INTERVIEW: Carrie Vaughn, author of “Harry and Marlowe Meet the Founder of the Aetherian Revolution”

Carrie Vaughn is the bestselling author of the Kitty Norville series, which started with Kitty and the Midnight Hour. Her most recent books include Kitty’s Big Trouble,Voices of Dragons, Discord’s Apple, Steel, and After the Golden Age. and. Her short work, which has been nominated for the Hugo Award, has appeared in magazines such as Lightspeed and Realms of Fantasy, and in a number of anthologies, such as John Joseph Adams’s ArmoredBy Blood We Live, and Brave New Worlds, as well as in The Mammoth Book of Paranormal RomanceFast Ships, Black Sails, andWarriors, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.


Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

“Harry and Marlowe Visit the Founder of the New Technology” is about a pair of alternate-history Victorian adventurers who visit a mad scientist under house arrest, looking for scraps of his clandestine research he may have hidden from the authorities. And boy howdy do they find some.

What’s was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I freely admit that I’m jumping on the steampunk bandwagon here. In my defense, I spent a lot of time thinking about why I would want to do such a thing, and then (taking my cue from other, better known steampunk authors) developing an actual world that could hold such stories rather than just overlaying the aesthetic and technology on top of a typical Victorian adventure.

I have a long-standing love of Victorian adventure stories, from my grad school days when I read lots of Joseph Conrad, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Machen, H.G. Wells, and so on, and that’s definitely where the roots of this are. I’ve been wanting to tell the story of a not-so-prim Victorian woman adventurer for a long time, and the setting here gave me a fun way to do that. This is an alternate history — an alien spacecraft crash landed, Roswell-like, in England in 1869, and a vast new technology was reverse-engineered from the debris. Harry is Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Maud, who in our world eventually became Queen of Norway, but through various events in this world has become something of a secret agent for her brother, who will eventually become king. I see more stories about the adventures of Princess Maud (whose nickname as a child really was Harry) and Marlowe in my future.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Deciding the exact parameters of my alternate world was a challenge, not because fixing parameters is particularly difficult, but because there were so many possibilities. I could have just invented a main character, but I really wanted to use one of Queen Victoria’s daughters or granddaughters for the role, which meant deciding which one (she had five daughters and a gaggle granddaughters), which mean deciding what years I wanted my stories to cover, what events I ought to include or exclude, and so on.

The story itself was fun, but world-building is not one of my strong suits so I really had to work at it. The time frame would determine what could happen and which characters would be involved, so it was important to establish that from the start.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

I’ve read a lot of Victorian adventure stories, and there’s not too many of them that feature a woman hero. It simply wasn’t something that could be tolerated in that culture, where as soon as a woman starts doing something unladylike she becomes a villain. I’ve been wanting to fix that for a long time, creating a heroic Victorian woman adventurer who did more than take dictation.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

Most of the research I did was, oddly enough, of the British royal family of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My Princess Maud is quite a bit different than the original, I think, but I wanted to at least have a veneer of reality.

What is the appeal of mad scientist fiction? Why do writers–or you yourself–write about it? What do you think readers like about it?

There’s a no-holds-barred aspect to it. Tech-wise, anything goes, and by their very nature mad scientist characters are morally ambiguous. You expect them to do strange, bizarre, and often unpleasant things, and as a writer it’s a great challenge pushing those boundaries. As a reader it’s fun — and/or horrifying — to read about them. Just how far will these characters go in the otherwise admirable pursuit of knowledge?

What are some of your favorite examples of mad scientists in fiction (or perhaps in fact!), and what makes them your favorites?

Victor Frankenstein is absolutely the end all and be all of mad scientists, I think. Shelley’s book is about him grappling with his own madness, having to acknowledge that what he’s done isn’t exactly sane. Mad scientists aren’t judged by their original intentions, but by where they end up, and Victor proves that. I also have a fondness for Dr. Moreau, mostly because I think that novel really pushed the boundaries of horror, mad scientist, and adventure stories.

Real world mad scientists — Robert Goddard, maybe. The guy invented modern rocketry, built everything himself or with a small team of techs, probably should have blown himself up a hundred times over and didn’t because he was just that good.