Star Wars has been her favorite alternate reality since 1977 but she also enjoys Star Trek, The Hunger Games – most things creative and adventurous. Recently she has grown suspicious that a subliminal indoctrination process was initiated during her early years by a nefarious group of time-traveling operatives in Queen Victoria’s most Secret Service. While researching this series, Mary felt a sudden compulsion to join her local Steampunk Society and spends large amounts of time seeking period costume pieces – evidence of a latent desire to identify herself as a Steampunk. She is being monitored for disorientation since declaring that once she finds the perfect pair of brass goggles, she hopes to go back to the retro-future in a steam-powered DeLorean.

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