Hello, lovely readers, and thank you for bearing with me as this blog-thing takes shape.
I harp on an awful lot about Anomalies, my first novel. This is not to say it’s my first attempt at writing a novel. I started writing when I was nine. I have about thirteen ‘training’ novels – along with some truly ridiculous short stories, crappy plays and teenage poems about millipedes – buried deep in my hard drive, from which they shall never escape.
But this is the first one that I’ve properly developed and refined. Today – with the help of a couple of very rough sketches from my studio wall – I’m finally going to explain what I mean by ‘early YA steampunk/fantasy adventure palaver kerfuffle story (Part 1 of 3)’.
This is Phaedra Kepley.
This is Rik Umborwin.
They have three things in common.
They’re both fourteen years old. They’re both citizens of Soronda – a sprawling nation with a steam-powered heart, ruled by High Commander Adeline Vespier. And they’re both on the run from the law.
Phaedra is a teknie – a robotic-appliance technician. In accordance with Soronda’s productivity laws, she’s the apprentice mechanic in her parents’ business, fixing domestic cooking machines and mechanical servants for the rich. She’s the oldest of five children, cautious, introverted and practical. Born and raised in the clanking, soot-belching city of Rosmorne, she thinks and acts like a good Sorondan girl in all ways but one. She knows the High Commander’s Wardens – three-metre, crablike automata designed to catch freeloading deadweights – are built to protect the streets, but she can’t shake the thought that there’s something very wrong with them.
One day, Phaedra comes home to find her house ransacked, her siblings gone, and a secret message left by her parents. Both have been leading double lives as political anomalies – dissenters against Vespier’s regime – and it’s up to her to complete their last mission.
Far to the north of Rosmorne, in a swampy jungle village, orphaned Rik lives with his twenty-year-old brother. He’s a grubber: an overworked and underpaid plantation labourer, who can barely scrape together enough money for his validation fee when the Wardens scuttle into town. He’s illiterate, resourceful, mischievous and forever hungry. The forests surrounding his home provide wild plants, game and a green refuge from the miserable drudgery of life in the tropical region of Randarra, which was invaded by Soronda decades ago. Things go from bad to worse when Rik’s brother, Jalie, loses his job, because anybody deemed useless by the government must legally be consigned to a lifetime of slavery in the Reassigned Labour Division.
Rik has always held a quiet grudge against Vespier, the army and the Wardens. But it’s not until his brother is snatched away to the RLD that he’s brave enough to do anything about it.
So, anyway, Rik and Phaedra eventually run into each other and team up against their oppressors. And although she makes this face when she first sees him…
… it’s the beginning of a strange but powerful friendship.
As you may have noticed from my descriptions of robots and steam power, Anomalies is firmly rooted in the steampunk tradition, but I’ve also consciously broken away from some tropes as well.
Steampunk, if you’re not familiar with it, is a fantasy/sci-fi subgenre, in which the societies, character types and technology hark back to the Industrial Revolution and/or the works of HG Wells and Jules Verne, who pioneered science fiction. Its name reveals its intentions. The ‘steam’ refers to the motifs of clockwork and steam power, and the world in which they were prevalent; the ‘punk’ refers to subverting something about that world, in order to comment on today’s social issues. After all, many of our most pressing social issues began with the Victorians and Edwardians. They had the suffragette movement, while we have third-wave feminism. The advent of mass-production started us on the polluted path to climate change. Other issues that might appear include race, class, the artificial-intelligence singularity, the science-religion war – it’s a rich vein indeed.
Since the 2000s, steampunk has exploded in popularity. Now, as well as literature, we have steampunk films, music, fashion, art – in fact, there’s an entire steampunk subculture, whose members dress up as characters they’ve invented (airship pirate, lady inventor, etc).
Unfortunately, since steampunk got popular, it has lost some of its bite.
People sometimes interpret the focus on Industrial Revolution style as being a glorification of the old days, totally missing its subversive potential. This interpretation still has its uses, though, in that the steampunk aesthetic can be a way of rejecting the homogenous appearance and unfathomable workings of today’s technology. For example, a computer is hard for the layperson to understand just by looking at it. Its insides are designed to be inaccessible; you don’t know why words appear when you type, they just do. A typewriter, on the other hand, has moving parts that you can see interacting. If we look at steampunk as a mere commentary on how we relate to technology, it’s a lot less powerful, but perhaps rejecting consumerism and finding ways to recycle old stuff is still a valuable message.
There’s an even dumber misunderstanding of steampunk, though, which boils down to ‘gears are cool!’ To use one of my favourite quotes about steampunk, if you haven’t got any form of ‘punk’ in your work, then steampunk becomes ‘nothing more than when goths discover brown’ (Charlie Stross, 2010).
All right, so now to the literature. Punky or not, a steampunk story will typically take place in a world that is one of three things:
- A part of real history re-imagined on a different trajectory.
Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy, on which I wrote my thesis, does this. Essentially, the premise on which the world is built is, ‘what might the First World War have looked like if Charles Darwin had discovered DNA and genetic engineering?’ The answer is ‘maybe the Allied Powers used specialised lifeforms as weapons, while the Germans developed mechanical technology’.
2. The future, if humanity had either continued to use, or rediscovered, steam power, clockwork etc.
An example is Phillip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, which is set in a desolate futuristic wasteland. The earth has been so ravaged that cities roll around on wheels, raiding and destroying one another for resources.
3. A totally fictional world which happens to be going through an Industrial Revolution.
Hiromu Arakawa’s manga series, Fullmetal Alchemist, is an example of this. Robotic prosthetics, tanks, wireless sets and old-fashioned cars exist alongside magic, in an imaginary world separate from our own.
Anomalies is an example of the third category.
This set me free in a few ways. One was that I could make up any crazy stuff I wanted. Horses never existed in the story; I’ve got Rik riding on a giant cassowary-thing at one point, which is better-adapted to live in a rainforest and lays edible eggs. I’ve got clockwork Roombas and super-chai and cycloptic spiderbot police, and no history pedant can stop me.
But the other reason – the main reason, really – for choosing the third category was so that I could push the genre’s boundaries a bit.
See, in mimicking history, a lot of steampunk creators also mimic the social structures of the 19th/early 20th century. Which means that a female character in a steampunk novel, if she’s there at all, either has to pretend to be male, play right into harmful stereotypes of femininity, or flounce around in a huff grumbling that she’s not allowed to wear pants.
I wanted to write a world where a girl mechanic, women rebels and an evil lady dictator are completely normal. The best way to stick it to the patriarchy, in this case, was to write it out of existence.
It’s a similar deal with steampunk and race. A ludicrous majority of steampunk stories take place in Britain and Europe, even the ones created by Australians or Americans. The result is that the casts of a lot of steampunk stories are white, white, WHITE. So I decided that Soronda will have invaded so many different countries, and have accepted immigrants from others (because Soronda always needs more workers), that it’s become highly diverse. Only one minor antagonist remarks on Phaedra’s racial heritage, and even then, she’s questioning Phaedra’s conformity to Sorondan culture more than hating on her because she’s brown. The insult is more about patriotism than it is about racism.
Also, when I draw a whole bunch of characters, I can use five or more skin tones, which is fun.
Rik’s not a POC. But I deliberately undermined hypermasculinity with some of his traits that are traditionally associated with female characters (eg, he likes to cook, he cries sometimes). Mainly, though, I used his backstory to resist another, regrettably dominant, convention in steampunk.
Bad steampunk copies the styles of the wealthy, and in doing so, glorifies their lifestyle. Rich folk, after all, have the money and the time to hop in airships and time machines, and go on adventures. The effect of this is that a steampunk world is often filled with expensive contraptions and charming tea parties and well-cut coats, without any mention of who assembled the machines, picked the tea or wove the fabric. I have seen some steampunk works that have an upper-class hero discover the horrific lives of the oppressed poor, but invariably he’ll become their champion, and saving them is just a convenient way (to the author) for him to complete his character arc.
Pooh to that, I said. The Industrial Revolution was a bloody miserable time for most people. Empires were built on child labour, on slavery, on genocide, on the suffering of the many for the comfort of the few. And we’re still struggling with a lot of these issues, only now, it’s not Queen Victoria who rules the empire – it’s fast-food franchises, cheap clothing chains, technology corporations.
So I gave a voice to a character who lived that suffering. His naivete and his cheeky turn of phrase mean he provides a bit of comic relief, but I’ve done my best to treat him with respect. Further to that theme, I’ve used the image of Soronda as a machine throughout the story, to emphasise how little Vespier cares for human life. Workers are cogs with a place and a purpose; Soronda is a juggernaut that doesn’t care who it crushes.
Ultimately, I’ve tried to harness the power of steampunk for good. The aesthetic of Anomalies is based on the Industrial Revolution (with a heavy dose of weird thrown in), but I’m using the trappings of the genre mindfully, not just because ‘gears are pretty’. Most readers may not notice, and that’s fine, but I hope that those who do will find it interesting.
Okay, I’ll be honest. I also wanted terrifying, gigantic robots all over the place.
The winner of the Ampersand Prize is still yet to be announced. Wish me luck in the comments!