Saturday, 13 April 2013

Pulp Manifesto - Crimson Skies and fan fiction gone horribly wrong/right.

Thought I’d talk about one of the major inspirations for Tommy Thunder this week on Pulp Manifesto. For those with a passing knowledge of the source material you’ll have a much better understanding of the sort of world the Aether Age is, while other people might be interested in my sordid tale of fan fiction gone horribly wrong/right.

Our journey starts with a little miniatures table top wargame called… Crimson Skies.

For those not in the know, the Crimson Skies world is a setting developed for a tabletop wargame, but is probably better known as a popular computer game that launched with the first X-Box. The tabletop game revolved around air combat set in an alternate universe 1930s setting where zeppelins dominated the sky and whacky planes with strong Art Deco styling either protected or raided said airships with swashbuckling audacity. The X-Box game followed suit with caper-filled air adventures that took you from Hawaii to New York as you followed the exploits of a daring squadron intent on… doing adventurous things.

In terms of pure Dieselpunk style the game is one of the best examples of a self contained Dieselpunk world. And, while the games are no longer being made, what material was produced still serves as many an innocent’s gateway drug to the world of Dieselpunk. More than a few people who received this dose of distilled Dieslpunky goodness have been left hankering for more.

I was one of these un/fortunates. I can’t remember all the details but at some stage during my sordid wargaming past I stumbled across some images of this crazy new world and its completely different take on fantasy or sci-fi or whatever it was. I didn’t know what genre it was and I never actually got a good look at the game itself (tabletop or X-Box) but I saw two things that immediately had me hooked and fantasising about my own adventures in this crazy new world.

The first thing I saw was the retrotech planes. Have you seen them? Here are some examples:

I LOVED the whackiness of these designs. My first exposure to the world was the miniatures and although I was never able to buy any myself I immediately fell in love with the idea of retroteching past eras. And can you smell the adventure? Nothing says adventurous swashbuckling like a push prop, Art deco-styled, pre-jet fighter plane. Nothing! These things dug deep down into my psyche to where that ‘Indiana Jones’ button was and started banging away saying ‘Here! Here! We’ve found something else that’s exactly like this! But with planes!’

The second thing I found – the thing that had me hooked for life – was this image:

 That there is a beautiful thing. It’s a map. Of a balkanised America. A map that provokes adventure and imagination and possibility. And not a single dwarf or elf to be seen anywhere. The minute I saw that thing my imagination was never able to let go of that obscure little world I had glimpsed but never directly experienced myself.

So I imaginated. A lot. As I am want to do. I daydreamed about a world in which I could suit up my whacky fighter plane, deck out a zeppelin and take to the skies in a deadly dance to the death with other similar fighter pilots. A world full of jazz and that cool 1930s styling (I had no idea what Art Deco was, but I liked it). A world of Indiana Jones style hijinks but with the added awesomeness of planes. A world of distinct characters and groups clashing in a world of fun instead of the usual gritty, serious and repetitive worlds that I kept encountering elsewhere in my wargaming and reading wanderings.

Fast forward several years and my Crimson Skies imaginating had joined the catalogue of other alternate worlds sequestered away in the back of my brain archives – there but lying dormant. Every now and then I would take the world out and play around with it, maybe scratch out some ideas or pipedream about being allowed to write a novel or something set in that world, but that’s all it was – pipedreaming. I even went so far as to start writing a comic. It was more an experiment in how to convey air combat in panels (the bane of all air comics – it’s really hard to do) with a Crimson Skies background but it worked really well, giving me more heartbreaking confirmation that I was on to something, but something that breached someone elses copyright. So  I put it back in the imagination archives and got on with my first novel, a novel set in a fantasy world with no magic (yep, I’m one of those people who can never do things the ‘normal’ way).

Then two things happened. First, I ran into some problems with my novel. I hit a wall and discovered that I’m a super detailed planner when it comes to writing. I couldn’t pants a plot to save myself. And I was pantsing my way to a standstill. My solution was to break the story down into smaller sections, a technique I’d been looking at with my newfound interest in old-school pulp writing and movie serials. But then I realised that, structurally speaking, I would be changing the novel and that if I was going to continue doing so I’d need to get more practise. Probably on other stories that were pulped from the beginning. So I sat down and scribbled out ideas for three different pulpy series that I could experiment with. My Crimson Skies idea was one of these ideas and the pulpiest of the lot.

The second thing I did was have a look around for Crimson Skies stuff now that I had this thing called the internet. It had been so long since I first discovered the idea that I wondered if there had been anything else written or wether a new game was coming out etc etc. What I found was a website where they recorded people playing the game so you could watch how each of the levels played out…

You know that thing where your memories of something are cruelly and brutally shanked when you actually go back and see it again as an adult?

Yeah. That.

The Crimson Skies I imagined wasn’t the Crimson Skies that actually existed out there in the real world. It wasn’t bad (it was still a lot of fun) and, objectively speaking, on the surface it was everything I remembered. But the overall effect I had created in my mind was… completely different.

It turns out the Crimson Skies game doesn’t take itself seriously. In many ways it’s actually a parody of the era. Is that a bad thing? No. The way in which it gently parodies itself is charming in its own way. But how are you supposed to take a story seriously if the characters are just caricatures? More importantly, how are you supposed to get your ‘punk on?

And it turns out that the plane designs weren’t original either. They were all based on real World War 2 X-plane designs, experimental planes that were never put into production because they never made the grade. For some reason seeing real world photographs of these machines hoovered away a lot of the romantic awe I had built up in my mind for the world’s originality. Turns out it wasn’t as original as I thought. Turns out it was based on a whole lot of other stuf that, to be honest, I wasn’t that into.

The Henschel Hs P75.

The Curtis Wright XP-55 Ascender.

The Sacks AS-6.

It also meant that the technology of the game included all sorts of post-World War 2 tech like guided missiles, jet engines on every plane and planes loaded down with an absurd number of machine guns. I knew that this was all for the game and simplifying it for more fun but it made me brutally aware that I wanted to scale the tech backwards, not forwards into the Cold-War era. But that’s exactly where Crimson Skies technology was headed – forwards.

And, weirdest of all, I just couldn’t accept the idea that the zeppelins – the very basis of this alternate world – were able to exist the way they did. Here they were laden down with armour and machine guns and planes, all without nary an explanation as to how they achieved the extra lift required. I was watching a world in which jet-enabled push prop aircraft were launching into battle with wings full of guided rockets but I couldn’t accept the fact that they were launched from a standard sized zeppelin with a Tardis-esque cargo bay full of armoured fighters.

I know I’m weird. But it’s the sort of weird I need to harness in order to write. And my weird was just not gelling with this particular scientific leap.

This then led me on a witch hunt through the alternate history aspects of the Crimson Skies universe at which point I started finding more things I didn’t like. I was now mercilessly tearing holes in the thing that I thought I loved. I was spurned, I was hurt and I was in shock. That thing that I based my fan fiction daydreaming on was not what I thought it was at all. What I was writing was almost in another universe completely…

It was at that time that I started to wonder if I was infringing copyright after all. Maybe I was actually writing my own thing altogether.

Some soul searching and I started going over all the things that I was doing differently to Crimson Skies. I wanted biplanes and trideckers, not guided rockets and jetplanes. That meant a 1920s setting instead of 1930s. I also didn’t know enough about American history to see how that many different groups could spread across the map in a realistic manner and rejected the map as unfeasible. In fact, while I was at it, history would suggest a different fracturing and for completely different reasons. So that was different in my version. And that problem with the zeppelins… that would take a little bit of sci-fi to fix with the addition of another lifting gas, what I would call ‘aether’. And if there was one sci-fi aspect then that would mean I could go super pulpy and start adding  <…spoiler redaction…>!

In the end, while the heritage is clear to those who know where to look, the tone and focus of the Aether Age world has ended up very different to that of Crimson Skies. Most similar is the balkanisation of a post World War 1 America with obvious things like the various power centres of the dissolved United States being similar in their broad sweeps even if they’ve been simplified and changed to some degree (After all, it doesn’t matter what alternate universe you  create, Texas will always be Texas. It’s a rule of the multiverse). But the earlier setting, the presence of aether and other unique sci fi additions, the different alternate history background and the stronger focus on non-aerial material gives The Aether Age a very different destination to all this 1920s American balkanisation.

Thus, thanks to Crimson Skies, Tommy Thunder has been born. And with him a world of aeronautical swashbuckling and pulpy madness, set in a balkanised America where anything pulpy is possible. It started with a Crimson Skies obsession built upon insufficient information. It has become a series of books I hope I can write for many decades to come. And I hope you can all come along for the ride with me.

In the future I’ll reveal some more of the inspirations behind Tommy Thunder and the world of The Aether Age but in the meantime, if you were one of those un/fortunates  to get hooked on Dieselpunk or pulp via Crimson Skies I’d love to hear from you. Don’t be afraid to leave a comment below :)

Happy flying,


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