Should you do a lot of research? I don’t think so. After all, you’re writing speculative fiction, not historical fact. The worst thing in the world would be to accumulate a mass of information about 19th century clothing, furniture, etiquette or whatever – which you then felt obliged to include just because it’s true.
No! The spirit of steampunk is creative anachronism – that is, doing history and getting it wrong. Like steampunk fashion guru Kit Stolen, we’re all anachronauts. What’s matters isn’t the fact but the feel – the feel of a different past era. So, sure, immerse yourself in 19th century novels or non-fiction until you can swim in that world like a sea. Then swim away from it! Use the historical reality as a springboard for your own imagination. Do-It-Yourself—that’s what steampunk is all about!
It helps if something in the 19th century particularly inspires your imagination. For me, it was the gaping difference between the respectable façade of morality and propriety, and the very ugly goings-on behind that facade. The Victorian class structure gave me my inspiration for Worldshaker.
I believe 19th century novelists like Charles Dickens didn’t just observe the world around them, they had a vision of it. And their vision still fascinates today—like the Arthurian vision of mediaval times. It’s a gothic imagination – as in forbidding castles, subterranean caverns, romantic mists and storms – but re-applied to their contemporary reality of fog and steam, cities and factories. What I like is that it’s a dark vision and a suggestive vison, not seen in the clear light of day.
Maybe that’s why it was such a great time for imagining horrors. So many classic horror figures come from that time—Frankenstein’s monster, vampires, Jekyll and Hyde, the Baskerville hounds. On the one hand, the official shiny progressive optimism, but on the other hand, a dark and morbid streak of fear and uncertainty.
The 19th century produced so many iconic figures – great criminals, great eccentrics, great monsters, great rogues. That’s what I look for in steampunk. Characters like Isombard Kingdom Brunel or Jack the Ripper or Sir Mormus Porpentine (oops, I slipped into my own fiction there).
I think steampunk writers have to steer between two pitfalls. On the one hand, you should never just present modern people in 19th century fancy dress—that’s as bad as futuristic SF where the characters still think and speak exactly like contemporary Americans. On the other hand, you should never become so obsessed with historical re-creation that a modern reader can’t get involved with your characters. They have to live across the ages …
If steampunk already has its generic traits, I guess one of them is fast-paced storytelling. I don’t say it ought to be be that way--and if you count China Miéville as at least steampunk-related, then great steampunky fiction can just as well have a very slow pace. But … a strong narrative drive is something that publishers may expect and look for.
Every tip I can offer on maintaining narrative drive in steampunk is also a tip for maintaining narrative drive in any genre, so it’s already up on the web in the STORY section of my website, www.writingtips.com.au.
Steampunk is in some ways fantasy and in some ways SF. One problem it shares with both is how to introduce a whole world without info-dumping, but it’s not easy to use the classical fantasy strategy and start from a corner. Like SF worlds, steampunk worlds are more likely to be urban, with good communications, so it’s not so easy to arrange for ignorance! In Worldshaker, I take a main character whose very sheltered upbringing has protected him from the realities of his own world; it’s also a world where many of those realities are never spoken about in polite society.
Here again, I think steampunk writers should steer between two pitfalls. You wouldn’t want to have characters lapsing into jargon that sounds 21st century, and you wouldn’t want to use such jargon in your author’s voice either. On the other hand, you don’t have to write like someone writing in the 19th century – if only because 19th century novelists were very heavy and over-descriptive by our standards. And your dialogue still has to be lively and spirited, not just historically accurate.
I guess what I’m saying is that anachronism is okay so long as it doesn’t jar and stick out like a sore thumb. In Worldshaker, there’s one moment when Quinnea exclaims:
‘Oh, I will [be proud of you]. But a mother’s heart … a mother’s care … a mother’s panic attacks …’
As my editor pointed out, the phrase ‘panic attack’ doesn’t really belong in this world of juggernauts. I agreed, and I’d have taken it out – except that that bit of dialogue cracks me up whenever I read it. (It is funny, I swear … okay, you have to be there!) So we left it in, and nobody’s objected yet.
More Tips on Steampunk and Alternative History
Or maybe just ramblings … but nicely decorated with some of my favourite steampunk USB memory sticks.
STEAMPUNK AS FANTASY
How you think of steampunk depends on the ancestry you give it, I suspect. If you think of it as a sub-genre of science fiction, you’ll think of it as serious technological speculation, only focused towards the past instead of the future. Gibson and Sterling’s The Diffeerence Engine is serious in that way, and yes, it would make a difference (sorry!) if they got their historical facts wrong.
I think the recent surge in steampunk descends more from fantasy. Writers who’ve grown sick and tired of medieval-type scenarios have opened up another realm of the imagination, inventing cities rather than greenwoods, steam-age technologies rather than dragons and magic. That’s what I love and celebrate – a new territory for imagination.
(And wasn’t Tolkien part-way there before us? What about his industrial scenarios as created by Saruman, and to some extent Sauron? We should never forget that his dragons and Orcsare actually the product of breeding programs carried out by Morgoth in the Pits of Utumno. It was Tolkien’s followers who narrowed the canon and cut down on the possibilities.)
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Moving from a medieval-type setting to a 19th century-type setting has many consequences. It’s a step away from simplicity and top-down hierarchy. A 19th century version of society is not only urban but political. Not political in the petty way of contemporary politics (like the poll-driven Australian Federal election currently under way) - I can’t find much inspiration in that.. But the politics of major social movements, revolutions and mass upheavals, yes, that is stirring and dramatic.
Steampunk and Alternate History are a natural fit. I think of Steampunk as a special kind of appeal – the appeal of fantastical old-fashioned technology, developed in ways that real history never got around to. I think of Alternate History as a way of placing that world in relation to our world, the reader’s world.
True, a steampunk world can just be another type of otherworld, and some are. But that’s a little harder to arrange than with a medieval-type world. After all, fairly primitive societies could easily develop similarly, whatever their origins – how could you fail to invent clubs or swords or some kind of tunic? It’s much less obvious that anyone had to develop flintlock pistols or broughams or tailcoats. That’s starting to look more like one particular history, our history – and if you want to incorporate such elements along with your fantasy inventions, a handy rationale is to suppose that fictional history was the same as real history up to a point – then diverted along a separate track.
Short for Point of Divergence … that is, the first point at which something in your history veers off from real history, leading to ever-increasing difference. The way I see it, there are two approaches. One is to create a steampunk world just because it looks good, just for the sheer delight of imagination – and then tie it on to real history as a secondary move. That’s what I did with Worldshaker – I was part-way through writing the first draft before I came up with Napoleon’s tunnel under the English Channel as my POD. It’s much the same if you think up a POD early, but never allow it to dominate your imaginative creation.
The other approach is to start with a POD, and speculate seriously about what might have happened as a result. This produces Alternate History in the vein for which Harry Turtledove has become famous. It’s got just as much claim to the title, but it isn’t steampunk.
On the subject of PODs, please can we have some more interesting and unusual ones? Hitler won WWII, Napoleon defeated Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, the Spanish Armada landed and conquered Britain – these PODs have produced great Alternate History from early practitioners in the genre, but surely we don’t have to wear them out. There are so many points where the world could have taken a different turn – no need to fall into standard formulae at this early stage!
THE ERA OF STEAMPUNK
The word ‘steampunk’ suggests the Age of Steam, which fits okay. But surely it’s only a pointer, not a hard-and-fast definition. I think any imaginary world based on any phase of the old Industrial Age deserves the title. Starting from the Industrial Revolution in, what, the 1770s? But even before that – what about Jay Lake’s Mainspring? That’s old-fashioned technology from before the Age of Steam, but it has the right feel, the authentic steampunky appeal. I don’t see the value of multiplying sub-genres with terms like Clockpunk.
As for an end-point – even more vague. Certainly, the Edwardian Era has to be included, even though that allows for petrol engines, electrical power and even early plastics. Perhaps what matters is more the old-fashioned feel than the literal fact of when something was invented. Bakelite, for example. In general, I’d say plastics don’t belong in a steampunk world, and bakelite wasn’t taken up in a big way until after WWI. Yet I can envisage that particular kind of plastic in a steampunk world precisely because it was displaced and consigned to the junk-bin of history. It’s out-of-date-ness makes it usable.
What about valve radios? Now we’re really pushing it. I’d let them in, so long as the world they’re let into has plenty of brass and copper and more old-fashioned-y stuff.