Rod Duncan on steampunk and The Custodian of Marvels
The Leicester novelist Rod Duncan is talking about steampunk, and he is an enthusiast for it.
"Lincoln’s Weekend at the Asylum festival describes itself as the biggest steampunk gathering in Europe. It is hard to describe, but joyful to witness. Thousands of people turn up, dressed in extraordinary costumes. It is definitely worth a visit."
Which surprises me a little, as he was originally known as a crime novelist. When we met I asked him how this shift to steampunk came about.
He told me: “There’s this ideal career concept that lots of writers start off with. You write a novel, which gets snapped up by a grateful publisher, who pays enough for you to live off while you write the next in the series in the same genre. Your audience builds and… well, there are movie deals."
"My career path was different. To start with, I wrote several novels before I got a publishing deal. The first one to get picked up was a crime story. So I wrote more in the same broad genre. But when my original publishing deal was over, I found myself once again writing and failing to sell. At which point I decided to give up writing novels. Forever.
"Sooner or later though, I was bound to be drawn back. It would have made more commercial sense for me to write another contemporary crime novel. But I think I’ve probably admitted by now that this was never a realistic commercial proposition.
"The story that grabbed me first was an adventure set in a Victorianesque alternate history. It was called The Bullet Catcher's Daughter. Happily people liked it. It got published and even found its way onto the shortlist for the Philip K. Dick award."
The Bullet Catcher’s Daughter turned out to be the first in a trilogy: The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire. The third in the series, The Custodian of Marvels, is published next month. So I asked Rod about the world these books are set in.
"The alternate history of the Gas-Lit Empire branched from our more familiar history some two centuries ago. The exact divergence point is a secret you’ll need to read the books to unravel. But it is clear from the start that there was a Luddite inspired revolution, which ended with the partition of Great Britain into the Anglo-Scottish Republic and the Kingdom of England and Southern Wales.
"The new republics of France, America and Anglo-Scotland then came together to establish a treaty of mutual security and set up an International Patent Office to restrict the development of science and technology deemed ‘detrimental to the common man’.
"Two centuries have passed since then, but the progress of science and technology has been held back and distorted. That is the world in which the stories are set.”
And the Gas-Lit Empire turns out to have strong Leicester connections.
"The border between the Kingdom and the Republic is an east-west line across England. It bisects the city of Leicester, which has subsequently boomed as a haven for smugglers and ne'er-do-wells of all kinds.
"The stories are told by a refugee from the Kingdom, who lives in North Leicester, where she ekes out a living as a private investigator. The mysteries she investigates start small. But soon she finds herself caught up with the Patent Office and the secret history that sparked the creation of the Gas-Lit Empire."
Rod told me that the word ‘steampunk’ was first suggested by the American author K.W. Jeter in a letter published in Locus magazine in April 1987. Jeter offered it as a term to describe science-fiction stories set in worlds powered by steam technology.
I asked him if he saw any social or political significance in the movement the term it has given rise to.
"That’s a really interesting question. I’m not aware of a political ideology underpinning this diverse community. But some of the social features of steampunk culture are an unbridled outpouring of creativity and a willingness to project a flamboyant persona, even when others view it as eccentric. You can add to that a welcoming of diversity and an unusual spread of generations from the very young to the elderly.
"Some people have suggested that steampunk culture is problematic for its apparent glorification of the Victorian age without sufficient acknowledgement of factors like colonialism, class and sexual inequality.
"That seems unfair to me. The steampunk community is politically diverse, but it probably encompasses a greater understanding of the social and political problems of the Victorian age than is present in the general population. And it is certainly the case that the friction and dangers arising from social inequalities deliver a narrative drive to my own work."
One of the things that intrigues me about published authors these days is the use they make of the net and social media. Are they a threat or a further opportunity? So I asked Rod about this.
"My novels are published by Angry Robot Books - a small but dynamic and thoroughly modern company. Instead of being based in London or New York, their headquarters are here in the Midlands. But they operate internationally and their staff are spread across the globe. The Internet, social media and online networks of fans are central to this business model.
"As the name implies, Angry Robot specialises in science fiction and fantasy. They really understand those genres and their audiences. Everything about this company has impressed me. I can’t speak of them highly enough.
"I do use social media myself - primarily to make connections and build relationships. I’ve noticed some writers using Twitter and Facebook to spam adverts for their books. I’ve been told by some that this works, since books are sold as a result. But I don’t much like it.
"I like Twitter because it enables readers to easily get in touch. Somehow sending a tweet to a writer is less intimidating than finding their address and composing an email. I get lots of feedback in this way, which I really value. I guess, as a spin-off from that process of relationship building it may be that I’ll sell more books. But if that ever came to be my main motivation, I think my Twitter contacts would be able to sense it. Ironically, I’d probably sell fewer."
Rod’s Twitter handle is @RodDuncan and he asked me to encourage readers to send him a tweet.
"I use my Facebook page to share articles and news – things I couldn’t say in 140 characters. People who have opted to ‘like’ the page are in a different category from my contacts on Twitter. I assume they are more invested in the books, and I write the articles accordingly. The content will tend to be more directly about my work. But the same rule applies as with Twitter – I don’t see it as a platform for selling. I use it to generate a conversation about the process of writing, new developments, thoughts and ideas."
And what about being interviewed by blogs like Liberal England?
"I always try to be as candid as possible and to give away as much as I can. Yes, I want to raise awareness of my novels. And yes, I hope I’ll sell more copies as a result."
By the way, did you know I’ve a novel coming out next month?”