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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I'd better switch to biopunk, then.

Or ignore it and write whatever the hell you damn please. ;)

To some extent, writers should do that anyway. It's just interesting to see what others are saying about the genre.

Thanks for sharing this article. Made me realize my story needs more science behind the punk. I'm struggling with the science of steam, because one of my characters is obsessed with it.

This article is inspiring me to hit the library because sadly not finding what mkes steam tick online. Just about steam engines is all I'm finding online, but my Professor lives in a "steam lab" so I need to know more about steam in general.

Again, thanks for sharing! <3

I agree with you though, Lia, just write what you feel like, 2nd draft is for making it sound smart :) Right?

I like the way you think, Claire! 2nd draft IS for making it sound smart. LOL

I found some good stuff on how steam works on Netflix, if that helps. I'm a visual learner... :)

Oooo, Lia you are a genius for searching for Steam on Netflix! I'm a visual learner too :) And a rubbish reader. My friend Ashley (@awriter12) can't get over how I don't read and I'm a writer lol I need to get back into reading x.x Kindle has helped!

Agreed with Reeve about plausibility. For example, armor-plated steam-driven airships are the bane of my life (as are gushing "future tech" stories in the media talking about airships with spas and swimming pools). Why? Work out the weight of these things, and then look at the actual useful lifting power of real-life dirigibles.

I try to make any science or technology in my stories at least plausible, if not actually based on fact, and sometimes I find that I have "invented" something that actually happened in real life (for instance, a method of docking and boarding I described for a Zeppelin airship was actually used for R101, though I only discovered it after I had written the section).

Of course, science fiction set in the future can use "magic" technology, but I've written very little of that.

I mostly agree with you, Lia.  Science fiction should conform to the laws of physics...fantasy allows anything, but good dramatic structure requires at least adherence to its own internal logic (which can include magic so long as there are limits. No drama). But even the highly esteemed Jules Verne who helped start the whole thing and who was scrupulous in his research sometimes did not let the facts get in the way of a good story. Does anybody seriously think that his "Albatross" in Robur the Conqueror would have ever gotten off the ground? The ship and the machinery (and fuel!) needed to power all those vertical lift propellers would have been awfully heavy for flight. But it was fun, and an interesting aerial re-do of Nemo and the Nautilus. But you're right, there needs to be a good balance between doing what's fun and doing what's plausible. If you can believe it, then it works even better.
I do enjoy the fantasy elements of steampunk, but if the fantasy elements aren't made amazing or beautiful enough (think Studio Ghibli, Final Fantasy - awesome stuff) then I find myself wanting more science in the science fiction. After all, it is the logical possibilities of science fiction that makes it so damn interesting, no?

And before long someone will call for more fanciful exploration of the impossible. :P


But in all seriousness, self-consistency is more important than adherence to real physics. If you set up a world where the luminiferous ether is real, I'd expect to see a rainbow sky.


Or if you have a world where airships are the only means of transport because land floats, I'd expect to see religions based upon the concepts of falling or flying. 


In my writing I tend to cut a little too closely to the hard science line (to the point of dry explanations that I need to work on) but I find it also provides strong motivation for the plot if physics makes something impossible, or if bending it through some invented tool makes a plot entertainingly unpredictable.

I think you've hit on the most important point, which is internal consistency of world-building, story, and character motivation. What I object to is the silliness of taking a technology we understand, like steam, and claiming it's capable of running a furnace on a bicycle... or parts on an automaton... that's annoying. It's easier to suspend disbelief when someone says "it's magic" or "it's aether" (which is the same thing, since aether theory has been disproved completely since the 19th century). But when you know something's technologically impossible, and there's no explanation of a new technology which makes it possible, which is then carried to plausible lengths throughout the story, then I get annoyed. How stupid does the writer think I am? I need plausible technology, or honest fantasy. Not lazy writing.

There was never a single Ether Hypothesis to disprove - there have been many Ether Theories over the years, some of which are still on the table.

The Michelson-Morley Experiment found no evidence for a Stationary Ether.

Which left the Ether Hypotheses involving an Entrained Ether and Ether Dragging to be dealt with.  See, for example:

Experimental Evidence of the Ether-Dragging Hypothesis in Global Po...

As Dr. Leonard Schiff put it, back in the '50s:

"Imagine Earth immersed in a viscous fluid, like molasses.

Spin the planet, and the molasses, depending on just how viscous it is, will be pulled around with it.

Any object in the molasses will be pulled around as well."


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

And as for the rest - furnaces, for example. I need steam power that is far more versatile and portable than 'real-life' steam for my WIP. My setting allows for new materials and technologies - what happens, for example, if you have a far more heat efficient boilers and mechanics that manage to transfer, say, 50% of the energy of the fuel into the pistons instead of the typical 6 - 12% seen in historic locomotives. Throw in condensers and other possible bits and pieces and you could have steam on all sorts of scales for all sorts of fun uses. 


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