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



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you could describe vacuum energy as a luminiferous aether, or quantum foam, too. The notion of an 'aether' is actually gaining ground again, interestingly.


Maybe amongst writers, but not physicists. The luminiferous aether was a hypothetical medium to explain the wavelike propagation of light (as water is the medium of water waves). Quantum mechanical phenomena like vacuum energy and quantum foam are statistical phenomena rather than the continuous medium that was postulated in the 19th century. Also, relativity essentially invalidated the whole aether theory. Mind you, there are still geometric phenomena;  general relativity describes the curvature of space, for example. But there isn't a substance filling space.


That said, there's no reason steampunk can't involve aether, since it was considered hard science in the 19th c, and it is perfectly legitimate to have Victorian SF based on what Victorians thought was reality. If something like aether is used in a way that is just magic under a different name, then it's not really science fiction but more like fantasy. What can be frustrating is when it is used in a vague way that has no connection with what anyone ever thought about aether, but just as a plot device.


There are a lot of different approaches to historical & scientific  accuracy,  and I think you can get quite satisfying worlds either be using hindsight (where, for example, characters debunk superstitions and pseudosciences and take a step towards our more accurate view of the world) or, at the other end of the spectrum, have an historical world-view as reality and work with that. They're both good foundations for stories.

I meant as writers, or laymen. I appreciate the huge differences in the theories, but the point I'm trying to make is that you can have fun with it and sound plausible. Although I have read a theory somewhere that describes the wavelike transmission of light as ripples in a quantum 'aether', for want of a better term. Mind you I might have made it up. But it would sound ok in a book, wouldn't it... If scientific accuracy and rationalism are requirements, then bin every bit of science fiction ever written except maybe stuff by Arthur C. Clarke. And bin that as well if you don't like reading stuff by a self confessed paedophile.
In my reading choices and my writing endeavors, I've always aimed at scientific plausibility over "magic" - yet not always is a plausible scientific explanation available.

Say one is traveling interdimensionally and happens upon a world where the technology lags behind that of modern Earth. The voyagers may not know how a device works, yet they accept that it does work. In other words, the character of a story can simply accept that something works without a full understanding of the blueprints. That does not impede on the story, I think.

Granted, some readers read a particular book to gain insights into clever contraptions, itself a worthy-enough purpose. I, for one, however, care less about the technological specifications and operations than that my atomical fission machine actually works and makes the steam I need to run my communication device, the steamtyper, and other necessary conveniences.

(I have visited a world where the personal transportation carriages use steampower, yet the steam must be produced using far more sophisticated means. I've tried to point out the irony of such an arrangement, yet I was teased to the point where I believed my personal safety was about to be compromised, and so I fled.)

I do agree to some extent.  My airships are not heavier than air.

Regarding "robots" clockworks were at a pretty high level of engineering in the Victorian era.  And when you have Babbage fiddling around with 'em, well he might get lucky.

Sentient clockworks are a bit far fetched, but I dunno, I created one in my book, and it's such a fun character to play around with ...

Although I have to explain how he became sentient.


Cass Morris made an excellent point about autheticity in our discussion about this point.


But I always research the science extensively prior to injecting some new invention. 

I broke the rules with semi-sentient clockworks in my own writing. That's a function of data storage requirements. The physical space occupied by all the alphanumeric placeholders makes a sentient clockwork machine take up space something on the order of France. I apply copious amounts of handwavium on that point. I just kind of pretended that data storage requirement doesn't exist by never dwelling on the topic of "how" long enough for someone to bring it up.

Talking of sentient clockwork automatons, I think the most plausible (though... not really THAT plausible) way to explain them is to have some sort of biological base to them. For example, the human brains in 'The Affinity Bridge'. Or Frankenstein-esque re-animated through electricity brain in a clockwork body.


Other than that, I think the data/computer element would have to be advanced enough to induce a 'ghost in the machine' syndrome.

I'm into Reeve but I disagree with him here. Steampunk is merely a setting its not the focus of a story. Done well it can be as fun as other things that aren't real or don't conform to reality...a Wizarding school for example. Good writing and story will always shine through, no matter what's going on in the background or whether the protagonist is Jim Hawkins sailing aboard the jolly roger or Hester Shaw flying the Jenny Hanniver. I don't think there should be a '"textbook" set of rules governing steampunk, I don't like the Wells/Verne comparisons personally. If I want Verne or Wells I'll read them, not some attempt to mimic them 150 years on, but by the same token if I want a book about the possibilities of science I'll re-read A Brief History of Time. In the meantime I'll look for things that arouse my imagination, steam-powered or not. I don't care if "technically" the Milennium Falcon is too heavy to lift off with such measly thrusters. Fundamentally start out by writing what you want to read, and see how fat that gets you. 

Steampunk should never be "merely a setting". Verne and Wells looked forward, beyond the technology of their time. I see nothing wrong with doing that, too, but it would be science fiction.

Read "Engines of the Imagination: Renaissance Culture and the Rise of the Machine" by Jonathan Sawday for the ways in which an industrialized setting has informed a central theme in creative works for hundreds of years. I don't think there should be a textbook set of rules regarding Steampunk either, as that restricts creativity, but not all creative ideas have merit.

I should, however, stress that whatever my feelings (or Reeve's feelings) might be, that the inclusion of discussions like this in the Guild's forums is only intended to spark debate, and is not intended as a mandate, or set of rules. It is for each writer to make his own creative choices!

You might also want to check out Pyr editor Lou Anders' views on this subject in a recent podcast, where he discusses what excited him about accepting The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack for publication by Pyr.


Well, this is modern, but exchange the plastic for steampunk materials and this proves that a steam-driven car is possible:

Team Steams USLSR Car

Not only possible, but already done decades ago!


Wish I could buy one now!

Ah, so lovely! Thanks for that link. But the modern one can go faster... and I do so love speed. Now, what we need is a Stanley Steamer style car with the engine linked above... (nods)


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