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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     As I wrote my novel I sought to emulate some of my favorites in fiction.  I wanted action but also interaction.  So many good works of fiction offer insights and inspirations for my work. 


Frank Herbert's Dune and Stephen King's The Stand inspired me to write a story with several points of view. 


Firefly's tension between characters inspired stories within the story. 


The Day the Earth Stood Still and Star Trek tell exciting stories with an underlying message.


All these Steampunk can embrace if the authors wish to.  Or like Star Wars we can simply take our readers for a wild exciting ride.  In the end, if the story is told well there will be readers for both thrilling adventures and the heavier more intricate tales. 

My inventions are highly workable. I work through all the mechanical functions and  if  it doesn't work with regards to its scientific feasibility, it doesn't go in. 

I do a lot of research.  For example the people in my city underground has a staple diet of Okra. They make everything out of it, okra wine, fertilizer etc and I have provided the right conditions to grow it in tunnels that are at the right temperature and humidity.

I also have things like rail boards, which are a type of skateboard designed to be used on the underground railway lines. I came upon  a crisis point when i was writing it, because of the charge, which could potentially electrocute my characters . So i invented a rubber coating, which they make from the deposits of the oil taken from of an underground oil well. They use the heat of an underground volcano to manufacturer it, and i have made it so that it is highly durable, as opposed to normal rubber.

Now I'm worried someone's going to say...that wouldn't work because...

I think the point I'm making is that if its possible, and the writer explains its feasibility via the narrative, then that is better than just coming up with any old thing that would jolt the reader from the storyline.


Now I'm no expert on Steampunk, only got into it a few days go, but Ive been researching on the Internet hour upon hour in the last few days. I can definitely see where he is coming from in terms of gigantic steel airships running on steam power. But Steam weaponry is totally plausible judging by my research, perhaps even steam powered limbs. Someone asked where do you put the steam engine on a prosthetic arm? Well you put it on your back obviously ;) I mean if they can put a steam engine on a bicycle, why not one small enough to carry on your back. Though you may want something to keep you from getting broiled like a lobster.

Well said, Xeno!

As a steampunk author, I like to start with loads of technical research and stretch the edge of the envelope. That requires a bit of imagination on the part of my readers (who seem happy to oblige, lovely people that they are!)

I think if the book has a sound place to begin, then the writer can go ahead and create an imaginative tech. As an example, I'm reading everything I can about bathyspheres, so I know the depth to which they can dive without exploding under water pressure. From there I can add my own steam slant and pump up the adventure volume.

I love doing that!

I would like to write some Steampunk stuff also, but personally I like to stick with the more plausible aspects of technology. I see nothing wrong with simple steam powered things like cars, motorcycles, maybe even a steam powered rocket, which I believe someone actually did invent in the mid 18th century to use against England. Steam powered limbs? OK perhaps not as plausible as a car or bike, but not so far fetched neither. (either? one of those ;)

But airships????? prob not.

But doing an alternate reality, all you have to do is create one where the dramatic advancements in technology characterized by the 18th century, actually began in the 16th century. So now humanity has some more time to come up with more stuff, usually advancements in technology start chain reactions. One new thing is discovered, that new thing opens doors to other possible discoveries.


And your off and running.......


or flying.... an airship





I guess it depends on your definition of an airship... they did exist and not too far off in the future from what we consider the heart of the Victorian era... :D

I think he wasn't questioning airships in Steampunk stories, just steam powered airships. Real airships can't lift a lot of weight, so putting a steam engine and the water for the reinforced steel boiler and coal for the fire on board would pretty much guarantee that the thing could never get airborne. And since Steampunk is by definition "Victorian Science Fiction" and not "Victorian Fantasy" then the laws of physics, not magic, still need to be observed. There's nothing wrong with airships in Steampunk stories, but trying to make everything (including artificial limbs and small devices) steam powered "just because it's Steampunk" makes as much sense as throwing paint on a plastic Nerfgun and randomly gluing gears and keys on it and calling it Steampunk.

just because steam power exists the in the world doesn't mean everything has to be steam powered :D

so if a steam powered airship is too much... it can be powered by other means an still exist in the 'world'

part of discovery and inspiration is finding a way to (borrowing from Tim Gunn) Make it work! 

The best thing about Steampunk is that it is what the author/artist/enthusiast/audience/etc. wants it to be... my cup of tea maybe be green and another's may be darjeeling... but we can all like tea. right?

Well for instance, In my book (space exploration on 1899), there are a lot of things that run by steam, but there was also electricity, radio, morse code, and even basic notions of radioactivity and even batteries very close to those we use nowadays in our flashligts.


not everything has to run on steam, for instance, I have a steampunk cyborg with a core made of a plutonium battery designed by marie curie.

since I have a background in Industrial Design (which is basically the closest you can get to be an inventor with a modern degree) I try to make the technology plausible, logical while keeping  a sense of wonder (and style, of course)... there was a saying among the people on my faculty about industrial designers "they can take a flashlight and add a thousand unnecesary things and yet we would end up buiyng it because it'd be the most awesome flashlight ever... even if it does not light at all"


so basically if you take, lets say, a computer mouse, you can fid a way to replicate its function with simpler parts and items -it is actually the reason some of the msot amazing steampunk mods can work despite the compicated and odd looking mechanisms- (kids 10 years from now will surely see the old ball-powered-mouse some sort of steampunkish on their own)

of course for my book I had to fasten the pace of the historical technology developement on my world around 40 years, but, given it's sci-fi and space opera novel. it was relatively easy and fun to justify :)





Sounds like you've got a great outlook and an inventive mind... Nice to meet you!

I agree with Miss Raye - I love that you have the tech background and the desire to create. Nice to meet you both!

I've been exploring ways of combining analog tech (in my case, I use an Edwardian setting) to create something new and different. Then the adventure can begin.

Hence, my bathyspheres (I'm making them appear ten years early) as well as Stereoscopic Cameras and transatlantic telegraph cables (completed in 1866.)

Of course, I have to make certain my characters are real and the plot logical, within my own system of logic, of course. 

I agree steam punk doesn't have to be technology driven by steam. For the more grander models perhaps, but most small devices really don't require steam. Didn't I see a steam punk corkscrew somewhere recently? As for the steampunk artificial limb, I really like the idea of inventing one.

I actually wear an artificial leg and many of the amputees i speak to have much grander visions than the bog standard stuff you get from the system.  In fact I've recently taken to having one without a cover on, which isn't unheard of, but for a woman like me, it is something new and progressive. My attitude is: its a false leg, everyone knows its a false leg, so why am trying to cover it up? I think a steam punk leg would be interesting, but again, as for other devices, it has to be workable. That's where research comes in when we're writing about this stuff.  An artificial leg functions with a mechanical knee that is operated by the gate of the walker, so the steam power device on the back wouldn't be appropriate. However where it would be interesting, would be the design of it, as one that is fascinating and pleasing to the eye.

Wendy xx


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