Silkpunk - playing engineer in an imaginary world
How I ended up with bamboo-and-silk airships that compress and expand their gasbags to change the amount of lift.
I describe my debut novel, The Grace of Kings, as a “silkpunk” epic fantasy. The term is actually much more than a joke or marketing babble. Let me explain.
At the most basic level, the novel is a loose, fantasy re-imagining of the Chu-Han Contention (206 B.C.E. - 202 B.C.E), a period when China was divided into multiple kingdoms as a result of mass rebellion against the Qin Dynasty, and out of which two powers, Western Chu and Han, emerged to fight for domination over all of China. The history and legends surrounding this period form a foundational narrative for Chinese literature, much as works like the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Beowulf form foundational narratives for Western literature.
In my re-imagined version, the setting is changed to an archipelago, the Islands of Dara, which has been forcefully united by a tyrannical emperor. As the oppressed population rises in rebellion, two men who seem polar opposites – a ne’er-do-well commoner-turned-bandit and a proud descendant of an old, martial, aristocratic family – emerge as leaders in the rebellion and become the best of friends. But as the rebellion nears success, they find themselves divided by a deadly rivalry over the right path to a more just world.
To tell this story of heroism and betrayal, of massive armies and convoluted politics, of plotting princesses and flying women warriors, I wanted to create a distinct new aesthetic. As a technologist at heart, even in an epic fantasy story, I wanted to add cool machines and surprising inventions. I also wanted a world where mechanical devices looked like they were realized from old Chinese block prints, and whose principles of operation would feel true to the tradition of legendary Chinese engineers like Lu Ban, who was supposed to have invented wooden kites for military surveillance, and Zhuge Liang (Romance of the Three Kingdoms), who was supposed to have invented small bamboo-and-paper hot air balloons for signaling as well as “mechanical oxen” for transportation over rough mountainous terrain (I’m always reminded of Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog when I read about them).
Worlds dominated by alternative technologies are common in science fiction, and are usually described by some sort of “-punk” suffix that is overused – steampunk, dieselpunk, clockworkpunk, biopunk, etc. I wasn’t sure at first that I wanted to add another entry to this parade, but then I decided that at least my novel would take the “-punk” part seriously: this would be a story about rebellion and challenging the accepted ways of doing things, not a return to the status quo ante, and continuous revolution would be the ideal at least some of the characters strove for.
What sort of “-punk” though? As I was pondering this question, I read the theories of technology proposed by W. Brian Arthur. Arthur argues that technology could be understood as a kind of language, where common components and subassemblies are like the words, idioms, and clichés of a language, and engineers are creative thinkers who arrange and assemble these into beautiful, functional compositions that harness natural phenomena to solve specific problems.
This gave me a new way of looking at the problem: each “-punk” subgenre is defined by its own distinct language of technology. What I needed was defining a new language of technology that was appropriate to the effect I wanted to achieve. Since the defining feature of this language was a design aesthetic rather than a source of power or a domain of science, I decided to call it “silkpunk.”
The nouns of the silkpunk language are materials of historic importance to East Asia (silk, ox sinew, paper, bamboo …) and seafaring cultures of the Pacific (feather, obsidian, shell, coconut, coral). The power sources – let’s call them verbs – are muscle (and animal products like ox sinew), wind, water, and – in a very primitive manner – steam. The principles of composition in this new language draw upon biomechanics and Classical Chinese philosophy and engineering practices. The result is a language of technology that is flexible, organic, and lifelike, visually and mechanically distinct from the brass-and-glass rigidity of steampunk.
To practice this language, I wrote a short story to explore the Islands of Dara. The main character of the story, an engineer, is given a problem to solve: building flying machines for military use. He tries various existing solutions – e.g., kites – and they don’t yield satisfactory results. Then he discovers a phenomenon by chance: large birds that are able to fly despite having wings that should be too small. He investigates and discovers a new natural effect: a gas that is lighter than air. Connecting the need with the phenomenon is a problem of “standard engineering,” in Arthur’s parlance, and constructing a new expression using the vocabulary and grammar of extant technology is the heart of the engineer’s art. The story, as a prototype, gave me confidence in this language.
As I worked on the novel, I became more fluent in this technology language, and new combinations and expressions suggested themselves. Writing the novel became a process of solving problems using this new technology language, and it was every bit as fun as actual engineering. This was how I ended up with bamboo-and-silk airships that compress and expand their gasbags to change the amount of lift (like swim bladders in fish) and are propelled by feathered oars. When illuminated at night, they pulsate and move like jellyfish through an empyrean sea. Similarly, artificial limbs described in the book rely on intricate wooden mechanisms reminiscent of Mohist jiguan powered by ox sinew. And I haven’t even mentioned the steam-driven underwater boats that move like whales, the tunneling machines that rely on herbal lore, the soaring battle kites tethered by silk that carry honor-bound duelists into the air…
Since it is a fantasy, the novel contains magical elements as well as technology: self-organizing tomes that describe our desires better than we know them ourselves, gods who regret the deeds done in their names, artists who create portraits that capture the soul in embroidery, actresses who rely on smoke to sustain illusions, and sea beasts that bring about tsunamis and storms but also guide soldiers safely to shores. These added to the joy of the silkpunk aesthetic as I ventured deeper into the world of the Islands of Dara.
Writing a novel turned out to be just a way for me to play engineer in an imaginary world.
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