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Steampunk as Alternate History by Clay and Susan Griffith

Steampunk as Alternate History

by Clay and Susan Griffith

Alternate history is fascinating, whether in fiction or just a parlor game – “What if Napoleon won Waterloo? What if Julius Caesar hadn’t been assassinated? What if the Spanish Armada had won?” Alternate history can be compelling because we all have a tendency to think about history in terms of what historians call determinism, which means we like to think everything HAS to happen the way it does happen. But it isn’t so; history has no rational plan. And alternate history let’s us think about what ELSE could’ve happened.

We’re guesting on this blog to talk about how we approach steampunk as a form of alternate history. And we should say up front that our comments are limited to steampunk fiction, rather than fashion or fabrication, because we’re writers, not designers or engineers. In addition, we don’t claim to be experts on all things steampunk, but we do write alternate history with a steampunk flavor, so we can speak to that.

Just how much writers change history in steampunk fiction depends on the story. Sometimes the imaginary steam world is wildly different from reality, and the author provides a detailed scheme that explains why seemingly outlandish things make sense such as Queen Victoria’s army of steam-powered robots or smoke-belching airships dominating the skies. Other times, steampunk fiction is plain old historical fiction with a dollop of top hats and goggles. Then there’s also steampunk that’s not set in an alternate earth timeline, but in a pure fantasy world while still using the tropes of the genre, such as technology or fashion or language; that isn’t really alternate history.

Our personal preference is for steampunk with its feet planted firmly in the 19th century, because that was the era when the dominant energy source was STEAM. It should come as no surprise then that we write neo-Victorian alternate history. In our book, real history shifts to our fictional timeline in 1870 with a devastating attack by vampires which destroys the industrial world of the northern hemisphere. Refugees from the north descend on the tropics, where vampires are rare, to create a chaos of conquest and consolidation.

We don’t pretend to produce hardcore alternate history that would necessarily please the most critical of the Military History Quarterly crowd (even though we think they’d like our book too), but as with any alternate history, our goal is to create a world that works within its own steampunk boundaries and has logical political and economical rules. Even our vampires have reasonable rules that don’t depend on occult inexplicability.

While the politics and economics in our world vary from the real world, we still believe they are (and should be) familiar to readers. That’s the point of alternate history, at least to us. If you create a world so twisted that it isn’t recognizable or comfortable to readers, then you might as well just move into a fantasy world.

We didn’t set out to write a “steampunk” novel. Our plan was to create an exciting adventure and love story, with vampires, set in a unique neo-Victorian world. We were certainly familiar with steampunk, but we weren’t part of the community, and really had no idea how large and complex it was until we began to realize our book fit nicely into the exploding subgenre. Even so, our steampunk isn’t necessarily your steampunk, but it doesn’t have to be.

Steampunk, like all genres, evolves and provides a constant source of debate over its definition and boundaries. Therefore, alternate history (which includes its little brother – steampunk) will continue to be both surprising and familiar, which is how it should be to maintain an audience.


Clay & Susan Griffith are the authors of The Greyfriar: Vampire Empire Book 1 (Pyr Books, Nov. 2010) They are a married couple who have written and published together for more than a decade. Their credits not only include several books and numerous short stories published in many anthologies, some featuring noted genre characters like Kolchak the Night Stalker and The Phantom. They've also written scripts for television and published graphic novels featuring characters such as The Tick and Allan Quatermain. You can visit them on their blog.

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Caren Crane said...

Hi, Clay and Susan! I have to say, your books sounds really fascinating. I have a thing for the Victorian era and the possibilites of steam punk. I've enjoyed steampunk movies very much, but am just venturing into steampunk books. I plan to start with yours and probably Scott Westerfeld's "Leviathan" series.

I'm intrigued by how you've woven so much into one series. It sound like your take on vampires is very new and quite different. How did you decide what "rules" to create for your vampires? Were you influenced by any existing vampire mythologies?

Nancy said...

Hi, Clay and Susan--I love alternate history. I was a history major in school and am fascinated by speculation about what might have been had one little thing gone differently.

I went to a couple of the alternate history panels at DragonCon. The steampunk costumes at the con were some of the most imaginative I've seen.

Victorian England has never been my favorite period, but as I begin to look into steampunk, the era seems more appealing. Like Caren, I'm just beginning to get my feet wet in the subgenre.

Your books sound like a lot of fun.

Trish Milburn said...

I've just started reading steampunk and have loved the little I've read so far (most recently, Worldshaker by Richard Harland). Greyfriar looks fantastic. I'll definitely be getting it.

ediFanoB said...

Thank you for an interesting article. I like how you approach steampunk.I'm a reader who loves steampunk and the Victorian era and like you I'm not part of the community. It is great to see the increasing number of steampunk novels.

I look forward to read The Greyfriar

Clay Griffith said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. We hope you enjoy the book.

Caren, our goal with our vampires was to start with elements of the traditional mythology and then come up with biological traits that might have been responsible for inspiring those myths in ancient times. Our vampires' behavior has its roots in science, although given that the science in our world is slight altered 19th century science, there is much that is not understood or explained in ways that are different than in real history.

Nancy, the steampunk presence at DragonCon was amazing. The creativity is stunning. Can't wait for next year to see it again.