This post is the second in a series about Steampunk Worldbuilding. In this blog post I will tell you some of the themes of steampunk, as well as a bit of how I created my own world.
The first thing I did when my magazine submission was rejected (so I got serious about writing steampunk – damn you, competitive nature!) is research. I went to Barnes and Noble, because I was too impatient to wait for Amazon delivery, and bought Steampunk: An Illustrated History by Robb and The Steampunk User’s Manual by Vandermeer and Boskovich.
Those two encyclopedias went through the history of steampunk and the main themes: rebellion against a tyrannical government, individual freedom, and the equality of women being a few. There are also the sci-fi themes of new technology, discovery of new worlds or new frontiers, and encountering strange and/or dangerous unknown phenomena.
After reading, I began to think about the setting. I wanted a time and place in history that would have been interesting to write about, where many of these themes would have come up naturally. Most steampunk work is set in England, which is fair, since a lot of it the clothing and setting is derived from Victorian culture. But I wanted to provide a unique perspective on steampunk, and give my characters room to grow in a different setting, so I set the work in the United States.
I wanted the world to be a lot smaller than it is today – with a populated eastern seaboard but the west as a yet unknown frontier. A wild land that had yet to be fully explored would give me the opportunity for exploration, new technologies, and a lot of places for the rebellion to hide from a New Alliance. The mid-1800s fit the bill nicely in that respect – now I needed to build my government.
When you are going to create a world, probably the most important thing you need to know is:
1. Who rules it?
Why do you need to know this? Well, the end of pretty much every epic story is the overthrow of the ruler, so you’re going to be building up to it over your series. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Emperor, Voldemort, the machines, or the Capitol, you need to know who the supreme ruler is. You don’t need to tell the reader all of the specifics, but as the author, you need to know them so you can give depth and breadth to your plot.
Going further, you need to ask questions about the supreme power and its motive.
2. Why is the supreme ruler in power?
3. How did it come to power? – Bloody battle between two powers? Multi-faction war? Economic overthrow? Superior technology? Did the opponents fight, or simply give up?
4. How does it keep power? – Fear? Economic means? Technological means?
5. Who are its allies?
6. Who are its enemies, and how much power do they have?
To create my supreme ruler, I began poking around the 1850s, and for some reason Russia came to mind. Growing up during the Cold War between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., I have always been intensely curious about Russia, its people, and its government. So I started reading about Russia in 1850, and what I found blew my mind.
In 1850, Nicholas I was on the throne, a ruthless, obsessive man who had crowned himself the Emperor of Russia and brutally quashed several uprisings from the people. While his reign saw massive geographical expansion, his view of himself as the ruler of an ethnically diverse people who spoke over 100 languages at the time was one of a benevolent dictator; although his reign was characterized by censorship, educational repression, and a fanatical devotion to nationalism.
The traits above made him the perfect dictator – but the characteristics that made him the perfect character for a steampunk story were that he was aggressive, land hungry, and trained as an engineer. He already had a million-man army, and it seemed the only things he lacked to expand his empire even further were sufficient transportation and technology.
I had the idea that if Nicholas I would have focused his engineering skills and the might of the people and the army into developing technology – steam-powered trains and railroads, airships, weapons, etc., perhaps he would have swept across Europe and into the west, creating a one-world government that was mostly bureaucratic but squashed revolts with its military might.
In my steampunk world, I gave him those technologies, and that’s exactly what he did. He brutally conquered most of the Northern hemisphere, creating the ‘New Alliance’ in the wake of his armies. I love the fact that the new government is called the New Alliance. When I was living in South Korea, I learned to appreciate the irony of the dictator in the North calling his land the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, or the communist regime to the west calling their empire the People’s Republic of China.
So, that’s what I did to create the background of my world. I found the time and place, and then a man with the motive to rule it. I stretched my imagination to give him the means.
What I did next was to imagine the outcome of such a war, asking questions and creating my society from there. I will discuss that in the next blog post: Steampunk Worldbuilding II: Building Society and Social Problems.