A guest post by Richard Ellis Preston Jr.
Today I’m joined by the talented Richard Ellis Preston Jr. Richard and I have been friends for a couple of years, the first of his Romulus Buckle books and my Garden of Stones being released around the same time. Richard is an experienced author and an all round lovely guy. I hope Steampunk fans enjoy what he has to say, and perhaps a few of you on the fringe decide to take a dip after reading this.
First of all, I’d like to thank you for having me as a guest on your blog, Mark. You and I seem to share similar sensibilities so I think readers who are interested in what you have to say might find some similar perspectives on the world from my camp. We’ll see. The main question you posed to me was Why did you choose steampunk? Good question. Let’s get to it.
Mysteampunk adventure series, The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin, has currently the first two books, Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders and Romulus Buckle and the Engines of War published, while the third book, Romulus Buckle and the Luminiferous Aether, is coming out soon, in early November, 2015.
Beginnings and Misfires: I was having trouble finding an environment for my story when I was first trying to develop Romulus Buckle as a series. I knew I wanted to do a big, sweeping, epic adventure story in the tradition of Indiana Jones and Star Wars and I knew that I wanted it to center on the intimate relationships and trials of the crew of a ship at war. But I also wanted prominent female characters (officers) and a zebra-striped alien (I can only refer to some weird cubby in my subconscious as to where that idea came from).
I couldn’t make a pure sci-fi spaceship scenario work to my satisfaction, nor a contemporary submarine (lack of female sailors) and I found myself coming around again and again to the 17th-19th century seafaring eras, landing somewhere in the swashbuckling neighborhoods of Horatio Hornblower and Richard Aubrey. The only way one can wedge females into command positions in these periods is to make them pirates and a pirate story, while attractive, didn’t provide the opportunities I wanted in a way I could make them work. Things kind of stalled at that point.
Finding Steampunk: One day at work a friend handed me the novel Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. When I started reading the story I realized I had found the sandbox where my ideas could sink in and take hold. Steampunk. Although I was aware of retro-Victorian stories and certain elements of it in costuming and art I hadn’t realized it was a young but well-established subgenre of science fiction with a healthy following and a great bookshelf of literature to its name. Once I knew what steampunk was (and its definition is difficult to pin down, to be discussed below) I recognized it in some mainstream films such as Sucker Punch and TV series like Castle. Now I could mix all of my desired ingredients together in the steampunk stewpot and place them in an environment which felt new and unexplored to me. My story world arrived as a frozen, post-apocalyptic California where only fragments of the human race have survived an alien invasion and are left with nothing but steam power. Resurrected human society, re-engineered by a handful of scientists, has been designed to imitate the Victorian era and its mannerisms. Now I had my war vessel—a zeppelin—and I packed it with a swashbuckling Captain, swashbuckling female officers and a zebra striped alien among the crew.
What the hell is the definition of ‘Steampunk?’: steampunk is a sprawling playground which encourages personal deviation so it tends to defy specific definition. I like to call it the “brave, new, dystopian old world.” My own steampunk definition follows as: “a subgenre of science fiction which tends to involve stories set in Victorian England or its empire where steam power and fantastic machines have become the norm.” The Victorian/Edwardian period (1840-1900) anchors the steampunk timeline but is often extended back to encompass the late 18th century and forward to include the span of the Great War. My Romulus Buckle steampunk series is set hundreds of years into the future though its thematic heart is late 18th century-early 19th century Victorian. Steampunk tends to be militaristic and dark (dystopian) but it has such a broad imaginative scope it can head in almost any direction its creator chooses.
A true definition of steampunk? Looking to the experts, I like Jeff VanderMeer’s fun steampunk ‘equation’ which he includes in The Steampunk Bible:
“STEAMPUNK = Mad Scientist Inventor [(steam x airship or metal man/baroque stylings) x (pseudo) Victorian setting] + progressive or reactionary politics x adventure plot.”
VanderMeer states that his equation “… does sum up the allure of steampunk,” which is “…simultaneously retro and forward looking in nature … evokes a sense of adventure and discovery …(and) … embraces divergent and extinct technologies as a way of talking about the future.” Bruce Sterling, co-author of the first-generation steampunk novel The Difference Engine with William Gibson, plumbs a darker vein in his User’s Guide to Steampunk: “Steampunk’s key lessons are not about the past. They are about the instability and obsolescence of our own times … we are secretly preparing ourselves for the death of our own tech.”
(Just to mention, Jeff VanderMeer is now experiencing huge success with his Southern Reach novel trilogy. He was the story editor on my first two Romulus Buckle novels and helped me publish my Romulus Buckle universe-related short story, An Officer and a Gentleman along with featuring my work in his The Steampunk User’s Manual: An Illustrated Practical and Whimsical Guide to Creating Retro-Futurist Dreams. Jeff is a wonderful guy, a great writer and a tireless supporter of other writers and I wish him all the success in the world. I would also highly recommend his brilliant Wonderbook: the Illustrated Guide to Crafting Imaginative Fiction to any writer in any stage of his/her career and to any creative person in any field of the arts. I’d also like to make a shout out illustrator Jeremy Zerfoss, who provides art for much of Jeff’s manuals and is a blast of a guy as well).
How Do You Do Steampunk? For me, plunging into the steampunk world meant researching everything I could: hydrogen, zeppelins, aerial navigation, steam engines, locomotives, muzzle-loading cannons and muskets, Victorian clothing and culture, ballroom dances, and so on. I like the sense of being as spot on and as authoritative with the real science as I can so I know exactly when I cross the line—leaving the realm of reality for the realm of fantasy—and I can carry that authority in my voice so the reader feels comfortable suspending their disbelief and coming along.
One of the great things about steampunk is that it carries with the baggage of its history. The Victorian era is now considered highly racist with its flag-bearer Rudyard Kipling and his “white man’s burden” and the brutalities of colonialism and empire. But it was also a time of great energy, a period which saw the beginning of the industrial revolution and the intellectual and nation-state struggles which still afflict the modern world. This era provides the author with a smorgasbord of conflicts and contradictions: exploration vs. colonialism; the traditional hero vs. the fallible everyman; industrialization (the clock tower) vs. subsistence agriculture (the cycles of the sun and moon); idealized romantic love vs. debauchery; female suffrage vs. sexual repression; extreme wealth vs. extreme poverty; Darwin vs. the creationists; man vs. machine, and on and on.
Out of Disaster Comes Hope: Lastly, and this is important to my Romulus Buckle series, the Victorian period is infused with an immense optimism, an optimism fueled by rapid advances in technology, science and medicine. Many Victorians hoped mankind was embarking on a new, utopian age. But that hope was crushed by the First World War and the resulting great disillusionment is still part of who we are today.
Steampunk exults in dystopian adventure, in zeppelin air battles and sentient, steam-powered machines, but it is also driven along by the Victorian torch of hope, expectation and a belief in the ultimate triumph of human potential. This torch is fallen and battered, near extinguished, but it still flickers in the shadows of our terrible failures along the way.
A Steampunk Journey to Publication: I had been a screenwriter in Los Angeles for about 20 years, working my way through a couple of agents and penning medium-budget action, sci-fi and family movies and TV shows for HBO, USA, TNT, Animal Planet and foreign theatrical release. Television wore me out and I turned to writing novels. The first novel I finished was Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders. I set up my long agent query letter lists but I had a friend on the inside, author Julie Kenner. Julie had quit the law business and became a successful NYT Bestselling writer. She ran the manuscript past some agents for me and Adrienne Lombardo at Trident Media Group in New York read the book and offered me a contract with the agency. I ended up with a two book deal signed with 47North, Amazon’s new sci-fi publishing imprint in March, 2012. 47North did not choose to continue publishing the series, however, and I am self-publishing the third installment, Romulus Buckle and the Luminiferous Aether.
Always onward and forward! I’d like to thank Mark T. Barnes for having me by today. It’s been a blast!
Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. grew up in the United States and Canada but he prefers to think of himself as British. He attended the University of Waterloo where he earned an Honors B.A. in English with a Minor in Anthropology. He has lived on Prince Edward Island, met the sheep on Hadrian’s Wall, eaten at the first McDonalds in Moscow, excavated a 400 year old Huron Indian skeleton and attended a sperm whale autopsy. The Purple Scarab is the first book in his new League of the Sphinx YA adventure series which he writes as R.E. Preston. Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders, Romulus Buckle & the Engines of War and Romulus Buckle & the Luminiferous Aether are the first three installments in his steampunk series, The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin. His short story, “An Officer and a Gentleman,” is a prequel set in the same steampunk universe. He currently resides in California.
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Here are links to other useful posts by Richard: