397. University of Steampunk

Here I am, quoting myself, from Golden Age of Science Fiction:

Recently I have been reading Neil and Neal, Gaiman and Stephenson, but I know I must have missed a feast of others. I have probably missed more than one feast. Is there a Golden Age of Steampunk? Probably, but I don’t know the sub-genre well enough to talk about it.

Since I wrote that, I have interacted with a bunch of steampunk authors, done a lot of research, and concluded that, “Yes, I was right. There is a golden age of steampunk and it is now about a century and a half deep.”

I love steampunk. i already knew that. But now I have a better handle on what steampunk is, and I am continuing to pursue my education. Let’s call it University of Steampunk (self-inflicted) and I am inviting you to come along. And don’t hesitate to use reply to tell me when you think I’m wrong.

Not only am I immersing myself in steampunk research, I am also writing my first steampunk novel. Since Westercon, it has tumbled out onto the screen. I have it fully outlined, with initial drafts of the introduction and first two chapters.

The rest of this post is drawn from the draft introduction.

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This novel, as yet unnamed, working title Durbar, is steampunk, pure and simple, and designed to be so. It differs from other steampunk novels only in that it emphasizes strong scientific and historical excuses for the prevalence of steam power and pseudo-Victorian culture.

My literary introduction to that age on our own planet did not come from Austen, the Brontes and their ilk. My literary Victorian/Edwardians were Holmes and Watson, Hannay and all his friends, and Davies and Carruthers; in other words, the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, and Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands.

I can tell you the exact hour the new novel was born. I had gone looking for understanding of the steampunk phenomenon. I was aware of the movement; it seemed to always be in the periphery of my vision, but it wouldn’t come clear. Certainly Jules Verne, especially Twenty Thousand League Under the Sea, was steampunk before steampunk. So was the Wild Wild West, and both were staples of my childhood. I had stumbled onto Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn while teaching middle school. It was a fine novel which seemed on the verge of steampunk without completely fitting the mold.

Add a few inspiring steampunk short stories off the internet and childhood memories of reading my grandfather’s copy of Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle — also steampunk before steampunk — and I was ready to write something of my own. Still, it is foolish to write in somebody else’s genre without understanding the boundaries.

I visited a series to panels on steampunk while I was at Westercon 70. I found an inviting openness and nobody seemed interested in defending boundaries. I also came to appreciate the culture of steampunk (their term) and the joys of cosplay. Appreciate, not join in; I’m the guy in the corner, not the dressed up dude on the stage.

The panel which saw the birth of my new novel was called The Science of Steampunk: What Makes the Gears Go Round? As it turned out, there are steampunk authors who are perfectly happy to write their novels without caring what makes the gears go round, and there are also hard-science types who just can’t live that way. This panel had about an equal mix of those two.

They all had fun with the question, but the only scientific underpinning for some kinds of steampunk is magic. I enjoyed the interchange, and I want to thank Ashley Carlson, Bruce Davis, Steve Howe (not the guitarist), Susan Lazear and David Lee Summers — and Ryan Dalton who moderated — for the education.

As I was listening to the science types trying to find an equation for magic, it occurred to me that is would be great fun to write a novel which did tie up all the scientific and historical underpinnings of a steampunk world, neatly and realistically.

That was when two bombs went off in my head. I’m not ready to go public with what they were, but In the course of an hour, the new novel had gone from nonexistent to a full blown embryo. My thanks to the panel, but don’t expect any royalties.

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