Playing Fast and Loose with History

Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl by David Barnett

Written by David Barnett

With Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, I didn’t really set out to write a steampunk novel. Nor did I really plan to write an alternate-history novel. I just wanted to write a novel, one that was exciting and thrilling and a good yarn.

I suppose, though, when I wrote the following opening to the book, its fate was sealed in terms of genre, sub-genre and pigeonholes:

Annie Crook never read newspapers. If she had, she might have known what was coming.

But she never read newspapers. She passed soot- grimed boys on the streets, shrill voices jostling to present the wares of the Argus, London News, Gazette, and a dozen others. France and Spain at each others’ throats. Skirmishes along the Mason-Dixon Wall. A dirigible crash in Birmingham. All a fog of hollered headlines to her. Annie Crook never read newspapers, because she was in love.

I wanted the setting to be late Victorian, but I wanted to do it on my own terms. Hence a few differences, here and there, which as the book progressed became more and more marked differences. I wanted airships because I wanted to have my characters rapidly engage in international travel without having them lounging about on steam ships for long periods, not because I just wanted steampunk tropes. I didn’t think I was writing a steampunk book, remember. I thought the alternate-history trappings would be merely flavouring, a bit of salt in the story, until my editor at Tor, Claire Eddy, who I cannot praise enough, said:

Why is there a Mason-Dixon Wall? What’s that all about?

I didn’t really know. I hadn’t planned to take my characters to America in that book at all (though the second volume, Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon is set almost entirely in the New World) so hadn’t thought about it. Claire gently suggested I might want to think about it.

So I did. And a picture emerged of an America still ruled on the East Coast by Britain, with the Spanish still holding Mexico (New Spain, in the book) south of the border, and on the West Coast… the Californian Meiji, a breakaway Japanese faction. And with every answer about Gideon’s world, more questions were asked. I began to grind history – especially American history – under my boot heel in a bid to come up with a workable world. And I am incredibly indebted to Grant Balfour for the exhaustive (and exhausting) lessons in American history he gave me, and reasons why what I wanted to do either would or wouldn’t work.

What emerged was a document shared between Claire Eddy and me entitled The Secret History of the World 1775-1890. 1775 as the starting point because that was the year James Watt perfected his steam engine and also – according to my Secret History – the year when “British troops march into Lexington and Concord, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, and the ringleaders of a nascent rebellion against British control – including Samuel Adams and John Hancock – are arrested and summarily executed.”

The Secret History of the World 1775-1890 (the later year is the year in which the action in the book takes place) will probably never be shown to anyone else, being of little interest other than my research “bible” for the Gideon Smith series. It’s the place where the questions Claire asked are sort-of answered.

So why was there a Mason-Dixon Wall? According to the bible:

1834
Southern American states under British stewardship secede from British rule because of the Slavery Abolition Act and form the United States Confederacy. London is unwilling to send more troops to fight a formal war between British America and the Confederacy, insisting that existing resources are used to bring the breakaway states under control.

1837
Victoria succeeds to the throne of Great Britain

1838
Queen Victoria decrees that if British America cannot reclaim the southern states, then they should be cut off from “civilised lands”. She orders a wall to be built clear across America, along the line of the survey carried out by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to establish Britain’s borders with the Confederacy.

But, Claire quite reasonably asked, what about all the cotton? Would Britain give up all the cotton from down south? Ah, I said, but we have air travel, remember? Vast dirigibles criss-crossing the world. They’ll bring cotton from India to the Empire!

Then I thought, why have I got dirigibles in the first place? Is it just lazy steampunk tropes being thrown into the book? No. I wasn’t having that. A quick look at the bible reveals this thought process:

1782
Eager to win back approval from the ever-expanding British Empire [After backing the wrong horse in the failed American rebellion], France tries to court London and many artists, musicians and scientists flock to the Empire. Among them is Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who astounds London by fitting a hand-powered propeller to a balloon, and crosses the English Channel in a balloon equipped with flapping wings for propulsion, and a bird-like tail for steerage.

1784
The astonishment at Blanchard’s flight has, over the next two years, turned into a race to transform his invention into a workable, mass-produced flying machine. Industrial giants in Britain, Germany, France and Spain work on their own versions of the airship. The race for mastery of the air is underway.

1800
The British Aerostat Company is formed from a conglomeration of several smaller companies and makes the first trans-Atlantic crossing to New York in a small balloon with an engine powered by hand-cranked clockwork.

And so on, and so on. There will doubtless be people who read Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl and its sequels who think I might have played a bit fast and loose with history. I have. But it’s a hell of a lot of fun doing so.

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From the Tor/Forge September 9th newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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6 thoughts on “Playing Fast and Loose with History

  1. Don’t count on “The Secret History of the World 1775-1890” being of little interest. It’s the kind of thing that die hard fans will argue over and conspire to get glimpses of. I’ve already preordered my copy of “Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl”. Good luck!

  2. I freaking love what you’re doing with the history! Because quite frankly blah – who wants to read a historical fiction that has the facts right? I’ve already had my history lessons I don’t need my fiction to give me another. Yes! Tell me about the world had it all been different!

    I’m loving it by the way! You break my heart…just a little.

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