EPIC STEAM

25 February 2013

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steampunk-cogs

Steampunk cogsSteampunk is still a genre pulling itself together: there’s considerable debate over what counts as Steampunk – art, literature, fashion – an overview can be found in the Vandermeer’s The Steampunk Bible that touches on all the bases. For this very reason, there is a lot more to Steampunk than tales of the British Empire reimagined with airships and without much examination of the evils of colonialism. A dip into, for example, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk reveals a remarkable variety of tones and settings, from alternate histories to wholly imagined worlds. Front runners include Cherie Priest (Boneshaker and its sequels, set in a technology-prolonged US civil war, Ekaterina Sedia (The Alchemy of Stone, a political fantasy with an artificial woman as its protagonist) and Stephen Hunt (whose Jackelian series combines a rich, original world with echoes of real the-air-war-pbworld history).

Shadows of the Apt is probably most often pigeonholed as epic fantasy, but from the first chapter of Empire in Black and Gold the steampunk(1) is right there. The Wasp Empire conducts the siege of Myna in a manner emphasising their ongoing transition from barbarian raiders to industrial powerhouse, with their ground and winged troops supported by mechanical rams and 'heliopters' whose crews drop grenades on the defenders.

The technology is more than just a gimmick, too. For me, Steampunk has always been more to do with the effects of the tech on the societies that produce it than empty fetishism over brass and steel. The chief theme of the series is the battle between old and new, represented by the magic of the Inapt and the technology of the Apt (and, indeed, what happens when certain characters cross that line.) The magic/technology clash isn't a new theme by any means, but much of the time the fight is presented from a very right/wrong standpoint. Either magic is the dark old evil that the shining light of progress is dispelling, or the cold gears of the new ways are grinding to pieces the elder wisdom of a bygone age. In Shadows, it should be very immediately clear that neither side has a moral mandate. Magic and artifice are morally neutral, which inevitably means that both are tools of war, oppression and horror. There is nothing innocent about the magic of the Bad Old Days, and at the same time the technological advances the Apt so ingeniously make throughout the series are mostly used to kill.

One attraction of steampunk to me is that it can be a very dynamic, forward-moving force, as invention plucks on invention. Fantasy worlds are often very static or cyclical, with the rise and defeat of evil leaving little trace, and with the suggestion that the world has essentially gone on unchanged for thousands of years – evil overlords rise and fall, but nobody builds a better mousetrap. In many steampunk settings, the world is often all about progress, change and revolution, and the fallout that comes with all three (see Gibson & Sterlin's The Difference Engine for a classic example), and that’s what I wanted to bring to a large-scale epic fantasy.

The world at the end of Seal of the Worm is very different to the way it was at the start of Empire, and the swift march of technology is one very clear way that this is expressed. The simple title of last year's release, The Air War tells its own tale, with the world of the kinden moving pell-mell into their own version of the Second World War, where both technology and magic essentially end up moving sufficiently fast that both sides in the war begin to lose control of them -- from good servants to bad masters.

(1) or 'archaic method of mechanical propulsionpunk' as there is more clockwork than steam in the creations of the kinden.

 

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The Air War, book eight of The Shadows of the Apt series, is out in paperback this month. You can see re-reads of the whole of the series up to this point starting here. And more posts on torbooks.co.uk about Adrian and his books are here.