When I talk to some people, the word steampunk conjures images of comedies of error and high society members speaking loftily of their exploits and adventures, the latest in airships and steam-cars and gossip. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s certainly far from encompassing the full breadth of the genre.
Several years ago, on a guest blog on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog, Catherynne Valente had a post about steampunk, urging writers not to forget the punk part of the name. Punk, for her at least, meant a focus on those outside of power and a distinct distrust of authority.
I’m a generation too young to have any real identification with punk music, and I wasn’t into alternative music, its successor in many ways, when I was in high school, but her post definitely resonated with me. At the time I was already deep into the first draft of Spire City, Season One, and I saw that her points matched with what I was writing. Spire City focuses on a group of outcasts who have been infected by a mad scientist’s serum. To most of the city, and especially those in charge, that scientist isn’t seen as mad in the least, but a prominent member of society. So their story, by definition, must focus on the characters’ position outside of power.
When I think about it, this focus extends to other things I’ve written, as well. There was a time when what I wrote fit more clearly in the high fantasy category. Always on the margins of that, but more that than anything else. My focus was never on kings and queens, though, not on famous generals or powerful wizards or great knights. I wrote about commoners. Commoners who found themselves embroiled in the events of the realm, no doubt, who might come into some measure of power, but it’s always from an outsider perspective.
It feels, without trying to be melodramatic, like a valuable perspective, especially when so much of the online conversations I’ve had of late center on the same issues of power and privilege and the sense of injustice and anger.
So steampunk, to me, always at least has a foot in the underside of society. The soot-chugging factories no less than the gleaming brass boilers, the street urchins no less than the dashing sky pirates. And all the real-world tensions of privileged elites and overworked classes, often immigrant or colonized or both.
I absolutely despise any attempts to make grand statements of “this is steampunk and that isn’t” or anything of the sort. Often the best stories are found just beyond the edges of any sort of definitive border people try to create (around steampunk, around fantasy, around SF). This is not a manifesto calling everyone to write the same as I do. I do, though, believe strongly in the power of stories to help us see the world around us better. So whether I’m writing steampunk or something else entirely, it’s where I stake my place. Maybe others will come and pitch their literary tents nearby.
Spire City is home to mighty machines of steam power and clockwork, and giant beetles pull picturesque carriages over cobbled streets, but there is a darker secret behind these wonders. A deadly infection, created by a mad scientist, is spreading through the city, targeting the poor and powerless, turning them slowly into animals. A group of those infected by the serum join together to survive, to trick the wealthy out of their money, and to fight back.
A new episode of Spire City is published every three weeks by Musa Publishing. The episodes of Season One: Infected are collected in two bundles, Contagion and Epidemic. Season Two: Pursued began publication on November 28, 2014 with “Lady Janshi’s Acolyte.”
Daniel Ausema (@ausema) has a background in experiential education and journalism and is now a stay-at-home dad. His fiction and poetry have appeared and are forthcoming in many publications, including Daily Science Fiction, The Journal of Unlikely Stories, and Strange Horizons. He lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rockies. (Amazon)