When I set out to write my first novel, The Court of the Air, I thought I was embarking on writing a fantasy novel. After much sweat and labour, when I laid aside my pen, I was even fairly sure I had actually finished a fantasy novel. Ditto, the follow-ups in the Jackelian series (deep breath)… The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, The Rise of the Iron Moon, Secrets of the Fire Sea, Jack Cloudie and From the Deep of the Dark.
At a push, I mused, they’re a fantasy/science fiction cocktail… in more or less the same way as Burroughs’ Barsoom novels, say, or Moorcock’s Nomad of the Time Streams. That was what I was aiming for, anyway. You know the kind of thing: pistols, sabres, high adventure, evil monsters, swashes to be buckled, ropes to be swung on. After all, my books were set many millions of years in the future, after continental drift, ice ages and various catastrophes—natural and manmade—have reset the clock and scrubbed almost all vestiges of our current civilisation from the memories of mankind and its evolutionary offshoots and genetically engineered follies. And let’s not leave out a few alien species imported during humanity’s zenith.
So after the glaciers retreated, it made sense – at least to me – that the clock on my fictional world should be reset to the baseline, and that baseline would be steam at the low end. The Jackelian Kingdom is so far in the future that evolution in the laws of the physics – specifically the fine-structure constant - has rendered electrical current too variable to be reliably utilised as anything other than a spectacular weapon of war. Thus, I was left with nano-mechanical systems & genetic engineering at the high end. Hence my self-evolving robot race of the Steammen, and the slavocracy of Cassarabia in the far south of my imagined lands (built on some very nasty genetic engineering).
And if you’re doing steam, and the period of history you’re most familiar with is Victorian, you might as well stick in airships and u-boats and clockwork driven pistols and poorhouses and orphans, right? It would be damn rude not to.
After the first book’s launch, however, strange things began to happen. When the Berlinale, Europe’s largest film festival, selected The Court of the Air as the best book that should be made into a movie, their elevator pitch was “Bladerunner meets Charles Dickens.” WTF! Finally, the truth began to dawn, even on me, when the Jackelian series garnered a Wiki mention as one of the driving forces behind the new wave of steampunk.
I always thought to be steampunk, you had to fix your world in real historical Victoriana, and have walk-on parts for Captain Nemo and Abraham Lincoln and Sherlock Holmes…. Had I unwittingly committed steampunk? What, even with the alien races and robots and stuff?
The only reason I had gone off-piste in the first place was that I had wanted to avoid Swordpunk. You know, faux-medieval, furry pants, anywhere from Bronze Age to late Renaissance. The rest of the genre is doing that. J.R.R. Tolkien isn’t, of course—he’s dead. No more Swordpunk from him. But lots of others are still at it like rabbits. Terry Pratchett: Comedy Swordpunk. Joe Abercrombie: Hard-edged brutally realistic sardonic Swordpunk. George R.R. Martin: Non-formulaic multi-layered dynastic Swordpunk. Brandon Sanderson: Epic Swordpunk.
All that effort avoiding Swordpunk, and I end up as accidentally committing steampunk. How could I be such a fool? No science fiction association would ever invite me to speak at a convention again, not unless I was sitting next to somebody with a stovepipe hat and a mechanical prosthetic. And no respectable fantasy convention would want me anywhere near their dwarf-loving readers in case I corrupted them.
I’m trying to rehabilitate myself, dear reader, really I am. Here’s my simple 4-step plan.
- Admitting that one cannot control one's steampunk or Victorian-influenced technologies.
- Recognising a higher power that can give you strength: the BSFA in the UK, or the SFWA in America.
- Examining past errors with the help of another author: I’m meeting George RR Martin soon… George?
- Helping others who suffer from the same addictions or compulsions: definitely got to fix Alan Moore before he writes another League of Extraordinary Gentlemen sequel.
You can help me by offering directed support at SF Crowsnest Twitter and Sci-Fi Fantasy Facebook – but whatever you do, please don’t encourage my addiction at Steampunkish.
If interested in Stephen's latest book: From the Deep of the Dark we reviewed it here.