Dec 26, 2009

The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming

I begin this post with a necessary digression. When Steampunk Scholar began as a blog, I hadn't really nailed down its purpose, other than to find a space to write about my dissertation musings and accumulate something approximating an annotated bibliography. After I reviewed Jay Lake's Mainspring, I realized that the web really didn't need another review website. One of the main premises of good writing is to add something to the discourse on the subject you're writing about. With a million plus bloggers giving their utterly subjective opinion on a book, I felt another would be superfluous. Even my own personal blog was more reflective about films than review-oriented. Of course, the line blurs, as sometimes in my assessment of the steampunk, I must comment on whether or not the command of the aesthetic was masterful or lacking. While my bias is always present, I do my best to speak about the writing in a fair and objective manner: I try to assess the text on its terms, not the ones I lay out for it through my expectations.

After the few years I've had teaching critical reading and writing, I'm convinced that few people read books or watch movie in this way. Moviegoers arrive at theaters with subjective expectations and, when they find the film fails to meet those expectations, they write it off: "It sucked." I hear this phrase dubiously leveled at all manner of film. When Roger Ebert reviewed Fellowship of the Ring, he commented on how Peter Jackson's cinematic hobbits didn't meet his expectations, based upon his experience of Tolkien's literary hobbits. At the time, I remember thinking, "Well, you're not a literary critic, are you? So review the movie, and stop talking about the book" (I detest assessing the value of a movie on slavish adherence to the book - I far prefer Tim Powers' statement that if the adaptation is nothing like the book, but well done, then we have two great stories).  Further, you weren't there to see if Peter Jackson had stolen your memories of hobbits and rendered them on the big screen: you were there to review the movie in front of you.

I feel much the same way about most reviews of books, which tell me little about the book, but a great deal about what the reader thought the book would/should/could be. "It just didn't work for me" has to be one of the vaguest, most useless phrases in the assessment of a narrative's value. In reading over reviews for Matthew Flaming's The Kingdom of Ohio, I saw numerous statements of this kind. People's expectations weren't met, or they thought he glossed over the Tesla/Edison storyline, or they thought he spent too much time in wordy descriptions. In other words, they wanted to read another book. They were reading the text on their own terms. One review commented on the ending by saying, "no one likes a cliffhanger." This is neither true of readers, many of whom like a cliffhanger ending just fine, nor fair to the book, which does not have a cliffhanger ending. It has an ambiguous ending, much in the style of Mohsin Hamid's Reluctant Fundamentalist. As with Fundamentalist, a close reading of The Kingdom of Ohio has already revealed a great deal about what happens after the text ends. Not enough to say definitively, but enough to conjecture probabilities. Many readers like this sort of ending, because they're allowed to playfully insert their own endings. Here, the writer allows the reader to engage in expectation without the potential disappointment certainty can result in. While I can't say that all reviews of Kingdom of Ohio do so, I would say that many of them make the same mistake many readers do: they ingest words and denotative meanings without attention to connotation or construction. In other words, they grade books and films on plot instead of poetry, events instead of evocation.

To explain further, I'll run the risk of getting spammed by hate mail and quote a few reviewers in particular who had a problem with Flaming's use of history: "Too (sp) make matters worse, Flaming stumbles over some inexcusable historical errors which, while not critical to the misguided plot, were still annoying." I'm not sure which historical errors bothered this reader, but I would argue Flaming didn't screw up history--he was dropping hints throughout that the world the narrator is speaking from is not ours. The narrator mentions two game shows, Wheel of Jeopardy, and Price it Right. A reader skimming for plot content will miss a detail like this, because the names are so similar to the real shows they reference, that the brain almost doesn't register seeing them. Further, the narrator refers to TV game shows as "the last bastions of absolute truth" because they "stand by a single correct answer for each question" (30). In the same way that the revamped Trek refuses to be bogged down with the past mythology, Flaming has allowed for historical digressions which are not inaccuracies in his narrative, but keys to the point of the novel.

Readers looking for plot as the final arbiter of quality often miss the point. Consider the following:
"The story is stranded in a morass of superfluous detail. For instance, the world of this novel is exactly like our past (complete with starring roles for some of the preeminent figures of the time: J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Nicola Tesla), except for one major thing: In the novel, there was once a "Kingdom of Ohio," all but forgotten now. It was literally a piece of land sold to a French family during the early part of America's history, and ruled within this county's borders as its own kingdom (complete with King) for more than a century. It is this Kingdom that Cheri-Anne claims to be from, but really, what's the point?"
I can't say for certain, and I apologize for picking on these reviewers, but when students ask me "what's the point?" of short stories which are seemingly pointless, like John Updike's A&P, or Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find", I tell them to go back to the text, and read it again, carefully. What concepts are repeated? What sorts of characters do we have? What is the setting? The tone? Consider all these things, and you can likely arrive at the theme of the work in front of you. It is at that point you will be able to assess whether the narrative was successful or not. The devil's in the supposedly "superfluous detail." In Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," there are numerous detailed lists of military gear--many students on first read consider this superfluous detail. But it's not. It is essential to the theme of the short story, of the idea that intangible burdens, like unrequited love or responsibility for other's lives, are heavier than an M-60 and its ammunition.

Without laboriously unpacking the literary elements of character, setting, tone, etc., I'll simply state that the theme of The Kingdom of Ohio is the uncertainty of memory. While one reviewer suggested readers stick to H.G. Wells for a good time-travel novel (without ever really explaining why), it must be remembered that Wells's The Time Traveler was not good science fiction - Wells never explained his speculations with the obsessive detail that Verne did. He wrote a novel of ideas, of social commentary. The Kingdom of Ohio is, aside from being a romance, also a novel of ideas, exploring memory, possible worlds theory, and the difficulty of "knowing" history. The novel is exactly like our past (and our present), except that people are watching game shows with names that are familiar, but "incorrect." The reality of The Kingdom of Ohio is just off center--like Middle-Earth, it too is a secondary world, but not one so far removed from our own to immediately recognize it as such: "According to the physicist, other universes may exist alongside our own: an infinite number of worlds, one for each possible variation on our own reality." (230). This speaks not only to possible worlds theory, but also to the idea of personal agency and choice, which are arguably always themes in alternate histories: "After all...if free will exists, it's a decision that we make between futures." (320)

Passages about the difficulty of memory are numerous, and while Flaming is no Umberto Eco or Borges, I'd offer that he does an admirable job in delivering these musings on the lacunae of remembrance:
"Whether beautiful or terrible, the past is always a ruin...When I look back on my childhood, my earliest memories seem like artifacts from a lost civilization...Most of all I remember the summer twilight over the mountains and how, on certain evenings, just before the sun sank below the horizon, it cast rays so luminous and golden that they felt like a solid, enveloping closet into which a small boy could simply disappear. An intensity no light today seems to match." (1)
It should be noted that this first page, like many good writings, holds keys to the ending. The ideas of artifacts, doorways, and light will be explored in the final pages. Already, Flaming is laying the groundwork for the careful reader.

For those who mistook it for an attempt at science fiction, one need only read the narrator's admission that it is a tale "about science and faith, and the distance between the two." (5-6) While all of the quotations make for interesting commentary on many themes in the steampunk aesthetic, this one reminded me of the ongoing investigation I've had based on Lavie Tidhar's ideas about steampunk technology as magical technology. Steampunk isn't about delivering perfectly plausible technology, because steampunk isn't about high tech - it's about science and faith (we might substitute fantasy, or romanticism).

While The Kingdom of Ohio isn't purely steampunk, it has elements of the steampunk aesthetic beyond the magical technology. Any invocation of Edison and Tesla in most current fiction should be seen less as an historical reference, and more as a mythological one, to the idea that Edison and Tesla represent: technological optimism, the idea that anything could be accomplished. So when Flaming writes that "It's a story about conspiracies and struggles to reshape the world; about secret wars between men like J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla" (5) we probably shouldn't go expecting perfect historical authenticity. It's the appearance of authenticity that Flaming and steampunk are concerned with. As I've said before, it shouldn't be a matter of throwing historical accuracy to the wind, but it doesn't need precise accuracy. In fact, Ohio is arguing that we can't know the past with precision.
"I wasn't a scholar growing up, but I remember learning that Christopher Columbus was a hero, and that the Civil War was about slavery. Now I'm told that Columbus was a "hegemonic exploiter" and that Mr. Lincoln's War was fought primarily for economic reasons." (29)
What's the truth about history when we keep rewriting our own? What difference does it make if I use real history or alternate history, when current historical criticism seems to doubt its own facts? Further, what difference does memory and history make in the immediacy of 21st century high-tech-plugged-in Ipod society? We don't stop to smell roses anymore.
"Thanks to the genius of human invention, things have sped up until I can hardly keep track anymore...we all seem to be fast-forwarding into a future where our memories become irrelevant relics from a useless and discarded past." (2)

"In fact...all this electronic wizardry only adds to our confusion, delivering inside scoops and verdicts about events that have hardly begun: a torrent of chatter moving at the speed of light, making it nearly impossible for any of the important things to be heard." (29)
The text itself is written in a way that begs the reader to slow down, and pay attention to the writing. Reviewers say this is slow-pacing, but this isn't an adventure story--it's a reflection of memory and love, and one should rarely rush along at a page-turning pace for such writing. We don't guzzle fine wine. Not if we know what we're about in discerning taste. I think the same is true for books like The Kingdom of Ohio, which reminded me a great deal of Mark Helprin's A Winter's Tale on a much smaller scale.

And while the book ends ambiguously, still playing with the themes of memory and possible worlds, this isn't a spoiler. Books like Kingdom of Ohio aren't about the endings, they're about the journey. Modern readers too often forget this--it's not about knowing how it ends, because sometimes it doesn't end, and if you haven't taken the time to savor the text along the way, you are as disappointed as someone who rushes through Christmas dinner, only to find there isn't any dessert. And besides, we have the free will to not see last page as an ending, but another beginning, becoming what Dana Gioia and X.J. Kennedy call "co-creators in the making of meaning".

The Kingdom of Ohio goes on sale on December 31, and while I it's obviously not for everyone, I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it for anyone looking for a slow, pleasurable read.

Dec 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

If you got extra money for Christmas and are unsure how to spend it, my best recommendation this year is to order a copy of VICTORY! by Greg Broadmore, the sequel to the Contrapulatronic Dingus Directory through the online book seller of your choice. I'll be writing about both of them in the next few weeks, but for now, enjoy the postcard Weta sent, summing up Broadmoor's humor rather nicely.

Dec 23, 2009

Cold Duty by J. Daniel Sawyer

Despite how Charles Dickens seems to feature as a pivotal precedent for the Steampunk aesthetic, the author's considerable influence on North American and UK Christmas traditions has not extended to steampunk Christmas stories. One has to look far and wide for steampunk Christmas images, and the literature is far more spartan. J. Daniel Sawyer's podcasted short story "Cold Duty" (to be released in a print anthology in 2010) is one of the only ones I have stumbled across, and thankfully, it's very good. While I definitely wanted to post something seasonal, I didn't want to compromise the integrity of the blog in the process.

I had the double-pleasure of listening all the way through "Cold Duty" on podcast through Steampod before recalling how I knew J. Daniel Sawyer. I had the honor of being on a panel about Victorian technology with Daniel at Steam Powered, along with Christopher Garcia. Dan and I had a couple of excellent chats that weekend, and I was glad to find out that his star was rising in steampunk circles.

As already stated, I liked "Cold Duty", which I first experienced as a podcast audiobook. The reader does an excellent job of conveying the narrator's voice, in accent and emotion with an authenticity that captures Sawyer's admirable writing style. One of my complaints with Cherie Priest's Boneshaker is how the main characters lacked individual voices, and how the text overall was too contemporary - it didn't read nineteenth century. "Cold Duty" is packed with aphorisms and slang that provides verisimilitude without becoming inacessible to the modern reader. I had no trouble following the storyline, and understood the meaning of period phrases by their context. The presence of a highly personal voice is key to Sawyer's text, not only because it is told in first person, but because it is written as the transcript of a mix of journal entries and actual recordings on wax cylinders (of interest, an audiobook producer recently asked me if steampunk fans would buy an audiobook on a wax cylinder as a collectible - perhaps "Cold Duty" is the story for such an undertaking!).

It's the historical authenticity that sets "Cold Duty" apart from other steampunk short fiction I've read outside the two steampunk anthologies released so far. It feels like it takes place in a world as rich as that of The Difference Engine, or The Peshawar Lancers. It's difficult to say, due to the brevity of the medium of short story, but I never felt the secondary world of "Cold Duty" was clumsy or contrived. Sawyer has a strong enough knowledge of the nineteenth century to write comfortably in it. Good steampunk should understand history well enough to understand the ramifications of "the moment of the break" from our reality to the possible world, or else that break becomes a forward-acting deus ex machina, as is the case in Jonathan Green's Unnatural History.

Daniel was good enough to send me a text copy so I wouldn't have to to transcribe any quotes from the story from audiobook, but as I read it again, I was struck by how this is a story best left like a Christmas present - all wrapped up. Sure, I could tell you about how it has some great anachronistic technology, like the nearly-trope-status Babbage engine, or the enigmatic Gelusian room, but I wouldn't be able to say much about the latter without ruining the surprise. Yet, perhaps to entice you, I will leave this extended quotation, like a piece of torn wrapping paper where you can see some of the box peeking through, or perhaps like the sounds coming from within when you shake it. Get on over to Steampod and unwrap yourself a little bit of free Christmas steampunk.
In the fifty-seven London Christmases I seen, I reckon I've seen just about every kind there was. Plague years, snow years, wet years, years when everything changed and the world opened up, like this one.Never thought I'd see German industry in, but there it is across from my company. A strange sight, but maybe not the strangest. Not as strange as the year after the Ripper when everyone were afraid to stay out after dark, until the carolers came and filled the streets with music. The demons don't come out to play when the candles and holly is out.
I heard carolers today on my walk at Hyde Park. They stood in the middle of where the Crystal Palace used to stand, for the Great Exhibition. I only ever got to see photos of it, they tore it down before I arrived in the city. Sometimes, it's hard to remember being anywhere else.
The snow was fresh. The sounds of the city – the six-stroke steamolines, the hoof clops of horses on the sidewalk, the voices of lost people, sifted through the trees and the powder, carried on the wind, rushing through the trees like it were a cold steam. Their voices, singing “O Come Emmanuel,” sounded like God took the world's heartbreak and made it into a diamond, then wrapped it around a symphony. I don't know if I've ever heard anything so beautiful.

Get a print copy of "Cold Duty" and other J. Daniel Sawyer stories in Podthology!

Dec 22, 2009

Year One

What a great first year of the Steampunk Scholar. A year ago, I was writing the first drafts of papers that are currently awaiting publication. Now I'm editing the last of them for an end-of-the-year deadline. I wish I could have updated more in November, but marking papers and exams at work kept me buried. Thankfully, I was able to keep reading, and I've got some good research findings to post for my readers in the next few weeks as I enjoy some vacation time.

Speaking of readers, I'd like to say a huge thank-you to everyone who comes by the blog. When I first started the blog, I had no idea where it would go, or where it might take me. You've made Steampunk Scholar one of the go-to sites for steampunk information. I've inadvertently become many people's one-stop-blog for opinions on steampunk literature, which has been really good for me, as it helped focus my work. Every time I thought I should be writing on the fashion (Victoria's Secret models with steampunk wings!) or the Makers (I have so very much to say about Datamancer and Jake von Slatt!), someone would link to the blog, giving kudos for talking about the literature. Apparently I'm filling a niche, though I'd argue Cory Gross was doing it first! I'll do my best to continue to bring my thoughts on steampunk writing -- feedback isn't just welcome, it's heavily encouraged, as your thoughts help me focus mine.

The notoriety of the site has resulted in some cool opportunities, unlooked and unasked for: most recent, Canada's SPACE channel is doing a spot on steampunk and I might get interviewed for it. Talk about geek heaven - getting interviewed on national television for something you love? I must add that they're looking for rabid steampunk aficianados to interview or feature. As it was put to me, they're looking for "miss or mister steampunk." So if you're a maker, a collector, a costumer, and you want someone to film you, then contact me and tell me why you think SPACE should be contacting you, and I'll pass along the most promising applicants to the show.

Another cool opportunity came from Steamcon, where I interviewed Paul Guinan. I had decided to use Boilerplate as a textbook at Macewan University in the winter semester, and contacted Paul to let him know. Well, the next thing I knew, I was writing the official teacher's guide for Boilerplate! It's great to be part of bringing great steampunk-related material like this into the classroom. I'm a firm believer that literature studies should be enjoyable, and was one of the reasons I chose steampunk as my dissertation topic.

The "Steam Wars" and "Finding Nemo" papers are still forthcoming, but the publication dates for both draw ever-closer. In the meantime, I continue to write for Chris Garcia's Exhibition Hall. I'm doing a review of the new Abney Park disc for Exhibition Hall this month, so watch for that.

As I posted in my Steamcon updates, the blog has raised the visibility of what I'm doing. At Steam Powered, I was "the guy from Canada." A year later, I'm hanging with Jake von Slatt and Nathaniel Johnstone. I spent twenty years of my life trying to make it in music, with marginal success. I was a minister in various capacities for fifteen, and have some articles and published derision of Christian right-wingers to show for it. I've been a bonafide steampunk scholar for one year, and doors just keep opening. I don't quite know what to think about that, but given that it's Christmas, it certainly has a "fullness of time" sense to it. While I regret some of the things along the path, I don't regret where the path has taken me.   

Some final shout-outs to the people who have propelled this blog beyond my expectations. Thanks to: my advisor, Irene Sywenky, for extensions on a few deadlines, and for encouraging me to publish; Chris Garcia, who keeps treating me like I'm a celebrity, despite knowing many real ones; Jay Lake, whose link to my less-than-favorable review of Mainspring brought the largest number of hits to the site from a literature-related post; Jeff Vandermeer for timely advice; Jake von Slatt for encouraging my steampunk scholarship; Dru Pagliosotti and all the other steampunk scholars out there, for academic solidarity in this "frivolous" undertaking; Jha Goh for engaging debates; Cory Gross, my fellow Albertan, who keeps reminding me to keep it fun; Krzysztof, for feeding me the latest information and challenging my definitions; Gail Carriger, who keeps linking the site on Twitter; the people behind the conventions and conferences who keep having me speak; the authors who have sent ARCs (keep 'em coming!); everyone in Legion Fantastique--you are my first steampunk family; History Punk, for calling Steampunk Scholar his "new blog crush"; and of course, my wife Jenica, who has always supported my studies, but now enjoys coming along on the research trips.

Dec 18, 2009

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

When Stefan Hantke wrote his article, "Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk" in 1999, he warned against fixed definitions of the term: given "how quickly steampunk has fragmented into a bewildering variety of styles, critics would be best off considering their own definitions as working hypotheses, tentative, evolving fictions in themselves” (253). This has been borne out with my reading as well--each work studied produces some facet of steampunk's aesthetic, showing how the idea of steampunk wasn't something that sprang fully-formed from the mind of K.W. Jeter. The writers were forming the steampunk aesthetic, not necessarily setting out to write using that visual toolbox.

However, recent steampunk works seem to be taking from the toolbox as much as they add to it. Cherie Priest's Boneshaker provides a good example of how this works. The story itself is not original in terms of plot: the runaway son being pursued by a protective mother is at least as old as Hans Christian Andersen's Story of a Mother. Adding monsters to the mix echoes the film version of Silent Hill, while the setting of a walled Seattle filled with Boneshaker's colourful cast of characters reminds me of Escape from New York: "Once you go in, you don't come out." Like my assessment of Perdido Street Station, Priest takes familiar pop culture storylines and makes them unfamiliar in a steampunk setting.

Seattle is a prime target for a steampunk setting, given its reputation as a center of steampunk culture on the West coast, and Priest is to be commended for choosing the location, if only as a clever marketing ploy (which it isn't solely - Priest lives in Seattle, and is likely "writing what she knows"). Priest has a small legion of devoted fans already in steampunk culture, and the buzz about Boneshaker was considerable. I don't think any other steampunk book released in 2009 garnered as much anticipation. Setting Boneshaker in Seattle seems like tribute to the North American steampunk community, and it has paid off in pre-release buzz. Seattle works well on a story level in that it still constituted a frontier city in the late nineteenth century, far from seats of government and control. Boneshaker could not have happened in New York, since the story requires a level of lawlessness that, despite the infamous four corners, New York could not provide.

One might decry the lack of Victoriana, but that's what Priest brings to the toolkit - more American steampunk. It's not new, and I'm not only speaking of Wild, Wild West in either of its iterations: Priest joins the ranks of Joe. R. Lansdale, Lea Hernandez, Michael Chabon and Thomas Pynchon in steampunking the United States of the nineteenth century. Whatever steampunk "started" as, it has become an aesthetic of the nineteenth century - we might say the Victorian era, not just the Victorian culture. I would argue it was always this way--and thankfully, it's moving outside the Western boundaries, as evidenced by The Windup Girl.

At any rate, what Priest offers the study of the aesthetic is a book that seems to have gone out of its way to be steampunk. I haven't read a steampunk book yet which features characters actually wearing the ubiquitous brass goggles, but early on, Priest builds them into her storyline, in a way which echoes my own reflections on the goggles in Steam Wars: "All the workers wore goggles with polarized lenses. For reasons no one fully understood, such lenses allowed the wearer to see the dreaded Blight" (45).One has to chuckle at the "reasons no one fully understood." It's as though Priest is winking at the naysayers, letting them know she's aware of the jokes: the goggles do nothing? Hardly -- they are the steampunk equivalent of cyberpunk's mirrorshades - they permit visions into this alternate reality. Within Priest's alternate reality of Boneshaker, they become the means to avoid the dangerous zombie-creating yellow gas.

She includes the other steampunk icon as well, the airship, and like Moorcock, draws a line between the high-tech, shiny airships:

"The ships themselves came in assorted designs. Some were little more than hot air balloons with baskets held up low and close to the balloon's underbelly; and some were more impressive, with buckets that looked like the hull of a water-running vessel--but built onto a hydrogen tank and propelled with steam thrusters" (79)

And those of the sky pirates:
"These ships were of a different sort, less glossy and less uniform than the ones at the main dock. They were not so much manufactured as cobbled together from bits and pieces of other, sturdier, larger vessels" (81)

Ostentatious character names, and a steampunk villainous mastermind keep readers filling out their steampunk checklist:

"Dr. Minnericht's mask was as elaborate as Jeremiah Swakhammer's; but it made him look less like a mechanical animal than a clockwork corpse, with a steel skull knitted together from tiny pipes and valves. The mask covered everything from the crown of his head to his collarbones. Its faceplate featured a flat pair of goggles that were tinted a deep shade of blue, but illuminated from within so it appeared that his pupils were alight." (307)
Yet for all this steampunk-by-the-numbers, Boneshaker is not a typical steampunk narrative. It has zombies, which are the monsters of the nuclear age. Of all the anachronisms of Boneshaker, the zombies are perhaps the greatest oddity of all, the result of noxious fumes from the underworld. And it has family, which is also a bit of an anachronism in steampunk literature. Steampunk heroes are rarely family folk, with the exception of Sir Robert Bruce in Fitzpatrick's War. They are either orphans, widows, widowers, or serial monogamists. Which is a bit odd, considering how children gained an unprecedented status in society in the nineteenth century.

On this level, Boneshaker is refreshing. The premise intrigued me, and I enjoyed the first third of the book immensely. Sadly, the pace drags in the middle third, and I found the final pages unsatisfying. The level of threat from the zombies never matched the anticipation set out in the first chapters. I think zombie fiction should involve a fairly high and gory body count. Priest has a kindler, gentler zombie hand. While Priest excelled at the voice of Briar Wilkes, I found her son Ezekiel less-than-sympathetic: it's hard to care about a character who so willfully walks into harm's way. Perhaps the cast becomes too bloated, or maybe the number of meanderings through the underground of Seattle (Boing Boing called Boneshaker a "zombie steampunk mad-science dungeon crawl family adventure novel") simply became tedious: I haven't been able to pin down what didn't work for me. Perhaps, like Mainspring, it will deserve a second read and a different set of assessing goggles, but for the time being, I remain somewhat disappointed by the read.

That said, I'm pretty sure this is a "Your Mileage May Vary" reading experience, as I know there are many who think very highly of Boneshaker. I liked the idea, and given that Priest still has the hands-down best short description of steampunk in existence, I'm hopeful that she may yet have the hands-down best-steampunk-with-intention novel. I'm excited someone is unabashedly writing steampunk, and not gaslamp fantasy, gaslight romance, or some other neo-Victorian speculative derivation meant to keep them at some sort of aloof distance. Priest embraces steampunk whole-heartedly, and that's worth applause from me.

Nov 29, 2009

Steamcon 2009 - Sunday, Day 03

Given how late many Steamcon attendees kept the party going after Abney Park finished on Saturday night, I was dubious about what kind of crowd I'd have for my last session, "Steam Wars: Steampunk Aesthetic meets Space Opera." Based on the paper I'd submitted to the Journal of Neo Victorian Studies, the presentation is about the steampunk Star Wars images produced by Eric Poulton and other artists for the challenge issued by CG Society. I'll have to learn to never underestimate a fan's ability to get up early, especially when you're presenting a mash-up on two of their favorite things. One of the first attendees in the room had a full-sleeve tattoo of Star Wars characters, in addition to a cool steampunk-mechanic outfit (which underscored my point about steampunk heroines in the presentation rather nicely, now that I think back on it).

There were friends in the room, both new (Kevin!) and old (Chris and Linda, and Daniel and Autumn, come to say farewell before boarding their flight home). The discussion was lively even before I got started, and continued out into the hallways once again. While I was standing there, chatting with panel attendees, I was greeted by Alisa Green, who was my touchstone via email in the months leading up to Steamcon. It was great to put a face to the name, and I was really impressed that she had made the effort to track me down and say hello. That's a definite plus for Steamcon - the people in charge were very personable, and available. You could tell the weekend had taken its toll on them, but they weren't showing it in demeanor - they maintained a very Victorian stiff-upper-lip, even though they looked ready to collapse.

Jenica had gone to do some quick shopping, so I had time to hit the vendor room: I'd already picked up a print of Myke Amend's "The Rescue" on Saturday in the art gallery, and I added Girl Genius Book Four, Heart Breakers and Boilerplate, and some goggles for a friend back home to my acquisitions for the weekend. Exiting the vendor's room, I entered into a conversation with an Alaskan pilgrim who had been in my "Dungeons and Dickens" session, and had provided a lot of positive non-verbal feedback. We found some comfortable seating and engaged in a great conversation about gaming and books for the better part of an hour, until Jenica returned, and it was time to pack, and head to the airport.

While it was mainly out of necessity that we headed back on Sunday, it was another major difference between Steam Powered and Steamcon. I stayed after everyone had finally gone home in Sunnyvale, but was an early departure from Seattle. Unless I absolutely have to, I won't be repeating that. This sort of immersive experience needs some time to process and unwind, and exiting the surreality of Steamcon to arrive home in my mundane reality back home (with Jenica and the kids still in Kelowna!) was a bit of a downer. I've already made plans to leave earlier and stay later for the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition.

Nevertheless, Steamcon had me on enough of a high that I was able to ride it into the week that followed. Since I'd had Jenica and our friends along, we were able to reminisce, which extended the experience, in a way Steam Powered didn't, because all the people I'd experienced it with had remained behind. Aside from the annoyance of tophats at the concert, the weekend was a huge success - by now everyone is aware that they'd planned for around 800, and ended up with around 1300. Given the success of Steamcon, and the proliferation of  steampunk conventions sprouting up across North America in 2010, I think we can safely say that rumors of the demise of steampunk, have been greatly exagerrated.

Kudos to Martin, Diana, Alisa, and all the rest of the folks who made Steamcon happen. I can't wait for next year's event, which is already themed: "Weird Weird West." I think I see a presentation on Joe Lansdale, Jonah Hex, or Deadlands on the horizon. Here's hoping the world still needs a steampunk scholar come next fall.

Todd Lovering's incredible hand-carved Hastin pistols.
These are definitely on my Christmas list. 

Nov 28, 2009

Steamcon 2009 - Saturday, Day 02

I was on my own for most of Saturday, as my traveling companions were journeying into Seattle to see the sights. Due to the size of the Airport Marriot, there were fewer clusters of activity than there had been in Sunnyvale at Steam Powered. As a result, one didn't run into people as often, and so I ended up attending Jake von Slatt and Anthony Jon Hicks' "The Gentle Art of Modding" alone. As I said in my previous post, I was unable to talk with Jake or attend any of his panels at Steam Powered, so I was really glad to sit in on this session. Having Jake von Slatt pull the curtain aside and allow the audience into his workshop was interesting - I couldn't follow all of the various items and elements he utilizes in his work, but I was able to gather from the reaction of audience that he isn't one of the premier steampunk Makers simply because he has the most visibility. It's because he has innovative, creative, and most importantly, accessible approaches to making the art he does.

I recently had a conversation with someone about how an artist didn't want his work labeled as steampunk because of what he called 'plagiarism' in the movement. I think the "imitation as creation" aspect of steampunk art is part of its draw. Not all of us can be as original as a Jake von Slatt or Anthony Jon Hicks - but once we've been shown a "how-to" tutorial, we can make our ray-gun out of candlesticks, or etch some brass. All art is ultimately derivative, plagiarizing from someone else - steampunk is unabashedly so. What I didn't realize about Jake's work is that little of it actually works, which underscores my idea of steampunk aesthetic once again. This isn't really about making neo-Victorian-looking gadgets - it's about making things that look like neo-Victorian gadgets. That said, Jake has produced a number of excellent items that do work, such as the amplifier for Abney Park's guitarist, Nathaniel Johnstone, and has inspired a number of other Makers to produce working versions of ideas he's had. It should also be noted that Jake readily admitted in his presentation that there are many other people doing what he's doing, and doing it better (which I would echo for my own work here at Steampunk Scholar). But let's face it, none of them look as cool Jake does in a Fedora.

Jake von Slatt with the aforementioned amplifier

Jake and I hung around chatting for nearly an hour after his session, about steampunk politics, anarchists in steampunk, and other sundry topics. We were joined by Justin of Redfork Empire, who was fun to hang with, not only because he's a nice guy, but because he had on one of those costumes that gets photographed every 2.45 minutes. It was a clear indication of the suck level of my own costuming that, despite standing with Justin for several hours over the weekend, I was never once asked to stand in the photo with him.

Justin of Redfork Empire

I abandoned Jake and Justin to introduce myself to Paul Guinan, the artist and co-author of Boilerplate. I was going to be chairing two hours of interview and questions with Paul as Steamcon's Artist Guest of Honor, and wanted to touch base with him before the panel took place. That done, I went in and caught the tail-end of "Girl Genius Radio Theater", which was incredible. Phil and Kaja Foglio, along with a cast of very talented friends, delivered a wonderful dramatic reading of an episode of "Girl Genius". I'm glad I caught it, as I'm making it a priority to attend if they repeat this as the Artist Guests of Honor at the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition in March. I highly recommend anyone who attends to do the same.

Chairing Paul's interview session was a real treat: not only did Paul deliver well-spoken, incisive thoughts on his book, but the audience asked questions that brought out the areas Paul was most interested in. One of the notable comments Paul made was that he did primary historical research on Boilerplate, into what was effectively the first Korean war the United States was involved in, prior to the nineteenth century. Finding out the level of historical detail in Boilerplate was fascinating, as was Paul's "behind-the-scenes" comments on how he achieved a number of the images. I was surprised to find out that he utilized natural light for shooting the Boilerplate figure, requiring that he estimate/calculate the time in the photos or pictures he wanted to put Boilerplate into.

After my epic two hour panel with Paul Guinan, I went for lunch with Chris and Linda, where we discussed upcoming issues of Exhibition Hall, how cool the location for the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition is going to be, and argued over whether or not furries can be steampunk. The food was once again, fantastic, and while we were waiting to get into the restaurant, Jay Lake came up and said hi to Chris - like I said, hang with Chris for a few moments at a Con, and you'll rub shoulders with the famous. I made sure to gush to Lake about "Lollygang", because I love it, but also to avoid having him recognize me as the guy who said not-such-nice-things about Mainspring. On that note, I've been meaning to write another piece on Mainspring, since I don't really review steampunk literature so much as discuss each work's contribution to the aesthetic, and my piece on Mainspring was written before I concluded I wouldn't focus on reviews. Mainspring is one of the few works that has included religion as a major theme without resorting to the very tired monolithic and usually corrupt Church ala Philip Pullman: I'm nonplussed that steampunk writers write rich alternate histories but produce caricatures of religious establishments, despite their import to nineteenth century life. I digress.

The Steampunk Scholar and his femme fatale

While I'd wanted to attend "Readings by Cat Rambo and Jay Lake", I ended up getting mentally prepared for my own session, "Dungeons and Dickens: How to Steampunk Your RPG." While I put more work into my academic presentations at Steamcon, this one was the most gratifying, and the best-attended. I approached the subject matter from the perspective that I was showing them how I had 'modded' my Middle-Earth-Roleplaying campaign, and that I hoped it would inspire them to do likewise with their own games. There was lots of laughter, good banter, some great questions (especially those from a precocious young man who was in attendance with his father), and follow-up discussions outside the salon after it was all over. You know it's been a good session when people want to continue it outside. A huge thank-you to my fellow gamers who attended that session, making it an immensely enjoyable time. As promised, the slides for that session will be going up when I finish my Steamcon reports.

Blaine and Kim in costume, Saturday night
Jake von Slatt had said to me he was limiting himself to only one presentation at Steamcon, so he could actually enjoy taking in some of the panels. After giving two in one day, I could understand why. I was pretty tired, and ended up skipping out of going to "Steampunk Literature 101" in favor of chatting with Daniel and Autumn. As it so happened, we mostly talked literature anyhow, discussing Gail Carriger's Soulless, Dickens, why China Mieville might have anything to do with Dickens, and Tim Powers, author of one of my top ten steampunk books, The Anubis Gates. Autumn is a big Powers fan, and since they were both going to be attending the "Meet With Tim Powers" panel, I opted to tag along.

On a whim, I decided to record as much of it on my pocket digital recorder as I could before the batteries died, and I'm glad for it. Tim Powers is not only a solid writer, he's also very funny. His dry wit had the room in stitches several times, with topics ranging from whether or not he writes steampunk (he's pretty sure he doesn't), Door-to-door Evangelicals (he claimed to have set their Bible on fire with his reading glass) to what Disney is doing with On Stranger Tides for the next Pirates of the Carribbean movie (contrary to rumor, he didn't sell the rights so he could meet Johnny Depp). If time allows and Tim Powers is amenable, I'll post a transcript here in the new year (I would just post the audio, but it's punctuated by me laughing really hard, much closer to the mic than Powers was).

It was now 7:00 pm, and the day nearly spent. Jenica, Blaine, and Kim had returned from their adventures about town, and, once dressed for the concert, we joined Daniel and Autumn for great food and conversation once again. If I had to characterize the major difference in my first steampunk convention vs. Steamcon, it would be with the word "friends". I was engaged in research for the most part at Steam Powered, largely because I didn't really know anyone. But I met some great people, and through Facebook, have become better acquainted with them, so that a lot of my Steamcon experience was about talking with friends face-to-face, instead of Facebook.

Some of you might remember that I nearly didn't get tickets for the concert. Let's just leave it at nearly, since I can't reveal how I got into the show, save to say that pity was taken upon me. Thanks once again to those excellent souls who made it possible for Jenica and I to get into the show.

We heard, rather than saw "Unwoman," as this solo-voice-cello artist is not only diminuitive in stature, but was sitting down. My recommendation to all future steampunk concerts is - everyone has to leave their tophats at the door. A standing-concert makes it tough enough to see the band on a low stage, but top-hats exacerbate the problem. I'm 6"2, so I'm not bothered by it, but I was standing with enough people in the average height range than I could sympathize. Despite only being able to hear her, "Unwoman" was great, and I'm excited she will be the musical guest at the Victoria Steam Exposition in Victoria, BC (Canada's first steampunk con!), which I'm hoping to attend. If you have a catch her in concert, I highly recommend.

Vernian Process took to the stage, but the mix was too tinny, and consequently drove us out of the hall for the duration of their show (yes, I know - if it's too loud, you're too old...clearly, I've gotten too old). What I did catch of their show matches their influences, which include Danny Elfman and David Bowie - very theatrical. Their show begs for multimedia. At any rate, we joined Joel Browning and oft-photographed steampunk belle Devon McGuire for some lively conversation which kept involving Neil Gaiman.

Jenica and I with Cap'n Robert

Finally, Abney Park took to the stage, and while I had the pleasure of really seeing them last year at Steam Powered, they were still fantastic, even though I  could see only the heads and shoulders of band members over the tophats. Steampunk accoutrements aside, I enjoy their music, and front man Cap'n Roberts banter with the crowd is always entertaining. New female vocalist Jody Ellen can't replace Finn von Claret as either dancer or associate front-man, but she makes up for that lack with superior vocal chops. Both Jenica and I were blown away by her voice. The band tried out some new material on the crowd, with one in particular sticking in my mind that reminded me of a ramped-up "Putting on the Ritz" by 80s one-hit-wonders Taco. It's a great tune, and I'm excited for the release of Aether Shanties in early December. Jenica had a great time singing and dancing along to the tunes; it's been ages since we've enjoyed a concert together like that.

In addition to learning that steampunk making doesn't have to work, that the Foglios have a great career ahead of them in radio should television be struck from the face of the earth, that tophats do not make for concert-friendly headgear, and that I need to talk less at the supper table (complete inside joke for those who were there), I also discovered that, even if you put gel-inserts into costume boots, your feet will still hurt like hell at the end of a day like this one. Still, sore feet is a small price to pay for experiences and sessions like these. As my son would say, fully awesome.

Nov 14, 2009

Steamcon 2009 - Friday, Day 01

WARNING: The following steampunk scholar post is about as academic as the average diary entry. It is filled with moments of geeking out, friendly reflection, and moments of throwing up the horns in triumph over being "The Steampunk Scholar". Sometimes you just gotta crow.

What a difference a year makes. My attendance at Steamcon in Seattle, WA, very nearly marked the year anniversary of the real kick-off of my steampunk research, at Steam Powered in Sunnyvale, CA. Last year, I knew very little about steampunk, other than what my initial research into Jules Verne's writings had produced. While I presented at two panels and gave my own presentation on Captain Nemo, all my information was raw and undeveloped. Twelve months later, I'm being considered (at least in certain circles) something of an expert on the topic. So even my experience leading up to the Con was quite different: I was able to cite my presentations at Steam Powered, the Eaton Conference, my pending publications, and of course, this blog. Thanks to everyone who has helped raise the profile of Steampunk Scholar--October was the highest number of visitors yet, with over 3,000 visitors, and a returning audience of around 500. It's nice to know someone's reading.

The updated Steampunk Scholar costume - why the cowboy hat? Because I'm an Albertan Steampunk.

My journey to Steamcon began early in the morning of Friday, October 23. My wife, Jenica, was in Kelowna, BC, with our kids, who would be staying with their grandparents for the weekend: the first time we've been away from the kids for more than a night. I was flying down with some close friends, Blaine and Kim, who were interested in seeing what a steampunk convention was like, and perhaps catching some sights in Seattle. Alas, despite our early arrival at the airport around 5 am, we didn't board a plane until 1 pm, due to mechanical problems and a cancelled flight. This was inconvenient, but made strange by the coincidence that Jenica's plane was also delayed in Kelowna for the very same reason! Cue ominous music...

We arrived at the Marriot in Seattle at around 3:00 pm, with less than an hour for me to get registered, changed, and arrive at my first presentation of the weekend. I nearly opted to do it out of costume, but since Jenica had done some very cool modifications to my suit coat and I'd bought boots to go with it, I hurried into my steampunk scholar's garb and rushed to register. Thankfully, although Jenica had to wait in line to register, my registration as a presenters was a breeze, and the swag bag and info pack were top-notch. Nearly every piece of paper had a map of the hotel on it, which was great, as it was more sprawling than the Marriot in Sunnyvale had been. The details taken care of, I strode to the salon I was to present in.

It was a small group I presented to, but there were a number of familiar faces in the crowd, which made for a relaxed first session: of course, my traveling companions, Jenica, Blaine, and Kim; Chris Garcia, the ultimate "con-man" and editor-in-chief of steampunk 'zine Exhibition Hall, accompanied by the lovely Linda; and Daniel Silveria, aka Michel Ardan from Legion Fantastique, accompanied by Autumn Adamme, the genius mastermind behind Dark Garden Unique Corsetry. Having Daniel there was a real treat, since he was one of the first people I met at Steam Powered, and in addition to looking quite a bit like Nadar, the man Ardan is based upon, is a very warm and friendly person. I'd only found out the day prior that he'd be attending, as he put it, "with his girlfriend." I said that was great, even though I had no idea who his girlfriend was. Finding out that she was the woman behind the most amazing corsets in North America blew me away. I've been part of the Facebook group since Steam Powered, and have used photos from one of their displays as part of my research on steampunk Star Wars, so it was really great to meet the creative force behind Dark Garden. I continue to be nonplussed that I can never attend the fashion shows, but I'm still hoping...

A stunning couple: Autumn Adamme and Daniel Silviera

My Nemo session went well, with some scattered audience participation, and a quick chat with a Verne fan afterwards. While I was chatting, Jake von Slatt entered the room. This is more evidence of how strange the difference of twelve months is: last year at Steam Powered, I felt too intimidated to talk to Jake, but he was good enough to give me his card at my Nemo panel and state that "we need to talk," which was a really cool moment of acceptance into the steampunk community, coming only moments after I'd gotten my honorary admission into Legion Fantastique and my first (and still only) pair of goggles from the crew. A year later, and instead of intimidation, it's recognition and friendly wave from another familiar face, which brings me up another notch of comfortable.

The salon was directly across from Abney Park's product table, and so Jake introduces me to Nathaniel Johnstone, guitarist of Abney Park. I made the comment to my traveling companions that Nathaniel is the man who brings both the sound of Rammstein and Loreena McKennitt to Abney Park, which launched Nathaniel into regaling us with several funny anecdotes from concert experiences. While he was doing this, I got to watch how that incredible headpiece of his is combed into his hair.

Jenica and I with Abney Park's Nathaniel Johnstone (and his amazing belt-dreadlocks)

My work for the evening complete, I could now play. I changed back into civilian clothes to grab some supper, which inadvertently allowed Jenica and I to explain "what was going on" to non-Con people who sat near our table in the lounge. I just told them they were getting dinner and a show at no extra cost. The food at the Marriot was fantastic - I ate mostly seafood all weekend, as we don't get fish even remotely fresh here on the Prairies. The food was good, but the company was even better. Jenica and I joined Daniel and Autumn, as well as Joel Browning, aka Impey Barbicane of Legion Fantastique. Unlike Daniel, I didn't meet Joel until the last moments of Steam Powered, so it was good to have a face-to-face conversation with him. Joel's a real charmer, and a great storyteller to boot, as all the folks in Legion I've met tend to be.

Jenica and I got into costume, and headed down to a special Tea being held for presenters and guests of honor. Unfortunately, this Tea wasn't extended to significant others, a definite negative for us; if you're going to have a wine-and-cheese event to honor your contributors, extend it to their companion as well. I ducked in long enough to say a proper hello to Chris and Linda before re-joining my wife and meeting up with Blaine and Kim, now in costume. None of us had spectacular steampunk looks, but I was very proud of the costumes we'd come up, considering none of us work in the fashion industry, or have large amounts of disposable income or time to sink into creating said costumes. Additionally, I've decided to not attempt to make my costume really great: really great costumes get stopped every ten feet for a photo opportunity. If their costume is really that awesome (or they're just hot), then they end up standing for a lengthy photo session. At both Steam Powered and Steamcon, I was busy enough that I couldn't afford to be stopped for photos for any length of time. It's good to look great, but it's great to on-time for your panels. That said, I am looking to track me down some awesome spectacles and a decent frock coat for my Steampunk Scholar ensemble.

Blaine in his awesome Prussian-style outfit 

Even though I didn't think of our costumes as being particularly fantastic, we did get a kudo from Cap'n Robert of Abney Park; I was taking Blaine to meet Jake von Slatt. As we approached Jake, I could see he was talking with members of the band. Cap'n Robert loudly declared that he "loved" what we were doing with our costumes, in reference I'm sure, to Jenica's fantastic circa-1920s look. Whatever the case, it was a moment to geek out internally, and play it cool on the surface. I'm pretty sure Jenica's weekend was made right then and there, as she's as big an AP fan as I am. I introduced Blaine to Jake, and we all stood around chatting for a few moments before taking our leave of two of the most well-recognized figures in steampunk in North America. Way cool.
My very own femme fatale, in her Cap'n Robert-approved 1920s look.

Moving to the lounge once again, the four of us engaged in spending exhorbitant amounts on highballs at the ridiculously over-priced bar (which is not a criticism - all hotel bars are ridiculously overpriced). We were soon joined by Daniel and Autumn, and Linda and Chris.I should mention how honored I am (and he'll likely think I'm a goof for saying so) to hang with Chris. When I call him the "con-man," it's because the guy knows everyone at these events. Stand with Chris Garcia for more than an hour, and Tim Powers will walk up and ask what's worth having from the menu, Jay Lake will come up and make a joke, and Cherie Priest will want to know when their panel is happening. Despite being the fanboy of all fanboys, Chris is congenial, humble, and damn funny. And he doesn't even need a kickass steampunk costume to fit in.

It was an added bonus to watch Jenica, Blaine, and Kim interacting with everyone. Jenica's not a geek in the pure sense - she knows BSG and Buffy because of Blaine, Kim, and myself. But as a fashion aficianado and interior decorator, she, Linda, and Autumn had lots to talk about. It's a big win when your non-geek wife has a blast at the first geek-con she goes to, since it means you'll get to go to more. For Blaine and Kim, who are pure geeks, it was awesome to watch them interacting with people and speaking various geek dialects. Kim has the added advantage of being an archeologist, which is to geeks what being a professional hockey player is to everyone else.

The photo I was too busy to take...
Now, at this point last year, I was standing on the sidelines, watching conversations happen. I chatted with a few people, but largely just observed and took photos. This year, I was so busy catching up with Chris, who I've seen at every event that's taken me into the U.S. for my research this past year, and getting to know Autumn, that I didn't take one damn picture. Chris has one of all of us seated on big comfy furniture in the lobby, enjoying drinks and conversation in the most recent Exhibition Hall. What a difference a year makes.

Nov 12, 2009

Steampunk Test

This is clearly not an academic post, and while it has little to do with the five year mission, I needed a break for some fun. I was up until 3:30 am last night finishing revisions to my Steam Wars article for the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. I also got my Nemo article back from Verniana with comments and suggestions for revision, so even as I finish one, I've got another to fill the void! I'm working hard at finishing my SteamCon report, but I'm too shattered today to do anything but post my results from this cool steampunk test. The test is well-written, and G.D. Falksen's descriptions for the results are good summaries of some common steampunk characters.

Your result for The Steampunk Style Test...

The Explorer

11% Elegant, 7% Technological, 30% Historical, 88% Adventurous and 49% Playful!

You are the Explorer, the embodiment of steampunk’s adventuring spirit. For you, clothing should be rugged and reliable, and just as functional as it is attractive. You probably prefer khaki or leather, and your accessories are as likely to include weapons as technological gizmos. You probably wear boots and gloves, and maybe a pith helmet. Most of what you wear is functional, and if you happen to wear goggles people had better believe that you use them. In addition to Victorian exploration gear, your outfit probably includes little knickknacks from your various travels. Above all, you are a charming blend of rugged Victorian daring and exotic curiosity.
Try our other Steampunk test here.
Take The Steampunk Style Test at HelloQuizzy

Nov 11, 2009

Remembrance Day: Pausing for Poetry

Today, the front page of the Edmonton Journal featured an account of one of Canada's "deadliest battles" in the war in Afghanistan. It reminded the readers of how Canadians have not only fought in numerous wars, but continue to be involved in conflicts overseas. Before putting the paper down, I flipped it over, and paused for a moment to read In Flanders' Fields. One must pause to read poetry. We can read journalism quickly, without thought, but poetry, if one stops to read it at all, forces us to slow down through its structure of lines and stanzas. I thought it an interesting commentary on our culture, that the immediate conflict rates the front page, but this piece of poetry is saved for the back. I suppose I ought to be pleased that it warrants a full page, and not simply a side-bar, but I find myself considering the end of William Carlos Williams' Asphodel, where he writes:
My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
of something
that concerns you
and concerns many men.  Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
What do I get from the news? I get the latest H1N1 information, or lack thereof. I get misleading headlines and celebrity gossip. I get mostly bad news: murder, gangs, war, a failed economy. Letters to the editor are a revelation of how miserably men die every day for the "lack of what is found there", in the news.
I was more heartened by my reading of In Flanders' Fields than by the article of war in Afghanistan. Perhaps that's only because I teach English. English professors and poets are the only ones who give a damn about poetry any more. It's "despised," as William Carlos Williams says. But "my heart rouses, thinking to bring you news of something that concerns you, and concerns many men." I think it is important to pause for reflection on Remembrance Day: we are encouraged to take two minutes of reflective silence to do so. What will we reflect upon? Some will reflect upon the loss of loved ones, some on the glory of fighting for one's country, others will reflect upon the hope of peace.

This is the purpose of poetry. To allow us to pause, and to reflect. It cannot be quickly digested. It must be mulled, not glossed over.  Specifically today, we are encouraged to reflect on the poetry of In Flanders' Fields, which I have copied here for your reflection:

In Flanders Fields
John McCrae

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Years working with people who seek peace as a first resort has troubled my reflection of the last stanza, both by their devotion to Peace, and by the words of other poets, such as Wilfred Owen. Like John McCrae, Owen also fought in the first world war, but wrote a rather different piece of poetry concerning it. Here is the text, along with the slide I made for teaching this poem in my introductory English classes:
Dulce Et Decorum Est
Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

While the Latin lines were well-known at the time of the Great War, few today are likely to see the ironic twist of Owen's final line, which means, "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." The title of this poem, translated from Latin, would simply read, "It is Sweet and Fitting," which contrasts immediately with the opening lines detailing the horror of battle. Perhaps, as a variant reflection this Remembrance Day, you would consider reflecting on Wilfred Owen's thoughts as an alternative to the pastoral poppies. Save the slide and make it your desktop today, and pause for reflection, not once, but several times.

Perhaps you find this suggestion to depart from Flanders Fields misguided, but if you wish to continue to reflect upon the words of John McCrae, I would ask that you leave your poppy pictures behind, and consider this one for your reflection instead, and image of Canadian soldiers at Flander's Fields.
After all, John McCrae might well have been thinking about Longfellow's Aftermath when he penned his words about poppies. In Aftermath, Longfellow presents the reader with what initially seems a nature poem:
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
When the summer fields are mown, 
When the birds are fledged and flown, 
And the dry leaves strew the path; 
With the falling of the snow, 
With the cawing of the crow, 
Once again the fields we mow 
And gather in the aftermath. 
Not the sweet, new grass with flowers 
Is this harvesting of ours; 
Not the upland clover bloom; 
But the rowen mixed with weeds, 
Tangled tufts from marsh and meads, 
Where the poppy drops its seeds 
In the silence and the gloom.

Longfellow utilizes carefully chosen words which all convey images of death, of the passing of life. While we consider "aftermath" immediately as a word associated with calamity or death, it was also understood in Longfellow's day as the second cutting after the initial harvest. The image of cut wheat is a powerful one, of new life cut down before it has time to fully grow, a metaphor for the youth sent to the fields of battle. Students will often cite McCrae's poem to explain why they see the poppy dropping its seeds as an image of death, not recognizing that Longfellow wrote his poem in the nineteenth century, years before In Flanders' Fields. But one has to wonder if McCrae wasn't pondering Longfellow's words, which are simultaneously about a field of harvest, and a field of battle. 

What is certain, is that McCrae was not picturing a verdant landscape filled with red flowers, but a once-pastoral scene now turned to horror, the image of the Canadian soldiers standing in Flander's Fields. The poppies McCrae suggests are likely the ones which drop their seeds "in the silence and the gloom." We need the poetry of all these writers to properly reflect upon the nature of war. One perspective will not do, or we fail in our remembrance. If we remember only the glory of war, we fail the memory of Wilfred Owen. If we are dismissive of those who fought for the freedom to "wage peace," then we fail the memory of John McCrae, who asked us to "take up our quarrel with the foe." I suppose so long as we see the foe as another human being, we are doomed to honor this day with front pages devoted to the immediate conflict. My hope is that we might some day only have the past to reflect upon, to remember.

Nov 1, 2009

Unnatural History by Jonathan Green

I had promised earlier in this project that I wouldn't resort to merely reviewing books or films, but commenting on how they contribute to the work of discerning the aesthetic of steampunk. However, if I were to merely comment on the steampunk elements in Jonathan Green's Unnatural History, I might be misleading my readers in thinking it's a book worth picking up. Then again, perhaps my comments alone will reveal my bias towards what I would unreservedly say is some of the worst writing I've ever read in my life. I've had three months to contemplate that statement, so I don't say it lightly.

Unnatural History is the first in a steampunk series called Pax Britannia, published by Abaddon books. The back cover includes an endorsement by Clive Barker, which I can only hope was referring to some other title published by Abaddon. I took Unnatural History on summer vacation with me, knowing it was likely to be pulpy fare, given the description of the hero, Ulysses Quicksilver on the bookjacket: "dandy, rogue, and agent of the throne. It is up to his dashing soldier of fortune to solve the mystery and uncover the truth before London degenerates into primitive madness and a villainous mastermind brings about the unthinkable." Some of my best childhood memories are of reading Conan or Doc Savage paperback reissues on beaches, so it seemed appropriate. Jonathan Green might be (and I hope he is) attempting to emulate a pulp writer by writing poorly, if that's his agenda he's overshot his mark. Both Robert E. Howard and Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent) had their moments of bad writing, but the brilliance of their raw creativity shone through nonetheless. I can still read both Conan and Doc Savage without feeling the need to pick up a red correcting pen.

With Jonathan Green, I not only picked the pen up, I made good use of it. I could be an arrogant bastard and say I want his job, but I'll settle for his editor's. This book has enough writing errors to fill a semester of teaching composition, from lack of precedent to horribly mixed metaphors, ridiculously wordy prose to word choice errors. And this is just the technical side of his writing.

I was hoping that, despite the technical issues, the story itself might be worth reading, or at the very least, for recommending to younger adolescent readers. I can suspend my need for cutting edge special effects when I see a film, so why not suspend my need for correct grammar?

This was not the case. Before I move on, I'll recommend some good steampunk for the YA set: Airborn by Kenneth Oppel, Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, or Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld.

Thankfully, Mr. Green's missteps were as revealing as other writers' leaps and bounds.

Firstly, Green has created an alternate history where the British Empire, and strangely, Nazi Germany have survived into the 1990s. I'm dubious about the likelihood of the rise of the Third Reich if Britain was still a powerful world Empire, but I was willing to let it stand for the sake of fun. Sadly, Green's neo-Victorian '90s, while playfully amusing at times (he seems to suggest Michael Crichton as a major professor of Evolutionary Biology), reads like a catalog of all the things the Victorian era is presented as in steampunk, and yet in its best iterations, never really is. There are airships, Victorian slang (toadies and toffs), and of course, a "brown velvet frock coat" (13). What could be more steampunk? The problem with Green's approach is that he writes as though he doesn't understand history--there are few explanations (I can only hope they are forthcoming) about why the world is still stuck in a very proper and British nineteenth century.

Now, one might argue that I'm being unfair, and I should just let Green have his fun, but as a critical scholar, I expect good historical research and speculation, even in a mindless adventure story. Consider how Paul Guinan used primary historical sources in writing Boilerplate, or the use of Henry Mayhew's writings on the London poor in Jeter, Powers, and Blaylock's steampunk novels of the '80s. Even when a writer conjectures a future, rather than an established past, there must be a believability to it. Stirling's Peshawar Lancers is a dense read, because he's gone to the trouble of extensive world-building. This is a standard task for the writer of SF and Fantasy. If your world doesn't hold together, your story won't either. Because we know little about the why of the setting of Pax Britannia, we find it hard to imagine, hard to see what characters look like - what are they wearing? Are brown frock coats back in style, or did they never go out?

Second, Green's hero, Ulysses Quicksilver, is a pulp hero without any real post-colonial sensibilities. While he has some rogue tendencies, he is still an unswervingly loyal agent of the Crown. He is a caricature of a number of other heroes, most notably Batman and Doc Savage - a mix of brawn and brains, neither of which are delivered well: the brains always seem to be something Quicksilver is lucky enough to stumble upon, rather than a logical deduction. The brawn is likewise without precedent until Quicksilver needs it. While he makes a passing reference to Tibetan monks, it is only in the heat of a battle that we learn that Quicksilver would survive this fight, "thanks in part to the martial arts he had learned in the company of the Tibetan monks" (68). It was like reading a book written by a gamer: "Oh, and by the way, my character learned martial arts when he was in the Himalayas." Green adds injury to literal insult when he writes that Quicksilver "push[es] a foot into [the creature's] midriff." Perhaps I'm being overly pedantic(and if this were the only instance of Green's poor word choice, you might be right in saying so), but 'midriff' is word without combat connotations. You "kick" in the "stomach"; you do not "push" in the "midriff", no matter how much you're trying to emulate what you suppose to be the polite manners of Victorian style or culture. But I digress -- I'm supposed to be talking about how Quicksilver is a caricature.

When hired by a beautiful woman to find her lost father, Quicksilver is said to be unable to "resist a pretty face, and when that pretty face belonged to a damsel in distress it made any attempt at resistance even more futile" (57). If Green were clever enough to write with an ironic tone, I could swallow this sort of writing. However, while he's not taking himself too seriously, he's also no Pynchon. While this serves as a femme fatale plot device later on, it's handled poorly. In short, Quicksilver is Moorcock's Bastable without the narrative conceit of time travel to explain his idiosyncracies. As with the secondary history itself, one wonders how such a cultural dinosaur could have survived a century. Even with the continuation of the British Empire, societal change would have been more advanced. Britain before Victoria was very different from Britain after Victoria. The world of Pax Britannia reads mostly like a historical neophyte's idea of what a steampunk universe would look like. And while steampunk doesn't have to be about alternate real-world histories, Pax Britannica is. And it shows what happens to the steampunk aesthetic when history is ignored.

One of the ribbons at Steamcon stated that "Steampunk needs historical accuracy like a dirigible needs a goldfish." While this quote, attributed to Steamcon coordinator Diana Vick, is true for convention Cosplay, it is mostly wrong when applied to steampunk literature. Even within a fully secondary world, historical "accuracy" lies at the heart of steampunk narratives being quality instead of quagmire. There must be an inner consistency to the alternate history or the possible world, or the reader cannot negotiate the narrative's virtual spaces. Setting is as important as character, and when both are poorly rendered, as is the case in Unnatural History, the end result is a muddled mess.

At one point Ulysses muses that "there were many unexplained mysteries in the world -- such as who built the giant heads of Easter Island and the mystery of the Whitby mermaid -- and Ulysses had solved some of them in his time, but how Maurice Allardyce had ever made it to inspector he would never know" (48). I feel much the same way about how Jonathan Green got a contract to write not one, but four of these novels. Worse yet, I own all of them, and for the sake of academic research, will likely read them all. I can only hope Green gets better as he goes.

NOTE: El Sombra, The second novel in the Pax Britannica series, was written by Al Ewing, and while it will never be considered literature, it fulfilled all of the hopes I had for Unnatural History without any of the writing faux pas. I'll be blogging about it soon. To my new readers from Steamcon - I'll be putting some of the slides up in the next two weeks, as well as reporting on my experiences at the convention.

Oct 29, 2009

Amazing Screw-on Head - Mike Mignola

This 20 minute pilot from the creative genius of Mike Mignola is one of my favorite animated features ever. The title explains a great deal about the hero, a sentient constuct (or perhaps sentience transported into a construct?) who can screw it's head into any number of construct bodies, from anthro to arachno-morphic combinations. He's as steampunk a hero as I've ever seen, with the exception of the heroine of Alchemy of Stone.

As my final post of scary steampunk for the month of October (Boneshaker is too good to skim-read - I'm reading it like I sip fine wine, so it will have to be a post-Halloween creepy steampunk entry), it contains as many monsters as Soulless and Perdido combined, with a Lovecraftian frog-god near the end to boot. No surprise, as Mignola loves his monsters. There are werewolves, vampires, zombies, relatives of Cthulu, and monkeys with machine guns. Gotta love a primate packing heat.

More than monsters abound: there is humor as well. David Hyde Pierce voicing the villanous Emperor Zombie gets all the best lines, but Paul Giamatti's camped up tribute to Adam West-style-heroic voice work rivals Pierce for peformances laced with irony. While the subject matter is ostensibly dark and violent, the tone of Amazing Screw-on Head is light-hearted, paying tribute to the whimsy of the original texts steampunk recycles. While it isn't an across-the-board part of the aesthetic, steampunk material is well-suited to a whimsical approach. Just consider that two of the creepy entries I've listed this month are comedies. Literary steampunk, at the very least, doesn't have to take itself too seriously, it would seem.

Consider the YouTube link my Halloween treat to you all who come by this All Hallows' Eve weekend - maybe I'll try to include a steampunk saint next year just to stay on holiday.

Oct 23, 2009

The Steampunk Scholar's Schedule at Steamcon

For those who will be there, here are the date and times of my presentations and panels:

Captain Nemo as the original steampunk
In the updated, post-colonial English translations of The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne’s anti-hero Captain Nemo is revealed to be the antithesis of the Caucasian pop-culture portrayal made famous by James Mason and most recently continued by Patrick Stewart and Michael Caine: an Indian prince whose real name is Dakkar, leader of the Sepoy rebellion against colonial rule in 1857. It is this Nemo, Verne’s original character, who embodies the essence of the Steampunk aesthetic of the instability of identity through his repeated death-and-rebirth cycle in both novels. Mixing one part recursive fantasy, one part historical criticism, and one part textual analysis, this paper will demonstrate how Captain Nemo is representative of two iconic steampunk identities, as well as suggesting a third possibility for the future of steampunk.  
Friday, 4:00-5:00 pm, in the Seattle Room.

Meet Paul Guinan
An Interview & Autograph Session with Artist GOH Paul Guinan.
Saturday 11:00am - 1:00pm in the Seattle Room

Dungeons and Dickens: How to Steampunk your RPG
What happens when a Game Master mixes two of his favorite writers into one gaming world, and those writers are J.R.R. Tolkien and Jules Verne? You get Steam Lords, the steampunked Middle-Earth campaign Mike Perschon and his gaming group embarked upon over a year ago with thoroughly enjoyable results. Come find out how to apply the brass goggles, airships, and clockwork automatons to your roleplaying campaign, through a discussion of online resources, a brief review of some of the steampunk RPGs, and a look at the best miniatures for steampunk campaigns.
Saturday 3:00pm - 4:00pm in the Seattle  

Steam Wars: Steampunk aesthetic meets Space Opera
While steampunk continues to defy attempts at definition, a coherent aesthetic of steampunk artworks has begun to emerge. By establishing a link between space opera and steampunk, and then comparing and contrasting the well-known cultural icons of Star Wars and their steampunk counterparts, defining features of the steampunk aesthetic may be derived. A close reading of individual artworks to identify these defining features as represented by brass goggles, exposed technology, resistance of Empire, and egalitarian treatment of steampunk heroines, reveals why Star Wars, more than any other science fiction (or pop culture) narrative has been successfully retrofitted with the steampunk aesthetic.
Sunday 9:00-10:00 am in the Olympia Room

Come by and say hi!    

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