Sunday, September 13, 2015

This Writing Malarky: How I Work

Since (and including) my 2009 debut—THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK—I’ve written eight novels and a scattering of short stories (short stories neither herd nor swarm, they only scatter). By the end of the year, it will be nine novels. My current project currently stands at 130,000 words. I’m two chapters into the third act, which means the total length may well touch 200,000, giving it a George R. R. Martinesque girth (I refer to his books not to his waistline). It’s my longest novel to date, and also the first I’ve ever written without already having a contract. Nerve wracking. If I submit it and receive a rejection letter, that’s a lot of time wasted. Such is the precarious life of a writer.

A great deal depends on this WiP (Work in Progress). Not just my livelihood, but also how I’m perceived by readers and publishers. If it fails, then I’ll remain Mark Hodder the steampunk guy (one trick pony, gets tiresome). If it succeeds, I’ll become Mark Hodder the author (does interesting stuff, must read). At least, that’s how I see it. So, as you might imagine, I regard this as my most important novel since JACK, and have been writing it with a heightened sense of “it has to be exactly right”—the right story written at the right time, in the right voice, featuring the right characters doing amazing things that people will want to read about right now.

A side-effect of this increased focus is that I’ve become very aware of my working methods and have fine-tuned them during the course of this WiP. Back when I wrote JACK, I was definitely an evening writer. I used to hit my stride about 7pm and race through to 2am, racking up around 1,800 words per day. That changed two years ago when my twins were born and evenings were given over to feeding, bathing, playing and, latterly, to being a human bouncy castle and rickety old climbing frame.

Now, I’m a morning writer. I wake up, throw on clothes, take the kids to nursery—which, fortunately, is just three minutes walk away—then return home, grab a coffee, and (this is the vital bit) start work. I know that if I read what I wrote the day before and maybe manage a new sentence or two while I get the caffeine into my system, the working day will be okay.

So, having engaged with the WiP, I can safely shower (it’s where the ideas come!) and have breakfast before getting back to it. I can then work straight through to nursery pickup time. Since this change of routine, my average daily word count has increased to 2,000. On a really good day, I can double that.

I prefer to work in silence if I can get it. However, I live in Spain, where silence is the rarest of commodities. When there’s noise, I’ll stick in my earplugs. Occasionally, I’ll play music, though it tends to distract me. Weirdly, I’m far less distracted by having a movie or TV show playing in the corner of my screen, and most days, there’s something there from around 3pm onwards.

I work on a 27” Retina iMac. When I bought it, I maxed out all the specs. Expensive, but its a powerful machine and never gives me any trouble. I’m fully sold on the Apple infrastructure. I like that when I’m away from my desk, I can write on my iPhone or iPad and what I’ve done is there on my iMac as soon as I return to it. Stable and reliable with plenty of backup options. No fear that my novel will be accidentally deleted.

The iMac sits on a “standing desk” from Ikea. Motorised. When I feel like standing, I hit a button and the desk rises. When I want to sit, another button lowers it. I reckon I spend at least half the day on my feet. Healthier. Also, I tend to pace around and wave my arms when I’m thinking a scene through. I burn calories.

The software I use has changed with the WiP. All my previous novels were written using Scrivener but I started to get annoyed with it. It felt rather bloated, filled with features I didn’t need or use, and its lack of an iOS app was frustrating. Also, just from an aesthetic point of view, I’m a minimalist. I really like the clean design values of OS X and iOS, and as Apple has perfected it over the years, Scrivener has increasingly fallen behind to the point where it has started to look just plain ugly.

Enter Ulysses. Ulysses is elegant, straightforward, keeps all its options out of the way until you need them, does all the things I required from Scrivener, and is an absolute joy to work with. Furthermore, there’s an iOS version and the syncing between that and the OS X version is faultless.

So with Ulysses at the centre of my writing universe, this is how my novels currently take shape:

The process begins with a basic idea, usually in the form of a question that, more often than not, will occur to me either in the shower or in the borderland between awake and asleep. For example, what if a man travelled back in time and accidentally altered history so that his own future no longer existed?

From this, other questions arise. How would he go about trying to correct the problem? What would prevent him from achieving the solution? How would he be effected? Would it become apparent to anyone else that the course of history was different?

From this exploration, characters, scenes and a nascent plot emerge. This is when I open a project entitled IDEAS in Ulysses and add to it a new “sheet” (it’s what documents/files/pages are called in the app). There, I jot down my musings, adding them to the other undeveloped material in IDEAS, where they’ll be visited from time to time, and maybe expanded.

Let’s say this time traveller notion won’t lie still. It wants to be a novel and I’m feeling motivated enough to make it my principle WiP. Okay, let’s develop it further. I’ll now start to to-and-fro between Ulysses and an app called ExpoBoard.

ExpoBoard is basically a whiteboard or pinboard. I’ll open a new project on it and I’ll give it this background:

That’s your basic all-purpose screenwriting structure, onto which I’ll pin virtual post-it notes as I develop the plot.

My actual WiP currently looks like this (purposely low-res so you can’t zoom in and read the notes. No spoilers here!):

So while the skeleton of the plot is forming on ExpoBoard, over on Ulysses, bare bone scenes are starting to take shape. Nearly always, I’ll write the first chapter before everything is properly thought out, and nearly always that chapter will end up entirely rewritten. The initial stages of writing are just for familiarisation, for getting to know the characters and the world they inhabit.

The screenplay structure is an excellent aid but, pretty soon in the process, the plot usually takes on a life of its own, by which point I tend to forget the underlying structure is there. I have no problem with straying from it, just as long as the action and pacing remain logical and dramatic.

I don’t need to have every stage of the plot and every scene of the novel worked out before I begin the serious business of writing. I plan up to a certain point, then let loose and fly by the seat of my pants. Just so long as I know the basics of the conflict and have character arcs in place, I’m ready to go.

My character arcs start off simple: “Burton feels he doesn’t belong. He becomes aware that something is wrong with his environment. He investigates and discovers a massive threat. He tries to save his environment, hoping that, by doing so, he will be accepted. He is repeatedly defeated until he discovers that his only effective weapon is the unique viewpoint he has by being an outsider.” A weakness turns into a strength.

The combination of the plot notes and the character arcs nearly always gives an indication of the theme. I’ll usually jot it down as a very basic statement, such as: “Actions, consequences, and obligations.”

In Ulysses, I’ll open a new sheet for every key moment in the plot: 

Opening scene
Inciting incident
Theme stated/set up
Break to Act II

B Story
Wins and losses

Villains close in
All is lost
Dark night of the soul
Break into 3

Final scene

I’ll then insert into this the structure of the character arcs:

Inciting incident
Call to action
Defining moment
Awakening/Turning point

Death experience/Turning point

Transformational experience

As you can see, some points naturally align.

Now it’s time to grow flesh on the bones. I can’t over-emphasise how important it is for me to actually sit down and write. Everything I’ve just described can be called planning but it also comes perilously close to qualifying as procrastination. The moment the vaguest suggestion of a workable plot emerges from the process, that’s when it’s time for me to quit the mapping and start the journey.

Ulysses comes into its own now. Full screen, with the list of sheets on the far left hand side (there’s an option to close the list but I like to see the structure there), and no need to think about formatting or any other nonsense … just write write write.

In every project, I keep a sheet entitled “DISCARDED MATERIAL.” There are occasions when that sheet has a higher word count than the rest of the project in its entirety. I throw a lot of stuff aside. A lot. However, the false starts, misjudged diversions, blind alleys and “everything I wrote yesterday is crap” occurrences become less frequent as I get to grips with the story, and often these “mistakes” turn out to be useful later on. A discarded scene from chapter one might be the answer to an issue that crops up twenty chapters later. That’s why I never delete.  

Each day, over morning coffee, I go over what I wrote the day before and, inevitably, tweak it a little. I’ll then write new material. If my chapter length averages 4000 words, then it’ll take two days per chapter, and I’ll achieve three chapters a week. In reality, taking into account distractions, temporising, off-days, on-days, beer days, and days where one short scene requires a thousand effing rewrites because I just can’t get the effing effer right, I’d say it’s more realistic to claim two chapters a week. Anyway, however long it takes, once I have four or five new chapters written, I tend to go back and revise them before continuing on. This has advantages and disadvantages. I write chronologically (some authors write the end or the middle of their novels first, but they be like crazy motherfunker types), so this revision process allows me to maintain a good sense of pacing and of logical development. It also means that, by the time I’ve completed the novel, most chapters are already in their final draft state. Conversely, when I eagerly dispatch my manuscript to my editor, the last few chapters have received less fine-tuning than the rest. Having said that, the publishing process is so bloody long that, by the time the novel is ready for the printer, those chapters have had all the attention they need.

So, months later, after many plot adjustments, character tweaks, and shouts of “Hell, yeah!” from the shower when unanticipated plot twists hit me from out of the blue, I get the damned bastard life-ruining pile of crap finished (because, by now, having missed yet another glorious Spanish summer, that’s how I feel about my precious novel). Here’s where Ulysses scores again. The only formatting you need do in the app comes in the form of simple to remember markup tags. I want my chapter headings styled just right? I stick a hashtag in front of them. I want a certain paragraph italicised? I put an asterisk at its start and another at its end. Easy peasy and so forth. So with these little indicators present where necessary, I have Ulysses export the whole project into a Word document.

I hate Microsoft Word. I hate it with a passion. Have you ever tried using it to write a 120,000 word novel? It’s like walking through quick drying cement. The publishing industry, however, likes everything submitted in .doc format. The publishing industry also sports a comb-over, smokes a pipe, wears argyle sweaters and leather slippers, and has a dog called Sport. Anyway, thank you, Ulysses, for allowing me to avoid Word up until now, and thank you, too, for transforming my plain text into a beautifully formatted manuscript that I can send off without having to do anything more to it.

And that’s it. Job done. At least until the doc comes back with editorial notes highlighting changes that need to be made, and they have to be done in Word and … ugh.

There you have it. That’s how I work at the moment. It’s a system developed over the course of eight novels and seven years. It started on a Windows PC but quickly transferred to Mac. I must have tried every writing and note-taking app out there. Some are really good. Index Card is a great planning app for iOS, for example, (and it would make sense to do the planning on my iPad … but I don’t). Others are too minimal or too bloated. Scrivener is brilliant but feels rusty. Ulysses is perfect.

Different systems for different writers. What’s yours?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Revisiting Mike Moorcock

Gollancz is on a mission to publish the complete Michael Moorcock oeuvre, with the exception of those books—such as the Pyat quartet—that are still in circulation. This is my great opportunity to once again revisit one of my all-time favourite authors. I'm pre-ordering each volume the moment it appears on Amazon, and have so far received DAUGHTER OF DREAMS, DESTINY'S BROTHER, SON OF THE WOLF, CORUM: THE PRINCE IN THE SCARLET ROBE, CORUM: THE PRINCE WITH THE SILVER HAND, GLORIANA; OR, THE UNFULFILL'D QUEEN, HAWKMOON: THE HISTORY OF THE RUNESTAFF, HAWKMOON: COUNT BRASS, and will next week take delivery of ELRIC OF MELNIBONÉ AND OTHER STORIES.

I have to say, I don't much like the Gollancz covers. They're plain and boring, strike me as being rather cheaply produced, and make me long for all the old Mayflower editions that once lined my shelves. My god, I loved (and still do) those Bob Haberfield cover illustrations. They were unique and justifiably set Moorcock apart.

Anyway, back to the Gollancz editions. I'm reading them as they're delivered, so started with the ELRIC: THE MOONBEAM ROADS trilogy (DAUGHTER OF DREAMS, DESTINY'S BROTHER, and SON OF THE WOLF), none of which I'd read before. I have to take immediate issue with Gollancz's claim that "they will present the Elric stories in a consistent internal chronological order." Plainly, this isn't exactly the case. The trilogy most definitely does not occur at the beginning of Elric's saga. Gollancz has justified this by observing that Elric plays a relatively minor role in the three tales. This is true. So why call them ELRIC: THE MOONBEAM ROADS when the principal protagonists are the Von Beks? The publishing order doesn't fit into the Von Bek chronology either, as THE WAR HOUND AND THE WORLD'S PAIN and THE CITY IN THE AUTUMN STARS should come before them. Order-wise, I'd say these were certainly the wrong choice to kick off the "definitive Michael Moorcock" project.

If Gollancz are hoping to attract new readers to Moorcock's fantasy, then these were the wrong launch titles on that basis, too. Honestly, as much as I love and admire the guy, this isn't his best work. I found the first two rather confusing and, regrettably, a little tedious. Didn't enjoy them. The third was an improvement, but I still found it difficult to fully engage with it. The fact is, though I read them one after the other and finished last week, if you now ask me what they were about, I couldn't tell you.

Next up, CORUM: THE PRINCE IN THE SCARLET ROBE, which is the collected trilogy THE KNIGHT OF THE SWORDS, THE QUEEN OF THE SWORDS, and THE KING OF THE SWORDS—whose Haberfield covers I particularly liked—and now I remember why Michael Moorcock is so important to me.

As a matter of fact, these were the first Moorcocks I ever read. I must have been somewhere between 12 and 14 years old. I've read them once since, now a third time, and on all occasions they've completely hooked me. In them, I can easily identify what it is about Moorcock that has influenced me as a writer. AUDACIOUSNESS. Here we find gods of such vast size that humans are like ants beneath their feet; incomprehensibly powerful forces which, just as you're gasping at their sheer scale, are quickly outdone by even vaster entities. Yet, as you grapple with these concepts, its also apparent that Mike is writing about interior, psychological energies, too, so a sort of resonation occurs, rippling out from within the individual, into society and culture and politics, and beyond into the cosmic scale. Its brilliant and breathtaking and, most of all, FUN. It also explains why, to me, Haberfield's Hindu influenced covers were always the most appropriate.

I'm off to a convention in Poland tomorrow, and will take with me CORUM: THE PRINCE WITH THE SILVER HAND, which rather inexplicably is another one (or three: THE BULL AND THE SPEAR, THE OAK AND THE RAM and THE SWORD AND THE STALLION) that I've never read. Why, when I was so enamoured by the first Corum trilogy, did I never read the second? I've no idea. Most reviewers say it's not as good. As long as it's better than THE MOONBEAM ROADS.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Sexton Blake Update

The BLAKIANA website is currently undergoing a complete reconstruction, which is going to take some considerable time. Not only am I redesigning it and moving it to a different server, but I've also made it a subsection of "MARK HODDER PRESENTS" ... a website I'll be using to cover all my various works.

In the meantime, there's extremely good news for all Blake fans. Obverse Books has become the licensees of Sexton Blake, meaning the relaunch of the famous Sexton Blake Library is finally underway.

Monday, February 27, 2012

More Thoughts on Steampunk

It strikes me that the definition of Steampunk is rather a flexible one, due, in part, to the word "punk" having a more politicised significance in British English than it does in American. I was in my mid-teens when the punk movement railed against the established order back in the late 70s, and my generation still retains the attitudes that were formed back then. To us, the establishment was bigoted, brutal, uptight, and clearly representative of everything that is wrong with imperialism, market-driven policies, and the non-distribution of wealth.

Steampunk is, for me, the perfect arena in which to explore socio-economic policies that seem to have spiralled farther and farther out of control since those punk years. The capitalist system, in divorcing itself from social responsibility, has so undermined itself that people are now waking up and fighting back. The people who led us into this dire situation have been exposed as money-grubbing, self-serving, power-hungry, corrupt criminals (if not in legal terms, then certainly by any moral standard).

This situation throws into stark relief the benefits and iniquities of Empires—whether they be economic, political, geographic, religious, or a combination. Empire can offer individuals a sense of belonging and "place" by assigning them to a "class," but this necessitates making and maintaining distinctions that—through being defined by, among other things, economic benefits or the lack thereof—become increasingly radicalised, so the "upper class" gets ever richer, and the "lower" ever poorer.

Steampunk explores the manners and mores of such socio-political systems, and the propaganda and attitudes that maintain them. However, it does so in rather a playful manner, as if laughing in the face of their utter collapse. To borrow from Moorcock, Steampunks are "dancers at the end of time."

Steampunk mischievously takes once hidden motives and makes them overt, just like Wikileaks is doing. That's why steam technology has become our icon—its workings are obvious and understandable, in contrast to the esoteric nature of current tech, which is all internal and motionless. The contrast perfectly symbolises the socio-political struggles that we see in the world today.

Perhaps the best way to sum it up is to say that Steampunk knowingly—and in many cases unknowingly—draws inspiration from the current zeitgeist, wherein the old order, which was based on a privileged few keeping the truth veiled for their own advantage while feeding deceptive propaganda to the masses, is being challenged.

And, of course, it's also damned good fun.

Steampunk will only become more relevant, as it continually reminds us that motives must be exposed, empire-builders are not heroes, and, though fights must be fought, good manners cost nothing!

This latter point, while tongue-in-cheek, is also important, for, the Victorian tip of the hat, curtsey, and "How do you dos" remind us that social systems require a sort of sub-language, involving rituals that "oil the machinery" of our daily interactions. As we attempt to reshape the world, we must also create new modes of such behaviour, based on a respect for one another that the current system has lost, so that whatever we create in its place will function smoothly.

Steampunk, in drawing from the past, thus points the way to the future.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

First New Reviews of 2012

A very insightful review of EXPEDITION TO THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON has been published over at Voyages Extraordinaires. Cory Gross is kind enough to finish it with:

"Overall, Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne trilogy has been one of the few pleasures of recent genre literature. When goggles and the anti-authority scamps who wear them is a primary scenario and plot-driver of most books, his meditation on time, fate, Scientism, Libertarianism, and the malleability of personhood by historic contingency is positively delightful. Of all the various and sundry novels I have graciously been sent to review since beginning this fair weblog, only this and Edward Erdelac's Merkabah Rider series have contributed anything of real merit, lodging themselves solidly within my top 10 or 20 works. They are well, well worth the time spent with them and receive my highest endorsement."

Elsewhere, Lea Peacock at Dispatches from the LP-OP says:

"It was easy for me to pick out my favorite book, or shall I say, books of the year. Without a doubt, my hands-down favorites were the first two books in Mark Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne Series – “The Strange Case of Spring Heeled Jack” and “The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man.”

I decided to read “The Strange Case of Spring Heeled Jack” after it won the 2010 Philip K. Dick Award, and I thought that the book was one of the finest, most entertaining novels I’d read in a long time. It was an easy choice to snap up a copy of “The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man” when it hit the shelves."

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Looking Back at 2011

It's been a hard-working but very rewarding year for me. As usual, I've spent far too much time sat at my computer hammering the keyboard, but my labours have, at least, borne fruit. THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE CLOCKWORK MAN was well-received, with reviews being 99.9% positive. Middle volumes in a trilogy are tricky beasts. On the one hand, you have to continue the story told in the first novel, on the other, you have to foreshadow events coming in the third book, and amid all that, you also have to produce a self-contained story. I think I just about pulled it off, but CLOCKWORK was a very different experience to THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK.

Weirdly, my memories of writing JACK are nothing but a blur. I was living in a different apartment at the time, and mostly I recall the room in which the novel was written, the view out of the window, and the warm sea breeze blowing in. There was more research involved than with CLOCKWORK, but how I actually constructed the yarn eludes me. Perhaps with the pressure of it being my debut novel, all my mental energy went into creating it rather than into remembering what I was doing while I was doing it!

This year, I felt much more confident while writing EXPEDITION TO THE MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON. There was a sense of everything coming together nicely, and opportunities to confound expectations. There have only been a couple of reviews so far (EXPEDITION isn't officially published until 24th January), but both are very positive, so I'm feeling optimistic.

In the latter part of 2011 I started work on a number of projects, some of which I can't mention yet. For PYR, I'm writing A RED SUN ALSO RISES, a non-Burton & Swinburne novel inspired by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs but with a steampunk flavour. This is much more a science fiction/fantasy novel than my previous, though the themes I'm exploring are very much grounded in the real world.

I've also completed three and a half of the twelve short stories intended for THE SOMEWHAT SINGULAR MR. MACALLISTER FOGG. This is pure steampunk of a much more flighty nature than B&S. Written simply for fun, they riff on typical inspirations: Sherlock Holmes, War of the Worlds, Jekyl & Hyde, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the Mummy, Dracula, etc. I'm having great fun with these yarns.

My two top secret projects are both for the YA audience. Both are non-steampunk novels, and one is VERY suited to adaptation for a TV series. We shall see!

Turning to other topics, I've been living in Spain for three years now and am still loving every minute of it. I've absolutely no intention of ever moving back to the UK. The climate, the food, the landscape, the people, the sense of freedom I have here … these are things I don't want to give up. Obviously, I don't want to give up my Spanish partner, Yoli, either! My three years with her having been truly life changing in so many ways, all of 'em positive.

So on to 2012, and there's a long list of things I want to achieve, one of them being more daily mobility, 'cos this sitting at a desk malarky is very definitely NOT a good way to stay fit. I'm thinking about using the excellent voice to text software on my iPhone for the planning stages of my writing, meaning I can walk and talk and still get stuff done. 2012 is my 50th year. Thank the Lord Harry that I'm in good health, but I think when you've accrued half a century, you have to start making the effort to keep the engine running smoothly!

A few more hours of 2011 remaining, though, so I think I'll go mix myself a drink! Tally ho!

Happy New Year all.

Mark Hodder

Friday, December 30, 2011

Steampunk and Empire

I don't hold much truck with the notion that sometimes a dirigible is just a dirigible. The idea that steampunk is popular simply because it's fun fails to take timing into account. I have to ask, if it's such an enjoyable genre (which it is), why didn't it take off in the 1970s, after Mike Moorcock wrote Warlord of the Air, or in the '80s after K. W. Jeter's Morlock Night? Why is steampunk such a phenomenon now?

Personally, I think it's because we live in a world in which empires are crumbling. Whatever moral highground the USA thought it might have held was yanked from under it after its recent military forays into the Middle East, which, beneath the hard gaze of the media have been exposed as little more than imperialistic assaults, however the right wing might justify them. In the UK, a soaring crime rate, squalid press, and a succession of dithering politicians have forced us to confront the fact that we're very far from what we used to be. In Europe, the edicts issued by Brussels have slowly but surely eroded unique cultures and national identities. The Arabic world is in the grip of multiple revolutions. And the fast-growing power of China looms over the Western World, making it plain that we're not dealing the cards any more

Now don't get me wrong. I don't mourn the loss of empires. Empires are not good. They're built upon foundations of a disenfranchised, poverty-stricken, and—if not actually, then certainly virtually—enslaved majority in order that a rich minority can live the high life. They bulldoze over the weak. They manipulate the media to misinform. They brutally subjegate those who oppose them. They are evil.

Conversely, and perhaps paradoxically, they also offer a sense of security. If you exist within an empire and are not actively against it, it will offer you a place, a function, and a sense of belonging. This is something we all, naturally, yearn for. To know you have a job for life, a roof over your head, health and safety for your family, enough disposable income to enjoy your leisure time, and are protected by the law of the land from those who might unbalance things—this is a good feeling.

How many of us are in that situation now? Not many. A job for life is a thing of the past. The extreme and frequent instabilities of the capitalist system can rob any one of us of our income at any moment. Even the bricks and mortar we invest in can be taken from us in the blink of an eye. Health services are underfunded, private health insurance is prohibitively expensive, prices are rising but salaries aren't, justice is rarely seen to be done (I'm looking at you, bankers), and, to put it bluntly, the vast majority of us have a clear sense that the western world is fucked up to the nth degree.

No surprise, then, that steampunk appeals, for it supplies us with a nice healthy dose of reassurance all wrapped up in an exciting package. It harks right back to those days when every individual knew his or her place and function, and had faith that those who ran things knew best.

I don't care whether it's the literature, fashion, art or music of steampunk, the ethos is the same, whether you are conscious of it or not.

And I have a real problem with it.

In my opinion, if you're going to reference empires, then you're obliged to acknowledge their ills and iniquities. You have to expose the fact that the benefits they bring are illusory and created through the sufferings of a wilfully obscured underclass. If you don't tackle these difficult themes, your work will lack depth and staying power. It'll be fluff, nothing more.

Okay, there's not a thing wrong with seeking to do nought but entertain, and I thank all those who've produced the engrossing steampunk adventures that've kept me on the sofa, nose in book, for many a pleasant evening. But personally, having been given the rare opportunity to place my work before the public, I kinda feel obliged to give my punters something more to chew on than tasty fluff.*

That's is why, in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, and Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, I confront issues of empire in an unflinching and often rather savage manner. In Jack, I send Burton and Swinburne into the cruel heart of London's East End, where the disenfranchised live in such destitution that they've regressed almost to an animalistic state. In Clockwork the focus switches to the personal ambitions of powerful dictators whose motives are likely to cause empires to clash, with the subsequent annihilation of millions of innocent people. And in Expedition, I throw Burton right into the fray, where an entire continent becomes the unwitting battleground as the conflict erupts.

Yes, I employed the trappings of steampunk in those stories, but I chose to do so specifically because they are signifiers of empire. The Age of Steam is synonymous with the Age of Empire, and the consequences I portray really did happen (albeit not necessarily in the manner I depict).

Don't get me wrong. The Burton and Swinburne tales are fun. They evoke the story papers of the Victorian Age, in which the British Empire was golden and faultless. In other words, they reference the propaganda of the age. But behind the derring-do, the square shoulders and stiff upper lips, the escapades and thrills, I hope I make a very serious point—that, no matter how much we might currently yearn for the security of empire, it is profoundly wrong for us to base our own comfort on the suffering of others.

* Actually, my forthcoming book The Somewhat Singular Mr. Macallister Fogg is steampunk stripped entirely of anything deep and meaningful, so please don't peg me as an author who doesn't know how to kick back and enjoy a good yarn when I feel the urge!