Tag Archives: Steampunk

Jani and Steampunk

It has been said that all my SF works are typified by the exploration of humanity’s reaction to change in society, clad in an SF jacket. I wouldn’t disagree with this, but would point out that this applies to almost all SF written these days. To set out to write about the future, and about some scientific and/or technological advance in the future – allied to the explication of character (after all, that’s what all writing is about) – is by necessity to explore humanity’s reaction to these changes. I’m not a Hard SF writer – I’m not that interested in the nuts and bolts of technological invention, or the theory behind the science. What interests me is how science and technology changes people, society and culture. To me, the prime example of a writer who did this well, and, what’s more important, entertainingly, is Michael Coney. On the surface his stories are about human interaction and the emotions wrought by simple human conflict; beneath the surface, he’s writing about a society, and individuals, changed by some scientific or technological advance – or, in the case of Hello Summer, Goodbye and its sequel I Remember Pallahaxi, about change brought about by alien biology.

Now, can it be said that my latest novel, the steampunk romp Jani and the Greater Game, is typified by the of humanity’s reaction to change in society? Well, ‘typified’ is a loaded word, but I can safely say that the novel is very much about the changes wrought to society – in Britain, India, and indeed the world – by one very important difference to reality as we know it. This difference is that in the world of Jani, set in an alternative 1925, the British Raj has discovered an almost magical power source in the foothills of the Himalayas. Throughout the novel this power source is alluded to, but never explained – until the denouement. It’s known simply as Annapurnite, and the reader, reading between the lines, will guess that it’s not much different to nuclear power. With it, the British Empire has secured its place at the forefront of the superpowers vying for world domination, the other contenders being Russia and China. Britain rules the waves (and waives the rules, as Jani Chatterjee points out at one point) and history has been changed by the discovery of Annapurnite… or whatever it is. There was no first World War, Europe has been at peace for decades, and America is ruled from London. However, there is Nationalist unrest in India, and Jani finds herself conflicted as to where her loyalties lie. Her mother was English, her father an Indian with pro-British leanings, and while Jani was brought up in India until the age of eight, she was educated in Blighty until she was eighteen. She can see the many benefits brought about by British rule, and the Raj’s utilisation of the mysterious Annapurnite, but she is also aware of the drawbacks; the racism, the elitism, the very iniquity of one race lording it over another.

And what she learns during the course of the novel subverts everything she ever thought true not only about the British in India, about Annapurnite, but about the very reality of which she is a small, but very significant, part.

So there we are: Jani and the Greater Game fits neatly into he corpus of the rest of my work: it is about change, and humanity’s reaction to it… (And it’s also about Imperialism, and racism, and loyalty, both personal and societal – as well as being, I like to think, a rip-roaring, page-turning adventure story with a heroine at its centre who you’ll come to love).

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Jani

I’ve been itching to write a steampunk novel for years. I like the idea, the ethos, behind the sub-genre. I like the idea of writing SF unconstrained by the shackles of science and technology – it can be as way-out and whacky as you can make it – and I like the idea of writing action-adventure.

Last year I pitched a couple of steampunk ideas to my editor Jonathan Oliver at Solaris, which came to nothing. Then Jon asked, “How about something set in India…?” which set me thinking. Over the next couple of weeks, Jani Chatterjee was born. She would be half-Indian, half-English, torn by loyalties to both camps, grieving the loss of her recently deceased father, and pitched into an adventure in which the future of the world is at stake… It would be set in India and Nepal in 1925, when the British Empire rules the world thanks to something they discovered, fifty years earlier, in the foothills of the Himalayas; it would feature evil baddies, aliens from other worlds, strange devices – as well as obligatory airships – much derring-do, seat-of-the-pants adventure, and would be an unashamed romp, while at the same time taking a little time out to address issues like the idea of Empire, racism, and the role of women in society… but above all it would be a thrilling chase through an exotic India. Jani’s assumptions would be challenged along the way: in each book, reality as she assumed it to be would be subverted by things she learns – and the expectations of the reader would, likewise, be subverted by what is revealed.

Jon and the team at Solaris liked the idea, commissioned the novel on the outline, and then I sat down to write it.

892-1First, though, Dominic Harman supplied a fantastic cover – which has struck the aesthetic cords of various people, along the lines of, “Mechanical elephants and steampunk… what’s not to like?” I gave Dominic the brief for the cover before I’d actually written a word. Oddly, the idea that a mechanical elephant might make an arresting image came to me before I realised that an artificial elephant would feature in the story. But, once the idea popped into my head, I had to make room for it.

Then I began Jani, and it whistled out in little over a month. It was one of those happy novels which wrote itself. Jani became a larger than life character, dictated where the novel should go, and I merely followed her. Alfie Littlebody, a secondary character, (A bumbling but well meaning officer in Field Security, opposed to the excesses of the Raj) also took off in ways I’d hardly envisaged when thinking about him before I started the book.

I had more problems with the ‘alien’, and his depiction. In the novel he befriends Jani – or perhaps uses her to his own ends – and persuades her to embark on a death-defying quest across northern India and into Nepal. The alien, Jelch, had to be obviously unhuman, but sufficiently human to pass visually amongst the folk of India. He also had to be of another world, yet understandable to the reader in his motivations and mind-set – always a hard trick to pull off when depicting aliens. Whether he works is down to the reader to decide, but so far the reviews haven’t singled him out as a weak point.

A couple of critics have said that the baddies are too one-dimensional, too evil – and here I hold my hands up. They were meant to be. This is melodrama, where we hiss at the baddies and cheers the goodies. The Russians are irredeemably bad, and Jani good, for the sake of telling a headlong action-adventure-chase tale.

At the end of book one, Jani, Littlebody, and Jani’s Indian friend Anand, are fleeing India bound for London aboard a vast airship – and bound for further adventures that will test their mettle to the limits. They’re being pursued by Russians, Chinese (little do they know it), evil aliens and even the British. The trio hold the future of the world in their hands, and it seems that the whole world is determined to halt their progress.

Their adventures will continue in the second volume of the Multiplicity series, Jani and the Great Pursuit.

All I have to do now is write it.

Here’s a sneak preview of Dominic Harman’s excellent cover.

jani-2 two~

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What Steampunk Means To Me

I read steampunk at its very inception, long ago in the 1980s – Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, and the works of James P. Blaylock – back when the sub-genre wasn’t even graced with a sobriquet but was lumped in with the catch-all term of Fantasy. Little did any of us realise, at the time, what a thriving genre it would become, nor what a lifestyle sub-culture these and other novels would spawn. (There is even, as I sit typing, a Steampunk-themed café seven miles north of here in North Berwick, East Lothian).

To me, in the Eighties, these and other novels occupied a strange hinterland between SF and Fantasy. While fantastical, they didn’t much partake of the occult or the overly magical; and while ostensibly SF, they weren’t tied to the rigorous rationality of Hard SF. They were great adventure romps which played fast and loose with the conventions of science fiction and fantasy; they had their cake and ate it.

Then in the 1990s Steampunk seemed to fall out of favour. Cyberpunk was the big thing, and retro-derring-do set in Victorian times appeared to have had its day. The future was Neuromancer, streetwise hackers and cynical multinational mega-corporations: the past was passé.

And then at some point in the Noughties, novels set in Victorian times, featuring fantastical inventions that never existed, began to trickle out. The trickle became a stream, and then a torrent. Publishers, always eager to jump aboard the next band-wagon, commissioned more and more Steampunk novels and it seemed that the surge was unstoppable, to the point where some bookshops up and down the country now have sections devoted not only to SF, Fantasy and Horror, but also to Steampunk. There are Steampunk conventions, Steampunk weekends (there’s one forthcoming in my hometown of Haworth, West Yorkshire), Steampunk parties, magazines, websites…

But, we ask ourselves, why the big attraction? What is it about stories set in mainly Victorian times featuring almost-magical inventions, street-urchins, evildoers and the like, that is so phenomenally popular? And why do we write it? (Well, the cynical amongst you might answer that writers write the stuff for the simple reason that it keeps the wolf from the door. But I like to think that there are other, more interesting reasons).

Perhaps the answer is that Steampunk is so popular these days for the same reason that, before the last millennium, everything New Age was in vogue: the future was a nebulous entity that frightened the average man and woman in the street, and it was comforting, even reassuring, to turn back to old certainties.

We live in interesting times, a decade and a half into the new millennium. Never has the advance of science and technology been so rampant, never has that person on the Clapham omnibus faced such confusion when attempting to come to terms with the many and wondrous quantum leaps in contemporary science. There are so many advances on so many fronts that no one person can claim to understand it all.

So readers fall back into the comforting safety net of Steampunk, where the science never existed – where the science and technology is retro and therefore not really threatening. We all like adventure stories, and the exotic, and never is the exotic more exotic than when two disparate elements (weird science and grungy Victoriana, in this case) are juxtaposed.

And writers?

Well, we write Steampunk for many of the same reasons. We want to tell thrilling stories, we want to write of fantastical adventures; and I suspect that many of us – and I’m speaking personally here – find the future (the advance of science and technology) baffling and often incomprehensible. So we write fantastical stories set in the Steampunk milieu, utilising the same sense of wonder as found in SF, to tell our tales of human beings caught up in circumstances vaster than themselves.

Or that’s why I wrote Jani and the Greater Game, anyway. I wanted to write about India, and about India under the British Raj, about a woman half Indian, half British, who finds her loyalties torn and her life under threat from all sides. The novel is set in 1925, so it’s well after the usual Steampunk stomping ground of the Victorian era, but it hews to the same ideas and ideals: the inventions are fantastical, the villains evil, and the adventure is, I like to think, thick and fast and pretty well relentless.

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