Dec 30, 2011

Top Steampunk of 2011

Three years ago, I published the first post here at Steampunk Scholar. At the time, I was still amassing my own steampunk library of primary sources. Now, I'm so flooded with ARCs I fall behind in my reviews. Thank you to the publishers who honour the blog by keeping me reading. I'm doing my best to give your authors more than a cursory or dismissive glance.

I think I'm finally back on track with posting for the blog, but anyone who's been with me for more than a year knows how tenuous a statement that is. I struggled this fall with keeping up with reviews and trying to finish a new article for publication, and edit and revise the first draft of the dissertation. While some say I need to drop the blog and focus on getting done, I gently remind them that without the blog, I wouldn't be where I am in my studies. So as an introduction to this post, thanks to everyone who keeps reading and commenting.

In 2010, I made my first "best of the year" list, since previous years simply didn't contain enough steampunk books to warrant such a list. 2010's list contained only five books, and although this year's deluge of steampunk permitted a lengthier list, I decided to keep it to five. This was a tough year in that respect, as I enjoyed many of the books I read, and wish I could include more. There's no point in suggesting "the best" if you're not being exclusionary. I should also note that this cannot be considered a comprehensive list: I haven't read all the steampunk published in 2011. My criteria is simple: the book must utilize the steampunk aesthetic as a core element of the book, it must be published in 2011, and cannot be a re-release. Otherwise, Titan Books' reprinting of Captain Nemo: The Fantastic Adventures of a Dark Genius by Kevin J. Anderson and Anno Dracula by Kim Newman would have made the list.
  1. Steampunk! - Candlewick anthology edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant - check out my review at to see why.
  2. Heartless by Gail Carriger - I'll be writing a series of posts leading up to the release of Timeless, the final book in the Parasol Protectorate series. In the meantime, I'll simply say that anyone who has naysayed Carriger's inclusion in the steampunk fold due to a lack of technofantasy should be reviewing their crow recipes. This is the best book of the series since Soulless, and was a delight to read.
  3. Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder - read my review to find out why Hodder is one of the strongest voices in second wave steampunk fiction.
  4. Goliath by Scott Westerfeld - check out my retrospective on the Leviathan trilogy for why this was such a satisfying ending to one of the best steampunk series, and why it shouldn't be dismissed simply for being YA.
  5. Empire of Ruins by Arthur Slade - another YA novel you shouldn't be avoiding, and the reasons why.
Honorary mentions:  

Biggest surprise: How much I love the Vampire Empire series. If I'd had a sixth slot on the list, The Rift Walker would have been on it. While the covers made me think teen paranormal romance, the books are a superior blend of pulp-adventure, romance, steampunk, and neo-gothic elements. This is both a return to the monstrous in vampire fiction, while retaining the courtly machinations of Vampire the Masquerade and the young love story of Twilight. I am not understating when I say these books have everything most steampunk fans love in their fiction.

Biggest disappointment: Felix J. Palma's The Map of Time. See my review to see how this book got lost in translation, even with a map.

Best Audiobook: While the audiobooks for Carriger's Parasol Protectorate and Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy continue to be of the highest calibre, the best release on audio this year for steampunk fans was Keith Roberts' Pavane. I don't consider the book steampunk per se, but as alternate history it fits both the inspirational antecedent for longtime steampunk fans, and must-read for new ones. These seven linked tales are a beautifully written (and narrated) alternate history where the Catholic Church still holds significant power in the 20th century: electric power is outlawed in a neo-Medieval Britain, but a Reformation of sorts is in the offing. Pavane is set for print re-release as well, and I'll review it properly when that comes out. In the meantime, check it out on audio.

Best Re-Release: While it was certainly a boon for the steampunk reader to have K.W. Jeter's seminal Morlock Night and Infernal Devices available from Angry Robot, Kim Newman's Anno Dracula from Titan Books is by far a superior work. Arguably, it works with less of the steampunk aesthetic in the area of technofantasy than Jeter's works do, but makes up for this lack with loads of social retrofuturism and dark neo-Victorianism. At the very least, we can say it's a book steampunks will love, and I can't recommend it enough.

Sheer Panache: Lev AC Rosen's All Men of Genius, for the audacity of playing in Shakespeare and Wilde's sandboxes and largely getting away with it.

Best Steampunk Memory: Meeting and hanging out with Gary Gianni at Steamcon. When I picture myself sitting at my sister's dining room table slaving over a term paper on Captain Nemo, I know that guy hasn't a clue how many cool experiences are lying ahead in the next three years. I gave up on getting to know the big celebs in my first year of convention travels, being content with making friends rather than being a fanboy. So I was pleasantly surprised to hit it off with Gary at the Steamcon Airship Awards banquet, and get some really fantastic opportunities to hang out and talk Conan, Doc Savage, Verne, and many other shared interests. It was like an early Christmas present.

A Happy New Year to my readers: I look forward to a leisurely stroll beside and inside the Nautilus in the new year, as well as looking back on two and a half years in Gail Carriger's wonderful Parasol Protectorate series. And, God willing and my schedule permitting, I'll see the end of the five year mission in the fourth year.

Dec 23, 2011

Christmas Past by Jonathan Green

Obviously, this is not the cover for Jonathan Green's steampunk short story, "Christmas Past." However, it is written by him, and is far more festive than any of the Pax Britannia covers. Those are kickass, but not festive.
Having read two of Jonathan Green's novels, his collection of short stories, and now his short Christmas tale, I find him hit-and-miss. I nothing short of detested Unnatural History, and while I enjoyed much of Leviathan Rising, I was nonplussed by its unnecessarily stereotypical treatment of asians-as-villains. I find Green far easier to take in small doses. Green's writing is the literary equivalent of your favorite junk-food - it's bad for you, but you enjoy it anyhow.

"Christmas Past" is one of Green's short works, available for free download from the Pax Britannia site. It's a no-risk venture, but so as not to waste anyone's time, I'll give you a quick sense of its flavour. It's a bloody tale of revenge and murder, complete with a slasher Santa. The mystery isn't half-bad, though not at the level of Sherlock Holmes, though it's clear Green wants his series' hero, Ulysses Quicksilver, to come off as a combination of Roger Moore's James Bond and Sherlock Holmes with a libido. That isn't to say it isn't worth reading - it's a nice diversion, and a good introduction to Green's style - if you like "Christmas Past," you will likely enjoy the Ulysses Quicksilver Short Story Collection. You may even wish to try some of Green's novels, though I can't vouch for them myself. I haven't given up on the man yet, though. He certainly takes things to a gonzo level in his steampunk world, as you'll see when I talk Leviathan Rising in the new year as part of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea series of posts, and I still own one more of his earlier Quicksilver novels (Human Nature, where I originally found "Christmas Past"). I love the underlying ideas Green plays with, but I have mixed feelings about the execution. Who knows, YMMV.

If you enjoy "Christmas Past," here's an idea taken from Gail Carriger's blog, where she suggested the following as a stocking stuffer:
Find some nice sepia tone or other fancy printer paper, buy a $0.99 short story by your friend's favorite author in .pdf form (or whatever) and print it out. Roll up and tie with a little ribbon. Pop into top of stocking, so cute! (Of course, for all the nay-sayers out there, I am not suggesting distributing or profiting from these print outs.)
Perhaps you'll use "Christmas Past." If it wasn't to your liking, why not try Carriger's short story, or Cherie Priest's free short story, "Tanglefoot: A Story of the Clockwork Century"? Or if you have your heart set on keeping it festively seasonal, try "If Dragon's Mass Eve Be Cold and Clear" by Ken Scholes. For those who hate reading, and want some arts and crafts on Christmas eve or morn, try Desktop Gremlins' Steampunk Santa!

Well, it's time to leave the blog until the new year - the year's "Best of" post will be out next Friday, but that's already written and waiting a scheduled posting. The best of the season to you all. Thanks once again for dropping by the blog, and making it one of the go-to-spaces on the web for steampunk reading.

Dec 14, 2011

I'll be Holmes for Christmas, or Sherlock Holmes and the case of the missing holiday

For those interested, the new seasonal top bar contains images from Macy's Steampunk-themed holiday-window displays.

With tonight's release of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and the Christmas season upon us, I decided to kill two birds with one stone, by introducing my Sherlock Holmes series while simultaneously riding one of my scholarly hobby horses, the use or absence of Christmas/Christendom in steampunk.

Doing a series of Holmes posts was inspired by the release of the new Guy Ritchie film, as well as by Titan Books' line of Holmes' pastiches, both in the Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes series, marked by an asterisk below, and in the stand-alone riffing of Adams, Kowalski, and Newman.

 Sherlock Homes: the Breath of God by Guy Adams: Holmes and Crowley!
*Sherlock Holmes: The Veiled Detective by David Stuart Davies: Holmes' Secret Origin!
The Hound of the D'Urbervilles by Kim Newman
 *Sherlock Holmes: The Whitechapel Horrors by Edward B. Hanna: Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper!
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes by Leslie Klinger: Holmes for SMRT people!
*Sherlock Holmes: War of the Worlds by Manly W. Wellman and Wade Wellman: Holmes vs. Martians!

I'm not a Holmes scholar, nor could I say I'm a die-hard fan, but I've always been interested, and I wanted to take the opportunity to look at the world's most famous detective in earnest. However, there are already many sites dedicated to the canonical Sherlock Holmes, and to avoid needless duplication, I'm dealing with pastiches instead of canon.

As a steampunk scholar, I've had many people ask "Is Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes steampunk?" According to my aesthetic definition, there are certainly steampunk elements. The costuming and Holmes' fighting style are neo-Victorian, trading historical accuracy for stylistic verisimilitude. The uber-weapon in the film's climax has some level of retrofuturism and technofantasy, albeit light doses when compared to most steampunk tech. It's certainly no clockwork steam-spider. But that is the extent of my analysis of Ritchie's Holmes as steampunk, at least until I see the new film.
With that question so quickly answered, I am then asked if I think Downey's Holmes and Law's Watson are any good; people assume that because I deal in steampunk, I must know every work of popular Victorian and Edwardian literature intimately (I don't, but I'm working on it!). Subjectively, I think they're a brilliant spin on the odd couple Holmes and Watson have represented in their many iterations. Objectively, it's glaringly obvious that the letter of Doyle's canon has been abandoned for something closer to spirit. That said, this is nothing new in the history of Holmes onscreen. Just compare Nigel Bruce's "buffoonish portrait" of Watson in the Petrie Wine radio series, specifically "The Night Before Christmas episode" with David Burke's splendid performance in the UK Granada TV series Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which "finally [does] justice to the 'old campaigner' as a man of courage, intelligence, and compassion" (Klinger lvii). Or compare Peter Cushing's performance in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," one of the few surviving episodes of the '60s BBC series with Jeremy Brett in the UK Granada version of the same episode. As Klinger notes, "while Brett is not the Holmes of everyone's imagination, his larger-than-life characterisation will certainly stand for a generation as the screen Sherlock Holmes" (lvii). One might say the same for Downey and Law. But this is not the object of my inquiry either.

In preparing this post, I listened to the radio episode "The Night Before Christmas," read "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," and watched the Cushing and Brett versions of "Carbuncle" on YouTube, these Holmes' tales (the former pastiche, the latter canon) for their seasonal relevance, which resulted in reengaging my ruminations on the absence of Christmas and Christendom in steampunk.
Two years ago, I pondered the absence of Christmas, and by extension Christianity, in the majority of steampunk literature. At the time, J. Daniel Sawyer's "Cold Duty" was the only steampunk story I'd read that referenced that most Dickensian of holidays. Surprisingly, of the over one hundred steampunk books on my shelf, less than half include Christendom as a facet of their steampunk world building. Of those that do, Jay Lake's Mainspring and sequels figure most notably, since Lake's alternate world takes the nineteenth century conceit of God as the cosmic clockmaker quite literally.  I recently came across "Christmas Past" in Jonathan Green's Human Nature, where Christmas is simply backdrop. This year saw Lev AC Rosen's All Men of Genius, which appropriately includes a scene of festive cheer in addition to its references to Twelfth Night, as well as the release of A Clockwork Christmas, an anthology dedicated to steampunk holiday tales. Despite these few steampunk settings augmented with Yuletide cheer, references to Christendom and Christmas are less common in steampunk than one might imagine.

This dearth of reference to religion in London is odd, given the "revival of religious activity, largely unmatched since the days of the Puritans" that swept England in the nineteenth century:
This religious revival shaped that code of moral behaviour, or rather than infusion of all behaviour with moralism, which became known as "Victoranism." Above all, religion occupied a place in the public consciousness, a centrality in the intellectual life of the age, that it had not had a century before and did not retain in the twentieth century. (Klinger xx, emphasis added)
Klinger argues that it is this religious revival that provides nineteenth century society with the propriety we see so many steampunk characters engaging in: the unflappable manners of Alexia Tarabotti in The Parasol Protectorate are arguably the result of a society built on this revival of religious activity. Thankfully, Gail Carriger's books feature religious establishments to support Alexia keeping up appearances, from American Puritans in Soulless (140) to the scheming Templars of Blameless.

One might argue more strenuously for references to Christmas in steampunk, since "what we think of as Christmas was actually invented, for the most part, in the Victorian era."
Prior to the 1800s, Christmas, which had evolved from winter solstice festivals, had often been an occasion of raucous, drunken celebration. The publication of Dickens's A Christmas Carol in 1843, with its message of goodwill and charity, helped to transform the holiday into an appreciation of family and community. The words to many Christmas carols were penned in the 1800s, both in England and the United States, and the Christmas Tree was popularised by Prince Albert, who brought the practice over from his native Germany  in the 1840s. (Klinger 198)
Klinger wrote this footnote for "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" in his New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, and in returning to Holmes I hope to clarify what I mean by inclusion of Christendom, Christianity, or Christmas in steampunk. Aside from Holmes' reference to Christmas as "the season of forgiveness," there is nothing particularly sentimental about "Blue Carbuncle," unless one finds "the evident warmth of the friendship between Holmes and Watson" (Klinger 197) to be so. Holmes' allusion to the religious significance of Christmas are not the words of a believer: unlike his creator, Holmes is a man of science, not spiritualism. However, as befit the times he lived in, Doyle produced a Christmas story, one which Holmes scholar and writer Christopher Morley referred to as "a Christmas story without slush" (197). If steampunk is set in the Victorian period and London locale, or seeks to evoke said period or locale, than it must needs address at the very least the religion that spawned the holiday, if not the holiday itself from time to time, either by reference to presence or absence thereof.

Steampunk set in an alternate world closely resembling earth needs to deal with the problem of the Church, especially when set in England. Let me be clear: I'm not advocating for a steampunked Pilgrim's Progress or nineteenth century Narnias. Painting the church in a positive light is not the issue at hand: I'm a fan of Philip Pullman's Golden Compass, which goes beyond the church as villain to God as Evil Overlord. I'm simply nonplussed at the common erasure of Church from steampunk: get rid of the Church if you like, but then deal with the ramifications of that absence. Or keep it, and let it be a power that holds back progress, giving reasons for steam technology in the 1960s, as in Keith Roberts' brilliant alternate history Pavane. That said, don't limit yourself to the stereotype of Church as the Big Bad; while certainly involved in numerous historical atrocities, Christendom was responsible for a lot more than the Crusades and Inquisition. If you're going to steampunk the emancipation of slavery, you'll be playing both sides of that coin. Or, you can simply ensure it's sitting in the background, as Kady Cross has in The Girl in the Steel Corset, citing romance fans' eye for historical detail. Obviously, there's no need for references to real-world religion in the fully secondary steampunk worlds, such as the world of Stephen Hunt's Court of the Air and its sequels. Yet even Karin Lowachee's secondary world in Gaslight Dogs has an all too familiar religion bent on colonial proselytizing that creates a instant familiarity with her ostensibly unfamiliar world.

Whatever you do, do your homework, and know your history. Whatever one's attitudes toward institutional religion, it was a major facet of Victorian life. Even if it's only present in blasphemy, as in the dialogue of Cherie Priest's heroes and heroines, ensure you haven't thrown the baby out with the bathwater, or manger straw, for Christ's sake.

Dec 9, 2011

Steampunk: Gears, Gadgets, and Gizmos by Thomas Willeford (2012)

For those who celebrate Christmas, it's Advent, and if you're like many, you're counting the shopping days remaining, or like me, are lighting advent wreaths and opening cardboard doors to find chocolate treats. As ecumenical as I am, I celebrate Christmas, so the blog gets a festive makeover, and with teeth gritted, I emerge from end-of-term grading binges to write a few holiday-themed posts.

We begin our Christmas series for 2011 with Thomas Willeford's Steampunk: Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos, "A Maker's Guide to Creating Modern Artifacts." As anyone familiar with the blog knows, I am not a Maker, nor do I comment much on what Makers are up to. They are an aspect of steampunk for another scholar's academic scrutiny. I must admit, I cringe whenever someone says that steampunk is about making things with your hands, since I live the life of the mind; all my steampunk contributions have been virtual, with my hands involved only in typing on a decidedly non-steampunk keyboard.

That said, I harbor a secret hope for the time and wherewithal to someday mod a Nerf Maverick: I've owned one since before my research interests took me to conventions where I saw scores of the toy guns, day-glo colours buried beneath a patina of paint, and I'd love to try my hand at it, cliched as that may be. Likewise, in looking through Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos (GGG), I'm optimistic I could, with Thomas Willeford's help, make my own goggles.

I have friends who would benefit more from owning Gear, Gadgets, and Gizmos, and it was thinking of them that I imagined an alternate history of my life where I had more money and time. In that alternate history, I buy these friends, these amateur tinkerers, people who are much better with their hands than I am (insofar as making things go - I am very good with my hands at a number of other things), a copy of Willeford's GGG. With the list of "Must Have Tools" found on page 8 in hand, I go shopping. I then  shove the coping saw, metal files, rotary hole punch, and fine-point magic markers, along with the rest of the "Tools of the Mad Scientist" into a very large and very durable stocking, and place it under their tree after having broken into their house by drilling out their front door lock with the Electric Power Drill Willeford recommends, in addition to an Electric Rotary Power Tool and Reciprocating Handsaw under "Handheld Power Tools."

Getting the picture? Imagine, instead of buying your favorite burgeoning steampunk Maker a pair of goggles for Christmas, buying them the tools and materials to make their own. Odds are, if they're handy people in a Tim Allen vein, they'll already own half these tools. If they are very handy, they've been eagerly waiting for an excuse to use these tools. Willeford's GGG offers a whimsical solution to the tools collecting dust in your handy friend's workroom.

If that seems too costly, then consider buying the book along with a dead cuckoo clock and allowing that neophyte Tinkerer to enjoy the process of "Gear Mining--Or How to Dissect a Cuckoo," outlined in Chapter 4. Or buy them the materials need to build one project.

Alternately, if your Steampunk-Maker-in-the-Making is someone you have your romantic eye on, buy them the book, and make a coupon book for date-nights to the Antique Shop or Flea Market. Willeford devotes space to collecting all the necessary paraphenalia for the Tesla wannabe.

I recall a nonplussed artist at Nova Albion in 2010, bemoaning the copycat nature of steampunk art. I'm more in Kirk Hammett's camp (yes, the guitarist from Metallica), who once said that "imitation is creation." I'm sure he wasn't the first to say so, but he's the one I remember. I remember because I learned to play bass with Metallica tabs. I learned to draw by tracing my comic books. And I think I can learn to make goggles with Thomas Willeford's help: that, and my friends' tools.  

Head over to to look through sample pages, which include those crucial tool lists!

P.S. Don't take this recommendation from a non-Maker alone! Nathan Hays (@thegeo) of Fortune's Ember, said the following about GGG on Twitter: "I can't recommend this Steampunk craft book enough! Has REAL projects, rayguns/arms/etc . . . It isn't another shitty "Lets take a chain from Hobby Lobby and glue a gear to an octopus pendant and hang it on it. Steampunk!" . . . It is a book of actually cool, useful, unique, and CREATIVE ideas . . . My copy arrived today, once it warms up in a few months I have quite a few things to try out now."
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