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Monday, November 10, 2014

GUESTPOST: The Pros and Cons Of Writing Steampunk by Jay Kristoff

When I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing a steampunk setting, I gave myself a few provisos. The first was that I’d avoid the rose-colored goggles point of view. Some SP settings instil the transition from rural to industrial age with a sense of wonder, and tend to gloss over the ugly side of industrialization, and the whole child exploitation/slavery unpleasantness that came along with our transition to urban life.

Second, I wanted to avoid Victorian England as a cultural touchstone. It’s been done, and done well (Colonial America too, tbh). I decided to build a steampunk world based on a culture nobody had really tackled yet – Shogunate Japan.

Basing your fantasy world on an existing culture is hardly a new concept – most modern fantasy has at least some grounding in cultures of the past (albeit with a decidedly euro-centric focus). But there are pro’s and con’s to writing a world based on an existing culture that isn’t actually yours.

Pro: Different Perspectives

Delving into a culture you haven’t been raised in will invariably be an eye-opening experience. You’ll be inundated with new concepts and imagery. Researching an unfamiliar culture might open up story avenues, conflicts, hooks and twists that you wouldn’t have considered if you were writing fantasy of the Tolkienite variety. At the very least, you’re filling your skullspace with interesting factoids that might come in handy during some future dinner engagement. For example, did you know that in ancient Greece, when a boy turned 13, an uncle or close family friend would take the lad up into the hills to teach him the time-honored art of fellatio?

Drop that one on your next dinner party. Guaranteed show-stopper!

Con: WTB Glossary PST

What we think of as traditional fantasy is often an alt-version of medieval England. Concepts like “knight” and “throne” are so ingrained in our cultural psyche, they need no explanation. You don’t need to take the time to explain to your reader what a “Lord” is. They already know how a “shortsword” works. They’re guaranteed to be repeatedly cursing the skies if you use terms like “Daimyo” or “wakizashi” and offer no explanation, even if you write the term in context. You’ll need to explain all these new words you’re bandying about, and some readers tire of that routine quickly. They just want to get to the fireworks factory.

Pro: Zigging Not Zagging

Because modern fantasy tends to have a heavy western European focus, when a piece of work that strays from that norm rears its head, it’ll stand out like the proverbial… well, you know…

Different” equates to “intriguing” in the minds of many readers – this is simply human nature. Intriguing isn’t a bad thing for your novel’s concept to be. Just like your eyes are inexorably drawn to the six-foot transvestite in a red miniskirt amidst a sea of six-foot transvestites in grey ballgowns, an epic fantasy novel with nary a king or knight or dragon in sight will probably turn some heads. In theory, anyways.

Con: Performance Anxiety

They’re all looking at you now. This series better be good.

Pro: The Sand Pit

The liberating notion about drawing inspiration from an existing culture but still keeping your world entirely fantastical is that you can take elements of the touchstone you want, and leave the rest where you found it. You’re building your own sandpit after all, and you make the rules. If you want to utilize part of an ancient religion but not use the entire pantheon, you’re free to do so. If you want to utilize cultural or societal structures, religious hierarchy or elements of language, there’s no rule saying you can’t change it, or mix it with other concepts from halfway around the globe. Combining the real with the fantastical can lead you to create truly unique worlds, even if their foundation is one we’re all at least partially acquainted with.

Con: Unavoidable Collisions

Even if you call your world “Not’thureel’wurld” and make it plain that your story is not in any way historical, nor indeed, any form of commentary on the culture that inspired you, if your setting was inspired by an existing culture, particularly a culture you don’t come from, then you’re going to offend somebody. The differences between Tsarist Russia and your fantasy world based on Tsarist Russia can be explained very simply – you aren’t writing a story set in Tsarist Russia. But despite your setting being fantastical, you will be told in no uncertain terms that “you are doing it wrong”.

Most readers will understand you’re writing fantasy, and that your inspiration was exactly that, and only that. Some won’t, and some won’t care. Like death and taxes, this is unavoidable.

This is not to say that, by slapping a “this is make believe” tag on your work, you have license to do whatever you please. Stereotyping is always a pit best avoided. Simplifying any culture, fantastical or not, down to a handful of traits simply doesn’t do the complexity of life justice. The golden rule is that people are, first and foremost, people. They have hopes and dreams, desires and imaginations, and the amount of melanin in their skins or the shape of their eyes most likely has nothing to do with any of that.

There are certainly other pitfalls to watch out for, particularly if you’re writing the story of an outsider interacting with another’s culture (the Sensei, the Neo-Native, the Magic Colored Man to name a few). If your setting has no “outsider”, these tropes are easy to avoid.

Woe betide you if you drop a white protagonist into a non-white culture and have said protagonist start teaching the primitive natives what’s what, or worse, discovering the beauty of the primitive native culture and the evils of their own. Those antics might win you seven academy awards or give you the highest grossing film of all time, but…

… waitaminute…

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AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jay Kristoff was born and brought up in Perth. He grew up reading and collecting books and spent most of his free time playing Dungeons & Dragons. He graduated with an Arts degree and then spent ten years in the field of “creative advertising”. He currently lives in Melbourne with his wife and dog. His first trilogy, the award winning THE LOTUS WAR is set to be published in over a dozen countries. The third book in the series, ENDSINGER, is due for publication in November 2014. Jay’s new series, the SciFi thriller ILLUMINAE, which he co-authored with Amie Kaufman, is due for publication by Random House in 2015.

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of Christopher Tovo. The remaining stops of Jay's ENDSINGER blog tour can be found over here.


Anonymous said...

A futuristic but somewhat steam punk Japanese series is the remake of samurai 7. Its awesome.

Unknown said...

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