by Mitchell Morris on 11/01/12
Written by Berley Kerr
Imagine a world that is like your own. It has all the same rules, the same languages and for the most part, the same people and yet it’s different. It’s a world that looks familiar and yet you can’t quite shake the ‘newness’ of it. But it’s not ‘new’ in the ‘new car smell’ sense of new but new as in your grandfather has just given you his old, classic 1950s sport’s car that he’s kept running since the day he bought it. That to me is the appeal of Steampunk.
A simple definition of Steampunk is that it’s Victorian Science Fiction. Stories that take the technological limitations of the 1800’s and theorizes not only what could’ve been done, but wraps a story around it. Think of classic stories like Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea where the majority of the novel takes place in a submarine that runs on electricity during a time where electrical anything is still in the experimental phases and submarines are quite bulky, expensive, limited and impractical. In fact, it wasn’t until 1940s, almost 70 years after the book was published that the world was introduced to a submarine that was just as powerful if not more so than Captain Nemo’s Nautilus.
But if practical is not your cup of tea, you can always go more fantastical like with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. And like the title suggests, it’s a machine that’s built in the late 1800s that can travel back and forth through time. Time machine stories are one of many staples of Steampunk.
And then there’s my personal favorite, the alternate universe angle of Steampunk. The world that never happened. Or from a Steampunk’s perspective, the world that should have happened. My favorite example of this is The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. In the universe of the novel, Charles Babbage, a real life inventor and British Lord, succeeded in building a mechanical computer known as the Analytical Engine. In our universe, Babbage made several blue prints for the machine but never built it due to cost. Steampunk, like all speculative fiction, speculates what would’ve happened, had that machine been built. How much different would the world be? How would it effect government, technology, fashion or history in general? Just like Phillip K. Dick’s alternate history novel, The Man in the High Castle, Gibson and Sterling show that by changing one thing, you can change everything.
Curse Breaker explores that same alternate history concept but on a slightly larger and a far more theoretical scale. The Different Engine asks: what would’ve happened if the first computer had arrived a century ahead of schedule? Curse Breaker ultimately asks: what would if the Victorians somehow invented Wormhole Technology (Realm-Gate Technology in the novel).
Gibson and Sterling focus on an invention coming one century before its time and wrote it during a time when that invention already exists. I on the other hand, focus on a technology that still hasn’t been invented. The reason being was that I wanted my point of divergence to be large enough for me change the world on a large scale, but small and reasonable enough so that the human race still goes along like nothing has changed at all. All the rules and taboos are still there, Curse Breaker simply gives human a much larger playing field.
Ultimately, where Steampunk really emerges in Curse Breaker is how through one big change, nothing actually changes at all. In the universe of the novel, thanks to Realm-Gate technology people can travel considerable distances, even to other planets in the space of a few seconds. The need for planes and diesel ships and fossil fuels are pretty much obsolete and so many of the gas powered contraptions we have never come to use. People in this universe travel relatively short distances by airship because there was never a need to invent anything that moved faster. With new planets and frontiers to explore, frontier attire never went out of style. And with no World War I nor any of the dozens of wars that followed, there was never a need to ration materials for the war effort. And because the human race has more Earth-like planets than they know what to do with, I was free to make Outland Realms and populate them with air pirates, cannibals, mad scientists, strange alien creatures and other things that you can only get away with in Steampunk. In other words, I painstakingly asked as many questions as possible to give me the Steampunk aesthetic I want but at the same time, have the elbow room to do whatever it is I want, without worrying about being led around by the nose.
As a Steampunk reader and author the one thing that all fans of this subculture can agree on is that the world is the most fascinating aspect of this aesthetic. A world where science is still a mystery, and art and fashion are still appreciated, as opposed to wrapping whatever new thing that just came out in some boring plastic box. A world that gives rise to air pirates, mad scientists, adventurers, explorers and anything else that involves that sense of adventure and excitement that our current world is greatly lacking. I hope my readers enjoy my story and my characters, but I genuinely hope they fall in love with the world of the novel as much as I have. My goal wasn’t only to make it exciting as well as familiar, but to make it as Steampunk as possible. And believe me, that’s no easy feat.