Steampunk Inspiration and Writing a Steampunk Story

A short while ago Double Dragon Ebooks accepted my novella Steampunk Imperialism for publication, albeit with a name change to Rise of the Steampunk Empire. The reason I’m blogging about this, apart from the obvious, is because of what caused the story to be written in the first place. That cause was Charles Stross.


As most of you probably already know, Mister Stross is not a fan of steampunk. In essence, he seems to dislike the lack of Victorian squalor, violence, racism, and sexism within the genre. In short, the lack of realism bothers him. This is a bit odd, given that steampunk is built firmly upon the concept of alternate reality, but never mind.


I didn’t pay much attention at the time, but in the back of my mind the rusty cogs had started to turn; what sort of steampunk story would Stross want? Presumably not one of individuality triumphing over corporate conformity, or anything involving strong female characters taking control of their lives and destinies. After all, we all know how repressed and miserable women were in the Victorian era.


Or do we? With hindsight, we can indeed say that Victorian women were the victims of sexual  politics which relegated them to the home and to motherhood but – and this is a crucial point – this overlooks the fact that many women of the era agreed with the social norms of the time. Women seem to have accepted, with admittedly some exceptions, the restrictions of the age because they didn’t perceive these restrictions as such; rather, they were self-evident truths.


Women were designed by God for the domestic sphere, while men were designed for public life. Anything else was just plain wrong. Similarly, Christianity was clearly the one true faith because Christianity was England, England was Christianity, and as one spread so did the other, and thus God had to be favouring both England and the Christian religion. If God wasn’t Christian, or indeed an Englishman, it would be another country and religion that ruled over much of the globe. Why else would society be the way it was?


However, the Victorian period wasn’t quite as straightforward as popular prejudice makes out.  Although there were many social horrors inconceivable to us, there was also hope. The Victorians believed in progression, innovation, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, social reform, care for the poor, and many other philanthropic concerns. Against this, of course, was tradition, inertia, snobbery, fear of the lower orders, and social/political pragmatism.


Society was stratified, yet also bound together. Somehow, great changes such as mechanisation, science, Darwin etc, any one of which could have ripped society apart, were analysed and accepted, absorbed and built upon, and society moved upward and onward, gradually improving itself for everyone, albeit without getting very far in some cases. Just look at the squalor of Whitechapel in the 1880’s for proof of that. Thus the era was characterised by many shades of grey and not just simplified tones of black and white.


So, what did all this mean for my book? I wanted to try and show all the contradictions inherent in Victorian society, the amazing highs and the appalling lows, and I’m afraid to say I bogged it completely. For what I ended up with was... rather grim. A crew of international astronauts from the future fall through time and land in the early Victorian era, before any great social progress has been made. The crew have to face Victorian attitudes toward foreigners, women, class etc, and in doing so the worst of the era’s ideologies are revealed.


Given the above, can I claim that Rise of the Steampunk Empire is actually a steampunk novel?  Admittedly that sort of question immediately leads us to the minefield of what steampunk is, or ought to be, and also leads almost to a tick-box mentality. Goggles? Check. Lasers? Check. Feisty female heroine? Um...


Sarah, the only female astronaut, never has a chance to be a steampunk heroine because anything she says that does not conform to Victorian type is viewed as being unorthodox and can therefore be dismissed, as can any critical observation on equality, international relations, religion etc. Victorian ideology was so powerful and worked so well, at least for those with real power or influence, that any other view was just plain wrong.


As such, there is no justice for those oppressed by the status quo, no sky-pirates and no aristocratic champions anywhere in the book. There is no hope, no heroes, and no happy ending. Instead, we have a novel of small boys being stuffed up chimneys, total oppression, deadly violence, and the demise of the human race. So it should at least please Mister Stross and raise a ghost of a smile on his disapproving lips.


That, then, is what inspired me to write Rise of the Steampunk Empire, and what I want to know from all of you is simple. What inspires you?


Rise of the Steampunk Empire will appear under my pen name, Barnabas Corbin, in early 2012.


Views: 56

Comment by Chaz Wood on May 30, 2011 at 6:26am

Very interesting points. I totally agree, as well, and have followed a similar path in my own writings. While my own 'Wish & the Will' series is pure fantasy, set on a mythical world where myth and magic are real, the hub of the adventures is a huge City which is based on the strict dichotomy of the pseudo-Victorian era.


More than half of the City is slum ghetto, which has no hope of improvement and where the poor simply die in the streets. The snobbish and elitist aristocracy have the true colonialist mindset, wherein any foreign races or societies discovered are automatically deemed inferior and earmarked for eviction, exploitation in the name of the empire, or obliteration.

I have a central female character who works hard at being a 'feisty heroine' but has to face a great deal of abuse, ridicule and humiliation because of it and a male hero who, during a period of disguise whereby he is forced to dress (convincingly) as a woman, finds out just how lousy things can be in that regard. In the end, the aristocracy are always right - by virtue of birth and status alone and everyone else is there to be stepped on or pushed aside, as required.

With its grim fairytale origins, and a setting that's a caricature of Dickensian London with all its vices and horrors, I've found this a fascinating journey so far, and one which has its share of dark and cruel moments amongst all the jolly fantasy and surreal trappings.

Comment by Lia Keyes on May 30, 2011 at 9:25am

The danger of caricature is precisely what bothers me about the direction that much of the fiction classified as steampunk is taking;, the early beginnings of which were never cartoonish, its elements impossible to define, classify, or check off a list because boundaries were constantly being pushed. We have lost that, I fear.

Any story, whether fantastic or realistic, should operate within a believable world in which things are neither wholly grim or blindly jolly.

Comment by Chaz Wood on May 30, 2011 at 9:52am

Fair enough, however, the earliest example of what would now be termed 'classic steampunk' that I have ever seen dates from 1984, and is, in truth, completely 'cartoonish'. Drawn by Bryan Talbot and written by Kevin O'Neill, it's a story from '2000 AD' comic starring Nemesis the Warlock, in a sci-fi fantasy extrapolation of Dickenisan London featuring wacky trappings such as steam-powered shoes and a flying cricket ground among the more traditional zeppelins and Imperialist costuming. Nemesis' enemy Torquemada stalks gaslit foggy streets, terrorizing people in a gothic caricature of Jack the Ripper, and the whole thing is utterly off-the-wall.


I believe this was work done by Talbot in between his earliest Luther Arkwright pieces and, in keeping with the general demands of 2000 AD at that time, is much lighter in tone than those classic strips, and aimed at a younger and more general audience. Nemesis always had his dark side, of course, but the humour element was never far away.

Comment by Lia Keyes on May 30, 2011 at 10:04am

1983, Anubis Gates, Tim Powers.

I wasn't talking about cartoons, manga or comics when I used the descriptive "cartoonish".


Comment by Ray Dean on May 5, 2012 at 11:02pm

I really enjoyed your post... much of what I love about steampunk is the ability to play so many different facets of the idea... dark, light, racist, enlightened... as well any period of history you'll find exceptions to the rule and the diehards that are firmly entrenched in their own beliefs... I will be looking forward to your book

Comment by Jon Hartless on May 6, 2012 at 1:15am

Thank you Miss Raye; steampunk is indeed a multi-faceted jewell. It has so many possible stories, points of view etc, it could take a lifetime to do them all justice.

I hope you enjoy the book, or at least find it interesting; it is rather grim, so 'enjoy' may not be quite the word I should have used...

Comment by Ray Dean on May 6, 2012 at 6:02pm
I find the most fun in discovering books and art that covers the full gambit
Comment by Ray Dean on May 7, 2012 at 6:11pm

seems there's room for everything... after all.. if all the stories were dark horrifying essays on social ills... it would become pretty 'one-note' after awhile and so we can have comedy, romance, action-adventure, social commentary, etc and it will keep the genre ever growing and stretching in new directions... makes for longevity of a genre me thinks *wink*

Comment by Jon Hartless on May 8, 2012 at 4:41am

Indeed; if any genre stands still, it fossilises. Steampunk really can go anywhere, which leads to the dark, the light, the funny, the serious... even steampunked pirates and steampunked vampires. Mash it up... ;)


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