Tag Archives: Steampunk

Is there a decent Steampunk book out there?

1 Nov

When I read The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – the creation of Steampunk – I thought, “Wow, the first story is amazing, the second is okay, and… what the #*$& is this?” Since the beginning of that subgenre, I have yet to find a decent book written in it.

Now… what do I mean by “decent?” For me, any “-punk” has to have the tech as a major part of the plot. It can’t just be “and there’s airships.” For example, the first part of The Difference Engine was all about finding the really cool computer and what it did and why. The tech and the manipulation of the tech surrounded the whole plot.

“But wait,” I hear you say, “The Difference Engine is a book you like!” No, I like a story in that book. There are plenty of short stories which work well in Steampunk, but they can’t seem to expand into a novel. I read Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus and it’s pretty good, but it has some serious flaws.

I think part of the problem is that involves world building, and that takes a lot of effort that authors don’t necessarily want to do. If you have computing engines that work in the 1830’s (saying Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine worked), you have to ask yourself, how does this affect the history of everyone after that point? So in Buffalo Soldier, it’s set in the current day, so he has to explain 200 years of history, without slowing down the plot. He also throws in a failed American Revolution and Civil War, so “Albion” still rules half of the modern US, but not Canada, and that’s… interesting. However, he has everyone still in Victorian modes and dress, which is… difficult to explain for 2010.

The other problem is that… authors aren’t engineers. There are many computer programmers who are authors, but we really don’t understand how the tech around us works. We start with the idea, “I think the internet would be cool in 1880’s England.” Okay, but authors need to take the next step – “What does it take to create the Internet?” First you need computers, which requires a certain level of sophistication. Then you need to have a way for them to communicate. Which means there has to be a standard protocol to talk to each other (which is what the “P” in HTTP means). Then that transmitted information needs to be displayed to you. Do they have monitors? Vacuum tubes?

It’s easier to do that in a short story, because I don’t need to (or have time) to fill out all the universe’s details. Take, for example, a story I wrote called It is Dark Under the Lamp for a Steampunk anthology (that wasn’t accepted). I set it in 1920s Japanese-occupied Korea, where the point was the main character has to find a way to “hack” the foreign-controlled network. The computers… aren’t connected, but you can manually or automatically (taped) transmit. However, there are multiple telegraph wires with different feeds. So I avoid the protocol by having everything on the Asian-equivalent of Morse Code (a 4-digit code to represent a single character) which is what the Japanese telegraph was using at the time. For the display, I used split-pane panels, what we used to use for train schedules, with the clicky-clack thing… still within the tech of the time.

Is there a decent Steampunk novel out there? Is there other obstacles that I’ve forgotten? Let me know in the comments below!

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