Airship!Of all things, it was my post about Tolkien that got me thinking more deeply about my “crossing over” as it were, from writing strictly high fantasy to steampunk. A snippet of a quote from The Two Towers briefly flitted over my brain last night while playing D&D with our new group (I do, in fact, roll polished brass d20s). We’re playing 4th edition, and it was the first time I got to combat with my new warlock. At any rate, I was thinking about Tolkien and his general distaste of all things mechanical.

Treebeard says to Gandalf at one point, re: Saruman:

“He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except insofar as they serve him for the moment.”

Holy cow. “Metal and wheels?” That’s totally steampunk.  However, Tolkien certainly didn’t mean this is a positive way. He viewed technology as a means of destroying nature–especially his beloved trees–with an ability to raze the calm, quiet, Shire he loved so much. Certainly I understand his trepidation growing up at the turn of the century as he did, facing the terrors of the two World Wars.

But strangely, it isn‘t the machines that really are the most corrupt in LoTR, but it’s magic itself. Though Sauron creates the One Ring, he is–in essence–descended still from the “magic” of Arda, part of the Creation. Of course this brings about all sorts of questions regarding free will, religion, and philosophy but, at the moment, I’m not in graduate student mode.

One of the common themes in steampunk literature is constant tension between good technology and bad technology. It’s a tension that we certainly feel today, as a nuclear reactor can both supply energy to millions of people and destroy them. We want technology to help people, to make their lives easier, but often it comes with unforseen consequences.

I guess my point here is that, in some ways, I’m more leagued these days than Saruman, at least without the massive destruction of Nature part.

Why steampunk? Once I realized that’s what this book was becoming, a steampunk fantasy, I began doing more reading and trolling the web for inspiration. The thing is, unlike the fantasy genre–which has certainly seen is share of hackneyed, cliched, and rather painful publications–steampunk literature is continuing to grow at a steady pace (just look at the Google Trends if you don’t believe me). And while some people are already heralding its death, I tend to disagree.

The thing about steampunk, if it even qualifies as a genre at all (this is up for debate, friends), is that it simultaneously reflects the tensions and concerns of our own world and transports us to another, whether re-envisioned, revisionist, or completely fabricated. This other world imagining is almost always a “distant but not too distant” past, unlike the bulk of science fiction that takes place in the future, or fantasy in an of ten very distant, mysterious past.

What that means for a writer is a little more freedom, I think, to work beyond the often allegorical mode of fantasy literature into a more mimetic mode. Because it’s not so far, far away, steampunk literature achieves a closeness to the reader; we can understand the ramifications and dangers of technology much better than we might, say, a great ring of power. Not that was can’t imagine that ring of power; but unlike magic, most people have actually seen technology at work in their daily lives.

The closeness of steampunk is that fuels the imagination of writers and makers alike with that closeness. A few trips to the dump or an antique shop, and you can mod your hard-drive with brass and mahogany. Peering through Victorian era newspapers is like a window into Verne.

I think as we continue to move toward nanotechnology and living in a hyper cyber world, steampunk will remain relevant as a hybrid, re-imagined past. It’s certainly captured its share of fans, and I think in time the general media will latch on, as well, as they did with Tolkien. But these sorts of movements start small…

My favorite things about writing steampunk fantasy literature:

  • You don’t have to worry about travel. Skip the horses and the backpacks: we’re boarding a train. Or better yet, a steam powered monocycle!
  • The clothing! I’ve mentioned this many times before on the blog, but one of my favorite research projects involves scouring the web for Victorian couture for my gals. You just can’t get better than that. Add a little steampunk modifier, and you’re in business.
  • The language. I’m a sometime linguist, and always struggle with the languages my characters speak in my high fantasy novels. It sometimes ends up sounding too formal, and it puts a reader at a distance. But I can never decide how the accents and voices of another world would sound. Not so much a concern with steampunk; sure there’s lingo, but it’s nowhere near as difficult.
  • The technology! A mind of metal and wheels indeed. There’s no limit on what the imagination can put together. And, it’s shiny.
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