“Steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown.”
by K. Z. Snow
That was the first succinct definition I came upon for a category of speculative fiction that began to intrigue me some years ago. I didn’t know much about steampunk then, despite the fact it was spawned (I’ve since learned) in the 1980s, but it sounded wonderfully quirky. I wanted to learn more about it.
At first, the definition I quoted above made me think steampunk only appealed to people in their late teens and early twenties who liked grunge and hardware in their cosplay. Not a lot of potential there for a writer. Then I heard the term linked to the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the TV show Wild, Wild West. Okay, so that meant steampunk integrated futuristic gadgetry into 19th-century life. It was sci fi in retrograde, neither too light nor too dark, definitely fanciful and kind of fun.
But how did the book world interpret steampunk beyond citing the work of H. G. Wells? My search for an answer wasn’t easy. Too many readers/reviewers/literary pundits randomly blurred the boundaries between fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction, and steampunk. Then, of course, there were classic steampunk stories and contemporary steampunk stories and, to muddy the waters even more, YA steampunk stories.
I narrowed my search to romances and checked out offerings that were more or less current. The first examples I found were The Parasol Protectorateseries and another one with “clockwork” in the title.
Oh boy. After I read the blurbs and excerpts, my fascination all but evaporated. Seemed I’d stumbled into a parade of standard Mary Sue UF heroines plunked down in Victorian England. I pressed on but wasn’t encouraged. The vast majority of steampunk romances seemed to feature standard Mary Sue UF heroines in Victorian England. Or the American West. With endless descriptions of clothing. And repeated interjections of keywords like steam. And countless references to mandatory accessories.
Um…no. As much popularity as they enjoyed, they weren’t for me.
Before I fully conceived Mongrel, I knew my approach would be dictated by things I wanted to avoid—even if that approach kicked my book out of the steampunk subgenre. Little did I realize my past reading had already given me a sense of what I was after. I needn’t have looked through all those lists at all. (More about that in a bit.)
I didn’t want my characters to be gorgeous, self-possessed, endlessly capable, and relentlessly clever. No Special Snowflakes allowed. Instead I wanted mutts and misfits whose strength lay in their altruism and fundamental decency. Those were the qualities that would help them do whatever needed to be done to make their world a safer, saner place.
I also didn’t want to hammer readers with overused steampunk words, objects, locations, and historical figures. No plethora of parasols. No gaggle of goggles. No effin’ Queen Victoria or Buffalo Bill. I wanted a setting untethered. Although I decided to keep planet Earth and many aspects of its 19th century, I scrambled and renamed continents and oceans, nations and cities. As a result, the country in which Purin Province is located is a differently-imagined USA, and Purinton is a squalid mash-up of a half dozen American and British urban areas. In the end, though, it’s none of them. It’s purely Purinton.
My love of steampunk (and here’s where my previous reading comes into play) ended up having little to do with costumes and gizmos and extraordinary gentlemen or ladies. To put it bluntly, I was drawn to this world’s potential for fucking people up through its grit and grime, crowding and crime, social injustices and government corruption. Progress and change often took grotesque turns in the late 1800s. Oddball inventions warred with science warred with religion, spiritualism, and occult sects. Industrialism refashioned physical as well as moral landscapes. Greed, ambition, and small-mindedness often trumped the Golden Rule.
The steampunk universe I envisioned was more threatening, or at least confusing, than it was awe-inspiring. How did people survive there, locked as they were into such a confounding time full of such ugly places? In what did they find hope, redemption?
Well…thank you, Charles Dickens, for planting a blueprint in the back of my mind. All I had to do was dig it out.
Dickens’s work (and maybe that of the “muckrakers,” like Upton Sinclair) was the filter through which I finally interpreted steampunk to my satisfaction. I’d found the direction I wanted/needed to take. And Mongrelwas born.
So for me, steampunk is what happens when Dickens discovers the gay and the paranormal. Too late to turn back now. 🙂
K. Z. Snow’s first steampunk novel, Mongrel, is widely available.
Its sequel, Merman, will be released July 17.
She’s currently working on the third and final story in the trilogy.