Queens of A Radiant Tomorrow

A Writing Wednesday post, delayed!

I’ve had three or four topics drift through my mind as I think, “Man, I need to write my weekly post.” A post about what people seem to value in blogs, a post about the trouble with titles, a post about following the rules and how it does and doesn’t help–

But right now, the spinner has settled on ‘steampunk’ as a topic. The immediate idea comes from reading this post at Carina Press’s blog, but it draws on thoughts dating back much further, including a discussion of steampunk on the Satellite Show.

I’m afraid I’m one of those purists who draw a distinction between ‘steampunk’ and ‘gaslight fantasy’. Properly done steampunk is science fiction as much as its parent genre, cyberpunk. Weird technology in a Victorian setting isn’t steampunk unless it focuses on the technology, and how it influences the setting. If the technology is just flavor, just a part of the setting, it’s gaslight fantasy– which I do also enjoy. But the splat-punks have a special place in my heart.

I think Satellite Show said it well: “The “punk” aspect of Cyberpunk or any of its derivatives (of which Steampunk is only the most well known) is not just there for show, but because any of those genres should capture a spirit of a society bleeding out on a technological fringe, a technology that has the power to both free and oppress, a height of wonderment and possibility contrasted with a depth of exploitation and despair. These are the times and places where the rebels thrive, in the scientific revolutions that reshape the world.”

It was fascinating to read this definition, which encapsulated thoughts of my own perfectly, for two reasons:

1.) Most things I write have some element of that nature to them. I love technology, and watching how technology impacts humanity. And in all of my fantasy worlds, I tend to have a carefully developed technology that heavily influences the plot and the world– even the magic is usually more technology than magic. One of my favorite bricks-under-the-bed could be described as ‘angelpunk’. And yes, that means what it sounds like: angels used to power a technology, and how that shapes the world. How that both liberates and oppresses elements of that world.

2.) Think of the possibilities! You could take almost anything, add -punk to it, and using the above definition, have an instantly interesting world! (Maybe only interesting to me). As an example, at one point Jess Nevins mentioned ‘geisterpunk’, German for ghostpunk, on his twitter stream, which prompted a wild frenzy of speculation:

I imagined a technology inspired around using scientific proof of an immortal soul. Like, half of eternity is still eternity so POOF, power. So, a situation where you have immortal souls and they can be split– but the amount of work a soul can do via this technology is limited. Souls aren’t infinite, so there’s this back-alley bartering of fragments of one’s soul, and accumulating more soul is relevant and meaningful.

Tiny totally frayed souls in strung-out junkies, some of whom are desperately scrabbling for more soul to supplement those, and some who are barely more than zombies because they’ve given– or had taken– all they can.

Awesome, right? And I haven’t even gotten into the kinds of work that soul-powered machines might be especially useful for doing, the weird and wonderful advances enabled by ghostpunk technology.

But anyhow! I think the reason that steampunk is so interesting right now is because it lets us explore the potential consequences of what’s happening to our society right now. Cyberpunk is a little too close to home, but steampunk has that necessary remove which allows so many people to really think about an idea. Our own world is changing so fast, with so many varied threats and promises contained with the technologies we’re exploring. How do we cope? How do we even understand? Well, as I’ve mentioned before, I think that’s part of the power of fiction. We have everything we need to understand ourselves and our own world, right there at hand.

 

It’s a big, big world out there.

Say you have a secret paranormal Organization in your story. At first, they’re an extremely USA-centric Organization, because you’re American. But then you realize, due to the nature of the Organization, it wouldn’t be focused on America. It’d be global in scope. What does that mean?

When I found myself in this situation, I didn’t think it would be a very big deal. I’d switch a few of the locations from American cities to more international locations. It’d be easy. Then I looked at a couple of lists of the largest population centers in the world, and realized how few American cities were on them.

My original vision had been that the big cities all had Organization outposts, with roving agents taking care of less populated regions. Sticking to that vision meant that my Organization was either going to be a lot larger than I expected, or there would be two Organization outposts in the US, one on each coast. That seemed… wrong.

For the Organization, I’d originally envisioned it roughly mapping to the size of a small town, including the retired Agents and the student Agents. I really didn’t want to pin down the details of the demographics because I wanted to leave things flexible. I just knew how I wanted it to feel– the kind of group where if you don’t know everybody yourself, you’re within one or two acquaintances of everybody.

It turns out spreading that size Organization out over the entire globe spreads it really thin. The world is Very Large. In a list of the top 60 population centers of the world, 2 of them are definitely in the United States. After that it gets a bit fuzzy, because how are we defining ‘population center’, anyhow? There might be a few others, depending on how you’re counting, but it’s not so many. And there are disturbing gaps: for example, going by the ‘population center’ rule, Australia and New Zealand are utterly abandoned.  Europe is barely supported.

I thought: more rovers? And I thought: Europe is small, relatively speaking. Let’s see how long it would take to get from one major metro center to another. Not by flight, because flying isn’t convenient for paranormal agents in a hurry, so by train or car.

And you know what? It takes a while! Europe may be small relative to the US or China, but it’s still a lot of land to be covered by a few people. Our world is HUGE, and full of people, most of whom don’t speak English or live in places that show up much in English-language fiction. And the population isn’t spread out very evenly, which is very inconvenient of it. The logistics of moving people around and maintaining enough bases were challenging. I spent some time with a calculator and a spreadsheet trying to figure out was reasonable and was likely vs what was clunky and complicated. Then I gave up. Sometimes I really enjoy working out demographics and populations but this time I felt like I was up against an impossible wall.

Finally, I decided to stop making it my problem and instead make it the Organization’s problem. Let them have their own biases and work against them if it was appropriate for the characters.  Given limited numbers, how did they deal with the problem of the Big Big World? What did they sacrifice?

It turns out when I explored the problem from the perspective of the characters rather than as a worldbuilder it became less of an obstacle and more of an inspiration. They moved outposts to new cities on a regular basis, the destination partially influenced by complex statistical predictions.  They rearranged the use of some of their magics.  It could work, they felt– not perfectly, but where would be the story in something perfect, anyhow? It would work well enough to achieve Organizational goals.

I didn’t let myself pick up a calculator to see if they’re right. I’m just going to go with it. I think it’s important that I acknowledge the breadth of the big, big world, but trying too much to model reality is just going to bog everything down.  The whole world is just too big for one story, even an epic one.

This isn’t the first time I’ve run into the problem of how complicated and large the real world is. Back when I used to work very hard on pure fantasy worlds, I realized that Europe alone has more countries than your average fully-mapped fantasy world. My really big, detailed world map with a large number of cultures barely approached the scope and diversity of a single Earth subcontinent. Trying to model a ‘realistic’ fantasy world– well, I won’t say it’s impossible but I do think it would be the work of decades.

I’m curious if other people have struggled with the size of the world, and the scope required of events that are supposedly world-affecting? If so, what conclusions have you come to? What tricks did you use to make it manageable? I’m afraid it’s going to be an ongoing challenge for me. The lure of wikipedia and the calculator is always there…