Steampunk is everywhere these days, but back in 2002 it was not as widespread at all. I don’t think I was aware of the term in general usage, except as a slightly-clumsy uniting descriptor for the aesthetic of a few disconnected novels, films and games that already resided in the sci-fi ghetto outside of the mainstream. It certainly hadn’t been codified into the form it has now, cleaving then much closer to the cyberpunk structures that are at the root of its name. I’m not even sure if I even had heard the term at that point, or if my mind is retroactively filling the term into my 2002 lexicon – whatever the case, if it is a word I was using at the time, I probably wouldn’t have used it more than a few times a year and only about very specific things.
When I started writing The True Adventures of the Lady Guinevine Strathmore I was not trying to write steampunk (and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies had not even been imagined), and that is probably one of the reasons why I am so ambivalent about the recent meteoric rise of the steampunk aesthetic. Obviously, I do like and enjoy a lot of steampunk artefacts, but not in a consuming way – I have both Resonance of Fate and Final Fantasy VII lined up to play, but am too busy reading about whales to start them. At the same time, I am aware that its rise basically killed off one of my first grand attempts at large-scale writing.
When I first started out with Underfire Comics I didn’t have anything that I wanted to write, so I offered myself up as a person who could write scripts for other people’s stories. I was told that this wasn’t likely to happen, as basically everyone writing had their own ideas already, and that I should try to come up with my own comic and that if I did so I could be put in touch with an artist. So I had a think about what I liked, and what I thought I could write a comic about.
The conclusion: a posh explorer with fencing and kung-fu chops fighting pirates and ninjas on the decks of a zeppelin in a version of the Victorian era that was just enough degrees away from reality to mean I wouldn’t have to do any real research. Also, I fully admit that I was influenced in this by some of the early forms of steampunk art.
I already had a small family of recurring characters I’d been using in roleplaying games and for a film I had planned to write, and so I decided to spin the main character out from that. (Even I, even at the age of 18, knew that using my actual roleplaying characters in a piece of original writing was not only deeply tragic but a really bad way of going about characterisation – the things which make a memorable PC are not the same things which make a memorable fictional hero.) And thus was born Lady Guinevine Strathmore of the Adventurer’s guild.
The first story I wrote didn’t even involve zeppelins – that’s how long term I was planning this, I was going to introduce the zeppelins later. I was actually planning on a later. I was very, very new to small press comics at this point. It did have pirates and ninjas though. I was hooked up with an artist and it was suggested that I write a short introduction to the character and the world – and this is the only story which ever actually saw print (lettered, by me and to my eternal shame, in Comic Sans – I’ve re-lettered for the upcoming Best of Rapid Fire compilation).
Halfway through drawing the first 34 page story (I’ve put the script here in a separate post, as it’s pretty large) the artist got some actual paid work and I eventually lost contact with him. Following that, I remember picking up a comic in Forbidden Planet – not an especially memorable one or one that appears to have lasted – with an almost identical heroine and setting, but obviously this was being done by a mainstream publisher. This was my first inkling that what I would soon recognise as the steampunk aesthetic was gaining ground – after a year or so, my admittedly-not-strikingly-original-in-the-first-place concept was starting to look decidedly knock-off and bandwagon-jumping and I knew that I would never be able to continue with it in any seriousness.
Which is not as much of a problem as it seems – all sorts of stories never get continued, or finished. I did like the idea and the character, but I always felt I was playing around with a bunch of tropes because they were cool, not because I was really invested in them. Strathmore was always a piece of hackwork, created because I wanted to have something to show to a bunch of comic people who weren’t interested in superhero stories and designed to be easy to spin out into a continuing adventure serial. If I had genuinely cared I would have written her in prose form, but I didn’t – I wrote a couple of really dodgy fantasy novel instead.
So, there is a secret history of me, and it’s what would have happened had I actually published the first Strathmore stories. There’s no claim here that it would have affected the way steampunk developed or been any sort of major player – it wouldn’t have; but it might at least have been a part of modern steampunk’s early story. In some ways I’m glad it isn’t though, because actually Strathmore’s is a different story and world to the one that is now codified as steampunk and so her failure has also been her saving grace – that has prevented her from being calcified by genre.
I mean, obviously her starting point was already in one type of genre, but I was trying to escape that – so she sort of jumped from the rigging of one boat, but never landed on the deck of the other and so maintains a position of possibility within the future narrative space in my head. I may use her again, in some other form, or I may let her hang there – free to be undefined, uncodified, unwritten and unread. She doesn’t have to be yoked to a style and a form of femininity as proscriptive as any other (and the fate of any character anyone ever writes) but is free to be her own person.