Lena Corazon

Flights of Fancy

Monday Inspirations: Exploring Steampunk Technology, Part 1

With 50k of my steampunk WIP, TELL ME NO LIES, under my belt, I return to my weekly Monday Inspirations posts in order to focus on some of the central elements of the steampunk genre. As you can see from the title, I intend for this to be the introduction to a miniseries on steampunk technology, a chance for me to explore a world that I find both exciting and slightly intimidating. Luckily, I have you, dear friends, to accompany me on this journey. 😀

This is more my speed. Credit: Alwyn Ladell, via Flickr

As much as the admission pains me, I must confess that tackling anything related with technology makes me all sorts of crazy inside.  I don’t do technology, or at least anything more advanced than, say, an automatic crossbow or a horse-drawn carriage. I prefer swords to guns, magical staves to anything science-y (unless, y’know, we’re talking about some sort of alchemical process), and flesh-and-blood humans and animals to androids or clockwork creatures.  I’ve never been really intrigued by how things work — I want to press a button on my computer, or turn the key in the ignition of my car, and have it work, period. (There is a reason why I am a sociologist/writer, and not an engineer or a scientist.)

It's all about the pretty, folks. Okay, the train is cool too, I suppose. Source: RocknRollBride.com

Clearly, it wasn’t the excitement over building worlds dominated by airships or great clockwork structures that motivated me to write a steampunk novel. No, I was seduced by the aesthetics (I feel a little guilty about this). I like the 19th century. I like England. I like bustles and corsets and mini-fascinators and top hats. Granted, I also like the dark side of society that steampunk allows me to explore, particularly the social upheaval that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.

Better yet, I love the possibilities that engaging in alternate history provides. What happens if we shift our attention from the stately parlors and fancy drawing rooms of the British Empire in favor of another locale? What sorts of stories can we tell if we move beyond the dominant paradigm of the wealthy European lady or gentleman, the common protagonists of steampunk novels? This is a topic I’ll return to later on down the line, but for the moment, I will refer you all to Beyond Victoriana, a blog where such questions are tackled on a regular basis.

"Into the Far West" takes the spaghetti western, adds tropes from Chinese Wuxia, along with steampunk to break free of the dominant western European paradigm. Source: http://intothefarwest.com/

But I digress. While TELL ME NO LIES currently features a host of automatons, a rakish airship pirate, steam-powered trolleys, and one very awesome mechanical menagerie, at the moment they’re little more than wee references sprinkled in — here a robot, there a steam-powered thingie, and by the way, my main character is wearing a bustle.  See? Steampunk, right?

Unfortunately, no. I can’t escape the fact that my WIP continues to lack a certain vibe, an overarching sensibility that governs a world that humming with countless complex layers. Technology, of course, is only one of those layers, as Brooke Johnson argues in her recent post on steampunk. As she writes,

To me, steampunk is more than gears and steam-power. It’s more than Victorian age society, more than corsets and bustles, more than a skin, as some people would put it. More than a layer of science, airships, corsets, goggles, and gears, Steampunk is an atmosphere. It’s a feeling. Steampunk, true steampunk, penetrates the very layers of the world within a story. It makes up the building blocks of the story, the setting, the characters, the society, and the action. It is its own sort of magic that lives and breathes within a story, not something that’s thrown in for spits and wiggles.

G.D. Falksen echoes similar sentiments in his guest post over at Age of Steam, which leads me to believe that the task of world-building isn’t too different from the work that’s done when crafting a fantasy novel.  Replace wizardry with science and engineering, dragons and faeries with androids and semi-sentient automatons, but it’s that sense of internal consistency, the ability to craft a deeper connection between the characters and the world in which they dwell, that is important. That awesome raygun should feel like more than a prop; rather, it should feel like a natural part of the character’s life (well, depending on her backstory and origins, anyway).

One mustn't come between a lady and her gadgets. Source: RocknRollBride.com

This is a tall order, but I’ve never been one to run from a challenge. We’re going to start small, however, poking at some of the potential building blocks of a steampunk world. For starters, the ladies over at Age of Steam has a great introductory list of some of the more recognizable gadgets that are found in steampunk literature, including the ever-present clockwork systems, automatons, rayguns, and flying machines. They also run a weekly column showcasing steampunk gadgets, another useful resource.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring the various elements of steampunk technology, though as a newbie, not an expert.  Honestly, I’d appreciate any feedback that those of you more versed in steampunk literature might be able to provide.  I’m in the process of tackling the so-called canon (Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker is at the top of my to-be-read list) in order to gain a greater understanding of the conventions already in place, but please, feel free to pass on any recommendations.

Next week, then, we’ll begin in earnest with robots and automatons. I’m currently reading The Huge Hunter, or, The Steam Man of the Prairie, Edward S. Ellis’s 1865 novel featuring a huge steam-powered robot man, and listening to some awesome podcasts about robotics — lots of fun stuff abounds, so hopefully I’ll have some interesting tidbits to share. Until then, I leave you with this photo, courtesy of Alternate Histories, depicting how the signing of the Declaration of Independence really happened: in the presence of a robot (duh). Seriously, if anyone could’ve invented robots back in the day, it would’ve been Benjamin Franklin.

Have any reading recommendations to share? What about your favorite elements of steampunk literature? Is technology nearly as important as I’m making it out to be?

10 Comments

  1. Ooo, psyched about this post series. I’ve been interested in doing something steampunk for a little while. It doesn’t fit into my main setting, but still, it’d be awesome.

    • Yay, glad to hear that you’re excited about this mini-series. It’s a little self-serving, since I’m trying to work out the kinks of this steampunk world for my WIP. Still, I feel like there’s a lot being said about steampunk, but not enough concrete info about how to actually use it. Hopefully I’ll be able to pull together some interesting information for those who are interested!

  2. Interesting! OK, I have a confession to make: I’ve never heard of the Steampunk genre until I signed up for this Campaign. Then, I kept hearing it all over the place – on blogs, Twitter and so forth – and I was all: “So what the heck is this and would I be interested in writing something in this genre?” I got a general idea from Wikipedia (not that I don’t take that info with a grain (or three) of salt), but your post really helped clarify things. I look forward to the next one in the series!

    • I totally know what you mean! I had been hearing things about steampunk for ages, but nothing really concrete — just lots of stuff about gears and clocks and Victorian clothing, lol. Since I’ve started digging into what the genre actually looks like, I’ve found it to be really fascinating and eye-opening. Glad to hear that this post helped to clarify things!

  3. Couldn’t have said it better myself! What I love is world-building, and steam-punk is a fascinating opportunity for a different sort of world than I do in fantasy, sci-fi or modern super-hero. I’m not very technologically literate myself, I also like my car to just go when I turn the key, but I do enjoy seeing how technology affects a world even if I don’t know exactly how it works.

    • Yes — looking at how technology affects the world is definitely at the top of my list. There are some great articles that I’ve run across that I’ll be mentioning in future posts, and I will also try to bring Marx into the conversation, because he wrote at length about the impact of technology on the worker during the latter half of the 19th century (the sociologist in me needs to muscle in somewhere, I suppose).

  4. I have a story idea bouncing around my head that’s good, but would be awesome steampunk, while I am working on something else and don’t have time for something new, I am nervous about tackling steampunk because of trying to create that great atmosphere.

    • Totally know what you mean, Alica. Still, I think it’s worth tackling. Pulling together the world and the ambiance is going to take some time for me to do, but if I can get it right, I think the story will be a lot of fun.

      Thanks for swinging by!

  5. It seems I’m part of the gang here – love steampunk, would love to write a steampunk novel, have what I think is a good idea, but a bit scared to try it. I’m really looking forward to your further posts on this 🙂

    • Awesome! I am very much a newbie when it comes to the genre, but hopefully I can help share what I’m learning. Lemme know if you have any questions, too, and I’ll see what I can pull together. 😀

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