Steampunk as a genre has many tropes, but perhaps the single most important is the use of steam power. Steam was the power source of the Victorian era, and only near the end did electricity begin to take its place. The Internal Combustion Engine also overthrew coal, to replace its power source by oil. Thus to keep that Victorian feel, steam should be maintained as the font of power and propulsion. Clockwork gears and springs, while certainly part of the genre, have always felt to me more of the early nineteenth century than the mid-late, but I admit that’s a personal viewpoint.
Yet unless you play with the laws of physics (or add Magick to the mix) the fact is oil is far more efficient as a means of power than coal. It burns hotter, for longer periods, and is easier to store than the mounds of coal necessary for a steam engine’s use. What then should a Genteel Magistrate do?
Most Steampunk novels come up with a variety of workarounds for this state of affairs. This varies from some sort of super-coal to chemicals that take the place of water for steam engines. In my own Victorious chronicle, the development of a “coal gel” overcomes both the storage problems and temperature to allow more efficient engines. Furthermore, it works in the “current” engines of the 1880s+ so there is a desire to remain with the extant technology. Other ideas are possible, and I’ll list a few here:
- Anti-Ice = Nuclear fusion, where the superheated fuel rods are called “Anti-Ice” and discovered in 1850
- Boneshaker = Strange gas that comes from deep in the earth; used for both steam engines and lift for airships
- The Society of Steam and Steel series = “Fortified Steam” and “Fortified Smoke”, with hints that it behaves similar to nuclear power
- The Lady of Devices series = A chemically treated coal that burns hotter than fuel oil
Of course, each Genteel Magistrate can devise his/her own method of overcoming this conundrum. I hope that some of the ideas presented above are of some small use.