Tiffany Trent has a new book coming out this month (August 14th!), The Unnaturalists, which I consider a steampunk novel that boldly goes where other steampunk novels don’t in terms of asking some of the harder questions concerning the Victorian era. Like most good fantasy, Tiffany addresses the reality of our history square on, even though she does it in a fantasy. This is a great book for young people, and I hope that it gets the attention it deserves. Look for this cover:
Tiffany was kind enough to answer some questions for Writer Tamago.
Tamago: In the Unnaturalists, the main character is a biologist. Can you discuss how much your own background in the sciences affected your portrayal of Vespa?
Tiffany: Vespa and I are dissimilar in most other ways, but this is probably the one subject where we share a common love. From an early age, I’ve been enamored of biology. In college, I would visit my zoology professor and we would talk for hours about everything from anoles to neuron function. Vespa would likely do the same thing; I wish I’d had more time to show that, but alas, the story ran away with us.
Tamago: Darwin is sainted in the Unnaturalists. Can you discuss the ways in which the theories of Charles Darwin affect your plot, both in a good way and a bad way?
Tiffany: I think Darwin’s influence in New London is much as it was with that of the real London and subsequently the world. He taught us about the amazing beauty and diversity of life on this planet and gave us possibilities for how that came to be over millions of years. But his theories unfortunately spurred others like Herbert Spencer to proselytize for social Darwinism, which legitimized racism and imperialism. The same is true in New London with the treatment of both the Unnaturals and the Tinkers. While there is beautiful diversity being studied in the Unnaturals, they are also not considered anything more than specimens. The only problem is that they are the very life force upon which all the world depends.
Tamago: Vespa is taught that daughters should be dutiful, and there is even a religious treatise on that subject, yet Vespa is different and continues to be interested in the natural world. What do you hope that this portrayal of Vespa will communicate to your young women readers?
Tiffany: I remember having that realization that we all usually have in our teens that my parents weren’t necessarily right and certainly not perfect. Despite the fact that I had self-knowledge fairly early and knew what I wanted to be and do, I let them talk me out of it. (Obviously, I came back to it, but I feel I lost years and much experience in the process). In my last series, the main character was afraid to be what she was. In these novels, I want to have a main character who is sure what she wants to do, even if she’s not sure how to accomplish it. I hope this will communicate that sometimes we know what’s right for us very early in life and we must follow that star, even at great cost.
Tamago: Many steampunk adventures inadvertently praise colonialism by the omission of discussing it. In The Unnaturalists you deal with it head on regarding the treatment of the Unnaturals. What do you feel this discussion adds to your story?
Tiffany: I think it’s important not to glorify the Victorians. Fascinating they may be, but they did horrible things, both to the natural world and the people who inhabit it. I feel that must definitely be acknowledged. But they also discovered things that we’re still attempting to untangle. Their great scientists solidified Western science and founded the way we still practice it to this day. They gave us another way of looking at the world, but I think we can never forget the sacrifices of those other nations—both natural and human—that helped make it so.
Tamago: It’s hard to choose, but would you discuss one or two scenes in The Unnaturalists that are your favorites?
Tiffany: The process of writing this book sometimes feels as vast as plate tectonics. There were two scenes that were in the original draft that were at the very beginning and actually fed into each other in reverse order from how they’re presented now. One was the carriage crash and the other was the Imperial Matchmaking scene. The former is now in the middle and the other is almost at the end, much diminished in its importance. No matter how many times I tore the book apart, I could not get rid of those two scenes.
Tamago: Are there plans for a sequel to The Unnaturalists? If so, when will it be available?
Tiffany: Yes. It’s been a bit delayed due to health problems this year, but it should be out in 2014, hopefully spring.