1. Wait, you can write steampunk without steam?
For want of a neutral definition of “steampunk,” I turned to Wikipedia, which states: “Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century.”
Now, a lot of folks have told me that The Daedalus Incident has a very steampunk feel. A touch surprising since the book is set in both the 18th and 22nd centuries, and nothing is being run by steam-powered machinery. Yes, there’s cool ships and anachronistic tech, and the English – and the damnable French – but the engine of the setting’s tech is alchemy, not steam.
I think there’s a lot more to steampunk than steam, or the 19th century for that matter. So while Daedalus and its upcoming sequel The Enceladus Crisis aren’t strictly steampunk, I’m certainly borrowing from the spirit of the genre.
To me, the following list is what steampunk looks like when you take away the steam. (If you disagree, all I ask is that you do so kindly. And blame Sean – he picked the topic!)
2. 10. Adventure!
It’s the rare steampunk story that doesn’t have a serious element of Adventure – and yes, that capital A is there for a reason. Certainly the vast majority of science fiction and fantasy stories have a “go big or go home” mentality when it comes to the stakes, but steampunk is downright brassy. Entire cities, nations and worlds are threatened when steampunk comes around. And I like that mentality a lot – in The Daedalus Incident, I’m crashing a sailing ship into Mars and ripping holes in the fabric of the cosmos. As one does.
3. 9. Exotic Locales!
Let’s face it, steampunk takes you places. Sure, an entire novel could be set in the London underworld, but it could also span the globe – or the Solar System. (I’m looking at you, Space: 1889.) But it doesn’t happen in places we’d consider mundane by today’s standards. Steampunk-style novels don’t happen in suburban tract housing, or the 19th century equivalent. They’re in palaces and slums, jungles and deserts, on the high seas or high in the sky. Or, in my case, in the Void between worlds.
4. 8. Ships!
And how do you get to those exotic locales? Probably on an airship. Or, at the very least, a steam-powered velocipede. You’re sure as heck not going to walk – unless the plot takes away your toys, of course. But whatever that strange conveyance is for your Adventure in Exotic Locales, it had better result in some serious oohs and ahhs when it first rounds the corner. In my case, I start Daedalus with a sailing-ship battle – over Mercury.
5. 7. Anachrotech!
I thought for a moment I came up with that word on my own, but a Google search shows I’m certainly not the first, which is really no surprise. In traditional steampunk, 19th century technology is re-imagined with the 21st century in mind. But if it’s not steam, it can certainly be something else. Like, in my case, alchemy in the 18th century. There’s also diesel-punk, deco-punk and atom-punk, for that matter. As a corollary to this, most steampunk-style stories don’t happen in 2014. Most are historical fantasy, and a few – the Romulus Buckle series comes to mind – are actually set in the future when all our tech goes to crap.
6. 6. Smart People
Pick a steampunk book and try to find a protagonist who’s poorly versed in his setting’s tech. And if you do find one, there’s usually someone right there with eccentric habits, disturbing imagination and encyclopedic knowledge helping out. The beauty of steampunk is that really smart people have a chance to shine. (The ships of The Daedalus Incident are powered by alchemy, which is taught at Oxford, and every ship has an alchemist aboard.) Indeed, it’s the brawny would-be heroes (or villains) who tend to be shown up regularly by the geeks. As it should be! So while there’s plenty of derring-do to be done, it’s going to be done by folks who can out-think as well as out-hit the bad guys.
7. 5. Strong, capable women!
The Victorian era marked the very beginnings of a concerted women’s movement, and steampunk tends to have more than its fair share of strong, capable, empowered women characters. Women often show up the men, rise above their station and hold one of the keys to overall success. They also make excellent protagonists, as Cherie Priest aptly proved. Forget about the damsels in distress – if a steampunk woman is actually captured by the bad guy, chances are she’ll turn the tables on him in short order. Again, as it should be! Even when you nod to the period tropes, women tend to be more than they seem – one of my main female characters is a former lady-of-the-night who proves to be one of the smartest smart-people aboard HMS Daedalus, and authors a nick-of-time rescue of her male compatriots.
8. 4. Loveable addicts!
From boozehounds to cocaine users to guys smoking Venusian plant extracts, there’s always that guy who you know is a complete mess, but he’s going to provide a major bit of plot at some point. Most of the time, he’s a Smart Person who sobers up – or achieves chemically-induced enlightenment – long enough to help save the day. Sometimes, he (and it’s usually a he) just bollixes things up to no end. Either way, it’s highly entertaining; you know that he’s not just going to stay in the corner dazed and craving anachronistic Doritos.
9. 3. The Damnable French!
OK, so it’s not always the French. Castle Falkenstein used the Germans, and I’m sure other nations had their time in the dog house. But really…it’s the French. And as another corollary, the English tend to be the heroes. Stiff upper lip and all that. (Americans do get some time in the sun, usually with stories set in the American West.)
10. 2. Relatability!
So with all this exotic stuff running around, all this crazy tech and strange places and very cool ships and eccentric people, what keeps us grounded? Steampunk has a very strong relatability factor that helps keep the reader from getting off track. There’s usually someone at the emotional core of these stories who we can relate to, and we really care about seeing them through whatever Adventure they’ve embarked upon, no matter how ill-advised. The protagonist of The Daedalus Incident is a mere second lieutenant, and a rather fresh one at that. He’s the Everyman who brings it home for the reader.
11. 1. Awesome accessories!
Seriously. We need toys. Sometimes, those toys are the MacGuffin that fuels the plot. Most of the time, though, they’re there to ground the setting in the day-to-day lives of the characters. Think about it – if you were going to write a near-future story in 1981, how would you describe smartphones? Everyone has one, and they’re capable of accessing nearly the sum total of the world’s information in seconds no matter where you are. (Unless you’re on I-40 in the New Mexico desert, then it’s hard. But I digress.) If there was an accessory you could use to sum up the past decade, it would be the smartphone. And if you were going to sum-up steampunk, it would be goggles and clockworks, perhaps. For me, it wasn’t the alchemically powered sailing ships soaring between worlds, but the smaller uses of the Great Work – a bit of elixir on the tongue to smooth over deliberations with angry Venusian lizard people, for example. Those accessories crop up here and there, gentle reminders that there’s more to the setting than meets the eye. Plus, they’re cool.
12. Michael J. Martinez
I’m a husband, father and writer living the dream in the Garden State. I’ve spent nearly 20 years as a professional writer and journalist, including stints at The Associated Press and ABCNEWS.com. After telling other people’s stories for the bulk of my career, I’m happy that I can now be telling a few of my own creation.
The Daedalus Incident can be purchased here.
The final book of the trilogy, The Venusian Gambit, will be released next winter.