Scribing and Imbibing

May 13, 2008

Genre, Faddishness and Verisimilitude

Filed under: Craft,Writing — Rich @ 4:13 pm
Tags: ,

(Reading: steampunk – the new genre by James Roy.)

In working on Myriad (the novel in question), I’m constantly running up against detail that the world needs. One protagonist is a female blacksmith, for example: cue research on metallurgy, forge techniques, Victorian-era machining and other important punctilia.

Oh? “Victorian-era”? Yeah, looks like most of one storyline is going to have a steampunk setting. Got a problem with that?

Defining the Term

For those who aren’t familiar, steampunk (Wikipedia treatment) is a subgenre of both science fiction and fantasy, wherein much of the technologically interesting world of the 1800s (brass, glass and steam power) is crossbred, sometimes with elements of science fiction like cyberpunk (techno-dystopia, a century “early”), or the speculative fiction of Wells and Verne, or even fantasist elements of magic and the occult a la Lovecraft. This is all done to create a storytelling environment with the the earthiness and gentility of (frequently idealized) Victorian England; the technological racing of today’s Moore’s Law age; and a brass gear, iron piston, velvet coat, top hat aesthetic.

I had a great steampunk discussion with my chemical engineer brother Matt a few years back: there are lots of problems with the way most authors do steampunk. One of the major differences between then and now, for example, is metallurgy: we’re just better at alloys and the like, now, and not by accident: computers and many other trappings of our current information age were pretty much required to get us to the point where our car engines, for example, are as light, heat resistant and strong as they are. Ditto materials science in areas like aluminum, plastics and glassmaking; steam turbine power-to-weight limitations we’ve discovered, and a thousand-thousand other areas that permeate so many areas of modern life that we can’t see past them when we posit, for example, a steampunker flying a steam-powered prop airplane, or driving a flywheel-powered car, or building a clockwork robot. For that matter, many of the achievements and conveniences of modern life arose from technological lessons we learned in the Victorian and later periods–it’s not like England didn’t have geosynchronous satellites in the 1870s because the Brits were lazy!

Still, in the realm of fiction there are ways around the historical limitations (if not the technological ones, if you’re trying to stay honest). Part of the fun in writing this story will be getting there from here while staying as scientifically accurate as possible.

A Tiger by the Tail

Problem is, steampunk, in many ways, is becoming the new black. Per Wikipedia, the genre’s name was coined in 1987 (by K.W. Jeter), but it was most definitely popularized in 1990 with publication of The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

So now, 18 years after Difference Engine, we’ve got steampunk’d jewelry, laptops, even electric guitars, and it’s beginning to merge (as a style for the kiddies) with punk and goth infuences. It’s an old, well documented progression (first pointed out to me by Ann Crispin in a writing course I attended last year): around fifteen to twenty years after something is cutting edge, it becomes trendy and “in.” Happened with Mars fever (from Robinson’s Red Mars to Mission to Mars), happened with cyberpunk (Gibson’s Neuromancer to The Matrix), happening now with steampunk.

Brass Polish

One of the truisms regarding writing is that there are no new stories, and there are precious few truly new things at all. Exciting as steampunk may be now, it may have passed from its flavor-of-the-month status by the time I’m ready to publish. C’est la guerre: the trick is to avoid being boring by telling one’s story in as brilliant and as true a way as possible: look at the way China Miéville (Perdido Street Station, and others) and Patrick Rothfuss (Name of the Wind) have exploded old conventions: Miéville by being as wonderfully weird and different as he can while spinning beautifully thought-out plots, and Rothfuss by taking Old Fantasy Chestnut after Old Fantasy Chestnut and relentlessly deploying them in new and nonboring ways.

I look forward to playing in the steampunk yard. I have a lot of backfill reading to do, though.



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