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An alternative "Occult Universe"

I open my occult detective novel in what is ostensibly a "noir" style, but through worldbuilding I attempt to show that the story is set in an alternate occult universe which diverged from our own sometime during the early 19th Century, along with the rise in Victorian-era occultism. Paranormal phenomena always existed but was ephemeral up until the industrial revolution.

In this world, paranormal phenomena can be induced in steel similar to magnetism. It's comparable to steampunk where steam engines and clockwork mechanics are handwaved into modern-day (or impossible) technology. Here, paranormal effects have been induced into mass-produced industrial items. The process is not explained but it's coded as bad for the environment, experimental, and generally unreliable as the phenomena uses poorly understood "occult logic". The worldbuilding also sets up a countercurrent motif that the paranormal on an industrial scale has undesirable consequences, like the backlash against nuclear power – it's a leap forward when it works, but you wouldn't want to be nearby in a catastrophe.

For the characters, these occult-powered industrial items (gasoline-free luxury cars, levitating trains, city power plants, military weapons) are a routine part of life, symbols of wealth and power-disparity that compliment the noir themes of political corruption, greed, abuse of power, secret societies, etc. I'm introducing them as "things that exist" matter-of-factly, and layering them with coded sinister adjectives: hovercar engines make disturbing human throat sounds, "ghost" trains slither in the night, etc.

The problem

My problem is that beta readers are questioning this aspect of the world and calling it "sci-fi". They aren't critical exactly, but it clearly feels non-sequitur. Rather than seeing the paranormal as a transformative "technology" that has corrupted society (a metaphor for pollution, industrialization, consumerism), readers see it as an extra "buy in" that doesn't fit the rest of the story. My plan was to have a naive character begin to question these "toxic" items, transitioning from symbols of wealth to symbols of moral corruption.

In the Writing Excuses podcast How Weird is too Weird, they suggest the reader will accept 1 "buy" for the world and everything else should derive from that. A story with multiple unrelated "buys" will seem unfocused, trying to do too much at once. I've fallen into that problem.

My "buy" is that paranormal phenomenon can be induced in a manufactured object. The industrial machines exist, unexplained, but they are the logical worldbuilding conclusion of this idea. However, the story's MacGuffin is about a manufactured object with much smaller stakes, its purpose is evil but personal: an occult Maltese Falcon that might grant a kind of immortality. Immortality effects 1 person, flying cars effects all of society and seems like a much grander theme that is being ignored.

Part of the problem is that I am trying to introduce a sub-genre with unclear rules. There is no "occultpunk" for the reader to fill in the blanks about what is normal in this world. I have an 800lb worldbuilding gorilla that readers feel should have more of a payoff in the story. I would like to keep this aspect of my world, I think it is interesting, but not if it's a distraction.

How can I get readers to accept more than 1 "buy"?

Is there a way I can better integrate this concept into the story, or has my worldbuilding gone off the rails? Can I get readers to "buy" this grand concept as a backdrop, and still appreciate the smaller paranormal MacGuffin as a threat deserving its own story?

It also breaks my own rule that paranormal stories need a firm normal to contrast against, otherwise it obscures why the paranormal thing is suppose to be interesting. Maybe I should avoid grand-concept worldbuilding altogether? Readers calling it "sci-fi" indicates it's sticking out in an oddball way. They don't see the rest of the story as taking place in a sci-fi universe, but they mention those elements like they are refugees from the wrong genre.

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My favorite example of "one buy too many" is the movie Looper. Time travel is essential to the plot. Psychic powers are a distracting, disbelief-endangering extra, with little payoff. With that said, I'm not sure that's actually your problem here.

If I understand your set-up, this is an old-fashioned world with some futuristic elements, like steampunk, but moved forward a couple of generations? Maybe the problem is that the scenery doesn't match the play. Steampunk works --if you like it-- because it looks and feels old-fashioned, but has playfully modern aspects. Conversely, Star Wars looks and feels futuristic, but tells an old fashioned, fairy-tale style story --magic dressed up as technology.

For you, however, it sounds like your "look" isn't matching your "feel." The feel is early industrial, the look is science fiction. There's a simple fix: Just change the costuming a bit. If you want to go sci-fi, update the time period to a gritty, rundown future. If you want to stick with an early industrial time frame, rename your hover-cars as "flying horseless carriages" or something else period-appropriate, and watch people's objections melt away.

  • +1 smacksforehead I didn't consider it might be a vocabulary problem! UGH! That changes things a lot…. – wetcircuit Mar 4 at 22:04
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You're missing the explanation

'Occult Powered Technology' is not a unique concept. Many books, films and games have explored this concept. The Shadowrun series of both video and roleplaying games is one example, though it is also a little 'sci-fi'.

Why it feels sci-fi and how to fix it

Fuel free cars, hover-trains, energy weapons and free power are all sci-fi concepts, typical for that genre. What shifts a work from sci-fi to steampunk, fantasy or paranormal is the source of this technology. As you say in a steampunk world this technology is attributed to clockwork. Readers know this from the exposed gears and clockwork motifs. In a fantasy setting this would be explained as 'magic' and incorporated into an explanation of the magic system.

You need to give an explanation for how this technology works. Pure technical advancement will be considered sci-fi so show what makes this different. As @AlbertoYagos said in comments, many occult works use the concept of 'aether'. A mystical substance that can take whatever form you require. Aether can be a gas, a liquid or most commonly a crystal. Simply referring to your hover-trains as "aether-powered" will instantly explain the technology and remove the sci-fi aspect.

What you call the substance is up to you. 'Aether' is a common term but you can make one up entirely. The details of what it is or how it works are almost irrelevant. Once you give a source for all the unexplained things you have solved the problem.

You have multiple 'buys'

In as currently written you are asking your reader to 'buy-in' to hover-trains, gasless cars, advanced weapons and free energy. Without an explanation these are all separate 'buys'. You know that is has central reason but if you don't show that to the reader they have to resolve each new thing independently.

Give a central explanation and you only have one 'buy': Aether is special and can do magic stuff. Once you give that explanation anything new or unexplained can be dismissed as 'aether-powered'. This is easier for the reader to understand and will reduce the sci-fi feel.

Aether as plot

In some stories the aether itself is a central theme. How it is obtained, who got rich discovering it, who invented the first device and which villain is stealing it for nefarious means. It sounds as if you want to use this as a subtle background to another story so don't go to deep into details.

Perhaps you can have your MC discover the 'true source' of the aether. Some grand secrets that the rich and powerful have been covering up. Maybe it is sacred to a native tribe, perhaps mining it destabilises the planet. Whatever the reason is, show it to the readers and let them do the rest. You could even use this as the over-arch of an entire series. All the small plots tied together by aether.

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In the comments, it seems as if you are determined to have this story stand on its own without relying on an understanding of genre elements. This is commendable, but if that is your goal, you need to cut out every single bit of worldbuilding that does not serve the plot.

Let me say this again: Remove every single bit of worldbuilding that does not serve the plot.

If you are writing for genre readers, the worldbuilding is part of the expectations and the enjoyment of the work. I quite enjoy genre fiction, and would certainly be intrigued by this world simply for the interesting take on steampunk (or an occult version, as it were). There is a basic familiarity with the concept of steampunk amongst many genre readers that would likely lead to a greater enjoyment of a new take on it.

However, if your goal is primarily to have a noir detective story, and to have it appeal to mainstream audiences, the worldbuilding needs to be thoroughly pared down. (Actually, I would recommend this in most situations, anyway.) The plot needs to be first and foremost, and the world-building must serve the plot, not the other way around; it's a novel, not a Disney ride.

You can certainly keep the paranormal aspects, as long as they serve the plot. Based on what you've written here, however, it seems like the beta readers are getting distracted by it. You don't have an 800 pound gorilla; you have a Chekov's Nuclear Bomb that never gets explained, much less detonated.

Basically: either bring the aether-based technology further into the plot, or cut out all the bits that don't serve the plot. This advice isn't specific to worldbuilding; it's the same thing I would advise to anyone with superfluous details. If it doesn't drive the plot forward, put it in a document of "Really Cool Stuff", and remove it from the main story.

  • +1 Thank you! This is the side of the discussion I need to hear! I agree, it is not just a genre thing, it's a mismatch of scale and stakes. I want it to be cool..., but I may have a leaner story that stays focused on a darker smaller world. Flying cars are not central to this story and feel optimistic, there would never be an explanation. It would have been inferred only. – wetcircuit Mar 4 at 21:24

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