On writing steampunk
My first steampunk story, “The Ape-box Affair,” was published in Unearth magazine in 1978. I was paid half a cent a word for it and was happy to get the 40 bucks—and doubly happy simply to see it in print.
In those days, K.W. Jeter, Tim Powers, and I were all writing things that would come to be called steampunk ten years later when K.W. would coin the term, thereby turning a happenstance into a movement. None of us had any idea we’d go on writing it. My most recent steampunk effort, a novel titled Beneath London, came out last week from Titan Books. That makes 35 years, off and on, of writing steampunk. I’m finding it more fun today than ever. Despite all those years of writing it, I’d never try to tell anyone how to go about it. Writers figure these things out for themselves. Here’s how I came to do it and why I’m still at it.
I started reading 19th and early 20th century science fiction when I was ten years old. I owe that to my mother, who hauled my sister and me down to the library every Tuesday afternoon so that we could look for likely books. She had the idea that I’d enjoy reading Verne, Wells, and Conan Doyle, and she was correct on all counts. My sister persuaded me to read the seafaring books of Howard Pease. If readers find seaworthy elements in my own books, that’s where it started, at the Stanton Free Library: the books that I read when I was young turned out to have had a monumental effect on what I would come to write years later. I wonder if that’s true for all writers. I bet it’s true for my favorite writers.
By the time I graduated from the university (along with Tim and K.W.) I had developed a taste for 19th century literature, but especially Dickens’s novels, John Ruskin’s essays, and Tennyson’s poetry. I loved the sound of the language when it came out of their particular pens. I realized that I could open a copy of David Copperfield or Great Expectations or one of Ruskin’s lectures to a random page and unfailingly find a paragraph that would be worth reading for it’s own sake, disconnected from the whole – a paragraph that would make me wish I could write like that. I wondered how they did what they did (and the same for the rest of my hero writers, Twain and Steinbeck and Conan Doyle among them). I knew that I wanted to do it too. It was equally true that I wanted to write stories that sounded like no one else on earth, stories that conjured an atmosphere – an “effect,” to use Poe’s term – which meant learning how to string words together in ways that worked, something that seemed to be as much magic as anything else.
When I was 25, I set out to read all of Robert Louis Stevenson and P. G. Wodehouse for the same reason, something that had more to do with language and atmosphere than with other elements of their novels and stories. In the best sense of the word, I was infected by language. If you’ve read Wodehouse and Stevenson, and you someday run across a copy of Unearth Number 6 in a dusty old bookstore, and you read “The Ape-box Affair,” you’ll see what I mean. The word “derivative” might come into your mind. Stevenson once said that he learned to write by “playing the sedulous ape.” Me too, in more ways than one. Fortunately, the more I wrote, the more I began sounding like me rather than like Stevenson or Wodehouse or whomever I was sedulously aping. I’m not sure at what point I became my own writer and was no longer a species of ape, but I know that I would not have become that writer if it had not been for the books I read. “One measures a circle,” Charles Fort tells us, “beginning anywhere.”
I had to look up the word “sedulous,” by the way. I liked the sound of it, but I had no idea what it meant. And therein lies part of the problem with writing the kind of steampunk that I came to write. You start using words like “sedulous” and “forsooth” and “dudgeon,” (which, you realize, rhymes with “gudgeon,” an unattractive, blunt-headed fish that lives in a hole in the sand. You wonder if there’s a poem in it, perhaps a limerick, and you suddenly fear that you’re turning into one of your own characters, that you’ve stayed too long at the fair….) and at the end of a day’s writing you don’t quite know who you are. Victorian writers sound antique to the modern ear, as does the leisurely pace of their books. I had to learn to read them, which worked for me because I had wild-eyed professors threatening to beat me senseless with their gradebooks if I didn’t. As is almost always the case, the more I read, the more I wanted to read. All that reading became a fundamental part of who I am as a literary creature. William S. Burroughs claimed that heroin changes an addict at a cellular level. Reading can do that.
I still read Victorian writers as well as historical writers whose language is in some sense consistent with the worlds their characters occupy. I’ve got a heap of them on my desk and on bookshelves within grabbing distance. (I mean the books, not the writers). I read them like a chef sharpens knives before going to work. Reading focuses the mind. Reading The Pickwick Papers puts a particular sort of edge on it – just the sort of edge I need if I’m going to leave the 20th century behind and spend a few hours hanging out in the 19th. (The term “hanging out,” by the way, appears in Pickwick, which was published in 1836, 130 years before my generation would claim to have invented it.) I love the extravagant stuff, so to speak, of the 19th century – the sepia-toned colors of the world in those bygone days, the immensity of the language, the potential for plot and character and setting and for outmoded, goofball science, none of which any longer exists in the modern world except when someone’s imagination takes a sentimental journey.
If you’re intending to build an analytical engine with a six-sided prism to run Charles Babbage’s weird cardboard vaporware program, you will need some help with Babbage’s notes, as old Charles was inventing a whole technical vocab from scratch.
Scott Nelles is a Wisconsin sculptor who works in cast brass and aluminum, making beautiful, whimsical pieces with a strong science fictional flare tinged with strealined dieselpunk.
In Like Clockwork: Steampunk Pasts, Presents, and Futures , Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall present a lively, engaging collection of essays about the past, present, future (and alternate versions thereof) of steampunk culture, literature and meaning, ranging from disability and queerness to ethos and digital humanities. We’re proud to present this long excerpt from the book’s introduction.
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