Third Daughter: Multicultural Steampunk
by Susan Kaye Quinn
What is steampunk? Most people have a vague idea that steampunk stories, as a genre, “have steam power in them” and, as an aesthetic, steampunk looks something like 19th century Victorian England. From brass goggles to buttoned-up costumes, movies like Sherlock Holmes, books like Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, and costumes from the tinkers and crafters DIY culture, all give us a feel for this British-centric steampunk.
But a closer look at the many cool steampunk books coming out today reveals stories and characters moving “Beyond Victoriana” into cultures that existed outside Britain in the 19th century… or even cultures that are entirely fantasy analogues of the ones existing at that time.
When I set out to write Third Daughter (set in an analog east-India that I call Steampunk Goes to Bollywood), I didn’t intend to write multicultural steampunk. I started with a princess named Aniri sneaking out to meet her lover Devesh in the fantasy country of Dharia. As I developed the characters and the plot, I quickly realized that all my characters were east-Indian, and that the three countries tangled up in political intrigues and saber-rattling were actually analogs for the East-West conflicts that can be found in modern India today, as well as the cultural conflicts felt by Indians who live outside of the subcontinent. Don’t ask me why, but my steampunk was flavored east-Indian from the start!
But as the story evolved, I found rich and deep cultural issues to mine for the conflicts in my novel. In my story, the supposedly “backward” country of Jungali represents the deep cultural identity of traditional India (my main character’s ideas about the backwardness of those traditions change throughout the story, and I hope, reflects the fond sentiments for at least some of those traditions). The second largest country of Samir represents the Western influence – in this case, the technological advancements of steampunk technology. And finally, the largest country, Dharia, is a picture of modern India – an, at times, uneasy integration of both the Western (steampunk) and Eastern (traditional) influences.
In Third Daughter, I took all these cultural influences, turned them upside down by creating a matriarchical ruling structure (where lineage goes through the Daughters of the Queen), and crafted a story that’s both romance and adventure. And I hope something fresh and new.
Steampunk is nothing if not wildly creative, and I love exploring this genre with a multicultural twist – so much so that I plan on writing at least two more novels in The Dharian Affairs Trilogy (Second Daughter and First Daughter). I hope you’ll give them a try!