The History in Steampunk

As I’ve been writing the Australian Steampunk novel, a surprising issue has arisen: how does one deal technically with the boundaries between the real history and fantastical additions? It’s trickier than I thought it would be, partly because it’s a historical novel, so there’s going to be a gap in the reader’s knowledge anyway. I think I’ve mentioned before that Melbourne had some of the tallest buildings in the world in the 1890s, great Victorian sky-scrapers, like the APA building here.

AusAPA1

But if one mentions the great skyscrapers, it’s quite likely the reader will think this is fantasy, rather than reality. The maxim that reality is stranger than fiction here might be recast as history is stranger than fiction. The technical task is to indicate the boundaries of the two, but doing so in an unobtrusive way. Here’s a little bit.

They lit the lantern from the hansom cab, and stepped along the dark tunnel, avoiding the trickles of water and puddles of brackish water. The bluestone roof arched above them, and the place smelled of dank refuse, and Genie hitched her skirt up with both hands. She cursed that she did not have more practical clothes — trousers, to begin with. Luckily her lace-up boots were sturdy enough and without too-high heels (which she regarded as painfully superfluous for the modern woman).
On they went, into the looming darkness, only the little bubble of light surrounding them. Genie felt vulnerable, now and was glad to have detective Lynch’s grim determination beside her. Genie knew that the drains beneath Melbourne connected with older caves and tunnels. In the last decades, as many of them had been built, again and again the work teams had broken through to ancient grottos, filled with stalactites and stalagmites. It was down here that the mole-people lived. By rights, they should have been called wombat people, for there were no moles in Australia. Their history was uncertain. Some said they were originally escaped convicts. Others that the mole people had been there since the beginning.

Melbourne does indeed have lots of drains (and grottos) beneath it, though most were built in the 20th century, I believe, so this is mostly fantasy – though Melbournian readers may think otherwise because it’s based on what later developed, another curious technical consequence of alternate history. Melbourne doesn’t, of course, have older caves down there – so here we enter the realms of fantasy proper. Nor does it have mole people – is there a better name for them? – though it does have the Cave Clan.

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