Friday, July 27, 2012

Steampunking Mongolia

How far does technology permeate a culture? How ubiquitous does it get? Okay, I know it sounds like a stupid question to more folks who, like me, live in America (land of the free and home of the iPad/Blackberry/Smartphone in every pocket). But take a look:

How would you steampunk this?
Original image by Chris Feser
There are people in Mongolia today getting around the steppes on motorbikes. And there are people today who are still riding in the same type of saddles their ancestors probably used when they decided Europe wasn't worth conquering.

Most of these people are not stupidly clinging to old traditions - they are sticking with what works. Because if you run out of gas in the middle of the steppe you are shit out of luck, but if your horse gets hungry you can probably find some grazing. And a wooden saddle is a lot easier to repair or replace than a fiberglass rig. When you get away from the cities and manufactories, and into the wilderness, going old school just tends to make sense. (Which does not in any way negate the value of having a satellite phone tucked away in your saddle bag.)

My Challenge: Steampunking Mongolia
All of which leads to my current conundrum. In my imaginary revised history of a powerful Mongolian Empire run on steam and full of punks, how far do I go?

Does Naran, warrior woman from  a traditional clan, have a steampunked saddle? (I can tell you right now that traditionalist or not, her father has a steam-driven self-erecting ger.) If she does have a steampunked saddle, how would you steam punk a saddle? If she doesn't, how would she react when her mechanically minded friend Ahn gives her one? And how would he steampunk a saddle?

As much as I do not want to be lumped in with the odious 'throw some gears on it' crowd, I'm really not sure what can changed except for aethetics in terms of steampunking a saddle. Metal frame, instead of wood, maybe. The saddle blanket and other leather-type stuff whose names I don't know (research question!) really have to stay leather or similar sturdy, flexible material, for a variety of reasons (starting with the well-being of the horse and rider).

So, should I steampunk this thing, and if so, how? Repeat the question for a wide variety of everyday items found throughout Mongolia and my re-imagined Yuan Dynasty. (Okay, the hair, as previously noted, is kind of a gimme - how could I resist steampunking that?)  And does it matter?

Why Setting and Silly Details Matter
Basic reality of fiction - this story could be told without any steampunk elements. It could be told in a world of pure fantasy, or science fiction or even set in the Revolutionary War with no speculative fiction at all. As Joseph Cambell and many others have noted - when you look at the barebones of a plot, most stories are variations on a handful of old classics.

But if the story could be told anywhere, why bother with steampunk, or fantasy, or anything at all. Why wrack my brain to find new, ingenious ways to do what's been done a hundred times before?

Silly little details create the experience. 

Seriously, go watch Hamlet - rent an old version, catch it at your local community theater, whatever. Now revisit your childhood and check out the Lion King. The basic plot is identical. I can sum them both up in one sentence. The king is killed by his brother, and the heir spends way to long having an emotional melt down about it, then decides to take revenge, and kills his uncle. That's it, the plot of Lion King and Hamlet in one sentence. Yet look at them - they are totally different experiences. Why? Because the characters are different, the setting is different, the side plots (I much prefer Timon and Pumba to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, don't you?) are immensely different.

I can tell a good story in 5 minutes and much less than a thousand words. Join me around a campfire sometime and we'll swap tales until the coals stop glowing. With a few words, and some classic stories, I can weave magic. And as wonderful as those stories are, they are just that: stories.

A novel is more than a story, it has a depth and dimension that no storytelling outside of an epic like the Iliad or Mahabharata attains. That depth, that dimension, that experience is created by those silly little details. By the way Timon and Pumba mix fart jokes and philosophy, by Hamlet's gut wrenching self examination. By the sweeping vistas of the African veldt or the grandeur of a Danish palace.

By airships and electrified arrows and steamcycles roaring along beside Mongolian ponies. By warrior women riding on traditional saddles against mechanical monsters and shamans summoning spirits to take sides in a battle between ancient cavalry and flying armadas.

So yeah, it does matter. It matters a lot. And I think Naran will be riding a traditional wooden and leather saddle when the armies meet. But, she is a traditional Mongol warrior woman. So don't be surprised if she has something subtle and devastating you would never expect tucked away somewhere. A girl's got to have her secrets, right?

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