Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Steampunk Mystique *Part 2*

What’s the Steampunk Appeal?

Ah, to ask the unanswerable. Why do some people like olives, and why do some people like Westerns? I suspect most fans of steampunk, the literary genre at least, feel nostalgic for an imaginary Golden Age that waxed and waned 150 years before their own birth. An age where everything had it’s place, where formal headwear was required when out of doors, where men could smoke cigars and stroke their waxed moustaches (their own, I imagine, although I’m sure mutual beard-stroking is a niche market), and women could be frightfully brave and adventurous and yet still look hot in a bustle.

But clearly to be a fan of such a bizarre genre isn’t as strange as all that. Alan Moore, the greatest comic writer there has ever been, has gathered a huge following with the decidedly steampunk League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and his super-gravitational science-hero Tom Strong. Northern Lights – aka The Golden Compass – features airships and clockwork magic. Steampunk is in now like it never has been before. Of course, it’s not really a new phenomenon at all. Steampunk existed in the Victorian age itself, and was born with those first pioneers of the science-romance, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Verne’s Captain Nemo and the Nautilus are pure Victorian fantasy, as Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. They also the finest examples of genuinely period steampunk.

Writing steampunk

And here, dear reader, I must admit to a frank truth that may, if administered without due preparation and preface, be prone to cause such surprise and shock that certain jointed extremities may with sudden impulse become quite weak, necessitating an immediate adoption of the reclined position and the furious fanning of whatever Popular Magazines may lie close to hand, preferably with the able skill of a personal friend or acquaintance.

It’s not easy. If you want to sink right into the world, you pretty much need to hunker down in front of your keyboard and pretend you’re Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. You need to get the style, the wordage, of an era and style long since passed. If you can crack it without throwing your computer off the nearest convenient balcony, it’s a real hoot. It’s not essential and it depends on the style of your story, but it’s a requirement for my stories as they are invariably written in the first person. That person usually being a pseudo/Neo-Victorian fond of expressing himself in a colourful way.

Fun it may be, exhausting it most certainly is. My first official foray into steampunk was a novella, something like 26,000 words, called The Devil in Chains. I wrote it for the science fiction, fantasy and horror e-zine Pantechnicon, who published it in two parts in late 2008/early 2009.

To give a practical demonstration of the difficulty in describing steampunk to an unknowing audience, here’s the blurb I finally came up with:

December 14th, 1861. Queen Victoria dies from typhoid fever. A distraught Prince Albert instigates a coup and takes direct control of the Empire. A patron of science, he steers the path of progress down a dark and dangerous road, antagonizing the forces of magic and the occult as he strives to bring his queen back from the other side. As the 21st century dawns, the world is trapped in a Victorian caricature, industry powered by sun and steam. And nearly 150 years since the death of his wife, Albert still fights to bring her back, his lifespan unnaturally extended with steam power and black arts.

When journalist Jackson Clarke is sent to the Isle of Man to investigate the tale of a talking animal, he unwittingly steps into a battle between mankind and an ancient evil imprisoned beneath the peaceful island. Charged with treason and cut off from the mainland, can Clarke defeat the Devil in Chains?

I actually wrote The Devil in Chains almost as a trial run for my first steampunk novel, Dark Heart, which features the two main characters introduced in the novella, now in partnership many years later as part of an occult-detective agency, as I wanted to see if I could sustain that pseudo-Victorian first person style over length. I could, and I did, and the novel that followed chalks in (currently) at about 124,000 words. In it, the occult-detectives are sent by the British government to investigate a poltergeist outbreak in the West African jungle, where they uncover a buried voodoo god and a zombie army. Meanwhile, back in foggy London, an explosion rips through the heart of the city, destroying the British Museum, while a steam-powered serial killer stalks the streets.

Oh yeah, and an airship crashes into the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

See? Steampunk is fun! The pulpiness of it is part of the appeal, letting you play with clich├ęs and familiar tropes, welding them together to form something quite, quite wonderful. Despite what appears to be a fairly rigid form, in many ways steampunk actually allows far more creative freedom that regular space-faring science fiction or even fantasy – the more outrageous the steampunk scenario, the more fun it is hammering in to the pseudo-Victorian framework. One of my current projects is a collaborative fictional universe set in a single location, the mythical city of Fell Hold, and as part of that I’m writing a steampunk story set in an early period of the city’s history. The title started as a joke – Captain Carson and the Case of the Robot Zombie – but then I realised it was actually perfect. Fitting a plot around it was hard work, but immensely satisfying once all the pieces had been slotted together.
Part 3: The Future of Steampunk coming soon...


heidenkind said...

I have a feeling a lot of people have been exposed to or enjoyed steampunk novels and never realized it--The Golden Compass, for example. I actually didn't connect that in my mind to steampunk until I saw the movie.

orannia said...

I'm with you heidenkind. I wouldn't have connected The Golden Compass to steampunk either...which makes me think that I haven't yet grasped what the steampunk genre is - hopefully, that is changing with these posts :) Thank you Adam! And may I say Devil in Chains sounds interesting :)

*off to read Part 3*