Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws :
- When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Steampunk Witch with a Vacuum-cleaner for a broom
Steampunk Scientist, off to give a seminar
Steampunk is a literary genre that doesn’t mind a dash of fantasy mixed in with its Science! The best example of genre this would be the Laws of Magic series by Michael Pryor, who also wrote two Science & Magic Steampunk books around his characters, the Extraordinaires. There is no reason as to why you can’t have a mix of both scientists and magicians in a Steampunk setting.
So, how does magic work in a Steampunk setting? Well, you can work it two ways. You can either make the magic so outrageous without any rhyme or reason, for an Absurdist literary take on magic. Personally, I prefer the other extreme, where the laws of magic are just as ‘logical’ and ‘rational’ as the laws of physics. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld runs on this kind of magic; when a man is turned into a frog, conservation of mass means that there is a balloon of extra matter floating bout the ceiling. Magic takes work, effort and training, as well as a modicum of natural talent (though that never slowed down Granny Weatherwax). I’m using Discworld as an example because Raising Steam is most certainly a Steampunk narrative, and several of the other novels certainly overlap the Fantasy and Steampunk literary genres.
Rational magic works in a Steampunk setting because it still conforms to rules. And – if you reread the quote that introduced this article – you can see why magic and science are easily confused by the ignorant or mechanically naive. After all, do you really know what makes a television work? For all you know, it could be magic…
Oh, how I enjoyed the resolution of the enigma of Missy – revealed to be the Mistress, the female incarnation of the Master. It was even better than I hoped. The interaction between Miss and the Doctor was charged with sexual tension. All the Doctor/Master shippers must have been screaming with delight. I know I was.
Missy wears a classic late Victorian/early Edwardian nanny’s outfit, just like Mary Poppins would wear (shades of Clara in the Christmas special?); her outfit is perfectly situated in the Steampunk Vicwardian era. Her outfit complements the Doctor’s outfit, her skirt and jacket are plum with black trim, his black jacket is lined with red, and both are wearing collared white shirts completely buttoned up. They look like a couple visually, which is a clever use of wardrobe. She has a lot of gadgets …so I’m calling her a Steampunk Icon!
From a feminist viewpoint, this is a brilliant addition to the Doctor Who canon. So, can all Timelords change their gender? Or just the Master, who always marched to different drums. Who really cares with the Mistress in charge of situation. She is clever, cruel, flirtatious, fickle; everything the Master was and more – and she refers to the Doctor as her ‘boyfriend’. She certainly knows how to manipulate him. One gets the impression that she isn’t so much trying to take over the Earth as trying to gain the Doctor’s interest. Missy is certainly the Doctor’s equal.
I think this new incarnation of the Master is a genius move. Not only is the Doctor no longer the last of his kind. We now have a breeding pair…
The Steampunk literary genre and the Horror genre are a match made in heaven. All the great monsters had their origins in the Victorian era. Frankenstein’s monster was created by Mary Shelley in 1818. In 1827, English author Jane C. Webb Loudon published The Mummy! Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century – a science fiction novel I would recommend for its originality of vision. I might suggest Mrs Loudon and Mary Shelly were the first Steampunk novelists, as Jules Verne wasn’t even born until the next year. Another woman writer, Clemence Houseman, wrote about a female lycanthrope in her 1896 novel, The Were-Wolf. A year later, Bram Stoker had success with Dracula, though there had been popular vampire fiction published all through the 19th century, like John Poldori’s short story in 1819, The Vampyre. There were even robots and other mad inventions. About the only classic monster not introduced into popular culture in the Victorian era is the zombie, which didn’t make its appearance in popular horror fiction until the 20th century.
The 1868 ‘The Steam Man of the Prairies’ by Edward S. Ellis
We all know the horror-genre influences in the works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. For example, there were the prehistoric monsters in the Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and the Martains from The War of the Worlds. There is a great deal of historical precedence for horror to mash-up with the Steampunk genre.
My favourite is the mad scientist, who doom himself with his own creation, which is – of course – the main plot of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. This gives equal balance between the science and the horror, to create a Steampunk genre narrative. You can either go the ‘bucket of guts’ route with the horror, or run with lots of atmosphere and psychological horror. And there is no rule that says you can’t use both.
This article was inspired by Halloween. So tap into your dark side, and write a spooky Steampunk story!
For some unknown reason, we tend to look back at the Victorians and consider them rather grim. I put this attitude down to the black & white photographs from the era. Even the brightest colours are reduced to dreary shades of dust and charcoal in B&W photography, and the unsmiling expressions were an artefact of the length of exposure time to obtain a clear photo. As an example, study the image above. The uniforms of the men could be scarlet for all we know, and the presence of the ‘smoking’ hobbyhorse, balancing baby doll, and toy cannon suggests this image was taken in jest. I would love to know the full story behind this image; I suspect this might be a bachelor party.
Most humour is ephemeral. But there are several strong suggestions that the Victorians enjoyed a good laugh: the success of Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, and Gilbert & Sullivan; the enormous number of humorous photos and postcards; the popularity of Punch magazine; the lyrics of music hall songs; and the fact that even the most serious novels usually had some humorous scenes. So much for the stiff upper lip …
So, what does this mean for your Steampunk narrative? Some authors add humour to their work as a matter of course, like Michael Pryor, while Ged Maybury writes with the intent of creating a humorous novel. The definition of what is humour changes from person to person. If you want to throw a tragedy into sharp focus, you contrast it to humour – the premise of nearly every modern horror movie.
The best humour isn’t forced. When in doubt, take it out. There is no such thing as half funny.