Steampunk as Alternate History - Acrux Fanzine

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Monday, 8 October 2018

Steampunk as Alternate History

The general public could be forgiven for thinking that steampunk is more of a fashion statement than anything else because their usual contact with it is limited to seeing people wandering around in vaguely Victorian fashions that… don’t quite look right. There might be a modicum of truth to the idea, as I write this our last two outings have been photoshoots. It actually started out as a literary genre originally coined by SF author K. W. Jeter to describe speculative works in a 19th-century setting.

Going out on a limb, my own basic definition of steampunk – and it’s cousins, dieselpunk, atompunk, sailpunk – is that they are an artistic genre based on historical anachronism, the difference between the sub-genres being the time period that they are based on.  Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is one of the standards of deiselpunk because it portrays an alternative 1930’s world with weird technology in advance of what we have now! It allows the writers and producers to interweave 1930’s themes ranging from pulp fiction, film noire to WWII action drama with anachronistic technology such as flying aircraft carriers, giant robots and mad scientists.

In all cases though, there needs to be a mechanism for the creation of the fictional world that the story is based in.  In Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, this mechanism is not defined but in other cases, such as the iconic Deiselpunk franchise of games and books, Crimson Skies, it is a specific and well thought out set of circumstances, an ’alternate history’, a storyline that is based in a world where, because of some significant change in events, history played out very differently so that the world and it’s society, is strikingly different. Often this fictional device is used playfully, as a vehicle for stylistically elegant period dramas that use it as a vehicle to take the story in surprising directions.

This is the case with The Peshawar Lancers, written by S. M. Stirling in 2002 who has made something of a career for himself in alternate histories! It works on the premise that massive meteor strikes change the climate of Europe making it uninhabitable, changing the whole world picture at a point in history when European powers were starting to consolidate their empires throughout the world. The idea is plausible and the ramifications of the event are possible.

It’s an exciting action drama, with a very ‘pulp fiction’ feel to it. It’s a conflict of larger than life characters who stand out in stark black and white, with no shades of grey. The heroes are heroic, the villains, not just villainous but despicable traitors and devil-worshipping cannibals, the supporting characters ranging from honourable jews to barbaric but likeable Muslims.

I picked The Peshawar Lancers up whilst on holidays at The Bookshop, Coolangatta, which has a massive collection of US edition paperbacks. On another trip (I make a regular visit to family up there) I bought a copy of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years Of Rice And Salt from there as well and that is where the similarity between the two books ends!

Kim Stanley Robinson writes big books. I don’t mean long books, although he can be a little wordy at times. I mean important books, books that should be read, books that deal with global issues. He is best known for his epic Mars trilogy, which is a centuries-spanning story of the exploration and colonisation of Mars. However, I found his Green Earth compilation of his Science in the Capital series to be even more topical, at once heart-warming and heart-breaking when we look at the state of science in America today.

The Years Of Rice And Salt is great speculative fiction, also from 2002, built on an alternate history premise that the 14th Century Black Death has killed 99% of the population of Europe rather than a third as it did. What follows is a series of ten novellas, each of which is a vignette of the lives of a group of souls who are reincarnated over the next 700 years, up to 2088.

I’m stretching my definition of ‘steampunk as historical anachronism’ by including this work in it because one of the impressions you get is that, after seven centuries of development without white European influence, the world has ended up substantially the same. The “anachronisms” are actually parallels where facets of modern life such as female suffrage, economic theory and the unethical use of scientific advances have been acted out on a different stage of Muslim, Indian, Chinese and Native American societies.

These two books are chalk and cheese. On the one hand The Peshawar Lancers is an entertaining, dramatic period piece in an exotic setting whereas The Years of Rice And Salt is a thoughtful tome, heavy on science and history. The former is a story of great deeds done by ‘Great Men’, the epitome of how history was taught in the early twentieth century, the latter a series of ’eye-witness accounts’ to the large-scale changes in people and societies, the way modern history is interpreted.

Does that make one better than the other? It all depends on what you want to get out of your reading. There’s room for both in my life.

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