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One of the noticeable gaps in most steampunk literature is a lack of variety and depth in dealing with sexuality. While sex in itself is a frequent topic (brothels make important settings in Paul di Filippo’s Steampunk Trilogy, Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, and Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, to name a few), more serious conversations about Victorian social conventions with regards to sexual behaviors and identities are often glossed over or outright neglected. This, in my mind, is a pity, particularly when one considers the wealth of information on the subject—everything from dry medical and legal texts to fiction and artwork—that could provide the basis for “queering” Victorian-based steampunk.

When I opened Gail Carriger’s debut novel Soulless, I was not expecting much depth of material at all, much less on the specific topic of sexual variance in nineteenth century London. Although I was impressed with Carriger’s interviews on sci-fi and steampunk forums, the back cover summary left me reluctantly expecting a steampunked Twilight, with vampires and werewolves fighting over our intrepid heroine, one Alexia Tarrabotti. What I found was a humorous spoof of both modern romantic comedies and Jane Austen-esque comedies of manners, with more than a bit of intriguing social commentary thrown in for good measure.

In many ways, the world of Alexia Tarrabotti could resemble a stereotypical romantic comedy. We see a feisty heroine (Alexia), her annoying family (perpetually embarrassed by their eldest daughter’s spinsterhood and Italian heritage), style-crazy best friend (Ivy Hisselpenny), flamboyantly gay friend (Lord Akeldama), and reluctant colleague/eventual love interest (Lord Maccon). However, Carriger takes what might otherwise be bland stock characters and places them in a thought-provoking setting.

Within Carriger’s alternate version of Victorian England, supernatural beings—werewolves, vampires, and ghosts--live openly in society. Instead of dominating humanity through force and brutality,they have come to gain power “by the same civilized means as everyone else: money, social standing, and politics” (Carriger, 38). While not everyone accepts the existence of such creatures in “polite” society, most human beings at least respect the social status of the more aristocratic vampires and werewolves. Under Victoria, the Bureau of Unnatural Registry (BUR)keeps tabs on vampire hives and werewolf packs, deals with attacks (both on and by those under its domain), and advises human politicians on the best ways to keep the country running smoothly for all citizens. However, as Alexia discovers, the tense relationships between vampires and werewolves make civilized political discourse difficult. While not a BUR agent herself (her family would be traumatized to see an upper-class woman working), Alexia’s status as a preternatural--a rare individual born without a soul, and therefore immune to supernatural attack--makes her a natural, if frequently frustrated, liaison for London’s hives and packs.

While it is clear that the integration of vampires and werewolves in society is a relatively recent phenomenon (in America, Alexia learns, such beings are regarded with religious dread, and often ostracized or killed by family members), this tolerance allows some individuals more personal freedom than would be acceptable in “normal” human society. Most vampires and werewolves keep or employ human followers and assistants (drones for vampires; clavigers for werewolves), who perform various tasks for their masters and mistresses in the hopes of one day being “turned” themselves. Alexia (and the reader) quickly learns, however, that these relationships frequently go beyond that of master and servant. When she is introduced to a female drone, an actress named Mabel Dair, she remarks that few women survive the change from human to vampire. Dair responds, without a hint of shame or embarrassment, “Some of us just enjoy the patronage. I have no particular interest in becoming supernatural, but my mistress provides for me in other ways” (Carriger, 43).

In many ways, Carriger uses this institution as a metaphor for sexual variety and variance in relationships, something unseen in much speculative fiction, much less in steampunk set in the Victorian era. Lord Akeldama, for instance, employs a number of handsome, foppish young men as servants, spies, and possible lovers. While he and his household at first appear frivolous and unimportant, his drones—all of whom are rich young noblemen who have taken intensive boxing and wrestling lessons—ultimately save Akeldama, Alexia, and Maccon from the clutches of unscrupulous scientists experimenting on supernatural subjects.

Although some familiar with steampunk art and literature might be taken aback by the portrayal of science in Alexia’s world—particularly with the ghoulish experiments her foes engage in as part of their research—I find it a fitting extension of the connection between supernatural and sexual Others. In some ways, their obsessive search for the “cause” of lycanthropy, vampirism, and preternaturals reminds me of the real-life Victorian medical field’s widespread attitude towards homosexuality. Some engage in detailed physiological examinations of subjects, while others devise elaborate machinery to attempt to measure the “amount” of soul a given supernatural has (the traditional explanation for the two states being “an excess of soul”).

The parallels between the sexual and the supernatural go even further in Changeless, the second (and newest) book in the Parasol Protectorate series. Here, we see a continuation of the political maneuvering on Akeldama's part, as well as further political divisions between science and society. One of Alexia's opponents, an eccentric hatmaker and inventor named Madame Lefoux (who flirts shamelessly with an oblivious Alexia throughout the entire novel), is associated with a political/scientific organization seeking to explain the "source" of supernatural beings and phenomena. Even among the supernatural set, there is some division and debate about where werewolves and vampires fit into the natural order. In werewolf pack society, preternaturals like Alexia are referred to as "curse-breakers," suggesting that the lycanthropic state is a cursed existence.

Carriger is deeply aware of the discussions and suggestions within her new series. On her blog, a recent entry deals with “Queering –Up Genre One Akeldama at a Time”. In it, she discusses her childhood in San Francisco and her memories of being introduced to gay couples in her neighborhood. Part of her interest in creating a variety of characters in her work lies with representing the people and settings in her own life. Another part, which she discusses at some length, involves highlighting some of the social and sexual diversity of Victorian society:

Because I have the luxury of writing alt-history, I injected the comedy back into Victorian England through the vehicle of immortality combined with my childhood memories. This seems logical to me. After all, if you live for hundreds of years, no matter what your inclinations or orientation initially, you are likely to get, well, bored and experimental as the decades roll by. And I warn you all now, this probably goes all directions. Don't settle Lord Akeldama too firmly on the Kinsey scale, for there may well have been a young lady or two in his past. The vampires and werewolves in my books can get away with this, of course, because they are supernatural creatures. Church and moral law has no baring on them for Victorians perceive them as outside the natural order. Ironically, this allows them the
power to be even more extravagant and trend setting. It is no accident that excess soul is linked to creativity in my universe, and that my immortals are forced by procreative necessity to become, basically, patrons of the arts. My Victorian world emphasizes the split between those of a theatrical inclination and the rest of society, but also the strange power that the vampires in particular have over the aesthetic mindset of the ton. This is not so very far-fetched. Throughout history is it [sic] the disenfranchised who not only bring about social change, but underwrite society's most dearly beloved frivolities: music, sculpture, fashion, architecture, dance, or comedic literature.
(Carriger, blog post)

In Changeless, Alexia's preternatural state serves to explain some of her own acceptance of (and interest in) sexuality. As a being without a soul, she is not tied to Victorian social conventions. Due to her close friendship with Akeldama, familiarity with the more explicit material in her father's library, and lack of interest in the gossip and scandals that hold her "normal" friends and family in thrall, very little (whether sexual or supernatural) seems to shock her. Revelations surrounding her father's and Mme. Lefoux's sexualities do little more than raise her eyebrow.


One can only hope that more and more writers working in alternate history settings will adopt the complicated, thought-provoking issues and figures that Carriger manages to work into a deceptively simple novel. I look forward to reading the rest of the Parasol Protectorate series and seeing where she develops some of these ideas.


Sources:

Carriger, Gail. "Queering-Up
Genre One Akeldama at a
Time. " Blog. Posted 30 April
201 0. Accessed 6 May 201 0.
.com/1 34641 .html>

Carriger, Gail. Soulless. New
York: Orbit Books, 2009.

Carriger, Gail. Changeless. New York: Orbit Books, 2010.
 

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