Review of Carnal Machines: Steampunk Erotica

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This article first appeared as Steam Erotica and Other Things I’ve Been Reading for Work at Liz’s Masonic Lodge Blog.

This revised version was printed in Caboose #8 reDraft Picks.

Maybe you’ve jokingly looked at someone’s clothes and announced, “I am drooling over that accessory.” You want to own it and wear it, which to some degree means you want to consume it. Maybe if you’re being silly you might even say “Oh my god,  I totally want to have sex with those clothes.” You’re not serious about wanting to actually literally have intercourse with the items. But in “lusting” after some garment or accessory, there is a desire to in some way own and therefore use the item for one’s own liking, whether to wear or to decorate. Steampunk lends itself to playful genre-specific fetishization. People get really into the clothes, the accessories, the gadgets, the gears. So it makes sense that within the steampunk fiction genre there’s erotica. Bionics, opticals, a heart made of a time piece, machine arms in place of real arms — all of these things are various levels of robotics or cyborg-like devices that in costume or real-life, create a steampunk-identified identity which is created by consuming of fetishizing.

On a symbolic level, in customizing the accessories and machine parts to one’s costume, it’s as if devoted steampunk enthusiasts want to “consume” the gear, the clothes, all that – in a way, to “customize” the old to create something new. The term for the process food undergoes after you consume it, when it becomes part of your body, is called assimilation. This seems like a symbolically effective term to label what happens when you customize something steampunk-esque to work into your own appearance. Maybe there’s a welded piece of jewelry. Maybe there’s multiple jewelers lenses screwed onto frames. Maybe there’s multiple broken timepieces dangling. These are all modified objects that are customized, consumed, assimilated. These are all activities that can to some degree also describe “consumption” in ways that are sexual. Think about the word “consume” in any way you want. And also consider that when one reads something, they can also “devour.”

And so that brings us to the anthology of short, sexy steampunk stories edited by D.L. King entitled Carnal Machines: Steampunk Erotica. Some notable items of interest: A woman visits a doctor about sexually based ailment. There is a Doctor Watson. There might have been at least one monocle. There are varieties of sexual preferences. As true with any anthology, some stories are more compelling then others. “Human Powered” by Teresa Noelle Roberts is the most compelling in terms of narrative, which is probably why the anthology starts with this story about two scientists working on a lust-powered machine. Some of the stories subvert cultural traditions, such as “Mutiny On the Danika Blue” by Poe Von Page, wherein a woman on deck of the ship has no rights, but in the bedroom quarters below, she is the captain, a bossy dom who demands the ship’s captain call her “sir.”

There are a few moments where some of the stories feel like McDonald’s Drive Through Steampunk Porn. That is to say, some of the pieces have a tang of erotica with steampunk machines and images name-checked in it. Make a list of steampunk things: goggles, a dirigible, gears, experiments, British accents and so on. Now open this book to any random page. You will probably find something on that list mentioned. On one hand, genre pieces belong to that genre because they each share certain characteristics. On the other hand, if a story is merely name-checking conventions or motifs of the genre, they become less compelling. How do you write something genre-specific without sounding like you’re using a genre cookie cutter?

Let’s say that you wished to perform improvisational sex steampunk comedy (you know, in the event that you happen to be in that situation). You could use this book; open to any page and you will probably find images that are totally steampunk genre-specific. For example (and for laughs), I just opened to page 170 and my finger landed on this:

“Of course, the amount of electricity harvested depended on each boy’s stamina and level of sexual voracity. Some subjects produced almost twice the amount of electrical energy as others.”

I kind of want to take these random quotes and preposterously act them out for an audience. Has anybody done steampunk comedy yet? I have seen elements of humor incorporated into the genre, like music, literature, music videos etc. Would that type of performance get old quickly though? Punchlines are funny if they’re short. Is steampunk humor better as a passing reference rather than in its totality? Hopefully it would be backed up with good writing.

And then I got to thinking about the steampunk genre in general, issues that occurred to me: Should genre-specific stuff regarding certain details of physical objects and conventions of literature be incidental more than pronounced? Should the story exist first or the conventions of the genre exist first? Do the references to goggles and dirigibles get tired fast? Is that why some of these stories feel like someone wrote a sexy story but then their work was solicited by the editors who were like “Here’s what steampunk is! Now go write one of your sexy stories and add in these genre-specific details!”?

When I was done with the book, I noticed in the back of the book an ad for a book called Steamlust. The subtitle on it was “Erotic Romance,” whereas Carnal Machines is “Steampunk Erotica.” Is there a difference? Does it go back to distinguishing the difference between erotica and romance? Or porn and erotica. Whatever. Or was it just that there’s a lot of steampunky material out there and not all of it would fit in one book? I noticed the books each have different editors.  I’m curious to know, how did both books come to be? Or maybe both of the editors were both really knowledgeable and know lots of people who write these types of stories and the publisher (Cleis) was like, “We cannot fit all this in one book?! Let not all of this go to waste! Let’s just do more than one book!” Or perhaps Cleis was like, “Steampunk is super big right now! And sex is always big! Sex and machines! Like a David Cronenberg movie but without shitty special effects and way more optical devices! And with much better behaved characters who also happen to be better dressed!”

But most importantly, my priority above all else, was doing a Google search to see if somebody got to the clever before I did. That is, had anybody coined steampunk porny stuff as being “SPUNK?” Because really, all anybody really wants is to get credit for making up a clever turn of phrase, myself included. So I found some stuff. Sort of. There was one reference to “steamspunk” but it wasn’t quite regarding sex, on on their “Not Remotely Steampunk” section, but what was particularly funny is that they found all this hilarious stuff where the crafters mistyped it (I assume) because sometimes they label stuff as “streampunk” or “stempunk” and so on, which I found hilarious. Streampunk? (Like it’s fish! Is that like steamed fish? To eat?). Also there was at least one spelling “staempunk.” In case you’re curious, it was a vender selling a “Staempunk (sic) accessory Greek Sheild (sic) Tassle” which I thought was hilarious. Anyway, there are a lot of sexy steampunk toys that come up when you google “Steampunk sex SPUNK.” My sexy computer is getting a virus as we speak. Also what comes up with a google search of that nature are all manner of steampunk sex toys like a death ray vibrator or a “steamvibe” (which, I noticed when looking at the picture of it, an ad solicited me for a “Spyware Remover Download,” which I thought was humorously poetic on a variety of levels.) But! So! Considering that the google search for “Steampunk sex SPUNK” pulled up 160,000 hits and I don’t want to spend a whole day looking to see if someone was more clever than me, I abandoned the investigation. If someone hasn’t used the term “spunk” in reference to porny steampunk then they can use it now. I found lots of hits that were just people calling steampunk “spunk” but not any in my immediate search that used “spunk” as being sexy steampunk.

more writing by Liz Mason can be found at

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Topics: Steampunk

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