Cool Things: Jani and the Greater Game

Steampunk meets space opera? Yes, please!

One of the worldbuilding challenges a steampunk story faces is explaining how technology managed to get so advanced without the British Empire’s place in the world going in a weird direction. Some people chose to gloss over the question, never addressing it, some actually do try to warp the development of the world and change Britain’s place in the world and some just create a new world with analogs for the British Empire and it’s colonies. Eric Brown’s Jani and the Greater Game both answers the question in a nice way and integrates the secret of advanced technology into the foundation of the story.

Now there’s a spoiler here so you’re warned but it’s hard to discuss the book without mentioning this and I can’t really see anyone not getting this by the end of the first chapter or so.

So the way the world works is the British find a crashed spaceship in the late 1800s and start reverse engineering it’s technology. This makes the British Empire an even more dominate force on the planet than it was in our timeline and triggers a kind of cold war between the British, the Chinese and the Russians over the land of Nepal, where the space ship is located. Of course, most people don’t know what makes Nepal so special but at least the leaders of Britain and Russia do. (It’s not clear if the Chinese are aware of what makes the territory so valuable but that’s forgivable since they’re not really a part of the story of this book.)

The primary character of this book is Janisha (Jani to family and friends), a young half English half Indian woman who has been called back to India from studying medicine in England because her father has fallen ill. Along the way her airship is shot down by Russians. Because that’s the kind of thing that happens to airships during cold wars.

Once again this plot point serves multiple purposes. Not only does it establish the Russians as our antagonists in this story it also provides a very natural reason for Jani to encounter the airships’ most exotic passenger – Jelch, an alien that was under heavy guard in the hold of the airship. When Jani’s ride crashes Jelch’s prison breaks open and the guards wind up dead. Jani offers Jelch medical treatment but Jelch tells her the medicine she knows will not work on him. Still, Jani’s generosity and compassion is something Jelch has apparently not seen much of from humanity and he’s moved to leave her a gift and protect her from the Russian landing party that has been sent to eliminate survivors.

Another plot point that it won’t take a perceptive reader long to figure out is that Jelch is on earth to oppose an invasion from a second alien species. Earth is a piece in the Greater Game being played by this expanding alien empire. The aliens already have agents on earth and, along with the Russians, these alien agents will plague Jani and her friends from beginning to end.

Now like War of the Worlds there are undoubtedly parallels between the British Empire and the invading aliens intended but, at least in the first installment of the series (and yes, this is a series), there’s no preachy moralizing or hitting us over the head with messages. While Jani does feel a bit like a Mary Sue at times she and the cast around her are at least well written and beginning to grow from hastily sketched archetypes to well rounded characters and the story promises to put a new, fun skin on the fairly well explored prevent-otherworldly-invasion storyline. If you enjoy steampunk sensibilities it’s worth your while to check it out.

Genrely Speaking: Steampunk

So it occurred to me in the middle of the string of steampunk spotlights I did over the last month that I never took the time to define what steampunk is. And for that matter, I throw around a lot of genre names without really saying what I think they are. This is significant, since genres, like most other non-scientific classifications schemes (and even some scientific classification schemes) are a bit vague and their definitions tend to vary from person to person.

A genre, for those who aren’t that familiar with the term, is a category of a work of fiction based on its style, form or content (according to Merriam-Websters.)

So, what are some hallmarks of the style, form and content of the steampunk genre?

1. A setting in the Victorian era, or a fictional world that mostly conforms to the social, political and economic realities of that era. In either case, an exception is made in the matter of technology. The works of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne are often used as an example. The British empire is an almost omnipresent force in steampunk novels, and very few things can replace it. It often serves as the driving force in science, exploration and economy, not to mention serving as an excellent source of political intrigue and social commentary. If Britain is not used as the setting or it’s foundation, expect to find the American West or some other frontier setting. Otherwise, you might be looking at a different genre. This idea is usually summarized with the question, “What if the future came early?”

2. An emphasis on science, progress and the resulting social and sometimes military conflict that these forces bring about. One of the biggest themes in steampunk is science. With all the change and turmoil during the Industrial Revolution, it often looked like science would swallow up everything that people had known before and leave behind a world of steam, gears and barely human creatures to oversee them (today this is known as the technological singularity and people are expecting to actually replace humanity, rather than diminish them). The benefits and drawbacks of technology will often be debated.

3. Social change. The Victorian era also saw the beginning of the labor movement and women’s rights. These themes are almost always worked into steampunk stories. And, of course, the British Empire offers a wealth of opportunities to examine the effects of empire. In some cases these things are integral to the story, in some cases they merely signify the era and in some cases these causes are actually advanced further than their historical benchmarks, to go with the theme of progress come early.

Are there drawbacks to this genre? Sure, all genres have their pros and cons. Many people think of the Victorian era as a time of great scientific progress, and it’s true that a lot of people were running around and writing down the things they saw and a lot of very useful machines were invented, but it’s also true that many of the ideas espoused in the Victorian era were flat out wrong. (Ether, to give just one example.) Yet steampunk rarely looks at what the Victorians got wrong.

Sometimes that can be retconned by taking more modern ideas and handing them to scientists who are beginning to uncover them, but that papers over the fact that science was hardly the simplistic, straightforward undertaking so many people, even today, depict it as. There were a lot of widely accepted “scientific” ideas that were flat out wrong, “theories” with no experimental support that were accepted just because they sounded right an fit the mood. Quacks exploited people with pseudoscientific medicines or treatments. Steampunk rarely tackles that particular dark side of science – it’s just not as sexy as Jekyll and Hyde or Frankenstein’s monster.

One thing that authors will probably find very appealing about steampunk is that literacy rates were fairly high in some parts of the world. The written word, we think, was valued. But if you look at the kind of writing that was being done… well, it wasn’t always that great. There was a kind of story called the penny dreadful, so named because they only cost a penny. And, as the name implies, they weren’t exactly great reading.

In short, while most people recognize that the Victorian era had its flaws, steampunk tends to idealize certain parts of it that were, in reality… less than ideal, just like all the other parts.

What are the strengths of steampunk? Steampunk is a very romantic genre. Exploration and greater understanding are incredibly powerful and captivating ideas, and steampunk puts these things at the front and center, giving the reader immediate and visceral buy-in.

Steampunk is also a great home for a large number of fun archetypes. The gentleman adventurer or scientist, or his distaff counterparts, the plucky heiress with something to prove (be it her scientific prowess, her adventuring acumen or just her general equality with men), the airship pirate, the mad scientist – the list goes on and on. It’s a lot of fun for writers and makes it a lot easier for readers to connect quickly with the characters.

Finally, there’s a great appeal to returning to what many view as a great era of history and throwing our own hurdles at them, asking ourselves how would these people have handled the problem? When that’s done right we have fiction at it’s best.

I’ve shared several steampunk tales I love, but to be honest I wouldn’t mind hearing about one or two more. Any recommendations?