I’ve often told the story of how the short story “Pimp My Airship” started as a joke gone awry on Twitter. When the story was actually requested, I had to build a world. The main criticism the story received was that there seemed to be a lot of world that the reader barely gets to see in the five-thousand-word story. When I fleshed out the origins of the Star Child, it led to the novelette “Steppin’ Razor”; and a throwaway line about “the Five Civilized Nations of the northwest territories and the Tejas Free Republic” led to the novella Buffalo Soldier. I won’t lie, the criticism still followed me. Perhaps they had a point about how much world I can compact into a story. That’s because my favorite part of the writing process is worldbuilding since that’s when I really get to play. For Pimp My Airship, I allow myself plenty of room to build out my world. Its creation centers around three areas:
Pimp My Airship is both steamfunk (think steampunk through a black cultural lens) and an alternate history. So, when sitting down to begin, I had to come up with a “What if…?” starting point (aka point of divergence aka break point). In my created timeline, America lost the Revolutionary War. With that in mind, I have to think through the implications of this event and project through to a future. What wars happened, what wars didn’t happen. What the government looks like (and where is the seat of power lies). The economic system (such as the impact on slavery). Social mores (this is still a sub-genre of steampunk after all). Thus, we have the American colony of Albion, the dynamo of the empire which proudly stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, between the “Five Civilized Nations” of the northwest territories and the Tejas Free Republic of the southwest territories.With its plantation farms and free labor force, America was the dirty sweatshop engine that propelled the Empire. Even the upper crust of the American social strata was held in tacit contempt by the Albion proper, as they were unwilling to acknowledge how the empire managed to keep its hands clean. Once I have a rough idea of the landscape of the greater world, I can home in on a specific setting.
Most of my stories take place in, or are centered around, Indianapolis. Pimp My Airship gave me the excuse to reimagine it as a retrofuture setting where the poor and marginalized are corralled. To design this world and give it a sense of history, I explored the Indiana Historical Society library to find the original layout for the city and find reference photos for the turn of the century architecture. Those of an African bloodline, no matter how much or little ran in their veins, were relegated to a state of vague emancipation in the undercity. Dismissed to ghettos — pacified by legalized, free-flowing drugs — a terra incognita somehow lost between the cartographer’s callipers. Or they were imprisoned. Either way, not living in the massive, industrial overcity, the keepers of the sunlight, with its skyways, automatons, and elevated rails.
Creating the Soundtrack
The sub-genre called steamfunk derived its name from the fact that to write the original story, I listened to Parliament-Funkadelic on a loop. In fact, some of the group’s mythos pops up in the story from the idea of the Bop Gun to the presence of the Star Child. But the influence of music didn’t end there. X-Clan’s classic album, To the East, Blackwards, informs quite a bit of the character (120 Degrees of) Knowledge Allah’s voice. And each chapter takes its title from a classic hip hop song, thus they form the soundtrack to this novel (fun fact: most of the titles of the stories in my steampunk universe are taken from classic hip hop — or reggae in the case of “Steppin’ Razor” and Buffalo Soldier — songs.
The whole point of building a world isn’t just to provide a setting, but also to create an obstacle course for our protagonists to navigate. While a magician never reveals the secrets to their tricks, it doesn’t hurt to pull back the curtain for a quick peek. There are plenty of Easter eggs buried in the text, some stuff mostly to amuse me, but also for the nerds who will get them. All of it adds up to a world that hopefully feels fully realized and as real as any other character in the book.
Warning: Don’t Believe the Hype!
All the poet called Sleepy wants to do is spit his verses, smoke chiba, and stay off the COP’s radar — all of which becomes impossible once he encounters a professional protestor known as (120 Degrees of) Knowledge Allah. They soon find themselves on the wrong side of local authorities and have to elude the powers that be.
When young heiress Sophine Jefferson’s father is murdered, the careful life she’d been constructing for herself tumbles around her. She’s quickly drawn into a web of intrigue, politics and airships, joining with Sleepy and Knowledge Allah in a fight for their freedom. Chased from one end of a retro-fitted Indianapolis to the other, they encounter outlaws, the occasional circus, possibly a medium, and more outlaws. They find themselves in a battle much larger than they imagined: a battle for control of the country and the soul of their people.
The revolution will not be televised!
Also on CR: Interview with Maurice Broaddus (2017)