Steampunk Journal contributor Gregory Rihn interviewed Steampunk writer Robyn Bennis, author of The Guns Above, and By Fire Above, at Geneva Steam Con, March 8th, 2019
Interview with Robyn Bennis
GREGORY: You have a very interesting background in biomedical sciences. I was curious as to why you chose to write steampunk rather than something like James White’s Sector General books or Robin Cook’s Coma or something like that.
ROBYN: Well, you know they say write what you know but one of the issues with that is that what you know is often boring to you. In particular I have a problem figuring out what’s interesting to people in biology and medicine and even the tech sector.
All right so you’re saying that you don’t know what people would be interested in by your technical speciality.
Yeah, because I find interest in obscure designs and you know stories about frozen heads and not everyone is in the arts. Oh sure.
So why Steampunk?
I love the aesthetics of it. It feels like a limitless genre. It’s set in a fairly interesting, in the apocryphal you know Chinese saying sense of the word, interesting time in history. Just being able to explore colonialism and empire building and the really weird politics that occurred in the Victorian era appeals to me.
I like to add a little bit of commentary and you know a little bit of hazing to history. So Steampunk offers limitless opportunities for that.
For your milieu in The Guns Above and By Fire Above it’s not our world it’s a different world but it seems to be for the tech level and the military tactics that I observe kind of Napoleonic War equivalent.
But they have airships and they have steam engines. Why did you decide to set it at that kind of time period or that kind of political period?
Part of it is that we were almost there in our actual history. Balloon reconnaissance was briefly explored mostly by the French and I believe a little bit by the Italians in that period. And I just kind of wanted to see what would happen there if you just go all in for that. I like taking some technology and then trying to work out what differences and politics and Zeitgeist of the era would occur due to that and this offers a wonderful opportunity for that.
I was really interested. Have you made any study of military tactics or anything like that?
A little bit. I began as you know about a day after I conceived the guns. I started looking into to. Napoleonic military tactics and it’s more complicated than you might know.
It’s not just lining up and shooting at people. So fitting that into a world where reconnaissance can potentially be almost perfect creates an interesting little wrinkle. In particular, I believe a year ago I would have remembered the title of the book but it is a historical look at Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign so essentially the British and Spanish fighting the French. Wellington’s favorite tactic was placing his troops on the reverse side of the hill so that when the French marched up in there – you know, in their column formations – they would be surprised. They wouldn’t realize how close they’d gotten to the English troops and as they tried to deploy into their fighting lines the English would just tear them apart.
That’s impossible with airships unless of course you can shoot down your enemies airships or they have a chance to take a look behind those hills and see where the troops are hiding.
And that was a real factor in Napoleonic warfare trying to find the enemy, keep the enemy’s exploring officers from finding you, things like that.
I think you read my review of The Guns Above. I was really fascinated by the airship battle that’s the climax of the book because it reminded me very much of Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October with submarines. Because whoever sees the other one first is the winner.
Yeah. And in certain weather conditions, that seems likely to be the case in an airship as well. Mostly I started with the idea of having an airship and I work backwards. I’m not an engineer by trade but I had a lot of engineer friends and picked up a few things here and there and certainly an interest in engineering. So starting with the idea that I wanted to have airships in this story I first worked out how they might semi plausibly work.
I don’t want to say plausibly but have a “might semi plausibly” worth and what the implications of that would be in actual operation of these ships. And of course I put cannons on the air because you’re. It’s in reality that you know those cannons would tear the ship apart each time you fired them. But if you can put cannons on an airship in a story, why wouldn’t you?
Well yes absolutely. And you seem to have done some research on airship engineering because the issues that she has with the hull stresses is very realistic and well described I think.
Yes. The fact there is an event about a third of the way into the book in the first book that comes about where there is an issue with the tail of the ship not being as strong as it needs to be able to do a turn. And it’s almost tempting to think that a big piece of engineering like an airship would turn slow enough that you wouldn’t have to worry about those stresses. But in fact they can achieve quite fast speeds and when you turn an object that big at you know 20 30 40 miles per hour it puts an enormous amount of strain on the ships and largely empirically we discovered in the real world that an inordinate amount of that stress ends up on the tail.
I believe it was – I want to say 1932, I might be misremembering – but it was an airship that was in British hands at the time that was meant to be transferred into American service. And it suffered an accident very similar to the loss that the airship in my book suffers. It’s largely modeled on that kind of event.
I was also impressed by the grittiness and the reality of the house to house combat in Durum in By Fire Above. How do you get the feeling for that?
Like every great author I stole a lot of it. I’m trying to remember the name of the author. Should be at the tip of my tongue but my memory is going. Even in my late thirties.
Yes yes. Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Rifles series features a number in insight. A few of the books that he had some really brutal coming out. Yeah. He does not pull any punches when it comes to how awful fighting in that area was.
I did a little bit of my own reading. There was some such combat during the Peninsular Campaign and if you’re researching Wellington you learn about that.
The series starts out with Josette Dupree who’s in a dead end assignment in the women’s auxiliary of the Garnian air service, having a catastrophic success.
She’s the last officer left on the airship that crashes on the strategic point to rout the enemy at this huge battle. And of course semi on purpose. This is a critical area and she gets promoted into being an actual line officer. And I was wondering if there’s some similarities with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower?
Do you have a career arc plotted out for Josette yet and is she eventually going to be Madam Admiral of the Sky?
I don’t know yet. There’s no arc for her plotted out to quite that level of detail. I don’t think that’s in her future. Not unless she rebels and forms her own nation on the principles of utilitarianism, and not paternalism. I don’t have it plotted out in that quite that level of detail but I certainly have some ideas in mind. So you know if people keep buying the first two books they will certainly get to see that.
Are you working on one at the present time?
Well currently I’m not working on the third book. The sales on the first two have not been quite enough to justify that but that situation could change. If sales keep up we could certainly see a third book and possibly a unlimited series.
How do you work up to present a very interesting character, as you said in the Panel the other day, a kick-ass woman that shoots people. How did you come up with her?
That is an excellent question. I know all of my characters kind of come from some area of my brain; especially the bad ones. Josette I suppose is, you know, the person that I would like to believe I would be in her personal situation. I’m reasonably sure I would not be but a girl can dream. So, you know, obviously I did. I am a big fan of C.S. Forester’s work. I am a big fan of Patrick O’Brien’s work, the Aubrey and Maturin series. I think you can almost imagine Josette as a person that would emerge if Hornblower and Captain Jack Aubrey had a child and raised it together.
How about Bernal? He’s very interesting and not the kind of character you would think of to be her foil.
Yeah. Bernal is a jerk. He is an ignorant jerk. And I did in fact draw quite a bit on my bio tech background for that one that is in fact probably the area where I took the most from real life from my actual experience.
Now I imagine that you haven’t actually met many noblemen in your biological career, but jerky people basically.
Yes I’ve certainly met a lot of people who seem to feel entitled to everything despite their actual balance sheets. Bernal gets better with experience which you know is certainly the case with some people in the real world. Not everybody certainly does.
So have you read much other Steampunk?
Yeah of course immediately when someone asked me that question I immediately blank of course but to just pick the books that pop to the top of my mind. There is Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, and I cannot recommend it enough. There’s Dreadnought by Cheri Priest.
What would you like to say to the steampunk readers? Why should they read your book?
Well as you said it is about a bad-ass woman who shoots people. If you’re looking for thoughtful gritty sort of steampunk experience that draws heavily on the real world and real engineering and real politics and real battlefield strategies, I think you’ll enjoy The Guns Above.
Thank you very much.
Another interview by Gregory R.H. Rihn: Interview with Katherine Addison