Imagine a world where technology is very different to ours.
And so begins a premise which the average person has probably only glimpsed in silly season news stories about trends in costume wearing comic convention attendees, references to local bookshop Southcart Books or maybe the world of Wild Wild West that terrible star vehicle which nearly ran over Will Smith in 1999 or even The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (more diesel punk than steampunk apparently, but I’m no judge) that saw Sean Connery’s last screen appearance before retirement. I’ll just leave this here and you can roll your eyes at your leisure.
It’s a concept I’m increasingly drawn to as inspiration for a game which is in development. as with all things, there are flavours of steampunk out there, from the fantasy worlds of Lovecraft to setious minded faux-Victorian short stories, cosplay, radio shows, and even the inane looking-glass stylings of Professor Elemental:
I need to design a world which is inhabitable by players without too much difficulty, where up is still up, down still down, the rate of time travel still one second per second. How to achieve this simply and effectively? Like most creators who have faced this dilemma there seemed two basic options. Deus ex machina where we write the world as required or set some rules up and deal with the unintended consequences.
So I’ve chosen a single big thing to change, and gone with it. Imagine a world where technology is very different to ours because crude oil was deemed toxic and too expensive to handle safely when it was discovered. The development of chemistry and physics as a high school student would understand it would have continued anyway. Certain parts of life as we know it today would have developed differently because hydrocarbons are useful, but essentially the biggest difference would, I think, have been globalisation of travel and trade.
Imagine a world where we don’t have planes because the internal combustion engine never existed, and even super-efficient steam engines are still too heavy to lift their own mass like that. Dirigibles are the international mass transit vehicle of choice, because steamship technology is very advanced but the coal required to keep moving afloat means journeys are shorter and more direct. A lighter-than-air dirigible though, capable of lifting the engine and fuel to propel itself without any trouble, would be a completely different prospect. Wood panelling throughout because wood is flexible and relatively light. Travel at lower heights (through weather rather than over it) would necessitate decent pilots and resilient craft. There is definitely something here I could use.
Communication would also be much improved and jave developed more quickly. Electricity is perfectly possible without hydrocarbons, and radio would have quickly developed because journeys would have been more arduous. Imagine a world where America is still days away even by airship. All of a sudden reliable radio and even television technology is going to be invaluable.
Will we have landed on the Moon? Unlikely. The components you need to even escape the pull of Earth might be tricky to assemble. Mind you, it’s worth considering how a satellite launch might have been made possible.
War is still likely, so military and political life might still be recognisable, and I can make some additional assumptions about developments to create a realistic alternative timeline. Empire rather than Commonwealth, although it’s probably much reformed because keeping millions subjugated is expensive. Much better to be on the path to a more peaceable solution. I’d like the USA to be less dominant because they have the wealth and drive to succeed but we haven’t necessarily turned Europe into a hellhole twice in a space of three decades. That would be nice.
Ten years and more ago I was in a University department which had an Australian Dean, who observed more than once our department was very centred on Europe. At this time I pointed out to some of our lecturers we were taught in English which is acceptable in countries on every inhabited continent. Including his. But the point stands. Why not set the game in the Southern Hemisphere?
So now I have a world I can inhabit with my characters and narrative. Not a grand scale piece but a small stage on which to set my scene. A small but reliable ship, hardly the flagship of the fleet but high class. Something with hidden meanings an experience gamesmaster could script a whole red herring around if they fancied. One which relies much less on oil and petrochemicals because they never had them in the first place.
Which is cool, but also useful. Because in my lifetime we may need to work out how to achieve stuff without exactly these things. Plastics, oil, petrol, diesel, they’re everywhere you look. And that’s only the visible uses. They are essential in so many industrial processes and production lines that we really need to get a handle on how much we can do without.
I’m not seriously suggesting we look to steampunk to solve our future needs, especially given some of the genre has a reputation for papering over the cracks with magic. One thing’s for sure. We can’t hope to stick some cogs on it, paint it bronze and make the right noises. However the people of my imagined world have achieved things without using oil, we’re going to have to do it too.