Please join us in welcoming author Lev AC Rosen here today to Dark Faerie Tales. His first novel, All Men of Genius, released last September. You can read an excerpt from the book here. Want to know our thoughts on the book? You can read Sheila’s review here. We are also featuring this series in our Steampunk Reading Challenge 2012.
LEV AC ROSEN grew up in Manhattan. He attended Oberlin College and received his MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence. His work has been featured in Esopus Magazine and on various blogs including Tor.com. He lives in lower Manhattan.
by Lev AC Rosen
As I’ve said before, the first image I had when I started All Men of Genius was the wall of gears. I was haunted by this image of gears reaching up to the ceiling, breaking only for stained glass windows, their eternal clanking powering… something. I wasn’t sure what. But that was the cornerstone of my world, and I built up from there, adding more metaphoric gears in the form of characters, inventions, plots, etc. Everything was meant to link together, pushing things forward, each at its own pace, all building to a common end.
That was the inciting image of my steampunk worldbuilding. But then I needed to actually build – starting with Illyria College itself. This is where most of the action takes place, and the only completely fictional location. London and the surrounding countryside are, to the best of my knowledge, real, so when I started building that part of my world I had to be more careful. But we’ll get to that later.
Illyria: fictional but world-famous scientific college, aka school for mad scientists. It had to rival Oxford and Cambridge, but it was going to be in London. It had to feel authentically, brutally Victorian, but still have all that completely outrageous science. These, in my opinion, are the two facets of Steampunk worldbuilding: historical accuracy and mad science.
I grew up reading Victorian novels, so I felt like I had the style of the novel down and understood most conventions of Victorian society. Still, I didn’t know much about science, so I read up on it. Graphically. Uncomfortably. And when I created Illyria I didn’t want to shy away from the gruesomeness (by today’s standards) of Victorian science. Some people found the scene with the snakes and dying mice disturbing. I’m one of them. But it is also extremely Victorian – the cavalier attitude Valentine has towards the animals, the way it’s presented as mildly humorous – these were there to disturb you. I’m a big believer in humor and discomfort going together to make people think about things. My hope is that scenes like the mouse in snakeskin scene would seem somewhat humorous and light, but also make you shudder. My characters aren’t meant to be insensitive to the animals’ deaths; they are simply products of their time. This was a period, after all, when kicking dogs in the street was an actual pastime. Cruelty to animals, though unsettling, was the norm. I wanted to be honest about that.
I tried to be honest about other things, too: the regularity of lower class women being taken advantage of, of women needing to resort to prostitution. I didn’t try to paint these things as attractive, nor did I make them into melodrama. I tried to present them as simply how things were, which I hoped would make readers think about them more, and which would also be more impactful. When building steampunk worlds I think it’s important to know your history and treat it with respect; to most of us, I’d guess, sleeping with servants and experimenting on animals willy-nilly seems uncomfortable, but back then it was a common occurrence. I didn’t want to have my characters somehow “above” actual Victorian people. That would have felt extremely false. So I made sure to keep as much to Victorian culture in the book as possible, both good and bad.
The other main feature of building the world of Illyria was the mad science. And for that, I needed rules – obviously this wasn’t going to be real science, it was going to be the Victorian conception of science fiction. So what did that mean? What could happen? I settled on a very simple rule: when creating an invention or scientific creation of some sort, I’d ask myself “is this possible in a world where electricity would bring a patchwork corpse back to life?” If the answer was yes, then it was allowed. If no, then I couldn’t do it. Thankfully, that rule allowed quite a bit. I didn’t want to create some new fictional power source or anything – that struck me as too “magic.” I realize how silly that sounds since the science in my book works like magic – but I didn’t want it to feel like magic.
So the two main aspects of steampunk – Victorian Realism and Mad Science – were settled. From there, Illyria almost built itself. Of course there was a mysterious basement and secret train, of course there were labs with beakers and huge machines. It flowed naturally. As long as I kept my eye on those aspects and my rules, it was easy to build up. Outside of Illyria it became more complex, though. How had these scientific wonders affected greater London? Not much, was my final decision. Otherwise, why would Illyria be special? Certainly, there would be changes: simple, cheap automatons would be more commonplace, and people would be talking about science quite a bit. For the most part, though, science was, historically, the purview of the upper classes, and there were plenty of people who weren’t upper class living in London. So, would science affect the cheap pub Violet and friends went out to? No. Would the prostitutes on the street get cyborg parts? No – they wouldn’t be able to afford them. London proper stayed mostly historically accurate, which was great, because it let me contrast Illyria’s closed off world of scientific wonders with the dirtier outside world. One of my favorite lines is one Fiona delivers to Violet, telling her how yes, her mission will clearly bring joy to spoiled rich girls everywhere. Violet’s growth as a character doesn’t happen because she’s in Illyria, it happens because she gets to see the outside world, too.
Once I began to really understand the history I was working with and had developed rules for the mad science, the world flowed pretty naturally. Characters were integrated from there; gears upon gears, and soon the whole thing was the big creaking wall I’d originally envisioned. That’s the best I can say about steampunk worldbuilding: have a good foundation and understanding of your world, both imagined and historical, and the rest will creak along from there.
Available September 27, 2011 from Tor Books
About the Book:
Inspired by two of the most beloved works by literary masters, “All Men of Genius “takes place in an alternate Steampunk Victorian London, where science makes the impossible possible.
Violet Adams wants to attend Illyria College, a widely renowned school for the most brilliant up-and-coming scientific minds, founded by the late Duke Illyria, the greatest scientist of the Victorian Age. The school is run by his son, Ernest, who has held to his father’s policy that the small, exclusive college remain male-only. Violet sees her opportunity when her father departs for America. She disguises herself as her twin brother, Ashton, and gains entry.
But keeping the secret of her sex won’t be easy, not with her friend Jack’s constant habit of pulling pranks, and especially not when the duke’s young ward, Cecily, starts to develop feelings for Violet’s alter ego, “Ashton.” Not to mention blackmail, mysterious killer automata, and the way Violet’s pulse quickens whenever the young duke, Ernest (who has a secret past of his own), speaks to her. She soon realizes that it’s not just keeping her secret until the end of the year faire she has to worry about: it’s surviving that long.
Click HERE to read an excerpt
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