Guest Post by Quincy Allen
Steampunk, at its purest and most basic, is anti-establishment fiction in a Victorian setting that adorns an adventurous stage with impossible gadgetry driven by steam, clockwork, aether and Tesla coils. Imagine 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Frankenstein or The Time Machine, but with more goggles, zeppelins, corsets and guns … oh, and the odd zombie, vampire or mad-scientist thrown in for good measure. But that’s just the textbook answer … or would be if a textbook on steampunk existed, anyway.
Commercially, steampunk is a growing sub-genre under the rather wide umbrella of science fiction and fantasy. It’s intriguing that steampunk as an aesthetic has been branching out into other genres, including romance, horror, paranormal and pure fantasy. Or is it the other way around? Is steampunk an underlying aesthetic or is it window dressing? Those questions are best left to the purists and the marketplace.
Most good steampunk literature has a strong sense of being part of real world history. It’s real history told with a twist … a change in the very fabric our knowledge that turns the impossibilities of steampunk into an alternate reality more compelling and vibrant than the history itself. The question is, how does a writer achieve this?
The answer? Research.
It would be foolish to suggest that every writer of every steampunk story researches actual events and then merely applies and alters them. There are many examples of researched and un-researched steampunk that are good reads and are commercially successful. However, a writer can increase the likelihood of both a good story and its success by delving into real history-even at a cursory level-and then playing with it as a god plays with the fabric of the universe. After all, truth frequently is stranger than fiction.
For me, it is critical to create a moment in time where my fictional history deviates from the real one. Doing so allows me to extrapolate from that moment in time and rationalize the existence of both magic and impossible technologies in a recognizable but alternate nineteenth century. Imagine a world where witches are as common as blacksmiths, the railroad was surpassed by zeppelin transports and fully functional artificial limbs are a reality, albeit an uncommon one. And all derived from a single change, a critical moment gone awry in the history of the Catholic Church.
The irony is that the altered moment I refer to-the assassination of Pope Gregory IX in 1227-is not even mentioned in the manuscript I’m currently editing. What is important is the awareness of this “revisionist” history. Because of it, I understand the reason why witches were not exterminated. I know why the populace didn’t die off from The Plague and how technology flourished a hundred and fifty years too early. This awareness lends itself well to understanding the social, political, economic and cultural influences that shape characters and culture .
History is awash in a variety of extremely colorful characters that can give-with a little bit of research-a truly genuine and vibrant feel to an invented history. For example, while researching the American West of the 1870s, I discovered real people like Emperor Norton (yes, America had an Emperor in the nineteenth century) and Bloody Bill Anderson, who was a brutal and ruthless advocate of both slavery and the slaughter of anyone who believed otherwise. Both historical figures are in my manuscript, and they add both color and validity to what is a very alternate history.
I’m not suggesting that a writer of steampunk needs to be a historian. Far from it. However, steampunk authors owe it to their readers to be familiar in the aesthetic and at least some of the significant people and events of the time. An adventure story traversing Europe and the East Indies in the early nineteenth century should mention the East India Company or justify why it doesn’t exist. A story set in America in the 1860s should address the Civil War or eliminate the war completely. A steampunk story set in China during the Victorian period should mention British influences there or find a reasonable way of working around them.
In the west, we refer to the nineteenth century as the Victorian Era as a direct result of Queen Victoria and the British Empire’s influences. However, that period of human history was an exciting time all around the world. More and more steampunk is reaching out to the four corners of the Earth and exploring it with truly interesting explorations of world cultures.
Steampunk audiences understand the historical setting in one way or another. When you take pen in hand (or finger to keyboard) you’d best have a few ducks in a row. Not only will you be drawing upon actual history to invigorate your writing, you’ll be giving your readers easy markers and handholds to lock onto as you fiddle with the space-time continuum.
Thank you for the post. I’ve considered playing in the steampunk genre, but never felt completely comfortable with building the world. I feel like this gives me a much more solid starting point than I’ve had in the past. Maybe it’s time to see what I come up with.
I love this… as I was reading, my mind kept coming up with alternative history situations I’d find interesting to read and by extension – write. And, research is so much fun (not being sarcastic).
I completely agree! You don’t have to be a historian but you do need to do your research & development or R&D for a Steam punk story to be believable . However , I now wonder if I have to go back and rethink the possibilities of history as we know it ;*
I agree with most of what you have said, Quincy, but I think the ‘anti-establishment’ part boils down more to what kind of story you are telling than the Steampunk genre. Personally, I like my Steampunk to be more about the wonder of nearly anyone being able to make machines that can do nearly anything. In other words, I like the idea that anyone with enough ingenuity can make their own way in the world. As far as the historical settings go, I have read fantasy Steampunk that has nothing at all to do with our world, so while I agree research adds flavor, world development is the actual key. So, in summation, he more I think about this, the more I wonder if your other comment might hold the grain of truth we are looking for: is it window dressing?
Thanks for this post. I haven’t read much in steampunk yet, but plan to. I’ve toyed with a couple of alternate history stories, and I think they could be a lot of fun.