Advanced technology and armed conflict are mainstays of science fiction.

But the alternate history of the Gas-Lit Empire posits a world in which both have been held back by a far-reaching treaty. It is an ambiguous mix. We might aspire to a world in which armies no longer water the earth with blood. But to put a stopper in scientific progress is a high price to pay.

Book 2 of The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire.
Book 2 of The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire.

With the series title ‘The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire’ it’s clear this setup isn’t going to last. As the story begins, the mighty edifice is showing its age. Cracks will soon appear. In book 2 (Unseemly Science) you get a glimpse of them. But more is to come.

With the tectonic plates of geopolitics as a theme, you might expect the books to follow the deeds of presidents and generals. But these stories are populated by the apparently insignificant in society.

There is nothing more extraordinary than ordinary people.

Seeming least significant are the women of the Gas-Lit Empire. Conflict and science have often been the bullwhips of social progress. In their absence, 19th Century attitudes have congealed and consolidated. Social progress has been reversed.

Take Mrs Simmonds, for example. Her husband is in charge of the North Leicester Wharf. She is an able woman, hoping for advancement. Wharfkeeper’s wife may be a solidly working class role. But she has hopes that her children may carry the family upwards.  Looking around her cottage, you will see china ornaments and soft furnishings. She fondly imagines they match her middle class aspirations, but they are all slightly wrong.

“There is nothing more extraordinary than ordinary people.”

With her children fled (this they did as soon as they were able) she devotes her energies to the acquisition and distribution of gossip and ‘helping’ other women arrange the affairs of their similarly limited lives.

We may laugh at her pretensions. Indeed, she can seem every bit as silly as Jane Austen’s Mrs Bennet. But how would any of us grow to be if we’d been confined all our years in a role too small for our abilities? At heart she is a compassionate and caring woman. And she will have her moment to shine.

By contrast, consider Mary, the wife of the coal boatman. Her home is moored on the wharf. Lift the net curtains of Mrs Simmonds’s front room and you’ll see it below. Sleeping with her husband and two daughters in a cramped boat cabin Mary can afford no middle class aspirations. Her daughters will marry other boat people and her sons will haul coal.

Polite society looks on the boat people as an underclass. They are beyond the pale.  Curiously, that gives Mary more freedom than Mrs Simmonds.

Mary is brighter than anyone else around her. A matriarchal figure in the community of the wharf, she has real influence. Her home may be cramped, but her abilities have had room to flower. Thus she has not been left psychologically stunted. Queen of her realm, she will always be happier than the apparently superior wharf keeper’s wife.

As for Elizabeth, our storyteller, she has found a different way to live, stepping outside what society permits. Hers is the ultimate taboo of slipping between genders. The corset and the binding cloth are neither more strange to her. Each is unnatural in its own way. Each is a disguise.

Look back along the timeline of our own history at the people who changed the order of things. For the most part they were round pegs in square holes. When empires crumble at the end of an age, it is the misfits who shape the future. People like Elizabeth.

Unseemly Science is out May 5 from Angry Robot Books.