Why I Love Steampunk

nanna2This picture isn’t a dress-up. It’s my great-grandfather with my grandmother (his 13th daughter) taken sometime in the late 1890s. I adore their outfits and especially Nanna’s boots, though I wonder how much she enjoyed wearing them at the time.

For me, steampunk isn’t just about dressing up, even though I’m currently finishing off my own costume to wear at the next opportunity. For me, steampunk is also a different way of writing about the now, drawing on the past, present and future with the benefit of hindsight, foresight and a good deal of playfulness. As Eric Rabkin states in The Fantastic in Literature,

“If we know the world to which a reader escapes, we know the world from which he comes” (Princeton University Press, 1977: p.83).

In the theoretical component of my recently completed PhD, Steampunk: Imagined Histories and Technologies of Science and Fantasy, I argued that literary steampunk is not limited simply to texts representing steam-driven machinery, but also includes fantastical texts that rely on pseudo-Victorianism often set in imaginary worlds characterized by anachronism, pseudoscience, technofantasy, magic, hybridity and imagined events inspired by science fictional history as well as real history.

In my PhD’s creative component — my novel Heart Fire — I drew on common steampunk tropes such as automatons, mad science and air ships. At the same time I remained aware that, in the past decade, steampunk has gained increasing popularity as both a literary genre and an aesthetic. As a result I sought to subvert clichés by combining them with fantasy elements that are unusual to steampunk, using them to compare and contrast science with the occult, taking the stance that in Victorian times both were considered to be valid disciplines. In this respect, I do not see my work as crossing genres, but instead as imitating the Victorian worldview.

With this in mind, I combined science and fantasy in Heart Fire, posing the questions: what if the occult were real and how would a world function if magic could either enhance or destroy science-based technology? My aim was to use old clichés in unexpected ways, showing repercussions from the misuse of technology from the perspectives of both the upper and lower classes. This allowed me to follow the steampunk tradition and at the same time aim for originality through tropes that are generally seen to fall outside of what is expected within the genre.

In other words, steampunk allowed my imagination to step outside the laws of physics that dictate purely science fictional texts. In Heart Fire, I created my own laws, part real, part myth and part dream. To make them believable, I explored their repercussions from many perspectives, reinforcing them with realism, detail and the fantasy technique of internal consistency within the text.

This not only added up to a whole lot of fun, but also enabled me to create an imaginary world in which to set new books as well as a handful of short stories.

My Next Big Thing

June 2013 Note: Since writing this post, HEART FIRE has undergone yet another rewrite, this time narrowing the focus. I’m happy with the result, and although the novel keeps its original premise, much of the plot has completely changed. What better way to learn to write a novel, than to completely rewrite it five times? Now I’m moving on to a new work. But I also have plans for a sequel for this one…

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Thank you to CSFGer Ross C Hamilton for tagging me in the Next Big Thing. The game here is that writers answer a string of questions about their work, describing what will be their Next Big Thing and then tag five other writers. Those writers answer the same questions and tag other writers. So here goes:

1: What is the working title of your next book?

Heart Fire is my first completed novel. It’s self-contained and also Part One of a trilogy. Draft 1 of Book 2 is in progress, but has no title as yet. Usually I don’t get titles until the work is finished. However, I’m yet to think up a name for the trilogy.

2: Where did the idea come from for the book?

This book is more like an amalgamation of ideas. Some I dreamed, some I made up out of songs on my iPod during my daily walk. Some were inspired by the works of Dickens and Zola along with every fantasy, science fiction and steampunk novel I’ve read to date.

3: What genre does the book fall under?

First and foremost, Heart Fire is fantasy. But it’s also steampunk with a touch of horror and romance. Some of the themes are science fictional, made strange in a fantasy setting but I’m not calling it science fantasy because it’s set in an imaginary world, loosely based on Victorian London. Back then, both science and the occult were considered to be valid disciplines, so Heart Fire asks, “What if magic were real, and how would it affect technological progress?”

4: What actors would you choose to play the parts of your characters in a movie rendition?

Now this is a fun excuse to fantasize about my favourite actors, but most of them would have to be younger versions of who they are today.

For Ju, the rebellious commoner and novel’s female protagonist, I’d have Uma Thurman; while Solly Flood, the sensible yet enigmatic resistance agent, would have to be Jenna-Louise Coleman aka Clara Oswin Oswald, except without the corset and bustle because Solly definitely does not have time for those.

Johnny Depp is going to be in every book I write, so for Heart Fire, he’d be the novel’s male protagonist, Ruk, an outcast shapeshifter. For Arvin, the morally ambiguous dandy, I’m thinking Hugh Grant.

For the really really bad guys, Factory owner Sir Mathias Grindle would be Alan Rickman, and although I didn’t give Grindle such an awesome voice as Alan’s, he could still use it if he agreed to take the part. The ambitious and plotting Christina Grindle could be Sigourney Weaver, because Sigourney conveys such a strong presence and Christina would not settle for less.

5: What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Answering this question and getting it right is harder than writing the entire novel. But for my 999th try: Heart Fire is a foray in steampunk’s darker side, where a woman and a shapeshifter must put aside their prejudices and fight for the lives and souls of an entire city.

6: Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Ooooh, I have my fingers and toes crossed that it’ll be represented by an agency. The novel is in the marketplace now, but I have backup plans B, C, D and all the way to Z if needed.

7: How long did it take to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The first draft was written in about four months, but it was awful, so I ditched it and started again from scratch.

The second draft had the same characters and same story told in different words but a completely different beginning and middle. It felt like writing a new first draft all over, but was only marginally better, and probably more of an exercise in playing with point of view and learning how to plot. That took about nine months. In the end I had one chapter that was very cool, so I kept that and ditched the rest.

Draft three grew out of that single saved chapter, and felt like a new first draft yet again. But this time I knew my world and its characters inside out. Nine months later, I had a very good usable draft that needed only minor polishing to bring up to standard.

I don’t plan on writing all my novels that way. Heart Fire was basically my first long distance writer’s journey. I discovered a lot about what not to do with the art of plotting.

8: What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’m hoping no other steampunk books are like mine 🙂

It’s told from the point of view of the oppressed, and in some cases upper class people are as badly exploited as the underclass. Although the male-female character ratio is even, bustles are for the pampered, only the enemy wears corsets and airships are not what they seem.

Heart Fire was the creative component of my PhD. My thesis explored writing steampunk from the point of view of a fantasy writer. I used three steampunk novels as examples of texts that inspired me and these were: James P Blaylock’s Homunculus, China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and Ekaterina Sedia’s The Alchemy of Stone. I adore all three of these books and learned a lot about writing steampunk and fantasy from pulling them apart. But Heart Fire isn’t at all like any of them because I realized that if I wanted to publish this novel, I couldn’t allow it to be derivative. Therefore, I took old steampunk tropes and combined them with a few unusual fantasy tropes with the aim of creating a unique contrast.

9:  Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My mum the bikerI’ve always wanted to write a novel from the point of view of oppressed people and outcasts. Steampunk is a great way of doing that.

Heart Fire was written for my mother, who is a real cockney Londoner. She was taken out of school at fourteen to work in factories. A few years later, World War II came along and she joined the Land Army to face different battles.

This picture of my mum was taken before she had me. And look! She’s wearing goggles!

10: What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Heart Fire is a weird and subversive adventure. I aimed for complex characters with well-defined goals and motives, plus internal consistency in the world building. My supervisor, who recently finished reading the final draft, said he couldn’t predict what would happen at several key points, but each time I surprised him, the surprise seemed logical and plausible. Similarly, he thought the SFX were good – very cinematic!

Plus there’s romance and a sprinkling of anti-romance.

Basically I had a hell of a lot of fun writing it.

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Now to tag. Your turn: Joanna Fay, Anthony Panegyres, Venetia Green, JB Thomas. If anyone else wants to be tagged, just write in the comments and I’ll tag you. There’s room for one more.

And thank you again, Ross C Hamilton for tagging me.