Writing Excuses 5.15: Steampunk with Scott Westerfeld

Brandon and Howard are again joined by Scott Westerfeld, again in a boomy room in the Provo Library, this time for a discussion of steampunk.

What is steampunk? Basically, it’s Victorian-era science-fiction as written by non-Victorian-era writers. Why do we write it? We talk about the way it lets authors bend some science-fiction rules, and how the sensibilities of an era a sesquicentury past inform the plot, prose, characters, and (of course) setting.

How does one go about writing steampunk? Scott offers some advice on the approach, from idea synthesis to world-building,. His books Leviathan and Behemoth are both great examples of the genre, though they might fit the “diesel-punk” label a little better.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Behemoth, by Scott Westerfeld, narrated by Alan Cumming.

Writing Prompt: It’s 1912, and Nikola Tesla is the President of the United States…

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24 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.15: Steampunk with Scott Westerfeld”

  1. Always enjoyable – you’ve touched on things I’ve wondered about with steampunk lit myself, especially why there isn’t more of it when I see steampunk costumes at every convention these days, even conventions not noted for costumes. Steampunk is so visual, it may be that, overall, it works better in comics or heavily illustrated works like Leviathan.

    I agree with the counter-cultural aspect of it, the desire for the manners and protocols, particularly among us geekier members of society, who do better with some social structure, since we tend to not be good at winging things in human interaction. For example, free form dancing means that guys don’t want to dance anymore, when in earlier times, when dancing had steps and rules, and someone filled out a dance card, men liked dancing a lot.

    Plus all kinds of body shapes look good in Victorian clothing. ^_^

  2. Please keep in mind for the writing prompt, Tesla was born in the Austrian Empire, and was therefore ineligible to become President under the Constitution. So, consider what must have happened prior to 1912 for him to have succeeded in doing so.

  3. But there is a great cyberpunk movie made from a non (or pre) cyberpunk novel. And its not The Matrix — its Bladerunner.

  4. Great podcast. Now I’m listening to Leviathan and digging it. I agree with Sanderson, Phillip Reeve has some great steampunk books. Mortal Engines in the first book in the Hungry City Chronicles in case anyone is interested. The Larklight books are Reeve’s MG series.
    Found the discussion of the connecting cultures, historical events, movements, etc really interesting in this week’s podcast. I wonder if a hundred years from now authors will create a genre based on a 20th century culture like let’s say the 80s. Can’t wait to read about parachute pants and that hair dew from the Flock of Seagulls guy. I wonder what technology could be meshed with it? :)

  5. I like steampunk because it glorifies technology AND the individual craftsman (I can’t remember where I first heard this. Cory Doctorow maybe?).

  6. Great podcast. Great prompt also.

    @Bruce, I found the same things interesting as I’m sort of a history buff. This brings us back to all the things we love about Steampunk:

    1911/12 was the beginning of the end of that era. Edwardian period had ended/was ending. clothes were much more fluid, the corset was becoming a thing of the past, people were now athletic and looking for leisure wear and the suffrage movement was happening.

    Dynamics between men and women were changing. It’s what led us to the pathetic state that we are now in. Perhaps Tesla as Pres will change that. Perhaps all will be so caught up in electrifying the planet, that selfish things such as woman’s rights never even come to mind.

    I think I have my prompt idea.

  7. ioMu, where do you get off saying that woman’s rights is a selfish thing? It was that kind of attitude that forced women to seek their rights in the first place. Steam punk didn’t make it big because it is boring, and it reminds too many people of the bad old days when women were slaves in their own homes. I’ll never let a man tell me what to do, or where I can go or when I have to be home.

  8. lol!

    @Oletta: I meant contrasted to Tesla’s selfless desire to light the world…rich and poor. Isn’t that worthy of putting the woman’s suffrage movement on the back burner? Not indefinitely…just for a decade or two.

    Hey! it’s fiction. Isn’t that what you writers do? Now I really do have to do the challenge.

    BTW Oletta, I’m of the XX gender. Just having a little fun, and maybe being a teeny bit facetious.

  9. @ Oletta: As for why steampunk didn’t make it: I doubt that “boring” is the reason. Steampunk is anything but. I lean towards thinking it’s a bit too gimmicky for the current societal conditions. The world is moving in a minimal green direction and steampunk leans towards frivolity.

    It’s not dead yet and I doubt it will go anywhere. In fact, it even feels like an established era. It will only take the right change in the social climate and the right designer to correctly adapt it.

    Also, I don’t think “slavery” is what most think of when they think Victorian. I believe it’s the social conventions that many seem to long for. Things are too easy today and those barriers add appeal to the dance. Of course we don’t want to go backwards but a world where men are men and women are women isn’t such a bad thing.

  10. ioMu, I’m just messing with you too. I’m not the kind of girl who gets offended that easily. I don’t care what anyone says about woman’s rights, if any women are too weak to stand up for themselves that’s their problem. I’m a liberated girl with eight years of marshal arts training and a permit to carry my Glock 23. LOL.

    As to steam punk, well more power to the one’s who like it. Personally I do think it’s boring and Scott Westerfeld is my least favorite guest on the podcast thus far in my personal opinion. And the last two podcasts really didn’t give my anything new to enhance my writing knowledge.

    Also, Tesla was a creep in my book. He electrocuted elephants trying to prove that AC power was too dangerous and everyone should use DC. I think he went insane after Edison promised him a big bonus for helping him and later said he was just kidding. And, how did people live without computers and the internet? Now that does indeed sound like a fantasy.

  11. @Oletta: “The Man Who Electrocuted Elephants”
    Has a nice ring to it. Also works well for the prompt/challenge.
    But you’ll probably have to make your Tesla a Democrat.

  12. Enjoyed the podcast, but I do have a couple of comments. First, saying that steampunk is a sort of alternate history is quite a limited view. It’s somewhat like defining fantasy as literature that takes place in a fictional medieval setting. It’s true for a significant portion of the genre, but it’s in no way true as a general statement. A lot of steampunk takes place in fictional worlds that have no relation to our history at all. China Miéville’s world Bas-Lag has no relation to our earth, for example. I know Howard is quite familiar with Phil Foglio’s comic “Girl Genius,” and calling that an alternate history would be quite a stretch as well. There are some loose parallels but it’s so alternate as to be another world entirely. There’s certainly no attempt to maintain any historical accuracy in terms of things like the appearance of the zipper. If you’re writing a work like “Leviathan,” then that sort of research is important. But that’s a function of Westerfeld’s particular authorial choices and not a general requirement of the steampunk genre.

    Probably the best known steampunk work in terms of mainstream appeal would be the “Wild, Wild West” movie with Will Smith and Kevin Klein. I tend to agree that the genre will probably never be as mainstream as fantasy and comic books have become, but it’s quite popular and it’s certainly possible to have commercial success. Gail Carriger’s “Parasol Protectorate” series, which is steampunk with vampires and werewolves, has garnered a great deal of attention and hit the NY Times best seller list at least twice.

  13. I disagree with the statement that it’s Victorian Scientific Romances (it wasn’t called SF back then) written by people who aren’t Victorians. What it actually is is pastiche writing. And quite often this leads to a very inauthentic feel to the prose. There’s a weird disney feel that I just feel is downright distasteful. Which is not to say that all novels written in this subgenre are bad – just that a lot are not well written even if the ideas are entertaining.

    I’m surprised that no one here seems to be critical of Steampunk. Especially as this is a show about learning to right – where’s the critical evaluation? I know Charlie Stross went on about it recently.

  14. @Dan J: Regarding the limited scope of definition when we say that Steampunk is a form of Alternate History, Girl Genius calls itself “Gas Lamp Fantasy,” and the Privateer Press Iron Kingdoms setting calls itself “Full Metal Fantasy.” Why? Maybe because the term “Steampunk” has alternate history connotations that may not be appropriate for those settings.

    Regardless of how you define Steampunk, there are steam-powered fantasy settings that are NOT Alternate History, and they’re fun to read. It’s not like China Mieville and the Foglios are not going to get to come to the fun parties (they both won Hugo awards last year, after all!)

    @Gav: So… you’re asking for a critical evaluation of what, exactly? Of a genre? Pointless. Of books within a genre? We do that sometimes, but usually we pick the ones we like, and talk up the good stuff rather than tearing anything down.

    Sure, there’s some awful pseudo-Victorian pastiche out there branding itself as Steampunk. There are also some wonderful stories leveraging the conventions of the genre to do things that they can’t do in straight-up Science Fiction or western-style Epic Fantasy.

    Also, this is a show about learning to WRITE, not “right.” OH SNAP THERE’S YOUR CRITICAL EVALUATION ZIIIING. ;-)

  15. Yeah well the substitution of right for write is a bazinga doh moment (thanks Howard).

    I accept that with all of the facepalming you can imagine.

    And please do not take my previous comment as personal criticism of you and your crew – especially as I’ve become a fan of your show and works as a result of listening to you.

    But can we honestly not talk about genres without a sense of balance? Surely it’s ok to say “Hey here’s a great book, but hang on a sec let’s be wary of the dross in the corner… and here’s why…”

    Honestly though my objection is not to the show or the topic but rather the starry eyed view of the genre and its setting.

    Or perhaps I am getting as tired of it being shoved in my face as Stross?

    Rather than post an essay in a tiny comments box here’s Stross’s own comment:


  16. @ Ocella”Also, Tesla was a creep in my book. He electrocuted elephants trying to prove that AC power was too dangerous and everyone should use DC.”
    Completely wrong.
    It was Edison who electrocuted animals trying to prove that AC power was too dangerous and everyone should use DC. On electric chairs prototypes he inveted for precisly that purpose. And he “went insane” after being bankrupted and slandered (or was it libel?) by Edison.

  17. Disney did Steampunk! Remember Treasure Planet? It’s what I use when I try to explain to people what steampunk is. And then people think it’s really cool…But yeah, I’m not sure if it’ll ever kick off completely.

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