Viola Carr was born in Australia, but wandered into darkest London one foggy October evening and never found her way out. She now devours countless history books and dictates fantastical novels by gaslight, accompanied by classical music and the snoring of her slumbering cat. She loves history, and pops down to London’s many historical sites whenever she gets the chance. She likes steampunk, and thought it would be cool to investigate wacky crimes with crazy gadgets…just so long as her heroine was the creator of said wacky gadgets: a tinkerer, edgy, with a dash of mad scientist. Readers can follow her on twitter at @viola_carr and online at http://www.violacarr.com.
by Viola Carr
A common approach to creating a fantasy world is to draw a sharp line between technology and magic. This is science, that’s sorcery; a clear-cut distinction, universally understood by your characters — who typically are either magic-users, or they’re not. No halfway, no maybe.
I thought it would be fun instead to make the relationship between technology and magic a continuum, with a big old grey area in the middle. Arthur C Clarke famously wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic – and that to discover the limits of the possible, you have to venture past them into the impossible. That’s what happens in my Electric Empire series, beginning with The Diabolical Miss Hyde, an edgy steampunk/fantasy take on Jekyll & Hyde.
The result is an alternate mid-19th century British Empire, where wacky clockwork technology is rampant, electricity is being mass-produced forty years before its time (with bizarre, unintended consequences) and the ever-present threat of invasion by insane Continental sorcerers has cloaked even the idea of ‘magic’ in suspicion and fear.
Magic, and anyone using it, is outlawed, which naturally forces it underground. The filthy London rookeries are teeming, not only with Dickensian poor and homeless, but with fey: people unlucky enough to descend from ancient fairy bloodlines. If you want to make it in middle-class society, concealing your magic is your only hope.
Trouble is, no one quite understands where magic stops and technology begins. The laws of physics and chemistry are shifting and arcane. With fabulous new technologies sprouting every day, who’s to say what wonders will emerge into the realms of ‘possible’? Even the Royal Society — the equivalent of a three-letter agency, a powerful quasi-police force who are the arbiters of technology versus witchcraft, and can execute you for doing science they don’t approve of, or if they simply don’t like you very much — even the corrupted Royal, who pretty much invented the scientific method back in Sir Isaac Newton’s day, are lying, murdering and fudging results to further their own power-hungry agenda.
Enter Dr. Eliza Jekyll, a precocious physician and pioneer of wacky crime scene science… at least, she’s Eliza most of the time, until she drinks her alchemical elixir, and becomes Lizzie Hyde, a jealous and sultry adventuress who prowls gin palaces and flash houses hunting for illicit pleasures. Addiction to alchemy plus unorthodox scientific practices: not a recipe for safety.
Yet Eliza and Lizzie refuse to be intimidated by the Royal’s rules. They’re compelled to discover the truth for themselves — be it solving gruesome murders, or uncovering their own shadowy past. There’s no surer way to encourage rebellion than to forbid seeking answers – unless it’s to forbid asking questions in the first place.
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, there’s no magic. Henry Jekyll brews his potion with what he calls ‘transcendental chemistry’, and his scientifically-minded colleagues ridicule and ostracize him for it. Yet Henry makes his impossible potion work — he sneaks across the border into a magical otherworld. His story is a tragedy — of the ‘mess with the forbidden at your peril’ kind — but it’s also a triumph. ‘Science’ is a method, not a rule book; by pursuing answers himself, rather than staying a slave to accepted beliefs, Henry proves himself the truest scientist of them all.
In The Diabolical Miss Hyde, too, that boundary with the other has been crossed. Electricity and aether, alchemy and medicine, brain surgery for disease and incurable madness – who’s to say what is which? Improbable, unpredictable technologies are springing up every week, and like computer hackers, their engineers are always one step ahead of the regulators. No one understands quite how these fabulous gadgets work — but that doesn’t stop them from being rushed into common service and sold on the street to unsuspecting consumers. Too bad if they turn out to be dangerous… or deadly.
After all, what fraction of cell phone users fully understand how they work? Fact is, we don’t much care. We just use them anyway — and bad luck for us if one day, we discover that all along, they’ve been mutating our nose hairs, exposing us to alien mind control or subliminally predisposing us to obsess over the Kardashians. But seriously, one requires but a cursory glance at the looming pile of evidence for climate change, or the link between tobacco and lung cancer, to realize that the human race is forever jumping in before we have all the facts. And when the scientific method finally kicks in, to condemn with empirical evidence some practice that’s profitable and enjoyable? We’re all about suspicion and selective hearing. We simply don’t want to know.
And that’s the effect I’m aiming for in The Diabolical Miss Hyde: technology gone wild yet in daily use, implicit belief in ‘progress’ as a force only for good, a climate of terror surrounding magic — yet the official line between magic and technology is constantly shifting, controlled by those who in public extol the virtues of independent thought, yet have a vested interest in keeping people ignorant. Why? Well, that’d be spoilers 🙂