What the Hell is Steampunk?

I suppose many urban denizens might wonder what wilderness I come from that I never came across the word and the genre before today. Probably the suffix punk was enough for me to close my mind to it. Anyway, thanks to John Lawson, author of Witch Ember and Raven for sending a link to an interview about his writing and for commenting that some readers place his books in that genre.

Really? I reviewed Witch Ember (somewhat late, John, sorry but it’s in the queue to be posted) and except for one episode where the protagonist traveled on a steamer, or maybe steam/sail hybrid, I saw not one overt Victorian influence and no other steam. Mercifully, no pseudo Sherlock Holmes werewolves either. Since all my novels have some aspect of steam culture, maybe they’re in the genre, too.

I don’t know about the others’ – authors and fans – claim to steam fascination but I’ve had more contact than just watching steam trains go by. I ran steam plant – nearly melted the superheater tubes of a 600psi steam generator once trying to bring it on line too quickly. Ever see the effect of white hot steam? Another plant had a big turbine pushing an out of balance compressor that one had to start by bypassing all the safety shut-downs and pouring the steam to it fast enough, by hand, that it accelerated through the worst vibrations before it shook itself apart.

Then there was the night I was just a bit too good at starting a balky steam turbine pump. We were bringing up a refinery plant from cold and it was time to direct the butanes into tower 4. For some reason the pump wouldn’t take suction. Somehow I teased it into pumping and the instant howling noises and thumping from all the vessels and pipework sounded as if the place was about to blow up. The whole unit rocked as if everything was going to fall down. Clearly some valve downstream had been left closed.

Since we’d checked the lines it had to be one that was hard to find and almost never touched. Bill went one way and I went the other. In the section with the lye treat vessels the safeties were releasing and closing in quick succession – clouds of horrible vapours of lye and butanes billowed around and the platforms and vessels rocked to the whooping of the released fluids, but I had to plunge into it to look for the damned valve.

Eventually we found it, outside, ten feet above our heads near the base of tower 4. We climbed onto the piperack, slapped a pipewrench on it, and a length of pipe for leverage, and heaved. As if by magic the chaos ceased and calm descended. Bill went back inside to check for damage while I rushed into the control room to see what more upsets it had caused. I don’t have any scenes like that in my novels, but my characters speak with that kind of experience behind them.

In my Iskander series, the small group of moderns introduce steam and mass produced steel into a 17th century society. They need to recruit the indigenous people into their operations and I model the reactions of these people to technology far beyond their experience on the desert Arabs we had working for us when I surveyed on an oil exploration crew in the Libyan Desert. We had guys that had seen a truck or an airplane but only from a distance, and didn’t even know how to open a vehicle door to let themselves out – or to fasten a seatbelt for takeoff. The action in Deadly Enterprise and The Wildcat’s Victory often revolves about the differences between a culture the age of Charles II and Louis XIV and the modern mindset of my protagonists.

In my fantasy, Rast, I satirize the hubris of the mechanistic Offrangs who believe their steam powered galleys and land transporters make them superior to the Riders of Rast and their sorcerer king. Do these aspects make my novels steampunk? I don’t really think so, but if I could get an already formed fan group to take a look I’m willing to craft a story around the features they clearly find fascinating.

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One Response to “What the Hell is Steampunk?”

  1. Bard Brothers Steam,sail Boat Painting Reference Book « Boat Articles Says:

    […] What the Hell is Steampunk? « The Wildcat's Victory […]

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