I Like My Steam with Pulp!

Thanks go out to Hugh Ashton for prompting this topic! We were explaining steampunk on a thread in the Indie Authors Group on Facebook, when I brought up the term “steampulp,” coined by my friend and sometimes collaborator Scott Carter. Hugh was kind enough to write about the term in his blog, so I'm returning the favor.

Steampunk itself is an unknown term to many people, but as a genre it's starting to make its way into the public consciousness via movies such as Sherlock Holmes. Even our local magazine, b Metro, featured a steampunk photo shoot at Sloss Furnace back in February of this year. The term refers to a fantasy genre usually set in a dystopian Victorian era Britain or America, characterized by an industrial timeline in which Victorian “tech” is extended into the future. Gadgets and engines are prevalent. K.W. Jeter is credited with the invention of this genre (to describe his and Tim Powers' books, notably the wonderful The Anubis Gates), but The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling popularized it. Cherie Priest is my favorite writer in this genre, with  her Clockwork Century books. In them, the Civil War is still going on, being fought with engines of destruction. Books in the genre aren't necessarily set in England or America. China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and The Iron Council (and others) are certainly steampunk, but are set in a fictional world.

So what is steampulp? It's steampunk, but without the dystopian view. There are no underground factions struggling against tyranny (the “punk” in steampunk). It's lighter in tone, with the feel of old pulp serials (like Doc Savage and The Shadow). Larger than life heroes and villains predominate, and above all, there's wonderful tech. Airships and steamships and steam trains steal the spotlight, providing transportation and escape routes and thrilling platforms for fights. My forthcoming novel The Source of Lightning is one of these. It is set in America, centering around the Great Airship Flap of  1897. Another is Red Wheels Turning, by the aforementioned Hugh Ashton, set in pre-revolutionary Russia.

Let's hear it for steampulp!

In fact, I'd like to hear from  you with your thoughts on steampulp and other examples in this new genre, in the comments below.

The Rogue Airship, or The Investigations of the Hephaestus

Chapter 7, In Which We Resolve Matters


I struggled against the constraint of the creature’s braided tail around my waist as its gaping golden maw loomed closer. My notebook nearly slipped from my nerveless fingers as it swung me through the air in response to attacks upon it by Luli and Mister Pavaka. Its incessant humming rose to a shriek that further shredded my concentration as a shot rang out from the deck of the Hephaestus, striking perilously close to me.

“Colonel Mallet!” I said, raising my voice above the hum. “I appreciate the assistance, but its body is a much broader target!”

“My apologies, Miss Wesley!” he called back, and I could hear the wry smile in his voice. “I overestimated your attachment to this present life. Watch out, it’s bleeding on you! If that substance can be called blood.”

I swiveled my head as best I could up the length of the creature’s braided tail. Colonel Mallet’s bullet had grazed it, and a glittering viscous substance gouted from the wound. I stretched as far as I could, gasping against its firm grip around me, and wiped my forefinger through the goo. It tingled unpleasantly on my skin, but I grasped my notebook and quickly wrote the intricate sigils for the spell unravel.

Nothing happened.

I tore the page from the notebook as the glittering blood dried on the paper, vanishing bit by bit as it did so.

The creature jerked me closer to its maw, the sudden action sending the notebook flying out of my grasp. I felt stunned, hopeless.

As I dangled upside down, the page of faintly visible sigils still clutched in my hand, the cries of Luli and Colonel Mallet and Mister Pavaka rang in my ears. But above them all I heard Father Bartolomeu’s calm voice.

“Feed it the paper,” he said softly.

I dropped the enchanted page inside the maw.

Almost instantly I fell to the deck, hands protecting my head as the tail coiled down on top of me. I peered out and saw that the spell had worked. The creature had literally unraveled. Its remains lay on the deck like so many yards of glittering golden yarn.

Father Bartolomeu helped me to my feet. “Thank you, Father,” I said. “You saved my life.”

He grinned and shrugged. “It was my pleasure after all you’ve done.”

“But now we must stop the culprit,” I continued. I whirled and called over to Colonel Mallet, “Where’s Mr. Urantu?”

The colonel looked around and frowned. “I thought he was—“

“He’s in danger,” I said. “The entire ship is. His sister is the cause of the deterioration of the aether—not to mention the golden woman and this—this thing.”

“Porphyria Urantu?” His disbelief was obvious, but in his years with the Order of the Argus he had doubtless seen and heard more astonishing things.

Father Bartolomeu stayed with his ship while Mister Pavaka followed Luli and I back onto the Hephaestus after what seemed ages away. I made quick introductions. He and Colonel Mallet eyed each other suspiciously as men are wont to do. I brushed past them and snapped, “As I believe I mentioned, we are all in serious danger while you two mark out your territory. “

A dark mist rolled through the bridge of the airship, shivering my spine with an unnatural chill. Even Luli glanced at me apprehensively, but Mister Pavaka laughed and waved his arms extravagantly. “I grow tired of these sorcerous antics,” he pronounced. A stiff breeze rustled through the chamber, quickly dispelling the mist.

Colonel Mallet raised an eyebrow and nodded to the marut, who grinned broadly. The colonel drew a pistol and crept cautiously down the spiral stairs to the hold. Mister Pavaka followed, Luli and I close behind.

The hold was awash in aethereal energies. Granito Urantu stood at the end closest to us, while at the far end, behind a translucent sparkling golden barrier, was his sister Porphyria. Against the far wall between them lay the body of Lieutenant Popkins, her erstwhile companion.

“She is in league with the Chieftain!” Mister Urantu said, his accent heavy in his anger, his thick fingers moving in delicate patterns as his face tensed in concentration. “That is why she was permitted to leave the Mountain. The Chieftain ordered her on mission.”

“I shall destroy the aether,” Porphyria Urantu responded, her voice flat. “And remake it after our design, the design of our people, when the Ironwright Dweorthen ruled the skies above and below.”

“You are mad,” her brother said. He lunged forward a step, and a spike of silver slithered through her defenses.

Miss Urantu cried out, and for a moment the barrier fell. I saw that she held a pair of knitting needles, the same ones I’d seen her with on the deck above, with a wide and glittering golden swath of fabric between them. The needles flew and the barrier reappeared. “I am not mad. You do not know our history, Brother. I seek to restore us to our ancient glory. Join me.”

“Ha!” Mister Pavaka cried out. “I remember your kind!” He leaped over the stair railing. I felt the crackling of energy from his body, embers of copper sparking around him. “I have heard the true stories.” He darted toward Porphyria Urantu’s barrier, swift as lightning. “The Ironwright Dweorthen did not rule the skies, neither above nor below. They were the allies of the marut.” The aura around him glowed more brightly as he spoke the name of his race. “It was the Wraith Iron faction who plotted to rule, to remake the aether in their image.” He crooked his arms and spun like a top, creating a small but precisely controlled funnel of wind. “We are the guardians of the aether,” Mister Pavaka said joyously.

The barrier vanished with the onslaught of the wind. The knitting needles and their strange cloth flew across the room. Mister Urantu picked them up, and I realized the cloth was attached to nothing, no ball of yarn. She must have derived it from the aether itself.

“I am Vatyaupamya Rudra Resman Pavaka,” the marut said, leaning toward the sorceress. “And you are my prisoner.”


Mister Gesman was quite pleased with our resolution of the case, particularly with our newfound alliance with the marut, or at least one of them. More problematic was the leadership crisis among the Ironwright Dweorthen after the Chieftain was taken into Federal custody. The Hephaestus went in dry dock, as it were, for much needed repairs, overseen by the capable hands of The Engineer. I took a brief vacation.

I still haven’t found out Luli’s story. I guess the time is not yet right.

The Rogue Airship, or The Investigations of the Hephaestus

Chapter 6, In Which We Meet a Strange Denizen of the Aether


At least my first impression was that the words “Your journeys are at an end. The aether belongs to me now” issued from her mouth. As the delicate tones of the words in English wafted through my brain and lulled me into a sense of ennui, a more observant part of my psyche realized that the beautiful woman’s lips had indeed moved, but were uttering a language I did not understand, but had heard before.

She was speaking the language of the Ironwright Dwarven Clan.

I struggled against the enchantment, piecing together a haiku in Sanskrit, hoping it would sharpen my fading senses. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Father Bartolomeu collapse to the deck. I was no longer certain what powers Luli might have, but I knew what I could do. If I could just force my hands to cooperate.

Luli acted. Shaking her head as if emerging from water, my quiet little assistant darted toward the statuesque blonde woman. The pressure in my head eased just enough for me to reach into my reticule for my notebook and pencil. I inscribed the sigils for Dispel Enchantment in my personal language on the paper, infusing the script with my will and life force.

The moment I lifted the pencil from the paper, I heard a faint whisper in the air. Inscription magic is subtle, but effective nonetheless. The enchantment vanished. Luli grappled with the blonde woman but, as I suspected, she, too, quickly vanished.

“The ship is in danger,” I said to my assistant. Father Bartolomeu and Mister Pavaka showed signs of rousing, now that the enchantment was gone. “We need their help. Quickly! I know who is behind this!”

Luli nodded sharply and knelt beside the older man while I tentatively shook Mister Pavaka’s shoulder. The marut blinked, gazed up at me with sky blue eyes that quickly clouded to a stormy gray. “Where is the beautiful woman?” he asked.

Before I could open my mouth, his eyes widened. He shoved me aside and drew his pistol. I turned and smothered a gasp.

Crawling over the side of the airship was a creature like nothing I had ever seen. Shimmering iridescence played across its five-foot-wide expanse of reflective skin as it thrust sturdy, lion-like limbs awkwardly toward the deck. Dagger-length curved claws dug into the aged wood as the thing dragged itself toward us, seeming as if its forelegs were the only part of it with bones. It did not have any head or eyes or mouth that I could discern. It resembled some bizarre tent with legs.

We stood transfixed for what seemed an age before Mister Pavaka put away his pistol. He shook his head and said softly, “This is not a creature natural to the aether. This is a construct of the aether.”

“A construct?” I asked, the horrible truth dawning on me as I understood the true extent of the power arrayed against us. “But it has no head. How can it—“

Its two pair of midlegs and its hind legs clanged to the deck simultaneously, the claws ringing out like warning bells. As they did, its tail, a yards-long golden braid identical to the illusionary woman’s tresses, whipped over the side of the Passarola and swung through the air at me. Mister Pavaka freed his sword from its sheath with a metallic ring like distant thunder and parried the braid.

A hum of frustration emanated from the aether construct, but the braided tail swished away and knocked Luli, who was running up with a club, off her feet. She rolled with the impact and, to my amazement, came up gracefully standing. I noticed Father Bartolomeu standing by the railing, well away from the fighting.

While I admired Luli’s fighting technique, the creature concentrated its foreclaws on us. Mister Pavaka shouted a warning. I heard a ripping sound as the claw tore through his sleeve. Liquid darker red than blood stained the fabric. “You dare destroy my shirt?” he said softly, sparks flickering in his eyes. “My sister Aeris, the wind nymph, spun this for me. And she may not be inclined to repair it.” He lunged forward with a twist of his wrist, his cutlass slicing toward the creature’s raised leg.

It hummed loudly, a shining rent appearing in its flesh. Its other leg swung toward Mister Pavaka’s head, but he parried it across his body, claw clanging on the sword. Luli danced across the deck, still clutching the club, and dealt it a blow to one of its midlegs, neatly avoiding the resultant kick. The creature seemed fully able to deal with two attackers while darting its braided tail at me.

Mister Pavaka’s comment about his shirt set off a train of thought. I had put away my notepad and pencil after the dispelling of the aethereal woman. If she could be countered, so could this thing. Confidently, I delved into my pocket and retrieved the notepad and pencil.

Too many things happened at once.

“Ahoy the airship!” came a call from the Hephaestus. I recognized Captain Mallet’s voice.

The sound distracted Mister Pavaka momentarily, and two claws sliced into him, one sending his cutlass spinning across the deck.

Three of the creature’s legs on the left side kicked at Luli simultaneously. She flew into the shadow of the cabin, thudding against the wall with a sickening thud.

The braided tail flicked out and wrapped around my waist and legs, hoisting me into the air. I clutched at the notebook, but the pencil went bouncing down to roll off the Passarola into the clouds below.

And a bright and golden maw opened impossibly within the creature’s back. What a surprise.

The Rogue Airship, or The Investigations of the Hephaestus

Chapter 5, In Which I Learn the Truth About Father Bartolomeu


                At Mister Pavaka’s accusation, I burst out laughing. I could not resist. His shocked expression did not persuade me to stop. “I’m afraid you’re laboring under a misapprehension,” I said when I recovered my senses. “We are not responsible for the deterioration of the aether. And indeed deduced that you gentlemen were to blame.”

                Father Bartolomeu returned with a tea tray and set it on the table beside me. “I believe we owe you an apology,” he said, gesturing toward the delicate cups and saucers and matching teapot. I took the cue and poured. “Naturally since airships are not in abundance in the aether these days, we assumed—“

                Mister Pavaka refused to sit, but paced the carpet, eyes flashing. “I cannot understand why you accept her word for this,” he said, flinging his arms about. “She would not admit to you—“

                “Vatya.” Father Bartolomeu’s voice was stern. “Remain calm or you will cause damage yourself.” He accepted a cup and sipped from the steaming liquid before repeating the man’s name as if he were a child.

                “I will not be ordered about,” Mister Pavaka responded, fists clenching. “I’ll be on deck.” He turned and raced up the spiral stair.

                Luli emerged from one of the doors on the far side of the room, shutting it behind her. I had not even realized she was gone. “I’ve sent a message to The Engineer,” she explained.

                A headache was forming in my right temple. I handed her a cup of tea and said, mustering as much calm in my voice as I could, “Please explain to me what is happening here, Father. You helm a craft bearing the name of the legendary first airship of over two hundred years past, and have taken the name of its inventor. While the very existence of your ship will devastate our dear Engineer, who thought he alone had perfected such travel, the fact that you have disabled our Hephaestus by violent means is distressing, to put it mildly.”

I turned my gaze on Luli, who returned it impassively over the rim of her teacup. “And I will entirely leave out my exasperation at not knowing what is happening with my assistant, whom I thought I knew quite well and completely trusted.

“The man with lightning flashing from his eyes?” I added. “At this point I’m assuming a petulant young storm god.” I poured myself a cup of tea and hardened my voice as the headache pounded at full force now. “Answers please. I am not without my own personal resources, Father Bartolomeu.”

The older man cleared his throat, put down his teacup and sat in an armchair across from me. In the dim lighting of the room, his skin was translucent and fragile. He rested his elbows on the chair arms and linked his long fingers together, rearranging them and studying the motion as if it were an important task. I listened to the tick of a clock somewhere in the room and the tread of Mister Pavaka’s frenzied pacing overhead.

“My name is Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, born in Portugal in 1685,” he said at last, his accent quite pronounced. “I was a member of the Company of Jesus—the Jesuits. I invented and flew a smaller version of the Passarola before the king of Portugal in 1709. But I continued to experiment, with lighter than air flight in public and with aether flight in private. At last someone learned of my private experimentation and informed on me.” He looked up at me. His eyes were in shadow, but I felt deep sorrow from him.

“I was warned by friends in 1724 that the Inquisition sought me,” Father Bartolomeu continued, studying his twisting fingers once again. “I fled to Holland and then to England for a time, but I am not comfortable with deception and subterfuge. I cannot work if I am running and hiding. Keeping a portion of my work, erm, private, is one thing, but keeping my entire existence a secret is difficult for me. My aether flyer, the Passarola in which you sit now, was perfected, and so I decided to leave the earth for the aether. Two of my devoted assistants accompanied me. Alas, over the years—can it really be centuries?—they were killed, one in a battle with a creature of the uppermost regions, the other in a tornadic storm from which Vatya saved me. His brother had caused the storm. You see, he is an exile, even as I am.

“You were correct in your surmise. Vatya is a marut, a storm elemental, I believe is the correct term.” Father Bartolomeu shifted his hands to the chair arms, a hint of a smile crossing his face, warming to his subject. “This would account for this petulant nature. His family banished him for reasons he refuses to discuss, but he takes quite an interest in human matters and—“

“Sir,” Luli interrupted, standing and frowning. “I do not hear Mister Vatya’s pacing. Something is wrong.”

She did not wait for us, but gathered her skirts and dashed up the stair. I followed, with the Jesuit behind me.

Luli stopped abruptly at the top, but stepped aside and motioned for our silence, still hidden within the shadows of the cabin. I stifled a gasp at the sight before me.

Mister Pavaka lay motionless on the deck, as if asleep. Standing over him was a tall, shapely woman, as perfectly formed as a marble statue, with golden hair curling down to her waist. She wore only a diaphanous shift that concealed nothing and merely enhanced her aethereal beauty. She stared at us with eyes like opals, shifting with flecks of blue and rose and gold, and said through pale lips in a voice that compelled complete attention, “Your journeys are at an end. The aether belongs to me now.”

The Rogue Airship, or The Investigations of the Hephaestus

Chapter 4, In Which We Make New and Exceedingly Strange Acquaintances


                His airship was small, built nothing like the Hephaestus. In fact, it looked remarkably like a smaller version of an ocean-going vessel, a caravel, perhaps, with a wide, bladder-like canopy arched over it instead of masts and sails. The prow was carved into the shape of a fierce bird’s head with a corresponding broad tail at the stern. At first glance I thought the ship was painted black, but realized the wood itself was ancient and impossibly weathered. Traces of original paint were visible in places, but worn to a gray that would require extensive study to determine its color on first application. The sides of the ship were scored and scraped. As our captor escorted us up the gangplank, I noticed that a chunk missing from the side about the size of my head looked remarkably like it had been bitten out.

                The planking of the deck was weathered and damaged as well. “From the looks of your ship,” I said, “you make a habit of annoying your neighbors, Mister Sky Pirate.”

                He laughed, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Sky pirate? You’re certainly quick to pass judgment on first meeting.” The man released his hold on Luli and gestured for us to sit on the crates that were strewn about the deck. As he moved away from us, I caught a fresh soap scent, hardly what I expected.

                “You fired on our ship, sir,” I responded. “An unprovoked attack.”

                The man raised a dark eyebrow, all trace of amusement gone from his face. He tucked his firearm—an antique weapon of some sort—into the waist of his black trousers and folded his arms across his exquisite gold-figured waistcoat. “Unprovoked?” His voice was hard now, an accent I could not identify creeping in to nullify the previous impression that he was an American. “After what you have wrought, you dare speak of ‘unprovoked’?”

                He lunged forward, arms swinging down to clenched fists at his sides. I could swear something like a spark literally flashed in his icy blue eyes. Luli slid from her perch on the crate beside me and shielded me.

                “Vatya,” said another voice from behind our captor. “Calm yourself, please, before you do the young women harm.”

                From the shadows of the cabin at the prow stepped an older man with thinning white hair around an angular face. He was clad in a simple brown tunic over tan trousers and boots, and wore a pendant of some sort on a copper chain around his neck.

                Our captor glared at me, but brushed imaginary dirt from his pristine white sleeves, adjusted black jeweled cufflinks and folded his arms again. The older man stepped up beside him and bowed low from the waist. “Forgive my young friend’s lack of manners,” he said, with a Spanish or Portuguese accent. “I am Father Bartolomeu de Gusmão and you are on my ship, the Passarola. Generally Vatya has lovely manners, but his kind is quite hot tempered when provoked. Has he introduced himself?”

                He glanced at the younger man, who scowled back. “I thought not. He is Vatyaupamya Rudra Resman Pavaka of the—“

                “Not any longer,” he interrupted in that same intense, angry tone. “Good manners do not require revealing my family history to the enemy.”

                Father Bartolomeu behaved as if Mister Pavaka—I was unsure of the proper address, but was not about to call our captor by what sounded like a pet name—had not spoken. “And your name, Miss?”

                I summoned a polite smile, as if we were being introduced at an afternoon tea. “I am Miss Julia Wesley, reporter for the Shades Valley Argus, and this is my assistant, Miss Luli Xiang,” I said.

                “Ah, Miss Luo,” Father Bartolomeu grinned. “I am so pleased to meet you at last.”

                Mister Pavaka and I exchanged puzzled glances. “When did you speak with her?” he said, at the same moment I tried to say the same thing to her as well as, “Since when is that your surname?” As the human mouth is ill-equipped to handle two simultaneous comments, my words came out as something completely unintelligible.

                “And I am pleased to meet you, Father Bartolomeu.” Luli bowed after the Chinese fashion, then turned to me. “My surname is Luo. Did you ever ask me?”

                “Perhaps we should adjourn to the cabin below,” Father Bartolomeu said. “I believe we are in dire need of liquid refreshment.”

                “My crew members will be searching for us,” I said.

                “I’ll send them a message,” Luli said.

                I peered into her eyes. “Whose side are you on, Luli?”

                “I would not betray you, Miss Julia,” she said solemnly. “I am sworn to protect you.”

                “You are—what?” I felt as if I had stepped off the edge of aethera firma and plummeted earthward. Either that or entered a looking glass by mistake.

                Luli smiled slightly. “No, the time is still not right.”

                We followed the older man through the cabin door and down a sharply spiraled metal stair into the hold of the airship, Mister Pavaka’s boot heels echoing behind us. The stair led into a dimly lit room furnished with matching overstuffed sofa, divan, two chairs, an ottoman and several small tables. A worn Persian carpet covered the floor, and the walls were hung with antique Indian tapestries. The feel of the room was as if we had stumbled into Scheherazade’s living room. Two doors led off the main room, and a curtained alcove served as a galley.

                Luli and I perched on the divan, as its lack of back and sides better accommodated our gowns. “Shall I make tea?” Father Bartolomeu asked, walking toward the galley.

                Mister Pavaka stood in the center of the room, fists on hips. In the dim light his eyes flared icy blue. “Enough civility,” he said. “I want to know why you are destroying the aether—and why I shouldn’t destroy you for it.”