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Goggles, Dirigibles, and a Nice Cup of Earl Grey, or, a Quick Guide to Steampunk by Katie O’Dowd

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Speculative Fiction

By Katy O'Dowd

“Steampunk is a creative social movement that draws inspiration from Victorian and pre-war history in an anachronistic mix of science fiction, modern values and a sense of fun.”

There you have it, my work here is done! Shortest article in the history of the world ever.

Well, then again, maybe not.

You see, it’s actually quite difficult, when pressed, to describe exactly what Steampunk is. Far easier to say what it means to you yourself personally. The opening quote comes from an experiment in which Steampunks all over the world were asked to explain what it is in one sentence. I think it does it quite admirably.

Let’s put it another way – and in my opinion – Steampunk, certainly within writing is about fun, adventure, inventions, daring and a healthy dollop of derring-do. And lots and lots of tea. With cake, preferably. While wearing an amazing gown, behaving for the most part impeccably and having dashing young men leave a lingering tingle from their bristling moustaches which tickle as they apply lips to your hand before racing off to be, well, dashing.

Or how about this. Take Downton Abbey (with sincere apologies to Julian Fellowes). Let’s say the Dowager Countess is having tea with the Countess at the Abbey. They are bemoaning the fate of Lady Mary who has not yet agreed to marry her cousin Matthew. In races Carson to say that Beryl Patmore’s eyesight has deteriorated again and the whole house is about to burn down as she has mistaken bullets for peppercorns.

Instead of being simpering little ladies, although the Dowager Countess could hardly be described as such, they race into action, tucking their long skirts into their bloomers – I know, I know, slight time lapse, forgive me – and run to help. The DC outside to her awaiting dirigible, which she pilots to the nearest lake. Luckily Carson has come with her and between them they devise an ingenious device which sucks the water from the lake, whereupon they fly back and hose it all over the house. While risking life and limb, obviously.

Meanwhile, the Countess meets Lady Mary in the hall. She is wearing breeches, off to Egypt for a bit of exploration, don’t you know, while deciding what to do about Matthew. Her mother hurriedly explains the situation to her and they head to the lab, don goggles, and invent an eyepiece for the Cook so that such a thing need not happen again. And everybody knows quite how hard it is to find a decent Cook..

Of course Steampunk is nothing new. Writers like HG Wells and Jules Verne were fuelling the imagination way back when. And what about Mary Shelley with her mad doctor and his creation? Since then, there have been numerous books and movies – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for example, or Mary Poppins with her amazing umbrella.

And by all accounts Steampunk is gaining in popularity, which is very exciting. Cherie Priest’s ‘Boneshaker’ is being made into a movie by Hammer; while Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series is being given the TV treatment by an Irish company, no less.

If you haven’t read Steampunk, do. It is lots of fun. One of the best books in the genre I’ve ever read is Neal Stephenson’s ‘The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer’.

Steampunk is a whole culture, very active online, spanning writers, musicians, artists, sculptors, designers, and the list goes on. The ethos is firmly on being creative, and mannerly. How marvellous.

I was chatting to a writing friend online, moaning about the fact that I couldn’t decide on a weapon for a female lead in one of my books to have. ‘Well,’ came his reply, ‘it is Steampunk… can’t you just, you know, make stuff up?’

And that’s what I love about writing Steampunk. There aren’t many ‘rules’ as such, and you can really let your imagination run riot.

How I came to it, is another story entirely. I had, in fact, always wanted to write horror. Being shown ‘The Exorcist’ aged 11 by my cousins may have had something to do with it, not to mention spending my teenage years buried in the pages of Stephen King.

But then I had children, and I got soft. Oh dear. It is still an ambition of mine, so maybe someday I will.

I’ll never forget reading my first Steampunk book and falling completely in love with the genre. The mix of manners and history really appealed, not to mention the sci-fi elements without having to, you know, really explain how stuff works.

‘The Lady Astronomer’ is one of the results of that. And the fact that son number one was jealous that I had used son number two’s name in another book, so I wrote it for him to make it up.

‘The Lady Astronomer’ is inspired by the life of Caroline Herschel (1750-1848). She suffered from both Smallpox and Typhus, was a milliner, soprano, her brother William’s Assistant – he discovered Uranus, then known as George’s Star for the King who funded the build of the ‘Great Forty-Foot’ telescope – and most importantly, perhaps, became the first woman in recorded history to discover a comet. Not to mention the first woman in the UK to receive a working wage, from the King if you don’t mind.

And I got to work with a real life astronomer on it, how cool is that?

About the author

(c) Katy O’Dowd September 2012

Katy is an arts and entertainment journalist and has worked for Time Out, Associated Newspapers and Comic Relief and her articles have appeared in The Times (London), Metro (London) and many other arts and entertainment publications, paper and online.

She reviews for the Historical Novels Review and the British Fantasy Society, is a commissioning editor at Pendragon Press and is co-editor of the Nasty Snips II Project for that press.

Alongside writing with her Dad under the pen-name Derry O’Dowd, whose first book ‘The Scarlet Ribbon’ was chosen to launch the History Press Ireland’s fiction line. Under her own name, ‘The Lady Astronomer’, a YA Steampunk novel, is out with Untold Press this Autumn. She is currently writing a Steampunk adult series because writing for tweens and teens is damnably hard work.

Katy blogs at www.katyodowd.com

And can be found on twitter @katyod

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