Friday, December 31, 2010

Dark Days in Bright City, Part Three

For those of you just tuning in, I'm running my recently published short story "Dark Days in Bright City" in five installments for your perusal. The story appears in the November issue of Fissure Magazine, along with a host of other fantastic Steampunk tales. Don't forget to read Parts One and Two before you read Part Three below:

“Y-yes sir.” Hands of bartender shake when he serves me bottle. I try for disarming smile, but he scurries away quicker than greased clock gears. He probably thought he hid gun better. It will be if he follows advice. I stare at Butcher while I sip beer. If intelligence correct, Butcher and associate should leave soon. Associate is unimportant. If he resists I kill. If he runs I let free. Butcher is only one I care about.

Hand claps onto shoulder as smell of cigarette smoke fills air. I slowly turn on stool, and look into face of man in black coat. He takes two puffs from cigarette before removing from mouth.

“Are you Dmitry Radimov?” man says. I sip from beer instead of replying. Inside I curse lack of foresight. Of course government would know my face; high-level clearance for ten years meant Premier had record of my appearance.

“Who asks?”

“Come with us, Commander.” Man brushes coat aside to reveal long-barreled pistol on hip. I grin. If man read file, he would know threat is big mistake.

Nyet.”

“Then I am forced to arrest you by command of His Excellency the Lord Premier.” Man turns to comrades. “Take him.”

“I think not.” I slam bottle into man’s face. He stumbles into other soldier. I jump off stool and punch another man. He crashes onto table of dockworkers. Burly men leap to feet and throw man aside. I bound onto table of sailors in mid-song. Sailors reach for me, but I jump to next table in line. Men in longcoats follow as I stir up bar. By time I reach door angry shouts of sailors and dockworkers fill room.

I land at door and look back. Men in longcoats are behind crowd. One tries to explain he wants through, but line of sailors lunges. Burly sailor lifts nearest soldier by collar. Someone fires gun and bar patrons scatter. Bartender stands at back with repeating rifle pointed to ceiling. I tip hat to man, and step outside.

Fight got my blood flowing; cold night does not feel as bad anymore. I curse at loss of Butcher. Plan was so close to happening. Sinov'ya shlyooh soldiers had to interfere. I stride across street to alley. Butcher still prowls city without fear. This should not be so; not while Sonya exists as mechanical monster.

I creep through moonlit night. Rain still pours from sky, while thunder rolls overhead. Nearest sewer entrance is two streets over. From there I return to shop and await next chance at capture of Butcher. Chug of carriage engine on next street gives pause.

Steam flows from beneath high-mounted vehicle. Rubber wheels bounce slow along cobbles as carriage drives near. Is smart driver; streets not good in this section of city for many years. Black-lacquered body of vehicle gleams ebony in moonlight, while brass decorations burn gold under lightning. Clean lines and sleek body impress craftsman sensibility. Machine is gorgeous example of proper design.

Callarion eagle is emblazoned on carriage nose. I step back into deeper shadows. Eagle means government employee, which means trouble if I am seen. Carriage passes, and I glimpse Butcher’s face through window. I stare after carriage.

Monday: Part Four of "Dark Days in Bright City." Stay tuned!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dark Days in Bright City, Part Two

For those just tuning in, I'm running my recently published short story, "Dark Days in Bright City," in installments over the next few days. The story originally appeared in Fissure Magazine's November issue (available for purchase through Shadow Archer Press). And now I present to you Part Two of "Dark Days in Bright City:"

“Ah, Herr Doctor!” Burly man’s voice booms, but thunder covers rest of voice. I quickly unfold Collapsible Listening Cone and press to ear.

“… enter this fine establishment?” Butcher’s nasal voice grates on ears. “It is far too cold out here for any lengthy discourse.”

Ja, of course. Fair warning the beer is piss here.” Big man leads Butcher into bar. I stuff cone back in pocket, and stride across street. Men outside bar stare at me, and I touch throat in unconscious salute. Men repeat gesture, and I know they were once Navy. Thought of former comrades here warms me. Perhaps I will have allies tonight.

I enter bar and push goggles onto head. Loss of sight from fogging glass is not something I can afford. Air inside bar hangs heavy with smoke and smell of stale beer. Is stark change from outside, and I do not see Butcher or companion at first. Sailors and dockworkers fill bar with singing and loud talking, while fat bartender serves pints from long oak bar at back.

I scan room, and see half dozen men in black longcoats in corner nearest door. They give appearance of being uninterested in surroundings, but one’s eyes flick to me every few seconds. Could be soldiers watching for trouble; could also be brigands. Either way I am on guard.
I pick my way through press of tables and people toward bar. Though I feel eyes of men on me while I move, I do not turn. Let them wonder if I see them or not. Stairway and twin doors at rear of room offer escape if needed.



I catch sight of Butcher when I pass group of dockworkers at fireplace. Butcher and his friend sit with heads close together in booth near kitchen door. I flex my fingers to stop reaching for gun. Stick to plan. Killing Butcher in room full of witnesses is not good idea. Follow him, kidnap him, put fear into his heart. Is better use of talent.

I sit on barstool in corner opposite from Butcher. This allows keeping of watch without appearing to do so. I glance at mirror behind bar, where light from lamps and fire reflect in orangey glow. Men in longcoats near door try to study me without notice. Gloopiye obyez'yani. Never did I see such poorly trained spies. Capture even by bad spies would be inadvisable. If they guard Butcher, they will attempt to take me to dungeons.

Bartender waddles over. Bulge under apron is wrong shape to be bellyfat of man, and tucked strangely into belt. I glimpse shape of gun barrel when he turns. Da, of course. Bartender is smart to carry iron in unsavory place.

“What’ll it be, sir?”

“Bottle of Fantovan semi-dark please, barmyen.” I wave him close, and bartender leans in. “Tuck iron in trouser pocket, not apron. Easier draw and less danger.”

Tomorrow: Part Three of the story. 

NOTE: You can read Part One here if you missed it, and all previous installments can be found by clicking here.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dark Days in Bright City, Part One

A few days ago, Donna Hole mentioned that I haven't posted any excerpts of my fiction here in quite some time. Since I started focusing this blog more toward becoming a practical literary guide to other writers of Steampunk, I've purposely eschewed putting my own writing up here. It's not that I don't want you all to read my fiction, just that I was slowly moving the brand of the blog away from that. 

However! In the holiday spirit, I have a special surprise for you. Over the next few days, I will posting the short story that was published last month in Fissure Magazine's special Steampunk issue. Since it's only about 2,500 words, my plan is to post between 400 and 500 words each day until the story is done. So, without further ado, I give you Part One of "Dark Days in Bright City:"

DARK DAYS IN BRIGHT CITY
By Matthew Delman


Raindrops explode on ground in front of me while cold wind blows through my oilcloth trenchcoat. “Sukkin sin.” I clap hand over mouth and pray no one hears me. This would not be good thing. I huddle in alleyway across from well-lit bar, coat buttoned tight while I spy on entrance to building.



I flick switch on goggles taken from shop. Tiny gears click into place. Front door of bar focuses through rainstorm; door flies open. Singing spills out. I change attention to several men clumped outside bar. Even with better focus on door, men are still unclear through rain. I flick second switch and am able to see men clearly.


Every man is sailor on shore leave. Or ruffians dressed in pea coats common to sailors. Either one is possible in this section of Callarion. One turns toward me as I see flash of flame at mouth. Must be match lighting cigarette. My mouth dries at thought of smooth tobacco. I lick my lips and clench my fists to hold still. Nyet. I stopped smoking because Sonya asked. It would be wrong of me to start again, though she lay dead these past three years.


Bar door opens and sea shanty spills out. Tune sounds familiar, but wind obscures clear hearing. Bells of Saint Michael’s church toll the hour seconds later. Those I can hear fine. I pull fobwatch from pocket. Caleb said last night that Butcher was to meet associate outside this bar one hour ago. Perhaps Caleb’s information was wrong.  But these are dark days in Bright City. I cannot afford to abandon post on hunch.


I hear sea shanty again and wish I could join sailors in bar, forget about mission. But I did not come here for singing — I came to stop Butcher from creating more mechanical creatures for Premier. Lack of mechanical army will make Butcher’s master that much easier to topple.

Thoughts of Butcher’s creations remind me of day I saw Sonya’s face on mechanical monster. I curse Butcher every day for turning my wife into machine. This is why I sit here now, huddled in dark, despite high chance of death at hands of men loyal to Premier.

Possibility of capture is why I have rubber capsule embedded in front tooth. I caress poison pill with tongue; rough edge is comforting despite purpose. Its presence makes me brave, and will allow me to do what I must. I rub hands together. Fingerless gloves good for detail work but not for sitting in cold alleyway. Men in alleyway draw attention again. Would Butcher be meeting one of them? Caleb had no information other than time Butcher would arrive.


It is another hour before skinny figure wearing top hat and black longcoat slick with rain strides toward bar. I click button on goggles. Zoom lenses snap into place as lightning flashes overhead. Hooked nose and scar along cheek could only mean Butcher. Sudden anger burns in me, spurring motion, but I hold back. Plan requires Butcher to first meet with contact. Burly man walks out of bar as skinny man approaches. Perhaps he is man Butcher is to meet.

Tomorrow: Part Two of "Dark Days in Bright City"

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Questions about The Omnibus of Doctor Bill Shakes

So lots of people are asking questions about the Steampunk Shakespeare anthology. We've also already gotten our first submission (yay sonnets!) and a some writers are asking us about stories that we'd love to see written but won't fit the anthology. Loving the concepts, folks!

I figured I'd answer at least three of the questions we've been asked here (either myself or Lia Keyes will post the answers on the S.W.A.G. group later today).   

What's the pay?

Flying Pen Press is a royalties-only publisher. As a result of that, the payment for each submission is a percentage of the royalties on the sale of the book.

Is this going to be a print book or an eBook?

It's actually going to be both. Flying Pen works on the POD model, so we will offer printed copies of the anthology. We also publish eBooks to the Amazon Kindle. I'm not sure about the Sony eReader or the B&N Nook though.

Does the story need to be set in Europe?

Shakespeare was an English writer, but his stories transcend the European experience. So no, you don't need to set your Steampunk'd version of Shakespeare in England or anywhere else in Europe if you don't want to. In fact, myself and the other editors would LOVE to see a wide variety of settings for the stories. Let your imagination run wild, folks!

Hope that helps with some of your questions.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Omnibus of Doctor Bill Shakes and the Magnificent Ionic Pentatetrameter: A Steampunk's Shakespeare Anthology

I don't know if any of you were tooling around Steampunk Chat on Twitter from 9 to 11 pm Eastern on Friday or not, but there was a very interesting development in the midst of the discussion.

Someone, I forget who, mentioned Shakespeare as we were discussing Steampunk as "window dressing." Of course, writers being the creative folks that we are, ended up coming up with Steampunked versions of famous lines from the Bard's plays. Talk of Steampunking out Shakespeare dominated the rest of the chat, and by the end of it it was decided that Flying Pen Press (the company that I'm the Steampunk Imprint Editor for) would next year release an anthology of Steampunk adaptions on Shakespeare's work. To that end, here are the submission guidelines:

From Hamlet as half-man half-machine to Henry V at the helm of an army of men in steam-powered mechanical suits, the sky is the proverbial limit for adapting William Shakespeare’s classic plays and sonnets to the Steampunk aesthetic.

This is not intended to be a series of mash-ups, like Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, but rather re-inventions of the classic Shakespearean stories and sonnets. You are free to adapt Shakespeare’s language and themes to a Neo-Victorian setting as you will, but unlike the typical mash-up, you don’t have to include every line of original text from your chosen play or sonnet.

We prefer stories where Steampunk elements and themes are thoughtfully applied to Shakespeare’s works. Do not simply throw automatons into Hamlet or Steampunk technology into Richard III; consider how such technological changes may reinterpret the original stories. Saying it another way: What new insight will your Steampunk version of Shakespeare bring to the Bard’s original works?

General Guidelines:
  • Send all submissions to submissions@doctorfantastiques.com as attachment in either Microsoft Word (DOC or DOCX), Real Text Format (RTF) or OpenOffice (ODT) format, with a short introductory letter.
  • All submissions should have STEAMPUNK SHAKESPEARE: Story Title/Sonnet Numbers in the subject line. Any submissions without this information will not be considered for the anthology.
  • We’d prefer inclusion of Steampunk elements in the title of each story, i.e. “Othello, The Half-Machine Moor of Venice” or something similar. 
  • We also welcome interpretations with queer characters, characters of color, non-heteronormative relationships, characters with disabilities, non-Eurocentric settings and other traditionally marginalized narratives in mainstream fiction.
  • All submissions must be received no later than 12 a.m. U.S. Eastern Time on 30 May 2011. There will be no exceptions.
Play Adaptation Guidelines:
  • 10,000 words or less on one scene, act, or aspect of any play from Shakespeare’s canon.
  • Integrate Shakespearean language as best as you can within the context of the story; it’s not required that you include some of Shakespeare’s original lines, but it is encouraged.
  • The play that your story is based on must be recognizable within your version; if you adapt Henry V, the reader must be able to tell it’s Henry V as source material.
  • Any violence or sexual situations should remain within the limits of general audience acceptability. Let the play you're adapting be your guide.
  • You are allowed to submit multiple short stories, so long as you do so by the deadline.
Sonnet Adaptation Guidelines:
  • Adapt any of Shakespeare’s sonnets into a Steampunk version of the same sonnet.
  • The original Sonnet must be recognizable inside your adaptation (i.e. if we the editors can place your version of Sonnet 156 and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 156 side-by-side, we should be able to identify the origin of your version).
  • You may submit multiple sonnets.
Payment is a percentage of royalties. If there are any questions about these guidelines, anthology co-editors Jaymee Goh, Lia Keyes, and Matthew Delman may all be contacted via The Steampunk Writers & Artists Guild webportal at http://www.steampunkwritersguild.com.

NOTE: This anthology will be released through the Steampunk Imprint of Flying Pen Press (http://FlyingPenPress.com) as both a print book and an ebook.

Friday, December 10, 2010

On the Problem of Steampunk as "Window Dressing"

One of the many complaints I've heard about a variety of Steampunk works is that certain aspects that are integral to Steampunk, i.e. the technology of your typical Steampunk society, appear to be mere "window dressing" so you can call the story a Steampunk novel. Steam tanks just to have steam tanks; dirigibles because those are always in Steampunk stories; and even fancy gadgets that have no real purpose other than to look ... well, fancy.

Now, these "window dressing" stories are the kinds of novels that can happen in any time frame with any level of technology. They're in a sense timeless, but they're also not very grounded in their particular world. This is distinct from translating a story into another, related subgenre of the same overarching genre -- a la taking an Urban Fantasy such as Storm Front by Jim Butcher and switching a few aspects to make it a faux-Medieval Fantasy.

Think rather of a Romance or a Detective novel where the characters use advanced mechanical technology that has no reason to not be powered by electricity instead. Like the gear-based zoom binoculars that can easily be replaced by digital binoculars without impacting the story. Or the adventure story where the airship voyage can easily be replaced by a plane ride or an ocean liner. Essentially, the "window dressing" Steampunk tale doesn't integrate the technology into the world of the story in a real way.

A good example of where the technology is necessary is in Dreadnought by Cherie Priest. Without the airship, Vinita Lynch wouldn't have been able to evade the battlegrounds that were evaded and the story would have needed to include scenes of her getting around the fighting instead of allowing her to fly over it. A counter-example, where the technology isn't quite so integrated into the story, would be a tale where the POV character merely sees an airship floating overhead and never actually goes near one.

You could argue that Steampunk as "window dressing" violates the Chekhov's Gun law of fiction, in point of fact. Chekhov's Gun, for those who don't know, comes from a statement made by Russian playwright, short-story writer, and physician Anton Chekhov in his memoirs (published 1911). Chekhov's rule states that "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." (from TVtropes.org)


The rule applies to pretty much everything in your story, particularly as it relates to description of the scene around your characters. Chekhov was of the belief that, if a detail didn't serve a purpose then it shouldn't be mentioned anywhere within the text. If the author spends a full paragraph describing something in loving detail and then never mentions it again, then that's a violation of Chekhov's Gun. So it is with Steampunk as "window dressing" in stories. If the elements don't serve an integral part to the story, then they don't need to be there.

Steampunk as "window dressing" could almost be called a bandwagon move. As Steampunk is on the rise in popularity, there are certain people who are of the belief that if you throw a few cogs and goggles into a story then it's automatically Steampunk. This violates both the concept of Chekhov's Gun and dilutes the notion of Steampunk as a valid subgenre when its aesthetic is co-opted as "window dressing." It also gives those writers who consider the world of their story before including Steampunk elements a very bad name. Now, I'm not saying you need to discuss the socioeconomic impact of Steampunk innovations on the populace and that's the only valid use of the aesthetic, but rather to merely consider whether something is really necessary to move your story forward.

NOTE: I'll be discussing this very topic, co-hosted by Steampunk Writers & Artists Guild Founder Lia Keyes, tonight on Twitter at 9 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time/6 p.m. U.S. Pacific Time. Follow the hashtag #steampunkchat if you want to participate.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Steampunk Writers & Artists Guild

A few weeks back, I held an impromptu Steampunk Chat on Twitter. The topic was historical accuracy in Steampunk and how much of it there really needed to be. During that chat, I was contacted by one Lia Keyes, a British ex-pat based in California who revealed to me that she owned the domain name Steampunkchat.com (transcripts of the past two chats are archived there, by the by), and suggested that we make the Twitter chat a weekly thing. And as you know, me being me, I couldn't resist such a pleasant idea.

Lia also told me that she'd created this fantastic web portal that, separate from The Steampunk Empire and Brass Goggles, was meant as a gathering place for Steampunk writers (and eventually Steampunk artists as well). Thus was born The Steampunk Writers & Artists Guild, or S.W.A.G. for short (I can hear the groans now).

Anywho, I write about S.W.A.G. now to tell you of the place's existence. We (I'm an admin) have a good number of members on there, but I'd love to see more participation with cross-posting of stuff on there among the various writers and artists that call the portal home. Or rather a home, since many of them also have other websites they operate. It's been a good resource so far in terms of connecting like-minded folks, which I love, and is a grand place for self-promotion and discussion. I know Lia's started a good number of discussions herself, and I want to see more and more people chime in as time goes on.

I did already cross-post to S.W.A.G. the interview I did with award-winning author Karin Lowachee about her Steampunk work, THE GASLIGHT DOGS, and other fun stuff that appeared on Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders as the first installment of the Ladies of Steampunk series. It would be kind of cool if y'all joined up and did some more cross-posting -- believe me, it's awesome to get your information out to as many places as possible.

But that's enough of my telling you about the Guild. Why not head over and check it out yourself?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Our Powers Combined ....

As I'm wont to do most days, I was tooling around on Twitter when I espied Steampunk Scholar Mike Perschon, Beyond Victoriana's Ay-leen the Peacemaker, and Jaymee Goh of Silver Goggles talking academics. Mike mentioned world domination, and of course I had to get in the mix. Then Lee-Ann Faruga (Countessa Lenora) of Steampunk Canada, Airship Ambassador Kevin Stiel, and Ren Cummins also joined the discussion.

Go to Silver Goggles to see the transcript of the insanity. Trust me, it's funny.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Considerations on Steampunk Culture

I've been thinking a lot about the culture of Steampunk lately. This is something I do pretty much all the time, but my work with Doctor Fantastique's and Flying Pen Press and this blog has made that even more of a consistent thought than it was before. My life is steeped in Steampunk now, which isn't a bad thing in the slightest.

Random side note: I'll be hosting regular Steampunk Chats on Twitter starting today at 9 p.m. U.S. Eastern Time/6 p.m. U.S. Pacific Time focusing on the Literature side of the genre.

Anyway, back to the main topic: The culture of Steampunk has, up to this point, appeared to focus on a very narrow view of what can be done with the genre. I know the beginnings place the primary setting of First World Steampunk in Victorian England. I get that, especially because England was the center of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions from 1750 to 1920. There are some stories that expand on this -- Boneshaker and Native Star among them -- but those stories appear drowned out among the standard Victorian London stories that proliferate in the genre.

It's important to note that I'm not saying the stories set in Victorian England are bad. In fact, there are some of them that are very, very well-written and interesting. But their predominance is somewhat bothersome; especially because there's a whole wealth of source material throughout the period of 1750 to 1920 that writers of Steampunk could use to make very, very interesting stories. I'm of course excluding Fantasy World Steampunk from this discussion because it's ... well ... Fantasy World and different topics apply there (not that Fantasy World Steampunk is automatically better than First World Steampunk, just that I'm ignoring it for the purposes of this argument).

The dominance of England-set stories is why I love something like Virtuoso so much. If you don't know the comic, it's set in an Africa that runs on the Steampunk mechanics of cogs and gears and springs. Seeing an African-based Steampunk world is extremely refreshing, as is reading Karin Lowachee's The Gaslight Dogs, where the Steampunk focuses on a tribe of Inuit-esque people in a far northern landscape.

I love the England-set stories as much as the next fan of Steampunk, but seeing them all over the place has led me to wonder how often we can really see the same First World setting over and over again. Granted, it's not really the same because different authors write different stories, but having everything taking place in an alternate version of England has always led me to wonder what else was going on in the rest of the alternate world. Was China the same? Was Africa? What about Latin America?

In fact, there's a thought -- show me a Steampunk story where the Mayans, Incas, or Aztecs have developed steam power independent of European involvement, or maybe in response to European involvement. Show me a world where the great tribal civilizations of the Americas pushed out the Spanish invaders by using steam-powered mechanical suits or clockwork weaponry they invented based on the technology of the people who conquered them.

Write me an India where Punjabi rebels fight against the British using steam cannons and mechanical machinery cobbled together from stolen parts. Or drop me in the midst of a Steampunked Japan during the Russo-Japanese War, but give the Japanese some special mechanized weapon to use against the Russians. Or maybe you're thinking of something set in China during the years of the Boxer Rebellion; or Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

And when it comes to the clothing at cons, I would love to see someone taking a Steampunk brush to traditional garments from the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Native Americans, and the African-Americans brought to the Americas via the slave trade. Show me a cosplayer who creates a character that comes from a Steampunk Jamaica and I will be very interested; something like that is why the work of folks like Monique Poirier and Ay-leen the Peacemaker is so important to the culture.*

My point is that the world's a whole heck of a lot bigger than Merry Old England, with a wealth of stories to tell and adventures to experience. Why would Steampunks, who are part of a subgenre/subculture that defies explanation, decide to limit themselves to one country? Why not spread around the world and show how inventive we can be?


* No slight intended to Jaymee Goh or any of the dozens of other Steampunks of Color floating around the aether. Those were simply the first two people I thought of.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Open Post: What Steampunk Technology Are You Curious About?

You might have noticed I've been missing my Monday and Tuesday posts here for several weeks now. This was due to a whole onslaught of work that came up at once (isn't that how it always is?), but I want you all to know that I fully plan to get back on the posting schedule as it were as quickly as possible.

To that end, I realized that there's already been quite a bit of technology and science posts that I've done in the past year and a half; so I was wondering if there were any areas of Victorian Era science or technology that my faithful readers would want to see me write about?

It doesn't have to be new material either. You can ask me to write about anything, even if I have a post in the back catalog that already deals with the topic.

The floor is yours ....

Friday, November 26, 2010

Determining the Roots of Steampunk videos

Below is the video playlist off YouTube for my presentation on the literary roots of Steampunk. I'm tremendously sorry for the watermark on videos 6 and 7 -- the friend who helped me upload the videos tried about a dozen different programs to pull the watermarks off but it didn't work. Ah well. Hope you all enjoy it anyway!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Con Report: Upstate Steampunk

It's been a few days now since Upstate Steampunk in South Carolina, so I feel more than comfortable finally writing this con report after having that time to digest the full impact of the awesome that was my very first foray into convention-going.Yes, you read that right -- I'd never been to a con before Upstate Steampunk, and it was such an amazing experience that I'm going to be heading to three more in the first six months of 2011.

My trip to S.C. started with a 4.5 hour drive from Eastern Massachusetts to Central New York to pick up my friend who agreed to act as technical assistant on the trip (that's how I was able to record my presentation). We then switched off driving the 14 hours to South Carolina. Random trivia: did you know that Pennsylvania feels like the widest state on the East Coast? This is despite the fact that Virginia takes at least 45 minutes longer to drive through on a North-South route.

But anyway, we got into South Carolina just before midnight on Friday, November 19, and promptly collapsed until the next morning when we had to wake up before 8 so we could register for the day's events. This meant that we missed the Friday night pre-registration and meet-up, but after 19 hours of driving I don't think either one of us wanted to do anything except crash.

Saturday morning was a blast though -- we registered for the day's events and then went straight to the vendor room, where I met a good number of awesome folks plying their wares. I spent some time with Jim Looper of Bitz N Pieces, who graciously demonstrated a six-shooter replica he was selling for a good chunk of change. Jim assured me the gun was non-operational, but it was still all kinds of cool to chat with him about the different pieces he had in stock. I wish I had the wherewithall to grab a picture of Jim -- he led a dueling demonstration at noon that was six different kinds of cool. Kind of sad I couldn't stick around for the entire dueling demo, but my presentation was at 1 and we had to eat lunch and do some prep work.

The time of my presentation rolled around, and I was surprised at the turnout -- many of the seats in the classroom were full. Not quite standing-room only, which would've been entertaining, but still a very respectable showing for people interested in the roots of Steampunk. The video, which will be posted later, will show you the talk I gave and hopefully you'll be able to hear the questions folks asked as well. Suffice to say, the discussion ranged far and wide once we got comfortable with each other, and didn't result in me talking at people for 90 minutes (which was something I was slightly frightened of). I did have a few technical difficulties in that I had to keep switching between my Powerpoint and a video player for my video clips -- the way we downloaded the videos meant I couldn't embed the files into the presentation itself.

Anyway, after I spoke I sat in on the very elucidating presentation by Lydia Ferguson on Captain Nemo as the new Ancient Mariner as represented by his character in Volume 1 of Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Lydia certainly knew what she was talking about, and she did a very good job of keeping the presentation lively. Well prior to my own presentation was a discussion of the golems in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series and how they represented both the machines that drove the industrial revolution and the people who worked those machines. Janet Brennan Croft was the Golempunk presenter -- she mentioned Moist von Lipwig, one of my favorite Pratchett characters of all time in her talk, so that made me happy.

I ended up not going to a whole lot of panels, which was unfortunate because there were some dang cool topics that people were talking about. Thus is the peril of having one 90 minute talk to yourself and then being on a later hour-long panel with a group of other gents. Speaking of said panel -- with Brian K. Ladd, Maxwell Cynn, and Shane McElveen -- I have to admit that it was more interesting listening to my fellow panelists answer than talking myself. Brian, Maxwell, and Shane are all very talented and creative gents, and I was honored to be included among them. Gail Gray, our facilitator, also didn't hesitate to offer some answers to the audience members.

The other panelists and I had a whole lot of fun riffing off each other; Maxwell attended my Roots talk and I saw him nodding profusely when Gail asked if anyone had attended it. Funny anecdote: when I met Brian and his wife Megan earlier in the day, Gail was singing my praises and Brian commented that Gail was pretty much the "world's biggest cheerleader." Which of course amused me to no end. Speaking of Gail Gray and Fissure Magazine, you can purchase their Steampunk issue at http://www.shadowarcherpress.com, wherein you'll find my first published short story, "Dark Days in Bright City."

Back to the panel -- someone asked about the definition of Steampunk and if anything was excluded or not. I can't remember my exact response (which included monkeys and rockets fueled by cheese for some reason), but it amounted to the fact that Steampunk as a genre is a wide open field right now. Write what you want, and if someone likes it then someone likes it. Maxwell, Brian, and Shane had some very good advice about getting published and the potential pitfalls therein. Maxwell especially had an interesting way of putting out his first novel; he'd come up with a way to code the book into a website so at certain points you would receive emails from the characters in a sort of multimedia immersive experience.

Brian spoke at length about dealing with changes from editors, and the fact that you can break any rule on the books so long as you know why you're breaking it. And Shane made several very good points about the importance of critique; he has one trusted editor that reads all of his stuff, although he also works with a writing partner for his screenwriting. All of us agreed that crit groups are important, but even more important than that is knowing when to walk away from a crit group. Brian made a fascinating point in that he sees crit groups as being there to work -- not to socialize.

It was unfortunate that the panel was only an hour long. I had tons of fun being up there with my fellow panelists, and in fact Gail told me later that one of the attendees to that panel said he thought we were better than the authors' panel at DragonCon! You can imagine how cool that was to hear.

I ended my day with an open-ended workshop where folks talked about the stuff they made. Which is also the only time I took pictures:

A giant hammer made from foam and an old clock.
Many of the materials were purchased from Lowe's,
which was a common theme.

The creator of this map (Ed, who's not in the picture) developed this entire fantasy world
that he intends to offer to people as a fantasy setting for them to write their adventures in.

The Gatling gun was made from an old gas-powered hedge trimmer
and parts purchased at Lowe's.


My compatriot and I were more or less drained after the workshops ended at 5 on Saturday. I wandered downstairs after we'd had dinner at the Ruby Tuesday's down the street and took in some of the belly dancing. I could tell even at 8 p.m. though that I was done for the night -- didn't even stay awake to go to the Steampunk ball. This of course means that I am unfortunately unable to report who won Mr. and Mrs. Upstate Steampunk.

I can however say that driving down to Greenville was a good decision. I met a whole lot of good people there, made some awesome contacts for Flying Pen, and had an all-around great time. Now of course I'm looking forward to the conventions I'll be attending in 2011!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

REPOST: Steampunk Technology and Culture: Why the Railways Developed

In the midst of working hard on my Roots of Steampunk paper for presenting this weekend, I realized that I haven't put anything up here in a over a week. However, since my brain is mush, all I can do is offer up this post that originally appeared on July 27, 2010.

One of the things we forget, looking back at the proverbial march of history, is that many of the innovations we take for granted today were new and frightening at one time. The locomotive, the telegraph, the radio, electricity; the list goes on and on. And while I've spoken about two towering figures in the development of the railways in Britain (and by extension the rest of the world), it struck me recently that I didn't yet talk about the cultural impact of those very same railways.

"Hindsight is 20/20," as the old saying goes. Looking back at the early 1800s, when the first moves were being made toward steam locomotives and iron railways crisscrossing the countryside, we now can clearly see the economic and social benefit that steam locomotives provided. However, the people living in that time didn't have the benefit of knowing how much cheaper the locomotive would turn out to be, and how much of an improvement over canals and horse-drawn coaches this new technology actually was.

Consider how long the British people lived with the horse and the ship as the main modes of transportation. Horses had been used by the inhabitants of Britain since at least 1,000 BCE, and seaborne transit was almost a no-brained, given the nature of the landmass as an island. Most people knew horses and boats; they knew how to operate them and they knew what to expect from them. By the same token, very few people knew what to expect out of a steam locomotive. You'll recall the image I posted of Richard Trevithick's "puffer" that went along the railway at Penydarren -- no one had ever seen anything like it before that day in 1804.

People weren't certain that mobile steam engines were any better than horses right up until George Stephenson proved the point at Rainhill in 1829. Until that time, most of the railways in Britain were oak logs with a replaceable strip of beachwood nailed on top, set on iron sleepers. The horses walked on tracks of cinders in between the rails of the tramway. And this method worked for quite a few decades before the locomotives came around.

So what changed to make the railways suddenly a more viable option than horses pulling carts to a landing point at a canal, where the barges would float your goods down to market? Well, for starters, the Napoleonic Wars had something to do with it.

The Napoleonic Wars drove the price of horse feed through the proverbial roof. Gavin Weightman makes a stellar point in The Industrial Revolutionaries:

"It is a modern prejudice, it has been said, to imagine horses are a cheap form of power: in reality, the cost of 'running' them could rise of fall alarmingly with the price of hay and oats and the military demand for mounts. (119)"
Horses were expensive, and so too were the canals that crisscrossed the English countryside and carried goods to market. The canal companies were businesses as well, and had to charge exorbitant fees if they wanted to offer any dividends at all to their shareholders. Thus mine owners started to consider how they could transport their goods to market at the same or better speed than the canals, with a pricepoint much lower than the one they currently paid.

Even after Trevithick's success at Penydarren, and the dozen or so other collieries that slowly gained steam locomotives, most mine owners still weren't convinced that the machines were better that horses. Oh they accepted that there should be a cheaper way to transport their goods to market than using the canals, but it took George Stephenson's Rocket and his victory at Rainhill to truly prove that locomotives were better.

In 1831, the Liverpool-Manchester line that the Rocket was designed for carried, according to Weightman, "445,047 passengers, 43,070 tons of cotton and other merchandise and 11,285 tons of coal. (134)" Though the passenger total ended swinging back and forth like on a pendulum, the tonnage of merchandise carried by the Liverpool-Manchester line only increased.

By Queen Victoria's coronation in 1837, there were roughly 80 railway companies intent on adding track to the ever-growing rail network across Britain. In a single year, more than 1,000 miles of track were laid down across the English countryside. If any single innovation could be said to drive the Industrial Revolution, these dozens of miles of railway track laid down across England (and soon elsewhere in the world) could be pointed to fairly simply.

So why did the railways develop when they did, at the very base of it? Because of a combination of money, technical know-now, and the ability of financiers to see that this invention could make moving their product very, very easy indeed.

Steampunk Relevance

Much of early Steampunk deals with the culture effects of technology as well as the main story the author or authors wish to tell. Case in point is The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The three interwoven stories in that narrative prove themselves as concerned with the effect technology has on the people of Britain as on the main story of discovering what the heck is going on with Ada Lovelace and the cards from the French computer. Michael Moorcock's Warlord of the Air does something similar, as he imagines differences between our world and that of the one Oswald Bastable falls into.

Technology and culture are inextricably tied together, as certain technologies only arise when the surrounding culture is ready for them and not before. A good example is this knowledge: the Romans knew how steam power worked. They had the technology to build a proper engine and set it crisscrossing the Imperial landscape. Why, you may ask, would they not do so and begin an Industrial Revolution in 102 A.D.?

The answer's simple: the technology didn't develop because the culture didn't need it to. Britain in the 19th Century needed the locomotive to develop. This is why that's where it came into being. The end result of all this is a simple question you need to ask yourself when developing a Steampunk world:

Would this technology happen in the culture I've created?

NOTE: An awesome book to read on the topic of why some countries became industrialized and others didn't is Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Word About Historical Accuracy in Steampunk

Recently, there have been some articles and blog posts floating around lambasting Steampunk for any number of failings -- real or imagined -- that the genre seems to express. Now, there are some that I agree with, and if you've followed my Twitter back-and-forths with Paul Jessup or read his fantastic article on "The Future of Steampunk" (posted at Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders and Mad Hatter's Bookshelf and Book Review), then you already know that I'd love to see more non-European Steampunk kicking about.

However, one of the primary complaints that I seem to be seeing in regards to Steampunk is that it's not historically accurate. That people couldn't have possibly developed the level of technology some of the fiction evidences -- like airships, for example. Despite the fact that Henri Giffard first flew a dirigible in the 1850s, certain commenters on other blogs (not here) have insisted that airships were an invention of the 20th century and not the 19th, therefore you can't possibly have someone flying an airship on the level of the Graf Zeppelin if your timeframe is earlier than 1900.

All right I can see that argument -- Zeppelin developed his airship in 1898 to 1899, but he didn't fly it until 1900, so the point is valid. However, and here's the really, really big point that I want to make for people who dislike Steampunk on basis of it not being historically accurate enough:

Steampunk is Alternate history.

Alternate history, by its very definition, isn't 100 percent historically accurate because you're changing the historical record with your fiction. If I wanted to read a Steampunk novel that was accurate historically to the minutest of details, then I wouldn't be reading a Steampunk novel -- I'd be reading historical fiction.

So someone who complains about the lack of historical accuracy in Steampunk is missing the entire point of the stories. It's supposed to be an alternate history set in the Victorian period of world history. There is no reason for Cherie Priest, Gail Carriger, George Mann, or S.M. Peters to get their history 100% accurate because they're not writing historical novels. They're writing alternate histories with a Steampunk aesthetic that happen to be set in the 19th century.

This complaint about historical accuracy leads me of course to wonder if the people who use this tired old excuse hate the entire genre of alternate history. Do they despise the Harry Turtledove novels where aliens land in the middle of the Cold War? Or his stories where the South wins the American Civil War? Or the alternate history novels where the American Revolution never happened?

Steampunk, as I've said before, is more concerned with what could possibly happen in a real-world society with advanced steam power and mechanics introduced into the proverbial mix. If you can convince the reader that your world could possibly exist, then you've done your job as a writer. There's no reason for you to be overly concerned with complete historic accuracy -- if you're writing a story set in Victorian England, then focus on the aspects you need in order to create the flavor of the time. You're changing things anyway by including the advanced steam power and mechanics that you're already throwing into the society.

Main point? Steampunk doesn't have to be 100 percent historically accurate. Be accurate as it relates to your story. That's all you really need to be concerned about.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Holey Shamoley! A Post at the Archives???

That's right, Princess Freers, The Secret Archives of the Alliterati came off hiatus on Monday. My first post since ... oh August ... is up over there today. Look there for an encapsulated view of the craziness that has taken over my life in the past few months.

Did I mention how much fun I'm having?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

GUEST POST: K.M. Weiland on 13 Places to Find Inspiration

People are always asking writers where they get their ideas. My typically trite reply is, “Everywhere.” I once grabbed a kitchen towel and told someone, “I could write a story about this towel if I wanted to.” While that response was likely a bit extreme (I could write a story about a kitchen towel, but I couldn’t guarantee that it’d be interesting!), it is true that inspiration is all around us. As I explain in my recently released CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration (http://www.kmweiland.com/books_CWBASI.php), inspiration is always there for the taking. We just have to figure out where the harvest is ripest. Following are some places where we’re always sure to find inspiration:
  1. Dreams. Pay attention to the vivid imagery and the bizarre juxtaposition of your dreams. Perhaps even start a dream journal.
  2. Movies. The visual/auditory combination of movies and theater has something to offer just about everyone. View movies as more than just entertainment; consider them idea labs.
  3. Paintings. Great artistic ventures offer us the emotional high points of human history. Visit an art museum and study the paintings to figure out what draws you, what repulses you, and what leaves you cold.
  4. Music. Music is the arguably the purest form of storytelling, since it taps directly into our emotional core, without even the necessity of words. Find an instrumental song and see if you can write out the story it’s trying to tell.
  5. Life. Even if you don’t want to write about your own life, never discount the value of your experiences. Live widely and live deeply.
  6. Nature. The virtue, the violence, the vibrancy, and the variety of the natural world is a never-ending well of possible story ideas.
  7. Books. As writers we feed off each other, gaining and giving in a never-ending cycle. Read voraciously; it’s the best way to study the craft.
  8. Dictionary. If you’re stumped for a new story idea or for a way to progress your plot, open your dictionary to a random page for an instant story prompt. Pick a word and see where it takes you.
  9. History. Even if you don’t write historical fiction, history, as a recording of all of human experience, is rife with story ideas. At the very least, understanding history can bring a broader understanding of life and its truths to our work.
  10. Exercise. Who says writers need to be pudgy desk jockeys? Get out there and pump some blood. Your brain works better when the rest of your body is moving.
  11. Shower. Need a good idea? Just add water! Writers should just take up permanent residence in the shower. Something about that warm, running water is always good for jumpstarting creativity.
  12. Curiosity. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s what puts bread on the writer’s table. Never stop asking questions—especially what if?
  13. Eavesdropping. Join the writer club and you get a special exemption card that allows you to eavesdrop with impunity. Who knows what juicy tidbits you’ll pick up on your next jaunt to the grocery store.
Of course, this little list isn’t anywhere close to exhaustive. But hopefully it serves as a reminder for us to keep our eyes and ears and imaginations wide open wherever we go. Inspiration is waiting. All we have to do is find it.

K.M. Weiland
K.M. Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, editing services, workshops, and her recently released instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

GUEST BLOG: What If?

Jon S. Lewis is the co-creator of the world of The Grey Griffins in The Revenge of the Shadow King (2006), which has been optioned for a movie by Deathly Pale Productions. A new Grey Griffins trilogy begins with The Brimstone Key, Book I of The Clockwork Chronicles. The book is the first foray into Steampunk that Jon and co-author Derek Benz have taken with the series.

I spent quite a few Saturdays in my local comic book shop growing up, and I was always intrigued by Marvel’s What If titles. Each issue asked a deep philosophical question like “What if the X-Men died on their first mission?” or “What if Spider-man had six arms?”

Okay, so maybe the questions weren’t very deep, but we’ve all played the “what if” game, right? “What if I would have married the first person I kissed?” or “What if I would have gone to medical school like my brother who drives the BMW?”

“What if?” became an important question for the Grey Griffins . . .

Derek and I decided early in our writing careers that we weren’t going to name modern technology in our books. That meant words like “cell phone,” “laptop,” “SUV,” and “iPod” were banned. Why? Technology is moving so rapidly that we didn’t want to date the stories. I mean, when we were writing our first book (The Revenge of the Shadow King), the term “smart phone” wasn’t even coined yet, Napster had stronger brand recognition than iTunes, and eReaders were little more than a dream.

There was a problem, though. Tweens and teens are hardwired into digital communication and even though the hardware is bound to change, their passion for digital media won’t. So introducing technology into the series was critical, but how could we do that without making our stories stand out like butterfly collars, bellbottom jeans or parachute pants?

At about that same time, Derek picked up a copy of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. We were already fans of the Steampunk aesthetic, but for some reason the idea of introducing Steampunk into our stories hadn’t crossed our minds. Alan Moore helped us see the light, and we asked ourselves the following question: “What if our world was invaded by Steampunk culture?”

It was the perfect solution! We could introduce futuristic technology wrapped in a timeless package, like laptops in leather cases with brass corners where the keypad looked like it was taken from an early model Remington typewriter. And instead of walking around in wizards robes, the students at Iron Bridge Academy could wear things like classic safari gear, petticoats, knickers with argyle socks, driving caps and goggles.

Then, instead of fighting trolls, dragons and faeries, we could set our heroes against fresh villains like clockwork soldiers and steam-powered war machines. It was too delicious to pass up.

We hope the end result is an action-packed adventure that fans of our original trilogy will enjoy. At the same time, we’re excited about introducing a new crop of readers to Steampunk in much the same way that J.K. Rowling introduced an entire generation to fantasy books through Harry Potter. Okay, so maybe we won’t have quite that impact, but you never know.


EDITOR'S NOTE: The contest to win a Grey Griffins prize pack is open until November 5; put your entry in the comments thread of the announcement post to be entered for a chance to win.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Brimstone Key, Book I of The Clockwork Chronicles by Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis



The Brimstone Key (Little, Brown, June 2010, $15.99 in Hardcover, 369 pages) is the first installment in a new trilogy featuring the Grey Griffins -- Max Sumner, Harley Eisenstein, Ernie Tweeny, and Natalia Romanov -- regular kids from Avalon, Minnesota who became monster hunters under the tutelage of the Knights Templar in the first trilogy authors Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis conceived of.

I never read the original Grey Griffins trilogy, so to come at The Brimstone Key from the perspective of a neophyte to the characters was an interesting one. There's an entire swath of character development and history that I missed out on by not reading the first three books, but Benz and Lewis write so skillfully that I didn't feel lost for a second. The narration gives background without pulling the reader from the story, and switching between the perspectives of Max, Natalia, Harley, and Ernie helped keep the reader abreast of everything that's going on while making certain the reader's not lost.

This new story opens with the Griffins on the eve of transferring into Iron Bridge Academy, a Templar training school for young people who are being trained in the hunting of monsters. But all's not well at Iron Bridge. Soon after the school year starts, changelings (children with fairy blood) begin disappearing -- taken in the dead of night via magical portal. The Griffins realize that the strange hiding place they discovered over the summer, filled with mechanisms and blueprints of clockwork devices, holds more importance than they realized. Especially as one name comes up again and again: Otto Von Strife, the Clockwork King.


Von Strife spent a century locked up in one of the Round Table cards so central to the Grey Griffins series, and when he gets out and starts wreaking havoc, it falls to the Griffins and their Templar allies to move against him. After the climax of the story, I'm certain the rest of the books in the trilogy will keep the adventure moving.

As to the Steampunk elements, Benz and Lewis chose to create Iron Bridge in a city called New Victoria, that retained its Victorian sensibilities, which is on the other side of the veil from Avalon, Minnesota. The children of Iron Bridge dress in Steampunk garb complete with goggles and brass fittings on their outfits -- the goggles are explained because they allow games of Round Table to be played in 3D -- and of course since the Griffins are completely lost in the realm of fashion the authors are allowed the freedom to explain the style of the clothing.

Clockwork robots, Steampunk clothing, and a city that never moved past the Victorian Age are just a few of the fun Steampunk elements within a very, very fun opening to a new trilogy of stories. There's some good tearjerker moments as well, particularly if you've read the original stories that featured the Griffins. That's not to say a reader can't pick up this novel without having read the other ones. I did, and certainly found the story to be engaging, engrossing, and entertaining without feeling lost in the slightest.

I'm definitely looking forward to the second book -- The Relic Hunters, due out in Spring 2011.

And now we move onto a CONTEST!!

There are several prizes available for this fun little contest:

FIRST PRIZE: A copy of THE BRIMSTONE KEY with signed bookmarks, and your choice of one of the following posters:

* SIM Chamber (like the X-Men Danger Room): http://www.jonslewis.com/images/432_ggSIMsketch.jpg
Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth place winners will each get their choice of poster. 
Now for The Rules:

In the comments of this post, tell me your wackiest idea for a Steampunk invention that could exist today. Portable mechanical kinotrope? Steam-powered automobile with the ability to brew tea while driving? Artificial limb that runs on mechanics? 

The crazier the invention, the more fun it is. Your inventions will be scored based on plausibility, purpose, and inventiveness, and the contest will end on Friday, November 5.

Oh, and I'm running the same contest at Gear Bits and Clockwork and Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders, so remember to head over there to posit your inventions as well. That gives everyone 15 chances to win something! You read that right: 15 chances to win.

All entries must be received by 12 am on Friday, November 5 to be considered.

SPECIAL NOTE: There will be a guest post from J.S. Lewis, co-author of The Brimstone Key, later this week; Mr. Lewis will be talking about the challenges of integrating Steampunk tech into contemporary times.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Random Historicial Trivia: The Meaning of "Condescending"

Dictionary.com defines the word condescending as "showing or implying a usually patronizing descent from dignity or superiority, as in 'They resented the older neighbors' condescending cordiality.'"
 
We all know people that can be described as condescending; they're generally aloof, snobbish, and a whole lot of fake rolled into one. Many people today hate being condescended to, because it means that they're somehow less than the person doing the condescending. 
You might then be interested to know that being condescending wasn't always a bad thing. An older, less-used definition of the word has condescend as a verb rather than an adjective, and defines it as "to behave as if one is conscious of descending from a superior position, rank, or dignity." A good example would be the Queen of England talking to someone of a lower social rank without appearing to talk down to that person. In that case, the Queen would have condescended to the lower rank of the other person.
 
There are letters from the American Civil War where Confederate* soldiers praise the ability of their superior officers to condescend to their level. Specifically where the superior officer was one of the upper classes, it was always seen as a good thing for them to have the ability to step down, as it were, from their higher station in life and speak plainly with their subordinates. It wasn't until much, much later that the act of condescension took on the negative connotation it has today.
 
Perhaps the alteration in meaning might be tied to changing attitudes in the United States in the Reconstruction Era, and particularly the pat-on-the-head condescension that many Americans felt from foreign-born travelers and politicians. James Russel Lowell wrote an essay, On a Certain Condescension in Foreigners, that ran in the Atlantic Monthly in 1869. Within Lowell's essay is the following line:
"So long as we continue to be the most common-schooled and the least cultivated people in the world, I suppose we must consent to endure this condescending manner of foreigners toward us. The more friendly they mean to be the more ludicrously prominent it becomes. They can never appreciate the immense amount of silent work that has been done here, making this continent slowly fit for the abode of man, and which will demonstrate itself, let us hope, in the character of the people." (from Bartleby.com)
This shows an interesting shift, from the perception pre-Civil War of the ability of the upper classes to condescend to the lower classes as a more-or-less good thing to something that is seen as a bad quality to have.

The things you learn, huh?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Steampunk Character Type: The Gentleman

Image from Victoriana.com
The Gentleman as a Steampunk Character Type is one of those fluid personalities that tends to blend with another archetype rather than stand on its own. Every other Steampunk Character Type can do the same -- there's nothing that says a Mad Scientist/Quirky Inventor can't also be an Adventurer, or a Suffragette, or a Savant, or a Rebel. However, when it comes to The Gentleman as an archetype, you're much more likely to see this personality in combination with another one.

A common thought is the Gentleman Adventurer -- a nobleman who travels the world righting wrongs and doing good deeds for the disaffected people of the world. One example of a Gentleman Adventurer is Othar Tryggvassen, a character in Phil and Kaja Foglio's Hugo-winning Girl Genius comic (I plug the Profs. Foglio because their comic is one of my all-time favorites). Othar has the distinct personality trait of also being kind of annoying to practically anyone he meets, despite the fact that he's convinced he's doing good works.

But anyway, my commentary about how brilliantly put-together Othar is as a character aside, the Gentleman as a Steampunk Character Type appears to be more of an overlay for a simple reason -- a character doesn't have to be born a Gentleman to act as one; the behavior that makes up the "standard" of being a Gentleman is easily translatable across primary character types.

What makes a gentleman though? In John Henry Cardinal Newman's 1852 work, The Idea of a University, the Gentleman is defined as someone who never inflicts pain, whether emotional, mental, or physical, on anyone that he comes into contact with. "He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. (Newman 208-9)."

The Gentleman's great concern then, according to Newman, is to make everyone feel at home in the space around him. He is affable, articulate, and generally focused on avoiding conflict wherever he can.
"He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. (Newman 209)"
It's interesting to note that, although anyone born into the nobility was automatically considered a "gentleman," the Character Type itself isn't limited to those of noble birth in fiction. Doctor Watson from the Sherlock Holmes stories might qualify as a Gentleman, as does Lord Maccon from Gail Carriger's Soulless -- granted, Lord Maccon fails a bit in that he causes Alexia emotional pain on several occasions, but otherwise he more or less falls into the proper classification of the Character Type. Another example of a Gentleman from Carriger's novels is Professor Lyall, who as the Beta of Lord Maccon's pack probably makes a bit of a better example than his Alpha does. 


From older fiction, the character of Phileas Fogg slots nicely into the Gentleman role. He is non-abrasive, does not seek out conflict, and intends to make people -- particularly Aouda -- comfortable in whatever abode they may be. Fogg endeavors throughout his journey to keep calm and thus keep calm the people around him. I mentioned Fogg before, when it came to the Adventurer, but he also fits here under the Gentleman simply because of the way he perceives the world around him.


What other Gentleman can you think of Steampunk (or any other) fiction?

NOTE: If you're interested in reading the Newman text, here's the Google Books link: http://books.google.com/books?id=IY9SyxjhmtwC&dq=the%20idea%20of%20a%20university&pg=PR2#v=onepage&q&f=false

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Featured at SF Signal

"Featured" is kind of a strong word now that I think about it. But anyway, last week the folks at SF Signal put out a call for the Most Memorable Anti Heroes in SF/F to the Twitter-verse. Me being me, I decided to knock off a quick list of my favorite anti heroes from all the speculative fiction I've read since ... oh geez ... forevers?

The SF Signal crew then emailed me back saying they loved my list, and wanted me to include a brief paragraph for each selection plus a biography of little old me to include as part of their MIND MELD series.

So this morning, I log into Twitter and I see the following Tweet from @sfsignal:
#MindMeld: Memorable Anti-Heroes in SF/F w. Allen Steele, S. Andrew Swann, @LisaSpindler, @MattDelman: http://sfsignal.com/10819 #fb
Of course I click on the link, and then I realize that they've put my list in among the likes of 3 award-winning authors, one of whom has won the Hugo twice, and a mega-prolific blogger in the form of Lisa Spindler.

Suffice to say, I ... umm ... kind of geeked out a little bit.

This is ignoring the fact that I adore SF Signal as a general rule, and the fact that they feature my Steampunk Character Type pieces in practically ever Friday SF Tidbits post since I started writing the things. So yeah ... how are all of you this morning?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Steampunk Character Type: The Savant

In A Beautiful Mind, Russel Crowe portrays John Forbes Nash, Jr., a brilliant mathematician who struggles with paranoid schizophrenia. This is an example of a character that I've termed The Savant, someone who might be absolutely brilliant in one area and yet have an equally as damaging flaw in another. 
Laurence Kim Peek (1951 to 2009), a Savant with
perfect photographic memory who was able
to recall the contents of 12,000 books.
He had severe motor function disabilities
.
(image from Historic Mysteries)

Someone who can do complex mathematical algorithms in his head but is unable to tie his shoes is one example; another is the incredible musician that lacks even basic social skills. It's the scientific and mathematical fields where this character type is seen most acutely -- an interesting side note is that a Mad Scientist/Quirky Inventor might be a Savant, but a Savant is not always a Mad Scientist/Quirky Inventor -- as those fields require extremely high-level brain function that can take from other parts of the brain.

From Historic Mysteries:
A Savant is someone possessing exceptional skill in a particular area, such as art, literature and mathematics. They are a rare breed; only 100 individuals recognized as Savants are alive today. But what is most interesting, is that half of all Savants are autistic, and the other half have some other type of mental disability, such as a brain injury or retardation.
In terms of fictional Savants, the mental or physical difficulties may or may not make an appearance. What might be the damning character flaw that shifts your hyper-intelligent character into Savant status may be something as simple as lack of social grace. If played to its logical extreme, you could have an exceptionally brilliant musician that refuses to talk to people because of difficulty relating. Talk about music, and they discourse for hours; talk about anything else and they clam up because they can't speak about anything else.

Characters that are engineers, scientists, and mathematically focused are especially prone to Savant status. In the more fantastic vein of Second-World Steampunk, you might also see a mage-scientist that has issues relating to people outside of his or her specific brand of high-level knowledge. A pure fantasy example would probably be Raistlin Majere from the Dragonlance series of novels; a more Steampunk choice could be Edward "Leviathan" Mallory from The Difference Engine, a brilliant paleontologist and explorer who nevertheless has difficulty dealing with people who don't conform to his worldview.

It's interesting to note that, in The Difference Engine, the word "Savant" is used to refer to the meritocracy that rules Britain. When you're a Savant in the Britain of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's seminal Steampunk novel, then you're part of the elite of the elite. This is an interesting way to use the highly scientific mind of the Savant to be sure, and something that would be very in keeping with the way a Savant character might view him or herself.

What fictional characters do you think qualify for Savant status?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Victorian Courtship Rituals, Or How Fanning Meant Flirting

The rules of courtship in Victorian England were many and varied. Since courtship and marriage was viewed primarily as a career move for young men rather than something done for love, the rituals took on excessive importance so as not to waste the time of anyone involved. Why would the young Lord Danforth pursue the eldest daughter of Baron Whistlefield if it meant he couldn't advance his own property holdings or his situation in Parliament?

I have a whole lot of commentary on this topic, but that's not the point of this post. Rather, it's to share the minimal freedom that upper class women had when it came to interacting with young, available men at social events. This freedom to "flirt," as it were, was limited to how the woman made use of her fan:

(Source: Literary Liaisons, Ltd, "Courting the Victorian Woman") 

Personally, I never knew that the different ways a lady used her fan meant different things. The proper courtship rituals of Victorian Britain are endlessly fascinating. Expect quite a few more posts on this area in the future. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Steampunk Character Type: The Rebel

Along with the Mad Scientist/Quirky Inventor, the Rebel is one of the quintessential Steampunk character types. The etymology of the word Steampunk, while a riff on the phrase "cyberpunk," is still tied directly to the rebellion against the status quo that Punk desires. To be "Punk," in fact, is to rebel against whatever system/government/social convention is currently in place.

There have been thousands of rebels throughout history; the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War, the Sons of Liberty and others during the American Revolution, the leaders of the Glorious Revolution in Britain, Charles Babbage, Guy Fawkes, Ada Lovelace, Nelson Mandela, and so on and so forth. My naming the revolutions or people isn't a judgment on any other revolutionaries, merely a sampling of the type of person I'm talking about.

In fiction, the list is equally as long. One of the most famous Steampunk trilogies, A Nomad of the Time Streams, has the unique distinction of its author Michael Moorcock being a card-carrying anarchist. In Warlord of the Air, the first novel in the trilogy, main character Oswald Bastable begins the story as a loyal son of the British Empire before he slowly becomes a Rebel when he realizes how wrong things really are in the alternate world he's ended up in.

Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters has Oliver, Missy, and the other "heroes" of the novel battling against the servants of Mama Engine, Grandfather Clock, and Baron Hume. Soulless by Gail Carriger has Alexia Tarabotti rebelling against convention while she seeks to help Lord Maccon and solve the mystery that plagues the werewolves and vampires of the United Kingdom.

Steampunk, some will argue, is about rebellion against the Empire in all its forms. The best Steampunks, these same people say, are the ones that reject the way the world is and battle to change it for the better. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville has Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a scientist that fills the role of rebel quite nicely once you look at him closely; The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia claims Mattie, the automaton main character, as a rebel against the world. Mattie is an emancipated automaton -- this is something that simply does not happen in the world of the novel. The fact that Mattie remains unharmed and successful is testament to the success of her rebellion.

Who is the rebel in Steampunk though? What type of person is he or she?

Well there are two kinds: the Rebel-as-Hero and the Rebel-as-Villain. The Rebel-as-Hero is someone who fights for a cause above all else. Sometimes that's to right a wrong, sometimes that's to move themselves up in the world against resistance, and sometimes that's because they rode into town and realized "wait a minute, that lord/king/baron/sheriff isn't treating his people right." The Rebel can be an Adventurer as well, but there's no guarantee that an Adventurer is a Rebel. A good example is Phileas Fogg, perhaps one of the most famous Adventurers in fiction, who does not waste any time on his trip around the world by rebelling against anything. He does save Aouda, but that's not a rebellion against her native culture. Rather, it's a simple rescue taking place throughout the course of the novel.

The Rebel-as-Villain is a bit trickier to tease out. This villain-rebel might use fear to make his point, is often mistake for a terrorist, and will use any means necessary to achieve his end goal. The rebel may have altruistic ideals at the beginning, but those quickly become subsumed under an overriding desire for revenge, anger at the establishment for a (sometimes incorrectly) perceived wrong, or even pain at something that happened in their past. The Rebel-as-Villain also makes common use of extreme violence in his acts. Guy Fawkes's plan to blow up Parliament in the 1600s is a good example of a common Rebel-as-Villain plan. They want to kill as many people as possible to prove their point. I'm not saying Guy Fawkes fit the bill of Rebel-as-Villain, mind you.

Nemo from the film
"The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen"
Perhaps the most famous Rebel in Steampunk fiction is Captain Nemo. The Villain-Hero of Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is one of those characters that almost defies description; he is a Mad Scientist, and a Rebel, and an Adventurer, and everything else about a Steampunk hero that writers strive to include.

From different perspectives, you can argue that Nemo is both a Rebel-as-Hero and a Rebel-as-Villain. He uses fear to get his point across; as the novel opens, Professor Pierre Aronnax is sought out to study the effects of an attack by a giant cetacean on several vessels in the Atlantic shipping lanes.

Nemo also battles the Empire to revenge himself for the failed Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 to 1859. We see Nemo in the guise of Rebel-as-Hero for his role in that rebellion, as the main thrust of that conflict was to expel the British from India. Nemo is also a Rebel-as-Hero because he gives aid to others rebelling against their masters -- in one case aiding the Greeks against the Ottoman Turks in the Cretan Revolt of 1866 to 1869.

Nemo fills the Rebel-as-Villain role primarily for his unrelenting desire to destroy the British Empire's power by any means necessary. He ruthlessly and silently attacks British warships in such a fashion as to kill everyone on board without being seen by ramming the vessels below the waterline. He spreads fear and terror throughout the Empire simply through existing. The sheer stories that are passed around about him spark speculation and terror among all the Empire's possessions.

The Rebel, whether as a Hero or as a Villain, is an important part of Steampunk fiction. There are many people who say that if there isn't a rebel character, then the story isn't really Steampunk. I don't know if I agree with this statement, as Steampunk has swiftly morphed into more of a Pulp-adventure genre than anything, but that's neither here nor there. The point is that Steampunk and Rebels go hand-in-hand.

What other Rebels can you think of in Steampunk?