Jun 29, 2009

Magical Technology

I've been trying to respond to Jha'meia's wonderful article on race and steampunk for a few days, but found myself distracted by one of her linked articles. Lavie Tidhar's steampunk summary (scroll down if you don't see it immediately) includes an interesting thought on the interplay between magic and technology in steampunk: "The underlying theme of all fiction within the Steampunk sphere resorts to that moment whereby technology transcends understanding and becomes, for all intents and purposes, magical." Tidhar supports the contention very well with a few well-chosen examples, before restating his thesis, that "the true strength of Steampunk is the way in which the [magic and technology] coexist: where technology becomes magical, magic becomes rigorously scientific. The resulting tension is at the core of Steampunk."
Tidhar's thesis supports the inclusion of the supernatural in my recent cataloging of steampunk pastiche elements, but expands our understanding of how these particular pastiche elements work together. If the pastiche elements I've identified continue to hold academic water over the course of my reading and observations, the nature of how the pastiche elements are in conversation with one another will have to be identified and investigated.

In addition to his own examples, I would add the way in which automata are often given "life" through kabbalistic means (see my post on Steamnocchio and the entry on the supernatural and automata in the pastiche post), which carries strong ties to other fusings of technology and the supernatural in steampunk: the god-like Victorian Wintermute of Sterling and Gibson's The Difference Engine, the disease that begins to turn men into machines in S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods, the miracle of creation made clockwork in Jay Lake's Mainspring (as well as the way in which Mainspring's messiah, Hethor Jacques can interact magically with the clockwork universe he inhabits), the alethiometer of Pullman's His Dark Materials (pictured at the top of the post), or the way Thomas Pynchon employs mathematics as a near ritual-magic means of changing aspects of time and space in Against the Day.

We might also merely construe the idea of technology becoming magical in a wide-eyed-wonder sort of way, in the sense that many steampunk technologies would require some form of magical impulsion or cohesion in order to be rendered plausible. Steampunk's merging of magic and technology permits the designs of DaVinci to not only be built, but to work, permits airship travel to be safe, and faster than we currently know to be possible. This relationship between magic and technology explains a great deal about the steampunk aesthetic, sometimes lampooned as being frivolous and pointless, merely wallowing about in the dregs of colonial adventure tales. It is also why I am hesitant to posit steampunk as pure SF, or fantasy, and why I resist the term "gaslamp fantasy" for it, since it gives too much attention to the word fantasy. Tidhar rightly points out that steampunk employs both magic and technology, not one or the other. Steampunk is pastiche, even at the level of genre - it is both fantasy and SF, in the way that space opera often is. This may not seem serious enough for the aficionado of hard SF, and in many cases, steampunk has no intention to be serious, to have a point, to make a political or social statement. There are examples of frivolous hard SF--or serious fiction which is merely well-structured word paintings, not thought experiments, nor cautionary or prescriptive tales. All genres have their fluff, even when the fluff is well written enough to be considered literature.

Likewise, when steampunk writers decide to say something, as in the case of Moorcock's Warlord of the Air, we realize that the magical technology of time travel is just another vehicle to move a character about in. The point of the story isn't so much about really travelling through time, but about being wide-eyed enough to entertain a new idea about what we've come to consider history, and to reflect upon the potential malleability of the history we are currently making.

Jun 24, 2009


"Steamnocchio," by Fabrio Morales, was the winner of Image (Individual) Master Award in CGSociety's Annual challenge this past year. The goal of the challenge was to apply a steampunk aesthetic to a myth or legend.

I'm likely going to get booed for being overly anal about semantics, but the story of "Pinnochio" is neither a myth, nor a legend. It's a nineteenth century children's tale by Carlo Collodi. That said, "Steamnocchio" is a remarkable piece of digital art, and far be it from to suggest Morales be disqualified for not using a legend or myth, since he wasn't the only entry into the challenge to choose something outside either of those terms' definitions. Besides, if you take a look at the full size image, you'll understand immediately why Morales deserved to win. The level of detail is staggering, and the use of light and texture blows me away.

While it might not be myth or legend, "Steamnocchio" is certainly steampunk. I love Geppetto's goggles, which strike me as the sort a steampunk scholar would need - something with multiple lenses for seeing elements in orginal texts, like a multi-spectral analysis. Obviously, the construct-boy adheres to the popular concepts of what constitutes steampunk: brass, valves, steam itself, electricital light, and the likelihood of clockwork innards, where Collodi's Geppetto made Pinnochio out of wood. Yet given my reading in steampunk texts, what strikes me as most significant is that Morales has made "Steamnocchio" into an automaton. Pinocchio is a marionette made of talking wood (in Collodi's version, Geppetto builds the boy out of a sentient table-leg). Of course, in the more well-known Disney version, the marionette is granted life by a good fairy. Morales' Geppetto hasn't stumbled upon talking ore, nor has he waited around for some fairy to give his boy life, wistfully wishing upon a star. He has given the "boy" life. He has done it himself, in the tradition of steampunk mad scientists whose origins lie in Victor Frankenstein and find their real-world culmination in Makers like Jake von Slatt and Datamancer.

As I mentioned in a recent post, one of the recurring elements I'm noticing in steampunk is the automaton. I suppose this might seem obvious, given the cover of Jess Nevins' Fanastic Victoriana, with its giant robot (sporting a top hat!) menacing London, but it's the manner of automata which is of interest to me (of interest, Nevins' entry about Pinocchio begins with an assessment of how creepy the idea is). The automaton of Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters" is effectively a kabbalistic golem. The robot pugilist of James Lovegrove's "Steampunch" seems to have become self-aware. Lea Hernandez's Clockwork Angels are all so real that they are mistaken for people. The protagonist of The Alchemy of Stone is clearly self-aware...these automata are, like the mad scientist Geppetto, also related to Frankenstein, to the monstrous creation who is given artificial life, but gains a sense of soul in the bargain. In steampunk, it would seem, there is clearly a ghost in the machine.

Given the ties steampunk has to cyberpunk, this comes as no shock. Cyberpunk was constantly playing with self-aware artificial intelligences, from William Gibson's supercomputer Wintermute in Necromancer and its sequels, to the Puppet Master of Ghost in the Shell. Science Fiction in general has always been fascinated by the idea of the man-machine becoming something more than a anthropod difference engine.

It makes me want to take Victoria Nelson's Secret Life of Puppets down off the shelf and give it another read. Nelson's book is, quite literally, responsible for why I got out of religious studies and started working in comparative literature. The premise of the book acted as a bridge from religious studies to comp lit. Put simply, it is that Western culture has sublimated the elements of spirituality into its genre fictions: horror, SF, fantasy and the like: "Because the religious impulse is profoundly unacceptable to the dominant Western intellectual cutlure, it has been obliged to sneak in this back door, where our guard is down" (18).

"Steamnocchio" is a sort of visual representation of The Secret Life of Puppets, since Nelson explores the automata of twentieth century speculative fictions by way of the medieval golem and the marionette or puppet. Morales' image encapsulates all of these ideas: automata, the puppet-boy, and also the idea of artificial life, of a soul within the brasswork. While I wasn't expecting it, this brief blog on "Steamnocchio" has given some strong direction to my dissertation work. Nelson's book will have to be read, in earnest!

I'll close with a passage from Nelson's book, where she quotes Heinrich Von Kleist's "On the Marionette Theater":
We see that in the organic world, as reflection grows darker and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and commandingly. But just as the section drawn through two lines suddenly appears on the other side of a point after passing through infinity, or just as the image in a concave mirror turns up before us again after having moved off into the endless distance, so too grace itself returns when knowledge has gone through an infinity. Grace appears purest in that human form which has either no consciousness or an infinite one, that is, in a puppet or in a god. (64)

NOTE: Someone will have to explain to me why, in this time of rising steampunk appeal, there has been no second printing of Nevin's Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana. I just can't justify shelling out over $200 for a book, no matter how great and grand it is.

Jun 22, 2009

Against the Day - Thomas Pynchon: Part 2, Iceland Spar

Part two of Thomas Pynchon's epic Against the Day begins with what remains my favorite section of the book so far--a mixture of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, John Carpenter's The Thing, and giant monster movies such as the original Godzilla or Cloverfield. Again, Pynchon makes no apologies for this crazed narrative, which will jump from this dark, apocalyptic opening to far more banal fare in the life of inspector Lews Basnight before moving back to the ongoing family history of the Traverse clan.

As I stated in my posting about steampunk as pastiche, the supernatural is certainly part of the steampunk aesthetic, and "Iceland Spar" has many supernatural moments. The first, which I have already alluded to, is the result of the Vormance Expedition's journey to an Arctic location to find what they believe to be a meteorite and dig it up. The Chums of Chance arrive in what would be the nick of time, if only the Vormance Expedition were interested in heeding warnings. As they are not, to quote Kurt Russell as MacReady in The Thing, "They dig it up, they cart it back... Somehow it gets thawed, it wakes up, probaly not the best of moods, and..." I won't say exactly what happens once the thing in the ice wakes up on the shore of what is likely New York, except to say that I'm not lightly invoking giant monster movies as a comparison.

Pynchon builds to this arrival in New York with wonderful tension, having the Chums "just" miss "intercepting the Expedition steamer" (125) while the expedition passes through a landscape which, while likely beautiful, is described with words to convey a growing unease. The sun comes up "a baleful smear in the sky, not quite shapeless" (134), and icefields seems to have a "conscious malevolence" (136). When the Chums arrive, Chick Counterfly (now Dr. Chick Counterfly, the Inconvenience's Scientific Officer) warns the expedition they are in "mortal danger" (139), before demonstrating that there is something sentient and very likely malevolent in the place the Expedition plans to dig: Pynchon describes it in increasing detail, beginning with a "blurry condusion of a strange yellowish green, in which ares of light and dark moved in a squirming restlessness" until clarity emerges, and a Figure (capitalized in the text) can be seen, whose eyes "for the most part, if eyes be what they were, remained open, its gaze as yet undirected--though we were bound in a common terror of that moment at which it might become aware of our interest and smoothly pivot its awful head to stare us full in the face" (141). Pynchon also employs a first person narrator throughout much of this section, another likely nod to Lovecraft. He ends this portion in a highly Lovecraftian fashion as well: ambiguity marks the outcome of the Figure's arrival in the United States. Pynchon raises the narrative to an apocalyptic fever pitch, and then drops the narrative thread entirely to return to Lew Basnight, who is in pursuit of a notorious outlaw who turns out to be Webb Traverse. The reader is literally tossed out of end-of-the-world-hellfire into what develops into an honest-to-goodness Western family epic, complete with chases, revenge, and a plethora of saloons.

Because the story of Webb Traverse and his family doesn't concern the steampunk aspects of Against the Day all that much, I will leave off a lengthy discussion of that portion of the book. Additionally, it would spoil the reading of it to know details. Imagine "The Waltons" mixed with "The Daltons" and you get some idea of what Pynchon does with Traverse and his family. It's a sprawling family epic, which again, as was the case in part one, maintains a level of irony without becoming derogatory parody. There is a satirical edge, but since the best satire is also homage, Pynchon clearly displays his love for one of the great American literature genres: the Western.

There is one moment in the Traverse thread of "Iceland Spar" which bears close attention. At one point, Reef Traverse is reading a "dime novel" which happens to be "The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth":
"The cover showed an athletic young man (it seemed to be the fearless Lindsay Noseworth) hanging off a ballast line of an ascending airship of futuristic design, trading shots with a bestially rendered gang od Eskimos below. Reef began to read...For the next couple of days he enjoyed a sort of dual existence, both in Sorocco and at the Pole...At odd moments, now, he foudn himself looking at the sky, as if trying to locate somewhere in it the great airship. As if those boys might be agents of a kind of extrahuman justice who could...even pass on to Reef wise advice...And sometimes in the sky, when the light was funny enough, he thought he saw something familiar..."It's them, Pa," he nodded back over his shoulder. "They're watching us, all right. And tonight I'll read you some more out of that story. You'll see." (214-215)
This passage references a number of themes explored in "Iceland Spar." The nature of duality is one of the major themes, given that Iceland Spar, a type of Calcite, produces a refractory image of whatever is gazed at through it, with implications that used correctly, could produce doubles, or the ability to travel time, or step into alternate universes. As I read this passage, I even found myself wondering if there was any actual connection between the universe the Chums inhabit, and the one where Reef is reading about their exploits. Like Pan's Labyrinth, the text is ambiguous enough to allow for both the possibility that the Chums are actually fictional characters, or that they are real denizens of the world Reef Traverse inhabits. The text plays with both concepts. The world of Reef Traverse is real and gritty, while the world of the Chums is one of high adventure and wild speculative inventions and journeys. Yet both these worlds are tied together through the network of characters: Lews Basnight, who was aboard the Inconvenience with the Chums, pursues Webb Traverse, while Professor Vanderjuice, the Chums' onetime mentor, deals with Scarsdale Vibe, who eventually hires Kitt Traverse, whose life is once again, as with his brother Reef, real and gritty. Yet despite inhabiting the same universe, the Chums remain somehow more fictional than Reef or his family, almost aware of the fact that they inhabit a novel. In part 1, the "exact degree of fictitiousness" possessed by the Chicago Fair is what permits "the boys access and agency" while the "harsh nonfiction world waited outside the White City's limits" (36). Later on, while engaged in a digression away from their lives as an airship crew, they sojourn at Candlebrow U., where "the crew of the Inconvenience would find exactly the mixture of nostalgia and amnesia to provide them a reasonable counterfeit of the Timeless" (406).

During this time at Candlebrow U., the Chums give up being the crew of the Inconvenience, disillusioned by a strange visitor promising them eternal youth. Pychon's description of how the Chums deal with their disillusionment feels oddly familiar if one reads the passage in light of the sort of fan-culture steampunk is ostensibly part of:
"Other units of the Chums of Chance meanwhile chose lateral solutions, sidestepping the crisis by passing into metaphorical identities, as law-enforcement squads, strolling theatrical companies, governments-in-exile of imaginary countries they could nonetheless describe in exhaustive, some would say obsessive, detail, including entire languages with rules for syntax and usage--or, in the case of the crew of the Inconvenience, immersed at Candlebrow in the mysteries of Time, drift into the brief aberration in their history known as the Marching Academy Harmonica Band." (418)
Their time as part of the Harmonica Band makes the Chums question whether they are indeed the Chums of Chance, or merely decoys posted on the ground to live out a quotidian existence, while the real Chums are off adventuring in the wild blue yonder. These passages could easily be brought into a sort of conversation with the performative, cos-play aspects of steampunk: the formation, not only of steampunk costume, but of steampunk identities as well. "What if they weren't harmonica players? really? If it was all just some elaborate hoax they'd chosen to play on themselves, to keep distracted from a reality too frightening to receive the vast undiscriminating light of the Sky..." (422). The Chums experience an inversion of the steampunk costumer - they digress from their real world to become harmonica players. They move from the fantastic to the quotidian, while the steampunk costumer wants to move from the quotidian to the fantastic.

Finally, they break free of their stupor and begin venturing off the Candlebrow U. campus, venturing to nearby towns. It is this very act of venturing beyond borders, going outside the pale which restores them as the crew of the Inconvenience (424). Once again, the Chums bookend the section, opening it to warn the Vormance Description, and closing it with their return to the Inconvenience and the beginning of an adventure beneath desert sands. And yes, it is just as ludicrous as it sounds. Every time I think the Traverse narrative has taken the book too far afield of the steampunk aesthetic, Pynchon brings the Chums in, and all reality takes a nosedive.

Returning to the element of the supernatural or fantastic, the second part is also concerned largely with spiritualism. After nearly being killed in his pursuit of his notorious outlaw prey, Lews Basnight journeys to England, where he becomes associated with a group of spiritualists called "T.W.I.T., or True Worshippers of the Ineffable Tractys" (219). In addition to a lot of hokey spiritualist practices, there are a number of conversations dealing with the metaphysical. In one of these, the idea of the counterfactual or alternate history is explored in a conversation concerning possible worlds.
"Let us imagine a lateral world, set only infinitesimally to the side of the one we think we know, in which just this [Victoria's assassination and the Duke of Cumberland as King of England] has come to pass. The British people suffer beneath a Tory despotism of previously unimagined rigor and cruelty. Under military rule, Ireland has become a literal shambles..." (230)
This is one of many discussions on the nature of time (linear vs. cyclical) and Time Travel. It becomes increasingly difficult as I read further into the novel to dismiss the idea that Pynchon might not be writing a steampunk novel, he's certainly writing about things which concern steampunk writers, and further, engaging in the steampunk aesthetic over and over again. The level of artifice and contrivance apparent in Against the Day seems to preclude the possibility that it's just a coincidence that Pynchon released this book at the same time as steampunk's resurgence.

From a completely biased, un-academic viewpoint, it continues to be a delightful rollercoaster narrative, and I'm enjoying it immensely. I am curious to see if Pynchon follows up the Vormance Expedition storyline later in the book. With another three sections and around 600 pages remaining, it's entirely possible. And as you may have surmised from this blog post, in Against the Day, anything is entirely possible.

The Chumps of Choice is a fantastically detailed blog devoted to Against the Day, with superior annotations and ruminations to those at the Pynchon wiki (in my opinion, at any rate).

Jun 19, 2009

Warlord of the Air - Michael Moorcock

The Gatehouse cites Michael Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air as “proto-steampunk,” a useful term for the neo-Victorian speculative fictions pre-dating Jeter, Blaylock, and Powers. Given its publication date of 1971, I’ve wondered how much of an impact this first installment of the Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy might have had on the emergence of steampunk in the 1980s. While I have yet to read all of Blaylock and Jeter’s steampunk offerings, I can safely say that there is little, if any, connection between The Anubis Gates and Warlord of the Air. The book’s impact on later steampunk is more evident. The 25th century of Theodore Judson’s Fitzpatrick’s War bears a number of resemblances to the alternate 1974 of Warlord of the Air, as well as sharing a social-political subtext beneath the veneer of military adventure story.
It is of great interest that the book was published during the Vietnam War, given that some have suggested that conflict resulted due to the “end of colonialism.” I haven’t researched that historical angle enough to make any definite statement, but given Moorcock’s propensity towards political statements, it strikes me as relevant. I’d welcome input on that from the Vietnam history buffs out there.

Warlord of the Air reads well as a straight adventure story until the final chapters, where Moorcock’s political commentary switches from sub-text to narrative thrust, with a very satisfying alternate history which begs the question as to whether or not changing moments in history effectively changes anything about intrinsic human nature, or perhaps even the destiny of certain nationalities or people groups. The ending, as is the case with several moments in the book, could be misconstrued easily by someone missing the heavy irony throughout.

It is, in my mind, an easy admission to the family tree of steampunk, and not simply because it has a neo-Victorian setting, airships, and the element of time travel. While protagonist Captain Oswald Bastable begins his tale as a loyal servant of the British Empire, his journey eventually makes him an antagonist of it. Once he learns that “The Indian starves so that the Briton may feast” (94), he finds himself gaining sympathy towards the rebels within Dawn City, an “international settlement” containing “exiles from every oppressed country in the world” (105). His conversion comes as a surprise, not so much to the reader as to himself:
“I don’t know when I had come to identify myself with bandits and revolutionists—and yet there was no mistaking the fact that I had. I refused to join them, but I hoped that they might win” (122).

I was especially pleased by the way in which Moorcock delivered the impetus for the change: by making a fin-de-siècle British citizen travel through time to a neo-Victorian 1974, so that the typical modern-man-travels-into-past is turned on its head. Bastable’s manners and loyalty to the Crown are anachronistic enough to the modern reader, yet Moorcock takes the extra step of placing this anachronism within an alternate late-20th century, so that the reader, finds the familiar just as defamiliarized as Bastable does:

“And for the first time I had a sense of loss. I felt I was leaving behind everything I had come to understand about this world of the 1970s, embarking on what for me would be a fresh voyage of discovery. I felt a bit like one of the ancient Elizabethan navigators who had set off to look for the other side of the planet” (83).

The familiar is made even stranger by Moorcock’s choice of the nationality behind the rebellion: the novel’s eponymous namesake is Chinese. Again, the ties to what was occurring in global politics at the time would have made Moorcock’s novel a radical statement. It remains so, even today. The “Warlord of the Air,” Shuo Ho Ti, also known as General O.T. Shaw, strikes the reader as sympathetic in his acts of terrorism as Verne’s Captain Nemo, yet his enemies are the colonial powers, of France, America, and Britain. Unlike Nemo, who can be read as an enemy of colonialism long dead, Shaw is the enemy of colonialism still living, but under a different name.
It is this political aspect which makes Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air so valuable to the study of steampunk: if this series is proto-steampunk, as The Gatehouse suggests, then where has the political subtext and commentary gone in current steampunk?

This is not a rhetorical question, for while I am doing close readings of each steampunk text, I have only begun my investigation of the stack of books referenced as being steampunk by various sources. Judson’s Fitzpatrick’s War definitely fulfills this tradition, as does (no surprise) Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But the rebellion of Whitechapel Gods bears little real-world subtext. Hethor Jacques’ rejection of the colonial Edwardian Northern Earth of Mainspring smacks more of Dances with Wolves than it does any commentary on colonial atrocities to indigenous peoples. This should not be construed as criticism: I am not of the opinion that all novels or stories should mean anything. I enjoyed The Anubis Gates immensely for the very reason that it really didn’t mean anything. But it is interesting to see how very concerned this particular work of proto-steampunk is, and to ask the question, is the current steampunk scene as concerned with the issues Moorcock raised?

On a more lighthearted note, I close with what struck me as a very steampunk moment, in the description of The Rover, the airship Bastable finds himself aboard following his removal from the British Airforce:

“She was battered and needed painting, but she was as brightly clean as the finest liner. She had a hard hull, obviously converted from a soft, fabric cover of the old type. She was swaying a little at her mast and seemed, by the way she moved in her cables, very heavily loaded. Her four big, old-fashioned engines were housed in outside nacelles which had to be reached by means of partly-covered catwalks, and her inspection walks were completely open to the elements. I felt like someone who had been transferred from the Oceanic to take up a position on a tramp steamer” (80).

This passage made me think of Luke walking up to the Millennium Falcon for the first time, and the idea of the hunk-of-junk airship as the more truly steampunk mode of travel.

I would also like to note how much I dislike the original cover of Warlord of the Air, which clearly panders to the popular aesthetic of sleek rocket-ship for its airships. I read Warlord of the Air in the hardback collected edition of A Nomad of the Time Streams, which also features some really wonderful artwork by Chris Moeller, acting as the hand in the sketchbook of Bastable himself. His cover for A Nomad of the Time Streams captures a number of the concepts behind Warlord of the Air perfectly, as a fleet of airships from countries all over the globe drop lines of bombs, while Bastable stands in the foreground, looking pensively into the distance, dressed all in a Red uniform evocative of British colonial militarism.

Jun 17, 2009

Steampunk pastiche elements

Following up my discussion of steampunk as pastiche, I’d like to explore what elements recur in works widely accepted—as well as often referred to—as steampunk. While it is counterproductive to suggest that the works Jeter was referring to when he inadvertently coined the term steampunk are not steampunk, it is also just as useless to determine what constitutes a steampunk novel outside the context of the works offered as examples of the genre by its adherents. In short, if enough fans of steampunk say something is steampunk, it should be accepted as such, and then compared with other steampunk texts (I am using the term text here in a very broad sense, as an umbrella concept to include all forms of media as well as the performative, living texts of steampunk fans at conventions or events). This is how we arrive at the idea of what makes up the steampunk aesthetic, which in turn makes us able to determine what constitutes a steampunk text. Effectively, I am suggesting that steampunk culture determines what is, or is not, steampunk. The object of my inquiry is to define what criteria steampunk culture requires of a text in order to label it steampunk.

Here is my first stab at a list of elements which go into the pastiche of steampunk. My explanations will be brief, as I’m thinking of working this whole pastiche discussion into an article to submit for publication—can’t go giving everything away here at the blog.

Neo-Victoriana: defined on Wikipedia as “an aesthetic movement which amalgamates Victorian and Edwardian æsthetic sensibilities with modern principles and technologies.” For our purposes, we will use Neo-Victorian to include the late Romantic period as well. Effectively, if it seems to have a look or feel falling between the time of the Napoleonic War and World War I, it falls within the time period steampunk appropriates as its Neo-Victorian aesthetic playground. This element is effectively the only essential item on this list, which is why I include it in my brief definition of steampunk: “Speculative Neo-Victorian pastiche.” Someone might argue that technology is also essential, but this would retroactively exclude the classic Anubis Gates by Tim Powers as part of the original canon of steampunk texts. In comparing the steampunk texts I’ve examined so far, the Neo-Victorian aesthetic is the only one which is used unilaterally. In short, if it’s not within this time-period, it is not steampunk.

Technology: Obviously, steam-technology, given our primary aesthetic element. However, steam-technology is not the only tech available to the steampunk genre. Electricity was of huge interest to the Victorians, as was the phenomenon of trans-continental communication. One of the technologies steampunk has greatly overlooked from this period is pharmacology: the advent of modern medicine. Further, Tim Powers suggested the possibility of spiritualism as an accepted science in this period (see Supernatural), so there is always the potential for technology with no basis in real-world precedents such as steam or electricity. What is important is that the technology has a neo-Victorian feel. The presence of technology cannot be entirely overlooked however, unless the setting is pastoral, given the rise of technology during this period as the era overlapping and following the Industrial Revolution.

Alternative History: This might seem like another essential, but given that there’s really nothing excessively “alternate” in terms of a moment of the break in Anubis Gates, a postulation of future history in Fitzpatrick’s War and The Diamond Age, as well as the presence of fully secondary worlds in The Court of the Air and The Alchemy of Stone, it is clearly not requisite. Almost all steampunk set in our Primary world in the nineteenth or early twentieth century must, of necessity, be alternative history, but not all steampunk is set in these periods, or even in our own world.

Rebellion (the Punk of steampunk) – a raging against the machine of industry, or the powers behind it (Whitechapel Gods). This is often expressed as a sort of post-colonial anti-Empire sentiment (Warlord of the Air, Fitzpatrick’s War, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), but is sometimes embodied in the way the characters exist at the margins of society (The Anubis Gates, The Difference Engine, Mainspring), being outcasts or among the poor.

Orphaned protagonists – like several of Dickens’ heroes, steampunk protagonists are often born as, or made into, orphans of one kind or another. In The Anubis Gates, the hero is orphaned of his wife and his time period. Basically, steampunk heroes rarely seem to start from a point of advantage. They are closer in their makeup to Aristotelian comedic than tragic heroes (Mainspring, Difference Engine, Steamboy, City of Lost Children, Warlord of the Air, Disney’s Atlantis).

Supernatural – began to emerge in recent steampunk and was conjectured to be a late addition, but steampunk has supernatural elements throughout its history, most notably Anubis Gates but also in the repeat appearances of the golem as automaton. Consider also the cover of Extraordinary Engines, which is supposed to be a time machine: the back cover shows a keypad covered in esoteric symbols. Even the lofty Pynchon’s Against the Day contains a number of Lovecraftian homages. Let’s face it – if you can have Babbage’s difference engine work 100 years before we actually got computers, what’s a little magic between friends?

Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (the VW connection) as the godfathers of the genre, with Poe, Burroughs, Dickens, and Lovecraft as uncles. Effectively, steampunk draws upon elements of these writers’ works, either directly (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Morlock Night, Burning London) or as homage or latent influence. With new women writers entering the steampunk scene, we may also see an increase of Austen, Bronte and perhaps Dickinson as influences of this type as well. It should also be noted that these real-world authors often appear as characters in steampunk works (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Burning London).

Time Travel – one of the ways in which steampunk often references Wells as an influence is through the vehicle of Time Travel, which is sometimes used in place of an alternate history to deliver a contemporary figure to a time where the character becomes the anachronism (The Anubis Gates). In the case of Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air, the person of the past (Edwardian era) is transported into a steampunk future of 1974.

Sense of high adventure – steampunk is whimsical, and optimistic (although sometimes that optimism is ironic, as is the case in Warlord of the Air, or Against the Day). It retains a tone of “boy’s adventure tale,” which is likely the visual significance of the ubiquitous brass goggles in steampunk costuming and digital artwork. You can’t go flying high in the sky in an airship without them. It should also be noted that the optimism of the nineteenth century continued up until the sinking of Titanic and the beginning of WWI, which is the aesthetic period we’ve already identified as the playground of steampunk.

Hollow Earth – a theory still debated in the nineteenth century is given assumed reality in a number of steampunk texts, varying in importance from centerpiece of the narrative (The Hollow Earth) to setting for the conclusion (Mainspring) to minor detour on the way to the other side of the earth (Against the Day).

Automata – steampunk loves its own brand of robot, be it golem (“Seventy-two Letters”), homonculous (The Anubis Gates), or full on metal-man (“Steampunch”).

There are a few other minor ones I’ve noted, such as fascination with Mars, some Orientalism, the Wild West, Vampires, and more recently, the comedy of manners of Jane Austen. I’ll wait to see how this list fares as I continue working through my prodigious stack of books, but again, this seems like a good place to start.

I’ve toyed with rating these elements to work on a chart/table so as to arrive at a score for individual works, but haven’t come up with a satisfactory means of doing so. My interest in doing this is to demonstrate how such a list can give us a good starting point in determining whether a text is steampunk. Consider how people will ask if Firefly or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow are steampunk. Both these works get ridiculously low scores when compared to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Anubis Gates, or Steamboy. Feedback and suggestions for other recurring tropes or elements are very welcome.

Jun 15, 2009

Steampunk as Pastiche

Gail Carriger, author of The Parasol Protectorate series, told me recently that the first book of her series isn’t so much steampunk as the second and third books in her series will be. According to Carriger, there’s going to be more technology and science later in the series. I replied that I wasn’t sure science and technology had as much to do with steampunk as many would seem to think. Technology is certainly one of the media the steampunk aesthetic has been applied to, but as I read through the original “canon” of steampunk literature, I’m more and more convinced that steampunk straddles a crosshatch point between SF and Fantasy. If steampunk must be about science, then Tim Powers can no longer be invoked as one of the original trinity of ‘80s writers who “created” steampunk. And while I’m not arguing for some essentialism surrounding Powers’ attachment to steampunk, The Anubis Gates has been instrumental in the formation of the current understanding of steampunk. To throw it out retroactively because it is not a novel about technology per se is to ignore the supernatural element of steampunk, which has erroneously been thought, along with other fantasy elements, to be a recent adhesion to the subgenre. Steampunk is not a pure delivery device for either SF or Fantasy. As always, steampunk is most decidedly, pastiche.

Dictionary.com defines “pastiche” as:
1.a literary, musical, or artistic piece consisting wholly or chiefly of motifs
or techniques borrowed from one or more sources.
2.an incongruous combination
of materials, forms, motifs, etc., taken from different sources; hodgepodge.
As I’ve already identified here at the blog, there is contention over use of the word steampunk. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy has observed “a growing habit whereby almost every fantasy which deals with the Gaslight Period is labeled steampunk” (Clute & Kaveny 1997:390), clearly implying that not all fantasies or speculative fictions within the Gaslight Period should be labeled steampunk. I’m uncomfortable with this approach to the nomenclature of my topic of inquiry, as it seems based upon assumptions about the term which I don’t think necessarily hold true.

First, it has been readily admitted that K.W. Jeter was very likely making an offhand comment when he described the Victorian-era fiction he, Blaylock and Powers were producing in the 1980s as “steampunk,” clearly a play on the term cyberpunk. Despite this somewhat ignominious beginning, the term steampunk proved incredibly resilient. I won’t speculate on my theories for why the term survived at this time. That will have to wait for another day, and another post. This one is likely to be epic enough as it is. The bottom line for me is that while it may seem to lack a pragmatic utility, the term steampunk has clearly proven useful in describing a certain type of narrative or aesthetic approach, or it would not have survived 20 years. Our current culture is alarmingly fickle—if steampunk had not evoked the objects it was intended to indicate, we’d have gotten rid of it. Somehow, it does what Clute and Kaveny seem to be implying it doesn’t. Namely, steampunk is the catch-all term for neo-Victorian speculative fiction.

I think one of the reasons steampunk has been a more successful term than Gaslamp Fantasy is that the term steampunk itself is a pastiche, describing a pastiche. Gaslamp Fantasy makes immediate denotative sense, which steampunk does not. Again, steampunk is a pastiche of words denoting (and yet also simultaneously connoting) a pastiche of narrative and/or visual elements. And steampunk is a better term to do this, since pastiche is never easy to define. It is as ephemeral as the vapeur of steampunk.

Let’s also deal with the “punk” of steampunk. It’s been said often that there isn’t enough “punk” in steampunk, but what the hell did the punk in cyberpunk actually mean? Was it really a reference to the ‘70s DIY culture of the UK? Was it about the Sex Pistols or the Dead Kennedys? There is definitely an aspect of cyberpunk concerned with cultures which could be construed as punk, so long as the term punk was being used in an expansive way. A narrow definition of punk wouldn’t allow cyberpunk to be punk, anymore than steampunk is punk. What does Greg Bear’s “Petra” in the cyberpunk anthology Mirrorshades have to do with punk?

Besides, punk was a word before Johnny Rotten was a gleam in his father’s eye. Prior to punk as a music form, the word referred to fungus or wood which was useful as tinder. It could also mean a young person, generally a male, who was a “a member of a rebellious counterculture group.” It is this last sense we are likely concerned with when speaking about steampunk or cyberpunk.
Consider as well, this quotation from J.E. Remy’s investigations of the various subgenre writing styles given the suffix “punk” in the 1980s:
The suffix “-punk” started to appear in the names of a variety of subgenres of
speculative fiction by authors who wanted to break from traditional modes of writing and denote a concurrence between subgenres that makes use of “punk” tools. These tools include the free thought of postmodern literary techniques such as confessional poetry, stream of consciousness, non-linear storytelling, linguistic calisthenics, and literary appreciation beyond the academic. Themes are typically countercultural, focused on underground movements, marginalized groups, and anti-establishment tendencies. However, they can go so far as to become nihilistic in their lack of adherence to clichéd conventions. Settings are gritty, downbeat, and shocking and urban locations where lives are enhanced by technology and information. And the fantastic elements prevalent in speculative fiction are made more realistic, ambiguous, or prosaic and protagonist may take on an individualistic and anti-heroic tone. As author Bruce Sterling stated, “Anything that can be done to a rat can be done to a human being. And we can do most anything to rats. This is a hard thing to think about, but it’s the truth. It won’t go away because we cover our eyes. That is
cyberpunk.” This harsh view of reality is prevalent across the whole of the “punk” movement: cyberpunk, splatterpunk, timepunk, and mythpunk.
Some “punk” subgenres have been criticized as being overly categorized and unnecessary. In fact, the movement itself has achieved little more than a cult following, but the nontraditional style has provided new expressive techniques for contemporary literature.
While Remy is right about these four subgenres having “little more than a cult following,” the same can no longer be said about steampunk (which Remy includes under the more expansive--and therefore even more obscurant, in my opinion—term of timepunk, coined by William H. Stoddard for GURPs’ Steampunk RPG). Steampunk as a subgenre and subculture seems poised to become more main stream. If this occurs, the term will find itself as “sticky” as the archaic usage of punk suggests.

Regardless, the “punk” tools Remy is speaking about are tools of counterculture. The question in some people’s mind is whether or not steampunk as a fan culture is really, genuinely countercultural or not.

From a literary perspective, steampunk might lack a genuinely countercultural element. As Wikipedia’s entry on pastiche (as imitation of another style, not a hodge-podge of disparate elements, something steampunk can arguably be said to do as well) states:
Well-known academic Fredric Jameson has a somewhat more critical view of pastiche, describing it as “blank parody” (Jameson, 1991), especially with reference to the postmodern parodic practices of self-reflexivity and intertextuality. By this is meant that rather than being a jocular but still respectful imitation of another style, pastiche in the postmodern era has become a “dead language”, without any political or historical content, and so has also become unable to satirize in any effective way. Whereas pastiche used to be a humorous literary style, it has, in postmodernism, become “devoid of laughter.”
The question remains—does steampunk say anything genuinely countercultural? This is a topic better explored in another entry, as my interest today is in finding a way to define steampunk, not ascertain whether or not it “says” anything of importance. Besides, Dru Pagliosotti has already explored this issue at some length in her blog articles on steampunk politics and ideology.

Perhaps all I really want to get across today is that steampunk is speculative neo-Victorian pastiche. Now, as with all pastiches, one must explain further, but this seems to me a rather satisfying definition for both narrative and cultural steampunk. It describes the range of steampunk products without limiting the scope to one type of media. It could be applied to the fashion, the art, the books, and the films. And while I have a great deal more to say about this, I believe this post is long enough to save the rest for a second entry: a list of the most common elements used in the pastiches we call steampunk.

Works Cited (other than links):

Clute, John, and John Grant, eds. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New Jersey: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Clute, John and Roz Kaveny. ‘Gaslight Romance.’ Clute and Grant. 390-91.

Further Reading:
The User's Guide to Steampunk by Bruce Sterling
Steampunk by Lavie Tidhar - a wonderful little article which includes a great reading list at the end, divided into the movements of steampunk

Jun 12, 2009

Thomas Pynchon: Against the Day, Part 1: The Light Over the Ranges

I took a stab at reading Thomas Pynchon's epic Against the Day in the spring of 2008, while on vacation visiting my sister's family in Katy, TX. I had just successfully defended my Master's thesis, and was trying to decide whether or not to write on steampunk for my PhD dissertation. I knew nothing about Pynchon except that he was the sort of writer high-brow literary scholars take seriously. Having the potential to use Pynchon in my dissertation would lend it credibility outside pop-culture or SF studies.

My brain was likely too fried from writing furiously to complete the thesis. I gave it my best shot, but I couldn't keep all the characters straight, and ended up buying Dan Simmons' The Terror and reading it instead. I left Pynchon aside, and hadn't had time to pick Against the Day up until this past week. My interest was renewed by Rob Latham's paper presentation at the Eaton conference, titled "Chums of Chance and Warlord of the Air: A Steampunk geneaology for Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day." If nothing else, it confirmed that Pynchon was writing in a steampunk style, and someone other than a contributor to wikipedia had thought so.

Being a massive epic, of 1085 pages, I've decided to break my blogging about it into the five sections the book is broken into: The Light Over the Ranges, Iceland Spar, Bilocations, Against the Day, and Rue du Depart.

Even so, I won't be giving the sections a close reading at this point, but more of a combination of reaction and overview. If you're interested in going deeper with Against the Day, I recommend the wiki devoted to the book, especially the annotations. A book with this dense a narrative needs its own annotated wiki!

None of my comments at this point can be conclusive, as I'm still working my way through the narrative. My worry is that I'll get to the end, and not remember what I was thinking. So think of these blog postings as class discussions on the novel to date.

The first part, "The Light Over the Ranges," begins in 1893 at the Chicago World's Fair. The "Chums of Chance," crew of the hydrogen skyship Inconvenience, are the first characters the reader is introduced to. While it would be remiss to call any of the characters protagonists, the Chums are definitely focal, since they bookend "Light Over the Ranges." They make appropriate characters to focus on, given one of the main themes of part one, which is the loss of innocence. The Chums are made up of five members: Randolph St. Cosmo, the "ship commander"; Darby Suckling, "the baby of the crew" who serves as both "factotum and mascotte"; Lindsay Noseworth--severe, impatient and humorless second-in-command; Miles Blundell, the kindhearted, overweight, and somewhat clairyvoyant Handyman Apprentice; and newest member Chick Counterfly, who the Chums rescued from the Ku Klux Klan. In addition to these five young men, the Inconvenience is home to Pugnax, a genius canine with "uncommonly articulate eyebrows" who, when the reader first meets him, has his nose "among the pages of a volume by Mr. Henry James" (3-5). The Chums are the embodiment of the term "boy's adventure story," being only boys themselves. Their adolescent fervor gives the first pages of the book a lighthearted and optimistic tone--one can almost hear the Sousa March while reading the first page.

The Chums fly to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where their interactions fan out in an increasingly exploded narrative, jumping from the Chum's meeting with Merle Rideout, a photographer and his daughter Dahlia, to Merle and Dahlia's adventures following the departure of Dahlia's mother (who has left Rideout to become a traveling magician's assistant), to a backroom deal between the magnificently wealthy and clearly villainous Scarsdale Vibe and the Chum's mentor, Professor Heino Vanderjuice, an investigator named Lew Basnight and so on. Merle and Dahlia's tale of odd jobs and photographic alchemy jumps off to become the story of Webb Traverse, a working man with a penchant for explosives, whose son becomes the beneficiary of a scholarship from Scarsdale Vibe. The Traverse family figure largely into one of the narratives in part two, and so throughout this first section, I assume Pynchon is laying the beginnings of a brilliant web of associations. I have yet to ascertain whether or not that is the case, as there are numerous other characters Pynchon introduces his reader to in this first part who don't figure into the beginning of the second part of the book at all.

Beyond the dizzying way in which the narrative makes these leaps from character to character background to new character and then back to some seemingly incidental character from twenty pages prior, Pynchon rams the reader directly into realms of the fantastic without warning or apology. When the Chums receive orders from the "Upper Hierarchy" to "get up buoyancy immediately and proceed by way of the Telluric Interior to the north polar regions" (114), the average reader, unfamiliar with the term Telluric, might assume the Chums have been told to go over a landmass referred to as the "interior" of some country. By the next page, as the Inconvenience is passing over an Antarctic landscape which has given way in the past to "tundra, then grassland, trees, plantation, even at last a settlement or two, just at the Rim" (115). This is the Rim of the ostensibly shrinking gateway to the interior of the hollow earth.

The shrinking Rim of the hollow earth's entrance is but one of the vanishing mythic landscapes of "The Light on the Ranges." In an earlier discussion, Professor Vanderjuice says that "the Western frontier as we all thought we knew it from song and story [is] no longer on the map, but gone, absorbed--a dead duck" (52). Pynchon illustrates the point with an analogy delivered by the professor, wherein the way in which cattle are summarily dispatched in the Union Stockyard are compared with the way in which the cowboys who once roamed the frontier are being edged out by the industrialization of frontier life. Even the Chums of Chance find their own world of adventure becoming tenuous, when "Cheerfulness, once taken as a condition of life on the Inconvenience, was in fact being progressively revealed to the boys as a precarious commodity these days" (54).

This theme of the loss of frontier, of the spaces of adventure (which continues in the second part) resonates with ideas in steampunk art and literature - the nostalgia for spaces, both exterior and interior, which enabled a greater buoyancy of spirit and amibition - pre-sinking of the Titanic mindset which often found expression in the Gernsback SF pulp fiction of the 30s and 40s, but lacked a commensurate reality in the wake of two World Wars and the Atomic era. Pynchon's writing style is decidely evocative of this buoyancy of spirit, especially when read aloud by Dick Hill on the audiobook of Against the Day. Besides being a masterful voice actor, Hill keeps his tongue just far enough in-cheek throughout the reading to convey the massive sense of ironic tone Pynchon keeps lurking just beneath the apparently optimistic surface of Against the Day, without losing the sense of light-hearted fun the book is often, without irony, unabashedly engaging in. Given Pynchon's pedigree, it's likely he's engaging the reader in a puzzle-box of word-play and narrative shifts, both temporal and topical; at the same time, he's clearly written an homage to the adventure tales of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, for this pastiche of mystery, Western, adventure tale (and as the second part begins), Lovecraftian horror, replete with detectives, Western outlaws, anarchists, inventors, gangsters, supernatural phenomenon and a teenage airship crew, never quite feels like its just about its irony. Pynchon isn't playing at satire here, at least not in the first part. If anything, it would seem he is endeavoring to do the very thing Michael Chabon is fond of championing: elevating the "lower" forms of literature, the genre fictions, into a more refined and rigourous context.

NOTE: Graat Anglophone Studies' March 2008 issue was devoted to "Reading Thomas Pynchon's latest novel Against the Day" - Check that issue out HERE.

Jun 10, 2009

Faran Tahir: My vote for Nemo Prequel casting

The revelation came in the first five minutes of J.J. Abrams' reboot of Star Trek: Faran Tahir should play Captain Nemo in the upcoming prequel by Disney. He fulfills all the criteria of the character, and between playing a villain in Iron Man , a hero in Star Trek, and displaying dramatic scope in Charlie Wilson's War, he has the proper balance of unknown and recognizable features the part would require. Further, to play Nemo, one must be able to play the heroic Prince Dakkar who becomes the villainous Nemo before transforming into the repentant and humanitarian Mystery of the Island. Most importantly to this Steampunk Scholar, he has a Pakistani heritage.

Someone might ask what the difference would be between having Will Smith (rumored to be director McG's pick for the role) or Tahir play the role, given they can visually represent groups which were both subject to colonial oppression and violence in the nineteenth century. Why can't a black man play this role?

Firstly, I wouldn't say a black man can't play Nemo. However, at this point in American film, blacks are higher up on the PC food chain than people who are, as my Pakistani, Indian and Lebanese acquaintances put it, brown. Brown actors aren't getting the big roles, with the exception of last year's Slumdog Millionaire. They're still playing bit roles or villains. So this isn't about barring a black man from playing a white character--even though Nemo has been played predominantly by caucasians.

Secondly, the position of blacks in the nineteenth century, even in Africa, was not one equalling the privileges of citizens of the British Raj. The Indian Prince Dakkar could go to school in Europe. An African Prince Dakeem would be far less likely to have done so. Which means, by extension, he wouldn't have had exposure to the education necessary to build the Nautilus. Black slaves in America were not permitted to learn to read, let alone learn advanced engineering. So the whole backstory would require a colossal re-write.

Thirdly, it's not as though the role of Nemo has been portrayed as an Indian to the point of cliché. As I argue in my forthcoming paper "Finding Nemo," the good captain has been cursed to deliver dialogue in the accent of the nation he hated most. He has been portrayed as an Indian only three times, and by an Indian only once. Maybe it's terribly Canadian of me to advocate for a Pakistani or Indian actor in the role, but it strikes me as a good way to do something new with the character, while simultaneously being very true to the source texts.

Check out this article on Tahir which discusses the forward-thinking of Abrams casting a Pakistani man as a Federation Captain in the post 9/11 world.

Now all I need is for someone to tell me how to lobby Disney in a way to get their attention.

Thanks to Matt Rhodes for the awesome photo-painting of Faran Tahir as Nemo.

Jun 9, 2009

The Five Year Mission: 4.5 years left and ticking

I recently realized I inadvertently gave myself a deadline by invoking the tag-line from Star Trek as the temporal boundary for this PhD project. I know others studying the same material will likely cross the academic finish line before I do, but given my commitments to family and teaching, completing the dissertation any sooner is, to put it in Vernian terms, a Journey Through the Impossible. Speaking of which, I received my copy of the once-exceedingly-rare play by Verne through Indigo.ca just a few weeks ago, and am reading through it. I would be interested to see a group like Legion Fantastique tackle that script, even if it was only for a reader’s theater. It’s effectively a late-nineteenth century summer blockbuster, with romance, humor, adventure, and opportunities for big special effects throughout. Highly recommended for the Verne fans out there.

To update everyone on the progress of my research:

I completed the first year of my PhD in April. This was the coursework year, which I was able to tailor slightly towards my long-term research. In the fall, I took a directed reading course on Victorian Science Fiction, which became mainly a course in Jules Verne’s writings. I was also able to write a paper on steampunk Star Wars for one of my other classes. In the winter semester of 2009, I was only able to take one class which would help my research. While the course was not directly concerned with my topic, a large amount of the reading list was Romantic, Victorian, and Edwardian period. I read Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, and Herman Melville for the first time. It was interesting to note how much (or how little) impact these authors have had on the style of steampunk writers. The course was about a turn to religion and ethics in the philosophy of Levinas and Derrida. The philosophy was brought into “conversation” with the literary works, and accordingly, will likely be brought into conversation with steampunk at some point.

The paper I wrote for my directed reading course on Verne, “Finding Nemo,” was also the research I presented at both Steam Powered last fall and the Eaton conference this Spring. Verniana, the online journal of Jules Verne studies is doing a special issue dedicated to the Eaton conference, and “Finding Nemo” will be among the papers featured in that issue. My steampunk Star Wars paper, “Steam Wars,” was submitted to the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies last month.

In the wake of my coursework year, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, at least, for someone still holding down a full time job in addition to research. Here is a list of the works, both novels and short stories I’ve read since the end of the semester, some of which have already been explored here at the blog, while others are awaiting reflection or review:

The Hollow Earth by Rudy Rucker
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock
Mainspring by Jay Lake
Clockwork Angels by Lea Hernandez
“The Shoal” by Liz Williams in The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures
“Steampunch” by James Lovegrove in Extraordinary Engines
“The Lollygang Save the World on Accident” by Jay Lake in Extraordinary Engines

Currently Reading:
Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson
Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
Journey Through the Impossible by Jules Verne

I did a huge buy in April of all the works I had identified as immediately salient to my research, through Amazon and Indigo. It’s been wonderful having access to all these works finally, especially the older, out of print ones. One of my most recent acquisitions was Burning London by Joe R. Lansdale, and I’m very excited about the impending arrival of that book.
I will get around to analyzing more of those steampunk myths and legends images soon enough. It’s just nice to finally be really kicking the tires and lighting the fires, or in steampunk terms, getting the gears moving. Thanks to everyone who has joined the journey by emailing, commenting, or facebooking: welcome aboard. Only 4.5 years to go.

Jun 8, 2009

Link: A Different Kind of "Steamy Fantasy"

Back in March, I was contacted by Yevgeniy Levich, who was writing an article on steampunk for a class project. You can read the finished product here at his blog.
"The steampunk aesthetic combines the styles and technology of the Victorian age with elements of modern science fiction, adventure, and fantasy genres. Intricate, ornamental, anti industrial and universally applicable in nature, steampunk has found its popularity among various niche communities.It is being applied to everything from clothing and gadget modifications to artistic reinterpretations of Star Wars and classic myths. Some see it as a return to the elaborate custom designs of the Victorian era. Some view it as a backlash against the norms of mass production and others just think it looks cool.

Jun 4, 2009

Working with Matt Rhodes

If you've never checked out the art of Matt Rhodes, you're missing out. While his current blog contains only one steampunk influenced image, his earlier sites contained more. Matt was doing steampunk style back before Treasure Planet came out, before Steampunk Star Wars images showed up all over the 'Net, basically, back before steampunk was all the rage.

In preparation for Steam Con in Seattle (I'll be presenting three sessions that weekend, but more about that in a forthcoming post), I've commissioned Matt to draw his take on me as the Steampunk Scholar. We went for sushi this past Tuesday to discuss it, and Matt has already sent me some concept sketches as we look for a direction for the image, which will be available to purchase through CafePress when it's done. To whet all our appetites, here's that singular steampunk image from Matt's blog. He describes his take on Steampunk as "taking place in the year 3000," with skyships featuring billowing sails. This image definitely captures that feel. Further, it captures the steampunk aesthetic I somewhat crassly term "chicks with guns," but referred to as "Damsels without Distress" in my paper on Steampunk Star Wars images (currently submitted to Neo-Victorian Studies). Mind you, these ladies could be steampunk Betty and Veronica. Notice there's no Archie anywhere to be seen.

Jun 3, 2009

"The Lollygang Save the World on Accident" by Jay Lake

Some authors are better at short form fiction, while others shine in their novels and strain at the edges of a short story. I like Clive Barker best when he's doing long form. Stephen King I'll take either way. I return to Charles DeLint's Newford most often through his short story collections. The opening paragraph of Jay Lake's short story "The Lollygang Save the World on Accident" is peppered with the best things about Mainspring without any of the bad. Something I didn't mention in my review of Mainspring was that chapter one (moreso than any other), the latter three-quarters of chapter three, and much of chapters four and six have scenarios in them which would have made great short stories. I read somewhere Jay Lake writes great short fiction. "Lollygang" is proof.

Consider the opening paragraph:
Per braced against the corroded stanchion protruding from a riveted curve of the Big Pipe. Wind tore at him like his ma'am after she'd been drinking too hard. He squinted against the unaccustomed daylight and tried not to look down. Outside loomed all around him like a scream. (401)
I've told my students that my definition of poetic language is when you "say more with less." In one paragraph, Lake has told us a great deal about Per: he has an alcoholic mother who beats him, he doesn't often see daylight, and he is currently at a great height, accentuated by the unstated but felt presence of Outside as a proper noun. In a writing course, you're told you have 50 words to hook the reader in a short story. Lake's used around 50, and I'm hooked.

One of Lake's other strengths in Mainspring, which I alluded to in my review in my comments about the point of the historical break, as well as steampunking Christianity, is his ability to build environments on a colossal scale. In Mainspring it's the Equatorial Wall and the Orbital track. In "Lollygang" it's the Big Pipe, a "tube almost a mile in diameter" (403) with numerous decks peopled by a diversity of cultures, "from all walks of life, all skin colors, all philosophical persuasions," or one might say world views: because the Big Pipe is a world, "another stage on which to play out the dramas of the psyche" (404).

The characters have great steampunk names: Shadowmite, Cleverdick Stafford, Green Charles, the McCrain Deck Beaters, the Lollygang itself. Anyone complaining that there isn't much punk in steampunk needs to read "Lollygang." Like conceptual ancestors of Powers' beggar lords in The Anubis Gates (86), who are in turn conceptual ancestors of Henry Mayhew's accounts of London Labor and the London Poor, the gangs of the Big Pipe are the punk of steampunk--low society which stands outside the status quo:
Others with reason to be dissatisfied found their way into gangs that lived intramurally. These were not cofraternities dedicated to a certain trade or style of living, but opportunists who preyed upon the settled order of life within the Big Pipe. They were generally not brutally violent, and they promoted an informal economic and technological interchange which over time led to new trading partners and novel combinations of the confraternities themselves. (407)
I was reminded in my reading of the opening scenes in Scorcese's Gangs of New York, with the various gangs of the four points and their colorful communal identities.

I won't say much about the plot, because while the title gives away the ending, unlike Mainspring, the how is a surprise, woven into an interesting cosmology, echoing that of Mainspring. I'll be interested to see in other works by Lake if the presence of religion is a common thread. I'm guessing by the title of Lake's short story "The God Clown is Near" in Ann and Jeff Vandermeer's Steampunk anthology, that it is. Given S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods, an investigation of religious themes in steampunk might be warranted. At any rate, given the radiply immersive mise-en-scene of "Lollygang," I'm excited to read more of Lake's short fiction, and pleased that the potential in Mainspring was indicative of smaller, but better things.

Lake, Jay. "The Lollygang Save the World On Accident." Extraordinary Engines. Ed. Nick Gevers. Nottingham: Solaris, 2008. 401-422.

Powers, Tim. The Anubis Gates. New York: Ace Books, 1997 (1983).

Jun 2, 2009

Eaton Science Fiction Conference 2009 - Day 2

Having endured one of the most difficult eight months of my life, taking a full time load of graduate courses while teaching full time, I was exhausted when I arrived in Riverside. With my own presentation behind me, my body clearly told the brain to shut the alarm off when it rang, and as a result, I was too late to take in the first session, although I did arrive in time to get some books signed by Tim Powers, and thank Greg Bear for his fantastic short story “Petra,” which is featured in Bruce Sterling’s Mirrorshades cyberpunk anthology. Fanboy business completed, I went early to the room where the paper session I was to chair was taking place.

A few conference technicians were busy assisting one of the presenters with his laptop, so I decided to stand back and let them do what they needed. While I was waiting, Bill Jones came and introduced himself to me. Both Bill and his wife are both lovely people and were a huge encouragement to me over the course of the weekend. Bill is the author of Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History, which looks at the impact of the Classics Illustrated comic book series. Accordingly, Bill’s presentation on the Classics Illustrated Verne canon, representing the largest number of Classics Illustrated issues by any one author, required a slideshow with images of covers and interior art.

In obeisance to Murphy’s Law, which is that anything that can go wrong will, and subsequently to Hardy’s Law (coined by good friend George Hardy), which states that nothing ever works, the two presentations which ostensibly were most in need of good tech did not have it.
Halfway through Bill’s presentation the bulb on the projector shut down to prevent burning out and potentially exploding. After a vain restart, we took a quick break while conference tech brought in a new projector. Thankfully, Bill was unflappable, and weathered the technological adversity (a bit of situational irony at a conference devoted to Verne) and gave an excellent overview of the Classics Illustrated Verne adaptations, referring to Classics illustrator Henry Carl Kiefer (1890-1957) as “the original steampunk artist.” In an email to me, Bill explained his “half-serious” nomination of Kiefer:
“In the Verne realm, he illustrated Twenty Thousand Leagues and Around the World, but his true specialties for the series were Dickens (Great Expectations, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol) and odd pockets of 19th-century fiction (The Adventures of Hans Pfall, Mysteries of Paris, King Solomon's Mines). The reason I applied the term steampunk, however loosely, was because Kiefer deliberately opted for a Victorian visual style in an era when EC-style realism was becoming the dominant aesthetic in comics art. Even when he was called upon, in other series, to draw contemporary characters, he managed to invest them with what his detractors viewed as old-fashioned woodenness. But Kiefer truly inhabited another age.”
I should note that Classics Illustrated have been re-released, and Bill is the writer of the introductions: you can check them out here.

Matthew Snyder followed Bill Jones with “Oceans of Noise: Archetypal Readings of Jules Verne in The Abyss”. Once again, technological problems plagued us, this time of a far less serious nature – Snyder’s laptop kept going to the screensaver, which effectively ceased to send a signal to the projector, shutting it off. That aside, the content of Snyder’s paper was good, once he got past his over-long introduction which reiterated basic biography any cursory scholar of Verne’s work should know. Many of the points had already been covered in other presentations on the first day, so it was a relief when Snyder finally moved onto how a reading of Verne can be brought into conversation with Cameron’s underwater films, and particularly, The Abyss. While he didn’t take it in directions I would have, his basic premise is solid, and I’ll be including a critical viewing of The Abyss in my introductory English classes at King’s University College this fall, along with Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I'd have to say Matt's shining moment was assessing The Abyss as an "archetypal re-rendering of Verne's mythopoetics." Those are some words worth a thousand pictures.

Walter James Miller, a living legend in English Vernian studies, was unable to attend the conference to deliver his plenary address, but Terry Harpold did an excellent job of reading Miller's "The Role of Chance in Verne's Rehabilitation in America," which was the second inspirational note of the weekend for me in deciding to teach Verne this fall at King's. I'm hoping that Miller's entire paper will be printed in the forthcoming special issue of Verniana devoted to papers from the Eaton 2009 conference.

I skipped the next paper session to interview Rudy Rucker, author of his ostensibly steampunk novel The Hollow Earth. The transcript of that interview will be posted here at the blog, following my completed reports on the conference itself. For the time being, I'll merely make the observation that Rudy has a really dry sense of slightly left-field humor which made the interview immensely enjoyable and relaxed.

Rudy Rucker, Tim Powers, and Greg Bear

I went straight from standing in the courtyard speaking with Rudy Rucker to sitting inside for the panel he shared with SF giants Greg Bear, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and Tim Powers. This was easily the most enjoyable panel of the weekend for me. Howard Hendrix chaired the session, and kept the discussion lively. Here are some highlights from that panel, all of which are the best notes I could take, not necessarily verbatim quotes.

Tim Powers (TP): The punk in steampunk is partly nineteenth century adventure, which was not self conscious, crossed with twentieth century characters who are self-conscious.

Greg Bear (GB): Steampunk is lighting off fireworks with old elements.

Kathleen Ann Goonan (KAG): Steampunk puts fun back into fiction.

GB: 1955-56 was the beginning of steampunk with the film version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, especially considering Harper Goff's design of the Nautilus.

Rudy Rucker (RR): We need to be careful to not romanticize the past...we sometimes imagine people in the past weren't as screwed up as we are.

TP: Steampunk currently applies to t-shirts and shoes as much as literature. It's also important to remember that spiritualism was considered a form of science...ectoplasm, mesmerism, bilocation. As fictional devices, these things are a lot of fun.

KAG: A sense of nostalgia for a time when people could decipher how something worked. Steampunk is human scale, hands-on...more Darwinian and Newtonian.

GB: Conrad's Heart of Darkness is the end of Verne's world...Perhaps steampunk is the "exhaustion of our imagination."

I have some other notes from this session, but they relate directly to Powers' Anubis Gates, which I will be reviewing soon.

The day ended with another presentation done in absentia. Frederick Pohl was feeling too ill to accept the J. Lloyd Eaton Lifetime Achievement Award in Science Fiction, but we were fortunate enough for him to present it via a pre-recorded video. The speech was witty, thoughtful, and gave me a sense of pride about being someone who studies Science Fiction and other "junk" fictions as literature. In truth, this pride was the recurring theme of the weekend for me, as each night I walked back to my hotel room.

On Saturday, my return to the hotel was slightly and thankfully delayed by dinner with Chris Garcia, the man behind the fanzine Drink Tank, and someone I shared panel space with last year at the Steam Powered steampunk convention in Sunnyvale, CA. He and the lovely Linda and I ate some great food, talked fantasy football, religion, stampede wrestling, and the Tragically Hip. It was a great end to a fantastic day. I think that's the thing I'm appreciating most about my steampunk travels. The research is exciting, but as time goes on, I'm having more fun just connecting with people who have similar interests, which is of course, the whole point of this blog.
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