The key development that turned the world of Questionable Minds into a steampunk setting happened about 17 years earlier, when Edward Bulwer-Lytton encountered the Vril-Ya.
In our world, Bulwer-Lytton is best known for inspiring the Bulwer-Lytton Contest for writing a terrible parodic opening line. He is not well thought of. Back in the Victorian age he was quite successful, with a string of popular novels including Last Days of Pompeii, Paul Clifford and a fictional account of the subterranean, psionic Vril-Ya, The Coming Race (I had to make a conscious effort to remember my novel’s characters will not sneer at him the way we do now). In the world of Questionable Minds he encountered the subterranean Vril-Ya for real and returned to the surface with knowledge of their psionic technology. He used this to create the first Lytton Rods, which enable people who have latent psi-energy — not everyone does — to tap their powers. He is now Viscount Claren.
Around 1880, Madame Blavatsky, the founder of theosophy, took things a step further. Guided by her cosmic masters (who didn’t exist in the real world), she showed it was possible to train and develop mental abilities without a Lytton Rod. This was a major game changer, obviously, getting her a baronetcy.I didn’t want things to sound too much like contemporary SF so I worked on the terminology. Psi power in general is known as mesmerism. The various types include levitation (TK), mesmerism (mind control), human telegraphy (mind probes and mind-to-mind communication), incendiary (pyrokinetic), electrician (casting small amounts of electrical power), healing and clairvoyance (what it sounds like). There are also multiple odd powers that have been recorded once or twice but no more.
As Bulwer-Lytton was English, he gave his research to the British crown. Blavatsky built on his work. As a result, England is the only nation with a significant population of mentalists though this hasn’t had a major impact on the world stage yet. For the English, this is just proof God is an Englishman; they can’t imagine their monopoly won’t last. Indeed, China has already developed its own forms of mental disciplines, which revolutionaries there are using to work against the British Empire.
The development of mentalism is widely seen as the next step up in human evolution. There’s no “kill the mutie” hatred here, but there is a lot of unease around class and gender issues. One aristocrat complains early on that marrying a mentalist if you’re not one is insane — how can a man be master in his own house if a woman can just levitate him out the window? And England has developed clear, arbitrary rules for relating class and mentalist power. Among the upper classes, physical power such as levitation is an embarrassment; telegraphy or mesmerism among the lower orders is a threat.
How this will affect society by, say, 1914 and the start of the Great War, I do not know. If the book sells, however, I’ll have an incentive to figure it out.
#SFWApro. Cover by Sam Collins