I’m always on the lookout for great Steampunk books. Andrew Knighton also write short stories in the Steampunk genre.
I’m always on the lookout for great Steampunk books. Andrew Knighton also write short stories in the Steampunk genre.
Why is it that we expect robots to develop Artificial Intelligence (AI) and not our coffee machines? Or our cars?
Thinking machines are years and years away from thinking like human beings, and they may never think like human beings. Tarnation – even the best scientists on the planet can’t tell you how human beings think. Not really. No matter what they may claim. All that a robot can do is mimic the behaviour of a human being – they are superb actors and actresses.
Human beings are programmed to recognise human beings (I’ve brought this up before). With robots, we seem hell-bent on discovering the ghost in the machine. As a writer, this makes my job both easier and harder. It is easier because my audience will work with me to construct a personality for any robot I might invent in a Steampunk narrative. It is harder, because if I attempt to make my robot think in unique and alien ways, the audience might misread it as sinister or aggressive, even if that isn’t my intention.
So, how do we (as writers) avoid anthropomorphic personification of android and gynoid robots? Just because a machine has a humanoid shape, it shouldn’t mean it has humanoid emotions or concerns, and we should try to figure out what motivates the robot. Is it a logical and rational thinking machine? (By-the-bye, being logical doesn’t automatically make you cold or emotionless, like Spock.) Does your robot have a very narrow area of interest, like a satnav or a laboratory analytical machine? How is it powered, and does it need to power down on a regular basis. Is it autonomous or does it report back to a central controlling machine? Don’t just slap a human being into a tin suit and call it a robot!
In 1834, the words ‘scientist’ and ‘physicist’ were coined by Reverend William Whewell. Previously, the practitioners of science had been known as ‘natural philosophers’ or ‘men of science’; I prefer ‘scientist’ as it is a gender neutral term as well as more accurate than ‘natural philosopher’. Whewell was a polymath, neologist, scientist, science historian, philosopher, poet and Anglican priest, as well as a Master of Trinity College in Cambridge. His breadth and depth of knowledge was astounding. He coined many words that would come to dominate the vocabulary of the 19th and 20th centuries; his didn’t just coin the terms ‘scientist’, ‘physicist’, he suggested the terms ‘ion’, ‘dielectric’, ‘anode’, and ‘cathode’ to Michael Faraday. This is what happens when you have a brilliant rational mind who is also a poet … magic happens. He used the word ‘artist’ to inspire ‘Scientist’ and physicist’, and you can’t get a more Steampunk concept than that.
Because of the sudden increase in technology, and massive interest in science, in the Industrial era, the Victorian era saw the addition of many words to the languages of the world. Whewell was just one of many neologists coining new words, but, for me, he holds a special place for creating the word ‘scientist’, because my first degree was in zoology and I am a scientist as well as a writer. With all the new discoveries taking place, there had to be lexical innovations to match.
The new scientific terms were – and still are – made by adapting words from the Latin or Greek for the most part, or by mashing up to existing words to create a Portmanteau word.
The use of jargon is prevalent in every field of human endeavour, to keep the knowledge secret and unavailable to outsiders, and this included the all the fields of science. During the 19th century, medicine had a run on naming of the inflammations of various organs: resulting in such words as ‘tonsillitis’ (1801) and ‘appendicitis’ (1886). As you might guess, the original intention for these neologisms was that the meanings of these words were not obvious to a layperson, such as men without a classical education and the majority of women. However, over time, jargon words tend to become part of the vocabulary of the general population. (Take that you snobs and misogynists.)
As science opened up into more fields, so did scientists adventure into new territories; botanists searching for new plants; zoologists searching for new animals; geologists searching for new minerals; anthropologists searching for undiscovered tribes of humanity. Each new discovery needed a name. In 1857, German-Australian botanist Ferdinand von Mueller named the Australian macadamia nut, giving the genus the scientific name Macadamia (no, it isn’t a native of Hawai’i, so stop calling it the Hawai’ian nut, it is the Queensland nut).
Sometimes the English language borrowed the words from the local language. For an example, ‘kiwi’ entered the language in 1835, borrowed from the Maori language. Kiwis are flightless birds native to New Zealand, in the genus Apteryx and family Apterygidae. So the discovery of the kiwis meant three new words entered the English language and the worldwide scientific lexicon.
So many new words entered the English language, among the other languages, during the 19th century. As a writer, I can either
I generally choose the third path, with a friendly nod to the first and second options. Clarity trumps all, but I do attempt to keep the jargon words down to a minimum, and try not to overuse anachronistic words. My aim is always to make my prose readable. A lot of jargon words might confuse or alienate my audience, as might using words that have fallen out of use.
There are plenty of books and websites to help you source 19th century words and scientific terms. Remember, Steampunk is a subgenre of Science Fiction, and you need to make sure the science sounds plausible. Using the correct terms always helps your verisimilitude.
When you are writing Steampunk, you are writing Science Fiction. When you are writing Science Fiction, your characters have to maintain a plausible level of scientific knowledge, and the setting and plot need to maintain a similar level of scientific verisimilitude. They all need to walk the walk and talk the talk. All scientists use jargon, and different scientific fields use different jargon.
A little research will provide you with a working vocabulary in your chosen field. For example, if you are writing about botany, you need to know what the various bits of a plant are called, and have a little background knowledge in plant classification. A botanist would know the difference between a deciduous tree and evergreen tree, or a stamen and a pistil, but they might be completely clueless about how electricity works. Jargon is very specific to its field. (And I loathe how every scientist on television is an expert in every different sort of science. That is lazy writing.)
You can make your own jargon up, in fact, I would encourage you to give it a go. However, it has to be consistent. If your characters use a newly-coined word in one situation, they should use that word all the time. A good example of this technique is used in the webcomic Girl Genius; everyone with a natural affinity and intuitive talent for making gadgets are called ‘sparks’. This term never jars, as it is used consistently to refer to these gifted individuals.
It is possible to write a Steampunk novel without using jargon, but as the genre is all about science, it is harder to write without using scientific jargon. When you are using jargon, don’t assume the reader knows what the jargon means. You can include a glossary for these terms, but I recommend explaining the meaning of the term when you first use it in the text. There are a couple techniques that can achieve this result. You can have a character explain the meaning of the unfamiliar term to another character, the unknowledgeable character maybe a new apprentice, maybe a visiting relative, whatever. You can put in a footnote with a definition of the term – I tend to favour this method, because a reader who does know the term can skip the footnote. Or you can just explain it!
It wouldn’t hurt to know who were the giants in your field at the time of narrative. For example, if you were a botanist in 1871, you’d know who Henry Lecog was, who Anna Atkins was (a topic for another post), and that Joseph Hooker was in charge of Kew Gardens. Anyone who is well known to a botanist is part of their jargon. If a person from 1871 was to lack the knowledge of Atkin’s cyanotype photograms of plants, that person would not be a botanist.
Jargon can be fun. It is almost like a secret language – which was its original intent, to help keep guide secrets. Using jargon will make you narrative both more interesting and more authentic.
“If our highly pointed triangles of the soldier class are formidable, it may be readily inferred that far more formidable are our women. For if a soldier is a wedge, a woman is a needle; being, so to speak, all point, at least at the two extremities. Add to this the power of making herself practically invisible at will, and you will perceive that a female, in Flatland, is a creature by no means to be trifled with.”
Edwin Abbott Abbott
Edwin Abbott Abbott was the son of two cousins, both with the surname Abbott. His father was an educator and also called Edwin. As a young man, Edwin Abbott Abbott was an outstanding student, winning medals and honours for mathematics, classics and theology. This mix of fields was to fuse together to create his most famous work, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, which is a science fiction narrative; a strange mixture of the fairy tale genre, geometry and theology. Abbott didn’t begin writing until after he retired from the field of education, after completing university he became an educator, like his father. He was a headmaster by the time he was 26. When he retired from his post as Headmaster of City of London School, he went to pursue his interest in writing. He wrote books on the classics, and theology. In the middle of all these nonfiction books, he found time to write Flatland.
There are plenty of mathematical and theological articles about Flatland if you are interested, and what I want to focus on is the feminist subtext in this work. If you’ve read the quote, you will see that all the female flatlanders are geometric lines (all the males are polygons), and considered very dangerous. All the females are characterized as too dangerous to allowed to roam freely through Flatland, and are subject to three main rules.
But a general view of the Code may be obtained from the following summary: –
- Every house shall have one entrance in the Eastern side, for the use of Females only; by which all females shall enter “in a becoming and respectful manner” and not by the Men’s or Western door.
- No Female shall walk in any public place without continually keeping up her Peace-cry, under penalty of death.
- Any Female, duly certified to be suffering from St. Vitus’s Dance, fits, chronic cold accompanied by violent sneezing, or any disease necessitating involuntary motions, shall be instantly destroyed .
Flatland was written as a satiric commentary on Victorian society. E. A. Abbott dedicates a whole chapter to the situation of the female flatlanders. His character of ‘A. Square’ makes the strange customs of the flatland society sound natural and normal, as it would be to someone who grew up and lived in Flatland. The customs and rigid rules of Flatland mirror the situation of women in Victorian society. One paragraph is particularly telling in what E.A. Abbott’s own thought on the situation.
To my readers in Spaceland the condition of our Women may seem truly deplorable, and so indeed it is. A Male of the lowest type of the Isosceles may look forward to some improvement of his angle, and to the ultimate elevation of the whole of his degraded caste; but no Woman can entertain such hopes for her sex. “Once a Woman, always a Woman” is a Decree of Nature; and the very Laws of Evolution seem suspended in her disfavour. Yet at least we can admire the wise Prearrangement which has ordained that, as they have no hopes, so they shall have no memory to recall, and no forethought to anticipate, the miseries and humiliations which are at once a necessity of their existence and the basis of the constitution of Flatland.
If I was a Patriarchal Victorian man reading this, think my reaction would have been “OUTRAGEOUS!”
I would like to think Flatland gave a few men (and women) something to ponder in a quiet moment. It is still popular today because of its modern outlook. This narrative wasn’t Edwin Abbott Abbott’s only controversial literary venture, but -as previously mentioned – the rest of his work was more of an academic nature. Flatland was his only venture into Science Fiction.