KB: Steampunk is still one of those uncharted waters for me. I simply don't understand what Steampunk is. Rather than doing all the research myself, I sent out a call for someone who is knowledgeable about Steampunk or is writing a Steampunk novel, to explain this genre and why Steampunk appeals to them.
“So, what are you writing about?”
Cue the big grin, the far-away look, the deep breath that precedes five minutes of non-stop exposition. Hand-waving optional but recommended. Because you’ve just asked a writer their favourite question.
Well, most writers, anyway. For Those Guys it’s easy. “Oh yeah, Jack is a cop, and he’s about to retire when his young niece goes missing…”, or “Well, it’s about a princess called Mitzy who lives in magic castle…”. Those Guys, they have it so easy. Ten minutes later, your eager audience is delighted and expresses good luck and best wishes for the project. If they’re related to you in some way, most likely an elderly aunt that you don’t really know that well, then expect excited promises to buy the book when it comes out.
But then there’s us. We’re not anything special, we’re just average Joe writers working hard at our craft, just like Those Guys. Thing is, to answer the question “So, what are you writing about?”, we need more than five minutes and a wistful gaze.
“So, when Babbage designed his difference engine… you know Babbage? And the difference engine? Like a big clockwork computer. No, not 1972, 1822. No, I don’t know how it works either. Okay, so let’s skip that… so then Byron, riding a steam-powered brass horse, becomes Prime Minister… the poet, Byron? Yes, steam-powered. Like a robot. Star Wars? Erm, not quite. Steam-powered, yes. Okay, so going back a bit, you know the Industrial Revolution…?”
This goes on for some time. Eventually you’ve laid the foundation, explained the world, and you’re fairly sure Great Aunt Nelly has grasped the fact that Faraday is a time-travelling action hero, even if she doesn’t quite know that he was really a scientist who discovered electromagnetism in the mid-19th century. And then you get the seal of approval: “Well, good luck with the writing! I can’t wait to buy it in a bookstore!”. My advice at this point is to just smile and drink your tea. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t actually got to the story yet, the bit you’re actually writing. All you’ve done is given the requisite background. Get used it. As a writer of steampunk, incomprehension and potted histories of Victorian railway engineering go with the territory like gaslight and brass goggles.
What is steampunk?
I should preface this by saying I’m not an expert on steampunk. Steampunk is a vast, complex subcultural phenomenon that spans literature, fashion, and philosophy. And while I tend to go misty eyed over the thought of top-hatted Victorian explorers travelling to the moon in coal-fired brass rocket, or Sherlock Holmes packing a clockwork ray-gun as he battles the Giant Rat of Sumatra, I’m not particularly interested in wearing Edwardian frockcoats over brass breastplates decorated with clock gears. See, I really don’t know. Steampunk as a fashion statement and as a way of life is, I think, a related but somewhat distinct movement from steampunk as a science fiction/fantasy subgenre.
Modern steampunk, by contrast, is set in the present day or the future, and postulates that the steam tech of the 19th century never went away, that the developments with electricity and electronics characteristic of the early-to-mid 20th century never happened. Instead, we get a caricature of Victorian life in the present day – people still wear top hats and frock coats, gentlemen discuss matters of great import in their exclusive clubs, and cloaked detectives chase cut-throats through the gas-lit cobbled streets. But computers are clockwork, intercontinental travel is via supersonic steam-powered zeppelin, and a night at the movies is brought to you by Mebberson’s Magic Lantern, That Wondrous and Fully Patented All-Purpose Aetheric Transference Visiscope to Delight and Thrill All-Ages.
Both are alternative versions of our Earth. One is about a superadvanced Victorian age, exploring how the wonderfully inventive and eclectic society of the 19th century would use such fantastic technology. The other is about modern or future age which, despite disappearing down a steam-powered technological dead end, has flourished, using the ridiculous concepts of steam and coal for outrageous and decidedly modern achievements.
And here lies the difficulty in answering that question, “So, what are you writing?”. While steampunk is growing in popularity, it’s still a fairly specialised subgenre, and unlike mainstream fiction or even science fiction and fantasy, it relies heavily on context and historical knowledge. Sure, it’s pulpy, that’s part of the charm, but it’s also literate and intelligent to a degree that perhaps other genres aren’t. For example, in my own steampunk novel, Dark Heart (modern steampunk, I should add), you really need to know that in our universe, Prince Albert died in 1861, not Queen Victoria. Once you realise that he’s still around in 2009 while Queen Victoria succumbed to typhoid in his place 148 years ago, you can start to see how real history can be adapted, twisted, and rewritten to present a new, alternate reality of brass and leather and steam.