E. Catherine Tobler is a Sturgeon Award finalist and the senior editor at Shimmer Magazine. Among others, her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her first novel, Gold & Glass, is now available.
by E. Catherine Tobler
Why steampunk? Someone always asks. And then usually: wait, what’s steampunk? Because quite often the person asking about my book, Gold & Glass, doesn’t have a wider knowledge of the genre in which I write — they’re genre curious and want to know what exists beyond science fiction (“Oh, rockets.”) and fantasy (“Oh, elves.”).
When I explain that steampunk is often a beautiful mash up of Victoriana or the Old West, with technology that rarely reaches beyond the steam-powered (The Wild Wild West and Adventures of Brisco County leap to mind), they often look at me with doubt. Goggles? Top hats? Trains filled with hidden weaponry? Shiny metal doohickeys? And then I bet them that I can see steampunk elements in their favorite science-fiction. No way! they shout. Yes way.
When I started pondering my book, steampunk wasn’t its first inspiration. Star Wars was, because Star Wars turns out to be where so many of my geek obsessions begin. It’s also got some steampunk flavor if you ask me.
You don’t have to look very far to find modern artists mixing steampunk into Star Wars, but if you ask me, it’s really already there. From Luke’s workshop to the Jawa’s crawling transports; from the hovering skiffs, to the jury-rigged Millennium Falcon. Maybe it’s the sling of gunbelts low across hips (we’ll revisit that) and maybe it’s Cloud City herself. Look at those lines. Boushh and Boba Fett should likely compete for best steampunk cosplay and don’t forget their weapons. Even Darth Vader has some steampunk flavor with his breathing helmet! If only he exuded a cloud of steam, eh? Stormtroopers, lightsabers, the gross suck and press of the trash compactors. AT-ATs, speeder bikes, and oh hey, what about Luke’s landspeeder? Don’t tell me that’s not steampunk, punk.
Likewise, it’s hard to look at the cancelled-too-early Farscape without seeing steampunk influences. You have only to start with Moya herself. The leviathan ship that ferries our crew about is a biomechcanical creature, a living and breathing ship whose race is often roped into slavery (those control collars have a steampunk aesthetic all their own). Moya reminds me of Nemo’s Nautilus, roaming under water. Our good guys have fled to the wild west of the Unchartered Territories, where law and order don’t technically exist. Crichton’s own module gets decked out with technology from Moya, resulting in a hybrid craft that carries a little mad scientist attitude wherever it goes and Rygel’s flying throne sled is a small miracle-wonder how much gold he’s got built into that. Do we even need to talk about D’Argo’s qualta blade? Sure we do. It’s a double-edged sword that turns into a gun. How much more steampunk can you get?
It’s not going to come as a surprise to most of you when I mention Firefly — though it seems there’s something of a debate in various online circles as to whether Firefly is actually steampunk or not. I can see the influences there, with its old west setting thrown into outer space (hey, that’s also Star Wars in many ways). We are gifted with a mashup of conflicting cultures and their technologies — where weapons from our time still find it into the low-slung holsters of our heroes. Heroes who don’t gravitate toward the most flashy space ship on the lot, but the banged-up-pieced-together ship that probably vents more steam than it rightly should. Reaver ships are even more pieced-together. Our crew and company often sport top hats and goggles, staples of steampunk in many corners, and how we do love to dress up for a shindig, even if we’re just waiting for the next duel to break out.
So why steampunk? Because it’s fun and it’s always been a part of what I love best. Because it lets me mash strange things together and come up with a thing that is old and new in the same instant. Of course now, when people talk about my book, they say “oh, she writes about goggles and top hats.” And sometimes rockets. And sometimes elves.