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Writing Excuses 5.15: Steampunk with Scott Westerfeld

Writing Excuses 5.15: Steampunk with Scott Westerfeld


Key points: Steampunk is Victorian science fiction, extrapolated without restriction to current notions of possibility. It's also very tactile. Fashions and manners and brass and chrome and leather. Plus flamethrowers. Not just a literary genre. To write Steampunk, start with alternate history world building, and add other technologies -- crazy weird stuff. The familiar and the strange. Do your research, but don't bury the characters and the story under the world. "If it's not fun, you're doing it wrong." Cherie Priest.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses Season Five Episode 15, Steampunk with Scott Westerfeld.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Brandon] And we're not that smart. I'm Brandon.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] And we once again have New York Times best-selling author Scott Westerfeld here with us. Thank you, Scott, for coming and being on our dopey podcast.
[Scott] Thank you.

[Brandon] We're going to talk steampunk. Steampunk. What is steampunk? Howard, can you define steampunk?
[Howard] Steampunk is what happened when the goth kids discovered the color brown.
[Brandon] OK. Isn't that Neil Gaiman's line? Did you just steal that from Neil?
[Howard] I don't know whose line that is.
[Scott] No. It's Jess Nevins. Often misattributed either to Gaiman or to Cherie Priest, but it's Jess Nevins.
[Brandon] No, Cherie told it to me and claimed it was not hers.
[Howard] Cherie told it to me at Penguicon.
[Brandon] So. Steampunk. Steampunk is... Scott, why don't you tell us what steampunk is?
[Scott] It's Victorian science fiction written by anyone who shouldn't be writing Victorian science fiction because they're not Victorians.
[Brandon] Right. Yeah. It's the what if that... I love steampunk as a concept. It fascinates me because it's the... we're asking the what if's... number one, something steampunk I've noticed can do, is it can borrow from fantasy and say, "This doesn't actually have to be possible in our world." We can do things that are impossible. We're going to extrapolate technology that people had during the steam era and say, "what if they never discovered this next revolutionary event and we instead went along these lines." It's zeppelins. It's steam powered robots. Some of them are more scientifically minded than others. There's a sub genre... I wrote a book that people tell me is called gearpunk, which is doing da Vinci era technology. It's essentially the same thing, though. But instead you're doing Renaissance people using gear technology. So I'm going to ask... I'm going to fire this at Scott. Why Steampunk? Why are we doing this? What is it about it?

[Scott] Well, I mean, the most interesting thing to me is when... is the Steampunk that says, "OK, what if the Victorians were right about x, y, and z? What if they were right about spirit photography? What if they were right about what the moon is made out of or... what if there was ether?" So if that makes it science fiction, even though it's wrong science fiction... but that's different from fantasy. But obviously it has characteristics in common. But the idea of taking a science that turned out to be wrong and extrapolating within that framework...
[Brandon] Right. And staying rigid to its rules. I mean, it's just a fascinating genre because it really isn't science fiction, but it isn't fantasy either. Anyway...
[Howard] I think the other aspect of it... the other aspect of it that I think is so appealing is... that quote about the goth kids discovering the color brown? The sensibilities, the societal things, the fashion, the brass, the chrome, the leather... those things, they're very attractive. They've got a neat look and feel to them. So steampunk ends up being a very tactile, sensory sort of genre for it.
[Scott] It's also, there's a lot of DIY. A lot of do-it-yourself. You may have to make your own stuff. I mean, eventually, Hot Topic will have a steampunk session. And by eventually, I mean like three weeks from now. But there is still something cool about Victorian clothes. And not just the clothes, but also Victorian manners. I mean that we're living in an era where basically people's clothes and manners are kind of rubbish. So it's kind of more fun... it's fun to dress up.
[Brandon] Getting dressed up as cool.
[Scott] Getting dressed up as cool. Pretending to have a tea party is cool. Calling each other Mister is kind of fun and interesting. Then at your tea party where everyone is dressed up, bringing a big flamethrower is also cool. That's the other thing that's going on with steampunk, is you're messing this stuff up. I mean, the Victorians were stuffy people, and they had stuffed shirts, and they were sexist and racist and all kinds of bad things. So to add some flamethrowers to them, to take the stuffiness and the joy of the playacting and to start really playing around with the societal codes that they had, is also kind of awesome.

[Brandon] We should mention steampunk is more than just a literary genre.
[Scott] Of course.
[Brandon] For a long time, I thought it was just a literary genre.
[Howard] Oh, heavens.
[Brandon] You got stuff with the Difference Engine and whatnot, but it's not. It is a full-blown cultural phenomenon... a counterculture phenomenon, going on completely separate and maybe even larger and more important than the actual literature. But...uh, yeah...
[Howard] SteamCon is a convention, like a comic book convention or a literary scifi convention where people dress up in Victorian era clothing and where homegrown brass and chrome blasters and flamethrowers... that don't shoot actual flames. SteamCon's safe, kids.

[Brandon] So the question I want to ask... this is a writing podcast. We might have listeners who are interested in steampunk. I want to fire at you, Scott. You've done an incredibly successful, very well done steampunk/dieselpunk, as you said, series. Are there pitfalls, or advice specifically about steampunk that you could give people who are wanting to write in this genre?
[Scott] Well, it's kind of a close cousin to alternate history. You're doing the same kind of world building, where you're taking something very familiar, a historical event. Like I'm doing World War I. I'm sticking very closely to the date line of the war. One of my characters is the son of the Archduke Ferdinand. So, on the one hand, you're taking all this familiar stuff, but you're also throwing in some crazy weird stuff. I think that, to me, is one of the pleasures of reading and writing steampunk, is taking things that are familiar, the tea party or whatever, and then adding anachronisms. I think, that's what you're doing when you're doing alternate history. In a way, alternate history is a bit more rigid as a lot of people play the game. Where what you're trying to figure out is what happened if Bull Run had blah blah blah. But instead, with steampunk, you're throwing in lots of things. So I'm tossing in two whole new sets of technology into the world. So to me, what's the most interesting thing about it, is an exercise in world building where you can rely on the reader to understand certain things, like, "Oh, son of the Archduke Ferdinand? I know who that guy is." But at the same time, "Wait a minute, there's a giant living airship?" So you're activating the received knowledge that your reader has both about real history and about genre codes, crazy genre codes in this case. Mixing those two things is really fun and interesting, and it creates a lot of tension in the story, just like it creates tension in the anachronistic nature of the technologies.
[Brandon] Right. We've said on the podcast before, and one of my big tenets of writing is that successful writing... successful concepts are the blending and melding of the familiar and the strange. Hollywood, they call it the strange attractor. This is why you always hear in Hollywood the pitch is two familiar things put together making something crazy. It's fascinating. It's the whole concept of why Pride and Prejudice and Zombies... why you could say that line and people sat up and said, "Oh, I can imagine what that would be like, and that would be cool." Steampunk is, in a way, it's that. It's not... the things I've read are nowhere near as gimmicky. There's a depth there, a passion to the world building, and just a fascinating aspect to it. But if you reduce it just to that one line, it is the familiar and the strange. Saying what if the Victorians had flamethrowers, what does that do to society? Which just naturally, at least as a storyteller, it launches me into wanting to tell stories about this.
[Scott] Right. Yeah. I mean, a classic... like the steampunk version of that would be it's 1912 and Tesla is President. That would be your Hollywood pitch.
[Brandon] Tesla as President. Oh, wow. I can no longer see Tesla as anyone but David Bowie, by the way, because of that movie.

[Brandon] But let's stop for our book of the week. This week, we want to promo Behemoth. Do you say Behemoth or Behemoth?
[Scott] I say Behemoth.
[Brandon] Behemoth. Behemoth, by Scott Westerfeld, which is the second of the Leviathan series... of three, I believe?
[Scott] Yes.
[Brandon] Why don't you tell us about Behemoth? Trying not to spoil the first one, if that's at all possible.
[Scott] OK. Well, the first one is, as we said, a steampunk version or a diesel punk version, I guess, of World War I. Behemoth... in Behemoth, our heroes have gone to the city of Istanbul, or Constantinople, which is the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire is still neutral, because it's the end of 1914. We don't know whether it will join the Clankers, that is to say the Germanic people with their walking machines, or the Darwinists, the French and the British with their living machines. So there is lots of sort of old-fashioned neutral port spies, revolutionaries...
[Howard] Oh, fun.
[Scott] That kind of stuff going on. The Sultan is still in charge. The Young Turks are around. There are some Armenian revolutionaries. So it's a wonderful melting pot of cultures, Istanbul in that period. Every... well, one of my favorite things about it is that all of the different ethnic groups have their own walkers. So there's Greek Minotaur walkers, and Arab djinn walkers and there's the iron golems that guard the Jewish neighborhoods.
[Brandon] Right. Oh, man.
[Scott] So you get a whole mix of crazy technologies.
[Brandon] So, you can download a free copy, Behemoth, Start your 15 day free trial. Details are on the Writing Excuses website.
[Howard] This one is also read by Alan Cumming?
[Scott] It is. And he is awesome.
[Howard] Brilliant. Brilliant.

[Brandon] So I want to get back into kind of advice for people. Do you recommend research on this? Do you do a lot of research? It's one of the questions people always ask me about my writing.
[Scott] Oh, heavens, yeah. I do tons of research. I mean, the funny thing about writing historical, even if it is alternate... I mean, because it's alternate, I want to get little stuff right. I thought I'd done a ton of research, and about chapter 3 of the very first book, Leviathan, someone's getting dressed. I suddenly was like, "Zippers? Zippers? Do they have zippers yet?" Like, I know they have them in Germany starting around the 1870s. But have they got to Britain? Have they gotten to working class people in Britain? Then you go to the Ottoman Empire. When do they get there? The 1960s? What about zippers? So I go off on these little trails. Really, a zipper is a kind of life-changing... quietly life-changing technology. It changes your relationship with your clothes, it changes lots of things. Putting them in the wrong place would be a horrible thing, because I'm already making Darwin into a mad scientist and changing all this other technology. I want to get the zippers right.
[Howard] Yeah, if you want to know how much zippers have an impact, talk to kids these days who have Velcro for their shoes. Because I didn't have Velcro, I had to tie shoelaces.
[Brandon] I had Velcro shoes. You're dating yourself, Howard.
[Howard] I'm seven years older than you are. I didn't have Velcro shoes.
[Scott] I didn't have Velcro shoes.
[Howard] Well, there you go.

[Brandon] Do you worry... is it an active worry when you're writing this, that because there is such a powerful aspect of world building, and because you've done so much research, do you worry about the world taking over for the characters and story? Is this a battle for you or is it natural for you?
[Scott] Yeah, not very much. I... for some reason I don't concern myself too much about that. I feel like good characters can a) can define the world around them by the choices they make and they can build the world while they do cool stuff. Also, my characters are... because the war is happening, there engaged very intimately with the politics of the time and with the technologies of the time. It's kind of nice, I'm doing it like a double Flash Gordon, because I'm going... one point of view is Darwinist, the other one's Clanker. My two characters. So they're constantly... they get a chance to argue and see each other's worlds from a different point of view. That makes it a little bit easier to do the world building without getting gobbed down.
[Brandon] I worry that new writers... and I've seen a little bit of steampunk from students who get so excited about the world that the first two chapters are all only the world, which I think could be a danger. In fact, I should mention this, I turned in my gearpunk story, right, to Tor... Tor children's. The main piece of feedback was, "You're hitting the world too strong in the first five chapters. You need to get into the story in the first five chapters." That was surprising to me, because I don't feel that I normally have that problem, but I'm normally writing 400,000 word epic fantasies. If someone picks up a 400,000 word epic fantasy, they're willing... they're saying, "I'm going to let myself get completely immersed." I think they're willing to take a little bit more than children. That might be an aspect of the children's series more than anything. Though children's... how shall I say? I kind of want to get into this idea... ask a question for you on steampunk. It seems like for me, just watching the genre or the sub genre from the sidelines, for like 15 years steampunk has been like almost taking off, almost hitting. Now we've got this counterculture thing going on, but in literature... we've got you, we've got Cherie Priest. Do you see this starting a steampunk sort of golden age? Is it happening, or is it still just on the cusp?
[Scott] That... I think it may be that steampunk is too weird to ever get that big. I think, there's a certain amount of... I mean, I know there's a lot of romance writers writing steampunk right now.
[Brandon] Really?
[Scott] There's one called the Iron Duke by... I'm sorry, I can't remember the name, but I'm sure if you Google Iron Duke Romance, you'll get it there. But that's not the same as an explosion. I think it is a little bit complicated for people. It has the themes of colonialism and post-colonialism and fiddly technology.

[Howard] The Sherlock Holmes movie was...
[Brandon] See, but I don't think it counts as steampunk. I watched it. I loved the movie. There's not enough...
[Howard] It doesn't extrapolate very far, I know.
[Brandon] The closest, I feel we've gotten in a good movie was Sky Captain. Which isn't really even steampunk, but it's another sub genre, the one where we idealize science-fiction, period science fiction. But I wonder if we do need to get a major film project. By then we'll be into post-steampunk. I mean, cyberpunk didn't take off among the mainstream until you started getting things like The Matrix and whatnot, which worked through cyberpunk. Which were pop-culture pulling the fun parts out of cyberpunk and leaving behind all of the meaning, so to speak. I wonder if that will happen...
[Scott] A lot of the grit, too. And a lot of the greatness, too.
[Brandon] Yeah, a lot of the grit. I wonder if that will happen, if we'll get a post-steampunk thing. I mean, Peter Jackson has optioned The Hungry City Chronicles, which is a wonderful kind of lesser-known steampunk series about giant walking cities that eat one another.
[Scott] It's very well-known in Britain. It's just not in the United States for some reason.
[Brandon] Yes, it is. It's just not here as well known. It should be, because they're fantastic. But maybe those... I don't know. I'm just wondering. I'm watching this. I'm hoping we will, but at the same time, part of me doesn't want it to because it's really fun to be our thing in science fiction and fantasy. It seems like when mass culture gets a hold of it, they do sterilize it, like what happened to cyberpunk.
[Scott] Some people think that steampunk is already over, but some people are always like that. So...
[Howard] I think the advice for a writer is, don't worry about which way it's trending...
[Brandon] Write what you love.
[Howard] Write the story you want to love.
[Brandon] I think a good Steampunk story... they'll be around for years. It's been around for years, it will continue to be around for years. If you write it well, people will read it. Special thank you to Scott Westerfeld for stopping in the middle of his tour. He's very busy, but he stopped for these two podcasts. We really appreciate it. I'm going to go ahead...

[Howard] Final piece of advice for us, Scott? For writers who want to embrace the steamy punkiness of the Victorian era?
[Brandon] Or just any writing advice?
[Scott] Well, I'll quote Cherie Priest. "If it's not fun, you're doing it wrong."
[Brandon] Writing prompt is Tesla is President. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: characters, fantasy, genre, science fiction, story, worldbuilding, writing excuses
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