Friday, January 15, 2010

A Steampunk World

Thus far in my series of steampunkery, I've talked about weaponry, vehicles, aeronautics, clothing and various other considerations you have to take in account when crafting the story. But how, you might ask, can you draw all this together into a world that has the verisimilitude needed to be an authentic steampunk setting?

Well, there's two major ways you can go about this. The first, of course, is pick all the facets of steampunk you think are cool, throw in a big ol' blender and hit puree. The second, and probably more logical method, is to consider how you want your world to have developed.

Since the first method is comparatively easy, I'm not going to expound on it here. The second method (the one I attempt to do) is much more difficult, but results in your world having a much more authentic feel than the first. There's also nothing that's stopping you from writing the first draft using the first method and then performing the second method in subsequent revisions. Moving on ...

The old saying "necessity is the mother of invention" applies to a fictional setting the same way it applies to history. If you look through the historical record, you can probably find examples of inventions that came about because the inventor saw a need for it and realized there was nothing to fill the gap. Archimedes developed his water screw to improve the method of getting water uphill; Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone to help people communicate; Galen developed the traction table as a better way to set broken bones.

For your steampunk setting, you want to consider (briefly) how your world developed and what innovations would show the greatest benefit to the populace. Airships allow people to avoid rough terrain that would've otherwise slowed them down; steamships allow quicker transoceanic crossings; steam-powered vehicles transport materials in greater quantities at speed than horse- or ox-drawn carts, etc.

Mechanized looms developed to speed the production of cloth thus speeds the production of clothing, which also might result in cheapening the quality of the clothing (not necessarily, but work with me here). Each invention has reasons for coming into being and consequences that result from it becoming popularized.

You don't have to do this for everything, mind you. Just the major innovations that have the most effect on your fictional society as a whole. War machines are easy -- humanity has always looked for more efficient ways of killing each other (and that's not hyperbole, though some days I wish it was).

As with much of the background research we authors do, this whole process will probably not show up at all in your text. Except for those steampunk machines that are needed for the plot. Which is yet another item you need to think about in crafting an effective steampunk world.

If you want any clarification on these rambles, feel free to ask in the comments or send me an email. I'm more than happy to explain myself further.

NOTE: The map of an alternate North America was taken from the website The Adventures of HMA Badger, who is part of a group called Steam Century that runs steampunk mystery games throughout the Upper Midwest of the United States.


Stephanie Thornton said...

Steampunk is intriguing and definitely adds a unique twist to your story. The research involved in each machine is exhaustive!

Matthew Delman said...

Stephanie --

Where you luck out is that most of the technology already exists in the historical record. The Holt Steam Tank is a good base to work from, as is Giffard's steam dirigible and the eponymous Zeppelin that dominated the air for the better part of 50 years.

Joshua McCune said...

Are there any steampunk books that you know of that are set farther back in time (e.g., Ancient Rome/Egypt)? I imagine it wouldn't be too far-fetched to have an alternate history incorporating such things back then (Heron of Alexandria would have been a pretty bad-ass steampunk engineer, IMO).

Matthew Delman said...

Bane --

As it stands right now, I've yet to find one set in Ancient Rome.


However ... such a work is not out of the realm of possibility. *wink*

Susan R. Mills said...

You know, I'm so glad I write contemporary. I don't think I'd have the patience for all that research.

L. T. Host said...

Don't think I didn't catch that wink, Mr. Delman. It better be comin'! :)

Hilary Wagner said...

I love the steampunk genre. There is so much you can do with combining the past with the future, along with fantasy! It's a genre I myself don't write (yet), but I really love it.

Plus I love the word "steampunk"!

xoxo -- Hilary

Anita Saxena said...

Ok, to be honest, I don't think I completely get what steampunk is. I mean I understand the concept.
What are your fav steampunk books? Perhaps if I read one I can better understand.

Gary Corby said...

Impressive stuff! Especially the research into the mechanics. I imagine too, different resources become valuable, especially wood and coal? Does it change the political balance?

Matthew Delman said...

Anita --

The prototypical steampunk novel -- and the one that made it mainstream -- is The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. My personal favorite for the dystopian elements is Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters.

If we boil it down to the essence, steampunk is an homage to the science fiction of the late Victorian Age. HG Wells and Jules Verne, the fathers of Sci-Fi, are the roots of the genre itself for the most part.

One novel that's written in their style is The Affinity Bridge by George Mann, if you want something modern that attempts to be Victorian. Mann is British, by the way, so he's a more direct literary descendant of Wells and Verne (though Verne was French).

Matthew Delman said...

Gary --

The location of resources definitely changes who has the political power.

Even from looking through history, we can find examples of times where a prevalence of a needed resource made a territory either coveted or catapulted them to the top of the political food chain.

The red cedars of Lebanon come to mind as an ancient example. In the map I've used for this post, I'd guess the British American Colonies would have considerable political heft -- Pennsylvania has massive veins of anthracite coal running through the entire state.

It stands to reason also that distance from the primary resource locations would make a nation less politically powerful as well.

Anita Saxena said...

Thank you for the recommendations. I'll put them on my reading list. Have a great weekend.

Captain Brennan said...

Since you posted our map, I thought you might like to hear the requirements. Maybe you can guess how I did it?

-"We" had to be British
-There had to be something for all those air pirates to chase after
-Wisconsin had to become a hotbed of narrative possibilities.

Glad you enjoyed the map, if you are interested in further discussion, please let me know, as it came out of my head. If the history might seem tedious for some, know that this is really only what happens when historians daydream the what-ifs!

Thanks for the link!

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I'd love to run my Steampunk World by you and see what you think.

My premise is that the New England states never joined the Independence movement (or were recaptured...whatever) so while the rest of the continent moved towards Democracy they were stuck in a monarchical system.

Anyways there's tons more. Let me know if you're interested. iapetus999 at gmail dot com