Worldbuilding: credible steampunk and how to write it real

The other day a reader from the Netherlands asked me for help with a story. How, specifically, to describe a commercial steampunk airship.

Funnily enough, I did just that in a science fiction book I wrote a few years back, Fantastic Pasts (Penguin 2008). I included an airship tale but had a terrible job getting the punch-line ending intact through the editorial process. I wanted a sentence to end with a dash. Grammatically incorrect but dramatically appropriate because it left the reader hanging over whether the airship blew up on landing. Unfortunately the editor kept ‘correcting’ it and killing the effect.

1. A credible steampunk airship
One of the keys to credible science fiction is making the incredible into something ordinary. Characters should not boggle at the amazing tech – it’s just part of the background. A commercial airship is going to be an ordinary thing people fly on. To my mind, it should be ‘explicably credible’ – meaning at least a nod to everyday physics. Check out Winch Chung’s fantastic site for ways and means that authors can do that.

Real airships in the early twentieth century were filled with hydrogen,  partly because it was almost impossible to get enough helium at the right price. But a steam driven airship will have to be helium-lifted (those chimney sparks – think super-Hindenburg!) For various reasons helium has almost as much lift as hydrogen (93 percent, in fact).

That still doesn’t get around the issue of lift vs weight – which is why dirigibles were so big and the weight in them had to be so carefully controlled. Hindenburg had an aluminium piano. If we want steampunk, the issue is that even lightweight pressurised water-tube steam engines have terrible power-to-weight ratios by comparison with internal combustion engines. All of which implies that a commercial steampunk airship, following these rules, is going to be very big indeed for any useful scale of payload – which means expensive. Ultra-luxury travel.

Of course these aren’t the only rules. But with fiction the principles of consistency and believability still hold true – because they make it possible to ‘suspend disbelief’ in the reader.

2. Describing it in prose
Presenting that credible steampunk airship – with all its look, feel, operational costs and so forth – implies a pretty big information dump. Which is the kiss of death for good prose – it interrupts the flow of the story, interrupts the character acts, and besides, it’s usually boring. The key is showing not telling – avoiding the ‘information dump’, and working the information you need into the flow of the story. That can be done quite subtly – for example, by outlining how your characters react to what they see. And – more importantly – you can reveal much about your characters along the way. For example, suppose your hero is nervous about flying and has all sorts of rituals to get over the anxiety. What better way to describe the surroundings as the hero interacts nervously with them?

I won’t detail that further – I’ve written a spot of flash fiction. Tomorrow.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

7 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: credible steampunk and how to write it real

  1. I will eventually be writing a fairly heavy on science; steam punk Airship novel.
    But I think I’m going to take liberties with developments in various sciences; I’m going to use cryogenic fuels *liquid gasses. And probably hydro-electric dams to generate the power to make the electrolysis practical on a massive scale needed.
    Though I’m also excited to learn that there were solar panels well before the 20th century, and I think taking good liberties with Germans and chemical manufacturing could create plastics much sooner than history allowed..
    Use of a Steam Turbine engine for an airship would provide the best weight to power ratios I recall.


    1. Cool! Yeah, the turbine sounds like the way to go, and it’s a pretty practical device – I think a ‘powdered coal burning’ turbine was used for real in some experimental German aircraft at the end of the Second World War. Another science-stretching notion (which I rather like) is the one linked to in my post where the author wants to use waste steam as the lifting medium, thus doing without the need for a condenser. Wonderful stuff.


  2. Making a model steampunk machine, which takes the genre into three dimensions, requires the same care with credibility as writing an effective steampunk novel.

    A mate of mine here in Kapiti has done just that. It’s not an airship, but a steam-powered walker, a sort of steampunk version of the Star Wars AT-AT:

    Even though the model is static, the exposed workings of the engine and legs, with their multiple pistons, hoses, hinges and cogs, shows he has designed a machine that looks like it really can walk.


  3. Glad I bookmarked this b/c I’m working on a sci-fi story that I got inspiration from a dream I had last night… while it won’t be steampunk, trying to decifer and describe alien technology w/out boring my readers to death will be the challenge!


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