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Katie MacAlister
Fiction With Attitude
The definitive Steamed post 
6th-Oct-2009 10:25 am
steamed

WHAT THE HECK IS STEAMPUNK?


I’ve wanted to do a bit post about steampunk and Steamed for a long time, and figured now would be a good time, since I can pair the post with the grand unveiling of an excerpt of Steamed.

Every time I mention Steamed on Twitter or Facebook, I get questions about just what steampunk is. Is it paranormal? Romance? Historical? Fantasy? Contemporary?

The short answer is that it’s all of that. The long answer is...well, let’s break it down a bit. The word “steampunk” was first bandied about in the late 1980s when a new type of fantasy/scifi book emerged. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling was really the biggest driving force in bringing steampunk to the attention of readers; their book was an alternate history take on the Victorian era, in which a steam-powered computer plays a big role.

The steam in steampunk refers to that steam-power aspect of the societies portrayed in the books; often in historical contexts (such as Victorian times). If you think back to Jules Verne’s books, with its airships and rockets to the moon, and Captain Nemo’s wonderful gadgets, you have the birthplace of steampunk.

The punk element was originally a reference to the fact that the books of the late 1980s and early 1990s didn’t fit in with a typical fantasy/science fiction categorization. They were different, and dipped into all sorts of elements like alternate history, fantasy, and lots of tips of the hat to the Jules Vernian “scientific romances” of the previous century.

It’s my opinion that steampunk has changed in the last couple of decades. I see the punk part of steampunk as being the adventure element of the books, everything from grand, epic adventures that send characters careening across continents, to quieter, but no less fascinating, adventures of the spirit. I believe that nowadays, it’s the “man against the world” aspect that brings the punk to steampunk.

STEAMED DETAILS

So there you have my impression of what steampunk is. Now how does Steamed fit into that? Steamed is the story of two people, Jack Fletcher and Octavia Pye. Steamed isn’t a historical, isn’t a paranormal, isn’t a contemporary, and isn’t a fantasy—it literally is all four of those genres blended into something that I think is fun and different, and which fits perfectly with my personal definition of steampunk.

Jack Fletcher is a nanoelectrical engineer. That’s a man who works on quantum computers. He’s very modern with a contemporary voice, and is genuinely a nice guy. He likes people, he likes his job, he loves steampunk, and he doesn’t mind in the least being a computer geek.

Octavia Pye is the captain of a Southampton Aerocorps airship, on her very first command, in charge of the airship Tesla on what should be a simple supply run from England to Rome. Her world is different from ours, although the year is the same—2010. In her world, history didn’t happen as it did in ours; the British empire is still reigning strong, with an English emperor in charge of the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Prussia. Canada, the US, and Mexico have banded together, and are collectively referred to as “the Americas,” and are not favored very highly with the British empire due to lengthy wars. There is another emperor, a Moghul one, who is determined to take over all of Europe, and a well-organized group of revolutionaries known as the Black Hand who want to topple William, the British emperor.

That’s the world that Jack and his sister Hallie find themselves in when one of Jack’s nanoelectrical experiments goes seriously wonky. So you can see that it’s a blending of all sorts of things, a contemporary hero, an alternate history, a heavily steampunked world, and a heroine who just wants to hold things together. Don’t worry that you’ll have to remember everything—there’s a glossary in the back of the book with definitions, and explanations about who’s who and what’s what.

STEAMED BACKGROUND

When I started writing Steamed, I waffled around with writing it in first or third person. I knew Jack had some things he’d have to tell from his point of view, but you guys know me—I love writing in first person. So after a bit of experimentation with the first chapter, I finally settled on what seems to be the perfect solution—dual first person POVs.

My editor Laura wasn’t wild about the idea when I told her I wanted to write it that way, since she felt readers found dual first person too confusing. And I agreed that it could be, unless you had two very distinctive voices, and made it clear at the beginning of each chapter who was going to be the narrator. So I worked hard on the voices, and Editor Laura got the lovely folks in production at NAL to whip up some charming his-and-her graphics to go with each chapter header, so it’s very clear who will be the narrator.

Fortunately, Laura was as crazy about Jack as I was, and asked me to write a couple of extra chapters in his POV, which I was delighted to do. So those of you who really like getting into the hero’s head should have lots of Jack to revel in.

One of the questions I’ve been asked is whether Steamed is a time travel. The answer is no—it’s an alternate history, set in contemporary times, but with a society that basically stopped progressing in the late Victorian period. Airships fly the skies, steam powered machinery dominates, and aether is the element used to turn the steam engines, and power the weaponry.

THE EXCERPT

I waffled about whether to put the first chapter (in Jack’s POV) or the second chapter (in Octavia’s) up as an excerpt. In the end, I decided to go with the second, since it gives readers a taste of the steampunkiness of the world. So keep in mind when you read the excerpt that it’s not the first chapter. And let me know if after reading it, you still have questions about steampunk, and how Steamed fits into the scheme of things.

Links o’ steamy goodness:

Comments 
(Deleted comment)
6th-Oct-2009 09:41 pm (UTC)
I doubt that Brave New World would be considered steampunk; wikipedia lists that as science fiction or dystopian fiction.

A better example of steampunk would be that Will Smith movie Wild Wild West.
7th-Oct-2009 05:43 pm (UTC)
I think the Eyre Affair could be steampunk depending on the aethetic that your brain assigned for the gadgets. I'd probably mostly consider it under fantasy.

I just rewatched Brazil last night and decided it is steampunk, which is why I decided that Eyre Affair is closer to steampunk than when I first considered the question.

PS. Katie! I really like all your first books with your initial world building. I am really excited to read this one!
6th-Oct-2009 11:07 pm (UTC)
I read an article recently that said steampunk, although usually based in London, should feature other places, like America. How do you feel about taking the steampunk to America?
6th-Oct-2009 11:19 pm (UTC)
Anonymous
OMG! I read the excerpt this afternoon and I am SteamPUMPED! You have to post the first chapter sometime before the book comes out. I can't wait! This is so intriguing already.
7th-Oct-2009 01:06 am (UTC)
iirc, tor.com has been talking about steampunk lately
8th-Oct-2009 04:05 pm (UTC)
Since you are linking alternative worlds together, this would be Science Fiction in my mind. The idea of alternative worlds has a grounding in physics. See the Schrodinger's Cat thought experiment.

The punk was probably more because it fit nicely with William Gibson's other works (Neuromancer, Burning Mona Lisa) that were considered cyberpunk. The heroes were more often than not, High tech low-lifes. The heroes in Steampunk are similar, even though the tech is different.
4th-Nov-2009 03:13 pm (UTC) - Streampunk is hot!
Anonymous
Well, however you define steampunk (and I think you've done a great job of it, Katie), you can't deny it's hot and getting hotter. I just spoke with the event manager at my local B&N this week (I'm lining up a book signing there for January), and he asked me if I'd ever written (or intended to write) steampunk. So, the big booksellers are all over it. I'm thinking about introducing a steampunk element into the YA novel I'm currently working on. Steamed looks fabulous. Can't wait to pick it up. Many thanks!
4th-Nov-2009 08:51 pm (UTC)
Yeah, great description, Katie.
Hey, I have an Octavia in my steampunk book, too. Great minds, eh? : )
29th-Nov-2009 12:53 am (UTC) - Steampunk
Anonymous
Several years ago there was a PC game set in a Steampunk-like environment. Take a look at the pictures here and I think you'll see what I mean.

http://www.gamespot.com/pc/rpg/arcanumofsteamworksamo/images/0/1/?tag=imagenav;prev

Horrible game, but the environment stuck with me. Looking very much forward to your contribution, and more in that genre.
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