David Lee Summers is an author, editor, and astronomer living somewhere between the western and final frontiers. He’s the author of the wild west steampunk adventure novel Owl Dance, which tells the story of Sheriff Ramon Morales, the healer Fatemeh Karimi, and their adventures with everything from clockwork wolves and electric kachinas to submariner pirates and Russian Airships. He’s also the author of the Empires of Steam and Rust novella Revolution of Air and Rust, a story of Pancho Villa, espionage, American air power and parallel universes in 1915. Learn more about Empires of Steam and Rust at http://steamandrust.blogspot.com and learn more about David at http://www.davidleesummers.com
Wild West Steampunk
by David Lee Summers
When I was a kid, my mom loved to watch westerns on TV, especially on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. I found them boring. I wanted to watch cartoons or Star Trek. Then one afternoon, one of my brothers turned on the TV and changed my life forever. At first I was dismayed. It was another western. But a few minutes in, I realized this was like no western I’d ever seen. The hero, a fellow named James West, was trying to thwart the launch of a giant missile. Of course, the show was the original Wild Wild West and I’ve loved the idea of exploring advanced technologies and things that look like magic in historical settings ever since.
As time went on and I began to write, I started setting many of my stories in the historical west or in futures that were analogous to the history of the southwest. You see, my mom came by her love of westerns naturally. Her grandparents had been homesteaders in Texas and New Mexico and actually lived the experience. As I grew up and fell in love with my native southwest, I became fascinated with those stories and incorporated them in my writing. What’s more, I learned that my historical fantasy and science fiction stories bore more than a passing resemblance to a genre called steampunk and I began to explore more.
Of course, a lot of steampunk is set in Victorian England or a similar industrialized landscape, but I think the wild west provides a wonderful backdrop for steampunk stories as well. One thing that might seem like a problem for setting a steampunk story in the wild west is the apparent lack of technology and machinery which is important in many of the genre’s stories. This is simply a misconception. There may not have been many factories in the west, but there was plenty of technology.
Gold, silver, copper, and coal were among the many resources being mined in the west. Due to factors such as limited manpower and demand from the east, new technologies were being sought to pull materials from the ground. The mines of the west were fertile ground for inventors. Railroads were built across the west not merely as a means of securing the nation’s “manifest destiny” but as a way to get the material that was being mined back east to the factories that needed the materials. Railroads need machine shops to keep trains operational. Those shops become sources of heavy machinery that characters can use. What’s more, long stretches of desert and high mountain ranges continually provided challenges to locomotive manufacturers who had to build vehicles that could transverse such difficult terrain.
When considering advanced technology in the wild west, we can’t ignore the fact that in 1899, Nikola Tesla himself set up a lab in Colorado Springs. Even before that, in 1894 Percival Lowell, scion of a Massachusetts textile family, built an advanced astronomical observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona to study the planet Mars and look for a planet beyond Neptune.
For some people, it’s not steampunk without the manners and culture of Victorian England. Never fear! There are opportunities to interject this into your wild west Steampunk story as well. There were many immigrants from England who passed the eastern United States and immediately moved out west. Examples include John Tunstall, the rancher who employed Billy the Kid and Oliver Henry Wallop, the 8th Earl of Porstsmouth, who moved to Wyoming to raise horses.
What if you’re more interested in magical steampunk or horror stories? It turns out the west provides great opportunities for that as well. New Mexico court records from the late nineteenth century contain many accounts of people accused of witchcraft. Navajo lore contains shapeshifters called skinwalkers who wear the animal pelts of the creatures they transform into. For a lighter take on magic, showmen traveled to carnivals and saloons throughout the west performing acts of conjuration.
Finally, what would a story be without conflict? Of course, it’s conflict that made the west wild. There were conflicts between ranching, farming and mining interests. Civil War memories created conflicts between northerners and southerners who moved west. There were border conflicts with Mexico. In fact, a great example of all these coming into play is the story of the Earps and the Cowboys in Tombstone, Arizona. The Earps were northerners who supported the mining interests in Tombstone. The Cowboys were southerners who rustled Mexican cattle and sold it to American settlers. Now imagine a conflict like this enhanced by steampunk technology and you’d have quite a tale!
I hope this has inspired you to consider the wild west as a setting for a steampunk tale. Even if the wild west still doesn’t appeal to you, I urge you to learn a little about the history of the place you’re from. That’s how I got started with wild west steampunk. You might be surprised by the steampunk possibilities that present themselves.