Scientific Plausibility in Steampunk Fiction

By Posted in - On Writing on May 22nd, 2011 4 Comments

In a recent interview, Phillip Reeve (author of the Mortal Engines quartet, and the Larklight series) made this statement in relation to his waning interest in Steampunk:

“As for the current Steampunk fad for faux-Victorian Science Fiction, that’s actually the opposite of Science Fiction. Its fans often try to link it to Wells and Verne, but there’s no real connection; those writers understood the science of their time, and extrapolated stories from possibilities which it suggested; Steampunk is all about ignoring science and pretending the Victorians could have built robots, or whatever. Its look appeals to me as a setting for cartoons, or lightweight comedies like Larklight, but it’s really just a sort of literary dressing up box, and I’m afraid it’s not a very deep one and the costumes and props are starting to look rather threadbare…”

I think he has a point, personally. While I hope there will always be room for lighthearted romps within the genre, there’s not enough satisfying, thought-provoking, muscular writing out there.

Are any of you adhering to old guard science fiction requirements for technical accuracy, believability, and depth of theme?

If Steampunks revere the writing of Jules Verne (who kept copious notes of scientific fact and theory), then shouldn’t we at least try to make the scientific side of Steampunk as well-researched and believable as the costumes and set design?

Read the rest of the interview at Tall Tales and Short Stories

(4) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Robert Sloan - Reply

    May 22, 2011 at 11:21 am

    This is where some authors do stand out, for researching path-dependent technologies that got abandoned and coming up with ideas that might work if you spent a lot of time and money making them work. I actually thought that was most of what Steampunk was about even though I haven't gotten into the genre much.

    I've always liked Victorian stuff. I love the esthetic. The ornaments, the lush designs, the physical comforts of Victorian furnishings are wonderful. I thought about it long and hard. Why do I admire the physical culture of a time period I am so completely at odds with in terms of philosophy? What makes their stuff so compelling? Why is it more meaningful to me than physical culture associated with ideas I do believe are right and true and good – egalitarianism, labor rights, the end of bigotry, personal and religious freedom, an end to conformity?

    No one I know wants to live by their rules, with the exception of people who have a point when they'd like to live in a more polite society and adopt better etiquette. That's understandable. But it only applied in the drawing rooms of the well-off at the time, other classes were just as rude as they are now, it was a convention of the wealthy.

    None of my female friends would want to live like a Victorian woman actually did, without the vote, without the right to own property or her own business, legally bound to obey husbands or fathers, no access to contraception or birth control, legally obliged to allow marital rape, the list goes on.

    Yet the Victorian Stuff has this enormous resonance.

    I think some of it is that modern furnishings are so minimalist, streamlined into impersonal forms and stripped of cushions and comforts. Modern furnishings are often flimsy and delicate like those of earlier times, a certain french period comes to mind, but have also lost any representational decorative elements or any ornament in most cases.

    I know that my physical disabilities are part of it. I can't sit on hard chairs without throwing my back. I must have cushions. They must have arms and a high back too, because I can't sit up straight. They must be sturdy enough to support someone who weighs two or three times what I do because my skeleton is lopsided and I will inflict crushing pressures on one side as if I were over 400 pounds. The arm that I lean on must have that strength and so must the arm on the other side where my leg gets propped.

    Victorian style sofas and chairs don't break when I sit in them and they don't break me either. They're comfortable. They are also beautiful with those mandala-like intricate ornaments that invite the mind to wander. The luxuries of Victorian times scream out as real luxuries, tangible, useful, comfortable ones that are often beautiful and exist only to be beautiful. What use is an antimacassar?

    It keeps your hair oils out of the back of the chair when you lean back in it, and the little lacy thing can get washed and put back clean. A minor comfort. Something that helps preserve the big expensive soft comfy chair you routinely lean back and think in.

    The other half of it is personal. Victorian middle class lifestyles took servants for granted. You could get waited on. A bachelor living in bachelor digs would at least share a housekeeper with the other blokes in that situation. Luxury for abled people. For someone who can't do his own housework by disability, it is the difference between living in filth and living like a human being. Heaven if that person is also polite and respectful.

    People pay for that same luxury of being waited on every time they eat out. Restaurants thrive because people don't think of waitstaff as servants, but they still appreciate not needing to cook. I could get a personal assistant from the state if my daughter wasn't looking after me. I live like a human being here because she does. But if I ever moved out on my own again, I would need one.

    And that's been part of what attracted me to Victoriana despite its injustices. If social attitudes shifted again so that hiring someone else to cook or clean up became cost effective and shifted away from the Victorian concept of looking down on the people who do those jobs, it would be a very different world. The new custom need not follow the class customs of the past, where people who cook or clean were treated as lower beings. But I have lived on doing other people's chores before I got this sick and it's just work like any other.

    Part of the problem is that you pay an enormous amount per hour to an agency and then the person actually doing it only gets minimum wage and hates the work. There has to be a better system than that. Co-op agencies run by the people doing the work? Services from independent contractors?

    Robert Sloan

    • LiaKeyes - Reply

      May 22, 2011 at 12:17 pm

      I know I'm nostalgic for a time when things were made by craftsmen, and made to last, only becoming more beautiful with age. The word "patina" has little relevance in the modern world.

      But it would have been very difficult to be disabled if you weren't middle class at that time.

  • Bryan J. Sebeck - Reply

    May 22, 2011 at 11:40 am

    I think that he's completely missed the mark.

    Science fiction, by it's very nature is technically inaccurate, even implausible. Flux capacitors that make time travel possible? Reversing the polarity always fixing the Enterprise? Light sabers? You've got to be kidding me if you think that those things are at all scientifically plausible.

    Steampunk fiction, however, at least has some plausibility. Yes, ray guns and steam powered artificial limbs are bogus. For that matter, so are real time steam powered communication devices. However, giant hulking walkers powered by steam? Those are completely feasible, even restricting yourself to period technology. Hydraulics have been around since the time of Archimedes and the key component to their application in walkers, the hydraulic press, was invented by Pascal in the 1600's. Combine hydraulics with the steam engines that were already well within use during the period, and it becomes readily apparent that these would have been easily doable.

    If anything, steampunk is more technically plausible than the rest of science fiction. The down side to it is that where most of science fiction takes place in the future and can be written off as "nobody knows what will be possible", steampunk is set in the past, and we're limited to technology that actually existed, put into applications where they weren't actually used during the time period.

    Sure, many of the applications of techology in steampunk aren't real. However, the technology actually exists. This is where steampunk authors often falter. "Pure" science fiction authors can write off any inaccuracies as being from the future. Steampunk authors have to do real historical research. Was this technology in existence? Can this technology be applied to this particular application? These questions are actually what draw me to the genre in the first place. I'm an engineer by trade. Questions of accuracy, plausibility, and technology come naturally to me. I have a feeling that we will soon see a new wave of steampunk authors come about who have the technical background necessary to be so precise in the technology aspects of fiction. Hopefully, I'll get time to develop and write my novel based on the unique history of the Upper Peninsula and will be able to generate some interest and hopefully be published.

  • LiaKeyes - Reply

    May 22, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    I'm so delighted to get an engineer's perspective on this subject, Bryan, and look forward to seeing what you publish in due course.
    It's interesting to note that Verne and Wells weren't writing steampunk, they were writing their vision of what the future could bring, coloured by the Victorian aesthetics and sensibility they were surrounded with.
    I wonder how quaint our current imaginings of the future will appear in another hundred years' time?

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