Chris Wooding is a London-based author of sixteen books which have been translated into twenty languages. He’s won various awards and has been published around the world. He also writes for film and television. This month, Titan books published The Iron Jackal, the latest book in his steampunk series Tales of the Ketty Jay.
About six years ago, I had an idea for a story called Retribution Falls, about a ragtag bunch of inept sky pirates, all of them refugees from their own pasts, hanging together because they had nowhere else to go. I wanted to tell the tale of how a crew came to be forged from the most unpromising materials, and how this insignificant bunch of semi-alcoholic dropouts would go on and change the world.
But if I wanted to put pirates in the sky, I needed to put ships there, too. Among the fighter craft, huge frigates ploughed through the clouds, bristling with cannon. In order to keep them aloft, I needed aerium, an ultralight gas kept in ballast tanks, capable of lifting the largest loads.
Slowly, surely, the world began to be built around aerium. The land’s politics and history revolved around the struggle for aerium resources. The mindset of the civilisation was shaped by it. And what I ended up with was a world with a level of technology roughly approximating the dawn of the 20th century, except that the science of flight and aircraft manufacture was far more advanced. All of this was basically an excuse for me to write a ton of badass aerial dogfights, with machine guns blazing, while listening to Iron Maiden’s Aces High at full blast.
My publisher loved it when I showed it to them. But they told me one thing: for God’s sake, don’t ever call it steampunk. It’s a death sentence on the bookshelves. Call this book steampunk, and nobody will buy it.
Well, that was fine by me, as I’d never really thought of it as steampunk in the first place. Which is why it was a bit puzzling when book two in the series, The Black Lung Captain, was released, and I was strongly encouraged to declare it as steampunk to anyone who’d listen.
The publishing landscape had changed. Books like Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker were disproving the notion that steampunk was too niche to sell. A book, incidentally, almost entirely devoid of be-bustled British adventuresses and analytical engines.
All of which left me thinking: if the Ketty Jay series is supposed to be steampunk, then what has steampunk become?
I’m not much of a genre scholar, but for me, steampunk really came to my notice with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, and that, for me, set the template. The Difference Engine is a book steeped in Victoriana, not only in its vision of technology but in the idea of the ascendancy of Victorian Britain and its values – even if, as in real life, they were often imposed by force.
My idea of steampunk came from this. It wasn’t just about the quirky, clunky tech; it was about the people and the time, about bewhiskered scientist-adventurers and aviatrixes, gaslit hotel rooms in the Savoy and meetings in the deepest archives of the Royal Society headquarters. It was about the manners, the style, the intellectual arrogance and pomposity that were all an integral part of Victorian Britain.
No wonder steampunk was such a tiny niche in the genre that publishers dared not speak its name. If booksellers and readers shared the same perception of steampunk that I did, there wasn’t a lot of wriggle room in the template. Gibson and Sterling may not have created the genre, but they certainly nailed it pretty square. It seemed that everything after would necessarily suffer by comparison.
But then something changed. Over the years, steampunk began to bleed into other genres: into art, movies, comics. People took what they wanted from the genre and left behind what they didn’t. Movies, never great respecters of literary inviolability, spread steampunk ideas outside genre fandom. Wild Wild West with Will Smith and Kevin Kline might have been an execrable movie, but the idea of using a device to project the last image from a dead man’s eyes is wonderful steampunkery, and besides, who can say no to a fifty-foot steam-powered spider that shoots fireballs?
Steampunk crept out into the world. Evolved. No longer was the casual reader put off by its unfamiliar stylings, neither science fiction nor fantasy but somewhere in between. Steampunk became normalised. And one day, it was no longer a death sentence on the bookshelves.
It’s hard to think of a definition for steampunk that fits everything we’ve placed under its umbrella. Rather, it seems more of a feeling. You just know it’s steampunk. If I had to come up with a rule, it would be this: no microchips. In a steampunk world, machines got bigger, not smaller. Today, we’re surrounded by incomprehensible, tiny devices sheathed in plastic that operate by some arcane sorcery too complex for any single person to entirely understand. In a steampunk world, you can still see the pistons, cogs and gears, and gaze into the seething guts of the machine.
I’m sure there are exceptions to that rule, but that’s fine. Arguing about it is half the fun. And nobody gets the final say on what steampunk is and what it isn’t.
So are the Ketty Jay books really steampunk? A book that has nothing to do with the Victorian era other than borrowing its ‘feel'; a book with aircraft but no airships; a book that mashes up piracy and daemonism, science and magic; a book without an ounce of common decency and whose scandalous captain displays frankly terrible table manners?
Apparently so, since I’ve been asked to be a Guest of Honour at SweCon 2014, a steampunk festival held in Gävle, Sweden on the 27th-29th June. But maybe that just goes to show how much steampunk has grown and spread since the days of The Difference Engine. I hope to learn a lot there about what the fans think steampunk is nowadays – and maybe, while I’m at it, I’ll figure out what I think it is myself.
The third book in the Ketty Jay series, The Iron Jackal, has just been released by Titan Books in the US, with the fourth and final book, The Ace of Skulls, to follow. For a quick primer on her crew of rogues and reprobates, check out The Logbook Of The Ketty Jay, a free prequel written in blog form.