Living in Hawaii, December 7th is a date I can not escape, nor would I want to. The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Navy of Japan is an event which has shaped my life even though I was born a little over thirty years after it happened. What events in history have shaped your life? Not only the ones that have happened while you were alive, but the ones that happened to your parents… to your ancestors?
What does this have to do with Steampunk?
Some view Steampunk as an Alternative History of the Victorian era.
What is Alternative History? Althistory Wiki describes it as “the most frequently used term for the fictional genre which often presupposes a change of a minor historical event that produces an incredible series of changes in the world, diverging it from Our Timeline (OTL) and creating a new, alternate and parallel world.”
So, what is that ‘minor historical event’ or perhaps even a ‘major event’ that created a Steampunk world? What was the ‘inciting incident’ that set this brave new brassy world in motion?
What challenges did the world face? And what changes happened because of them?
Perhaps it was a war? War and strife can advance science and other technology. Every armed conflict has the potential to incubate an idea for a new, better, more deadly weapon.
Perhaps it was a natural disaster? Did disease and suffering demand the attention of scientists and inventors. What did they create to keep the flood waters at bay, protect the town from noxious fumes, or save men from dangerously rising seas?
Perhaps it was something unnatural? A rising zombie horde, an asteroid deposits a new ore, or even beings from another planet with their own agenda.
When I interviewed artist James Ng (the cover art from our Shanghai Steam anthology was his creation) for The Gilded Monocle, he explained:
His artwork is built from his own imagined Alternative History of the World.
In the Movie Tai Chi Zero, the Company building the railroad throws a small mountain town into chaos when it sends a machine chugging up to the gates. This monstrous assemblage of steel, iron, and steam is not only able to lay down track and railroad ties with amazing ease, but is also a machine capable of great destruction. What were the incidents that led up to this conflict? What will happen now?
In Shanghai Steam, the British shipping companies react to a law banning vessels from entering a Chinese port carrying opium. Instead of following the spirit of the law, they react only to the letter of it. Using their airships, the British companies are still able to deliver their cargo from India and avoid reproach from the Emperor. What they didn’t anticipate was the reaction of the people living in the town.
These ideas apply for anyone interested in World Building. Be it writing, cosplay, conceptual art… any creative endeavor. Delve into history and find those moments of divergence. Turn left instead of right. Reach for a new idea or solution or take something and twist it this way and that.
Where will you take the future from each new starting point?
What new things will you discover in the past to create something new?