Dec 28, 2012

Best Steampunk Reads of 2012

My apologies for promising a Doctor Who series this Christmas, and producing nothing. End of term marking was brutal this year, and then I fell ill and spent my holidays convalescing. I can only hope the next year is better for the blog.


As always, my list is somewhat incomplete, given that I have not read every work of steampunk released in 2012. I no longer purchase steampunk books, for the simple fact that the entirety of the ARC stack remains unread every year. Nevertheless, of the books I chose to read (and even that is a statement about the books that remained unread, is it not?), these are the best and brightest. While this year produced so much excellent steampunk I could easily have made this a top 10 list, I prefer the exclusivity that a top five list provides. This year is an anomaly, in that it contains Brian J. Robb's, Steampunk, which is not a work of fiction, but is, for my money, the best coffee-table book on the history of steampunk. 

1. Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff. I love this book. I've been waiting for some kick ass Asian steampunk since I wrote my "Steam Wars" paper in 2008, and was glad to finally get the chance to read some. I know there are other examples out there, but Kristoff hit all the right notes with me. I read Stormdancer right after I submitted my thesis, and was fed up with reading anything steampunk. Despite that aversion, the story dragged me in immediately, and I don't get to say that very often. I love Kristoff's writing style, which some may find too florid or dense. I love the symbiotic relationship between the  female protagonist and the magical griffin, which evoked shades of Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon at its best. I loved that Kristoff is willing to kill his characters, since an adventure story without cost isn't much of an adventure. And I'm dying for the sequel.

2. Timeless by Gail Carriger. If you haven't read this by now, go away, because I'm going to gush about all the spoilers I couldn't when I reviewed this book for Tor.com back in March. I have loved the entire Parasol Protectorate series, and this book was no exception. Every major character was given their due, and while some of those moments were tragic, from Lyall's exile to Floote's betrayal, there were so many more which were gorgeously satisfying: Ivy's death and subsequent undeath, which would have seemed ridiculous upon meeting her in Soulless, was perfect, but only because of how Ivy has proved herself over the series. Biffy's rise to Beta made all the sense in the world, and his deft tongue-lashing of Felicity Loontwill was one of my favourite moments in the whole series. Carriger even carried off Maccon's death convincingly enough to have me up late one night, furiously turning pages to find out if Lord Woolsey really was dead. Alexia finally got to be terribly, terribly wrong, which her character needed, but remained true to her character to the very end. Carriger has set the board well for the upcoming sequel series, and while I was sad to see this first series end, I'm glad she finished strong, and didn't drag the story out until it went out with a whimper instead of a bang.

3. The Rise of Ransom City by Felix Gilman. Fans of The Half-made World might find Ransom City's memoir-style off-putting, but I applaud Gilman for being adventurous enough to relate the second book in this fantasy-Western in a somewhat whimsical first-person perspective. Seeing both the characters and the world of Liv Alverhuysen and John Creedmore with fresh eyes was a welcome change. Too many series fail for a lack of innovation beyond "the story continues," but that is not the case with Ransom City. In addition to being a strong addition to the Half-made World series, the book is an excellent example of self-reflexive fiction, complete with a somewhat untrustworthy narrator, a frame narrative reminiscent of Cervantes, nested tales, and ruminations on the nature of reality and fiction, which makes Ransom City an excellent choice for steampunk scholars.

4. Steampunk: An Illustrated History of Fantastical Fiction, Fanciful Film, and Other Victorian Visions by Brian J. Robb. This is the first year that my top five list has included a work on non-fiction, but given that Robb's is not the first of its kind, a coffeetable book seeking to take an encompassing look at steampunk, we may be seeing more in years to come. That would be somewhat disappointing, since Robb's book strikes me as pretty damn comprehensive, focusing primarily on the literary and cinematic history of steampunk, with only two out of nine chapters devoted to steampunk as subculture. I'm certainly biased when it comes to this book, since my focus has been literary and cinematic, and I sometimes felt like Robb had been looking over my shoulder, cribbing notes from my blog or dissertation. But that's just my way of saying I agree with what the book has to say about steampunk. It's a gorgeous hardback with great choices for illustrations. Well worth picking up for neophyte steampunk scholars looking for a survey text. 

5.  The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress: Some will find this last one an odd candidate for my top five, but if I've worked toward anything here at this blog, it's been to be fair in my reviews. If your brand of steampunk is Mieville or Hodder, you won't enjoy The Friday Society. This is a YA book. A YA grrrl power book. It features girls who kick ass. And it kicks ass. Shit blows up in this book. These girls give new meaning to the word "bombshell," given how much shit blows up in this book. It is on this list, because it won me over, despite me thinking I wasn't its target audience. Think Gail Carriger meets Charlie's Angels meets Sucker Punch meets shit blowing up (I suppose those last two were a little redundant). I know some of the more serious steampunks out there will revile its inclusion on this list, but all work and no play makes Mike a dull boy. And Adrienne Kress's Friday Society is anything but dull.

Special mention goes to Devon Monk's Dead Iron, which was published in 2011, but I didn't get the chance to read it until this year. It's an excellent page-turner set in a steampunk old-West filled with werewolves and Faeries. Think Holly Black meets Hell on Wheels and you have the right feel. Kudos also go out to Rush for Clockwork Angels, but I only add reads on this list, and while I'd like to bend the rules for Neil Peart's lyrics-as-poetry, I'll have to wait until I've read the accompanying book to judge whether Kevin J. Anderson's novelization belongs on this list or not. I'll be writing full reviews of these books in the weeks to come, now that the dissertation is behind and the blog alone ahead. Happy New Year, everyone!

Nov 23, 2012

Several Thousand Words, 500 followers

I do not have time to write of the experience of graduating, but here are the pictures worth the proverbial words, and at the bottom, an easter egg containing the link to several thousand words more, for those of you have been waiting patiently. I would also like to say thanks to everyone who has followed the blog over the past four years - you added up to FIVE HUNDRED, the day I graduated. It was serendipitous, and was crucial in my decision to release the dissertation link to everyone. Thanks for making a guy in an office in Edmonton feel like the world was watching.
 
 
 





Nov 16, 2012

Interviews, Interviews, Museums!

As I hurtle toward the end of this momentous semester, with graduation looming next week and a hydra-like stack of papers to be graded, I take a moment to do what sitcoms used to when they didn't have any fresh material, or their actors needed a break: I provide the blog equivalent to flashbacks. Here you will find three links to three sites that were kind enough to honor me this fall with recognition as a contributor to the steampunk scene. It's always fun to do an interview, or to be featured at someone's website, and all these sites are well worth your time beyond their treatment of anything I'm up to.


Doctor Fantastique's Interview

In which AJ Sikes and I engage in droll banter, AJ calls uses big words like "tripartite aesthetic," and I imagine what Captain Nemo and Phileas Fogg would be reading if they were in a book club together. 

The Airship Ambassador's Steampunk Museum
Kevin J. Steil, the man behind the Airship Ambassador persona and site, has created a new steampunk respository online, and it's gorgeous. And I'm not just saying that because I'm on it. I'm saying it because it's a great looking site with strong content that, given Steil's work to date, is only going to get stronger. 

Decimononic's Interview
In which JF Alfaya calls me world famous (I'm not sure this is true, but it's fun to pretend!), and I get to admit my secret desire for a pocketwatch inspired by Captain Nemo.

Next week, I graduate, so while I hope I'm going to be posting about a "tale of two books involving steampunk and fairies," I might just put up pictures of me in the cap, gown, and goggles.

Nov 9, 2012

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

By the end of writing my dissertation, I had grown to hate steampunk. I couldn't read it, I didn't want to discuss it, and even thinking about it was abhorrent to me. It's apparently a common allergic reaction to one's subject matter at the end of a long writing project.

In the middle of this aversion to steampunk, Jay Kristoff's Stormdancer arrived in the mail. I'd been looking forward to reading this book since Jay had first announced it would be released. I was in complete agreement with Patrick Rothfuss's cover blurb: "What's that? You say you've got a Japanese steampunk novel with mythic creatures, civil unrest, and a strong female protagonist? I'm afraid I missed everything you said after 'Japanese steampunk.' That's all I really needed to hear."

Here is the publisher's blurb:

The first in an epic new fantasy series, introducing an unforgettable new heroine and a stunningly original dystopian steampunk world with a flavor of feudal Japan.
A DYING LAND
The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshipers of the Lotus Guild. The skies are red as blood, the land is choked with toxic pollution, and the great spirit animals that once roamed its wilds have departed forever.
AN IMPOSSIBLE QUEST
 The hunters of Shima's imperial court are charged by their Shōgun to capture a thunder tiger – a legendary creature, half-eagle, half-tiger. But any fool knows the beasts have been extinct for more than a century, and the price of failing the Shōgun is death.
A HIDDEN GIFT
Yukiko is a child of the Fox clan, possessed of a talent that if discovered, would see her executed by the Lotus Guild. Accompanying her father on the Shōgun’s hunt, she finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled thunder tiger for company. Even though she can hear his thoughts, even though she saved his life, all she knows for certain is he’d rather see her dead than help her. But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire.

I've been a dabbler in Asian literature and film since my teens, when I was caught up in the same fever as many other males of the '80s to be Sho Kosugi, Storm Shadow, or Nicholai Hel from Trevanian's Shibumi. Since then, I've grown more refined in my tastes, and thanks to Jha Goh and Diana Pho, am growing in my awareness of when this dabbling is inappropriate appropriation. In addition to enjoying Japanese popular culture, I'm a fan of Chinese classic literature, particularly Journey to the West. So I've been waiting for someone to provide the steampunk scene with a satisfying tale in an Asian steampunk world. While there are no top hats, corsets, or cravats to be seen, Stormdancer is heavily saturated with the steampunk aesthetic.

I could talk about Stormdancer as the rejection of Victorientalism, that term that in many ways embodies what's wrong with cultural appropriation in steampunk. I could tell you that it's the first moment of Asian steampunk I've read where the focalizer is not a Westerner acting as a lens for the outsiders to see in. Stormdancer's protagonist is an insider of this secondary world based in pre-industrial Japan, but is an outsider of privilege, due to her clan affiliation and the fact that she's a woman. Kristoff may be an egalitarian, but the Empire that forms his world is not.

I could talk about how Kristoff successfully applies the steampunk aesthetic to a world ruled by the Bushido code, innovating the tired technofantasy of most steampunk: instead of brass rayguns, we are given Chain Katanas; instead of Graf Zeppelin ripoffs, we're given something like a cross between a Chinese junk and a dirigible, powered by Kristoff's best novum, the powerful Chi, which is both fuel source and ecological threat. Unlike so many steampunk fuels, the Chi matters beyond its ability to make impossible technologies possible. It isn't just a convenient way of explaining how the airships fly in Stormdancer - it's the source of rampant social problems in Kristoff's secondary world. It allows Kristoff's civil unrest to be more than just "the individual against Empire." Kristoff's characters wrestle with the ramifications of changing the way things are. They see the damage Chi mining has done to the earth, but know that changing the way things are is complicated. Revolution is never simple.

But I vowed that when I finished the dissertation, I'd write like a fanboy. And despite being saddened that I read Stormdancer so late in the process of research, given how much I'd have used it as a positive case study of radical nostalgia, there is simply no better place for me to start being a fanboy than with Stormdancer. As I said, I was sick of steampunk when Stormdancer arrived. Nevertheless, I took it with me on a speaking trip, and when I found spare reading time that week, I instantly fell in love with this book. I highlighted passage after passage, not for their academic utility, but for the beauty of Kristoff's prose. Despite being a compelling page-turner, I refused to rush ahead in my reading, for fear I'd miss one of Kristoff's gorgeous descriptions or captivating, and at times heart-wrenching, dialogue. Kristoff never engages in clunky exposition, relying instead on his well-crafted and artfully placed descriptions of the world of Stormdancer.

This book will not appeal to all. I'm sure some will wonder at my praise for it, criticizing it for being too derivative, wordy, or poorly researched. On the subject of wordiness, Kristoff does not waste his words. They all inform. If one doesn't like description, then Kristoff's style will chafe.I found it a refreshing change from the shallow action-prose of so much steampunk. One might accuse Kristoff of ripping off Frank Herbert's Guild Navigators, but I'd say he's riffing on David Lynch's interpretation of the Guild Navigators with even more of the steampunk aesthetic thrown in. Certainly, Kristoff shows his influences, but what author doesn't? All writers stand on the shoulders of giants. Kristoff arguably invites us in to stories we've heard before, combined in ways we haven't imagined before: this is the heart of steampunk, the appropriation of many elements brought together in a glorious bricolage. For many writers, those elements spin out of control. Kristoff never allows the multiplicity of elements to get out of his hands. We see echoes of Naomi Novik's Temeraire or Christopher Paolini's Eragon in the intimate bond between rider and mythic beast. We recognize Knights in Shogun and demons in Oni, but there are crucial differences, and they change what is familiar to a Western reader to something new, something fresh. At times, it's like a mashup of Legend of the Five Rings with Iron Kingdoms. One of the highest bits of praise I can give a writer is that I want them as my DM. I want Jay Kristoff as a DM for a full campaign. Kristoff's world building is so complete and convincing, that at times I forgot I was reading about a secondary world, despite knowing that his use of Japanese culture has tenuous adherence to real-world history.

It has a strong female lead, a heroine who makes mistakes, who can fall in love with the "samurai with the sea-green eyes" but who is anything but a twitter-pated boy-crazy girl. She battles with ferocity, thinks with alacrity, and acts in nonconformity, in a world where adherence to Empire is everything. There are bloody, visceral battles, captivating characters whose lives and deaths matter to us, sympathetic scoundrels and onerous Emperors alike. It even has "punk," the counter-cultural ideology of radical resistance allied with eco-criticism, as these steampunk raise arm against an Empire worth rebelling against to arrest the destruction of their world by pollution.

To say I'm excited for the sequel is an understatement. The conclusion made me cry in public. I've not only had to adjust my list for top five steampunk books of the year, but I think I'll likely be adjusting my top ten steampunk of all time. It's that good. I know this is true, because at a time when I got hives whenever someone said "steampunk," I was flying through the skies of Jay Kristoff's Stormdancer on the airship Thunder Child, hunting a thunder-tiger.

Oct 31, 2012

Steampunk Poe and Steampunk Frankenstein


Many fans of steampunk are also fans of speculative literature from the Victorian and Edwardian periods as well. This has lead to confusing the two, with people claiming writers like Verne or Wells are steampunk, but that's like saying Beowulf is Fantasy, which it isn't. Beowulf is one of the literary progenitors of Fantasy, but as a genre, Fantasy is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon. Steampunk  is a late-twentieth, early-twenty-first century phenomenon, as is clearly demonstrated in Running Press's steampunk line of classics: Steampunk Poe (anthology of short stories), Steampunk: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the forthcoming Steampunk: H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds).

While some will argue that Running Press is simply cashing in on the steampunk name to sell yet another edition of these already much-reprinted classic books, a quick flip through these gorgeous volumes demonstrates the contrary. These books are positively bursting with the steampunk artwork of Zdenko Basic and Manuel Sumberac, which interprets the unexpurgated, unabridged, and most importantly, unamended text through a steampunk lens. Shelley is still Shelley, down to her introduction; the text is her Frankenstein, while the images are Frankenstein done in the steampunk aesthetic. Despite having read and studied Frankenstein many times, I was immediately tempted to put down what I was working on to begin reading the story yet again. The images evoked so many of the key moments, I was transported to the Arctic in pursuit of the Creature, to Geneva, and the University of Ingolstadt in a wonderfully surreal fashion. The steampunk imagery contains historical accuracy, but the steampunk elements lend them a quality of secondary worlds beyond this one, which Shelley's text arguably does. Basic and Sumberac render the Arctic a cold place beyond the Pale, beyond the borders of the spaces we know. My awareness of Roald Amundsen's expeditions fades into the background, and I am transported to a time when this was still a space as far away from European contact as the moon.

Likewise, Poe is reinvigorated. While I still love Doré's renderings of Poe's tales, these steampunk interpretations, with their considerable artistic license, seem well suited to the oneiric quality of Poe's horror. They look like dream images, chimeras matching Poe's perspectives of madness. The steampunk goggles become lenses of nightmare, windows into spaces of insanity, instead of the usual focii of romanticism and adventure.

I was very pleased to see that Running Press had not tampered with the original works. These are not mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Android Karenina. Running Press has put old wine into new wineskins, with excellent results. As steampunk becomes more mainstream, one can imagine young fans of Westerfeld or Slade wandering through the Young Adult section of their bookstore, or searching for "steampunk" on Amazon, and coming across the covers of these volumes. Hopefully, they'll disregard conventional wisdom, and judge these books by their covers, entranced by the artwork. I imagine them picking the book up, and being drawn into the story through the art. They make their purchase, with only a vague idea of the world they are about to enter. They know these are old works; they have heard their teachers or parents speak of them. They are interested in steampunk and know it shares something with these texts. The images have spoken of this pedigree. They open the book at home, sitting in their bed, and take a journey into some of the greatest stories penned in Western literature.

Cashing in on the steampunk name? One may level that accusation at Running Press, but not at the authors nor the works themselves. I certainly wouldn't. These are the grandparents of steampunk. They have every right to cash in on that term.

Postscript: While I have not seen the art for Steampunk: H.G. Wells, it seems likely that Zdenko Basic's cover is indicative on the ongoing quality he has brought to these first books in this series. I'll be reviewing it when it gets released in 2013. I'm excited to see it, and I hope someday we see a Steampunk: Verne from Basic and co. But a note to Running Press - no second rate translations of Verne!

Oct 25, 2012

The End of the Mission

I had hoped to be attending Steamcon IV this weekend, but my summer writing went better than I'd anticipated, and as many of you already know, the mission I began in 2008 is over. The end of the mission has left me mentally fatigued beyond my expectations, and so I regretfully bowed out of my presentations and attendance at Steamcon back in September. While it would have made the best party to mark the end of the journey, a few unexpected sources provided other landmarks to commemorate the end.

On the beautiful fall day of September 17, 2012, I successfully defended my dissertation. It had been four years since I made travel arrangements to attend Steam Powered in California in the fall of 2008, the event which kickstarted my research in so many wonderful and unexpected ways. It was an introspective day. I taught two classes at Grant MacEwan University in the morning, and then headed across the river on Edmonton's light-rail transit to wander the University of Alberta campus. I ate at one of my favorite fast-food stops in HUB mall, and then sat outside Rutherford House, one of the oldest buildings in Edmonton, lazily reviewing my dissertation while reflecting on the import of what was about to happen.

For those who wondered, getting to the end of a Ph.D. is a hell of an anticlimax. The defense itself was not easy, but certainly enjoyable. My committee was rigourous, but congenial. A few commented that they found my dissertation enjoyable and funny. I don't know how often that happens, but I'll take it as a compliment. Drinks afterward were fun; food with my primary advisor, Dr. Irene Sywenky, was a quiet way to end the day. My kids left a phone message before they went to bed: "What's up, DOC?" But there were no fireworks. I rode home on public transit, and listened to music while I walked from the bus-stop. The next morning, I rose, and returned to my teaching duties.

But it was over. It took weeks for this to sink in. And the result? I chose to read something other than steampunk. For the first time in four years, I could choose to read something besides steampunk without worrying I was falling behind on my work. I read Superman: Birthright, which is one of the best retellings of the origin story I've seen yet. I started listening to Dennis L. McKiernan's Iron Tower trilogy on audiobook, a series I've wanted to read since my early teens. I watched a lot of Godzilla movies. I played Pokemon with my son, and fell asleep with my daughter. While I haven't hated the past four years, the pace has been fucking relentless. I am slowing down.

People keep asking me if I'm publishing the dissertation. Maybe. I don't know. Sure, why not? There are interested parties. But significant portions of the final work share ideas with published articles, so I need to look into the copyright issues first. Mostly, I don't care. I'm done. I'm finished. And I did it in four years, instead of the five I'd anticipated. That feels more spectacular than being Dr. Perschon, believe me.

Reading through all those pages in preparation for the defense got me thinking about the goals I set when I started. I wanted to be in the avant garde of some area of research. I wanted to be the person other people had to quote and cite, to have the theory they needed to argue for or against. I wanted to be published in both academic and popular venues.

In the weeks leading up to the defense, On Spec magazine published its summer issue. I am a big fan of On Spec, so when they approached me about writing an article on steampunk for the magazine, I was elated. I have yet to conquer the fiction submission to them, but having the ask me on spec to write for On Spec was a real honour. My article is a summary of the dissertation, an accessible introduction to my theory of the aesthetic, titled "Through a Glass, Brightly: The Goggled Gaze of Steampunk." In it, I explain the aesthetic of steampunk through the "lenses" of neo-Victoriania, technofantasy, and retrofuturism. You can order the issue over at the On Spec website.

In the time since the defense, Steaming into a Victorian Future: A Steampunk Anthology  was released. Edited by Julia Taddeo and Cynthia Miller, this book represents the first academic anthology on steampunk in English. It's a gorgeous looking volume, and it contains the academic article I'm most proud of: "Useful Troublemakers: Social Retrofuturism in the Steampunk novels of Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest." Better still, Taddeo and Miller have organized the book with thematic coherence, so that my chapter is the middle act in an unintentional conversation on social commentary in steampunk. I'm not just proud to be part of this book, I'm proud to share space with writers who have been colleagues along the way, such as Dru Pagliasotti and Diana Pho.


In all honesty, I was more excited about On Spec and Steaming into a Victorian Future than I was about finishing the Ph.D. Sure, I'm relieved all that work is finally over. I'm grateful that I will no longer be graded. But the one-two punch of seeing my work recognized in both popular and academic venues confirmed that I had achieved what I set out to do when my advisor first asked me, "What will you be writing on for your dissertation?" I had suggested Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero as a collage of dystopic fiction, but she dismissed it outright: "Dystopia's been done to death. What else are you considering?"

Steampunk, I thought, I'm thinking about steampunk. I'm thinking about steampunk because no one else seems to be. I'm thinking about steampunk, because if I move fast enough, I can be one of the first people out of the gates with publications on it. I'm thinking about steampunk, because I want to enjoy my research topic with this is all over. "I'm thinking about steampunk," I told her. And four years later, I still am.

Sep 25, 2012

Ten Books every Steampunk Scholar needs

I'm done. I'm finished. The mission has been completed. I'll tell you all about it soon enough, but for now, I'd like to share the last thing I wrote in the dissertation.

One of the proposed revisions my external reader recommended was an appendix of primary sources  essential to literary steampunk studies. I compiled this list based largely upon the popularity of these texts, not necessarily their scholarly or literary merit. While Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion might be more conducive to ostensibly serious textual rigour, its influence on the steampunk aesthetic is marginal. After reading over sixty steampunk novels, these are the ones I'd say are must-haves for literary studies in steampunk. There are many other works that are brilliant, or that address certain facets of the steampunk aesthetic, but in answer to the question "Where do I start?" this is what I'd reply. This is not my list of favourites, but rather a list of the books you need to be reading if you want to be talking about steampunk with any sort of authority.


Seminal Steampunk
Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock (1971): This is widely considered a seminal work of steampunk, and is often cited for its political subtext. It is still in print in an omnibus edition from White Wolf Publishing. The omnibus includes the sequels to Warlord.
Infernal Devices/Morlock Night omnibus by K.W. Jeter (2011): Angry Robot books released both of Jeter’s first steampunk works in an omnibus that includes a new foreword by Jeter, and an afterword by Jeff Vandermeer, co-editor of the first steampunk anthology and The Steampunk Bible.
The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives omnibus by James P. Blaylock (2008): While this edition from Subterranean Press is now out-of-print, it is the only comprehensive collection of Blaylock’s early steampunk writing, both short stories and longer works. Titan Books is reprinting Homunculus and Lord Kelvin’s Machine in 2013, for those who cannot locate a used copy of this collection. You'll be missing out though, both on the never-before-in-print "Hole in Space," and Blaylock's afterword.
The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1991): No discussion of steampunk can be considered complete without some mention of this novel. While it is not widely appreciated due to its difficult nature, it remains one of the best-known early steampunk books.


Second Wave
Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon (2006): While Pynchon’s epic novel contains many other styles of narratives, the adventures of the Chums of Chance clearly owe a debt to the steampunk aesthetic. Those looking for a very serious and dense work of literature to study steampunk through need look no further. That said, it is not widely read within steampunk circles, so should not be part of a literary assessment of steampunk as a popular phenomenon.


(It must be noted that the following three books, released in the same month in North America, were arguably part of the avant garde of a steampunk publishing explosion, but demonstrated their superiority with other works released subsequently through the enduring popularity of the series each book started.)
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (2009): In addition to catalyzing Priest’s career, Boneshaker popularized the genre for readers outside the subculture, and while it was not the first to do so, was arguably the book that reminded fans that steampunk could take place in the American West. 
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (2009): Along with its sequels, this Young Adult novel is one of the most widely read works of steampunk. While the plot is straightforward, Westerfeld’s technofantasies have a thematic resonance that transcends any formulaic plot elements.

Soulless by Gail Carriger (2009): While it continues to be reviled by critics who hold that steampunk should be serious, the tremendous popularity of Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series cannot be denied. While I have yet to gather statistics, it is my impression that these books, and this first one in particular, are the most widely read steampunk works in the past five years.

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff (2012): Since it was released late in the process of writing my dissertation, I was unable to include Kristoff’s first book in the Lotus War series in my discussion of East Asian steampunk and the problem of Victorientalism. Beyond simply being an excellent work of fiction, Kristoff’s Stormdancer provides an interesting secondary steampunk world based on nineteenth-century Japan.

Anthologies
Steampunk, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (2008): For a study of steampunk before the 2009 boom in popularity, one cannot do better than the first of the Tachyon series of steampunk anthologies. This book includes everything from an excerpt from Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air to short fiction by Jay Lake written in 2007. It’s an excellent resource for someone looking for a survey of steampunk from its first-wave inception to second-wave innovation.

Sep 7, 2012

Ghosts of War by George Mann

Many thanks to Professor Cayne Armand, who closes this run of guest reviews, while I recover from the stress of finishing my dissertation and anticipate my oral defence on September 17 (the five year mission might be ending a year sooner!). You can check out Armand's science fiction serial at starmadacomics.com.
 This is the second novel in George Mann's Ghosts series, and as I mentioned in my prior review, the heart of the Ghosts series. If you’ve not read Ghosts of Manhattan, you’ll want to read that story before reading this review, as I’m going to be required to spoiler some of the events of Ghosts of Manhattan in my review of Ghosts of War.

Initially hinted at in the ending of Ghosts of Manhattan, and featured on the cover of the novel, we spend much of this story interacting with the horrific brass and vellum raptors that are terrorizing New York City and who Lieutenant Donovan and the Ghost are trying to track down and stop. The characterization of these monsters is wonderful, painted in vivid strokes of inhumanity. This is contrasted well with the humanity of the Ghost. Where we spent much of Ghosts of Manhattan looking at the angst of Lt. Donovan, we spent much of Ghosts of War looking into the heart of the Ghost, and at his human struggle.

I will admit that my heart was thrilled to see such terrifically steampunk monsters, beings of brass and leather, using steam and pistons. The cogs of my heart churned furiously as the Ghost battled these monsters, not once, or twice, but the length of the story. While they’re not impossible for the Ghost to beat, they are a formidable foe – something that is often lost in modern storytelling. A villain that takes everything the hero can give--and then some--is a villain worth fighting. It makes a story worth reading. Mr. Mann quite thankfully chose this route.

We learn in this story that it was not The Roman that had created the moss and brass golems, but a mad scientist pressed into his service – and that these golems are his handiwork, as are the raptors.
These are not the only items of steampunk – as we had a continuation of all things that had been introduced in Ghosts of Manhattan. I’m happy to say that the dirigibles in this story do more than float ponderously in the sky – but I’ll not say more.

While the sophomore novels of a series are quite often the weaker novel of any series, the case is reversed here – Ghosts of War strikes me as the stronger of the two. As I said before, I recommend that you read both, to get yourself immersed in the storyline, in the world of the Ghost. I would recommend the purchase of both novels.

The story is not without its faults. While Mr. Mann does use grittier language throughout, he still refers to sex exclusively as “f**king.” I don’t know if this is a language disconnect, him being British and I, American. Not enough for me to put down the book, but jarring at those times I encountered it.

At a week’s remove from the story, I could now analyze very typical plot twists, twists that could easily be trite and clichéd. In the heat of the moment, as I flipped the pages of the novel as quickly as I could read, I didn’t notice them -- Mr. Mann’s use of them is enticing and refreshing. Where in other’s hands, they could detract from the story, Mr. Mann has woven a beautiful tapestry that pulls the reader along in excitement. This is absolutely a novel to let yourself be absorbed in.

While at first a bit off-putting to my scientific mind, I realized between the two novels that Mr. Mann’s reference to the supernatural through both stories is quite true to the Victorian period. I had at first thought to berate him for resorting to this measure rather than resorting to careful use of science. Reflecting on the novel after finishing it, I will actually give him applause for the integration of this aspect of Victorianism that is so often forgotten by other writers.

As I mentioned in my prior review, where we seemed to have two disparate setting pieces in Ghosts of Manhattan, I feel the two are well matched in Ghosts of War. Monsters of brass, vellum, and pistons assaulting the Big Apple in a reign of terror, a mad scientist working out his own longevity through artificial limbs, and the story culminating in a super-weapon quite apply powered by Tesla coils--I am much more pleased, and approve of the series on the whole.

Rating the story on our Steam Scholar’s scale, I would move this to a High rating for steampunk, and a B+ for the story and an overall B+ for the series.

Aug 31, 2012

Ghosts of Manhattan by George Mann

Many thanks to Professor Cayne Armand, who continues our run of guest reviews here at the blog, while I recover from the stress of finishing my dissertation and anticipate my oral defence on September 17 (the five year mission might be ending a year sooner!). You can check out Armand's science fiction serial at starmadacomics.com.


I will begin this review by telling you that you should absolutely read this book. Trust me – with the sequel, this book adds a great deal of characterization that will only make reading the next book better. With that caveat, let us delve into the review of Ghosts of Manhattan. As you might guess, in my opinion, Ghosts of Manhattan is more of a prequel than a first in a series.

I enjoyed Ghosts of Manhattan well enough on its own. I will generally purchase a book if I find it interesting enough to read a second time – and I would buy Ghosts of Manhattan. I found it to be a great adventure and crime-procedural all rolled into one, with strong flavors of the 1920s period. As I read through the story I found myself comparing The Ghost to other vigilante/hero archetypes; The Shadow, Batman, the Phantom, and oddly enough, Flash Gordon.

I genuinely enjoyed the characters and the story that they moved in – even the villains. While a great crime procedural, I spent much of the book thinking that it isn’t intrinsically steampunk. It felt like Mr. Mann didn’t hit his stride with the steampunk aspects until the last third of the book, leading me to suspect that the steampunk was almost whitewashed on as an afterthought. As a bit of a spoiler for my next review, I can tell you that I was right to hope for more in the second novel of this series, and your willingness to read Ghosts of Manhattan will be rewarded.

I mentioned that the steampunk flavors felt whitewashed – let me elaborate. Within the first few pages we see The Ghost defeating some of the Roman’s mobsters, and during the course of battle are given our first taste of the steampunk aesthetic that Mr. Mann used in his world. The cars are powered by self-feeding coal hoppers, twin smokestacks rising at the rear of each and every car. Self-lighting cigarettes feature in the story – an interesting flavor of retrofuturism.

Our hero, the Ghost, has the ubiquitous boots, buckles, and goggles. He complements them with pneumatic flechettes and rocket boosters. Each of these steampunk-flavored pieces present an interesting premise, and I was hopeful for a great ride after reading the events of the bank robbery in the first chapter. Sadly, the story seemed to grind to a crawl, and aside from the appearance of the holotubes (holographic telephones), and self-lighting cigarettes, the steampunk aspects of the story faded into the background. I distinctly recall asking myself at page 33, “Isn’t this supposed to be a steampunk story?” The rich steampunk attributes that I had keyed myself up to anticipate were supplanted by a vivid world where I more expected to run into the cast of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” or “The Sting.” As the story progressed, I half expected the Roman to turn out to be Al Capone.

Not many pages after my doubts surfaced, I was soon given another morsel of steampunk, enough to draw me along, but my rhetorical question was far from banished and reappeared all throughout the story until I hit the last chapters. Between the action and the increased appearance of steampunk, I was well engrossed, and felt as though I were finally reading the novel I had anticipated.

My list of complaints, though few, would begin with foreshadowing. Allow me to preface that I don’t foreshadow easily – I didn’t expect the ending of “The Sixth Sense,” or “The Village,” for example. Throughout the story I felt as if the foreshadowing were ladled out rather than drizzled. It was so strong that the ending was not unexpected, nor the segue into the next novel; on the whole, much thicker than I would want in my normal reading.

Secondly, while it may seem a bit puritanical, I found it quite jarring that Mr. Mann would generally refrain from cursing throughout the novel, but would say f**k when referring to intercourse. To have such a dichotomy was both distracting and off-putting. Had he used more gritty language with his characters throughout, I wouldn’t likely have noticed.

Thirdly, the use of “fifty-dollar” words. There are some words in the English language, while useful and full of flavor, should still only be used once a page, and some, once in a novel. They are heavy, rare, and, like truffles in cooking, should be used sparingly. I recall reading a self-published novel where “victuals” was invariably used to refer to food. As a writer and an editor, let me tell you, this is a once-in-a-book word. In Mr. Mann’s case, the police zeppelins invariably moved “ponderously” in the “gloaming” night of New York – two words that add great clarity of image, but should not, in this author’s opinion, be used more than once in a story.

Finally, I feel as though the steampunk flavors inserted in the novel could just as easily be excised and we’d have a 1920s policier, just as interesting, and maybe a better story without the expectation of brass and steam. Were this a stand-alone story, I would argue that point more stridently. Having read both, I will say that the wedding of the two different setting flavors comes to fruition as Mr. Mann hits his stride in the second book, Ghosts of War.

Aug 10, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: The Whitechapel Horrors by Edward B. Hanna

Guest Review by Avigayil Morris, getting us back on track with a look at other Holmes pastiches from Titan Books.


I consider myself a Sherlockian, having eagerly devoured the entirety of the Sherlock Holmes collection at a young age, with many feedings since. One of the more common mediums for Sherlock Holmes is movies and television. I have enjoyed interpretations of Sherlock Holmes by Basil Rathbone (late 30s to mid 40s), Jeremy Brett (mid 80s to mid 90s) and the most recent addition, Benedict Cumberbatch, in the BBC: Sherlock (ongoing). Thus, when Mike asked if I would be interested in reviewing Sherlock Holmes: The Whitechapel Horrors by Edward B. Hanna (Titan Books, 2010), I jumped at the chance.

What I failed to realize at the time was this book actually falls outside my jurisdiction when it comes to mystery stories. True, it is a detective story, but a more accurate description would classify this book as a historical fiction. While my knowledge of Sherlock Holmes and Watson may be sufficient, my knowledge of Jack the Ripper was pretty much non-existent. I chose, however, to read the book before my trip to Wikipedia for a debriefing.

As a historical fiction, Hanna's book excels. The twenty-five pages of 'footnotes' at the back add substance and background to the reading experience. While some of the original story is adapted to accommodate Holmes, the details are as close to the original as could possibly be expected. Some details like the human kidney that was originally mailed to Mr. Lusk was mailed to Holmes instead - but the fact it was a kidney mailed, and the spirit of the letter enclosed is preserved. Details such as names, dates, and locations are matched (for the most part) to the historical account of the murders. Gruesome details of the throat slits, puncture wounds, removal of internal organs, and the mutilations per woman are also retold with acute accuracy.

Additionally, Hanna’s work has plenty of political content. The monarchy and political leaders of the day, such as Lord Randolph and the Prince of Wales, match what was known of their personalities and attitudes from research. The back notes provide more details on the known history of the political figures mentioned.

The result of this strong adherence to the actual timeline, details, and events creates a grounded, believable story. The amalgamation of historical ‘truths’ within the Sherlockian world is executed well, though becomes tedious in some areas. We see this when the story is worked around an absence from England by Watson, and then by Holmes, for the Hound of The Baskervilles mystery. Other mysteries are also commonly referenced, though not directly. Hanna grounds the story with other well-known characters from Doyle’s stories: Wiggins, The Baker Street Irregulars, Ms Hudson and Mary.

Hanna's work overall is quite believable. Once you get past some blatant character errors (mentioned below), the actual world and story created feel authentic. By authentic I mean a story that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could have written, but perhaps never edited or finished. However, being written in the third person rather than through Watson detracts from this effect. If these are indeed Watson’s notes of a case he was not allowed to disclose until 100 years had past, why wasn’t the story written the way all of Watson’s stories are written: from his point of view?

Hanna's Watson is a marginally passable facsimile of the Doctor, with some personality quirks that were perhaps present but by no means prominent in Doyle's Watson. Hanna's Watson comes across as a bit of an ass, especially during his commentary on how the poor deserve their lot. He tends to challenge Holmes and authority figures more brashly, and has a temper issue. Though his loyalty is unquestionable and his compassion towards Holmes ever unmoving: we are presented with a version of Watson missing a portion of his big heart. Perhaps the story being written from a third party perspective lends itself to a more external view of Watson, uncoloured by his own opinion of himself.

Sherlock Holmes has adopted the missing chunk of Watson's heart as he shows great compassion beyond the usual capabilities of his famous cold methodical being. Holmes also seems to have developed a propensity for talking to almost anyone, certainly a habit that Doyle's Holmes never would have suffered. Hanna excuses this behaviour by using phrases such as 'Holmes was uncommonly chatty.' This would be more meaningful should it have been uncommon throughout the story. Also, Holmes deviates from his usual deductive methods and creates theories without facts – a moment that nearly gave me heart palpitations. Unfortunately, our famous detective is slow to follow up on evidence he knows is solid, and arguably could be blamed for the deaths of all but the first victim due to his possession of valuable knowledge he fails to act on.

Overall, the speech and mannerisms of both primary characters is spot on, and the interactions between them gave me a nostalgic feeling that is a good replica of Doyle's work.

Now for the meat – feel free to skip down to here if the above bores you to death. The story has two blatant errors, which I think are its downfall from a technical perspective.
  1. Sherlock Holmes knows who the perpetrator is with very solid evidence by page 71-72, after the first murder. He fails to act on it or disclose the evidence till much later in the book... several murders later. With this evidence he could very well have prevented the future murders. In my mind, blood is certainly on his hands. This issue is never approached nor dealt with.
  2. The Whitechapel Horrors is 440 pgs long. However, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt who Jack the Ripper was on pg. 250. The connection was so incredibly blatant that Doyle’s Watson could have made the connection (and we know how daft he was). This is shameful for a detective story! When you give such valuable information away just over half way through the book, do you really expect people to finish reading? Hanna tries fumbling around with false leads in the latter half of the book that make Holmes look stupid, but the answer is blatant.
The worst part is the story takes a turn at the end, which is completely insane. Hanna via Holmes dismisses all the evidence collected throughout the story and suddenly doesn’t know whom Jack the Ripper is at all. The evidence that blatantly pointed towards a specific individual Holmes says is meaningless and that they just couldn’t have had the mind to do it. The end is outrageous and sure to boil your blood if you are a Sherlockian.

Even with the glaring errors, the book was an enjoyable read. I really liked the combination of actual history with one of my favourite fictional characters. If you enjoy Doyle's work, political fiction, or historical fiction I encourage you to take a gander and read Sherlock Holmes: The Whitechapel Horrors. However, if you like a good mystery that leaves you guessing till the very end, you are out of luck.

Aug 6, 2012

The Grey Griffins by Derek Benz and J. S. Lewis

Guest Post by Aaron Sikes, Managing Editor, Web for Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders


In The Brimstone Key – The Clockwork Chronicles: Book 1, authors Derek Benz and J. S. Lewis team up for a fourth story about the Grey Griffins. I have not read the previous three installments in the Griffins’ storyline, though it is clear that Benz and Lewis have a vibrant imagination and are enchanted by the world they’ve created together. The Brimstone Key is packed full of creative spectacles, wondrous inventions, and some clever use of contemporary trends. The target audience, if not all readers, will no doubt recognize the parallel between Round Table, a card game the Griffins play, and collectible card games like Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic: The Gathering.

All in all, the story promises an exciting ride through a magical world with intrigue and action at every turn. Unfortunately, and for some truly painful reasons, The Brimstone Key completely fails to live up to its promise.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the story is that there are no problems in it. If you want people to feel excited about a story, it helps if the characters in the story are faced with situations that are pressing, important, compelling, or dire. Good storytelling requires characters who encounter difficulties and overcome or at least engage with those difficulties, hopefully surviving and learning something about themselves in the process. Whether we’re talking about protagonists, antagonists, or the supporting cast, a good story will lead each and every character through an arc from beginning to end. A really good story will leave all remaining characters with options for the future, and not simply because that’s a necessary step to guiding readers towards a sequel. A good story will also be well edited, meaning the authors will be told both the good and the bad about their effort. And if something falls short or flat, the editor is there to keep the authors on track. The Brimstone Key doesn’t meet any of the above criteria.

The story revolves around a team of four friends called the Grey Griffins who discover a mysterious package in their secret fort, called “The Aerie” (three separate buildings connected by walkways, and replete with air-conditioning, refrigerators packed with food, various bits of electronic gadgetry, and a host of other conveniences that amount to something akin to a Bat Cave for tween superheroes). With that image in mind, how can readers be expected to believe the Griffins will have a problem with transferring to a new school? (That fact is laid down like a bit of a gauntlet in the opening pages).

From there, we get to watch the Griffins open the mysterious package, follow a small clockwork insect, and go on a rapid-fire adventure through a mystical place they reach by a portal. In this hidden place, the Griffins learn of a figure known as The Clockwork King, who resides inside a deck of Round Table cards, along with all of his menacing clockwork inventions. The deck is mysterious and foreboding as none of the Griffins have heard of it before, not even Max, the leader of the group and most accomplished Round Table player (he beat a Grandmaster or something in a previous story). When they return, the adventure starts with Natalia, the female member of the Griffins, conducting research (her specialty) to uncover the truth about the strange deck of cards and the even stranger clockwork monsters.

The rest of the story proceeds much like the opening action sequence. Rapid-fire scenes are presented as individual chapters so that the pace never truly lets up, but not because any particular scene demands we keep reading to find out what happens next. It’s simply a function of a book that is written with scenes that last anywhere from three to five pages on average, and in which the Griffins, if they encounter any problems at all, easily survive to take on whatever is next presented to them as a challenge. Only for these kids, there doesn’t seem to be anything resembling a challenge in their world, magical or otherwise.

In every single instance of action and supposed peril, the Griffins come out without a scratch by using their special abilities, regardless of what kind of stress they might be under (laser fire from giant clockwork monsters, for example). And, as I said above, the book would have benefited from some quality editing. In one scene, Max is described as swallowing sewage into his lungs and then, an instant later, gasping as he reaches for an object at his feet (i.e., down in the sewage he’s swimming through and supposedly drowning on, unless they snuck something in about his lungs being magical).

In situations where the Griffins can’t make it out on their own, which are few and very far between, they’re saved by the help of the many adults who orbit their activities and, in one case, always seem to be nearby just when things get tough. Coincidental appearances are effective plot devices, but not when they are used to solve a problem so the story can get back to descriptions about the wild inventions or nifty history surrounding this mysterious school the Griffins attend.

It’s called Iron Bridge, by the way, and had previously been destroyed for some reason. We find out, eventually, why it was destroyed, and that revelation, like every other one in the book, is entirely anti-climactic. This and every above complaint is rooted in my very first critique. Good storytelling requires characters, and The Brimstone Key doesn’t really have any. It has names, it has abilities, and it has vague descriptions (if any are given, and, for the record, it is not acceptable to assume readers have a familiarity with your previous books and therefore do not need to be told what your characters look like). To their credit, the authors tell us on the inside fold of the jacket that Max is the leader, Natalia is the brains, Ernie is the changeling, and Harley is the muscle. Then they leave out that Harley is also a technical wizard capable of reprogramming a hostile clockwork monster during a firefight, without being injured, and thereby shutting down an entire army of clockwork monsters that attack the Griffins. But there’s a short battle scene in the book that fills that in for us.

So there are no real characters, but surely there is dialogue to fill out the characters, give us a sense of who they are, their motivations, their fears, their hopes? Surely? No. No, there isn’t. There are passages of text presented between quotes, but it isn’t dialogue. It isn’t dialogue because every single character in the book speaks the same language, uses the same diction, and is apparently familiar with the exact same turns of phrase employed by every other character. Not every writer is a dialogue wizard, but a careful editor would have pinpointed this deficiency immediately.

If there was something compelling about the Grey Griffins latest adventure, it would be easier to lend a hopeful tone to this review. But that’s just the problem with the book. There isn’t anything compelling at all about a story of four young people who possess super powers and rare artifacts that allow them to defeat nearly any foe they encounter. And when they encounter a foe they can’t overcome? Oh, well, some adult will show up and help out at just the right moment. What is most painful about this review is that the authors are so clearly invested in the world they’ve created and in the descriptions and inventions they get to write and write about. They’ve also made a considerable effort at standing on the shoulders of giants by placing their protagonists in a special school housed in a hidden location in the space between the real world and the Shadowlands, and which is reached by a special magical train.

Yes, Benz and Lewis clearly draw inspiration from that young wizard’s story, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But there is everything wrong with assuming it’s okay to take flat characters across story arcs that are one-dimensional. One dimension equals a single point on the map. In other words, no movement. Nothing happening. Sadly, the world Benz and Lewis have created, which could have been so much more, comes off as just Hogwarts with gears on.

Jul 12, 2012

The Great Canadian Steampunk Heist: Rush and Justin Bieber

Earlier this year, I was interviewed by USA Today for an article on Steampunk which referred to the "horror of the steampunk crowd" at Canadian pop sensation Justin Bieber's appropriation of the steampunk aesthetic for the video promoting "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." A number of comments to the article noted that clearly, despite Kory Doyle's bold statement that "All are welcome and everyone's correct" under the steampunk umbrella, Justin Bieber and anyone like him, is not. The article informed ignorant me that someone had made a Bieber Minus Bieber video, which tosses the Bieb out on his head and resets his images to Dr. Steel's "Build the Robots."

 It's the Steampunk Disney thing all over again. Steampunk is whatever you want it to be, unless you want to sell it at Hot Topic, or use it in a mainstream pop music video. I guess the argument might be that the Bieb's style of music isn't steampunk, or that he doesn't represent the politics of the more activist-oriented steampunk. Mostly, from the little invective I've gleaned about the video, people seem pissed off that Bieber "appropriated" steampunk when he isn't even part of the scene.
 Kettle Black, anyone? What is steampunk, if not the appropriation of disparate elements we can hardly say "belong" to us? Oh, I know - some of you were weaned at the teats of Queen Victoria herself, raised on a steady diet of Vernotopic and Wellsian matineee fare, you "were steampunk before you knew what to call it," etc. ad nauseum. But none of you are Victorians. None of you live in an alternate history. Steampunk is always, as I stated in my post on Guinan and Bennett's Frank Reade, bricolage. Sometimes, in its more thoughtful and intentional moments, it rises to the level of detournement. But it's always appropriation: like children at the craft table, we rummage through "magazines" of mid-to late nineteenth century fashion, early twentieth century industrial design, and the technologically magical, whimsical, and improbable. We cut out our pictures and paste them together, and we hold it up to say, "look at what I did." We formed a club of people who make the same sorts of pictures, like Mitch Hedberg's hilarious imaginary conversation between the originators of the clubhouse sandwich:
I order the club sandwich all the time, but I'm not even a member, man. I don't know how I get away with it. How'd it start anyway? I like my sandwiches with three pieces of bread. So do I! Well let's form a club then. Alright, but we need more stipulations. Yes we do; instead of cutting the sandwich once, let's cut it again. Yes, four triangles, and we will position them into a circle. In the middle we will dump chips. Or potato salad. Okay. I got a question for ya, how do you feel about frilly toothpicks? I'm for 'em! Well this club is formed; spread the word on menus nationwide. I like my sandwiches with alfalfa sprouts. Well then you're not in the fuckin' club! 
Bieber is sitting at the table, and he looks over to see what we've been up to. He copies what we do. We get mad, and tell him he's "not in the fuckin' club!" My daughter watches a show called Ni-Hao Kai Lan, which teaches good emotional reactions to bad situations. In "Everybody's Hat Parade," when Hoho the monkey copies Rintoo the tiger's hat design, Rintoo is enraged (Rintoo has serious anger management issues), until the wise child Kai-Lan sings a song about how imitation is a form of compliment. Add to this what I learned from Kirk Hammett of Metallica: imitation is creation. The steampunk scene is built on this, whatever the hell we're shouting about individuality. Go to a con and count the top hats or corsets and tell me we're being really individual. Alternate visions of iconic superheroes like Captain America at Comic Con this weekend are more individualistic than we are sometimes. How about a tattooed Cap? A black or Asian Captain America? That's craaazy!

The steampunk Bieber-rejection reminds me of what it was like working as a minister in Evangelical Christianity: we were known for what we excluded, not what we included. That's got to be a bad thing in any group, whether their ideology is built on a concept of grace or not. Bottom line, steampunks? Stop giving the Bieb such a hard time. He had as much right to appropriate the steampunk aesthetic as any of us have. Stop being jerks or I'll put you in time out.
 Why did steampunks give Bieber such a hard time, but no one's gone up in arms about the Bieb's fellow Canadians, Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson, and Geddy Lee of Rush? Rush's Time Machine tour, their Clockwork Angels disc, and the forthcoming tie-in novel from Kevin J. Anderson are clearly appropriating steampunk, but I haven't heard the same Bieb-tastic hue and cry this time. Is it because the novel is written by the man behind the novelization of the cinematic League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the brilliant pastiche of Captain Nemo: The Fantastic History of a Dark Genius, or the Wellsian Martian Wars (the last two are available in newly released editions from Titan Books)? Or is it because Neil Peart has written the lyrics in tandem with Anderson's novel, so that Clockwork Angels is one of the most awesome SF concept albums since Coheed and Cambria's Armory Wars?
 Or is it because the stage design for the Time Machine tour looks like the stage Abney Park and Vernian Process should be playing on? Neil Peart's drum kit alone is a gorgeous work of steampunk art. It's easy to applaud Rush's appropriation of the steampunk aesthetic and still retain your sense of decorum. Having a moment of squee over Justin Bieber using steampunk might feel less dignified. But both artists are outside the "scene" of steampunk music, whatever the hell that is.

I'd say it this way: Justin Bieber and Rush have appropriated the aesthetic of steampunk and applied it to the visual concepts associated with their music, which is arguably not steampunk in any way. This is no less a use of the steampunk aesthetic than that episode of Castle. We need to stop talking about whether something is or isn't steampunk, and start admitting when steampunk is being used. Let's not ask "is Firefly steampunk?" but rather, "what elements of the steampunk aesthetic is Firefly using?" We might not always like it, but we can't deny it.

The Bieb made a steampunk video. Rush made a concept album in a steampunk world that Kevin J. Anderson is writing a novel in. Just because it's mainstream doesn't mean it ceases to be steampunk. And how about that appropriation of Bieber's imagery to reset to Dr. Steel's music? Isn't that the same sort of piratical appropriation steampunks accused the boy wonder of? I could use the word hypocrisy, but who knows, maybe the editor of the video had no such intentions. Ultimately, it proves that Bieber's use of the steampunk aesthetic was done well (and yes, I know, it was likely his marketing team, not him, but metonyms are so much easier). I for one, really enjoyed the video. Besides, to bastardize Billy Joel once again, "Cyberpunk, Ribofunk, even if it's steampunk, it's still SFF to me."

Jul 1, 2012

Steampunk Beaver vs. Arrogant Man on a Moose

The following are variants of a strip I submitted to the Dominion Dispatch last year. The image was also featured as last year's top bar. I couldn't decide on my favorite punchline, so I made several versions. It's my whimsical way of saying "Happy Canada Day" this year, and introducing Canuck Steampunk, year three.

The final version of the top bar, one of my all time faves.

Here's Version 1 of the strip, which I think has the best pacing. 

The Second Version

The Third Version, which makes me laugh - This was the final version I submitted. The title addresses why I wrote the strip in the first place, which was to make a joke about how this peaceful Canadian icon (from a nation of ostensible peacekeepers) is driving around with a huge steampunk gun on the front of his car. This was also meant as commentary on the ubiquity of sidearms in steampunk cosplay. We're not sure who we're at war with, but we have guns just in case - even in Canada. I thank Cory Gross and Dave Malki at the bottom of the strip: Cory, because the steampunk Beaver was his idea, and Malki, because I was riffing off the style he renders his hilarious Wondermark comic with.


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