A Writer’s Nightmare

The rapid pace of current events is making it more difficult to be a writer, not just in science fiction but in other genres. For decades the Soviet Union was a staple enemy for spy thrillers. Now it’s gone, replaced by a new bad guy, the Islamic Terrorist. Yet these bearded fanatics hiding in caves and blowing themselves up are just not as menacing as a monolithic dictatorship with the power to nuke the planet. The Russian Federation is a force to be reckoned with, but its relationship to the West is now a lot fuzzier.

Another factor that renders stories obsolete is technology. William Gibson’s novels, at least the last ones I read a few years back, aren’t science fiction anymore. At best, they’re techno-thrillers, possibly even mainstream. Cyberpunk has become reality; maybe that’s why steampunk is now so big. In the latter case, we intentionally rewrite history, so we don’t need to worry about obsolescence.

I experienced a similar dilemma in writing Centrifugal Force. Originally one of the principal characters was the pilot of an Air Force spyplanes. As time passed, I realized that human pilots were on the way out, so I removed her story thread. Now that drones are in vogue, I’ve begun a new novella about drone pilots. I can’t dawdle, though, in case something changes.

Lately I’ve been wondering if the USA itself is going to be the novelist’s newest monkey wrench. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of countries such as Yugoslavia, it was fashionable for a time to write about a disunited America. When world affairs settled down, that theme went away. Though with our massive debt, the economy teetering on the brink (what recovery? I don’t see it) and a possible new war in Syria, the USA could meet its end for real. The more we hear mainstream media pundits opining about American power and dominance being glorious and eternal, the more likely we’ll face an ignominious bankruptcy. The United States might even break up into separate countries. Not that this would be a bad thing; my contrarian view of this issue was one of my inspirations for Centrifugal Force. If and when it happens, though, it’ll cause a lot of novels in progress to be hastily rewritten to reflect the new “facts on the ground.”


Why Steampunk?

If anything has surprised me about the steampunk movement, it is its longevity. At first it seemed like a transitory fad, more about the fun of wearing “high tech” period costumes to conventions than the stories themselves. Perhaps that’s true, but the literary movement is going strong as well. This is one of the reasons I am currently writing in this genre- my own interest, coupled with its current popularity.

My first exposure to the genre was The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling. This sci-fi alternative history about the rise of mechanical computers was published before the “steampunk” term became popular. Alternate history, and the steam era were frequent themes in science fiction (such as Michael Moorcocks’ Warlord of the Air) but only recently did it become a true sub-genre. Since then we’ve seen talented young writers such as Cherie Priest and Scott Westerfield emerge to capitalize on this trend.

Conventionally, steampunk focuses on the Victorian era, which coincides roughly with the reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria, 1837-1901, in particular, the latter years of the 19th Century. In America, this was known as the Gilded Age. Then, steam power dominated the world. It was also a time of great optimism about humanity’s future and the advancement of technology. This is when writers like Jules Verne and HG Wells invented the science fiction genre – though admittedly not all their works were optimistic.

I’ve heard it said that nostalgia for the Victorian era is strong nowadays because in those times, the future looked bright, in contrast to today’s bleak economic and political outlook. Even the rigidity of western society in those bygone times seems refreshing compared to our modern decadence.

Still, there are those of us who can’t quite leave the Gilded Age as it was. This is where the “punk” element comes in. According to Wikipedia, sci-fi writer K.W. Jeter coined the term for the sub-genre containing his own works. The term was originally a pun on the term “cyberpunk,” a popular sci-fi subgenre of the 1980’s, which was in turn associated with the appropriately named “cypher-punk” political movement. At that time “punk” signified anarchy and/or decadence. Eventually the suffix the “punk” came to signify “alternate,” such as the modified histories of steampunk and other new genres such as “dieselpunk.”

Though I’ve always been fascinated by history and period novels, alternate history, such as the works of Harry Turtledove, are even more fun. This kind of writing provided the inspirations for my upcoming novel Fidelio’s Automata. What would have happened if McKinley had not died from the shooting in Buffalo, and Teddy Roosevelt had not become president? Because I grew up in North Dakota, TR (who lived there for a time) was part of the local mythology, and it would be fun to change his life story. Other fascinating characters from that time and place were the Marquis de Mores, an eccentric French nobleman and entrepreneur, and his “liberated” American wife, Medora. What if their business had not failed? The Marquis would not have returned to France, gotten involved in extremist politics, and died as the result of a political plot in North Africa. In Fidelio, I can change these events and speculate on what might have been.