May 25, 2010

Zeppelins West by Joe R. Lansdale

I know I had Howl's Moving Castle scheduled for today's post, but I'm in the office at Grant MacEwan today, where I still share space with other people - playing a video would have been distracting, so I went with my promised post for tomorrow, which only required a book: something so ubiquitous in an English wing as to be invisible.



As I stated in my recent post on defining steampunk as an aesthetic, I knew I'd be referencing that definition of "Technofantasy in a neo-Victorian Retrofuture" in my ongoing posts. Looking at the cover of Zeppelins West, one might ask "what's neo-Victorian about that?" While we've got an airship, a common steampunk icon, we also have Buffalo Bill Cody, a legend of the Wild West, not Victorian London.

I'll remind my readers that I am using the term "neo-Victorian" by its Oxford English Dictionary definition: “resembling, reviving, or reminiscent of, the Victorian era”, limiting that to its temporal, not geographic value. I have yet to find a better term to denote the nineteenth century. Using "nineteenth century" instead of "neo-Victorian" would be more confusing: if I say "nineteenth century," then the temporal limitation is fixed. If I say "neo-Victorian, then it needs only resemble the nineteenth century, not necessarily take place within the nineteenth century. So while Zeppelins West isn't about the Victorian culture, it does draw its recursive fantasy from both historical and literary figures from that period. Truthfully, the book evokes the Belle Epoque decadence of the turn of the century and the shift (hardly noticeable) from the Victorian to Edwardian period.

While steampunk in openly embracing the Old West in its aesthetic, it's been part of steampunk literature since Rudy Rucker wrote The Hollow Earth in 1990. Rucker was using the frontier of Mark Twain's Huck Finn, not Billy the Kid, but his book is set in nineteenth century America nonetheless. The notion that the steampunk aesthetic was unilaterally based in London or the British Empire up until recently is incorrect, especially when one includes (as I do) the television series Wild, Wild West as a steampunk precedent. Zeppelins West was published in 2001, only a few years after the film version of Wild, Wild West was released, but don't conflate them. Zeppelins West was published by Subterranean Press in their standard limited printing run. Subterranean is responsible for releasing some of the best steampunk books out there, including the Nebula award-winning The Women of Nell Gwynne's by Kage Baker. So publishing Zeppelins West was really just "business as usual" for the folks at SP. I highly recommend ordering something from them, as it will remind you what a book is like when, instead of pandering to current trends, a publishing house releases something because it thinks it kicks ass.

Zeppelins West is a great example of this. I've never read anything like it. Honestly. Coming up with a precis of this book is as challenging as defining steampunk. In the first 35 pages, we've been introduced to Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Wild Bill Hickock, all traveling in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show to Japan by airship. But the airship is only scratching the surface of Lansdale's anachronistic deviations (and deviances): Buffalo Bill isn't half the man he was in history, he's perhaps 1/8: he's been reduced to a head in a Mason jar filled with pig urine. The jar can be affixed to the top of a steam man, designed by (who else?) Frank Reade, who often invents in steampunk what he only wrote about in real life (see Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett's Boilerplate for another instance of this). We have learned that the Japanese discovered Western America, and that samurai fought with Custer at the battle of Little Bighorn. It is implied that Jules Verne desgined a communications satellite. And, if all this weren't enough, Sokaku Takeda, the "soon to be ruler of Japan", is slowly cutting off slices of the captive Frankenstein's monster, to consume them. I'd tell you what he's consuming them for, but I don't want to spoil the naughty fun.

You might think to yourself, "I love off-the-wall writing like that!" and hurry to order yourself a copy. Stop for a moment before you do, because if you don't like your batshit crazy novels to include the craziest sex you've seen in fiction since John Varley, cannibalism, and off-colour humour on every other page, then you might want to overlook Zeppelins West. I'm an academic, so I have to read it even when it might make me cringe. Lansdale doesn't make me cringe, but I thought a warning was necessary, as I know some of you take my writing to be recommendation, which it isn't always. I loved the book, but if ever there were a moment to say, "it's not for everyone," this is it.

Warnings aside, I think Zeppelins West is one of the best examples of what steampunk could be. It's the sort of book written without any consideration for a subculture, political correctness (although that isn't to say that Lansdale doesn't treat his subjects fairly - Lansdale is like The Simpsons: nothing is sacred, so he's equal opportunity with his lampooning), or marketability. It's a perfect example of "gonzo" writing, which is one of the words K.W. Jeter used to explain what he, Powers, and Blaylock were up to with what he dubbed "steampunk." In addition to everything in those first 35 pages, Lansdale takes the reader on a literary who's who, a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for the Coen Brothers to direct (I'd have said Tim Burton, but his films are generally sexless - you need someone who won't flinch from flesh here): before the book is done, he'll have borrowed characters and plot devices from Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, H.G. Wells' Island of Doctor Moreau, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Frank L. Baum's Wizard of Oz.

The following quote should give you a taste (all pun intended) of how crazy this book gets: it takes place right after the beast men of Doctor Momo have decided they are free to eat anything and anybody they want, with the exception of the Goat Man, who says "I'm sticking with vegetables."
They howled at the great big moon. They danced on the beach. They made love to each other. They drank spoiled fruit juice. They had a big time.
Of course, the next morning they were mighty sick, two of the creatures had bleeding asses, and the Lion Man, high on fruit juice, had eaten one of the goats. (137-38)
 I'm sure there are some who would exclude Zeppelins West from steampunk on the basis of how crude it is, forgetting that "gonzo" is part of what gave steampunk some "punk." The writers were far more playful, far less serious than some of our current steampunk writers. Lansdale isn't interested in history so much as histrionics, and the result is far more interesting than other books with zeppelins on the cover, such as George Mann's The Affinity Bridge. While I decried Jonathan Green's writing chops, I can still applaud how over-the-top his story ideas are. I think a lot of recent steampunk is trying too hard to explain the goggles and the airships. This isn't hard SF. As evidenced by my "technofantasy" label, steampunk doesn't often explain itself. Lansdale doesn't spend any time explaining why the Frankenstein monster or the Tin Man can be alive. They're both automatons of sorts, and in Lansdale's mind, that adds up to a good reason to get them in bed together.

I'm not advocating for all steampunk to be this bizarre. I like how serious Theodore Judson is in Fitzpatrick's War. But those who are writing "ripping yarns" should check out Lansdale, the first act of The League of Heroes, or any steampunk by Blaylock for a sense of how to incorporate some "gonzo" into their steampunk. In all the seriousness surrounding certain steampunk debates, let's not forget that steampunk is often about whimsy, and not take ourselves too seriously.

Zeppelins West is a tough book to track down. You're likely going to be ordering it from Ebay or Amazon.com's used option. You'll likely also pay more than $30 for it, but if anything I've said here has piqued your interest, it's worth your while. With the renewed interest in steampunked wild west though, it's not suprising that Tachyon Publications will be releasing Zeppelins West and its sequel Flaming London in a collected edition, aptly titled Flaming Zeppelins

May 21, 2010

The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition

I'll begin this post with a brief introduction about my state-of-mind heading down to Nova Albion back in March. In addition to my teaching duties, I was feeling very burnt out from working on a number of articles in a short space of time. One of my articles had been rejected for reasons of content, which had punched a hole in my confidence. Here I was, getting ready to go into a weekend of presenting as a so-called expert, and I wasn't feeling terribly "expert."

  Alcatraz Island
After our flight-cancelling adventures en route to Seattle last fall, Jenica and I decided we were going to leave early for The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition in Emeryville, CA. Our friends Blaine and Kim were heading down a week early to see the sights in San Francisco, and we wanted to hook up with them and catch Alcatraz and maybe a city tour as well. Our flight was on-time, the weather upon arriving was great, and we had an excellent evening touring "The Rock." While it rained on Friday, I still enjoyed touring the city the convention was taking place in, as I usually arrive, go straight to the hotel, and am locked in by presentations and panels.

Canucks on the Bay: me, Jenica, Kim, and Blaine
Unlike my previous excursions to steampunk conventions (Steam Powered 2008, Steamcon 2009), Nova Albion was less about me carrying out research as it was presenting it. Whereas at Steam Powered I was being introduced to off-the-page steampunk, Nova Albion was more of a mingling with friends, and as odd as it may sound (it did to me!) fans of the blog. Comparatively, Steam Powered, which was effectively planned by most of the same people as Nova Albion, was 'bigger.' I can't say why this was exactly, but I'd wager it has to do with the frequency steampunk events have happened in the Bay Area in the past year and a half. I got the impression at Steam Powered that it was the first really big event of its kind in California, potentially even the U.S. and by extension, North America. There was a grander feel to it, though that may simply have been me: never having any serious exposure to steampunk culture, it was all new and shiny. Having been to a few events now along with immersion in online forums and the blog may have jaded me somewhat. So take that remark with a grain of salt.
Steampunk rifle and bass guitar from the exhibit
It's difficult to talk about Nova Albion without making comparisons to Steam Powered and Steamcon, so rather than avoiding it, I'll admit it's a major part of how I processed the weekend. Steamcon had the advantage of taking place in one of the nicest hotels I've stayed in, with an atrium and foyer that acted as a great backdrop to the attendees. Steampunk fashion didn't seem as out of place at Steamcon, whereas the hotel for Nova Albion was a very standard hotel, with no flash or panache. We looked out of place in our outfits, so the comfort one felt in lounging about at Steamcon could only be felt on the floors dedicated to the convention. I also noted a difference in the steampunk look of both events - Steamcon was more anachronistic tech and punk costuming, while Nova Albion seemed to be more historically accurate. That's a broad generalization, but Bay area steampunks seem to be more concerned with the historical connections steampunk implies, while Seattle steampunks seem more interested in the Science Fiction/fantasy aspect of the aesthetic.
Gail Carriger's "spoon dress"

On Friday night, my Canadian crew (we call ourselves La Ligue des Frontraliers) was dressed in our "adventuring" outfits. These are the ones "for traveling in an airship or hiking through forgotten lands." My outfit for this evening was a great learning experience for me, as I took a page from Diana Vick and eschewed any attempt at historical accuracy, and went instead for historical evocation. I spend all my money just arriving at these events. Great costumes are optional. Nevertheless, I think I threw something pretty cool together. It's steam because it has a little bit of a "adventure academic" to it, but 'punked' by including the Marc Ecko jacket (still tweed!), the Roots hat (very Canadian, both by brand and by the fur lining - and still tweed!), and my Doc-Martenesque boots. I didn't win any awards with it, even though Jenica and Kim convinced Blaine and I to enter the costume contest, but I felt good about it, and it didn't cost me anything extra--it was all already in my closet.

La Ligue des Frontraliers in "adventure" wear:
apparently professors only need pipes for adventures...
(we're like Hobbits that way).
Friday night was great for all the now-familiar faces I ran into. As seems fitting, Chris Garcia of Exhibition Hall and Journey Planet was one of the first people I ran into. Along with the always-present Linda, Chris was talking with Kevin Steil, better known since Nova Albion as the "Airship Ambassador." It's amazing to me how like attracts like - I met Kevin at Steamcon and we became good friends on Facebook, but Chris and Kevin hadn't known each other prior to Nova Albion, and yet, our interest in critical evaluation of steampunk is the same, though the three of us certainly approach it in very different ways. You might say Chris is the fanboy, I'm the stuffy scholar, and Kevin is the sociologist.

 Chris and Linda in the exhibition hall. How fitting.

Moving from the lobby to the top floor, Howard Hendrix and Gail Carriger provided me with some great encouragement over my recent publishing disappointment. Howard is no stranger to controversy, and was quick to offer words that bolstered my confidence. Gail did likewise, and continued to throughout the weekend. Howard and Gail helped restore the necessary academic arrogance needed to be "the Steampunk Scholar," and I was able to proceed with head held high into the rest of the weekend.

 A time machine, if I recall correctly. Looks heavy!

I literally ran into Erin McGauley Hebard, aka Senora Sara Paz of Legion Fantastique, who has been one of my most outspoken advocates since Steam Powered. When I say ran into, it was because she gave me a huge hug, which was awesome, since Nova Albion felt a bit like a steampunk homecoming for me. After all, the Bay area is where I effectively kicked off my research in the fall of '08. Erin's always giving me supportive feedback on Facebook, and I can say without reservation that being at Nova Albion wouldn't have been the same without her and Rich Medley, aka Robur the Conqueror of Legion Fantastique. Erin's half the reason I ended up in a corset on Sunday afternoon. How I got through the weekend without getting a photo of us together is beyond me, but it's clearly a mission for the next time we're down that way.

 So, no photo of me with Erin, but I DID
get a shot of me with Rich Medley, her beau.
The trouble with standing with a Medley brother is 
you never look as stylish as they do.

We finally located Daniel Silveira aka Michel Ardan of Legion Fantastique, and Autumn Adamme, owner and designer of Dark Garden Unique Corsetry, who have become great friends of ours. Daniel was one of the first people I met at Steam Powered, and we had a great time hanging out with both him and Autumn at Steamcon, so it was great to see them again. One of the best benefits of choosing steampunk for a dissertation topic is that I not only enjoy my research, but it's resulted in meeting so many great people, a number who have become good friends as well.

 My vote for best costumes in the competition

While there were certainly steampunk things happening that evening (like the costume contest I mentioned - no, we didn't win (these are the folks I think should have won - great costumes, great props!), but we showed up on Flickr and Facebook as a result, something that rarely happens to me at these events!), most of our night was spent in conversation with the dramatis personae I've introduced to you. There were can-can girls and Girl-Genius lookalikes, but the main attraction for me on Friday at a con is interacting, and when I can swing it, imbibing. Our evening finished up with drinks and conversation with Autumn and Daniel back in their hotel room. Needless to say, surrounded by friends, I felt a lot more confident than I had only eight hours earlier.

Girl Genius costumes - they won that category, and deserved it!

My first panel on Saturday was "It all Began with a Puff of Steam: The Origin and History of Steampunk." The panel was moderated by Howard Hendrix, which was exciting, as I'd seen Howard moderate SF giants Greg Bear, Rudy Rucker, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and Tim Powers at the Eaton SF conference in 2009. Howard is witty, incisive, and erudite - he's exactly the sort of person for moderating a panel well. I didn't know any of my fellow panelists, but that didn't hurt the conversation: Jean Martin edits an SF fanzine, Alexander Logan is a student of history, and Liz Gorinsky is the associate editor at Tor who brought us Cherie Priest's Boneshaker and George Mann's The Affinity Bridge. Liz is really well-spoken and thoughtful: I'd seen her on panels at Steamcon and was honored to get to share the table with her three times over the course of Nova Albion. The panel was enjoyable and polite, despite differences of opinion between Alexander Logan and myself. I don't remember many of the details of the panel, but here are the memory words I typed into my iTouch (which aren't triggering much memory right now): Twelfth Night (likely a reference to the steampunked version playing this year), Liz transgression (I think Liz said something about steampunk having something to do with transgression), Alternate History (I was likely already arguing steampunk isn't really alternate history, as I know that was part of the disagreement Alexander and I had), Anubis (really? me mentioning Tim Powers - imagine!), Difference Engine (it always comes up...and yet isn't nearly as steampunk as everyone thinks), Exquisite Corpse (I wish I could remember what this was about - I'd put money on this being a Liz Gorinsky reference, if for no other reason than all those steampunk zombies she's brought us!), and Flying Fish. That last one seems so random, it sounds more like it belongs to Chris Garcia.

 The first panel: Me (typing on the iTouch), Jean, Howard, Alexander, and Liz

My next panel was Steampunk Philosophy, and I came out of it fully convinced steampunk has no philosophy. I enjoyed moderating this group: J. Daniel Sawyer, author of Cold Duty, one of my favorite steampunk short stories, Liz Gorinsky again, the outspoken and energetic Thomas Strange, and the author Guest of Honor for Nova Albion, James Blaylock. I introduced James Blaylock by suggesting that since he's the only original steampunk author who admits to having written steampunk, we ought to make him the first steampunk saint. He was amenable, so however we go about doing this, we need to get to it. Maybe at Steamcon II? The discussion was lively: so lively, that Ryan Galiotto of Legion Fantastique jumped up from the audience to join the panel, to introduce everyone's favorite steampunk chestnut, "where's the punk in steampunk?" (I should digress to note that I loved Ryan joining us - it added fuel to the fire of the panel!) A number of philosophies were suggested - I like Thomas Strange's best: epicureanism, as it fits well with the idea of steampunk as an aesthetic. I like "individualism" least, since I find the idea of a room full of people dressed in various modes of neo-Victorian retrofuturistic costume as "individualistic" subject at best. That's not to say that steampunks are individualistic - but the philosophy of steampunk doesn't strike me as particularly individualistic (that's going to get me some heated comments, isn't it?).

 Neko Kelly, wearing the outfit I wish I'd been wearing.

In the late afternoon, I gave my updated "Steampunk Star Wars" presentation, streamlined as the result of refining edits to the article soon to be released in the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. The group in attendance were a lot of fun, and gave some great feedback. As seems to be my lot in life, this is where the most photos of "me" have shown up from this event, except that the photos aren't of me - they're of my slideshow (this also happened at Steamcon, which tells me I'm a better slideshow builder than costume designer). When the article is published, I'll post the slides here as well.

 Formal La Ligue: Blaine, Kim, Jenica, me, Kevin

Saturday evening was fascinating: La Ligue was dressed in our "evening finery" (made it on Flickr again!), engaged in more great conversation (a lengthy one with good friend Joel Browning, aka Impey Barbicane of Legion Fantastique), in anticipation of Dark Garden Unique Corsetry's unveiling of the "Dollymop" line of corsets - designed with steampunks in mind. With dark cabaret music in the background, we were treated to a fashion show that was like a mix of Twin Peaks' strobe-light style scenes (due largely to the number of flashbulbs going off) and Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge! This has lead me to consider an article on the relationship between steampunk fashion and that film. I might need someone like Gail to help me write it though, as we've already identified that fashion is a weak point for me. This was definitely one of the highlights of the weekend for me, as I found myself returning to considerations of fashion and steampunk repeatedly in the weeks following. Along with Gail, I'd argue that it, more than anything else, is what is currently driving the popularity of steampunk. Literature put steampunk on the map, Makers brought it to the media, but fashion is what is going to create the tipping point for it. Speaking of fashion, I have to give a shout-out to steampunk sweetheart Devon McGuire, who unveiled a new creation on Saturday night as well (loved the feather-goggles).

Autumn and Jenica after the fashion show.
On Sunday morning, Chris Garcia, J. Daniel Sawyer and I were reunited on the panel "Steampunk Fans in Action." The three of us were on a panel together at Steam Powered, and we've all laughed many times about how well it went, given how worried we all were it wouldn't go at all. These are both guys I love sitting and just shooting the shit with. Between the two of them I have a lot of common ground, on everything from fandom to theological ruminations. We were joined by Liz Gorinsky and Jean Martin, and despite a very spartan attendance, it was a lot of fun. In place of a cohesive debate, we mostly gushed about what's getting us excited in steampunk, or ranted about what isn't (which was Steamed by Katie MacAlister, if I recall correctly).

Reunion: Chris, Me, and Dan

My Sunday afternoon was fantastic: chatting with Liz and Gail about publishing for a few moments before watching Chris Garcia interview James Blaylock, followed by my "Dungeons and Dickens" presentation. Gail was in an uncharacteristically adventurous costume, but since she's also one of those people I met at the beginning back at Steam Powered, I had to make sure to get a photo with her. Even if Gail weren't one of my favorite writers, I'd enjoy chatting with her about the steampunk scene, the frustrations of academia, or life in general.

 Gail and me.

Chris' interview with James Blaylock was great - it was like a sequel to Tim Powers' interview at Steamcon, but with the added surprise that Blaylock counts C.S. Lewis as a strong influence. I had already been playing with the idea of tying Lewis' eldila with Philip Reeve's Larklight, so to find another connection to steampunk from The Space Trilogy was fascinating. I'm planning a "James Blaylock" month for November here at the blog, in honor of Steamcon II happening that month, so I'll save further ruminations about his work for then.


Chris interviewing James Blaylock

The "Dungeons and Dickens" presentation was as much fun at Nova Albion as it was at Steamcon. There's nothing like being in a room full of gaming geeks talking about the best campaign you've ever done. And to those who have been waiting far too long, please note that I'll be wrapping up my "Dungeons and Dickens" posts here at the blog in early June. I've been asked to run a game at Steamcon, which is very cool, though I haven't decided whether to go through with it or not.

Me and James Blaylock

The weekend wrapped up in the vendor's room, with a wonderful gift from "Flotsum and Jetsam's Emporium" (a steampunk grenade), the vendor the rest of La Ligue had purchased costume odds 'n ends from. Professor Flotsum had attended my D&D presentation and wanted me to have something to lob at my players in the final game. As it turned out, I ended up handing it to Blaine in the final game, for his character to throw. It was still a great moment, both an honor to receive, and a lot of fun to use in-game. This was followed by a great chat with Jacob and Rhina Weisman of Tachyon books about teaching SF. I purchased James Morrow's delightful homage to Godzilla, Shambling Towards Hiroshima, which I read in its entirety on the return flight. The pinnacle of the vendor-room experience was Autumn Adamme fitting Jenica in a corset (which I think looks smashing on her!), and then doing the same to me! While mine isn't as fantastic as Daniel's, I did enjoy what it did for my posture and waistline!

Jenica in a Dark Garden corset, standing with Autumn.
Daniel, looking great in a corset, with me, in a corset.

So, as I said, attendance at the Nova Albion was more about sharing research than gaining it, and this is due in no small part to the way in which the SF Bay steampunk community is so incredibly supportive of my work. Unlike any other group I've presented to, the Californian steampunks are the ones I like to party with the best. I have individual steampunk friends across the continent, and even across the world. But for just hanging out and having a good time, my clockwork heart belongs to the Bay area. I can't wait until Nova Albion next spring! Thanks to Ariane and Tofa for putting together another great event!

May 17, 2010

Defining Steampunk as an Aesthetic

This post could have been called, "My thesis." Unless I come across something to radically dissuade me, this is going to be the thrust of my dissertation. This is going to be fast and furious, but I want to get this out there so I can refer back to it in the next month. While reflecting on those posts today while doing yard work, I just kept thinking about how I'm going to end up saying stuff about this idea, so it seems best to just get it out there, even if it's just a fast and dirty form.

I've had the idea that steampunk should be viewed as an aesthetic since I went to Steam Powered in Sunnyvale in fall of '08. It just seemed self-evident to me. Jeff Vandermeer confirmed the idea. It seemed like I had something. Initially though, I was still buying into a number of ideas about steampunk which I have concluded are misconceptions: steampunk is science fiction, steampunk is alternate history, steampunk isn't fantasy. After reading the novels and short stories I have (somewhere between 30 and 40), I'm not convinced of any of these things. Steampunk definitely has an SF bent. Steampunk certainly deals with alternate history. But steampunk also utilizes fantasy elements. Steampunk is sold in the regular fiction section. Steampunk movies range from B films to serious dramas. Between Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day and Dexter Palmer's The Dream of Perpetual Motion, we have very serious, literary steampunk works. And this is only the literature.

If we look outside the page and off the screen, we see steampunk being utilized in decor, fashion, music, and even as a lifestyle and political position. How can "Victorian Science Fiction" cover all of this?

I was under the impression that once I'd read Jeter, Blaylock, and Powers, I'd respond by saying, "The aesthetic has changed. It was Victorian science fiction at the outset, and now it's something else." But after I read Powers' Anubis Gates, I wondered where the science was. I figured Jeter would have it. But Morlock Nights utilized magic as much as Powers did: Merlin's in the book for heaven's sake! How much more magical could you get? Maybe Blaylock, I thought. But James Blaylock's pieces, while lacking in overt magic, would only constitute science fiction if he'd been born 160 years ago. And while I'm sure someone will argue that "steampunk IS the science fiction of 160 years ago," I'll simply reply, "Yes, but then that's fantasy from our vantage point now, isn't it?" We don't believe in aether as a fuel source. We do not think Phlogiston will power a raygun. We know there are no such things as sky krakens.

Yet time, after time, after time, steampunk repeatedly resorts to the use of technofantasy, which in short, is when you say something is scientific and technological, but never really substantiate it, or worse yet, explain it using rules that contradict the laws of our physical sciences. Plain and simple, if your story occurs in a world where aether exists and can do the impossible, you're not writing science fiction, you're writing fantasy. Because ostensibly, if I go back to the 16th century, the alchemists looking for the means of transmuting lead into gold, are the precusors to modern chemists. Ritual magic it the precursor to science. We're not going to go labeling every narrative that uses ritual magic as science fiction, just because it's science from the perspective of the people in the narrative. We do that, and we're letting in everything from Tolkien to Jordan into the SF fold. And while I don't have a personal stake in the matter, you can see how ludicrous the argument would become.

But I'm not arguing for steampunk as fantasy, nor am I arguing people stop saying it's science fiction. It's neither, and both. This is precisely why I argue that steampunk is not a genre, except to publishers who need easy taxonomies to stick on the back cover to sell books. Steampunk is an aesthetic: it is a look, or a style. It is not a genre, because within the literature, there is no recurrent narrative element that one can point to which appears in all, or even most of the books.

Yes, there are airships. But not in all of them. Moorcock had them, but Powers, Jeter, and Blaylock don't.
Sure, there are the goggles. But mostly on costumes and art. They are rare in the literature. No one in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen wears goggles. Pynchon's Chums of Chance do, and Cherie Priest gave a decent reason for having them in Boneshaker. But they aren't as ubiquitous as one might assume.
All steampunk is alternate history you say. No, I reply, alternate history is a genre that supposes one break in the past that changes the course of history. Most of the time (The Difference Engine being an exception), steampunk texts offer worlds that are vastly different from ours. Read Jay Lake's Mainspring to see what I mean. That's not an alternate history, it's an alternate world. And the difference is important to understanding what the hell we're talking about when we say "steampunk." Sorcery works in The Anubis Gates, and not in an Isaac Bonewits sort of way. A guy floats to the moon. No Wiccan I've ever met would say they can do that. It's clearly not our world. It's fantasy.
There are always "punk" characters - people opposing the established order. In Moorcock, yes. In Powers, no. In Jeter? He's got his main character fighting against the destruction of Christendom! That's hardly the underdog fighting the system. I've read quite a few comments lately, some of them by respected critics of steampunk or SF who have said that the first writers were more politically aware, or counter-culture than the new wave of steampunk. I cry bullshit. If Powers or Blaylock had a political agenda, they hid it so well it'll take Dan Brown to decode the text. 

I could go on, but the point of all this is, I don't think appeals to etymology (the "steam" or "punk" in steampunk) work. Further, I don't think you can create a list of elements that show up over and over again in the art, the literature, or the subculture based on items like airships, anachronistic tech, etc. Something always seems to slip under the radar.

Now before anyone goes saying, "you elitist arrogant son of a bitch," for saying that I've got the best definition of steampunk ever, let me reiterate that I still like Cherie Priest's definition a whole lot. I'll also say I'm not the first to say it's an aesthetic. Others have done that as well. And, I'll add that I'm an academic. I'm going to writing a PhD. We have to be arrogant, and elitist as well. It goes with the territory. You can't say things like, "I think steampunk is this, but I'm also okay with everyone else's opinions too." You have to put your foot forward, based upon collected data or convincing argument. I know I can do both if I put the following definition forward. I'm doing it now, so that I can start measuring it against the books I post about here at the blog. I'll see whether or not this theory holds water.

So here it is:

Steampunk is an aesthetic that mixes elements of technofantasy, and neo-Victorian retrofuturism.

Technofantasy we've covered. It's tech that lacks plausibility, or utilizes fantasy elements as impulsion.
I use neo-Victorian broadly. I'd have preferred something less ethnocentric, but neo-Victorian evokes an era, rather than necessarily saying it takes place in the time. It was a lot less clunky than "nineteenth century fantastic mise-en-scene." I'm not saying it has to be British. I'm saying steampunk's aesthetic is grounded in the Victorian period with fuzzy boundaries. It's not a geographic or temporal limitation, save as inspiration. I'm aware steampunk occurs outside England and in other time periods. But even though Fitzpatrick's War takes place in the 26th century, it's still evoking the nineteenth century. I've heard Makers tell me they don't care about neo-Victorian, but when you're using brass and gears and clockwork, I'm telling you your art reminds me of the nineteenth century: ergo, neo-Victorian. It's the best term I could find for that aspect.
Retrofuturism: The way the past viewed the future, or more important in steampunk, how we think the past viewed the future. I don't like the anachronistic idea, because in texts where it's a secondary world, there's nothing anachronistic about your technology. It belongs in that fabricated world. There are steampunk texts that use anachronisms (again, The Difference Engine), but it's really retrofuturism that runs across the board.

These three elements, in combination, seem to be what constitutes the steampunk aesthetic--since Moorcock and the original three, right up until now. As I said in the paper I just submitted for an anthology, steampunk texts and artworks do not belong to the same genre, but rather draw from the same aesthetic. Maybe that's just semantics to some, but so long as we keep viewing steampunk as the stuff in the container, we're going to miss that it was the container we should have been talking about. Steampunk is the glass - and while some might not like the analogue of an empty vessel for their ostensible subculture or lifestyle, keep in mind that you can put whatever you like in that glass - art, film, lifestyle - and steampunk it.

Let the comment spamming begin.

May 15, 2010

Mission Update: Full Steam Ahead

Sorry for dropping the blog for the past two weeks: I was up to my eyeballs in teaching a Spring Session, deciding on the reading list for my Science Fiction course in the fall, moderating the Great Steampunk Debate, and writing "Steampunk: Technofantasy in a Neo-Victorian Retrofuture" for that anthology of essays on Fairy Tale and Fantasy. It's interesting just how much synergy occurred from moderating the Debate and writing this chapter - things we were debating on the forum kept driving my writing. There was a lot to react to, and as I tell my students, when you react to a topic, you'll write on it easier.

At any rate, the chapter is off to the editors, and while it will return in the next few weeks for revision, I won't be teaching Spring Session when it arrives.

From May 21 until the end of June, I'm without regular gainful employment. That's obviously a bad thing, but I'm finding the silver lining in the time I'll have to catch up on posting about books I read last fall and this past winter, as well as being able to work on my candidacy work for my PhD. I spent the year focusing on publications, but now I need to get my papers in before fall, so I can focus on teaching during the school year without the paper deadlines hanging over my head.

If all goes according to plan, I'll be at "All But Dissertation" status by the end of the summer. To that end, I'm not taking on any publications until I get the papers done. I have an article I want to write for Chris Garcia's Journey Planet on the relationship between Larklight and C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet.

Because the blog continues to prove invaluable to my research, I'm going to push hard to get caught up before July, so I can deliver the promised "Canuck Steampunk month." To that end, I'm going to tell you my plan, and hope you bug/encourage me to get it done. Here's the hopelessly optimistic schedule for the next month or so here at Steampunk Scholar:

May 21: Report on The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition
May 25: Howl's Moving Castle
May 26: Zeppelins West
May 27: Dinotopia: The World Beneath
May 28: The Alchemy of Stone
May 30: Larklight
June 02: Mortal Engines
June 04: The Dream of Perpetual Motion
June 07: Dungeons and Dickens Part 2
June 09: Dungeons and Dickens Part 3
June 11: The List of 7
June 14: Greg Broadmore's Rayguns
June 16: Jonah Hex and Weird West steampunk
June 18: The Court of the Air
June 21: Retribution Falls
June 23: Napoleon Concerto
June 25: Full Steam Ahead
June 28: El Sombra
June 30: Mission Update

Hence the new website photo, "Full Steam Ahead," with me next to that useful little engine, Thomas. Here's hoping we can go "faster than fast" to reach the goal of getting "back on track!" Okay, enough train puns and Thomas quotes. See you next Friday.
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