Like many writers out there, I’m spending this month of November furiously writing, as I take part in National Novel Writing Month for the sixth time. In my first year participating, I wrote (most of) Season 2 of my steampunk-fantasy serial Spire City. A few years later, I wrote a good portion of Season 3.
The serialized seasons of that story are complete, but for a number of years I’ve had this idea for a story that takes place some twenty to thirty years later. Spire City, the Next Generation as it were…
I’ve always said, though, that the sense of change is one of the big draws to steampunk for me. If Spire City corresponds roughly to an 1890s level of tech (amped up with fantastical steam advances), then a later generation should feel different. Otherwise where’s all the change that was happening in the earlier story?
So how do you tackle that sense of change within a steampunk world? How do you create an ambience that feels more modern yet still steampunk?
I have a few ways I’m trying to give this story a later feel. The simplest is in-world change. Things that had seemed fixed and certain in the earlier story—just a part of the way things are—are now seen by the characters in the story as quaint, old-fashioned. These relics of the past make brief appearances juxtaposed with the more modern ways of the current day. That only works for those who’ve read the earlier story, but those subtle hints can have a powerful subconscious effect.
Another way, which this new story also makes use of, is to simply amp up the steam. Make the gears and gadgets and airships even more fantastical. Make the inventions of the earlier story, which had evoked a sense of wonder, commonplace compared to the new things that are rolling out.
But what specific things can a storyteller use to make this feel like real change?
I’ve found two that are working for my story.
First, this is much more a war story than the earlier one. Most of the characters are away from the fighting themselves, but everyone is deeply affected by the ongoing war. So I’m looking at World War I tech and weaving in some of the advances of that era. And even beyond the tech, the demeanor of the soldiers and the way people back in Spire City behave can really create that sense of being in a later era.
The other big advance is a widespread use of radio. I’ve read steampunk stories with radios in them. There’s nothing to say you don’t already have radios in your stories, but for the world I created in the Spire City stories, it creates a startlingly different feel. It’s often very subtle on the surface, but it gives the mood of the story just the right amount of difference.
So when did radio come into use in our world, and what kind of other tech will fit with a use of radio, if you decide to incorporate it in your steampunk stories? You could make an argument going back even to the early industrial revolution, if you want an especially brilliant inventor or fortuitous discovery. Some of the earliest experiments began all the way back into the late 18th century.
Then for a good stretch of the 1800s, new experiments and observations pushed our understanding forward. In fact, Edison in 1875 tied radio waves in with that beloved-of-steampunk-fans term the ether (or specifically “the etheric force”). But it was really in the 1880s that scientists began to understand what they were working with and make use of it.
The early devices, using a continuous wave, were quite limited. So it wasn’t until World War I that radios began to be more useful. And our image of the old-time commercial radio system didn’t spread until the 1920s.
So all of that fits with the time era I am looking at for this story. I’ve heard some creators try to define a separate term for things based on that somewhat later era, but such distinctions have never interested me. I still call it steampunk.
What about you? Any inventions or developments that give your steampunk stories a later feel? I’d love to hear.