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 mean gait. oops.

I agree with those respondents who eschew the technology requirements of the Steampunk genre. Society is more than its technology. And science can participate as much in gadgetry as in human foibles. My personal unabashed dictionary says that Steampunk, despite the humidly evocative moniker, considers any society where the level of advancement (measure it in technology, if you so desire) is less progressed than our own, whether it be Victorian or Modern or Postmodern/Futuristic. 

In such a non-technological scenario, the necessarily obvious human traits a story make. That they live and work and play in a society of steampunkesque gadgetry is merely a setting. I do, however, accept that the "gadgetry" influences what people do and how they may act. Yet, as I've been told through countless beatings about the head and body at the hands of literary malcontents, stories are about people, not machines (robots, excepted).

Therefore, in a story that is character driven (can that even be considered a possibility in Steampunk?) it would seem quite permissible, dare I say believable, that the people involved will not always be scientists who know everything about the technology; rather, they would more likely be average citizens with rudimentary knowledge (e.g., knowing how to operate an automobile yet not knowing how to rebuild a carburetor). Thus, the protagonist of such literature might only need to explain to the reader, in as unobtrusive way as possible, how something works yet avoid the more detailed explanation of theory and science behind it.

As an example, I humbly offer my quasi-Steampunk trilogy THE DREAM LAND (currently under consideration throughout the galaxy), which is set on another world than Earth. There, our scientifically trained hero at one point explains to his new protege that he knows how to use [the interdimensional portals] but can't explain how they work. Granted, interdimensional portals are not particularly Steampunk, but the point is that it seems perfectly acceptable for the characters to not understand all of the inner-workings of the technology around them. And it is further believable to have a character utter same.

There are perhaps stories that would appeal more to the mechanically inclined readers and those that attract readers who do not need a thorough explanation. Some semblance of scientific concept is often enough for a reader, lest more get in the way of the story itself. The more a writer tries to explain, it seems, the more the writer must explain; hence, the simpler description may satisfy more.

Wow you guys are smart :)

Interested in writing Steampunk, though my offerings will be quite humble, by comparison.

In the end though I personally would like to go more for plausibility, at least for the Steampunk characters themselves.

Kinda strange though, you go for plausibility and your writing about alternate worlds and 'what if' scenarios?????????????




I had a chat about that very thing with one of my readers, Xeno!

And I think you are right. Readers love believable characters, although they can accept imaginative settings and situations. eg. Have a typewriter that can move time and space, but make certain the characters react to it and to each other in believable ways. 

I firmly believe that imagination is the heart and soul of steampunk! But, those contraptions and machines do need a root in real science.

I agree with Lia about writing whatever the hell you want. But I'm trying to write a book with elements of fantasy derived from science. It's difficult, but I feel like it's more fun when the fiction "what could be" is rooted in "what is".

Yeah ironically even fantasy is harder to write when crossing it with Steampunk in some ways

I recently went through my first book, "The Sauder Diaries - By Any Other Name", and did a couple of blog posts talking about the science and technology used in the book.  I am personally "Vernian" in mind-set;  even if I'm making it up, I want the stuff I make up to make sense within the context of what was known in the Victorian era.

I work with a mental yardstick I call the "Reasonable Plausibility Level".  As I say in the first blog post,  

What I term as the “The Reasonable Plausibility Level” (RPL) is the difference between what the average reader will say “yeah, ok, that makes enough sense that I’ll ignore the pixie dust” instead of “this is so outrageous that the author clearly thinks I’m stupid”.

I am personally of the opinion that most SF fans and Steampunk fans are more educated than the average reader, and tend to be passionate about what they love.  So being careful not to insult the intelligence of the reader is a crucial issue to me. 

It's such a shame that Reeve is losing interest. I always enjoyed his books.

I have to admit that, when writing Greaveburn, I had no idea what Steampunk was. I thought I was being cool and original (yeah, right!).

But does it really matter if some stories are more plausable than others? Everyone's willin o extend their belief to different levels, so authors are just catering for everyone. There are still brilliantly technical novels out there, and then more fun and free works, too. Just pick up whatever takes your fancy.

There will always be some who are more interested in the technical aspects of a story, wanting to know ‘how that works’, and there will be those for whom the setting is more of a ‘prop’ for their story. I definitely fall into the latter category as I’m more interested in people and their actions, motives etc, rather than the tech surrounding them.

I did have an automaton in Romanticism Lost, but the whole point of him was that he was limited, he could only run on a series of pre-determined orders, and he obeyed those orders in a logical, tragic manner. That, however, was not important. What was important was that the Clockwork Man represented blind, bland bureaucracy, an unthinking process of tick boxes and procedure, quantifiable date and established boundaries. As such, humanity was judged to be far too messy, creative, and innovative to be allowed to continue...

That was the key to the book. The steampunk setting was a perfect fit for this examination of creativity, individuality etc, but it was secondary to the themes and characters.

Yeah! What Jon said! Because he said it better than I did :D

Thank you Mister Reeve, it's not often I get such praise for my writing; it is a nice experience :)

I am not Bill Nye when it comes to science, but I understand how to make some things work and be at least a tiny bit plausible. When it can't be explained fully by science, it can be explained by fantasy, which also kind of fits into the Darwinist feeling of my setting.


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