Steampunk stories, actually the entire notion, rely completely upon reimagining history. The entire thing got started by reimagining Victoria era Britain (with a sci-fi twist), but it’s grown to include other countries and places, usually within a 100 to 200 year framework. In stories especially, an entire alternate history must be imagined.
I have wrestled with the idea of creating an entire well thought out world to surround the City (New Camden) that the Opera takes place in. Now certainly i would have no room to use most of these details, but they’d creep in. After i all, i do backstory on the characters, a good bit of which won’t get used also. The more flushed out the city is, the more real and immersive it can become.
All i knew was that the time frame was in the very beginning of the 20th century. Britain is the default Steampunk location and the show premieres in London, so it might not be a bad idea to go with that. I would LOVE for it to be set in a steampunk Buenos Aires. That would rock my world. However, i don’t believe i’m the guy to flush that out. Such a rich city, culture, heritage… and worst of all, i haven’t even been there. No, i could never do it justice.
I had the idea of setting it on the eastern seaboard of North America, which is still a part of the British Empire. The uprising of the colonies was quickly crushed back in the 1700s and no United States was ever formed. There’s a lot to consider as to how things may have turned out differently, and that’s even before the 20th century. Without the successful model of the colonies uprising, would France have revolted when they did or might that have been pushed back a decade or two? Which effects Napolean, who would be a general in the King’s army, or at the very least, the circumstances that paved a path to his takeover are no longer in place. No Napoleanic Wars changes the face of Europe enough so that the complex domino chain of causes that brought about WWI might not be in place. And so on and so on.
They contain many essays by people proposing alternative histories based on What Ifs. But the REALLY interesting stuff are the histories that are produced by group input. Sure there are numerous books out there by great authors which take place in various alternate histories, but i was really struck by the internet’s ability to make the formulation of alternate timelines into a group endeavor.
One great example is on Alt History Wikia. An Alternative History of The Aztec Empire, where things go differently after their initial disasterous meeting with Cortez.
An alternative history where Genghis Khan was killed before he could unite the Mongols.
This stuff can be amazing when well thought out. It’s a fascinating form of fiction: historical textbook fiction, if you will. I cannot recommend reading these links and exploring these sites highly enough. (Alt History Wikia is a friendlier design, i found.)
So what did i finally decide to do with the world outside the city of New Camden (working name) in the Steampunk Opera?
Theater is a team sport.
The finished product isn’t the story and score. It’s the show. And a number of other talented, creative people will be putting their minds towards the task of creating it. The smart move is to make a great story and killer music, and leave plenty of room for the other minds, the director, the designers, the choreographer, to bring their skills, ideas, and personal strengths to fleshing it out.
The smart move is to make the city a vibrant, fascinating place, with lots of potential, but to be vague about numerous aspects of it, including where it is. This allows other interpretations to bring the city and its world to life in ways i could never dream and certainly could never flush out on my own.
So, no big alternate history. A few details here and there since each song that begins each Act is the Narrator describing the city and my little family in each generation, but nothing all encompassing. Let the alternate history be up for grabs. If the show is successful, other, future crews can reimagine it in their own way. Maybe someday, even Steampunk Buenos Aires.
My trip through contemplating alternate histories was a great mental exercise however, and gave me some really fascinating stuff to look up on the net. And heaven knows, trying to imagine just one imaginary city is a rigorous enough task in itself, especially when you’re trying to write a 4 Act story and put it all to music in a genre you’re trying to create.
Enough. Let other people in on the fun.