“What exactly is steampunk?”
That’s one of the biggest questions I had to answer for myself when writing my debut steampunk romance, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract, due out April 29th.
I knew steampunks were generally set in the Victorian age, though they could be anywhere in the world, like Wild Wild West or they could be a slightly altered fictional reality, like the Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey Jr.And I knew the gadgets were big, like the googles, blimps and the inventive use of gears and clocks.
But that’s not enough to really construct a story world. I learned that to be truly steampunk, a world should have two things:
1. A world changed by an upsurge in technology.
2. An attitude in which conventional wisdom is challenged.
The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson is often pointed to as the first official steampunk novel. It’s a pure SF book about the world’s first computer. Gibson at the time was the darling of the new wave of SF called “cyperpunk” so when he shifted to a historical setting, it made sense that it would be dubbed “steampunk.”
“Steam,” like “cyber” was about the technology. “Punk” is about the attitude. Punk is about challenging authority and conventional wisdom.
And the Victorian-era is rife with attitudes and authorities that need challenging: about women’s roles, about class roles, about the type of government, and about embracing new ways of doing things.
All this spells awesomely juicy conflict for a writer and, hopefully, tense, fun, exciting, and romantic fiction for the reader. Especially since Americans love rebels and steampunk heroes and heroines are, by definition, going to oppose the system, even if they do so in polite British English.
The creation of my hero, Gregor Sherringford, was easy. I’ve kinda been in love with Sherlock Holmes since I was a teenager long before Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman created this generation’s fans. Intelligent. Check. Repressed but with a burning passion underneath. Check. Thirst for justice, even if it doesn’t jibe with the law. Check and double check!
Gregor is even a little bit tortured, as he’s caught between the world of his noble father, one of Britain’s most powerful dukes, and his mother, a low-class native of Calcutta.
Ah, but the heroine. She had to be somehow at the forefront of the steam revolution, pushing it closer to the 20th century. In my world, a magical type of coal that burns hotter and longer and more efficiently than regular coal fuels this revolution but it’s expensive. So who would take advantage? What would this mean to the lower classes? And what would it change for those who could take advantage?
These questions led me to my “Watson”: Joan Krieger, a Jewish seamstress intent on creating a fashion revolution to bring freedom of movement not just to those who can afford it but to her own merchant class and those struggling in the underclass.
The class struggle between the merchant class and the nobles. The struggle for women to be heard and set their own destiny. The struggle for everyone to come to terms in this strange new world where magic and technology go hand in hand.
At the heart of my story are Joan and Gregor, rebels and underdogs determined to challenge the status quo.
They’re the punks of their day. Even if they’d never call themselves that. 🙂