I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating, since it’s one of my more colorful “how I met my author” stories. Years ago, Steven Harper, aka Steven Piziks, came to me with an offer on the table. It was the week before my wedding. Was I interested in taking a look at his material? If it hadn’t sounded so intriguing, sanity would have reigned, and I wouldn’t have wedged in reading a new submission in the midst of arguing with the caterer, coordinating guest arrivals and doing all of the last minute things that had to be done. Sanity and I have never been close, and I was very glad for it that week. I fell in love with Steven’s work and added “haggling with the publisher” to my To Do list. I think you should add “reading his work” to yours! Comment for a chance to win a signed copy of one of his steampunk novels or run out and be certain to get one today.
Steampunk by Steven Harper
I recently realized that when I finish THE HAVOC MACHINE, I’ll have written four novels and two novelettes. That’s about 385,000 words of steampunk. In other words, by the time September rolls around, I’ll have put more words into steampunk than any other genre I’ve touched–and I’ve written 17 books now.
I still don’t know what the hell steampunk is.
No, seriously. My non-writer friends often ask me what kind of book I’m working on. I say, “Steampunk,” and they quite naturally say, “Steampunk? What’s that?” And I have no idea what to say.
Maybe steampunk is fantasy. My publisher seems to think so. My contracts call the Clockwork Empire books “works of fantasy.” Nowhere on any piece of paper I’ve signed does the word “steampunk” actually appear. (It occurs to me that this could be the source of some serious weaseling at some future date.) Certainly a lot of steampunk has a paranormal element or three. Gail Carriger and Cindy Spencer Pape both rather famously write steampunk about werewolves and vampires and warlocks, for example. We often have the big, world-shaking events fantasy is famous for. In THE DOOMSDAY VAULT, the clockwork plague (which I based on the medieval bubonic plague) reshapes humanity. And we have zombies, a fantasy trope, though mine are more objects of pity than of horror. In THE IMPOSSIBLE CUBE, a mad scientist uncovers the power to stop time itself and destroy the entire universe, which again sounds like fantasy. In the upcoming third book THE DRAGON MEN, I use winged men and clockwork monsters taken from Chinese mythology. But my steampunk books don’t actually use magic. Neither do Cherie Priest’s, who set her books in nineteenth-century America and who uses zombies of her own. So as an overall genre, steampunk doesn’t quite qualify as fantasy. That’s okay–we love it anyway.
Maybe steampunk is historical fiction. Well, alternate reality fiction. A lot of steampunkers start by saying, “What would have happened if Charles Babbage had actually built his difference engine and, as a result, the Victorians had embarked on a computer age before micro-processors?” Of course, there are a lot of other alternates as well. What if Victorian women were given more independence than they actually were? What if the Victorians were more tolerant of racial and religious differences? What if the Victorians didn’t care so much about sexual orientation? What if Victorian women wore corsets on the outside of their dresses? And what if the Victorians were enough like modern people to allow modern readers to find them likeable instead of finding them really racist, scornfully sexist, and casually cruel? So many alterations don’t just nibble at the edge of actual history–they collapse it entirely. No, steampunk doesn’t quite qualify as historical or alternate reality fiction. That’s okay–we love it anyway.
Maybe steampunk is science fiction. I mean, you do have big machines that work with pistons and steam and brass. And you have computers and robots and sometimes even spaceships and stuff. For my steampunk, I created a bacillus-borne plague that nearly destroys humanity and a virus that cures it. All straight-up SF. Except none of this stuff has a hope of working in the real world. The robots would collapse under their own weight. Boilers are inefficient and unreliable sources of energy for anything smaller than a building. A brass computer processor that poked out even basic computations would weigh several tons and be completely unsuitable for controlling the little spiders and mechanical horses that make steampunk so much fun. So it doesn’t quite qualify as science fiction. That’s okay–we love it anyway.
So maybe a better question is, why define it at all? Steampunk is more of a movement than a genre. It involves not just literature, but fashion, music, games, role-playing, philosophy, and even movies. How can you define anything that shows up in all that? Sure, it makes my publisher’s marketing division nervous, but let them deal with it. I’m in it for the awesome stories, the thrilling adventures, the powerful themes. To define it is to pin it down like a butterfly on a board.
Once it’s pinned down, it can’t move anymore, and it dies. Why would we want to do that?
Steven Harper is, among other things, the author of the fabulous Clockwork Empire series for Roc and WRITING THE PARANORMAL NOVEL from Writers Digest Books. Check him out on his website or follow him on Twitter.