Apr 30, 2010

Mission Update: April 2010

April is to the post-secondary educator what tax season is to the accountant, and not simply for the coincidence of timing. This is the time of year when those of us who teach are buried under a stack of grading: final papers, projects, and of course, exams. So there isn't a whole hell of a lot to report for this month.

I'm currently working my ass off on a chapter for an upcoming academic anthology on fairy tale and fantasy. My chapter is obviously on steampunk, and is titled, Steampunk: Technofantasies in a Neo-Victorian Retrofuture. I also wrote a paragraph on The Windup Girl for Chris Garcia's fanzine The Drink Tank, issue 247 (it's on page 20). 

Something I forgot to mention last month: Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett did a great video-conference session with my English 103 class at Grant MacEwan about Boilerplate. We're hoping to repeat this in the fall, with my English 102 classes. Speaking of classes, just a heads up for anyone who lives in Edmonton, I'll be teaching Comparative Literature 342, Science Fiction at the University of Alberta in the fall: Mondays, 6-9. There are currently still half the seats left in the class!

I've decided to try giving each month a thematic focus, starting in July with "Canuck Steampunk," a whole month devoted to Canadian Steampunk, with posts about Kenneth Oppel's Airborn, Skybreaker, and Starclimber;  S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods; Scarlet Riders:Pulp Fiction Tales of the Mounties, edited by Don Hutchinson; Karin Lowachee's Gaslight Dogs; and The Apparition Trail by Lisa Smedman. It's amazing to me that I've been posting for over a year and I still have so many books to get through--and with the current popularity of steampunk, the list growing every month!

As proof, here are more additions to the primary reading list:

Baker, Kage. Not Less Than Gods. Burton: Subterranean Press, 2010. 

Carriger, Gail: Changeless:The Parasol Protectorate: Book the Second. New York, Orbit Books, 2010.

Dahlquist, Gordon. The Dark Volume. New York: Bantam, 2009.

Lowachee, Karin. The Gaslight Dogs. New York, Orbit, 2010.

MacAlister, Katie. Steamed: A Steampunk Romance. New York: Signet, 2010.

Smedman, Lisa. The Apparition Trail. Calgary: Tesseract Books, 2007.

Zoem, Dazjae. Wonderdark: The Awakening of Zuza. Self-published, 2009.

I'm still struggling through the same books I was reading last month as well as having started Ian MacLeod's The Light Ages (an incredible read so far - a third of the way through), a testament to how busy April has been. Thank God for audiobooks and my commute, or I wouldn't get any reading done at this time of year! Speaking of audiobooks, I thought I'd link up to the audible.com site with the following releases, now also added to the audiobook list:

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest: I'm going to give this book a second run by audiobook, because Kate Reading, one of my favorite narrators is reading the parts from Briar's point-of-view, and Wil Wheaton reads Ezekiel's parts. Sometimes books are just meant to be read out loud (Gail Carriger's Soulless being an excellent example). In addition, given the number of awards this book has gone up for this year (Nebula, Locus), I'm thinking I need to pay closer attention in my second read, to see if I missed something the first time around.

The Affinity Bridge by George Mann: It hasn't received glowing reviews yet, but I'm still glad that there's an audio version of this popular steampunk read, as the more I can consume via audio, the better. Having discovered there are zombies involved, I think it's funny that Tor's two big steampunk releases have been steampunk-zombie stories. Or maybe they're just undead. We'll see!

The Dream of Perpetual Motion: A steampunk novel-of-ideas with Shakespeare's Tempest as its foundation! It's an incredible piece of postmodern fiction, and if you can stomach William Dufris' adenoidal narration, I highly recommend it. Dufris nearly ruined my listening of Mainspring, until I adjusted my brain to get over how much I dislike his voice. In some ways, he does suit the voice of the narrator, but there's only so much nasal whining I can take.

Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel: The same full-cast approach as the first two books, so unless Oppel trips at the finish line with book three of this series, it's bound to be great!

A quick shout out: Thanks to Christian Matzke for sending me his copy of Katie MacAlister's Steamed. This guy is one of the nicest and most engaging people of Steampunk Empire - he's everywhere on the forums!

Speaking of forums - the Great Steampunk Debate is about to begin! I'm one of the moderators for this conversation, so if you're interested in lively but still civil debate, head over to the forum and sign up!

Apr 28, 2010

Steampunk Star Wars: A blend of space opera and scientific romance


I'm still waiting to find out whether or not Neo-Victorian Studies wants my Steam Wars article for its special issue on steampunk, but I thought that I'd post one of the "deleted scenes" from the original draft here. In streamlining the argument, the establishment of space opera as related influence/precedent to steampunk didn't seem as important. It still strikes me as a good bit of information, and I thought it would make a nice post while I'm writing for publication this week. It's also timely, given the increased visibility the original images have been given by cosplay artists Outland Armour. Here's the excerpt:

John Brownlee, commenting on Marcel E. Mercado’s steampunk Star Wars art, stated that “[m]ore than any other science-fiction film, Star Wars feels like it was meant to take place in a steampunk universe” (blog.wired.com). Before moving onto a close reading of individual artworks to disseminate the steampunk aesthetic, we will expand upon Brownlee’s statement by investigating why Star Wars, more than any other science fiction (or pop culture) narrative has been subjected to steampunk’s retrofitting.

Star Wars is widely, arguably incontestably, labeled as space opera (Pringle 40; Monk 298; Hardesty 121), a subgenre of science fiction with strong ties to steampunk’s roots in nineteenth century adventure literature. Pringle draws a line between “scenes of warfare in space” and the “Victorian future-war [stories]” such as Garrett P. Serviss’s newspaper serial Edison's Conquest of Mars, which supposed a counterattack to the Martian invasion of Wells’s War of the Worlds. Pringle references Clute’s coinage of “Edisonades,” or stories “which glorified the careers of Edison and other hero-inventors in futuristic terms”, which draws another line between steampunk and space opera. E.E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space, commonly held to be held to be the first space opera, is effectively an Edisonade for the novel’s first half (40-41). Jess Nevins, annotator of fantastic Victoriana, has demonstrated the literary connection between the Edisonade and Steampunk writings.Monk cites Verne and Wells, the godfathers of steampunk as progenitors of space opera (300).

Steampunk is ostensibly lacking in the “cosmic vision” of the space opera, wherein travel occurs “between planets”, granting it an awe-inspiring, “interplanetary, interstellar or even intergalactic” scale (Pringle 41). However, this ignores the nineteenth century perception that “the train, the steamship, the telegraph, the typewriter, the linotype, and the gramophone, together with the myriad other technical marvels of the age” had served to “annihilate space and time” (Keep 138). To travel to unexplored continents amounted to virtually the same fantastic concept as traveling to another planet or galaxy. One needs only to consider the goal of one of the earliest objects of space travel: the moon via ballistic projectile in Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon to understand how different conceptualizations of vast distance have become between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries (Chatelain and Slusser 26). And this is to say nothing of the underwater voyages in machines such as Verne’s Nautilus or temporal voyages such as that of the Time Traveler in Wells’s The Time Machine. Compare Professor Arronax’s astonishment at the viewing windows aboard the Nautilus with Pringle’s example of the view of the Trifid Nebula in Hamilton’s The Star of Life (42) to see how the events are only different given the scale of the physical settings: in steampunk, it's confined to terrestrial worlds; in space opera, multiple worlds.

Beyond issues of origin, steampunk and space opera also share the difficulty of definition. Both are pastiches, combining disparate elements. Pringle’s attempt at definition for space opera is cast in a cooking metaphor:
“So we begin to arrive at a recipe. Put together the following ingredients: a pinch of serious, which is to say utopian, interplanetary sf; a large dollop of planetary romance; an equally large dollop of the future-war tale, or Edisonade; and a bucketful of salty sea yarn; and voila, you have the makings of space opera” (41).
Monk abandons the project of definition altogether, in favor of understanding space opera in terms of its attitude:
“The effective way to proceed with a discussion of space opera is to abandon definition on the grounds that space opera is not susceptible of definition, being neither static nor monolithic. It is not a collection of texts but an attitudinal bias, and its literary expression reveals an authorial mindset which sees the extraterrestrial universe in holistic terms as both knowable and manageable, just as the writers of the models from which it derives had seen the terrestrial world. The space opera bias is betrayed by the monomythic romance mode, action-adventure plot, emphatic closure, optimism, social naïveté, mimeticism (in Frye's sense of the term), mix of entertainment and instruction, maximal encoding, fudge factors, minimal proleptic continuity, conflict (human/human or alien/human) in both stories and subsequently novels” (300).
Star Wars is not the only major science fiction franchise to have been steampunked in recent years. Images of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek cast have been composited with antique photographs by digital artist Rabbittooth (rabbittooth.com), but a comparison of web searches for steampunk Star Wars vs. steampunk Star Trek demonstrates the superior popularity of the former. Again, even within popular space opera, Star Wars seems to be uniquely suited to a steampunk aesthetic.

This is because, as one blogger has commented, “Star Wars is already about anachronistic technology”, citing the presence of the lightsaber battles as swordfights, space battles as dogfights and how Chewbacca’s bowcaster resembles a crossbow (Llamas and My Stegosaurus). Star Wars is, like steampunk, invested with a nostalgia that “does not portray a real past but rather evokes a sense of cultural past” (Wetmore 7). As Steffen Hantke has noted concerning the neo-Victorian setting of the majority of steampunk, and the visual aesthetic of all the steampunk Star Wars revisionings, “Victorianism, what little there is of it in the conventional sense, appears not as a historical given but as a textual construct open to manipulation and modification” (248).

"Steampunk Star Wars." Llamas and My Stegosaurus. 4 August 2007.

Brownlee, John. "Marcel E. Mercado's Steampunk Star Wars." blog.wired.com 19 June 2007.

Chatelain, Daniele and George Slusser. "Flying to the Moon in French and American Science Fiction." In Westfahl, 25-33.

Hardesty, William H. "Space Opera without the Space: The Culture Novels of Iain M. Banks." In Westfahl, 115-121.

Monk, Patricia. "Not Just 'Cosmic Skullduggery': A Partial Reconsideration of Space Opera." Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy. 33.4 (1992): 295-316.

Nevins, Jess. "The 19th-Century Roots of Steampunk." Introduction. Steampunk. Eds. Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2008. 3-11.

Pringle, David. "What is this Thing called Space Opera?" Westfahl, 36-47.

Westfahl, Gary, ed. Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Wetmore, Kevin J. The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion, and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2005.

Apr 26, 2010

List of Steampunk secondary sources

When I first started my research, a search in the University of Alberta's databases for "steampunk" turned up only one article: Steffen Hantke's "Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk." While one of my goals has been to be at the forefront of academic research during the upsurge of interest in steampunk, I'm glad to see that I'm not alone in my current endeavors. Here is a list of some steampunk secondary sources, both new and old. Please feel free to include more works in the comments section, but please limit them to peer-reviewed scholarly sources - google is adequate for finding the web articles.

Blaylock, James P. "James P. Blaylock: Impractical Machines." Locus 691 (64.4, April 2010): 6, 57-58.

Bullen, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth Parsons. "Dystopian Visions of Global Capitalism: Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines and M.T. Anderson's Feed." Children's Literature in Education. 38.2 (2007): 127-139. 

Fast, John. "Machinery of Blood: Melville's 'The Bell Tower' as Ambiguous Steampunk Horror." New York Review of Science Fiction 20.1 [229] (2007): 18. 

Gordon, Joan. "Hybridity, Heterotopia, and Mateship in China Miéville's Perdido street Station." Science Fiction Studies 30.3 (2003): 456-476. 

Hansen, Adam. "Exhibiting Vagrancy, 1851: Victorian London and the 'Vagabond Savage'." A Mighty Mass of Brick and Stone: Victorian and Edwardian Represenations of London. Lawrence Phillips, ed. New York: Rodopi, (2007): 61-84.
(Not directly related to steampunk, but rather to Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, which served as a source text for Jeter, Powers, and Blaylock's steampunk works.)

Hantke, Steffen. "Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk." Extrapolation (Kent State University Press) 40.3 (1999): 244-254.

Hendrix, Howard. "Verne among the Punks, Or "It's Not Just a Victorian Clockwork." Verniana. 2 (2009)

Kelleghan, Fiona. "Interview with Tim Powers." Science Fiction Studies 25.1 (1998): 7-28.

Kendrick, Christopher. "Monster Realism and Uneven Development in China Miéville's The Scar." Extrapolation (University of Texas at Brownsville) 50.2 (2009): 258-275. 

Latham, Rob. "Our Jaded Tomorrows." Science Fiction Studies 36.2 (2009): 339-349.

Nevins, Jess. "The Nineteenth Century Roots of Steampunk." New York Review of Science Fiction 21.5 [245] (2009): 1.

Onion, Rebecca. "Reclaiming the Machine: An Introductory Look at Steampunk in Everyday Practice."  Neo-Victorian Studies 1:1 (2008): 138-163.

Partington, Gill. "Friedrich Kittler's "Aufschreibsystem.." Science Fiction Studies 33.1 (2006): 53-67.

Perschon, Mike. "Finding Nemo: Verne's Antihero as Original Steampunk." Verniana. 2 (2010)

Quigley, Marian. "a Future Victorian Adventure: the Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello." Screen Education 54 (2009): 125-129.

Sakamoto, Michaela. "The Transcendent Steam Engine: Industry, Nostalgia, and the Romance of Steampunk." The Image of Technology. 124-131. Pueblo, CO: Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery, Colorado State University-Pueblo, 2009.

Apr 14, 2010

Leaving London, Arriving in Albion: The Future of Steampunk

It's the end of term, which means grading, grading, grading, so my ability to write regular posts at the level I've become accustomed to writing for this blog has been severely compromised. In a combination move of miscommunication and serendipity, the original draft of "Leaving London, Arriving in Albion: The Future of Steampunk" ran in the new edition of Journey Planet. I was hoping to take another crack at editing it, but that was mostly to clarify points, which would only have added to it's already somewhat ponderous bulk.

This was the article I'd originally written for the Steampunk Reloaded anthology, but as it ultimately wasn't what Jeff and Ann were looking for, I sent it over to Christopher J. Garcia to see it he was interested in it. In another moment of serendipity, Issue 6 of Journey Planet was focused on London. Longtime readers of this blog might recognize some of the content as revised portions from my posts about Pynchon, Mieville, and Pacigalupi. My goal with the article was to postulate where steampunk is heading (mainly at a literary/narrative level) based upon the past ten years of steampunk writing. The future writers of steampunk aren't likely to be writing against Powers, Blaylock, or Jeter, or anyone else pre-'99: they'll be writing against the steampunk writers of from 2000-2006 or so. One only needs to compare the "classic" steampunk of George Mann's The Affinity Bridge with Cherie Priest's Boneshaker to see how steampunk is pulling away from it's London-only roots. In short, I state that I see future steampunk leaving London, and engaging the Americas (a broad term including Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and while I don't include South America here, my omission is due to my own linguistic and literary limitations rather than exclusion), Asia (another broad term, but I'm working with a large brush here, trying hard not step on toes), and Middle-Earth (which is to say, secondary worlds), which effectively brings us full circle to London again - but not the London of alternate history - London of historical fantasy, which is a very different London.

At any rate, I'm glad the article found a home. As you read, please keep in mind, this is not an attempt at  prognostication, and is really only scratching the surface. I had a very short deadline to write the original in, and while I like what I've written, it's only a starting point for discussion: clearly, writing about the future prohibits being "the final word." That said, it's of interest to me that I wondered at a steampunk novel of ideas, and am already reading one: Dexter Palmer's Dream of Perpetual Motion; I offer Asia as one of the places to be watching for, and we've already had the controversy of Victorientalism explode. Before I go on too much and neglect my grading, here are the opening lines to pique your interest:
A month before my first steampunk convention in 2008, Adam Frucci at Gizmodo declared steampunk dead. I interviewed Jeff and Ann VanderMeer about their first steampunk anthology at that convention; and here we are, two years later, seeing the release of a second anthology. I suppose in some people’s minds, so long as one person attends the San Francisco Dickensfaire with brass goggles, steampunk will still be alive.

Clearly, steampunk isn’t dead. But being alive doesn’t necessitate robust health. The emergence of dieselpunk has caused critics to quip that the ultimate end of steampunk culture is a perpetual progression along the historical timeline of the twentieth century, eventually moving onto atompunk before finally catching up to cyberpunk (which will be retrofuturism by that time, I suppose). The assumption is that for steampunk to do anything new, it will have to move temporally. What isn’t considered is that steampunk might just move spatially, beyond the geographies of London and the Thames. While the steampunk of the original trinity of Powers, Jeter, and Blaylock focused on London and the United Kingdom, recent steampunk has abandoned Albion, striking out for America, Asia, and beyond. To chart a course for the future of steampunk, we will fix our sights on the horizon, keeping in mind where steampunk has gone in the past decade. I will leave the fashion to the lovely Ms. Carriger, and the making to the esteemed Mr. Von Slatt. My eyes are on the page, the screen, and on the future.

In leaving London, the most logical first step in our journey of far more than a thousand miles is not the homeland of Confucius, but an Atlantic crossing to the Americas. The idea that the future of steampunk lies there may seem strange, given that the writer responsible for coining the term was American. But readers of steampunk have hungered to see what British North America, the Republic of Texas, and French Mexico looked like since seeing the map inside The Difference Engine.

Noteworthy examples from before the turn-of-the-century include Rudy Rucker’s The Hollow Earth, James Blaylock’s The Digging Leviathan, and Lea Hernandez’s Texas steampunk manga Cathedral Child and Clockwork Angels. Sadly, these books are not commonly mentioned on steampunk reading lists. I’m guessing the limiting view of steampunk as neo-Victorian excluded these books from the early ‘canon’. Rucker says he wasn’t interested in writing steampunk as it was understood in the ‘80s because it was too polite, too Victorian (recall Basil Fawlty’s adventures with the American tourist and the Waldorf salad to see what Rucker was getting at). It might be the ‘punk’ edge many claim steampunk is missing. In leaving London, we leave a stack of Debrett’s works on etiquette at the airship station.

One of the best examples of how irreverently impolite and impolitic American steampunk could be is Joe Lansdale’s fantastically bizarre Zeppelins West, which not only eschews polite convention, but drags it kicking and screaming across several lines of good taste before leaving it to be devoured by satirical versions of Dr Moreau’s beast men. Zeppelins West is an American historical fantasy, employing real-world heroes Wild Bill Hickok, Sitting Bull, Annie Oakley, and Buffalo Bill Cody, alongside fictional characters ranging from Frank Reade (the hero of Harry Enton’s Steam Man dime novels) to parodies of Captain Nemo, the Tin Woodsman from Oz, and Frankenstein’s monster.

Before reaching the end of Zeppelins West, readers have been witness to some of the strangest sexual couplings since John Varley’s Gaea trilogy. Lansdale goes beyond breaking social conventions to shattering taboos, all with a wink and a smile. If Lansdale is pointing the way for American steampunk, it’s headed toward a horizon filled with raunchy sex, graphic violence, and a tongue firmly in cheek, reminding the reader not to take these things too seriously.

This interest in dark comedy is echoed in Mike Mignola’s The Amazing Screw-on Head, which could easily take place in the whimsical universe Lansdale created for Zeppelins West: no one hires David Hyde Pierce to do voice work for a power-mad zombie villain unless they’re looking to make us laugh. Like Lansdale, Mignola plays with historical figures, Abraham Lincoln himself sending the show’s eponymous hero on his mission. And while he avoids established literary figures in his cast, being Mike Mignola means he can’t help but invoke shades of one of America’s greatest horror writers, H P Lovecraft.

Lovecraft has been creeping in the side door of steampunk for quite a few years now, beginning with Paul DiFilippo’s wonderful ‘Hottentots’ from The Steampunk Trilogy. Steampunk often draws inspiration from period writers, and while Lovecraft is post-Edwardian his sensibilities are decidedly nineteenth century. In drawing from the fantastic writers of its past, American steampunk should look to writers like Lovecraft and Poe for a horizon filled with macabre darkness.
Read the entire article in Issue 6 of Journey Planet!
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