Friday, April 26, 2013

Adding Some Steam to your History: Incorporating Steampunk into Alternate History Worlds

Guest post by Daniel Ottalini.

I am tired of Victorian England.

I say this in the nicest possible way. I’m tired of every novel I read involving chaps with quirky British accents and a fading (or perhaps, resurgent) sense of empire. You see, I love reading steampunk novels, and I’m here to say that please, for the love of everything, take steampunk out of England.

Granted, by origination, steampunk is the use of steam-powered technology in more advanced than historically accurate ways onto a western industrialized civilization, almost always focused on the British Victorian Era. But how can we expand this tight beam focus? Surely, writers such as Cherie Priest and others have managed to include the American Wild West into the steampunk genre, and done so quite successfully, but where are the other worlds? Within those two areas we've covered one smallish island and a mere quarter of the United States. Alternate history is an amazing opportunity to expand and create new worlds incorporating both genres. I know because I write steampunk alternate history novels. (Maybe I should have said that before!)

I’ll admit up front, it is very easy for such a combination to go wrong. Part of the beauty of an alternate history is its plausibility. The strands of fate and time can be amazingly complicated and are balanced upon the edge of the simplest of choices. If a writer is not careful, the steampunk side of a novel can overwhelm the historical side, or simply not make sense. In this way, I am always teetering on the brink and always weighing my options. But what I am mostly concerned about is this – How much is too much steampunk?

As an author, I want to stay true to the roots of my series, The Steam Empire Chronicles, that of a Roman Empire surviving into the 19th century, dominating its traditional stomping grounds and beyond. The first novel, Brass Legionnaire, introduces people to the world, one where the empire has survived the barbarian invasions and thrived instead of collapsing.

To make the story plausible, I chose a distant point of divergence, the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Julius Caesar, to lay my foundation. It allowed me to play for time, and assume that many of the advances adopted by western civilizations in our timeline would have been accepted as well. But how to make it my own? Or more correctly, how to make it my world’s own version of technology?

Quite simply, I researched. I've got books on mechanical inventions from the 1800s sitting next to texts about the Roman Army next to The Steampunk Bible. What I did not do was write a story, decide I wanted it to be ‘steampunk’ and plop down an airship for my characters to go gallivanting off in.

That’s not steampunk, and that certainly isn’t good alternate history (See the latest Three Musketeers movie for proof). Every creation and part of a story should belong in the plot. If they have airships, why? How? Mechanical creatures or machines? Why and how? In The Peshwar Lancers, S.M. Stirling’s airships are mandatory because of the massive change in Earth’s climate. The technology must fit both the world and the people. My Romans have airships that simply look like the standard trireme with an airbag atop it. Why? Because technologically wise, they knew how to build ships, and floating ships would probably be designed in a similar way, especially at first (minus the oars, of course).

In Brass Legionnaire, the reader is thrown into the technology aspect of my world right away, with the building of a mechaniphant, a Roman warmachine modeled after the terrifying elephants of Hannibal’s army, something that had a major impact on the Roman psyche. It’s included because it is logical. Not just because I wanted a giant machine (which I did) but also because it is something that the Romans would have been impressed by, and would have wanted to create their own, improved, version of nature’s creation. Just as their Scandinavian opponents in my second novel, Copper Centurion, have created their own warmachine based on wolves.

So if you’re planning on adding some steam to your cup of alternate history, the key thing is to plan. If you’re already doing research (which you should be!) then examine closely famous inventors and technologies of the era to include or modify. The reader should know that the technology used is a common occurrence, part of the world from the beginning. I wish you good luck in your travels, and remember, it is good to be unique, but even better to make sense.

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Daniel Ottalini is a teacher, author, amateur historian who was raised by both the History & Discovery Channel. His parents are very proud of decision to write about alternate history, in hopes that he will stop bothering them about it. His second novel, Copper Centurion, will be available on May 1st in both ebook and print versions. You can learn more about him at or follow him on twitter @dottalini.


  1. I couldn't agree more about the need to research your history. And I've done Romans in the 21st century, so maybe we're starting a trend!

    Thank you for a most interesting post and good luck with Copper Centurion.

  2. Great post! Though personally, and as a Sherlockian I will never ever get tired of Victorian England ;) The hardest part I had with my steampunk stories is creating machines (something I will improve on in later book) though my first one (out in June) is more a 'scientific steampunk' dealing more with advanced scientific technology than mechanical.


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