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Accidental Steampunk

5,000 words in two days. Wow. I haven’t done fiction at a rate like that since I was wrapping up The Cunning Blood in early 1999. It’s the main reason you haven’t seen me here much recently: I have a hard deadline for a story (this is uncommon; deadlines are for things like computer books and articles) and if I don’t produce at this rate for a little while longer, Drumlin Circus won’t be finished and laid out in time for AnomalyCon in Denver at the end of March. I have 27,200 words down now, out of a target 37,000 – 40,000. That’s heading out of novella territory into the strange turf of short novels, where I’ve never worked before.

But that’s the idea. Ruts are horizons pulled in too close, and I’m trying to push ’em back as much as I can, in as many ways as I can. Those who are familiar with my drumlins stories have gotten comfortable with a sort of Weird Western ambiance, and perhaps a hint of Cowboys & Aliens, except that the aliens are gone to parts unknown, having left all their incomprehensible machinery behind. (I was actually inspired more by Fred Pohl’s Gateway novels, at least in terms of the alien machinery.) So far I’ve focused on the rural and frontier areas of the drumlins planet, but much of Drumlin Circus takes place in the planet’s largest city. There were cowboys aplenty in 1890s Colorado, but out east in 1890s Chicago or 1890s New York, society was radically different.

The Drumlins Saga as a whole is about human castaways on an Earthlike planet who slowly re-create Earth technology and civilization, hoping eventually to repair their starship and return home. They “pass through” stages of technology roughly corresponding to advances in Earth history, and at the time of Drumlin Circus they’re basically gotten to 1890, with steam power and the beginnings of electricity. (The first three Drumlins Saga stories are collected with others in this book. More are planned.)

However, there’s a wildcard: alien machines scattered all over the planet, analogous to 3-D printers with a back-end database of manufacturable parts. Enter a 256-bit binary code, and…something…comes out. Some of these somethings are familiar and useful, some can be repurposed, and some, well, they’re just weird–and maybe dangerous. (Furthermore, there’s a lot of somethings. Do the math.)

So it’s 1890 with a twist.

Drumlin Circus itself recounts a sort of low-level war between a traveling circus and a cultlike research organization called the Bitspace Institute, which is very much a steampunk bad-guys version of the Ralpha Dogs from TCB. The steampunk part wasn’t deliberate, and when I was first defining the Drumlins Saga back in the early 2000’s, I hadn’t read any of the steampunk canon yet. But it’s tough to set a story in an 1890s technological milieu these days and not be accused of steampunking, so at some point I gave up and said, Awright awready. I’m a steampunker. (I’ve even had a top hat since 1999, and you’ve seen this. And this.) I’ll deal with it.

(More tomorrow.)


  1. Erbo says:

    Well, the culture of the Ralpha Dogs, and indeed all the Orders of Hell, could be considered “steampunk with wildcards,” too, due to the lack of electricity. You’ve certainly got the gaslights, pneumatic-tube mail systems, and Babbage-style mechanical computers that could have come straight out of The Difference Engine; you just have a few other non-electrical goodies, too, like jet aircraft, fluidic control systems, and reasonably-modern medicine.

    1. There’s a subtle difference: The Ralpha Dogs are struggling against an environmental limitation, whereas the Bitspace Institute is struggling against simple ignorance. I actually suggested this on p. 14 of TCB: “People in the past were ignorant. People on Hell are handicapped. Neither is a reflection of stupidity.” The castaways on the drumlins planet basically arrived with all human knowledge on their iPads–but they lacked the ability to make or even repair iPads. The computers started to die after a year or so, and by the time the unwilling colonists perfected a paper mill and moveable type, most of the computers were dead–and 90% of human knowledge was lost. The Institute makes its money re-inventing things that we take for granted–drywall, for instance–and considers drumlin artifacts its competition. If enough powerful drumlins are discovered in the alien “thingmaker” machines, people won’t need Earth technology, nor most of what the Institute sells. It thus gets increasingly cranky over the years.

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