Guest post by Elizabeth Bear: On Writing Steampunk

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

For today’s guest post, I’m extremely proud to welcome Elizabeth Bear to Far Beyond Reality!

Elizabeth was the recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005. She has won two Hugo Awards for her short fiction, a Sturgeon Award, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. She is the author of numerous short stories and novels, including the acclaimed Eternal Sky series. Her latest novel Karen Memory (review) was released earlier this week. Bear lives in Brookfield, Massachusetts.

Without further ado, on to the guest post!

Hi! I’m Elizabeth Bear. I write science fiction and fantasy for fun and profit, and my latest book is a Weird West steampunk adventure called Karen Memory. Karen Memory stars an eponymous parlor girl (a bordello prostitute, for those of you who aren’t up on your old west euphemisms) with a penchant for picking up lost puppies and a tendency to run towards the sound of gunfire. She is, as you might imagine, prone to adventures. Or misadventures, as the case may be.

One of the challenges in writing in an established genre with an established set of tropes—such as steampunk, or Weird West—is not writing the same steampunk and the same Weird West that everybody else is writing. In order to be interesting, in other words, it’s necessary to do a little more than rearrange the genre furniture. If you want your stories to be innovative, to be worth reading, you have to own the stories, not just borrow them.

And part of that is the technology. Steampunk, I think, needs shiny sciency ideas just as much as science fiction does. It needs nifty, honestly extrapolative tech that actually does things rather than just spinning gears and looking cool—even if the science we’re extrapolating is the science of 1870 rather than 2015

In the immortal words of Isambard Kingdom Brunel as per Kate Beaton (so NSFW!): “Tell me it does something.”

So for me, at least, a big part of writing a novel—any novel—is creating a consistent and reasonable world (well, okay, as consistent and reasonable as our world, which isn’t particularly, but you take my meaning I’m sure.) full of the sort of things that people might actually come up with because they are useful. Everything I use every day is an invention, after all. Wrist braces. A keyboard. A teacup. A can and a can opener. People invented these things because they saw a need for them—and then the street found its own uses, as the saying goes.

Go in your kitchen and open the drawer where you put the stuff that doesn’t really go with any other stuff. Got a can opener in there? Great. Pull it out.

So. Your can opener is a piece of military logistics technology, at its root. How about that?

And that was basically the process I went through for the world Karen lives in—at least, the material culture.

But it was also the process I went through, in a slightly different way, for the social culture.

The thing is, our own Wild West was an extremely diverse community. Its roots are the roots of the American West today, and it was populated by people of Anglo, Black, American Indian, Latin, and Asian heritage. The racial and social tensions were incredible, and that is a great source of conflict in fiction. (Karen Joy Fowler’s outstanding novel Sarah Canary offers some fictional insight into this stratified and chaotic society, and is well worth reading for a number of reasons.)

And given a world with faster transportation—a world with airships capable of crossing the Pacific in the 1860s, say—would likely have even greater immigration, and even faster metropolitan growth on the Pacific coast in response to the serial Gold Rushes. So I brought in more Asian populations, and I established my very own invented Pacific Northwest Alaskan Gold Rush/logging boom/shipping town—Rapid City, which has elements inspired by the history of Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, and San Francisco—and a few qualities of its very own.

And of course, when you’re dealing with sex workers, they’re often people of already marginalized backgrounds. A disproportionate number of 19th century American prostitutes were Asian, black, Native American—or Irish, for that matter, like Karen herself.

For me, at least, ideas for fiction come from a combination of research, extrapolation, and wild surmise. With a certain amount of, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?!”

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear is available now from Tor Books — and comes highly recommended

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2 Responses to Guest post by Elizabeth Bear: On Writing Steampunk

  1. Paul Weimer says:

    +1 for the Fowler recommendation 🙂

    The past, as well as the present is far more a diverse place than people realize. One of the things I loved about Karen Memory is that those characters were front and center.

  2. Pingback: Giveaway: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear | Far Beyond Reality

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