Mar 31, 2011

Pure Speculation 2010

Having just missed the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition, and barely a month away from attending the Canadian National Steampunk Exhibition, my mind has turned to conventions. While I have yet to report on Steamcon 2011, I wanted to give some time and attention to an excellent local con, Pure Speculation.

Following my attendance at the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition in the Spring of 2010, I realized I wasn't attending the cons to collect research as much as present it. My focus is on literature that uses the steampunk aesthetic, though I'm of the opinion that the aesthetic concept itself can be applied to other steampunk scholars working in other areas such as subculture, fashion, or visual art.

Don't misunderstand me. I love attending conventions. I hate how they hit my pocket book, considering I pay for flights and accommodation whenever I attend one. That is, whenever I attend one out-of-town. I have occasionally been able to procure the funds for these trips through travel/research grants, but the rest is made up of reward points and my own meager funds.
Jay Bardyla of Happy Harbor comics, the best comic store in the world, hocks his wares at Pure Spec.
Thankfully, Edmonton has a burgeoning Geek Convention called Pure Speculation, which I attended for the first time last year. I liked the downscale coziness of the event, which had under 250 attendees. I presented the same research I presented at steampunk conventions, and in some cases, to the same number of people I gave it to at the bigger cons. What was particularly noteworthy to me about last year's con was how many people said "hey, great steampunk outfit!" This by way of contrast to my attendance at the first Steamcon and the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition, where people rarely comment on my attire - I'm simply not that outstanding in a sea of brass gears and bustles. At the local con though, I guess it stands out. There was something fun about that; in addition, shooting the bull with local uber-geeks left me with the favorable impression of the entire event, and I had it in mind to attend again.
Tanya Huff, Judith Graves, and moi, after the Paranormal Romance panel. I am laughing at some joke made at Twilight's expense here, I'm sure.
So when I was invited back, it was easy to say, "yes." This year's Pure Speculation event was bigger and better in so many ways: from the costume contest to the vendor's room to the multiple panels and talks, everything about it was an improvement. Highlights included sitting on two panels with fellow Albertan Judith Graves, who writes paranormal romance, and Canadian fantasy writer Tanya Huff, who were wonderful to share the stage with - both are smart and funny, and the panel on paranormal romance was a blast. My other highlight was having Liana K as co-presenter in my "Steampunk 101" session.
Liana K and me, presenting Steampunk 101: it was standing-room only. You can insert joke about sharing the stage with a gorgeous geek girl here, but you'd be underestimating how much SMRT she brought to the presentation. - photo by Rick LeBlanc
Aside from geeking out about getting to share the stage with the Queen of the Geeks, I was excited to have Liana present on the fashion and music of steampunk. We played to a packed room, with Liana dressed as a steampunk Harley Quinn. It was one of the best experiences I've had presented at a convention, and Liana challenged me on a few points of the thesis, which was great. Liana's a triple threat geek-girl: smart, outspoken, and attractive. Too often, people accept my thesis hook, line, and sinker, which does nothing to move my research forward. It's the friction that produces better thinking, and Liana brought some strong challenges to the debate.
Liana K, as a steampunked Harley Quinn. She warned me this was the outfit she was going to wear, but knowing didn't spoil the awesomeness of it. Some people steampunk a costume by slapping goggles on it. Liana didn't bother to include goggles, and it still kicks ass. 
Photo by Robert Blezard
I came away from 2010's Pure Speculation telling my friends that they have to attend in 2011. The con had grown to around 300+ attendees, retaining the cozy atmosphere, but giving the event a sense of critical mass. I am already considering possible panels and presentations for this year's Pure Speculation. If you're from Edmonton, it's a great weekend of finding your inner (or outer) geek. If you're further afield than the capital of Alberta,  still consider making the journey, especially if the sturm and  drang of larger events has turned you sour on the con weekend. Think of it this way - if the San Diego Comic Con was a bar, it would be one of those big, noisy, uber-clubs. If Pure Spec were a bar, it's the one from Cheers. And doesn't everyone want to go where everybody knows your name?

Pure Speculation 2011 is happening November 18-20, in my academic backyard at Grant Macewan.

Mar 18, 2011

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder (2010)

Mark Hodder's first novel is exactly what I thought I'd be reading when I started this research project in 2008: a story set in the nineteenth century about an agent of the crown in a world filled with adventure. It is what I wanted from Jonathan Green's Pax Britannia: Unnatural History and George Mann's The Affinity Bridge, both delivering the goods, but in that unsatisfying manner akin to finding out toy Spiderman web-shooters won't really let you swing off your garage. If The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack was the only book I had to do my research from, I'd never have changed my idea about steampunk from a a sub-genre mixing alternate histories and anachronistic technologies to an aesthetic blending neo-Victorianism, retrofuturism, and technofantasy. In short, Hodder is writing the steampunk I expected to be reading two years ago, but never really have.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not about to change my research based on one book. I'm simply saying Hodder's changing the game again, returning readers to the sort of steampunk we were expecting to build up to from the world The Difference Engine introduced us to. While reading Spring Heeled Jack, I couldn't help but think back to The Difference Engine. Hodder writes like someone inspired by The Difference Engine, but determined to have a hell of a lot more fun than Gibson and Sterling. This is a similar London, filled with the poor and destitute, where "coal dust coalescing with particles of ice in the upper layers of fog [drift] to the ground like black snowflakes" (67). And yet, for all its grit, Spring Heeled Jack doesn't sacrifice the romantic call of adventure. Hodder's hero, Sir Richard Francis Burton, is everything Green and Mann were trying for with Ulysses Quicksilver and Sir Maurice Newbury, but never quite achieved. Burton's narrative voice is more convincing. He isn't indestructible, irresistible, or indefatigable. He's regularly on the edge of an attack of malaria; has doubts about the work he's engaging in,wondering if he should just get married and settle down, and gets hurt bad enough to rival Bruce Willis in the first Die Hard movie. His sidekick, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, is the perfect foil to Burton's taciturn hero. I defy readers to dislike him the duration of the book. He regularly screeches "Auguste Dupin!" Poe's fictional detective, in glee over Burton's appointment as an agent of the crown, and when he discovers a way to get involved in the intrigues, goes into histrionics, much to Burton's amused chagrin:
"Calm down, you silly ass!" The king's agent chuckled.
Swinburne, though he became uncharacteristically silent, did not calm down. As they walked along, his gait became increasingly eccentric, until he was practically skipping, and he wrung his hands together excitedly, twitching and jerking as if on the edge of a fit.
By the time they'd waved down a hansom and were chugging homeward, the poet could contain himself no longer, and exploded: "It's obvious, Richard! It's obvious!"
"What is?"
"That I have to masquerade as a chimney sweep!" (183)
This scene epitomizes the two men's odd couple, cop-buddy-action-movie relationship. Burton is large and brooding, while Swinburne is slight and expressive: humour ensues. Hodder has created colourful characters I care about, in a world dangerous enough that the cliff-hanger ending of a chapter ending in abduction gave me flashbacks to reading adventure novels as a boy, before I was clever or jaded or academic enough to stay one step ahead of the author. This is a book I couldn't put down, a book that kept me up late into the wee hours, written so well I refused to skip ahead for fear of missing a great line or a well-crafted description.

In addition to sheer enjoyment, Spring Heeled Jack offers serious studies of steampunk literature an intersection with Karen Hellekson's The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time, along with a plethora of scholarly works on possible worlds theory, since Hodder's steampunk world exists by accident. This is genuine anachronism, and as in Lansdale's Ned the Seal series, the characters are aware of it. Burton discovers that time has been tampered with; there is something wrong with the stream of history he is living in: "The way ahead offers choices that should never be offered and challenges that should never be faced. It is false, this path, yet you walk it and it is best that you do so" (149). There are few, if any, steampunk texts that are this self-reflexive without being cumbersome. Hodder combines entertainment with good time-travel conundrums, and like the Star Trek reboot, gives his steampunk world a reason for existing.

Hodder recently decried the lack of punk in steampunk. I'm no fan of that particularly argument, unless this is what punk in steampunk looks like, in which case I say with Oliver, "Please, sir, I want some more."

Mar 11, 2011

Flaming Zeppelins by Joe Lansdale

One of the latent benefits of steampunk's current popularity has been the publishing push to re-release out-of-print classic steampunk. Later this year, Angry Robot Press will be providing us with two of the seminal steampunk works by K.W. Jeter, Morlock Night and Infernal Devices, in a gorgeous omnibus featuring splendid cover art by the inimitable John Coulthart. Coulthart's the man for the job when it comes to putting covers on these, to use Jeter's words, "gonzo" Victorian fantasies, as they combine so many disparate elements it would be hard to choose one to encompass them all. Likewise, Coulthart's style proved the right choice for Flaming Zeppelins: The Adventures of Ned the Seal, Tachyon's re-release of Joe Lansdale's Zeppelins West and Flaming London, originally published as limited editions from Subterranean Press. Who else but Coulthart could combine Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill Cody, an Edisonade steam-man, dirigibles, and London in flames with martian tripods in the distance, without it becoming cumbersome and ungainly? Likewise, who else but Joe Lansdale could combine all those things along with a grocery list mash-up of pop-culture, classic literature, and to quote Kevin Smith, "dick and fart jokes"?

I've already reviewed Zeppelins West, the first half of Flaming Zeppelins, so I'll focus my attention here on Flaming London. While Zeppelins West ended with what seemed the demise of Ned the Seal, Flaming London is quick to correct our misconception with an epigraph from Ned's writings, which one can hear read by Lansdale himself, among other excerpts, here. The first chapter following the epigraph demonstrates the wild tone swings Lansdale regularly engages in, moving from the voice of Ned the Seal to a tribute to the opening chapter of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. The Martian attack is rendered with the same sense of  impending doom as in Wells, but before we can take the material too seriously, Lansdale spends the next four chapters chronicling Ned the Seal's rescue by a down-on-his-luck Mark Twain visiting his friend Jules Verne. The following scene exemplifies Lansdale's approach to these moments:
The seal snapped both thumbs against his flippers and made a kind of whistling sound with his mouth, then slapped both fingers against the pad and took hold of the pencil with one thumb and flipper and made a writing motion.
"Now I've seen it all," Verne said.
"Not if he actually writes something, you haven't" (21).
The arrival of the Martian cylinder is uproariously funny, even if you aren't familiar with Wells's original text, as Lansdale centers his humour on an episode involving one man "giving a play by play" to the crowd gathered around the impact crater left by the Martian cylinder:
"It's opening," said a short stocky man in the back of the crowd.
This was, of course, obvious...As there was little to see other than the cylinder, he took it upon himself to describe the steam coming out of the interior of the device, and was quick to describe it in excruciating detail, as if everyone present was blind.
"See the steam coming out. More steam than before. A lot of steam's coming out," he said.
This was true.
"Now the lid has fallen off. See that?"
Everyone saw that.
"Now there's some light. Do you see the light."
The light was pretty obvious. Red and yellow.
"There's something moving in there. Do you see the shadow?"
Suddenly, without warning, a little man in the crowd screamed something impossible to understand, leaped on the explainer and began beating him. "We see it. We see it, you dumb bastard." (27)
The attacker is incarcerated in a police wagon, but after the police experience a few moments of the explainer's penchant for the glaringly obvious, resort to violence, and free the original attacker: "Should he awake," said the officer, "one word from him, and you have our permission to finish what you started" (29). Moments like these are when Lansdale reminds me somewhat of Terry Pratchett, if Pratchett was an irascible cuss with an affection for scatological humour. The Martians pass gas, Ned the Seal passes gas, one chapter's title tells us Ned will pass gas. Lansdale loves a good fart joke.

Flaming London is filled with literary references, without any pretensions to being literature. It's a barrage of irreverent reverence for the classic SF and horror of yesteryear: as with Zeppelins West, the cast is a who's who of boyhood favorites: Wild West stories, Jules Verne, Passepartout, Mark Twain, a certain giant gorilla, flying monstrosities, Martians, as well as a few characters who cross over from Lansdale's short story, "The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel," which many may be familiar with from Tachyon's Steampunk anthology, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. These last characters introduce the idea of rips in the fabric of time and space that have been created by H.G. Wells's Time Traveler. Unlike many instances of steampunk, Lansdale draws attention to why things aren't as they "should be," the core conceit behind Mark Hodder's brilliant steampunk series. Flaming London ends with the remaining heroes setting off from the ruins of a Martian-ravaged London to fix these fractures, and seek to set things right.

I was disappointed by the Flaming Zeppelins omnibus in only one respect: it lacks the interior art from the Subterranean editions. The lack of Mark Nelson's art from Zeppelins West is minor: it's Timothy Truman's artwork in Flaming London that strikes me as the greater loss, given how Truman and Lansdale partnered to deliver three Jonah Hex miniseries. There's something about Truman's art that suits Lansdale's text in my mind. However, that shouldn't stop interested readers from picking up the Tachyon copy - Lansdale's text, as was the case in the Jonah Hex miniseries, is the real star of the show. The images support the text, but aren't essential. On a more practical note, picking up the Tachyon version is far less expensive than tracking down original Subterranean editions from a used book vendor.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: I do not recommend Lansdale without numerous caveats to those who like their steampunk with a sense of decorum, or bereft of below-the-belt humour, or written by a human (Ned the Seal writes a number of chapters in Flaming London; Ned's voice is funny all on its own, since he often stops talking about the matter at hand to ruminate on the joys of eating fish, or how eating fish results in awful gas). If you want your steampunk serious, sombre, or squeaky-clean, stay far away from Lansdale. For myself, he's a breath of flatulent air in the midst of steampunk taking itself far too seriously. Jeter might have conflated steampunk with the word "gonzo," but Lansdale embodies the term.

Please note: All citations utilized the pagination of the Subterranean Press version of Flaming London, as that's where I've made my annotations.

Mar 4, 2011

The Buntline Special by Mike Resnick

Literary theorist Hans Robert Jauss came up with an idea he called the “horizon of expectations,” the cumulative preconceptions a reader approaches a text with, based upon its author, style, genre, and other formal elements. Although he was speaking of a reader’s response to a text, I kept thinking of the horizon of expectations while reading Mike Resnick’s steampunk Weird Western, The Buntline Special. Utilizing the oft-told tale of the events surrounding the shootout at the OK Corrall in Tombstone, AZ, The Buntline Special is an exercise in playfully subverting the reader’s horizon of expectations. After all, to anyone who’s seen Gunfight at the OK Corral or Tombstone, these aren’t simply familiar characters, situations, and settings: they are archetypes of the Western genre.

A promising premise, and Seamas Gallagher’s cover art is gorgeous enough to entice any fan of American steampunk (I’ve been a huge fan of Gallagher’s since he did superior renderings of the characters from The Wheel of Time at his blog. I should add my agreement here to the Rob Will Review, which praised PYR's covers, saying, "If every publishing house's cover art were as consistently attractive as PYR's, a lot more people would feel encouraged to read books"). Perhaps my own horizon of expectations was too large, given Gallagher's wonderful cover art, but not unfounded, given that Resnick is a five-time Hugo winner. Granted, this is not the Tombstone of Costner’s Wyatt Earp: there are electric lights and literally horseless carriages courtesy of boy-genius Thomas Alva Edison, who is in Tombstone investigating how science can counteract magic. The players are the same, but with a twist: Bat Masterston’s name is taken literally when he becomes a creature of the night; Johnny Ringo is still one of the fastest guns in Texas, only now he’s also slowly decomposing; and the Clanton gang has more than numbers on their side in their opposition of law-dog Earp and his companions—they are allied with Geronimo, rendered as a shaman with high magic powers. Despite all the magic and mechanical digressions, Doc Holliday and the Earps remain mortal and unmechanized, unlike Emma Bull’s Territory, which imagines Earp and Holliday with the ability to use magic. Admittedly, Doc will finally wield the steampunked Buntline Special, but without it, he’s simply the superior pistoleer of our history with a penchant for intelligent conversation, droll humor, and the affections of Big Nose Kate.

In steampunk Tombstone, Doc’s lady-love runs a whorehouse with an automated twist: several of the girls are clockwork dolls. And while they provide the impetus for a few below-the-belt jokes and a means of narrow escape, they’re largely left as many of the steampunked digressions are in The Buntline Special: unexplored beyond the “ain’t it cool” factor. Accordingly, I had to adjust my “horizon of expectations.” The Windup Girl, this wasn’t. So it's not social commentary: what is The Buntline Special?

It’s intended to be light, escapist fiction for fans of the Weird Western, as well as a steampunked defamiliarization of this familiar story. As noted, the steampunking is entirely surface. Unless you’re encountering the story of Tombstone for the first time, Edison’s electric streetlamps aren’t shedding light on anything new. Readers familiar with the history may be disappointed that, despite the introduction of advanced technology, undead gunslingers, and First Nations magic, the events leading up to, during, and away from the Gunfight at the OK Corral unfold with a strangely by-the-numbers adherence to the historical chronology.

Resnick is somewhere in the middle of previous steampunk Weird Westerns, neither as off-the-wall crazy as Joe Lansdale’s Zeppelins West, nor serious and brooding as Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World. While he plays things straight, the voice of Doc Holliday provides tone ironic enough to solicit laughter, and it is Resnick’s rendering of Holliday’s persona that rescues The Buntline Special from being just another steampunk book in a current morass of steampunk books. Holliday’s character interactions are what kept me reading; the banter between Holliday and zombie-Ringo was more engaging than their final gunfight. Like Emma Bull, Resnick wisely makes Holliday the focus. As I've noted, the steampunking of Tombstone is purely aesthetic. So if you’re going to put your gunslingers in brass armor with pistols that look like they were lifted from Dr. Grordbort’s shelf, you’d better make sure the character under the armor is someone worth reading about. Resnick does that, and while I wasn’t blown away by this first installment in what promises to be a series, I’d sure give it another go, especially if Holliday shows up again. At least now I know what my horizon of expectation should be.

For those who can't get enough of alternate Tombstones, check out Bookslut's great review of Territory, which will tell you many of the reasons I enjoyed it as well:
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