Phillip Reeve Calls for Greater Scientific Plausibility in Steampunk Fiction!

In a new interview, Phillip Reeve (author of the Mortal Engines quartet, and the Larklight series) made this statement in relation to his waning interest in Steampunk:

"As for the current Steampunk fad for faux-Victorian Science Fiction, that's actually the opposite of Science Fiction. Its fans often try to link it to Wells and Verne, but there's no real connection; those writers understood the science of their time, and extrapolated stories from possibilities which it suggested; Steampunk is all about ignoring science and pretending the Victorians could have built robots, or whatever. Its look appeals to me as a setting for cartoons, or lightweight comedies like Larklight, but it's really just a sort of literary dressing up box, and I'm afraid it's not a very deep one and the costumes and props are starting to look rather threadbare..."

I think he has a point, personally. While I hope there will always be room for lighthearted romps within the genre, there's not enough satisfying, thought-provoking, muscular writing out there.

What are your thoughts? Do you disagree? Can you think of any recent Steampunk novels that adhere to old guard science fiction requirements for technical accuracy, believability, and depth of theme?

If Steampunk reveres the writing of Jules Verne (who kept copious notes of scientific fact and theory), then shouldn't it at least try to make its science believable? Wouldn't it be easier to believe in the story world, too?

Are you writing a novel you hope will give new life to the genre, and how are you going about it?


Read the rest of the interview at Tall Tales and Short Stories



Tags: Phillip, Reeve, steampunk

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I'm going to be coming from the opposite side of this, just because my stories are always packed to the hilt with magic. If there are long, drawn out explanations of how something works, I'll skim the pages or I'll put it down. I'm far more interested in the fantastical. That and character development and solid plot. The machines are there, but I don't need to hear what's inside them, or long detailed descriptions of how they run. 

Since I write YA, I don't do the long drawn out descriptions, because a lot of teens aren't interested in that.

I can agree though, that if the airship wouldn't possibly be able to fly because of the laws of physics, there had better be a good explanation as to why.

I am not certain that long and drawn out technical explanations are a good fit in any story. We do not usually encounter them in real life.

In real life we take a great many things for granted. No one has ever explained to me how a cel phone works, except in the broadest terms. If someone were to tell me that my words were carried through the aether by tiny invisible demons,  I would have no technical basis upon which to dispute this. I do understand that there are electricity and microchips involved but the exact way in which these things function is a mystery to me. The demon theory is easier to understand. What I do know is that the technology of the cel phone is consistent with the other technologies I use daily. The simple fact is, I do not need a lengthy explanation of how the cel phone works. It does. And it follows the rules of the world I understand.

Most things in a story should be like that. They should simply work. At the same time, I agree with those who have said that consistency and plausibility are key. Establish the rules of a world and then follow them. If the physics of that world deviates substantially from that we know in reality then explain that deviation, even if the explanation is magic. Once that has been explained, stand by the explanation. And think carefully before adding too many disparate exotic elements. A touch of the exotic goes a long way.

I doubt that Phillip Reeve ever meant that writers should jam long drawn out technical explanations of everything into their stories, he just was annoyed by the fact that some writers, more fandom than pros, have in their unbridled enthusiasm thrown in things that show a careless disregard for the known laws of physical science, such as armor-plated dirigibles too heavy to get off the ground or steam powered prosthetic limbs that would require more equipment to power them than anyone could wear and still manage to move (equipment which is sometimes not even shown or mentioned). There are alternatives that an imaginative writer can come up with if they put some thought into it.  And since Steampunk is by definition "Victorian Science Fiction" we do seem obligated to follow science somewhat at least instead of merely wanting to throw something into a story and saying "physics be damned! I'll do it anyway!" ;)  If any backgrounding is needed, most skillful writers can work it in bit by bit in dialogue and narrative description without having to resort to huge chunks of plot-stopping exposition.  I think stories should be entertaining and fun to read, but that said, a story that seems really implausible in a bothersome way makes me lose interest fast.  It's a balancing act, and it takes some work to do it right, but that's our job after all.

Here is an example of a new technological development of obvious relevance to steampunk, a press release from MIT issued just today: Steam from the Sun: New spongelike structure converts solar energy into steam. This would seem like a useful plot-device, and one which addresses an inherent conflict : most steampunk writers seem to favour Green technologies, which 19th Century steam-power clearly wasn't !

Half the self-appointed experts say that steampunk is a burgeoning new field that's about to take off, the other half say it never had any life, and will be buried next week.  I wish these folks would make up their minds so that I'll know whether I'm a fresh new voice in an exciting new field, or the last dinosaur who refuses stop beating the dead horse.


This is Leslie Orton, of the online Steampunk newspaper, The Aether Chronicle. I think your blog post hits on a key point of dissension in the Steampunk world. I was wondering if you would like to flesh out your blog post (above) with some of the responding debates (below) and possibly publish it in an upcoming edition of The Chronicle? I think my readers (on both this website and The Steampunk Empire) would be interested in your thoughts, since most are writers/artists, and many choose to have their written work featured in The Chronicle. If you would like to peruse past editions of The Chronicle before making your decision, simply visit My Page. I post a new blog for each edition, but I also keep a Discussion updated with each new edition. Right now this Discussion has The Aether Chronicle #14 in its title. If you have any questions or concerns please don't hesitate to contact me!


Leslie Orton

Hi, Leslie,

Thank you for the invitation! I'm delighted that this post has engendered such thoughtful debate. 

Unfortunately, I am racing to meet a writing deadline for my novel at present, and unable to take on any outside  work (or social life!) for some time.  Why not get in touch with Phillip Reeve himself, as his thoughts formed the basis for the post?

All the best,

Lia Keyes

Founder, Steampunk Writers & Artists Guild


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