The Shape of a Steampunk Story


season3-500I’ve been thinking about endings, specifically the ends of stories, books, series. Is there a particular shape to steampunk tales? Does a steampunk story generally end in a particular way?

To back up a moment, this summer I released the final episode of my steampunk serial, Spire City. That brings the series to three books, a complete trilogy. I never saw myself as writing a trilogy—told myself I never would, in fact, when I started writing seriously. But there it is, a series of three seasons worth of steampunk-fantasy episodes. So the ending of a series has been on my mind a lot.

Then along comes the mail last week, and with it the new Harry Potter book. Not exactly the start and not exactly the ending of a series, so much as a new ending, of sorts (and very enjoyable, for what it’s worth, very Rowlingian as I saw someone call it on Facebook). Not steampunk either, but it brought my mind again to the way stories can end.

In college lit classes (a…few years ago), I learned how one of the common tropes of high fantasy is the healing of the land in the end, a restoration of things that seemed damaged beyond bearing. Sometimes it’s literal and sometimes metaphorical, but it’s one of those ur-story elements that gives fantasy its shape. Something is wrong with the world but then through the actions of the heroes, something is restored to health.

Obviously there are exceptions, stories that counter and subvert that image of healing or ignore it entirely, but it’s one of those story shapes that can be useful—hold it up to a story to see both how it conforms to that image and how it twists away. Often the healing is tinted with sadness, with the aching memory of things lost, but it can still be seen when we look at the story from that angle.

Science fiction stories might sometimes conform to that image as well. Often a more useful story shape for looking at SF, though, might be a step to the side, where a lack of knowledge leads to the crisis, and discovering something new (or sometimes inventing new technology) leads to the resolution. Rather than restoring something broken, SF discovers something new.

(It isn’t really the point of this post to argue between the two. I have seen some claim that this distinction makes fantasy inherently reactionary and past-looking and SF inherently progressive and future-looking…but that strikes me as a shallow way of seeing both—and not supported by the body of works we usually classify as either.)

What I’m curious about, though, is how a steampunk story fits into that. Does steampunk find its crisis in a changing, industrialized world and find its way through by restoring the polluted lands and broken bonds of place and family? I’d love reading a story that fits that. Or does steampunk find its crisis in the unknown of its changing time and discover new knowledge or new machines that let its people find new ways forward? I’d love reading a story that fits that, as well, actually.

Either of those story shapes works fine in a steampunk milieu. I call Spire City a steampunk-fantasy, and I won’t spoil the ending, but really I think both shapes fit the story’s ending—and neither accounts for it completely. Maybe the most memorable stories are the ones that can be seen as satisfying from multiple angles.

Where I see steampunk standing out isn’t in the shape of how the plot resolves or how our characters’ arcs play out. Rather it foregrounds the change itself. Nearly all stories rely on change at some level, but steampunk revels in the changing world, it gets down into the grime and excitement of new things, what’s damaged in the process and what’s gained. Some stories celebrate the changes, growing giddy with the potential of gears and steam. Some stories turn away in terror at what its people have created. But either way, the element of change is in the foreground.

So that’s the shape of a steampunk story for me, a many-tentacled shape with octopus arms grasping in countless directions, but always centered in a world that’s changing.

4 thoughts on “The Shape of a Steampunk Story”

  1. Congratulations on releasing the last season of Spire City! Giving a story a truly satisfying ending is often the hardest part.

  2. Your post raises an interesting question. It’s possible for a steampunk story to have neither of your suggested endings. The minimum requirement, it seems to me, is that the protagonist must face a conflict, and that conflict must be resolved in some way. That need not involve a correction of society or a new invention. It’s just that steampunk lends itself so well to both types of ending. It comes ready-made with societal flaws (colonialism and misogyny, for example) and also involves the first period with an explosion of new technology. My steampunk stories are all of your second variety – the introduction of new machines. Perhaps I should write a “healing of the land” type. Thanks again for the intriguing post, and congrats on the completion of your trilogy!

    1. I’d definitely love to see more steampunk stories that focus on healing the land–after all, the Victorian period was one of the most thoroughly polluted eras in human history.

      Of course, you can heal the land with new inventions…

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