The Accidental Steampunk

by Stephen Hunt

I have a tale to tell, a tale in the form of an embarrassing confession. It is my Mea Culpa to you dear reader, as we blunder into 2011. Here goes…

When I set out to write my first novel, The Court of the Air, I was embarking on writing a fantasy novel. After much sweat and labor, when I set aside my pen, I was even fairly sure I had actually finished a fantasy novel. Ditto, my sequels in the Jackelian series to date: The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, The Rise of the Iron Moon, Secrets of the Fire Sea, and Jack Cloudie.

At a push, I mused, they’re a fantasy/SF blend… in much the same way as Burroughs’ ‘Barsoom’ series, say, or Moorcock’s ‘Nomad of the Time Streams’. That was what I was aiming for, anyway. You know the pack-drill: pistols, sabres, high adventure, evil monsters, swashes to be buckled. After all, my books are set many millions of years in the future, after ice ages and various catastrophes—natural and manmade—have reset the clock and scrubbed almost all vestiges of our current civilization from the memories of mankind and its evolutionary offshoots and genetically engineered follies (and let’s not leave out a few alien species imported during humanity’s zenith).

So after the glaciers retreated, the clock on my world was reset to the baseline, and that baseline was steam at the low end. The Jackelian Kingdom is fixed so far in the future that a spatial evolution in the fine-structure constant has rendered electrical current too variable to be reliably utilized as anything other than a spectacular weapon of war, so it’s nano-mechanical systems & genetic engineering at the high end. Hence my self-evolving robot race of the Steammen, or the slavocracy of Cassarabia in the far south (built on very nasty genetic engineering).

It seemed such a casual, easy thing to do. If you’re doing steam, and the period of history you’re most familiar with is Victorian, you might as well stick in airships and u-boats and clockwork driven pistols and poorhouses and orphans, right? It would be damn rude not to. After that, strange things began to happen. When the Berlinale, Europe’s largest film festival, selected ‘The Court of the Air’ as one of their ten books that should be made into a movie, their elevator pitch was ‘Bladerunner meets Charles Dickens.’ WTF! Finally, the truth began to dawn even on me, when the Jackelian series garnered a Wiki mention as one of the driving forces behind the new wave of steampunk.

I always thought to be steampunk, you had to fix your world in real Victoriana, and have walk-on parts for Captain Nemo and Abraham Lincoln and Sherlock Holmes…. Had I unwittingly committed to steampunk? What, even with the alien races and robots and stuff?

The only reason I had gone off-piste in the first place was that I had wanted to avoid Swordpunk. You know, faux-medieval, furry pants, anywhere from Bronze Age to late Renaissance. The rest of the genre is doing that. J.R.R. Tolkien isn’t, of course—he’s dead. No more Swordpunk from him. But lots of others are still at it like rabbits. Terry Pratchett: Comedy Swordpunk. Joe Abercrombie: Hard-edged brutally realistic sardonic Swordpunk. George R.R. Martin: Non-formulaic multi-layered dynastic Swordpunk. Brandon Sanderson: Epic Swordpunk.

All that effort avoiding Swordpunk, and I end up as The Accidental Steampunk. Well, my wife warned me I should be writing Zombiepunk or Vampirepunk. Hmmm, now there’s an idea….

The Rise of the Iron Moon (978-0-7653-2766-6; $26.99) is available from Tor this March. Stephen Hunt can be found at www.sfcrowsnest.com.