Superhero and steampunk round-up

I know I promised some info on Crescent Rising this week, but we’re actually busy rebuilding things as our secret planning site for that collaborative fiction universe got hacked and/or taken offline. Hopefully the database will be retrieveable, but in the meantime it’s about time I updated a couple of links.

Last month I attended the Bristol Comic Expo, which featured DC Comics Senior Executive Editor Dan DiDio as guest of honour. They’ve dropped off the main site now, but I wrote three reports for major US comic site Comic Book Resources. Snag them here:

The DC Universe – Story plans and upcoming titles and events for 2009-2010.
DC Nation – The first and only time a DC Nation has been hosted outside the US. Great discussion and feedback session.
Gibbins & Higgins Talk Watchmen – including CG genitalia.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to write an essay on steampunk, and why I chose to write in this slightly unusual genre, for Babbling About Books, the website of New York-based blogger Kate Garrabrant. Kate split my rather long essay into three chunks (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), but I’m going to reproduce it here in full. I’ve also added in some extra detail about the various subdivisions of steampunk, which I had glossed over in the main piece and then went into when prompted by some reader comments on Kate’s blog.

I’ll put this on its own page, but in the meantime, sit back with your favourite brand of absinthe and afix your Gentlemen Reading Goggles at setting four!

Top Hats and Hellfire – The mystique of Steampunk

1. “So, what are you writing about?”

Cue the big grin, the far-away look, the deep breath the preceeds 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 Missy 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 (if!) 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. This expedition needs provisions. Tea, coffee, cake. Anything with sugar or stimulants. Then that deep breath (we have the same requirement for oxygen as Those Guys), and we’re off.

“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 remembered that Faraday is a time-travelling action hero, even if she doesn’t quite know that he really 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. 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.

2. 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, philosophy, comic books. And while I 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 raygun as he battles the Giant Rat of Sumatra, I’m not particularly interested in wearing Edwardian frockcoats over brass breastplates decorated with clock gears. True enough, I’m probably slightly too interested in the facial hair of King George V as is normally considered healthy, but I’m not a “steampunk”, if such a thing even exists or is an appropriate label. 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.

Responsibilty disclaimed. So, what is steampunk?

Steampunk itself can be broaded divided into two different sorts – ‘period’ steampunk, and ‘modern’ steampunk.

Period steampunk is set, usually, during the height of the Victorian era. Top hats and canes, gaslight and London fog, moustachioed adventurers unwrapping mummies in the British museum. Every kind of Victorian pulp cliché and imagery, with added supertechnology. And by supertechnology, I mean technology which more or less resembles the correct period, but is floating away into the realms of fantasy. Steam-powered robots, clockwork rayguns, giant calculating machines that think. All related to the fundamentals of the late Industrial Revolution – namely steam power. Period steampunk is a vision of that period of industrial revolution accelerated, advancing science and technology to fantastical reaches, allowing the Victorians to colonise Mars in coal-fired rockets, or the monarchy overthrown by a clockwork computer. These are just examples. It could also be something much better. /futurama

‘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 20th century developments of electricity and electronics never happened. Instead, we get a charactiture of Victorian life in the present day – people still wear top hats, gentlemen discuss matters of great import in their exclusive clubs, and detectives chase cut-throats through the gaslit streets. But computers are clockwork, intercontinental travel is via supersonic steam-powered zeppilin, 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 fantasic technology. The other is about modern or future age which, despite disappearing into a steam-powered technological dead end, has flourished, using steam and coal for outrageous and decidedly modern achievements.

However, to build up a more accurate picture of the possibilities of steampunk, I need to expand on this rather cut and dried definition, because, obviously, you can have steampunk elements in a book which isn’t steampunk, and likewise you can have a steampunk book that is nothing to do with Victorians and the Industrial Revolution.

For the first example, I’m currently reading Lamentation, by Ken Scholes, which is a rather good high fantasy novel. Except it includes steam-powered robots called mechanoservitors, which are programmed by engraved metal scrolls.

Does this make Lamentation a steampunk novel? No, I’d certainly be happy calling it high fantasy. But it’s a steampunk element – ie, a steam-powered, out-of-place piece of supertechnology.

The second example is something like Stephen Hunt’s Jackelian series, starting with The Court of the Air and following with The Kingdom Beyond The Waves and most recently The Rise of the Iron Moon. The world of his novels is Victorian-esque, and mixes magic and steampunk (complete with airships!) very effectively, but it’s not set in England, or even on the Earth, unless it is in parallel universe several times removed. Later books do hint at it being modern steampunk, but set in the far, far future after some calamity, but I don’t want to give anything away!

Interestingly, Stephen’s first novel, For the Crown and the Dragon, is actually a very good example of real period steampunk, where the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century are fought with wizardry and steam-powered supertechnology.

So, back to that that difficult 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 ficton 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.

3. What’s the 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 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 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, steampunk existed even in the Victorian age itself – Jules Verne and HG Wells, with their Captain Nemos and First Men in the Moon, were not only the first writers of science fiction, they were also the finest proponents of genuinely period steampunk.

And let’s face it, a man really should never be without a hat while outdoors. It’s just not seemly.

4. 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 extremeities 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.

Because, friend, writing steampunk is a damn good lark.

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 Aurther 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 hoot.

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 web zine Pantechnicon, and it was split into two parts and published in 2008-2009, and it’s also available as an eBook for the iPhone/iPod touch.

To give a practical demonstration of the difficulty in describing steampunk to an unknowing audience, here’s the blurb I finally came up with. This is approximately the 34th draft, give or take.

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?

Gripping stuff, I hope you’ll agree. I actually wrote it almost as a trial run for my first steampunk novel, Dark Heart, which features the two main characters introduced in The Devil in Chains, now in partnership many years later as part of an occult-detective agency. In Dark Heart, the agency is 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, an explosion rips through the heart of London and 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 clichés 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, Cresent Rising, 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. And this is an example of that other-worldly steampunk – it’s not Victorian England, although it might be a parallel universe several times removed.

5. The future of steampunk

What’s next? Well, for me, getting that draft of Dark Heart ready to pitch to an agent, while plotting Captain Carson’s adventures in Fell Hold City. In the meantime, I’m writing a superhero novel called Seven Wonders – more as a break from the rigours of first-person Victoriana – but when that’s done, it’s on to Dark Heart II. And then III, and then IV. And then… well, you get the picture.

The popularity of steampunk and it’s various subcategories – Deiselpunk, Oilpunk, NeoEdwardian – is likely to come and go, just as with any genre. You must never write just to fit a trend, because by the time your book is out the trend will be long dead. But for fans and enthusiasts of brass and leather and steam and robots and airships and rockets and, well, anything that the extraordinary and unique Victorians could never had built in their wildest imaginings, there are fog-shrouded cities to explore, robotic murders to solve, and Venusian landscapes to visit with hot-air balloons. All with tophat and cane and a stiff upper lip.

And brass goggles. Don’t forget the goggles.

  • Marvellous stuff Adam. Now at last I really feel I know what steampunk is. I have toyed with reading the Hunt books for a while now, I think I might now get round to it. Can’t wait to read Dark Heart as well. As always your gift is explaining difficult concepts so well that even idiots like me can understand them. And your right about hats…

  • great website and informations.thanx