Well…apparently my current scifi work-in-progress, a short story, is steampunk. Who knew? My good friend, author Lee French, figured it out yesterday at our regular Tuesday morning brainstorming session at Panera. After she pointed it out, I could see it clearly, despite my original thought that because I had set it on a mining-colony world, it was a scifi tale.
I was a little surprised I hadn’t seen it earlier, and once it was pointed out, I could see why I was struggling with the tale–I didn’t know what I was writing.
It began as an exercise in writing from the point of view of the flâneur–the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. Click here for Scott Driscoll‘s great blogpost on the flâneur. In short, he tells us that: “With a flâneur narrating, you can remove the noticing consciousness from your point of view character to accomplish other purposes.”
The flâneur is frequently found in literature from the 19th century. The story is filtered through his eyes and perceptions–it distances the reader from the immediacy of the scene, so be forewarned: genre-nazis and arm-chair editors who want the material delivered in 60 second sound-bytes of action won’t love it. Literary fantasy explores the meaning of life or looks at real issues, and I tend to write from that aspect. Often, the fantastic setting is just a means to posing a series of questions. Sometimes the quest the hero faces is in fact an allegory for something else. I read good literary fantasy–it tends to be written by men and women who can actually write. Not only are the words and sentences pregnant with meaning, but they are often beautifully constructed, and I learn the craft of writing from reading it.
My flâneur is Martin Daniels, a young, wealthy, retired crystallographer. He spends his time roaming his city’s streets and sitting in sidewalk cafés observing his fellow citizens, and making social and aesthetic observations. He regularly finds himself crossing paths with one man in particular, Jenner: a self-made man who came up through the mines.
Jenner is battering against the prevailing social barriers which stand in the way of his achieving a political office that he covets, using whatever means at his disposal. He is uncouth, a barely civilized rough-neck with a bad reputation, but something about him draws Martin’s attention, and so he finds himself both observing Jenner, and listening to the whispered gossip that surrounds the man.
One day, as Jenner is passing Martin’s table, his hat blows off and Martin catches it, returning it to him. Jenner then introduces himself, and admits that he has been watching Martin for some time. He has a task for Martin, one that intrigues him enough to bring him out of retirement. Thus begins an odd relationship.
Thus my flâneur ceases to be merely an observer, and becomes my protagonist, yet he is reporting the events from the distance of his memory, so he is still the observer.
So what is Steampunk? Mike Perschon, in his dissertation, The Steampunk Aesthetic: Technofantasies in a Neo-Victorian Retrofuture, has described it as “…an aesthetic that mixes three features: technofantasy, neo-Victorianism, and Retrofuturism.” The key word here is aesthetic.
So how does that relate to my short story? When I looked at it with a critical eye, I realized it incorporates all three of those devices:
Technofantasy: Technology that lacks plausibility, or utilizes fantasy elements as the force or motive behind an action or process. No explanations will be given. The technology exists within the story, not the real world.
Neo-Victorianism: A setting that evokes the nineteenth century, whether it is set there or not. In my tale, the use of the flâneur evokes a 19th century atmosphere, as do the other constraints I had inadvertently written into it.
Retrofuturism: How we think the past viewed the future. It is set in the distant future, but it is a future I think Victor Hugo would have recognized.
I have always perceived steampunk as cogs and diodes, dark atmosphere, rather Gothic, and with a plot that has the protagonists hurtling toward disaster. Now I know it is all that and more. They hurtle toward disaster, with a nineteenth century flair.
Thus my sci-fi flâneur is now the protagonist in a steampunk mystery. This short story, which had sort of stalled, is now back on track and fun to write. Through writing short stories we have the opportunity to write in different genres, and stretch our writing-wings.
I learn more about the craft of writing with each tale, and that fires me up, helping me see my longer works with fresh eyes.