What is the opposite of steam punk?

World building can be a challenge. Advice from someone well-versed in geology, history, or sociology will help when designing world differing from the one we inhabit. My desire was to create an alternate world in which civilization was advanced as ours but uneven in development due to a missing critical resource. How about a world without fossil fuel?

My son, who has some advanced classes in extraterrestrial geology assured me that with large populations of living creatures, there would be fossil fuels. Perhaps, he suggested, the people had not discovered fossil fuels because they were unable to access them. They could be using geothermic energy with an adequate number of volcanoes own my imaginary world. So, my decision was to alter the one missing resource from fossil fuels to a scarcity of ductile, malleable metals like iron and tin.  (I suppose I couldn’t get rid of iron completely as it is an essential part of blood).

Without sufficient iron and no tin, the inhabitants of this world could not make steel.  Remove steel, and they cannot mine coal, cannot drill oil, so an abundance of fossils fuel would not help them. But I realized there was a cascade of even more differences—the city would look vastly different with no steel beams for sky scrapers, no steel cables for bridges, no steel to reinforce freeways, or build train tracks. Any mode of transportation, such as a car, bike, boat or aircraft would be made of inflexible wood, or flimsy fabric and rubber.

They have no steel for iron-horses, or steam engines, or internal combustion engines so I have created an anti-steam punk world. The structures of this anti-steam punk world would be made of mostly stone, ceramics, wood and glass.

In the end I decided not remove all metals. They must have some ability to manufacture some instruments, so only a limited amount of light-weight aluminum, magnesium and titanium would remain. But these metals are more fragile, so they cannot risk wrecks of light weight vehicles. However, my original premise was a world as developed as our own.

Then I realized that my son’s suggestion that they live near geothermic energy was a good one. This would typically be near the ocean, near beaches with lots of sand (which is mostly silicon). Computers where invented in our world at the same time as combustion engines. So, the societies of my world would  have delved into using computer controls earlier out of necessity. As they were not spending time building steel structures and vehicles, they would have learned to make silicon circuits earlier. More widespread use of computers would allow for individuals and companies to use computing to create safer modes of transportation based on grids to direct driverless vehicles.

So, it is not oil I delete from my world, but steel. That gets rid of guns of and steel, two parts of the source of European hegemony, according to anthropologist Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. This society would not reflect the life in Victorian England at all.  The masters of this new world would be those who can conquer germs, and my major character can be from the people that prize understanding the natural world.

So, choose a difference, take a all of the way through to its logical conclusion, and voila, a world that does not resemble any of those copycat world builders.

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