Jul 26, 2011

Sunset Val: A Thrilling Tale of Airship Piracy by Rob St. Martin

I met Rob St. Martin at the Canadian National Steampunk Exhibition in Toronto this past Spring. We were on two different panels together, and his commentary on secondary worldbuilding got me intrigued to read some of his steampunk. Rob's written a number of books, most for Sabledrake Enterprises, but the book Rob sent me to review, Sunset Val: A Thrilling Tale of Airship Piracy was published through Weird and Wondrous books. Both are small press, so it's unlikely you'll find Rob's books at the local Chapters, which is too bad, because, as I tweeted back in May I thoroughly enjoyed Sunset Val as a fun crosshatch fantasy with a steampunk flavor, targeted at the YA or Young at Heart market.

I used the term crosshatch somewhat incorrectly in that tweet, as the Encyclopedia of Fantasy defines crosshatch fantasies as those where the demarcation line between worlds isn't clearcut, "and two or more worlds may simultaneously inhabit the same territory" (237). That's what I get for not checking my sources. But I think the word itself conveys what I was trying to say, which is that Sunset Val is a crossover tale, a tale of portals, like The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe or Abarat. Calling a novel a crossover fantasy would be terribly confusing, in this world of hybridized genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres. I should have said "portal-fantasy," but that sounds clunky. Steampunk doesn't often use portals as a trope - usually all the characters are from this world. Exceptions to this convention seem to come from writers outside the SFF genre, such as Katie MacAlister's Steamed, or Nathalie Gray's Full Steam Ahead. The portal approach works well for writers seeking to introduce non-aficianados of steampunk to the aesthetic: the focalizing character provides a commentary that is familiar, to help situate the unfamiliar.  

The book begins in our world: Valerie Ventura is an oddball kid who goes in for fencing lessons and goth fashion who finds herself summarily yanked through a portal generated by electricity by the evil Dr. Sweetwater. It sounds terribly contrived and cliched, and when seen in summary, it certainly is. However, what makes Sunset Val a treat to read is Valerie's (Val's) character voice. She's smart, creative, and thankfully, something of a geek. When she is asked by Dr. Sweetwater if she's ever heard of alternate worlds, Val replies, "Only in like, a hundred thousand movies and books" (17). As fantastic genres become more mainstream, it can only follow that fictional characters will have to stop responding in ignorance to such questions. Let's face it: we all know what a lightsaber, a blaster, warp drives, and time machines are - so while it might remain somewhat more literary for characters to be dumbfounded by the appearance of the undead on their block, many North Americans know more about what to do in case of a zombie invasion than they do if someone is choking in a restaurant. Val is largely unsurprised by her situation, and given the character voice St. Martin has written her in since page one, we aren't surprised by her unflappable response.

Val's ironic first-person character voice transforms moments that would be clunky in third-person into opportunities for witty humor. Even when he's resorting to canned exposition, St. Martin is clever enough to deliver it via Dr. Sweetwater, thereby rendering it an out-of-control mad-scientist's monologue from Val's point-of-view.

The plot follows Val's adventures as she collects the steampunk equivalent of Charlie's Angels crossed with the Power Puff Girls. St. Martin has definitely embraced the girl-power aspect of steampunk, where a woman can grab a sword or flintlock and be the protagonist of a high-flying adventure. Along the way, Val meets Eve, a patchwork girl ala Frankenstein's monster; Serena Heartlace, a vampire, whose Slavic accent keeps turning our heroine into "Sunset Wal"; an animal-cat hybrid ala Moreau with a French accent named Meliora Fantastico Lyon, a.k.a. "Gigi"; and Argenta, an "automaidon". What was interesting to me was that these secondary characters were the ones who wanted a revenge, while Sunset Val, whose name is repeatedly commented upon as odd or notable, doesn't have the usual issues a young adult character does. She is not seeking a dead parent, or railing against a bad one: she's just a somewhat odd teenager who doesn't get along with her teacher. By the end of the book, a transformation has occurred, but it hasn't solved her drug problem (because she didn't have one) or mended her broken heart (because she wasn't chasing any sparkly boys). In short, Val is a pretty well-adjusted main character who finds herself in an alternate world. The crises are plot-based, not character-based, though there are definitely moments of character. The crises of character are related more to Val's band of heroines, especially Eve, whose loyalty to her "father," Dr. Sweetwater, proves especially problematic.
Some brilliant interior art from Sunset Val by Karine Charlebois. I hope we'll see more from Karine in future volumes! I'd love to have coloured this image, but I simply didn't have the time this week - perhaps in the future!

It is this character stability, of a girl "from a world without institutionalized slavery, without airships, where women were able to vote" (172), that permits Val to, as Serena says, bring change wherever she goes. Like her chosen name, the sunset is a time of change, and that is what Val brings to this secondary world of steam. You might say she's the punk in St. Martin's steampunk.

What's also of interest to this stability is the element of the portal in Sunset Val. Whereas Lucy Pevensee chooses to go through the Wardrobe, Val is yanked through, effectively kidnapped by Dr. Sweetwater. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy states that portals are often warded with conditions and prohibitions:
"...to pass through a portal is likely to pass through some kind of test, to gain a new level of understanding of power, to demonstrate oneself as a chosen one, whether through birth or actions or some other merit: in fantasy, it is very often the case that a character who finds a portal has in some sense been found by that portal. Portals are a part of the grammar of a significant story. Portals represent acts of selection and election." (776)
Again, Val does not choose to go through - she is forced. But it is her ensuing choices in St. Martin's steampunk earth that has her fulfilling her tests -- Val is a sort of Messianic figure, but not in a destined sort of way. There are no fulfilled prophecies here: rather, it is a process of becoming by virtue of individual choice that determines Val's position by the conclusion.

Despite such high-minded analysis, Sunset Val won't go winning any literary awards. It lacks that Governor General's feel, that literary hauteur. I don't think St. Martin was shooting for such an award with Sunset Val, though. I think he was looking to write a fun adventure tale, and in this, he succeeded. This book excels at fantasy-as-wish-fulfillment, providing the sort of grand escapist yarn we yearn for to take us away from the daily drudgery. I'm glad to announce that the sequel came out on Canada Day, making both Sunset Val and Sunset Val Flies Again obvious choices for this year's Canuck Steampunk series, even if Rob St. Martin wasn't from Quebec. Rob recently reported that we can expect a lot more of Val's adventures, as he plans for five books in total. If you find Sunset Val to your liking, you can check out more of Rob's steampunk writing in Princess Smith and the Clockwork Knight.

Jul 22, 2011

The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade

The Canadian cover for Hunchback Assignments. I far prefer Christopher Steininger's comic-style covers to the U.S. ones.

I'd like to go for lunch with Arthur Slade.

Not just because he's Canadian, although that came as a pleasant surprise to me when I first read The Hunchback Assignments in preparation for last year's blog tour promoting The Dark Deeps. I'd just finished up the first Canuck Steampunk series here at Steampunk Scholar, and was excited to find another writer for this year's series.

Nor because I tend to enjoy young adult steampunk more than the ostensibly mature and grown up steampunk. I also tend to enjoy romanticized steampunk adventure better, and the YA market seems more welcoming to such adventures.

No, I think hanging out with Arthur Slade over food would be a good time because he loves monsters, in a way that reminds me a little of Mike Mignola's work, albeit with a focus on the classic Universal monsters from the nineteenth century. Maybe it's just my imagination, but those monsters seemed more popular back in the 70s, with Warren Publishing and a heap of movie magazines devoted to old school monsters. Or maybe it was just my own preoccupation with them. I resonated strongly with Mark Petrie in Stephen King's Salem's Lot, who knows how to deal with vampires, steeped in their cinematic lore, and prepared with a cross to ward them off from a monster model kit. I never built the models myself, but I gazed at them longingly.

By the time I was in grade three, I knew who Lon Chaney was, both junior and senior, and tried to dress up as the silent era Phantom of the Opera for Halloween, only to be repeatedly mistaken for a fangless Dracula. I wanted badly to try to make costumes in the way Lon Chaney Sr. had as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but my mom wouldn't let me use an egg white to blind one eye, the silly putty I used to make prosthetics wouldn't stay on my face, and the pillow I used for a hump kept shifting. I don't know if it was an odd choice for playing pretend, but it was my choice.

Slade admitted his fandom of these classic monsters, and watching the silent Hunchback with Chaney Sr. as inspiration for the hero of The Hunchback Assignments, Modo, Quasimodo reimagined in delightful recursive fantasy. While it's a bit of a spoiler to reveal Modo's powers, they come early enough to act more as a teaser. Modo is as hideous, perhaps moreso, than his silent-era cinematic twin, but unlike all Quasimodos before him, is able to transform his body into any human shape, facial features and all. Mr. Socrates, a mysterious agent of the crown, discovers Modo as an infant and buys him, effectively rescuing him from a life as a sideshow freak, to become the ultimate spy. Slade adds these shapeshifting powers to Quasimodo's trademark climbing ability, pairing that with a Spider-man like ability to navigate the rooftops and spires of London: "He'd spent nearly every night of the past six months on these rooftops. They belonged to him now, the only place he felt free. he had each dormer and slanting surface memorized. He could get from his room to Trafalgar Square faster than any cab" (65).

The plot is standard, as many young adult novels are. Instead, as with most successful young adult novels, the focus is on character development. Close escapes are not reason enough to turn the page and see what happens next. The reader must care deeply about the character, and Slade has written an endearing one in Modo. Modo provides the reader with the social retrofuturism of Hunchback Assignments, challenging and questioning the unswervingly British Mr. Socrates, giving the twenty-first century reader a window into the nineteenth century that doesn't feel antiquated. Further, Slade provides Modo with the character foil of Octavia Milkweed, the requisite romantic interest for Modo. Their ongoing relationship is one of the best aspects of the series, since Octavia finds herself attracted to Modo, but wonders at his true face: she only ever sees him in disguise, transformed and handsome. Octavia also provides an aspect of social retrofuturism, since she is a girl with initiative, spirit, and drive. Like many other steampunk heroines, she is a realization of the fin de siècle "New Woman," as teenage girl.

And although The Hunchback Assignments' high adventure is targeted at Young Adults, Modo's is not an idealized world: his experiences would fit well alongside those of the Baudelaire children from Lemony Snickett's Series of Unfortunate Events, albeit bereft of the ironic tone. The relationship between Mr. Socrates and Modo is a difficult and complex one, hinting at Socrates' past, and openly declaring Modo's need for a parental figure. Modo's desire for love is one of the main themes of the series. Slade proves a deft hand with this part of the story, never giving the reader a trite or easy solution to Modo's problem. His appearance is hideous, but his soul is beautiful. As such, he challenges conventional young adult heroes and their stories. Unlike Kenneth Oppel's Matt Cruse, Modo has more than just social status to overcome: while he can change his appearance, the transformation is temporary. For Modo to find love will be to find someone who can love him as his true self.

In this way, Modo moves through the same stages of Margaret Atwood's survival and victim I talked about last year in relation to Oppel's Airborn series. Modo's story focuses on the third position of Atwood's theory: "To acknowledge the fact that you are a victim but to refuse to accept the assumption that this role is inevitable" (37). Modo constantly struggles to live above seeing himself as only his appearance. Atwood states that it is in this position is about "repudiating the Victim role," moving from anger towards oneself or fellow-victims to "energy channeled into constructive action." Modo's journey is towards Position Four, "to be a creative non-victim"(Atwood 38). In this journey, Modo is aided primarily by two teachers, the maternal Mrs. Finchley, who discourages Modo from changing his appearance for her while she teaches him acting, history, and literature, and Tharpa, a former untouchable from Bombay, who does not cringe when he sees Modo: "Your disfiguration, it is not your true self," he tells Modo (Slade 32). These characters provide Modo with the encouragement he needs to move towards becoming a creative non-victim.

This is what sets the high adventure of The Hunchback Assignments from lesser steampunk fare, although it's arguably always what makes a book worth reading: good characters make for good stories, and The Hunchback Assignments is full of great characters, both heroes and villains. Sure, it's got the requisite steampunk elements: there's technofantasy (though I can't reveal what it is, as that's the mystery Modo and Octavia are trying to unveil), the largely social retrofuturism I've already mentioned, and a neo-Victorian setting in a fantastic London of the nineteenth century. At the core of it all though is a monster's heart, that beats with heroic purpose, and it's why I've devoured every book of the series since my introduction to it last summer.

Here in Canada, we're lucky enough to have already seen the release of book three, The Empire of Ruins, but Stateside readers will have to wait until this fall. Either way, if you haven't started reading this excellent steampunk adventure series, there's still time to catch up. You've got your assignment, now get to it!
While I'm a fan of Chris McGrath's photomanipulation approach on the U.S. cover, it doesn't feel right for the tone of the book. That said, the Canadian cover seems to play up the adventure, while the US ones go for a sort of neo-Gothic romance.

Jul 19, 2011

Steampunk in the Park: Shakespeare's Twelfth Night

While there's nothing inherently Canuck about steampunked Shakespeare, my attendance of Twelfth Night at the Hawrelak Amphitheatre in my own city of Edmonton, Alberta, was indicative of Lee Ann's article on the spread of steampunk here in Canada. 


"What's with the gun?" whispers a lady behind me, as one of the Officers draws a brass Nerf Maverick on Antonio in the last act of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

This far into the play, I wondered why she hadn't asked the same question about Viola/Cesario's goggles-on-bowler hat, or Feste's aviator's cap and early 20th century army regalia. While it was a delight to see Edmonton's Freewill Shakespeare Festival perform Twelfth Night in brilliant steampunk attire as part of my 15th anniversary celebration with my wife, the academic couldn't entirely stay at bay.

'Why choose steampunk?" I wondered. Clearly, there's the sheer fun for costume designer Narda McCarroll, to wonder how to use the steampunk aesthetic to convey something about the characters. Some costumes were more successful than others in this regard. Olivia's transformation from mournful to love-struck was the starkest contrast, going from all black to frilly pink-and-white, but the ludicrous Andrew Aguecheek seemed the best bit of character-through-costume, given how much colour ran riot across his costume.

But there's no thematic reason to choose steampunk for Twelfth Night, unless it's merely another expression of the play's subtitle, What You Will. That phrase could be the ethos of steampunk fashion and art in a nutshell: how many times have I been told steampunk can't be defined, and that it's whatever you want it to be? Thankfully, this clearly wasn't the case for the minds behind this steampunked Twelfth Night, as their description of steampunk in the programme was rather good:
[Steampunk], the style in which we have chosen to set Twelfth Night, is a style borne out of fantastical ideas from the Victorian age of mechanics, where dreams of utopian flying machines and other ideas of "futuristic" technologies existed. The style reflects an assertion of the individual, and a rejection of the mass-produced for the finely crafted. (11)

While I find the last sentence dubious as representing all of steampunk, the first statement is rather good. It encapsulates the aesthetic: fantastical ideas (technofantasy) from the Victorian age of mechanics (neo-Victorian) and dreams of "futuristic" technologies (retrofuturism). Whether steampunk is really an assertion of the individual or a rejection of the mass produced for the finely crafted is a discussion for another day.

What was of interest to me was watching a play that had nothing inherently steampunk about it, done in a steampunk style. The only moment where a narrative element was translated into the aesthetic came at the outset of the play, when the ship that founders and splits, leaving Viola and Sebastian stranded in Illyria, was designed to look like Harper Goff's Nautilus. The true pedant protests, wondering how in the world Nemo's fantastic ship could be split! It is the perfect vessel for ocean travel, a "vehicular utopia" as Arthur B. Evans put it.

And yet, in a Shakespearean comedy meant to express the bacchanal and revels of Twelfth Night, it was perfect. Further, as a way of letting an audience largely new to steampunk, it would say, "this isn't a masted ship - we're not in Verona anymore people." What ship is better suited to introducing a North American audience to the use of steampunk than that particular iteration of the Nautilus? As the play's programme stated, the setting of Twelfth Night is Illyria, "an ancient name for the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea," going on to add that "Shakespeare intended this to be a country free of time or borders," a seemingly open invitation to use the timeless and borderless aesthetic of steampunk.
A show-stealing Feste reclines. This is the costume I chose in our post-play discussion

Ultimately, the use of steampunk in Twelfth Night isn't going to expose class issues of the nineteenth century, or comment on colonialism. The particular style of steampunk employed had a What You Will approach to it: evocative of the nineteenth century, but accented with lots of gonzo retrofuturist paraphernalia. Discussion with my wife on the way from the open-air theatre wasn't "what did the aesthetic mean," but "if you could have any of the outfits, which one would you choose?" I wanted Feste's, and she wanted the maid's, and sometimes, despite all academic musings and political leanings, that's all there is to someone's interest in steampunk: they want to wear the cool aviator's cap, or have the opportunity to play the coquette for an evening. It's an expression of carnivale, of baccanal, and masquerade. It's a little bit of that Twelfth Night revelry, the whole year through.

"Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?" asks the stoic Malvolio of the band of partying fools, a question that echoes the sort of pedantic questions myself and other serious minded folk pose of steampunk. Place: Does it have to be London? Persons: Would Tesla really have done such a thing? Time: Does it have to be nineteenth century?

I write this, not as a denunciation of the serious study of steampunk, but to clarify that despite my probings and ponderings, I enjoy steampunk for the hell of it. I enjoy it for the chance to dress up, to have a bit of fun, and not think too hard. While I seek to define it on paper, I enjoy the way it plays fast and loose with place, persons, and time. And as Toby the Belch replies to Malvolio's question, "We did keep time, sir, in our catches. Sneck up!" in reference to keeping the time of the boisterous song they were singing at the top of their lungs. And so reply those who enjoy steampunk as just a bit of fun, riding, to quote Feste the Fool the "whirligig of time" and spouting a good deal of "bibble babble."

Twelfth Night runs for another week here in Alberta's Capital city, until Sunday, July 24. It's well worth braving the mosquito clouds, so Raid Up, and get thee to the Hawrelak Heritage amphitheatre!

Jul 1, 2011

Steampunk in Canada - Guest Post by Lee Ann Farruga

I remember the first time I got an email from Lee Ann Farruga, informing me of her website, Steampunk Canada. At the time, I was dismissive: most people who inform me they have a new website or blog dedicated to steampunk don't last very long. There are exceptions, and Lee Ann proved to be one of them, and then some. I've gone from dismissive to dedicated. I'm a big fan of this classy lady from Central Canada, and was lucky enough to spend some time with her at the Canadian National Steampunk Exhibition earlier this year. In a moment of weakness, I stated on Twitter that I wouldn't be writing for the month of August, and welcomed guest posts. Lee Ann stepped up right away, and this post is the result. While I'll still be taking a bit of August off, I'll be doing Canuck Steampunk all summer, and wanted to kick off with Lee Ann's post for two reasons. First, because she is one of the most notable Canadian faces of steampunk, if not the most notable. Second, because it's Canada Day, and Lee Ann just let me have the day off. Happy Canada Day, everyone!

Steampunks in Canada are a special group of people. Canadians in general stand out from the rest of the world with our friendly disposition, unique sense of style, and pride in being Canadian. We are a country of adventurers. All families, except those who originate in Canada (our native peoples) had an adventurous soul in the family who decided to come to the wilds of Canada to start a new life. We are a country of free thinkers. Our freedom of expression is greatest here than anywhere else in the world. We are a country of people who like to have fun and who do not take ourselves too seriously (it makes wrinkles, eh). We like things that are old and new and unique. Canadians make fabulous steampunks!

The first local steampunk group was started in 2008 in Toronto, Ontario. A few months later a local group started in Ottawa, Ontario in 2009. That same year, local groups were started in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C.; Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta; and Montreal, Quebec. Since I started Steampunk Canada in 2010 more local groups have sprung up in Niagara, Ontario; Regina, Saskatchewan; St. John’s, Newfoundland; and Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Second and third groups have started in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Montreal.  Very recently a group was started for the whole Province of Quebec as well.

Although it would seem that we are growing quite quickly, if you look at the United States or Britain, you can see that Canada is still merely a steampunk cogling.  In the United States there are many groups in each state.  In Britain, there are many smaller groups who gather regularly together as one large mass of steampunks for events such as the Asylum.  Still, being so young, what Canadian steampunks have is a fresh spirit.  People are starting and joining groups with new ideas and the excitement of finding their place.

Local groups are as varied as our country. An interesting phenomenon that has happened across Canada is that the median age of each group varies and it generally dictates the style of events, art, outfits and even cost concerns.  Another factor that makes our groups different is that across Canada each area has a very different history with very different museums, homes, parks and so on.  This leads to a great variety in events.  Victoria – castles and teas, Vancouver – art and music, Edmonton and Calgary – pub nights, weird west and dinosaurs,  Niagara – meetings and movie nights, Toronto – club nights and photo shoots, Ottawa – picnics and workshops, Halifax – art and jewelery fairs (I would love to attend a beach event here) and Montreal, Regina and St. John’s are just beginning to set up events .   This, of course, is not to say that each local group only holds these types of events, but if one looks at the list of events over a long period of time a pattern emerges.  As well, once again, age groups come into play.  Different age groups steer toward more favourite activities and so these are chosen more often.  As local groups grow and embrace more age groups their variety of events will surely grow with them.

For a detailed view I can only look at my own local group in Ottawa. We have quite a wide range of member ages and this has lead to a wide variety of events.  For the last three years we have held an event (and sometimes more) each month.  The first was a tea.  I still suggest this, or a pub night, to groups just starting out as a great way to meet people interested in joining or just looking to learn more about steampunk.  Everyone has a chance to greet each other and chat over the course of the evening. Since our first tea we have had movie nights, museum tours, picnics, concerts, workshops, poker and whist nights,  a swap meet and barbeque, pub nights and a murder mystery and have attended as a group at a book signing, winter balls,  a storytelling evening, a Chautauqua, a movie premiere, an art exhibit opening, a carnival and much more.  We had a very large event of over 100 people for our first anniversary and a smaller pub outing (40 people) for our second.

Local groups are a wonderful way to meet new friends and find amazing local artists and artistic folk right in your own backyard.  Amazing talents that you many never have known of before. Of course Steampunk Canada will continue to help steampunks find each other, promote local groups and their events, and get the word out about Canadian artists, authors, musicians and other artistic folk looking to tell everyone about their newest steampunk creation.

As the number of local and provincial groups grow and spread across Canada, my hope is that many will work together – this is just starting in Vancouver between Black Steam and Vancouverites for Steampunk.  They are organizing and informing each other of events in their area.  As well, Calgary’s two local groups have in the past had combined events.  We are also beginning to see larger events bring local groups and solitary steampunks together.  The first was the Victoria Steam expo.  This past spring saw the Canadian National Steampunk Exhibition in Ontario.  Soon there will be a second Victoria Steam Expo.  It would be wonderful to next have a larger event held in the Prairies and in the East.  Weekend events provide a great opportunity to those in outlying areas to attend since the travel time involved makes more sense when staying for a longer period of time. It also gives the attendees more time to greet and get to know each other....like a longer and grander tea.

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