#74 “War, Steampunk, Bulgaria”–Guest Blog by Harry Markov

Bulgarian soldiers from the 19th century

My post’s title says it all–or at the very least I hope it does. At one point I figured that I’d like to write about the probability of Bulgarian steampunk developing as a genre niche and war, more or less, found its way into my writing. I believe that war is crucial for steampunk as it’s crucial for Bulgaria, in its different manifestations.

Speculative fiction fuels itself with war. The most dynamic stories are born in troubled times, as epic fantasy has shown readers time and time again. Urban fantasy thrives on shadow wars led in the dimly lit streets and hidden underground worlds, while science fiction marches its fleet in the great cosmos. Steampunk is no different. Steampunk runs on war. It’s the “punk” part. It’s the mechanical force that propels the cogs of the genre onward.

Whether it be used as a dramatic background in order to showcase a human story as done in Boneshaker by Cherie Priest or as a force behind the plot as demonstrated by Westerfield in his World War reimagining, war and unrest and upheavals give readers that adrenaline spike, that sense of dire severity and intensity, which can hardly be achieved at times of peace. It’s also the factor that makes us hiccup in adoration at the corset-bound, revolver slinging femme fatales and automations, which can as easily destroy as they can create. It’s why I consider Bulgarian steampunk to be a fruitful pairing.

It’s impossible to mention Bulgaria, look it through the prism of the past and not discuss war.

For Bulgarians know war in all of its forms. Back when the Bulgarian Empire existed, we conquered. Afterwards, we fought wars to defend what we’ve claimed. We fought once again to earn our freedom, when we fell under multiple slaveries. Once liberated, we fought to unite and even today we fight; small personal battles and wars against reality, against each other and, in private, ourselves.

Queen Victoria’s rule coincides with Bulgaria’s most turbulent historical period. During her 64 years on the throne, Bulgarians organized several major upheavals, created an organized resistance, fought wars for liberation and achieved their goals. Once transitioned from slaves to free people with a country, Bulgaria had to rebuild itself from scratch,write a constitution and catch up with the rest of the world.

I’m fast-forwarding through history as I aim to lay down the reasons why I believe Bulgarian steampunk would be potent as a genre niche, rather than catalogue historical events. This is an overview article and the introduction of what I hope will be a series dedicated to Bulgaria and the unenviable slot the country had amidst the European wars between the various empires at the time.

Until the 1830s, Bulgarians reasoned as slaves. For more than four centuries, Bulgaria existed as a memory in the annals of history or as an Ottoman province. Bulgarian culture presented a threat to Ottomans – similar to other enslaved lands – and underwent active suppression. The Christian population had to either convert or face death and even when Bulgarians complied, the Ottoman rulers killed and pillaged. Ottomans even kidnapped young first sons, which then were brainwashed and trained to be vicious killers, sent back to slaughter their own kin.

“After an uprising was dealt with”

The Ottoman cruelty then seemed enough to eradicate and assimilate any culture. However, the 1830s saw a new generation rise to the occasion. The generation that had had enough. The ones who dreamed of freedom. From a literary standpoint, the trope of the slave yearning for his/her freedom possesses a great appeal. The slave, for me, is the ultimate underdog with the direst chances for success. Although grim, endangering one’s life in the name of a high cause such as freedom fits steampunk as the title heroes can pursue destruction of their enemy with pure hearts. As the popularity of the gaming class of paladin has shown – in video games, but still – valor and honor are still relevant.

“Vasil Levski, the first Apostle of Freedom”

This transition in mentality is not without a trigger. Before any actual physical wars begun, revolution was fought for on different planes. First came education and religion. The road to establishing Bulgarian schools and carving out a slot for children to study and even have the chance to travel abroad, to Russia in most cases as well as Romania, elevated Bulgarians from the subhuman existence they have led, opening them to the possibility of ideas. Then came the fight for an independent Bulgarian church. At that time, the only Christianity allowed came from the Greek church with all services held in Greek and not in Bulgarian. The significance of these victories is immense as they restored the national identity and birthed a class of very intelligent men, fearless and capable.

“Depiction of the April Uprising”

Steampunk is perfect to explore the political and military actions to take place after the first insurrections broke out. The April Uprising – a planned nation-wide rebellion, which failed when the Ottoman empire discovered the plans before the scheduled date – could be the best setting for a story of betrayal. The subsequent establishment of the Apostles of Freedom and the Freedom committees, whose aim was to mobilize all Bulgarians for one massive rebellion, can host a cat-and-mouse game between Bulgarian revolutionaries and Ottoman lawmen. Of course there is the actual Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, which can rival the World War in destruction and severity – isolated on Bulgarian territory, of course.

“Prince Alexander enters Sofia”

Now imagine, if all these events occurred in a world of zeppelins, mechanical mounts and automaton armies. Where revolutionaries swing swords along with steampowered riffles. The adventurous motives are already present and fertile ground for a multicultural reimagining of a genre that preoccupies itself with aesthetics – though I imply nothing negative with it – and the typical Balkan passion and the patriotism that accompanied this Bulgarian National Revival provide soul and fire for the characters.

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Harry Markov tries to fix his status from unpublished to a published, while at the same time not shutting up about the books that he reads. He’s a reviewer at Temple Library ReviewsThe Portal, and he rambles about writing and the journey of a procrastinating writer atThrough a Forest of Ideas. He’s always available for a chat on Twitter@harrymarkov.

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1 Comment

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One response to “#74 “War, Steampunk, Bulgaria”–Guest Blog by Harry Markov

  1. Great post, Harry. You do a fantastic job of laying out Bulgarian history that to me, at least, is not as familiar as it should be.

    I want to learn more!

    It seems to me that you may be uniquely suited to take up the challenge. So when will we see your Bulgarian steampunk stories? 🙂