Thursday, April 14, 2011

Genre Spelunking: That "Darwin Colossus" wound up Quasi-Steampunk

So. My first attempt at publish-worthy prose is steampunk, or at least the type that's Victorian-revivalist, set in a not-too-distant future. The original concept story I wrote a few years back was actually cyberpunk, in style as well as setting, but as I began reworking it, weeks and weeks back, I felt like it needed something to give it flavor and offer some small basis for a social dimension. Thus "Proxy Bloodsport" became "Darwin Colossus."

For those not well-versed in steampunk as a genre-conceit, I offer the Wikipedia entry. "True" steampunk is set in an alternate 19th century (and usually in England, usually in London), wherein Babbage completed his Difference and/or Analytical Engines, or coal-burning landcars, ironclad ships and dirigibles hold sway.

It's furiously multiple-choice, and the better users of steampunk's palette remember, for example, that pre-penicillin medicine was horrifically haphazard and germ theory still debated, that women could not vote, and that top hats, fine waistcoats, enormous bustles, parasols, pince-nez and monocles were all the province of society's upper crust. Ninety percent or more of the population did the equivalent of farm or factory work, and were subject to stunted, dirty, anonymous lives.

I had a great discussion with my chemical-engineer brother Matt some time ago about some of the problems with steampunk. Metallurgy alone is a big one: if you're going to make, for example, a smaller-than-a-locomotive steam-boiler-driven vehicle, you're going to need metals for its pressure vessel that have higher tensile strength than simple iron, or even basic steel. High quality steels of certain formulae had to be invented before, for example, the steam-car concepts of the late 1800s and early 1900s were feasible, and of course this also allowed the development of the internal combustion engine. Which leads to another feasibility problem: internal combustion engines are better at the power-to-weight-ratio thing, and scale differently from steam engines. It's very hard to make a small, powerful steam engine, while small I-C engines power weed-whackers and model airplanes so easily it's almost not worth mentioning. The physics work against steam.

Anyhow, dear reader, you see the point. There are undoubtedly great scientifically consistent stories being told with alternate 19th centuries, but I needed a higher level of technology (gene manipulation, cloning, biotech advances, tiny computers and wireless networking, to start) to make this story's world work, so I decided--in the footsteps of such luminaries as Neal Stephenson--to go with a future world in which some cultures (or their elites) had adopted or rediscovered trappings of the Victorian era. This gave me lots of room to have fun with manners, dialog, textual anachronism and the like; while also allowing a bit of room for social commentary, and license to place things in a rougher, readier context than our own hidebound, safety-conscious one.



  1. If you want to make it a little odd, you might address the materials problem with domestication. It just comes down to making spiders weave where we want them to…

  2. Which reminds me: I really need to read my copy of Scott Westerfeld's steampunk novel _Leviathan_. Factions in Europe either go toward technological innovation, or toward gene manipulation. Spider silk fortifying steel like rebar in concrete sounds right up his alley.