So this all started a while back. As I recall it, I was invited into a steampunk project. Now I’m not a particularly steampunk sort of fella in general. I admire the aesthetic, but as with almost all versions of style, it’s a little too much effort for me to really maintain. Class me as an admirer. But I’d read some steampunk, and read some criticism of steampunk, and come to the part of that particular project that was interesting to me.
Now I don’t claim to speak for steampunk. I don’t know exactly what it is in a larger cultural sense or as a subgenre within fantasy or science fiction. But what it chimed off of for me was a conversation I had with my father when he was in graduate school about Who Paid the Bills at Mansfield Park?, Michael Gorra’s review of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism. For me, steampunk is a statement about the balance between discomfort and pleasure.
I, like many folks my age, grew up with a deep and unreflective joy in colonialist fiction. By that, I mean Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Oscar Wilde, and on and on in that vein. Folks for whom the ascendency of the British Empire was a given. I remember a particular Christmas when I was somewhere between 7 and 12, laying on my back, eating Tootsie Rolls, and reading a kid’s adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Those kinds of formative pleasures are profound. They shape who are and how we make sense of the world, probably to the grave. Denying them is at best difficult, and at worst oppressive. And yet.
The history of colonialism in reality (as falsely opposed to fiction for the purposes of this argument), is . . . well, shit. Let’s call it ugly. And its consequences and sequelae are quite alive right now. Once you can see the connection between Mary Lennox’s parents dying of cholera in India at the beginning of The Secret Garden and the present version of American exceptionalism that permits drone strikes that kill children in Pakistan, it’s harder to take pleasure in the things we once did. And by we, I mean I, right? So here I was, invited to write steampunk. To re-engage with the colonialist pleasures of my childhood but without the strictures of history.
Balfour & Meriwether in The Adventure of The Emperor’s Vengeance probably owes as much to Buckeroo Banzai as it does to Sherlock Holmes. I wrote the story as if it were part of some much larger body of work telling the adventures of secret operatives of the crown in the 1870s and 1880s — so roughly contemporaneous with Sherlock. I adopted the kind of old fashioned narrator’s voice that I remembered from reading Doyle, and I tried to tell a rollicking adventure story set there. I addressed the anti-semitism of the time with, I hope, a light hand. And — most important for me — I got to subvert the idea that our heroes were heroic.
It’s not obvious, I hope, in any of these stories that I’m questioning the nobility of my heroes. I want them to read as light adventure, and I want to function as conceptual humor. The second story — Balfour and Meriwether in The Vampire of Kabul — I tried to imply a backstory that Balfour and Meriwether almost entirely miss. And if the reader misses it too, that’s cool. The story still works.
Right now, my old friend and colleague at Snackreads has the first two stories available. In not very long, the third Balfour and Meriwether story — Balfour and Meriwether in The Incident of the Harrowmoor Dogs — will be coming out as a chapbook from Subterranean Press (who are also the publishers of my only collection of short stories). I don’t know whether there will be more after that, but there might. And if there are, they will be the same basic joke told again: A bright, sweet, tart candy coating that tastes like what I loved in childhood around some little nugget of unease that leaves my adulthood just a touch more bitter. Because that’s what steampunk is to me.