Some steampunk worldbuilding – The Promise and the Reckoning

Posted: August 21, 2014 in writing
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I love world building, that distinct part of speculative fiction that is creating a whole new environment from scratch. The flora, the fauna, the technology or magic, the politics and culture… Even though we never build worlds from nothing, taking elements from reality and other settings, it’s always fun to craft a place of our own.

A world above

‘The Promise and the Reckoning’, one of the stories I put into Riding the Mainspring, was inspired by a world building idea. During the hugely disruptive Icelandic eruptions of 2010 large numbers of flights were cancelled because modern airliners couldn’t fly through the ash-clouded atmosphere. At the time someone pointed out to me that airships would be able to fly in these conditions. Having heard the word ‘airships’, naturally I started thinking steampunk.

Eyjafjallajokull volcano plume – imagine a whole continent of that. Photo by Boaworm via Wikimedia commons.

The challenge for me became creating a setting in which that ability of airships to fly through volcanic ash would be relevant. And so I set about creating a world in which volcanic ash had become a huge problem in the 19th century.

Rubbing two ideas together to create a spark

At the time, I was also very conscious of how unrepresentative speculative fiction can be. There are plenty of examples that aren’t centred on characters from America and Europe or their fantastical equivalents, but they still dominate the bookshelves. So I wanted a reason to shift that around as well, a context that would remove the advantage of 19th century Europeans, turning the power dynamics on their heads.

What better way to provide ash-clouds and remove European dominance than to blow Europe up with volcanoes?

So I created a world in which vast volcanoes have destroyed vast swathes of Napoleonic Europe, leaving a wasteland of ash and fire. The survivors cling on to what habitable land remains, or build settlements high above the ground, desperately clinging to the remains of their old lives. Because lets face it, that’s what people do.

World building that drives character building

Interesting characters are at the heart of any good story. So if your story’s job is to explore and expose a world you’ve built then you need a central character with a reason to expose and explore. Mine was Professor Ondieki, a vulcanologist from Mombassa who flies into Europe determined to prove his theories about the cause of the Reckoning, the event that laid waste to a continent. By making him an academic and an outsider I provided reasons for him to ask and talk about what was going on. And by making him African I scratched that itch to reduce my Euro-centrism, while still using my knowledge of European history to inform the setting.

As I thought about this world all sorts of extra details cropped up – cloudberries, a British diaspora, what happened to Napoleon and to French cuisine. But it all came back to that central concept – blowing Europe up with volcanoes.

Tell me about your worlds

I know I have quite a few world builders reading this blog, so tell me, where did the inspiration for your worlds come from? What triggered your core concept, and how did you expand from there?

For more examples of intricate and well-considered world building check out The War of Memory Project, a great example of world building explored in breadth and depth.

And if you want to learn more about Professor Ondieki and the world of the Reckoning then check out ‘The Promise and the Reckoning’ in Riding the Mainspring, available on all your different Amazons, including for the Americans, for us Brits, and all those other different-ending Amazons.

  1. I will get to your stories, I swear. I am about to start rewrites on the final thread of my third book though, so….crunch time!

    But I love volcanoes, so I’m really looking forward to this story — even more now that you’ve explained it further! Nice!

    Anyway, I can’t pinpoint the first gestation-stage of my world because I started working on it when I was around twelve, heh. I think it was your standard Euro-fantasy back then. But I started playing World of Darkness games on AOL in my late teens and met a friend who had a werewolf character who believed that werewolves weren’t a separate kind of entity from humanity, but rather that werewolves had -created- humanity by interbreeding with other were-creatures…

    This was the player’s own thought, not something in the game system, but I was so taken with it that I started reverse-deriving everything I’d made in my world before then, transforming it from that Euro-fantasy type to a world where humans were actually the hybrid un-shifting children of different types of skinchangers, who were fast out-populating their shifting predecessors. It made the whole feel of the world much more shamanic/animistic at base, which put an emphasis on spirits and elementals and then rolled itself into conflicts between those and the humans’ new ‘gods’ and non-shamanic magic…

    And the friend who first inspired the idea is my cover artist now. 😀

    • Wow, that’s a really fascinating concept to build a world from – one of these days I’m going to have to read your stories too!

      Good luck with the rewrites – I know they’re never as much fun as writing, but getting to the end is always satisfying.

  2. glenatron says:

    When I wanted an excuse for something kind of steampunky ( but not entirely ) I ended up with the Seven Gyres a world consisting of seven rings of land and ocean, in constant rotation, all in intersection so they pass through one another like cloud although each one is solid in its own right. The world is connected to ours by ancient passageways but goes largely unrecorded because the intersecting nature of the Gyres means that there are two extra directions there and the behaviour of electricity in that scenario is very hard to predict so electronic and electrical devices simply don’t work. Instead there is a complex alchemy and physics that does operate there, allowing equipment such as the Zikhali drive, which provides Gyreships with the ability to cross Aether reaches and facilitates moving between Gyres where they intersect. The Gyres are home to a varied human diaspora alongside other native creatures like the Cynocephali and a few others I can’t recall off the top of my head. I named the setting for a very short bit of fiction and then stuck with it through some short stories and Nano a couple of years back. It’s kind of silly worldbuilding with maybe a bit too much China Mieville nonsense to it, but there is an underlying logic and the reasons for and nature of it’s existence certainly have room for some storytelling if I ever get around to it.

    I also have a very bog standard early-medieval fantasy world that is very much your classic fantasy setting in terms of small border kingdoms, a declined empire distant barbarian hordes and relatively familiar cultures although with their own religions and identities. The setting itself is very unremarkable – no magic, quite low-fantasy – but it fits the story I want to tell, which is more or less about exploring one of the tropes of fantasy and -to a degree- historical fiction, that irritates me immensely. I should probably get back to writing that one, to be honest.

    I’m also writing a game set in a world of runelore and ancient magic, but that’s a very simple setting and currently only half thought-through.

    • That Seven Gyres world sounds brilliant. But then I think you can never have too much China Mieville nonsense.

      • glenatron says:

        I had too much of it around the time of Iron Council, where it stopped feeling to me as though we had an original, fascinating, world and more as though he was just throwing in random stuff left right and centre because he had thought of it. This made me a bit sad because I really enjoyed Perdido Street Station and The Scar, but that one left me underwhelmed. I think that was our last visit to Bas Lag and I’m not entirely surprised by that.

        • I have pretty much the opposite view on that book. It’s my favourite Bas Lag one, my my favourite of his full stop. Communists, steam trains, the crazy conceptual elemental shenanigans – I loved all that. I’m not saying he wasn’t just throwing in whatever he’d come up with – that does have a ring of truth – but I loved that book enough that I didn’t mind.

  3. mjtierney1 says:

    The world that I’ve created for my upcoming book series is not too different from the “real world”–I’ve just had it zig where the real world zagged. In short, the Brits and the Americans never made up after the American Revolution. So we come to the 1870s and they’re still not amiable, what with the UK siding with the South during the American Civil War. And also comes along a young Prussian army officer who hangs around the Union Army Balloon Corps (which really happened!) and executes the idea for Zeppelins several decades earlier and fomenting the Air War between a nascient German Empire and Britain.

    The part I find an interesting and fun challenge about world building is making it consistent, and more importantly, keeping it consistent as new events are described. It doesn’t have to make sense in the real world, but as long as it’s internally consistent, suspension of disbelief on the readers’ part is much easier to pull off. As the hero of my story is a Professor of Chemistry, there’s lots of technology, which has at its core something that doesn’t make any scientific sense, but there’s enough real 19th century science surrounding it to make it plausible.

    • Really good point about consistency. Like you, I don’t worry so much about whether it matches the real world as whether it’s consistent – things that don’t work together are what readers will get hung up on. I think that introducing the differences from our world early on is important too, otherwise the surprise can disrupt a reader’s understanding of the world later.

  4. […] Some steampunk worldbuilding – The Promise and the Reckoning at Andrew Knighton Writes […]

  5. […] to shift.  This is a little bit similar to werecreatures in the World of Darkness (as I mention in a comment on Andrew Knighton’s blog), except in WoD the resultant mutts are either kinfolk or metis […]

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