Creating a Steampunk World


As some of you may know, I wrote a textbook on World-Building, I thought you might be interested in a sample chapter, dealing with Steampunk, that quasi-Victorian land of heroes and villains, not forgetting the King and a good cup of tea.

For more details about my journey into the world of Steampunk, please check out this post



On with the lecture.


Steampunk


Moving away from classical Sci-fi for a second, let’s consider Steampunk, a different sort of future, based on our past that never grew up into our present.

Picture a world, a world without oil, without electricity. Imagine a place where the steam engine is King, driving vehicles and industry. Where portable power is provided by clockwork engines; powered by coiled springs. It’s conventional to depict this world as Victorian because it gives us a reference point, it’s the nearest we can get in our experience. And let’s be honest; some of the costumes are pretty cool too!

But when you think about it, if oil and electricity had not been utilised in our society, where would our Victorian’s be today? Could we have vast aircraft, with jet engines powered by coal gas? Could we have clockwork computers, printing onto paper? Or mechanically driven moving picture shows? Of course, we could, and so much more. If you analyse most of what we do today, it’s based on what was invented a while ago, even the electronic stuff. The computer was originally mechanical and even now the basic memory storage unit could be replaced by a switch, on or off, 0 or 1. Electricity just makes it faster and smaller.

And the same is true of oil, people will think that plastics come from oil and they do, but they can also be made from plant cellulose, coal or anything that has carbon atoms. It’s just easier to use oil. If we had none, who knows what might still have been invented by necessity? And what are the limits of the technology? Might the world even be a better place?

That’s an awful lot of questions in two paragraphs.

You could say that a Steampunk world is really just a different us. Even though I called my Country Norlandia, it could just as easily be any England or any European country in the nineteenth century that just veered off in a different direction. And as it’s us, the people in my world are no different from the people in anyone else’s stories. They have the same emotions, the same vices and the same tales to tell.

My fictional world of Norlandia and the stories set there have romance, corruption, revenge, heroes, villains and all the other elements of any other adventure, the only difference is that they are set against the background of smoking chimneys, coal dust and the whirring gears of fantastic machines. The technology is a character, not the main event.  

Once I started creating the world, I realised that I could adapt a lot of what we have today and invent new ways to make it work differently. By keeping it practical and useful but just slightly ‘not the way it’s done here’ it enhances the difference in the setting. Things like the gas-powered jet engine, it’s perfectly possible here and now but not quite how we do it. And you can also have fun creating those little bits of backstory that give the place its atmosphere, like the suggestion of myth and magic in exotic foreign lands, the novelty of Cofé and how the lack of instant communication makes people behave differently.

The great thing about working from what you know, whether you are taking it forwards or backwards, is that once you have the basic idea in place, you can see what else you need to flesh the story out as you go. And working in the way that I have already mentioned you initially only need to invent or modify what keeps the story moving. You can add little embellishments to the scene to give it character.

Going back to the idea of generating power from water, the idea I referred to earlier about generating power from water had an application in the Steampunk world as well. The waterwheel drove the Industrial Revolution, in Norlandia it not only drives machinery, it also winds up the clockwork springs that power all sorts of devices. And that was something that the Victorians never got around to doing. Perhaps, if they hadn’t got their portable power from electric batteries and oil they might have done. Go back to 1853, just before oil became a big thing. One discovery then might have changed the world and you’d be reading this on a gas-powered or clockwork computer!

Here is an example, from my collection of Short Stories, Tales From Norlandia. It’s really only backstory, used by me to justify the invention of places or things. I’ve merely extended it into a flash fiction length piece.

This one describes a steam-powered robot, which performs a lot of the heavy labour in Norlandia.



Exo-Man

Is this your first day out in the yard then?” the wizened old shovel-hand asked.

“Yessir,” Baily Makepeace answered, his voice a squeak, barely audible above the crash of coals and the hiss of steam.

“Come with me then,” old Jesmon said, somehow his voice carried above the din, Baily wondered how he did it, his scrawny chest and wiry frame seemed unable to produce such a timbre.

They picked their way across the yard, the ground slick with water and coal-dust. Ahead was a huge pile of coals, fresh-tipped from the beltway connecting the yard to the mine.

And there, stood before the line of waggons, were the Exo-men.

Man shaped and headless, they worked at the pile, shovelling the coals into the line of Rail waggons that waited. They were ten feet tall with square bodies and thick, riveted arms and legs. The hose from the generator joined the back of the body. All the joints were surrounded by steel pistons, fed from the hoses. These led back to the generators, where men in harness moved their limbs to direct the metal army.

Baily had stood at the fence and watched them since he had been old enough to walk; he had been late for his lessons because of the fascination of watching them. When he had been asked by anyone he had always replied that he wanted to drive one. He had passed the tests and sat in class while the operation and construction of the Exo was explained to him.

Then he had learnt to take one apart and rebuild it. Today was the day he would have an Exo under his control.

Jesmon took him around the pile, “mind your step lad,” he said as they passed the generators, the machines that provided the power for the Exo.

The generator was a large mobile, with an extra-large boiler, instead of merely supplying the steam to propel itself it powered the Exo’s joints, through a set of reinforced tubes that joined the generator to its man. The tubes snaked across the yard, throbbing with power as the flow through them was controlled by the Exo’s operator.

The operator was hung in a harness, having his hands and feet in stirrups. As he moved them, the motion pulled a web of wires. These were attached to the huge metal block of valves that controlled the supply of steam through the pipes. Thus the Exo replicated the antics of the operator.

There was a second man; his job was to fire the boilers and to manoeuvre the engine so that the hoses were always slack. These two alternated, an hour each, either stoking and driving or operating.

Baily was so intent on the nearest Exo that he tripped over one of the throbbing, snaking, hoses. He sprawled on the ground, next thing he felt a hand grip his collar and haul him upright. Turning to thank whoever had helped him he found himself face to body with one of the metal men. The hand that had lifted him so gently was at least a foot across and shaped to hold a shovel. It glistened with oil and droplets of condensate ran off it. As it pulled back from him, he saw in detail the pipes and seals that gave this lump of metal the appearance of life.

“You should watch yer step,” the operator called, “them ‘oses are tricky blighters.”

“Thank you,” shouted Baily, as he carefully picked his way over to where Jesmon was standing, by an Exo without an operator.

“This is Grantville,” he was introduced to the stoker; “he takes on all the lads and trains ’em up.”

“Hello boy,” said the man, his tone kindly. His huge muscled arms were alive with tattoos. His grip, as he shook Baily’s hand, was firm but restrained. Baily had a sudden thought at what his mother would say about tattooed men, surely she could not mean one like this?

“Now then,” said Grantville, “let me get you into the harness and we’ll see.”

Baily knew how to hoist himself up; he had seen it done enough times through the fence. Even so, he felt awkward as he placed his feet in the stirrups and fastened the thick belt around his waist, this was real. At the other end of the hoses, the mechanical man stood motionless.

“That’s it lad,” encouraged Grantville, “you all knows how to do it from watching, now hold the handles and we’re ready to begin.”

Baily grabbed the two wooden bars; he felt the spring-loaded wires resist his motion.

Below him, Grantville opened the steam supply and turned the lever that activated the valve block. His hands and feet were jerked by the wires and startled him; he let go with his hands.

“Keep hold son,” Grantville shouted, “there’s a little back pressure, it tells you everything’s right with the system.”

Sweating now, Baily took hold again.

“Now walk,” said Grantville, “stride out, like you was marching off.”

Letting his weight fall on the waist belt, Baily did just that. There was a noise, he looked ahead.

The exo-man strode toward him purposefully, arms swinging. The hoses throbbed and twisted. Pistons slid and steam hissed.

Baily felt like his chest would burst, he stopped marching, so did the man. He twisted his torso and before his eyes, the Exo swivelled on the spot.

Below him, Jesmon laughed, he had seen it all before. Next to war, all the young lads dreamed of driving either an Exo or a Rail-Ryde Locomotive.


I hope you enjoyed that. The story features in Tales From Norlandia, a collection of Steampunk short stories, background and Flash Fiction. A Goodreads reviewer gave it five stars and said:

Great little stories! I see very rich universe here and cannot wait to read more of Richard’s books and meet characters he created.

A collection of Steampunk short stories from the world of Norlandia, the setting for Richard Dee’s novels The Rocks of AserolA New Life in Ventis and The Sensaurum and the Lexis.

Find out how the Ladies who Lunch changed their world and the truth about Drogans.

Learn how steam powers the country, what to do in a balloon and how a bald man made a scientist think again.

Or what can happen on a train journey, how to drive an Exo-Man, the magic in a charm and so much more.

These fast-paced, beautifully described, edgy steampunk stories will keep you on the edge of your seat until the last page!

What can I say except that I loved it.


Do you want to write Sci-fi or Steampunk adventures?
Are you struggling with World Building?
Do you want to create a world: or even a universe, but you’re put off by all the science you think you need to know before you can start?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, I’ve tried to simplify the process by showing you another way.

This guide is based on the World-building workshops that I hold as a member of the Exeter Authors Association. The aim is to show you an easier way of doing things, with chapters on such subjects as Location, Characters, Sidekicks and Steampunk. I’ll tell you the method that I’ve used to create several universes in the future and in an alternative present, maintaining realism without getting bogged down in the technicalities.
Creating a Sci-fi World contains exercises and suggestions, as well as examples from my novels, there are even some short stories to illustrate how my methods can be applied.



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Check them out, there are lots of great stories available.


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