Writer. Adventurer. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a series of steampunk novels and short stories.
A common theme in steampunk literature revolves around avoiding the Great War. I did some research for myself (since my last history class was a looooong time ago), and thought this article that came out of it might have value for other aspiring steampunk writers.
World War I, until the occurrence of a second world war two and a half decades later, was referred to as the Great War. Never had so much of the globe been drawn into conflict on such a scale with weapons of war so terribly devastating. It is considered one of the deadliest conflicts in world history with over 9 million combatant deaths and 7 million civilian casualties.
While steampunk is usually considered to span the lifetime of Queen Victoria, it often is stretched through the Edwardian period until the advent of World War I in 1914. This event is the firm top end of the genre. Steampunk’s cousin diesel punk takes over here and covers the period through World War II. The dropping of the atomic bombs paves the way for modern science fiction.
The 30 years leading up to the Great War were a time of alliance building by the major world powers in Europe. The Triple Entente included the United Kingdom, France, and Russia, and the Triple Alliance was formed between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. Each member guaranteed mutual support to the other members in the event of an attack by a member of the opposing great powers. Japan, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States did not choose sides and enter the war until later.
This period was also characterized by a naval arms race, primarily between the British and Germans, as nations built battleships of size and power never before seen on the ocean. A notable vessel of this time was the HMS Dreadnought, the first battleship to use steam turbines in place of the older steam engines. She entered into the British Royal Navy in 1906 and became the namesake for a new generation of battleships.
The significant event lighting the powder keg of Europe was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austria-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo. The assassin was Yugoslavian Gavrilo Princip, whose goals were freedom from Austria and unity of the South Slavic population in the Balkans and surrounding area. The following July Crisis led to Austria-Hungary issuing an ultimatum to the Kingdom of Serbia. If the terms were accepted, Serbia would have essentially no longer been an independent nation. It could not accept all the terms, and on July 28, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia.
Because the scope of the conflict as well as linchpin events such as the assassination, preventing the Great War is a notable trope of the steampunk genre. It is usually set in the period of European alliance building of the late 1800s or early 1900s, a time fraught with political intrigue. The heroes are called upon to stop the villains by subverting one of the historical events leading to World War I, thereby creating an alternate history if the setting did not already exist.
Sometimes the heroes are successful, and the catastrophic war is averted. However, there were many factors leading to the war, so often the heroes only buy a reprieve. There is also a subtheme that the war was inevitable, and if the heroes stop one villain, another villain will rise up and accomplish his goals, thereby starting the war. A subversion of this trope is that the heroes in their attempt to stop the war actually start the war in the first place.