A Life Of Fiction LXXIII

For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work before purchasing it on the Kindle store; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.


Putting the Fantasy into Gaslamp Fantasy: I write, in part, what is generally termed gaslamp (or gaslight) fantasy, although some stories do venture into steampunk areas. This is a genre if fiction set in late Victorian times (in my novels and short stories).

I do, of course, write tales in other genres, fantasy and literary. But, here, I will concentrate on my gaslamp fantasy tales. I will try to explain how I have tried to inject aspects of the genre into my stories.

My gaslamp fantasy tales were set, to begin with, in the 1890s. They were set around the same period as the Murdoch Mysteries TV series. That series was set in Canada, however, while many of my stories are set in 1890s (or later) Britain. Still, though, something like that is of great interest, as an example of how to get things right, in relation to the sort of clothes which people wore (in Canada) in the 1890s.

There are certain tropes common to all forms of pseudo-Victorian fiction, whether gaslamp fantasy or steampunk. I will attempt to explain how I have dabbled in some of them in the rest of the article below. Let’s start with automatons.

Automatons: Don’t call them robots. The word robot was not coined until the 1920s, in the play Rossum’s Universal Robots, by Karel Capek (it means worker or slave).

The idea of the automaton is a lot older, however. It really dates back to the Ancient Greeks. The god Hephaestus is supposed to have created golden automata in his workshop, as well as the giant Talos. If you want to see Talos in action then check out the Ray Harryhausen movie Jason and the Argonauts. It is still one of my favourite films, even though the actual acting is not that great.

In old legends there are even tales of flying automata, such as a dove designed by Archytas; and wooden birds from China in the 5th century BC.

The idea of automata continued from ancient times into the Middle Ages. For the purposes of writing fantasy fiction it does not matter whether such automata existed. All we need is the idea of them: of 8th century wind-powered statues in the Muslim world; the animal automata of the 13th century creator Villard de Honnecourt; and the Jaquet-Droz automata of the late 18th century. I recommend that the reader check out the automata created by Pierre Jaquet-Droz, as they are amazing.

Thus, by the time that the nineteenth century crawled around, the idea of an automaton would not be an anachronism. There is no reason why they should not feature widely in steampunk and similar genres – if that is what you want.

The only automata which are widespread in my world are mechanical pets, and police horse automatons, and only in London, with both of the above groups. You may find the other odd automaton in such a fantasy world (although not really in my tales), but the more powerful an automaton is, the most likely that it should be unique.

If you are a prospective steampunk author there is no reason why you should not have your world teaming with automatons or automata, as long as you realise how that would change your world. I decided, long ago, that I really did not want self-aware automatons in my world. The accent in my tales is on Magick, rather than technology. But I might write something about them in the future.

Airships: I have airships in my world; other steampunk writers also have worlds replete with zeppelins. In my books it is still the Graf von Zeppelin who came up with the idea of building these airships as a form of luxury transport. The only difference is that he came up with the idea much earlier, following his involvement in the American Civil War, where he was a reconnaissance spotter in a balloon. In my novels that time in the balloon inspired him to create airships when he returned to Europe; and by the time my books start travel by airships is well established.

In my world these airships do not use either helium or hydrogen to gain life, but a mystical element called Phlogiston. Phlogiston is lighter than either hydrogen or helium, meaning that a canopy filled with it will generate a lot more lift, allowing airship gondolas to be much larger than otherwise. These are the luxury liners of their day, with some of the larger ones possessing shopping arcades, and even cinerama (my world’s word for cinema).

Only the wealthiest people can afford to travel in these giant airships. But they have featured several times in my tales, with one murder mystery 9short story) taking place entirely on one of these zeppelins.

Other pieces of advanced technology: Really, it is up to you how many such things that you have in your world. But be careful if you still want that world to feel Victorian: the more such items you have the further away from the real nineteenth century will be the feel of your tales.

I have cars as being advanced by ten years in my world, basically because I wanted one of my characters to eventually swan around in an automobile that was capable of going a lot more than ten miles per hour.

Other technological items tend to be unique or get destroyed in the course of the story, so that my gaslamp fantasy world does not progress further than I want. And I still ended up, in the end, writing what was basically pulp fiction.

   Magick: In my Briggs and Prenderghast novels Magick (as it is called) is almost viewed as a science. There are schools dedicated to teaching it, such as High Tor in Glastonbury.

Magick has its own internal rules. It can’t be used to accomplish everything. If you could do anything that you wanted to with Magick then you would never have technology advance in the first place. There has to be strictures on its effectiveness if you want the technology of either a steampunk or neo-Victorian world.

One limit which I imposed was that, while Magick was in the blood of nearly everybody, only a tiny minority were accomplished enough to become true wizards. And another limit was that the person, to have any real effectiveness, had to go through years of training – and that training is very expensive. So only a tiny percentage pf people go on to become wizards, making Magick something so rare it does not change the world.

In my world being a wizard is not an occupation in itself, although it may enhance a person’s abilities in other areas, such as an inventor or explorer.

Overview: With each change the author must consider the possible consequences for Victorian society. If you introduce some new technological marvel which is too transformative then you will end up no longer dealing with a Victorian milieu, but a modern one.

There are, of course, several ways around that problem, so that you can try and retain that unique Victorian feel.

One option is to make the marvel, whatever it is, too expensive to change society. I have mentioned airships in the notes above. Yes, they fly through the air decades earlier than they should. But, in my world, travel by them is inordinately expensive, so that only the wealthiest in society can afford to ride on them. That means that trains and hansom cans still rule the world; and that the preferred mode of long distance travel is the steamship.

Another way is to make the item either unique or exceedingly rare. I have done that with a few prototypes for weapons, such as for a Gauss gun. If captured by the protagonists of these tales, have them turned over to their government, so that ‘top men’ can study these items – or, in other words, these unique items can disappear without trace. See the very end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark for one example of that.

Or, finally, you could say that it is still a Victorian society despite new technological marvels. Yes, Jules Verne (in my world) produced the first land ironclads over 44 years before World War One. But those proto-tanks, while ensuring that France won the Franco-Prussian war, do not have an impact on the day to day lives of ordinary people.

Anyway, that is the end of this post. I hope that it has been illuminating or, at least, vaguely entertaining (I will settle for either). In the next post I will suggest keeping a glossary.


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