Dec 28, 2010

Steampunk Scholar's Reads of the Year

New Year approacheth, and it's the time of year for "best-of" lists! Steampunk.com did one of these, but the criteria for nominating texts reminded me too much of discussions where I'm told "you can't limit steampunk," so rather than be a troll, I just decided I'd do my own list. My criteria are a lot more restrictive. To be considered steampunk at my blog, the book must have been written from the late 20th century (1970 and on) up until now. More to the point, as books of the year, the release date is crucial: the original release date (frankly, if you're going to include any book from any period, you're doing an ALL TIME GREATEST list, not a "book of the year"). Re-releases don't count, or I'd be including Joe Lansdale's Flaming Zeppelins. And of course, I'm working with my definition of the steampunk aesthetic: books that combine a neo-Victorian retrofuturist feel with technofantasy.

Here are my choices, in exactly the order you see them. I went with five for the same reasons I made my choices more restricted than steampunk.com. If you open things up too wide, you render the words "best" or "of the year" meaningless.
  1. Dreadnought by Cherie Priest - This became my go-to gift book of the year. Better than the first in the series, in my opinion. Trains + Texas Rangers + zombies + great characters, great writing.
  2. Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld - In most cases, saying "more of the same" is a bad thing. Given how kick-ass Leviathan was, it's a compliment here.
  3. The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman - Guns with demons in them! Locomotive Engines with demons in them! People with personal demons! Demons, demons, everywhere! And gunplay to boot. Loved the whole thing, and am looking forward to impending sequels.
  4. Changeless by Gail Carriger - Many people have told me Blameless is better, but I can't say - my wife became a fan this year, and we read the series together. And by read, I mean I read, she listens, and drifts into sleep. At which point I have to put the book down, and read something else, or suffer her wrath for skipping ahead. I'm loving this series, and think it deserves all the praise and hype it's getting.
  5. Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding - Yes, it's Firefly even more steampunked. How is that a bad thing? This is well-written, fast-paced, high-adventure. Abney Park sparked the idea of sky pirates, but no one has written them so well as Wooding.
There you go! Until next year...

    Dec 17, 2010

    The Ghost of Christmas future: Mission Update December 2010

    Yeah, I know - I skipped the Ghost of Christmas Present. Let's pretend the Steampunk Santa wallpaper was my "present," and I'll steal the lame pun reference from Animaniacs doing A Christmas Carol and call it even!

    Before I get into the bulk of this post, I wanted to present my "things to do before the five-year mission is over" list:
    • Meet James and Kate of Parliament & Wake in person
      • I might still meet James and Kate, but Parliament and Wake is no more. :(
    • Get photographed by Lex Machina
      • This happened at the CNSE in Toronto in April of 2011
    • Have drinks with Jake von Slatt at a Con (we keep meaning to, but for some reason...)
      • We did this (more or less!) at Steamcon III, October 2011 - in Unwoman's Absinthe party
    • Party with Abney Park
    • Talk with Jay Lake about the steampunk aesthetic over drinks
    • Attend Dickensfaire in the Bay area
    • Write my own steampunk tale
    • Get one of Greg Broadmore's Rayguns to commemorate the journey (Barring a raygun, I could always commemorate the journey with a Dark Garden corset-vest)
    • See Chris Garcia win a Hugo for Journey Planet
      • Chris won his Hugo finally in 2011!
    • Do another reading with Gail Carriger (and I'd add a first reading of Dreadnought with Cherie Priest to this particular list, and Felix Gilman's Half-Made World)
    • Build a time machine, go back to Steam Powered in the fall of 2008, and not freeze like a chickenshit fanboy when Greg Broadmore walked by me on Sunday night and said "Hi," and I noticed Richard Taylor of Weta Workshop was with him (true story - I think Orlando Bloom would have fazed me less - I'm a huge fan of Richard Taylor's work).
     As I round the corner into the third year of my PhD work, I'm rather optimistic. With the writing the blog has generated combined with the articles published elsewhere, both in print and online, I've likely got the dissertation already written. It's just a matter of dropping it all into a Word document and organizing it, and then inserting a lot of major literary theorists into the mix. That's the work of May to August of 2011. I'm confident I'll have a first draft done and handed in by August.

    My next immediate task is my prospectus, which is basically a paper saying how I'll be conducting my research, which is laughable, since I've been conducting said research for two years now. Part of these "ghost" entries here at the blog have been a sort of warm up for the prospectus. The papers I wrote from my visit to Rice in 2008 were me getting my feet wet: thank God for the serendipity of the "Steam Wars" paper, which really kick-started the concept of steampunk as aesthetic and not genre.

    But beyond that first draft of the dissertation, the work will mostly be about colons and semi-colons, dangling participles, and shoring up arguments. I know what I want to say, and for the most part, have said it many times already. The structure of my dissertation won't surprise any regular readers:
    1. Introduction to Steampunk: the difficulty of a definition
    • history of the term
    • weakness of etymological approaches
    • weakness of complex taxonomic approaches
    • why steampunk isn't Victorian science-fiction
    2. Seeking the aesthetic: an inventory of the novels and short stories utilized; theoretical approaches utilized
    3. Aesthetic 1: Neo-Victorianism - how the aesthetic evokes the nineteenth century in a number of different places, worlds, and times, with examples.
    4. Aesthetic 2: Retro-Futurism - how the aesthetic imagines what the nineteenth century past imagined the future would look like, with examples.
    5. Aesthetic 3. Technofantasy - the inclusion of technology that is scientific in appearance only.
    6. Case Study 1: Steam Wars - the aesthetic applied by others
    7. Case Study 2: A steampunked Beowulf - the aesthetic applied by the author
    8. Conclusion: A definition with broad application
    That should do the trick, I figure. We'll see. It needs to be around 200 pages, but I'm pretty sure I have that already. Like I said, it's all about organization and revision now.

    Beyond the completion of the dissertation, I see a horizon of writing - not the sort of stuff I write now, though that will continue. I'll get back to writing fiction again. I have a few people who've asked me to submit fiction to their publication/anthology/whatever, and I'm looking forward to the summer of 2012 when I can see myself doing that. If I'm right, this will officially turn out to be a four, not five-year mission. But we'll see.

    In the meantime, I'll continue to attend one out-of-town con per year, write for Exhibition Hall, Journey Planet, and Tor.com, and do my best to keep the blog updated. Thanks to everyone who's helped me make the journey thus far. A few names to that end:

    Tofa Borregaard; the members of Legion Fantastique, especially Daniel, Rich, Erin, Ryan, Greg, Maria, and Joel; Sean Slattery; Christopher Garcia, J Daniel Sawyer, Krzysztof Janicz, Cory Gross, Blaine Kehl, Kevin Steil, Jha Goh, Ay-leen the Peacemaker, Matt Delman, Lee-Ann Faruga, Nancy Overbury, James Schaefer, Kate Franklin, Liz Gorinsky, Jack Horner, the folks at Locus, Liana K, Gail Carriger, Jess Nevins, anyone I missed who I should have thanked by name, and everyone who follows the blog regularly. Thanks for leaving comments and keeping the conversation alive.

    Dec 12, 2010

    Steampunk Santa Wallpaper

    Here it is! I did some revisions to a Father Christmas image I did years ago, and have uploaded it here for those of you who are looking for a festive steampunk wallpaper. I'm sorry it's 1024 x 768 - I only had time to make these adjustments, not to build it in multiple sizes. Merry Christmas everyone!

    Dec 8, 2010

    The Ghost of Christmas Past: Rice University - December 2008

    Today is apparently "pretend to be a time traveler" day, and this is how I'm time traveling here at the blog, by going back to December of 2008. This should have been the first post I ever made, since it was during this Christmas visit to family in Texas that I started the Steampunk Scholar blog. I nearly posted about it a number of times in the past two years, but it never seemed that the time was quite right. With the recent release of the "Steam Wars" article in Neo-Victorian Studies, and a desire to have a holiday theme to the posts this month, it is, to use a Biblical reference, the fullness of time for this anecdote.
    The original image that somehow warranted the comment, "feels steampunk."

    People often ask how I came to the decision to study steampunk for my PhD work. It started out of the confluence of two separate incidents. I wrote a paper on alternate history, which lead to finding Steffen Hantke's brilliant article, "Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk" in Extrapolation.  Around the same time, I'd drawn an image for a webcomic idea I'd had, and someone said something about it feeling steampunk. I'd heard of the term before, but had paid it little attention. When it came time to choose a topic for my dissertation, it was between Intertextuality of Dystopic literature in Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero, or something to do with steampunk, based out of the interest generated by the two unrelated incidents. My M.A. thesis advisor, who I have a great relationship with, said, "Dystopia's been done. You do steampunk, and I'll be your advisor again." I was sold.

    That fall, while doing grant proposal research (you know, the research you do to tell someone what you're going to research), I came across an advertisement for Steam Powered, the North California steampunk convention. With what little I knew about steampunk, I was aware that with guests like Jake von Slatt, Abney Park, the Vandermeers, and Greg Broadmore, this was not an event to be missed. Tofa Borregaard, the programming coordinator for the event, put me on a few panels and let me present, all very last-minute. The event was incredible, and galvanized my research.


    Two months later, I was still finishing up term papers while on vacation in Katy, TX. I had to put the finishing touches on a paper about Captain Nemo, and needed to write a theory paper from the ground up. My prof had been interested in me writing something about steampunk, so as to write toward my research. My brother-in-law wanted to have a Star Wars marathon over the holidays, and in the intersection between researching the paper and watching the films, the "Steam Wars" paper was born.


    Writing papers on your holidays is always a chore, even when you love the subject matter. Yet despite missing out on a lot of fun moments, I have a very fond and vivid memory of a day spent in the library at Rice University in Houston. The campus was gorgeous, and as a great fan of architecture that supports learning, it energized my excitement. What I didn't know at the time was that Rice holds one of the best collections of vintage Verne editions in North America, which is probably just as well, as I'd have lost a day looking at those when I needed to be photocopying.


    Since I couldn't take any books out of the library, I set to a vigorous regimen of locating my research, then taking it down to the photocopier where I spent a lot of money photocopying huge sections of books. I had my steampunk goggles along, as they travel wherever I do when I'm on steampunk scholar business, even when it isn't a con. In this case, it was a lucky thing: no joke, with the amount of photocopying I was doing with the top of the copier open, I put the goggles on to protect my vision. Plus, the photo ended up looking kind of cool.


    I had a moment where I paused in the day with a stack of my research in front of me, staring out one of the windows of the library. I pondered how I should go about writing my dissertation: what would be the best approach? I didn't create the blog until a few days later, but I'm positive that was the moment this website was born. I'd been thinking about how much fun it had been to attend Steam Powered and was wondering what the future would hold. The horizon was before me, as it were, and I was deciding on the best path to embark on.


    While I made the decision for steampunk in my hometown of Medicine Hat, Alberta, and the research most certainly got its start in California, the advent of this blog was at Rice University in Texas. I had no idea when I started the blog that the monthly readership would climb to 10,000 readers (well, just shy of it last month, but that's the round number!), that it would lead to being on several review lists (yes, they're coming in January!), a nomination for an Airship Award at Steamcon II, and best of all, so many good friends in the steampunk community all around the world. I just thought I'd start a blog, and some people might give me feedback. Talk about underestimation.


    Post-scriptum: it occurred to me too late to have time for the revision, that I should have written this in the present tense: "I'm standing in front of Rice University..." It would have given the posting a better "time travel" feel, but I'm busy with marking and giving exams, so I have to be happy with publishing anything at this time of year!
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