So, I find myself preparing an all new short-story, wondering how to pull it off. As much as I'd love to try it, I don't think I can do a Steampunk Cthulhu speculative poem justice at the moment. I should say, though, more than a few tongue-in-cheek titles have come to mind, such as the "Cogs of Cthulhu,""Anna and the King in Yellow," "The Steam Over Innsmouth," and "The Contraption Out of Space." It would be particularly apt to do a steampunk take on "The Fungi From Yuggoth" given that it was a long speculative poem from Lovecraft. Perhaps "The Last Brain to Yuggoth"? Nah.
On a more serious note, however, these are some of the questions I find myself considering as we prepare such a story.
How do you successfully reconcile two seemingly contradictory genres. It's not the subjects. As we've seen with anything from Hong On the Range to Firefly, you can make space westerns work, for example. But to me the greater challenge is resolving the underpinning philosophies.
In Steampunk alternate history, most of the protagonists are outsiders who are alienated from the mainstream society. This is compatible with a Lovecraftian story. However, we find ourselves faced with a genre that typically positions the retro-future as a space where individual pluck, technology and science can overcome any obstacle to save the day. It's often optimistic noir with more than a tinge of romanticism and nostalgia for a by-gone era that never was.
Lovecraftian stories on the other hand, are compatible with Steampunk settings for the brooding, noir atmosphere of decadence and decay. But they also operate within a cosmos where there are things humanity was not meant to know, cannot know, without descending into cosmic insanity. Science, reason, human efforts are feeble and meaningless in the face of all of this.
While both genres are capable of dealing with shades of grey, a Lovecraftian protagonist at best can hope to forget what they have encountered, or at least is going to be squished quickly by the end of the terror. So, what do we do with Steampunk protagonists operating under Lovecraftian conditions?
Of course, to create a good story that is appropriate to the theme I feel you have to navigate a fine line to avoid the criticisms of both genres. For Steampunk, the possibility of Empire-fetish, for Lovecraftian stories, the possibility of exoticizing and demonizing the Other, given his historic fear of foreigners and just about everything else under the sun. Steamcraft at its worst could be filled with many pro-Colonial stories of putting down subhuman, degenerate savage races. And that should raise eyebrows.
Since my hope is to turn in a Steampunk Cthulhu short story set in Laos, which once lived under French colonial rule during this era, there are therefore particular issues I consider such as the necessity to tell a story in which falang appear at all, or have to be acknowledged. With the 160 different ethnic communities that lived in Laos at the time, it's possible and perhaps preferable to create a lost tribe to serve as antagonists rather than use an existing one.
For this story, I'd also rather keep away from noble-fetish, romanticizing the role of elites of the society. In traditional Southeast Asian literature, there's often a tendency to ignore the story of 'commoners' and everyday people in the narratives. It's almost always centered on the princes and princesses. Which too me goes against the 'punk' aspect of steampunk. Their protagonists often work best when they're NOT the ones supposed to be in power.
And of course, as I try to incorporate authentic or historically plausible elements into this work, I hope not to have the problem I had with 'The Journal Who Shall Not Be Named' that apparently had no problem dealing with shoggoths and deep ones, but suggested no one was going to buy into a race called the Hmong, among other things.
But overall, I've found the process to be invigorating and enervating. With a limit of 8,000 words, it seems there's surprisingly little space for world development. I would say the breakdown thus far looks like: 25% world building and setting, 25% characters, 25% plot action, 25% technology and horror. But we'll see what comes out in the final equation.
How would you approach the Steampunk Cthulhu concept?