Your new story for Lightspeed, “Harry and Marlowe and the Talisman of the Cult of Egil,” features two characters that you’ve written about before, most recently in your story for John Joseph Adams’s upcoming anthology, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination. What is it about Harry and Marlowe that keeps bringing you back?
Lots of reasons. They’re fun. I like the buddy-adventure format. They’re my excuse to write steampunk-type stories. I like having a ready-made setting and characters I can use to tell certain kinds of stories—such as neo-Victorian pulp adventure. Now that I’ve written a couple of stories using them as a catalyst, I want to write a couple that are about them specifically: where they came from, how they met, and so forth. That’s the thing about these kinds of characters, they really expand.
Harry is a plucky protagonist, determined to get what she wants and do what she wants, and nobody can tell her otherwise. Did anybody or anything in particular inspire her character?
She was inspired by a type rather than anyone specific. I’ve had a character like her in mind for a very long time—a woman who bucks tradition to go have adventures. I’ve read a lot of Victorian adventure stories, and I really wanted to see that kind of story but with a woman adventurer. It’s been done before (Agatha Heterodyne is an example that comes to mind), and there were actually quite a few real-life Victorian women who went adventuring. Harry is my take on the trope.
After the rousing escape and rescue by gondola, the reader is suddenly propelled into a steampunk world. What appeals to you about steampunk, and incorporating science fictional elements into it? Is it tricky to balance the fantastic against science fiction in a steampunk world?
Like a lot of people I’m attracted by the aesthetics of steampunk. It appeals to the anglophile and costumer in me. Also, big unlikely machines, ray guns, and all kinds of weirdness. What’s not to like? I agree with the idea that steampunk is more fantastical and less science fiction. Just as urban fantasy asks “what if vampires and werewolves were real?” steampunk asks, “what if some of the scientific ideas that were being investigated a century or so ago, that turned out to be inaccurate, were real?” It can be liberating, exploring some of those ideas. That said, I want the stories to seem as plausible as possible. We know exactly how dirigibles work, so I can’t diverge from that. On the other hand, my alternate history starts with the crash of an alien spacecraft in Surrey, and I can do just about anything with the reverse-engineered technology that comes out of that. Making it as plausible as I can involves the same effort as writing anything speculative—I have to establish my rules and stay consistent.
Why do you think Harry & Marlowe are holding themselves back from being together?
Because Harry is Princess Maud, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and Marlowe is a commoner. It’s really that simple. They’re a product of their place and time, and it’s going to take a little more effort to get them past that class boundary.
What does Harry get out of running away as she does, seeking this sort of adventure? Given her easy camaraderie with Marlowe, one has the feeling this is not the first time they’ve done this.
It’s not, and one of the stories I want to write is how they came to be partners in these spy-thriller escapades. My Harry diverges pretty radically from the historical Princess Maud, but the real Maud really was called Harry by her family when she was young—she was apparently quite a tomboy. I took that nugget and ran with it—once she got the opportunity to do something more than be a polite ornament, she grabbed it and ran. In the world of my stories, I imagine her brother, the Crown Prince (in my history, their father, Edward, died before Victoria and never became King), finds it useful having a secret agent very close to him whom he can trust utterly. And whom no one suspects.
Will we ever find out what the Aetherian talisman does? A next installment to this story, perhaps?
Who knows? I think the next story may go back in time rather than forward, to tell how Harry and Marlowe met, but the stories so far have been about Aetherian technology, and the next step that Marlowe is particularly eager to take—traveling into space. Maybe the talisman will be the key to that.
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