Maurice Broaddus’ 2019 Pimp My Airship: A Naptown by Airship Novel is a steampunk novel. Presumably it is an expanded version of the 2009 short story of the same name. It shares a setting with Buffalo Soldiersas well as with other Broaddus works. A setting in which the American Revolution failed and all of North America is still part of the British Empire.
Sleepy has it all: a small Indianapolis apartment, an unrewarding, onerous job, and a desolate personal life. Despite all this prosperity, he feels the need to express his inner life through poetry. (Poetry doesn’t enrich the upper classes, but as long as it’s kept private …) This idyllic life ends when Sleepy makes a terrible mistake: existing while black.
Slavery has been abolished (eventually) but has been replaced with widespread adoption of prison labor. If you’re the wrong color, you can end up in prison for almost anything. People like Sleepy have to stay very alert to avoid landing in the notorious Indianapolis prisons. Once part of the system, they find it very hard to escape.
When City-Ordained Pinkertons (COPs) raid the club where Sleepy is performing, Sleepy flees in the company of a new acquaintance: professional revolutionary (120 Degrees of) Knowledge Allah. Their escape leaves several COP vehicles damaged and covered in sewage. Inadvertently embarrassing the police is an extremely serious offense. The two men are now elevated to the ranks of the city’s most wanted. This is not a desirable accolade. Just ask the Star Child, a once most-wanted social revolutionary now scheduled for execution at the Allisonville Correctional Facility.
Elsewhere in the city, Sophine Jefferson’s pampered life has hit a number of road bumps of late. Her attempt to bring a bullied schoolmate back to life after suicide was in many senses successful, but failed to win any accolades. Her doting but controlling father Colonel Winston Jefferson’s campaign to marry her off safely comes to an abrupt halt when her father is murdered. His attempt to control Sophine’s professional life has inadvertently inconvenienced an even more powerful villain.
Under normal circumstances, Sleepy and Sophine would never meet. These are not normal circumstances. Ultimately, the same person is at centre of Sleepy and Sophine’s troubles. It’s nothing personal; the pair are merely obstacles to a visionary’s grand design. It feels personal, though, and it’s enough to ensure an unlikely alliance.
Sensible people would spend less time than I did wondering if given a failed American Revolution, there would even be an Indianapolis ? Some cities are by nature of their surroundings likely. Maybe there would not be a New Orleans per se, but some city will spring up at the Gulf end of the Mississippi. The Bay Area will feature some community exploiting the Bay and the approaches thereof. New York’s physical location offers advantages. But Indianapolis?
There seems to be a sort of historical inertia at work in Alternate History: despite divergences centuries past, events work out more or less as they did in our timeline. For example, not only is there an Indianapolis, but Prohibition seems to have come along on schedule, although presumably for somewhat different reasons1.
What a failed American Revolution wouldn’t have changed: slave labor and substitutes for slave labor were baked into New World history early on. What did change: legal slavery in the British Empire lasted decades longer than it did in our timeline (where it ended in 1833). Presumably because in this setting, rich North American plantation owners had significant influence on the UK parliament.
As in many other adventure novels, someone with no interest in politics (or at least no expectation that an interest in politics could do him any good) is dragged into freedom-fighting quite against his will. It’s a familiar story — perhaps I will do a piece for Tor on the sub-genre — but as Broaddus demonstrates, one that has lots of potential. Case in point: this novel. I found it a fine read.