Wednesday, April 6, 2011

More on Steampunk World Building

Here's the second major installment in the more elaborate Space: 1889 background.

North America has seen some major changes in the new history of Space: 1889, most of them stemming from the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1862 from typhoid fever. Although Vice-President Hamlin assumed the reins of government and prosecuted the war vigorously, he proved less adept at assembling a broad-based coalition of support. The North floundered in the face of continued battlefield defeats in the east and in 1864 McClellan, running on a peace platform, won the presidency and recognized the Confederacy. The two countries continue in a state of semi-belligerency, with abolition groups in the North financing raids into the South to free slaves, and Southern “hot pursuit” posses often murdering and looting in return. Much of the southwest is still disputed, particularly Arizona territory.

The Confederacy is politically divided between the land-holding gentry and the new commercial middle class. The former sees the future as an alliance with Great Britain against its growing commercial rival in the North. The latter sees the future in increased industrialization and self-sufficiency, a course which would bring back the hated tariffs to protect native industries, or at the very least increasingly reduce the South’s reliance on British goods. The increasing competition from Egyptian cotton on the world market has undercut the position of the traditional plantation owners, and the South has made some progress in industrializing and extending its rail net, but the progress has been uneven. The fact that the skilled industrial workers, particularly in the railroad industry, often have federal/reunificationist sympathies, and are sometimes seen as a Northern fifth column, makes the political dialogue more poisonous.

Maximilian’s imperial reign in Mexico was rendered unsustainable by the North’s victory in the Civil War – in our world. With the South’s independence, Maximilian instead gained a valuable ally. Although Maximilian perished by an assassin’s bomb in 1879, his adopted son Augustin II rules in his place, still fighting a smoldering rebellion kept alive, particularly in the northwest by US assistance.


This business of the Space: 1889 world raises the broader question of world-building in a Steampunk universe. To my mind, Steampunk worlds differ from our own in two important dimensions: geo-political and scientific. Socially, they are very similar, if not identical, to our own Victorian or Edwardian periods, which of course is the largest part of the Steampunk mythos.

Space: 1889 is a close match to the historic late-Victorian period, abounding with historical characters and with clearly recognizable political movements and governmental entities. I've recently been reading Scott Westerfield's Leviathan books, and they have the geo-political difference-o-meter set at about the same setting, although his story opens in August of 1914. At the other end of the scale are worlds which share no recognizable common history with our own, do not even purport to be set on our Earth. While many of these are more fantasy-oriented steampunk worlds, that is not universally the case.

Space: 1889 is also a fairly close match to actual historical technology, although by introducing lift-wood, and the changes necessary to the physical laws of the universe that device entails, it goes beyond some more conservative environments, such as Gibson's world in The Difference Engine (although Gibson's more conservative scientific changes have had more profound effects on society). The afore-mentioned Leviathan series by Westerfeld goes much further in its technological changes, postulating an early discovery of DNA by Darwin and subsequent manipulation of it for bio-engineering which, by 1914, has dramatically changed the face of Europe and the nature of technology. Other worlds go farther still.

The delight of Steampunk, of course, is that there is no "right" way. There are wrong ways, of course -- changes which are not internally consistent, or which have ramifications on society which the author hasn't considered. But within the limits which apply to any science fiction or fantasy world-building, the issue is less what is permissible and more what is wanted. What purpose does the world serve? What sorts of experiences and situations do you want it to produce?

For myself, I enjoy weaving historical characters into the story, and playing off of some of their known interests, strengths, and of course weaknesses. That requires a world broadly similar to our own for those same people to be in approximately the same situations as their historical counterparts. Likewise, a broad similarity in geo-political issues gives the reader or gamer a comfortable starting point, and makes the departures from the actual timeline more noticeable.

The rules of story-telling, however, suggest that what departures are made be made with a purpose, and one which advances the story or enhances the atmosphere. Differences for the sake of difference -- the British Army looking just like it does in our world, except their tunics are purple instead of red -- aren't much more than annoying distractions.

At least that's the way I see it.


  1. Oh, dear. I am a big fan of your Space: 1889 setting...but in its previous incarnation, I guess. I'm not sure how keeping the Confederacy around got to be en vogue - this would be indistinguishable from Deadlands, Aces & Eights, etc. - but I'll keep my States United in 1889, thanks!

  2. Theres always a temptation when you make a setting thats divergent to keep diverging it or introduce a lot of unrelated divergences.
    I remember from Conklins Atlas (the panama ship railroad) that things were always a bit different technologically - which seemed to fit the setting. But killing off Lincoln for an unrelated reason and resurrecting the CSA seems to be pointless change just for the sake of it.

  3. This was a change which I suspected would be the most controversial. I never felt I had done North America justice in the original background to Space: 1889, and often "fixing" it the second time around is more difficult than getting it right at first. Nevertheless, I felt the continent needed a central conflict-driving change. The regional rivalry between North and South at that time was very real, but had been rendered dormant in the 1880s, first by the North's victory, and then by the end of Reconstruction. The residue of hostility certainly caused strife, but not the sort which make the stuff of Steampunk adventure.

    The internal conflict in the Old Confederacy was very real, but disappeared in the wake of defeat and occupation and is largely forgotten today. Grant, ion his Vicksburg campaign, had complete intelligence on Confederate troop movements by virtue of the railroad workers (about the closest the South had to an "industrial proletariat") being Northern sympathizers and passing the information through the lines on a daily basis. One county in central Mississippi seceded from the Confederacy to remain part of the Union. Grierson's raiders were welcomed to Newton Station with a barbeque, not met with sullen resentment, and a pursuing web of Confederate cavalry was never able to locate an entire brigade of Union cavalry moving through central Mississippi because Grierson was moving through friendly territory and the Confederates were the ones dealing with an uncooperative local population which consistently misled them as to Grierson's movements.

    To me, that's a fascinating look at a region which is not nearly as simple as it is portrayed in the post-war mythos of the Lost Cause, and it's a story all but lost today. But had the Confederacy survived as a political entity, those embers of resistance to it -- which cut across economic lines, which divided small-holding farmers from river-bank plantation-owners, and rural gentry from a growing urban middle-class and a skilled workforce whose interests lie with scientific progress and industrialization -- would have survived and grown. That sort of cultural struggle is, to my mind, the stuff of Steampunk.

  4. I like the divided America change. The American Civil War wasn't as cut and dry as modern revisionist historians would like everyone to believe. The divison will add another level of intrigue to a game even if it is set off world. Union and Confererate supporters far from the Americas, even off world,working at cross purposes or being forced to work together against a mutual threat.
    It also opens up a myriad of adventure ideas and possibilities inside the American continent. I started a couple campaigns of Space 1889 in the USA that eventually went off world. The beginning adventures in both played more like old west adventures than VSF. The Untamed West is were the adventure was. With the CSA surviving, now there will be conflict everywhere and you can set a campaign anywhere in the North or South. An example of the North/South conflict
    from our own timeline would be Frederick Townsend Ward a mercenary that fought for the Imperial Chinese during the Taiping Rebellion. His pro-Southern views caused anxiety among other europeans fighting for the Chinese.
    I also like the Mexican Empire surviving. Maybe the Mondragon automatic rifle will be fielded a bit earlier, or Imperial Mexican aspritations on Mars leading to a Battle of the Martian Alamo.
    The changes are for the better.

    A final disclaimer is that I am from the South and I am saving my Confederate money.


  5. It's Frank's world, of course, so it's his world to change. But whereas anyone with some sense recognizes that the Civil War wasn't "cut and dried", that was a full 24 years before the Victorian era, and doesn't exactly beg the question of "where is the conflict?". I also don't see any need for additional conflict on the North American continent - didn't we have Reconstruction, the Western Frontier, and the Indian Wars? Isn't America a second-rate power struggling to become a major power? More to the point, don't we have enough racism and exploitation in an 1889 world without raising the dead specter of the Confederacy?

    I loved 2300AD as well, but am happy to see yet another New South, Texas Republic and Mexican Empire firmly kept there and out of the Victorian era.

  6. ...Anyway, I guess what it really comes down to is that I preferred (history + the space conceit) to (a very alternate history + the space conceit). To each his own. No Confederacy or Communist France for me in 1889, but I recognize others will love it.

  7. The Commune was interesting, but I would hardly call it Communist. It was radical enough for its day to make traditionalists jump out of their skins, but its policies were pretty mild stuff by today's standards -- separation of church and state, universal public education, shorter work weeks, pensions for the widows and orphans of war casualties, and a committment to democratic decision-making. Not exactly hair-raising stuff, but enough to stir things up in the other capitals of Europe.

  8. Very interesting idea. I notice that you have Mr. Lincoln passing in 1862. I'm assuming this was before he had the opportunity to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
    The Emancipation Proclamation was, IMO, the "Game Changer" if you will. It elevated the war from essentially a struggle over the limits of the central governments authority to a moral crusade.
    It pretty much torpedoed any hope the Confederacy might have had for any kind of foreign recognition. It gave the Union the moral high ground. It was a brilliant strategic move. Quite possibly the single most important one of the war.
    Without it, the American Civil War could have had an entirely different outcome and in the world of Space:1889 it did.

  9. Frank F,
    Correct. Lincoln contracted the disease in July, while visiting the army on the James Peninsula, shortly after the Seven Days Battles. The army did suffer grievously from typhoid fever at that time. The historic Emancipation Proclamation, of course, was not issued until September.

  10. Theres so many side issues that come to mind about this.
    -How does the Confederacy view their win? Lucky break or the expected outcome of Southern fighting spirit?
    - With a large industrial northern neighbour, how fast is the Confederacy going to be forced to undergo major social and economic reforms and industrialise themselves?
    - With Egyptian Cotton becoming a bulk item (thanks to the blocade during the civil war) does the Confederacy even have an economy to recover?
    - I can picture some border areas constantly in a state of civil unrest (west Virginia for example)
    - If its pre-Emancipation, and considering the Confederacys economy has probably tanked, what are the odds that by 1889 theres talk of remerging with amendments to the US constitution to firmly limit federal rights?
    - Oh and what does Canada make of all this?

  11. Dear Frank,

    Thanks so much for sharing! I'm fascinated by the possibilities that come from a successful secession. (OTL=our timeline)
    -Do the Russians still sell Alaska to the Union? I hope not, because of the adventure possibilities that arise from confrontations between Russia and Britain in the Pacific NorthWest (especially with the pending Yukon gold rush!)
    -With the Confederacy courting Britain, how does that affect Anglo-Union relations? Does the Pig War fizzle out? OTL's Pig War had a negotiated settlement mediated by Germany, who decided in favour of the US. With an Anglo-German alliance, would the Kaiser choose the same way, or would the alliance prevent the Germans from being the mediators?
    -The Fenian Raids - lots of questions here. The raids were shut down quickly, mostly due to a crackdown on them by US officials. If the Union is not inclined to discourage the Fenians, they could cause a great deal more trouble than they managed in OTL. It's unlikely they'd have had the resources to overthrow British North America (aka Canada), but the result would probably be a much more militarised Canadian society. On the other hand, with a much shorter ACW, would there be the same number of Irish war veterans to conduct the raids?
    -With an expanding, potentially hostile USA, would the Canadian government be content with 300 North West Mounted Police to secure sovereignty over the North West Territory? Would the force be larger, or even of a different nature (army compared to police)?
    -How would the US respond to NWMP moving in to restrict the whisky traders in the NWT?
    -How would the US respond to the Louis Riel-led Metis uprisings in 1870 and 1885?

    I'm definitely looking forward to seeing more as the alt-history is unveiled! Great Game adventures in the Yukon! Fenian Brotherhood in Toronto! Redcoats vs Union Blue on San Juan Island!

  12. Andrew,
    Good questions. As I suggested above, there is no monolitic "Confederate" view of the post-war world. Cotton has never recovered as a driving force for the economy, which has eroded the political power of the plantation owners, but not so much that they are politically impotent. Their leadership is challenged by a rising industrial/mercantile class, but the challenges facing Southern industrialization are very daunting and the economy (and society) is still predominantly rural and agricultural. Small-hold farms growing foodstuffs, particularly in the western half of the Old South, are increasingly important. In general, the economy has never come completely back. There are reunificationist sentiments throughout the south, but they are still a minority. In places they have produced violence -- sometimes against the Confederate government (or its local representatives), sometimes by the local authorities against "traitors."

  13. Will,

    More excellent questions.

    Alaska is still Russian.

    I don't see a different resolution of the Pig War, since the Kaiser's historical mediation was delivered at a time when the Anglo-German alliance was essentially the same as it is in the Space: 1889 history. That said, I see generally elevated tensions along the US/Canadian border and a major Fenian incident in 1888 bringing the two nations to the brink of war. War does not break out, but the atmosphere in 1889 is staill charged with hostility and suspicion on both sides.

    The 1870 Riel Rebellion is an interesting subject. I'm inclined to think the US would not have intervened at that time, in part because it was still recovering from the Civil War. 1885 is a different matter, and a limited intervention might have been undertaken. Of course, by 1885 Riel had gone pretty bonkers, near as I can tell, but word of that would be slow getting south, and might be dismissed as Canadian propaganda at first. So there might have been a few shots fired then, which would contribute to the heightened tensions along the border.

  14. No need for any US Army troops to be involved for the US to affect the outcome of the 1885 Rebellion. The US could "facilitate" arms shipments to the Metis, and even help the Fenians should they choose to "assist" the Metis.



  15. Tonight, AMC showed DW Griffith's "Birth of a Nation". It's an extremely powerful film and considered one of the early masterpieces of film making. While sentiments expressed in the movie are, IMO, abhorrent, I would still recommend this movie as it provides an insight into the mind of the Southerners of that time. In terms of Space:1889, I suspect this is the point of view of the plantation aristocracy.
    In fact, it would probably be even more exacerbated by the "Freedom Raids" that the Union conducts.

  16. One thing to remember is that the CSA's constitution purposely weakened the Federal Government and strengthen the State's power. It did give the President of the CSA a line item veto, but it also gave that same power to the Congress.

    The CSA Constitution prohibited the Federal government from benefitting one state over an other. It also prevented the Federal government from:

    "3. To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes; but neither this, nor any other clause contained in the Constitution, shall ever be construed to delegate the power to Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvement intended to facilitate commerce..."

    This pretty much means no interstate railroad, at least not one funded by Federal dollars. The only thing they could was to maintain the waterways and navigational aids. But, then they would charge the costs of doing this directly to the industries and commercial interests that would directly benefit from this work.

    This makes me think that there would eventually be a constitutional crises between the states with direct ocean access and those that line the Mississippi. Those railroads you mentioned may only be local nets in each state, with a cross border links regulated only to a few locations. Since there would be no national standard, it's quite possible that a centrally located state, like Mississippi or Alabama might use a different rail gauge on purpose to control rail trade through their state.

    My final question is how strongly does the Union hold on to the Western territories or do some of them move to secede from a now weaken Union government?

  17. Kedamono,
    Welcome. I believe it is clear from the start that the pro-slavery planters, who supplied the political elites of the Confederacy, saw theit own emerging mercantile/industrial class as the most serious threat to their political dominance. The constitution was structured to make sure the federal government could not promote commerce in any way. By the same token, the states were prohibited from making any agreements with neighboring states regulating commerce, so it did not shift the power to promote commerce to the states; it effectively abolished it. That's one of the reasons the Confederacy would still be struggling economically in 1889.

    As to the western states, I don't see any of them breaking off. The Confederacy also set their constitution up so that a state had to enter as a slave state, and the West did not lend itself to the plantation economy which made slavery at least marginally economical. Also, the importance of railroads to the cattle industry meant neither power group -- farmers or ranchers, had much to gain from changing allegiance.