A spoon of Moorcock, a dash of Morrison and a cup of Gibson: inspirations for alternative history in The Sterling Directive
Reading comics and graphic novels as a teenager is where I first came stories where pasts and futures weren’t changed (for example by time travel – something I’d already come across in science fiction) but were blended together, normally in the Victorian era and apparently as something called ‘steampunk’. There are a few theories about when and how this term was coined but, in part, it results from considering the question: what if the Victorians had access to steam-powered computing and technology?
This question has been answered in different ways by a multitude of works including the likes of Michael Moorcock’s The Land Leviathan, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, Bryan Talbot’s Luther Arkwright comics, Grant Morrison’s Sebastian O graphic novel and, of course, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (This is by no means intended as a definitive list – that’s a daunting task that I’ll put off for another day – these are just the stories from my own reading led me in this direction).
The first scene of the Sterling Directive that I wrote was the start of the duel on a station platform in Chapter 1. When I wrote this, I didn’t know who the characters were, or why they were duelling, but what I did know was that it was in London, in the 1890s, the hero was an army officer and that he’d bought a ticket to go duelling which was, for some reason, a perfectly legal thing to do in this timeline and that somewhere overhead there was almost certainly an airship.
At which point I had the idea of writing something in an alternative timeline. Once that was decided, the next step was to think about how far to deviate from history. Some alt-history fiction can be very alternative – China Miéville’s Perdito Street Station for example takes place in a completely different world, adds aliens, trans-dimensional beings and magic and still manages to weave it all together as a coherently and excellent recognisably steampunk whole. Other books and series stay in Victorian London but add magic, vampires or other supernatural elements – you can see this in the recent Netflix series Carnival Row for example.
I felt instinctively that I wanted to try and create a recognisable alternative not too far from our own world. A changed setting that supported the story rather than being the story itself, one that was alternative but alternative ‘in the background’, as it were, as part of a believable world that had evolved organically away from actual history rather than something that felt like a completely new world. William Gibson is a big influence here, partly of course because of the Difference Engine but especially his ‘Sprawl’ series which, I think, does such a great job of revealing a dystopian future as a world that seemed as natural to me as a reader as it did to the characters within it.
The point from which the alternative timeline starts in The Sterling Directive is Charles Babbage’s invention of the Difference and Analytical Engines. Babbage had his ideas for these mechanical computers in the first half of the 19th century but, for a range of reasons, not least of which was insufficient financial backing, they never got off the ground. A recurring theme in steampunk storytelling is that the Engines were actually a success and kick-started a Victorian computer age, and that’s also what I took as my starting point.
I reasoned that this would begin around 1850. In my version of history Babbage exhibited a fully functioning prototype of the analytical engine at the Great Exhibition that would play a version of ‘pong’ with visitors, and that by 1896 (when the Sterling Directive is set) computers would be in domestic use. I saw this as broadly analogous to the time elapsed between the use of the Bletchley Park ‘bombes’ in the second world war and the spread of basic personal computers at home in the mid to late 1980s and that’s the benchmark that I took for what was possible and what might be different in terms of technology.
Add this to the telegraph which was already a sort of Victorian internet (see Tom Standage’s excellent book of that name) and you have a technological background that would be familiar to most readers: an ‘on-wire salon’ is a sort of chat room, the character Patience is a ‘tapper’, which is the equivalent of a hacker, and the main character, Sterling, has a long-distance conversation by text with his brother.
With a broad sense of the end point in terms of computing technology in place, I thought about how different aspects of life: society, politics and commerce might be affected along the way and began to sketch out what this alternative world might look like. Some changes would be small (motorised taxis rather than horse-drawn carriages) and some would be bigger (transatlantic airships) and some would be fundamentally different (the Confederate States of America).
I say ‘sketch out’ and, indeed, I started the book with nothing more than some rough ideas about what the world look like. It was only through writing the characters and having them start navigating the world that some of the details came into focus. Over the course of writing, rewriting and editing the book my alternative world gradually evolved as a suitable backdrop to what I hope is an exciting story, something that the younger me would have been delighted to add to his reading list: part historical thriller, part science fiction with a dash of quirky invention.
Book Title: The Sterling Directive
Author: Tim Standish
Publication Date: 20 August 2020
Page Length: 304 pages
Genre: Alt-historical thriller
It is 1896. In an alternative history where Babbage’s difference engines have become commonplace, Captain Charles Maddox, wrongly convicted of a murder and newly arrested for treason, is rescued from execution by a covert agency called the Map Room.
Maddox is given the choice of taking his chances with the authorities or joining the Map Room as an agent and helping them uncover a possible conspiracy surrounding the 1888 Ripper murders. Seeing little choice, Maddox accepts the offer and joins the team of fellow agents Church and Green. With help from the Map Room team, Maddox (now Agent Sterling) and Church investigate the Ripper murders and uncover a closely guarded conspiracy deep within the British Government. Success depends on the two of them quickly forging a successful partnership as agents and following the trail wherever, and to whomever, it leads.
An espionage thriller set in an alternative late 19th-century London.
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1789650852/
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1789650852/
Amazon CA: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/1789650852/
Amazon AU: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/1789650852/
Tim Standish grew up in England, Scotland and Egypt. Following a degree in Psychology, his career has included teaching English in Spain, working as a researcher on an early computer games project, and working with groups and individuals on business planning, teamworking and personal development.
He has travelled extensively throughout his life and has always valued the importance of a good book to get through long flights and long waits in airports. With a personal preference for historical and science fiction as well as the occasional thriller, he had an idea for a book that would blend all three and The Sterling Directive was created.
When not working or writing, Tim enjoys long walks under big skies and is never one to pass up a jaunt across a field in search of an obscure historic site. He has recently discovered the more-exciting-than-you-would-think world of overly-complicated board games.
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Author image taken by Hannah Couzens Photography.
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