I’m so excited to be welcoming Alex Woolf to my blog today as part of the tour for his new book Iron Sky: Dread Eagle. The rich steampunk world he has created is wonderful, I was really pleased when he agreed to write about how he went about this process. Over to you Alex!
As a child I was fascinated by technology – not exactly by how it worked, or else I might have become an engineer rather than a writer, but more by the way it looked, sounded and smelled. To this day, I still find few sights or sounds more entrancing than the interior of a traditional watch, with all its tiny cogs, gears and springs working together in perfect coordination. And for excitement, nothing can beat a working steam engine with its spinning shafts and terrifying pistons pumping away amid all that heat and steam.
I especially loved the extravagantly inefficient machines of Heath Robinson cartoons, with their many complex moving parts producing something very simple. One of my favourite scenes in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was the one featuring Professor Caractacus Potts’ absurdly over-complicated breakfast-making machine.
I must have been a steampunk fan before I even realised it, because these machines are the essence of the genre. What a steampunk machine looks like is ultimately much more important than what it does. It should be extravagant, ingenious and gloriously impractical.
This was my starting point when developing the technology for my steampunk fantasy, Iron Sky: Dread Eagle. Take the eponymous ‘dread eagle’ itself. It’s a steam-powered, steel-feathered flying machine that looks like a giant bird of prey. There is nothing remotely practical or airworthy about it, but in the steampunk world it inhabits, it glides, it soars, it captures airships in its talons, shoots fire from its beak and terrifies all who behold it.
A machine like the dread eagle is pure fantasy. Because I know that nothing like that could ever exist on Earth, I could play fast and loose with the physics. Other pieces of tech featured in the book are more rooted in reality, while retaining the baroque steampunk look. For example, I had to develop a line of military airships and planes used to fight the war that forms the backdrop to the Iron Sky series. For these ‘aerial steam carriages’ and dirigibles, I’ve stuck pretty close to the actual technology of the 1910s and 1920s, except that the machines are steam- or wind-powered. And of course they look beautiful, with an ornate and slightly gothic Victorian appearance rather than the more streamlined, art deco style of the early 20th century.
The series is set in an alternative 1845. Thirty years earlier, Napoleon unexpectedly won the Battle of Waterloo, and since then Britain and France have been slugging it out for global supremacy. As a result of all this war, technology has boomed and they’ve reached about 1920 or so in terms of technological development – with a few differences. For example, instead of radio waves they’ve discovered this mysterious, invisible fluid called the aether, which allows them long-distance communication.
The aether was a popular theory in Victorian times, and has become a bit of a staple among steampunk writers. The Victorians believed that all the energies and forces we observe, including light, gravity and magnetism, operate within this subtle and universal medium, which they called the luminiferous aether. In my world the aether is much more than a theory: it’s a practical workaday reality. They’ve developed aethercells, which are like radio transmitter-receivers, and ANODE (AetherNet Object Detection Echo) systems instead of radar.
But the aether is useful for much more than communication and detection, as they’re beginning to discover. The French have developed the Aetheric Shield, a device that operates like an invisible forcefield, rendering any airship wearing it invincible, and this is threatening to tip the balance in the long-running war.
No steampunk fantasy would be complete without an automaton, and in Iron Sky we have Miles, the Mobile Independent Logical Englishman Simulacrum. Miles is a three-foot-high metal gentleman, steam-powered of course, and dressed immaculately in frock coat and top hat. A tiny chimney in his hat releases steam (and is useful for me as a writer as a means of expressing his emotions – ‘puffing anxiously’ for example). Miles is the sidekick of our aviator-heroine Lady Arabella West, and he tends to be pessimistic (he would
say ‘logical’) about their chances of survival at any given moment. Apart from his superb analytical engine brain, he has a few hidden accessories, which are gradually revealed as the story progresses. I won’t say what they are, but they do prove useful in getting Arabella out of a number of scrapes.
Whether any of the machines I’ve created for Iron Sky could ever work in practical terms is beside the point. In fact it’s probably better if they couldn’t, because steampunk is not about efficiency or practicality – it’s the very opposite of all that. Steampunk is about the enjoyment of technology for its own sake – the crazier and more spectacular the better. The sense of wonder I experienced as a child at the sight and sound of intricate clocks and infernal engines. That’s steampunk – and that’s what I’ve tried to recreate in this book.
Thank you Alex for such a wonderfully interesting post! I’ll be posting my review of Iron Sky: Dread Eagle later today so do make sure you pop back and read it.