Friday, April 30, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Wrapping It All Up

Over the past four weeks, I've examined the genres that influenced Steampunk and some of the early (or most famous) works within those genres. We've gone through Gothic Literature, Urban Gothic, Scientific Romances, Alternate History, Detective Fiction, and Dystopias; with authors who are sometimes unexpected and others who have been considered fathers of entire genres. We even had New York Times bestseller Gail Carriger talk about Steampunk Fashion.

Each of the genres we've discussed thus far have influenced the Steampunk genre in some way. Dystopias give dark Steampunk the anarchy and tyrannical governments that heroes need to struggle against; from Alternate History, we have First World Steampunk that looks at what would happen if history took a different turn through technology. Detective Fiction grants Steampunk its logical bent, and Scientific Romances allow my fellow Steampunk authors a glimpse into the optimism or pessimism of Late Victorian technology. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, Gothic literature and its subgenre Urban Gothic tap into the strong emotions of terror that the city and the countryside can stir in the readers of a well-written story.

What's important to understand though, is that it's the combination of these genres that makes Steampunk what it is today. If you write a Detective story without including the high-end mechanical or steam technology of Scientific Romances, then you've just written a Detective story. The same goes for any of the other genres on the list of the roots of Steampunk. The blend, and your imagination in doing so, is what makes the story Steampunk. Nothing else.

And with that, I bring this series to a close. Here's to hoping that you've all enjoyed reading about The Roots of Steampunk as much as I've enjoyed writing about it. Until Monday, loyal readers.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Jack London's The Iron Heel

By 1908, when Jack London's The Iron Heel was published, many of the antecedents of Steampunk had already come into their own. H.G. Wells worked his magic in Britain, American science fiction started to come into its own, and Jules Verne was still popular even after his death three years prior.

The Iron Heel earns a special place in the canon of Science Fiction literature as possibly the earliest of the modern Dystopias. The tale follows one Avis Everhard from the year 1912 to 1932, during the initial rise and dominance of the socialist Oligarchy that would eventually control all of North America. The novel itself is based on the fictional "Everhard Manuscript," discovered some 700 years in the future. London makes use of a framing story based around the scholar Anthony Meredith, who writes from the year 2600 or (419 Brotherhood of Man by the story's reckoning). London thus writes two stories, one around Everhard and one around Meredith.

The introduction to the novel is "written" by Meredith, and consists of a huge spoilier in that he tells the reader how Avis Everhard and her husband Ernest were summarily executed for rebelling against the Oligarchs. The "Iron Heel" of the title refers to the Oligarchy that arose in the United States during the 1912 to 1932 time frame of the novel. The Oligarchs are the robber barons of the major business monopolies, who take over by bankrupting most small to midsize business and turning all the farmers into serfs. They control the country via a sort of labor caste and their mercenary army.

It's only in the railroad, steel, and other essential industries where workers receive decent wages, housing, and education. London proposes that it's because these industries broke solidarity with other labor unions that the Oligarchy was able to arise. The Oligarchy eventually comes to dominate North America for three centuries, until the revolution first started by the Everhards comes to fruition and the Oligarchy is overthrown.

The main story of The Iron Heel is that of Avis Everhard's autobiography. We follow her through her privileged childhood, the fall of the U.S. republic, her marriage to the socialist revolutionary Ernest Everhard, and their eventual failure to overthrow the Oligarchy. The future perspective of the historian, Meredith, only serves to deepen the tragic plight of the Everhards and their revolutionary comrades.

To Steampunk, stories like The Iron Heel give us the dark and dreary sense of a potential future where humanity is oppressed by some tyrannical force. Whether that's businessmen, governments, or something else is entirely up to the author. Either way, the bleakness of the human experience is what's important in a dystopia, and The Iron Heel has that in spades.

Tomorrow: The Roots of Steampunk Wrap Up

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Archives

It's that time of the week again. No worries, the Roots of Steampunk series continues tomorrow. Visit me over the Secret Archives today.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Dystopias and the Bleakness of the Future-Past

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a Dystopia as "an imaginary place or society in which everything is bad." Merriam-Webster goes a step farther, and calls it "an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives."

On one end of the idea spectrum, we have Utopias, where everything is good and right and everyone lives in peace and harmony. On the precise opposite side, we have the Dystopian visions where the world is dark and fearful, and the powerful use the weak until they are dried up like day-old bread. Dystopias are police-states, fascist nations, and places where the forces of evil are in power oppressing all those who would resist them.

First-World Steampunk, where the story takes place in an alternate point of our own history, focuses quite heavily on dystopian settings. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling takes place in a dystopia brought on by terrorists who want to eradicate the new high technology of the meritocracy. These Luddites craft an environment of anarchy and terror that they believe will bring Britain back to the pastoral Utopia they so crave.

Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters operate solely within a dystopia. The "gods" of the title rule over the human citizens of the Whitechapel district of London with steam-driven force. They steal children in the night for work in the factories, and have mechanized soldiers who enforce their martial law on the populace.

Jules Verne wrote a dystopia, Paris in the 20th Century, which went unpublished for more than a hundred years. The story was written in 1863, but was only published in 1994. In it, he told a story of Paris in 1960, where technology and business were the only things shown any value, and art and music had become extinct. The hero, Michel, strives to be a poet, but he is born too late and dies when he finds it impossible to fit in.

H.G. Wells, who wrote the dark side of Scientific Romance, also composed some dystopian tales. His The Time Machine details a future society where the Eloi are kidnapped by the Morlocks and used up in the same way many dystopian governments do to their people. Wells also wrote When The Sleeper Wakes, which details a future dystopia where the leaders of society are hedonistic and shallow.

Even Jack London, more famous for The Call of the Wild, offered up a dystopian novel in The Iron Heel (1908), where he details the rise of the Oligarchs and their command over North America.

To Steampunk, dystopian fiction accentuates the terror crafted by adherence to Gothic literature and the dark side of Scientific Romances. Boneshaker tells of a dystopia within the walls of ruined Seattle; Whitechapel Gods does the same with London; and The Affinity Bridge's slums may as well be a microcosm of the worst sort of dystopia. That where monsters the government is powerless to stop rule the streets.

Thursday: Jack London's The Iron Heel

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles

On Thursday, we established that Detective Fiction is an important precursor to modern Steampunk because of its devotion to logic and deductive reasoning. As Steampunk is by and large a science fiction subgenre dependent on technology and science, this is a reasonable conclusion to draw. And no character recognizable to a contemporary reader is a more shining example of this archetype than one Sherlock Holmes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world in 1887 with the tale A Study in Scarlet. Between that first publication and 1927, when the last Sherlock Holmes tale was published, Conan Doyle wrote four full-length novels and 56 short stories featuring the detective and his companion Doctor John H. Watson. All but four of the Holmesian catalog are narrated by Watson as opposed to the detective himself, and A Study in Scarlet includes lengthy omniscient narration of events not known to either Holmes or Watson.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, published in serial format between 1901 and 1902 in The Strand magazine, brought Holmes and Watson to the English countryside where the styles of Gothic fiction and Detective stories blend together. For Gothic fiction, we have the windswept moor and the out-of-the-way manor house; for Detective fiction, there's Holmes and Watson and all their scientific methods of teasing out the solutions to cases.

For those who don't know the story: The Baskerville family is cursed because of an ancestor, Sir Hugo, who lived life to all sorts of immoral excess. In particular, Sir Hugo kidnapped a yeoman's daughter and kept her locked in his bedchamber; when she escaped, Sir Hugo proclaimed he'd sell his soul to the devil if he could only overtake her in pursuit. Sir Hugo's friends found both he and the girl dead out on the moor, and a large spectral hound standing over Sir Hugo's body. The hound ripped out Hugo's throat and disappeared.

Fast forward several centuries later, and Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead in the yew valley because of a heart attack. For the safety of his nephew, Sir Henry, a Dr. John Mortimer summons Holmes and Watson to the moor to investigate Sir Charles's death. Watson takes the lead in this case, as Holmes is tied up in London with other cases. The good doctor accompanies Sir Henry to Baskerville Hall, where the majority of the action takes place.

Watson investigates, and uncovers a number of secrets and plots within plots surrounding the death of Sir Charles. Holmes eventually reappears, saying he wants to be nearby when the critical moment occurs, and together Holmes and Watson confront Jack Stapleton (who's a Baskerville himself), and was the one who managed to kill Sir Charles simply by virtue of frightening him to death. The eponymous Hound is an actual dog that Stapelton covered in phosphorus so it appeared like a ghost.

Holmes and Watson use their minds to see through the deception of the dog, and uncover a plot involving hidden marriages, lost cousins, and escaped convicts all in the same story. There's action and danger, and real fear out on the moor, but this story serves to show that logic and deduction can save the day in the end.

To Steampunk, stories like The Hound of the Baskervilles give a sense of scientific terror. By that, I mean it shows that logic can overcome the prehistoric terrors of ghostly figures and creatures beyond the world, and in the face of science there is always a rational explanation. One of the more famous Holmesian sayings is in fact, "When you remove the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

Steampunk tales like The Affinity Bridge by George Mann can draw a direct line to the Holmes stories. The method of detection through logic and observation, and complete and total devotion to solving the case is what we can take away from the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes by any means necessary.

Tomorrow: Dystopias and the Bleakness of the Future-Past

Friday, April 23, 2010

GUEST POST: The Roots of Steampunk Fashion, by Gail Carriger

Yes, dear readers, you read that title correctly. Gail Carriger, author of Soulless, Changeless, and Blameless graciously agreed to write a guest post on the Roots of Steampunk Fashion for this series. I follow Gail on Twitter, and you all know how much I enjoyed/refer to Soulless for its Steampunk elements, so I thought it only natural to ask the New York Times Bestselling author (Changeless hit #20 on the NYT list) if she would write something. Anyway, enough of me talking. Here's Gail (at left in her favorite steampunk attire):

It's always difficult to pin point the beginning of a style or fashion trend. Steampunk is no different, even if it is clearly coupled to the maker movement. It has some roots in the short-lived cyberpunk style of the late 80s and early 90s (grunge won), which combined plastic and metallic accessories with brightly colored block coloring. Cyberpunks incorporated glow sticks, backlight, pvc, and telephone cords to their everyday look. The movie Hackers is a great example. There is also a goth element: steampunk witnesses goths discovering color, texture, and new avenues of characterization. The Victorian homage remains (along with the stripy stockings). And then there are also some Burner style elements to steampunk as well. So what we have ended up with is the idea of color and found-object aspects a la cyberpunk combined with Victoriana lace and frills a la goth, melded to wild homemade fabrics a la Burners. Jodhpurs, meets automated arms, clock jewelry, and yarn hair.

Strangely enough, the fashion side of steampunk seems oddly disconnected from the literary movement, which started in the early 80s with K. W. Jeter, Tim Powers, and James Blaylock. I find this odd because I came to steampunk literature through fashion. Both are now evolving. The steampunk movement (whatever it may be) now includes people who are into dressing it a little bit (a cog necklace, a newsboy cap), and people who are hardcore aestheticists (full on bustle dresses). There are makers with massive fire-breathing snails, makers with alcohol-dispensing brass backpacks, and makers who are green-believers who want to use steampunk to save the planet. The literary side of things is changing as well: there's steampunk romance, and steampunk adventure, and steampunk paranormals, steampunk noir, and steampunk dystopias. Having watched the cyberpunk movement fade away, I'm delighted to see steampunk become ever more inclusive, in as many ways as possible. After all, one of the worst things about the Victorian era was it's elitism, snobbery, bigotry, and classicism. I'd like to hope steampunk can leave those bits far behind.

Gail Carriger is a self-titled fashionista, an archaeologist, and a steampunk author who, when not excavating, lives on a vineyard in Northern California with one cat, three vehicles, and fifty pairs of shoes. Her books are Soulless, Changeless, and Blameless. If you'd like to read more on her thoughts concerning steampunk fashion and it's cultural evolution she has a piece on the subject coming out this October in Steampunk Reloaded edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer.


Gail's Virtual Home
Alternatively you can friend or follow Gail on Twitter, Facebook, Livejournal, or Blogspot. Or join The Parasol Protectorate Facebook Group and take over the world one sip of tea at a time. You can also play the Alexia paper-doll dress up game.

Soulless was thrust upon the unsuspecting public October 1, 2009. Changeless on March 30, 2010, and Blameless is due out in September of 2010.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Detective Fiction and a Devotion to Logic

Logic has been the guiding star of many a fictional detective: Sherlock Holmes, C. Auguste Dupin, Hercule Poirot. The list goes on and on when you consider the number of detectives who use their minds and not their fists to solve murders, burglaries, and all sorts of conspiracies before they destroy the government.

In 1841, Edgar Allen Poe wrote "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," in which he introduced Dupin and logical detection to the world. This story is the archetype for innumerable detectives since then -- Holmes, Poirot, and Nero Wolfe among them -- where the narrator of the story is a personal friend of the detective and the solution to the case is presented before the reasoning that lead up to it. Dupin was also the archetype of the brilliant, logical detective.

Dupin was the founding character of what would eventually become common tropes of detective fiction: the eccentric but brilliant detective, the bumbling constabulary, the first-person narration by a close personal friend. Contrary to some later detectives, Sherlock Holmes included, Poe sets up the Paris police as a foil to the detective -- law enforcement very much does not want Dupin's help in this tale. Poe himself called his Dupin stories "tales of ratiocination" as opposed to detective fiction, a term that would come into being later.

Across the pond in England, Charles Dickens added a mystery subplot to Bleak House, where a lawyer is murdered in his office and Inspector Bucket of the Metropolitan Police Force has to solve the crime. However, it's Wilkie Collins, a protege of Mr. Dickens, who's The Woman in White is considered the first great mystery novel. T.S. Elliot called Collins's The Moonstone (1868) "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels ... in a genre invented by Collins and not by Poe."

Where Poe crafted the brilliant detective that's such a fixture of the genre, Collins added in several other characteristics that mark many twentieth century mystery novels:

  • English country house robbery
  • An "inside job"
  • red herrings
  • A celebrated, skilled, professional investigator
  • Bungling local constabulary
  • Detective enquiries
  • Large number of false suspects
  • The "least likely suspect"
  • A rudimentary "locked room" murder
  • A reconstruction of the crime
  • A final twist in the plot
You'll notice that Poe and Collins share the bungling constabulary and reconstruction of the crime tropes of detective fiction. I think both of them are equally responsible for birthing the genre, but also agree with the historians who place the genesis with Poe and not Collins. That might also be an American-centric viewpoint (for which I apologize to my international readers).

And then, in 1887, we come to one Mr. Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street, London. If anyone can be said to rocket detective fiction into the stratosphere, then Holmes is it. The brainchild of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes has become a by-word for the part of the brilliant outside detective who assists the police with solving crimes via his brilliant deductive reasoning. Conan Doyle stated that he based Holmes off Dr. Joseph Bell, for whom Conan Doyle worked as a clerk at the Royal Edinburgh Infirmary. Dr. Bell was apparently famous for drawing large conclusions from the smallest of observations.

What does this all offer to Steampunk? Well it depends on what you're looking for. In the case of George Mann's The Affinity Bridge, Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes use their deductive reasoning skills to discern the whereabouts of a missing automaton, investigate the strangulations attributed to a glowing policeman, and battle a zombie plague in London's slums. The Affinity Bridge is Steampunk wedded to Detective Fiction in the tradition of Holmes and Dupin.

Much of Steampunk has a devotion to logic inherent in the tale. Victorian sensibilities abound with logical deduction and reasoning, at least in fiction, and stories like The Affinity Bridge carry it forward into Steampunk tales. Alexia Maccon, nee Tarrabotti, the heroine of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, is also highly devoted to logical reasoning when it comes to the underpinning conflict of the stories.

Logic and science fiction go hand-in-hand in other words. Logical underpinnings to the world, mystery subplots, and all sorts of clues and puzzles included in a story are the hallmarks of Detective Fiction and the class of Steampunk that owes its roots to the great detectives of Victorian fiction.

Tomorrow: A special guest blogger writes on Steampunk Fashion
Monday: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Archives

Yep, I'm over at the Secret Archives today. The Roots of Steampunk series resumes tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Castello Holford's Aristopia

Aristopia: A Romance-History of the New World (1895) by Castello Holford is considered the first novel-length example of Alternate History written in English and is among the earliest contemporary Alternate Histories in general. The book is apparently impossible to find nowadays, as it was published by the Arena Publishing Co., which only existed from 1890 to 1896.

Aristopia is interesting in that it takes the general utopian/dystopian literary groundswell of the late 1800s and turns it backwards in time. Holford's puts the founding of a utopian society in the distant past, instead of the far future or some far-off place as was the most common setting in literature.

In Aristopia, settler Ralph Morton discovers a reef made of solid gold off the coast of Virginia. Morton uses his newfound wealth to craft a society based on the theories in Thomas More's Utopia, with some innovations of his own included in the bargain. In the country Aristopia (which incidentally is Greek for "the best place"), all land is owned by the state and is merely leased to private individuals and businesses. Large-scale trade is controlled by the state, and there's limited inherited wealth.

Morton and his government eagerly accept industrious immigrants such as Huguenots, Irish fugitives from Cromwell's wars, and northern Italian and Swiss artisans to join their society. The Aristopians purchase more land from the Native Americans, and expand westward. Morton eventually dies at 100 years old, and his descendants continue his policies. The Aristopians support the American Revolution, and eventually conquer Canada under their own volition. Eventually, Aristopia dominates all of North America except for Mexico.

This and other Alternate History stories -- among them H.G. Wells's Men Like Gods (1932) and Robert Heinlein's Elsewhen (1940) -- explore the possibilities of what the world would look like if things happened otherwise. To Steampunk, Holford's Aristopia and novels of that ilk showcase the imagination and the devotion to logic that writing Alternate History requires.

Holford's story adds a singular, unusual event to American history and details what might have happened if it did occur. Though Wells, Heinlein, and others wrote cross-time stories (where the hero travels to another dimension a la the TV show Sliders where the world is different but the hero is the same), they still present logical points of divergence with our own world. That Ralph Morton discovered a reef of solid gold is paramount to the events of Aristopia. Take that away, and history stays the course it took. And what fun is that?*

*Yes I know it's quite a bit of fun re: historical fiction, but work with me here.

Thursday: Detective Fiction and A Devotion to Logic

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Alternate History and The Road Not Taken

Before I get into talking about Alternate History and its influence on Steampunk, I want to apologize for my underestimation of the amount of material out there. Bad Matthew, yes I know. So, this Roots of Steampunk series will continue for at least two more weeks -- possibly more depending on how detailed I get. Also: We're having a very special Guest Blogger at the end of this week. And no, I'm not going to tell you who it is (more fun to keep you in suspense). Anyway, back to the Roots of Steampunk:

One of the hallmarks of traditional Steampunk is that it's a re-imagining of the Victorian Era with hyper-advanced steam technology. Or, in the case of Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, it's a re-imagining of the United States during the late 1800s. Either way, the important thing to note is that events happened differently. In The Difference Engine, Charles Babbage developed his Difference Engine in the 1820s, Lord Byron was never killed in the Greek War of Independence, and the aristocracy was replaced by merit lordship.

Suffice to say, the very heart and soul of Steampunk involves imagining a world that Never Was. Because we as Steampunk authors place highly advanced steam technology in time periods that didn't have it at the level we want it to be, the very nature of the genre is tied to Alternate History. This is distinct from being a historical revisionist in that revisionists take already existing sources and re-evaluate their place in history. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls for example, helped revise our opinion of the Hebrews of the first century AD. Someone writing Alternate History in that period, on the other hand, might decide that Saint Paul was never converted and instead managed to shatter early Christianity before it began.

One of the first tales of Alternate History was written by Frenchman Louis Geoffroy in 1836; his History of the Universal Monarchy: Napoleon And The Conquest Of The World asks the question of what the world would look like if Napoleon Bonaparte had conquered Russia in 1811 and then Britain in 1814, thus unifying Europe under one ruler. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the short story "P.'s Correspondence" in 1845, which is the tale of a "madman" who perceives a different 1845, one where the poets Keats, Burns, Byron, and Shelley still live, in addition to the actor Edmund Kean, British politician George Canning, and even Napoleon himself.

Harry Turtledove, Mark Twain, Poul Anderson -- these are a few of the authors who've made this genre their lifeblood. Steampunk authors who write in the real world are universally focused on Alternate History out of necessity; S.M. Peters's Whitechapel Gods describes the Whitechapel section of London after it was taken over by the villains of the story; Gail Carriger's Soulless, Changeless, and Blameless take place in an England where vampires, werewolves, and ghosts are an integral part of Government and Society; and I've already mentioned Priest and the duo of Gibson and Sterling.

Steampunk = Alternate History. There's really no other way to say it.

Tomorrow: Castello Holford's Aristopia

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau

Yesterday I talked about Jules Verne and Optimistic Scientific Romances, which were the forebears of the sweeping, heroic epics of Steampunk and contemporary Science Fiction. Today, I'm more concerned with the Pessimistic Scientific Romances, as exemplified by H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau.

The Island of Doctor Moreau was published in 1896, in the midst of concerns about degeneration and animal vivisection that were sweeping European society. Degeneration, as you may or may not know, is the opposite concept of evolution. Essentially (and my scientist readers can correct me if I'm wrong), degeneration is the social theory that states mankind and society in general may degenerate into a bleak, pessimistic future. Many of the near-future dystopias of novels and movies could be considered degenerative, dystopian futures. For movies, think Johnny Mnemonic or A Clockwork Orange; in novels, you might go more for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or The Road (Yes I know A Clockwork Orange was a novel first, but I needed a good movie example).

Vivisection is a type of surgery conducted on living organisms for experimental purposes. It's used in a broader sense to refer to any sort of testing on animals. In the time frame Wells wrote Doctor Moreau, there were entire societies dedicated to abolishing the practice of animal vivisection. Doctor Moreau was Wells's offering to the debate, wherein the title character is a brilliant physiologist who was forced to flee Britain because of his advocacy of vivisection as a valid practice.

Doctor Moreau is additionally interesting as a novel because it's one of the first works to introduce genetic experimentation with its beast/man hybrids. In this case, the titular doctor eventually explains to our narrator -- an Englishman named Edward Prendick -- that the Beast-men are animals the doctor vivisected to look like humans, and that he is attempting to complete the transition from animal to human.

Though the hybrids are created surgically instead of at the molecular level as in most genetic manipulation fiction, Doctor Moreau still classifies as one of the first examples of this concept. The titular doctor classifies for mad scientist cred through his unbridled ambition, and the story itself falls clearly under the pessimistic arena of Scientific Romances simply from its subject matter.

Prendick, our narrator, tells the story of his travels on the island and the degeneration of the society after both Moreau and Montgomery, the title doctor's assistant, are killed by the Beast-men. The creatures become more animal than human, and though Prendick eventually escapes, he finds himself gone mad from his time on the island. Prendick is unable to re-integrate into human society, and withdraws to the study of astronomy and chemistry instead.

Perhaps most interesting in this story is the concept of the unrepentant mad scientist. If you'll recall, Victor Frankenstein was written as a repentant soul -- he knew what he did was wrong, and sought to correct it by destroying his creation. Doctor Moreau, on the other hand, is one hundred percent convinced of the rightness of his cause, as is Montgomery. It is only Prendick, the narrator, who acknowledges the horror that Moreau has visited upon the island.

To Steampunk, The Island of Doctor Moreau gives the kind of blind scientific ambition that characterizes many of the mad scientists of the subgenre, as well as the concept of degeneration of society that it shares with dystopian fiction. That science brought on this degeneration is an integral part of many near-future dystopian science fiction stories, and the aesthetic of the darker Steampunk works.

Monday: Alternate Histories and The Road Not Taken

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Jules Verne's A Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Jules Verne is constantly referred to as one of the two fathers of modern Science Fiction. Herbert George (H.G.) Wells is the other, but whereas Wells writes about the darkness of human existence, Verne composes soaring tales that explore the best and most optimistic traits mankind has to offer.

In the 1864 novel, A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Verne does double duty by both educating and entertaining the reader. Though his theories about what lies in the center of the earth have been discredited, this is excused because Verne places the extinct animals in their correct geological era the further he sends his travelers into the center of the earth. This goal of education and entertainment is kept alive by Verne having Professor Otto Lindenbrock explain scientific theories to his nephew Axel as they descend into the earth. At one point, Verne switches their roles, and has Axel point out rock strata to the professor as they descend.

One of the most interesting things about Verne's stories is that, ostensibly, they fall under the adventure novel category as opposed to strict Scientific Romance like Wells or Stapeldon (Last and First Men was three-quarters of a century later, but still). This story is also unusual in that many of what Verne puts forward has been discredited since the 1864 publication of the novel; we now know the temperature of space is not minus 40 degrees Farenheit for example. 

To Steampunk, stories such as this give a sense of Victorian wonder about the world around them and the sense that there are great adventures to be had out in the world, so long as you follow the precepts of science. Any Steampunk tale that instills a sense of adventure in the reader owes this to Verne and his body of work, where science and technology can help mankind to previously unthought of heights of greatness and knowledge.

An addendum, that doesn't really have anything to do with this, but is interesting nonetheless: the 1871 Griffith and Farran English translation of the novel dropped a few chapters of the original French version, and changed the names of the characters -- the professor's last name went from Lindenbrock to Hardwigg, Axel was renamed Harry (or Henry) Lawson, and changed the name of Axel's sweetheart from Grauben to Gretchen. Despite these flaws, and the rewriting of and addition of material to other chapters, this edition is the most popular one. The 1877 English version printed by Ward, Lock, & Co., Ltd. is more faithful, but still has some slight rewrites.

Tomorrow: H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gone Fishin'

Over at The Secret Archives today, dear readers. This week's topic is Writer's Block.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Scientific Romances and High Victorian Technology

The hallmark and byword of Steampunk is highly advanced steam technology. Tanks, cannons, airships, auto-carriages and the like populate the worlds of novels such as The Affinity Bridge by George Mann, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and Soulless and Changeless by Gail Carriger.

The inclusion of these innovations in literature had to start somewhere, and that was with the Scientific Romances. A "Scientific Romance" is distinct from its direct heir -- Science Fiction -- in that many writers of the period took an evolutionary perspective, theorized mankind as inherently flawed, and had little interest in space travel. They also sometimes took a very, very bleak view of the future.

There are two sides to the Scientific Romance coin -- the Light and Optimistic side of the genre was exemplified by French writer Jules Verne in such seminal works as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, From the Earth to the Moon, and A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, whereas the Dark and Pessimistic worldview was held by Herbert George Wells in his novels The Sleeper Wakes, The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and War of the Worlds.

Verne and Wells both detailed exquisite inventions for their period. The Nautilus submarine of Twenty Thousand Leagues is powered by electricity from sodium/mercury batteries, and described as a "masterpiece containing masterpieces." It carries Captain Nemo and his crew through the depths of the ocean in a self-contained environment. Verne published this novel in 1869. To craft this astounding innovation even in fiction showed a grasp of mechanics any Steampunk author would love to have.

In Doctor Moreau, Wells deals with the concept of vivisection and some genetic science. This forerunner of the genetic science so popular in modern Steampunk details what can happen when science divorces itself from morality. The 1996 movie of the same name, starring Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando, shows the blend of animal and man that the eponymous Doctor achieves through the course of the novel. This is the sort of dark science that dystopian Steampunk thrives on. One could even argue that China Mieville's Remade creatures in  Perdido Street Station, draws a direct parallel to Wells's Beast-men.

Scientific Romance would continue as a genre up through the 1950s, when the term Science Fiction became more prominent in the lexicon due to the influence of American authors after World War II. One of the late, great stories of Scientific Romance was Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930), which describes humanity over the course of 5 billion years and 18 distinct species. It's depressing, but at the same time fascinating in the breadth of the storytelling.

To Steampunk, the Scientific Romance gives its pessimistic, dystopian viewpoint of mankind, and offers up the highly advanced Victorian-era steam technology that is so integral to the subgenre. Looking at the writing inherent in many of the Scientific Romances of the late Victorian period or early Edwardian period is also a good way to get the aesthetic and language down. If you're writing Victorian Steampunk of course (The Affinity Bridge by George Mann seeks to faithfully replicate the style of these novels).

Thursday: Jules Verne's A Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Bram Stoker, Vampires, and the Undead

One of the more common storylines cropping up in contemporary steampunk involves those creatures commonly thought of as Undead -- Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies. There are sometimes also ghosts, but that appears to be somewhat less common (unless you're blending genres such as paranormal and steampunk).

Cherie Priest's Boneshaker, a Hugo and Nebula Award nominee, includes creatures called "rotters," a form of zombie created when the Boneshaker drill of the title destroyed the underground of downtown Seattle and sent a heavy gaseous poison spewing into the air.

Bram Stoker's Urban Gothic novel, Dracula, was the preeminent late Victorian work to use the undead in a steampunk-esque fashion. The ancient vampire of the title traveled from the Transylvanian countryside to the middle of London and the abandoned Carfax near an insane asylum run by Dr. John Seward.

What's most interesting about Dracula is that it's organized as an epistolary novel -- the story itself is told through the journal entries and diaries of the several protagonists, interspersed with "news clippings" that Stoker includes to relate events not witnessed by any of the narrators.

Dracula, for those who might not know the story, tells the tale of the battle waged against the Transylvanian vampire of the same name, as he wreaks havoc through the urban fog of London. Stoker succeeds via his narrators of conjuring up a sense of the terror they face when they battle this ancient evil that threatens them and the rest of the "teeming millions" of London.

To Steampunk, the story of Dracula offers up noble heroes and implacable villains that use a blend of science and superstition to make their cases. Dracula depends on superstition and people's natural fear of the unknown to create terror in the people in London. Some later interpretations of Dracula present his evil as sensual instead of the sort of Gothic psychological terror that Stoker succeeds in crafting. Van Helsing uses science, after a fashion, to battle against Dracula and train the others to do the same.

Beyond that though, we Steampunk authors are also witness to the strong Victorian ethos that threads through this novel. The men and women are brave and socially conscious, with the "stiff upper lip" that seems to be the byword of British heroes and heroines (especially the Victorian ones). This hearkens to the Victorian-era heroes of traditional Steampunk, who act with courage no matter what the terror around them.

Tomorrow: Scientific Romances and High Victorian Technology

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Urban Gothic and Terror in the City

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, England and much of Europe could still be considered mostly agrarian. Sure there were cottage industries here and there, but nothing anywhere near the smoke-belching monstrosities that we see in the late Victorian Era. In the 1830s, that all started to change. Queen Victoria was crowned in 1837, and would reign until 1901. This Victorian Age saw dozens, perhaps hundreds, of scientific and industrial advancements.

This also meant that more people lived in the cities and towns of the British and American countryside. Literature changed its focus in this time frame as well -- from the isolated castles and manor houses of the English and European countryside to the terrors inherent in the cityscape. Darkened alleys, urban fog, murders in the night and thieves who'd beat you to snatch your money became the ways to craft terror in readers.

The horror of the city became the new focus in the industrial and post-industrial literature. British authors such as Charles Dickens and G.W.M. Reynolds helped found this style, while others like Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde pushed it into its own form. In Bleak House (1854), Dickens introduced the "urban fog" that became such a prominent facet of Urban Gothic.

"Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds." (Bleak House, Chapter 1)
Dickens continues for a few more paragraphs about the fog, as Dickens is wont to do, but it serves to give you the image of the citizens of London stumbling and bumbling their way through fog thicker than the thickest cloud. This is the environment of Urban Gothic.

Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890), Stoker's Dracula (1897), and Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) exemplified the Urban Gothic of the late Victorian era. Dracula brings ancient terror from the countryside of Transylvania to smack in the center of London, Dorian Grey explores how far a man is willing to go to preserve his own beauty, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is yet another example of Science Gone Wrong and what havoc man's creations can wreak in the city.

The major influences on this style, and particularly on Urban Gothic in the latter part of the Victorian era, included Freud's views on the human mind, the Whitechapel murders of Jack the Ripper, the theory of a "hidden city," and Darwin's views on Natural Selection. London was a primary focus of this early Urban Gothic movement, but it eventually came to other cities, such as Paris, with the 1909-10 serial publication of The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux.

Some contemporary novels fall under this category -- Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and Poppy Z. Brite's Lost Souls utilize New Orleans as a setting for their Urban Gothic stories, for example, and Frank Miller's Batman, Daredevil, and Sin City graphic novels also make use of similar themes.

Steampunk owes Urban Gothic a debt for taking the dark mysteries of nature and crafting new horrors inside the cityscape. Industrialization equals cities, which means slums and darkness under the shining gleam of powerful technologies. Much of steampunk takes place in ruined cityscapes, where thieves and brigands rule the night while people try to live their lives in the daytime. Sometimes the heroes must traverse these ruined or pestilent cities, or are stuck inside them and must work against the horrors they face (think Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters or Boneshaker by Cherie Priest).

Monday: Bram Stoker, Vampires, and the Undead

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was 18 when she wrote Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The novel was published, anonymously, when she was 20. The story, for those who don't know it, follows one Victor Frankenstein from his childhood through university and his experiments with the theory of galvanism -- a science that purports to reanimate dead flesh. Galvanism was a theory first put forward by the 18th-century poet and physician Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin), and he claimed to have actually put it into practice.

The story of Frankenstein, which many people mistakenly think is the name of the monster (the monster doesn't have a name) is the story of scientific ambition gone wrong. Victor Frankenstein, contrary to later interpretations, is a college dropout who secludes himself to work out his theories. There is no hunchbacked assistant named Igor, Frakenstein is not an insane baron, and he does not wish harm on others.

Instead, Victor Frankenstein fills the "mad scientist" role because of his unbridled ambition and confidence in his own scientific abilities. The most interesting thing about this story is that Frankenstein is a tragic hero in the old Greek sense -- rich, intelligent, handsome, loved by a beautiful woman, and yet possessed of one tragic flaw that spells his downfall. This is of course supreme arrogance in his own ability.

The themes of What Hath Science Wrought and how dangerous the pursuit of knowledge can be runs thick through this story, as it does through most cautionary tales about pushing the bounds of human knowledge too far. Most interesting about the set up of this story is the frame narrative of Robert Walton's trip to the North Pole. When Walton discovers Frankenstein pursuing his creation to destroy it, he is attempting to push the bounds of human knowledge in another way by exploring the North Pole.

Frankenstein gives to Steampunk its focus on dangerous science and pushing at what we already know. Novels like Boneshaker, where science gone wrong is one of the central facets of that world's history, owe a debt to tales like Frankenstein. Mary Shelley and other writers of Gothic literature that crafted terror over science in their readers were the progenitors of "mad science" in fiction.

I leave you with this quote of Robert Walton describing Victor Frankenstein: 
"What a glorious creature must he have been in the days of his prosperity, when he is thus noble and godlike in ruin! He seems to feel his own worth and the greatness of his fall." (Chapter 24)
Tomorrow: Urban Gothic and Terror in the City

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Secret Archives Day

You already know where I am today.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Gothic Literature

One of the major aspects of steampunk comes from its dystopian elements. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling weaves in dystopic facets, as does Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. Though the first dystopian story is generally accepted to be After London, or Wild England by Richard Jeffries (1885), the influence of Gothic Literature, and particularly Urban Gothic, cannot be understated.

Gothic literature can be tied to the Gothic Revival movement in architecture of the same time period. The writers of Gothic literature focused on extremity of emotion and the creation of Atmosphere (yes, the capital A is important), in addition to the general theme that man's works would not last forever. The focus of the Gothic Romances that came about in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was thus the the creation of this dark and terrifying world through psychological and physical terror.

Prominent stories from this period include Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), The Castle of Otranto by Howard Walpole (1764), and The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve (1778). One of Jane Austen's works, Northanger Abbey, is valuable because it references a series of novels now nicknamed the Northanger Horrid Novels. There was a timeframe where Gothic writers, specifically Ann Radcliffe, were seen as composing sensationalistic women's entertainment (sounds like the bad rap romance novels get today, huh?).

This is the genre that birthed the Byronic hero, a man who is "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," and yet is seen as a heroic figure in spite of that. This strikes me as a forerunner of the Anti-Hero trope that is so common in modern fiction.

Tales like Frankenstein, and the Victorian Gothic stories of Edgar Allen Poe and others gifted us with the dark, brooding aesthetic of later horror novels and the extremity of emotion needed in the darker steampunk works. Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey offers fodder for dark discussion about beauty and Faustian deals with the best of them. The story is chilling in one of the best sorts of ways, and forces you to think about how far you're willing to go to protect the things that matter to you.

Darkness and terror characterize the great Gothic stories of the Victorian period, something any author interested in the darkness of humanity can learn a lot from.

Thursday: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus*

* Tomorrow is Secret Archives day.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Roots of Steampunk -- Introduction

The word "Steampunk" has been on a lot of writer's lips since the genre began spilling over recently. Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Soulless and Changeless by Gail Carriger -- these are just a few of the steampunk novels that have risen to attention among the wider community of readers.

With those works in the public eye, and numerous pubbed and unpubbed writers (yours truly included), discussing what the genre is, I thought it might be a good idea to go over the works and authors that have influenced what we now call Steampunk.

Over the course of the next two weeks, I'll go through the styles, authors, and stories whose aesthetic, themes, and settings all blended together into what we now call Steampunk. Follow me on the journey if you care to, and I promise I'll try to make it interesting.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Idea Development for Callarion at Night

L.T. Host asked about this on Tuesday, and though I already answered it during my last round of questions, I figured I'd use this iteration to go into a bit more detail about the process of how the current steampunk version came into being.

If you'll recall from my February post on this topic, I developed CALLARION AT NIGHT originally as a short story called "Moriah, Child of the Rowan." What's unusual about Moriah is that several core facets of her personality haven't ever changed from the original 2005 version, when she was just a half-nymph tracker in a fantasy kingdom. Her name also never changed, which is definitely odd for me -- seeing as the hero of SON OF MAGIC (which was called RoseFire, The Wizard's Plan, The Desert Rose, and Journey Through the Wizard's Kingdom -- in semi-reverse chronological order) was variously named Glace, Conner, Christian, and Gwyn at some point before I finally decided on Swain in the most recent rewrite (and he's going to be renamed Finn in the next write-through).

So there I was a year ago, SON OF MAGIC being read by betas, and trying to come up with a new idea. I remembered Moriah and her story, and started in with writing the thing. SON OF MAGIC had developed into a proto-steampunk work, with steam cannons and airships and steam-powered carriages, so I decided to push the idea several steps farther. I gave Moriah a long-barreled six-shooter analogous to the Colt Single Action Army revolver (commonly called a Colt .45), and started in on my research.

I discovered that the "rules" about steampunk revolved around dystopian societies that had hyper-advanced steam technology capable of doing everything we can do with contemporary tech like semiconductors and the like. My villains were already kind of Nazi-esque in their hatred of half-nymphs and half-satyrs, so it wasn't that hard to push them even further in a direction similar to the Holocaust. The Brothers of Purity, my psycho religious order, came about because I was trying to find a logical reason for the humans of the city to buy into the racism.

Yes, I know the Nazis didn't need to use religion to get people to buy into their worldview, but the specific way my society developed it did require it. The Brothers of Purity, by the way, are loosely based on the Spanish Inquisition. I found it odd that combining the Nazi and Inquisition ideologies weren't actually all that hard.

Anyway, the other "rule" about steampunk is that the mechanics must be steam-powered and be dominated with iron, copper, brass, and wood. None of the modern plastics or carbon fiber (plastics become big in the 1950s; and carbon fiber is well beyond the 1800 to 1920 timeframe most steampunk falls under). This was simple for me to pull off -- state the machines have copper, brass, wood, or iron parts and bing bang boom you're done.

When it came to the mechanics of the period themselves, I had to do a lot of reading about tanks, automobiles, naval and aerial vessels in order to ensure I used the right proportions for the machines. I've read dozens of websites and not an unsubstantial amount of books on the science behind steam engines and what was possible to do with them. I'm still on the hunt for a decent book about clockwork gadgetry, so if anyone has any suggestions that's much appreciated.

Crafting a city similar to one in the late 1800s also meant that the architecture needed to keep pace. I've stared at a lot of pictures of London, Stockholm, New York, and San Francisco of the late 1800s in order to get the description of the buildings correct.

In the case of the Quayside district of the city, I tried to figure out how the poor would try to put together their own homes. The decision to use shipwrecked wooden vessels arrived out of necessity, and the thought that "what would a forward-looking people do once they developed steel ships? Probably reuse parts of the old wooden ones for something else."

For Marketplace I studied the old Victorian-era shops with the big storefront windows. Lowtown and Woodsedge were based loosely on the slums, and Academe is based off the universities that have been around for hundreds of years.

The people and their occupations evolved from the parts of the city I developed. Some of the storyline evolved from there as well. Purity began in Lowtown because the preachers promised a better life to the poor when the half-breeds were gone, and they played on the "fear of the other" that seems ever-present in today's debates about illegal immigrants.

All of that color went into developing the city that would operate around Moriah. She herself became the daughter of an Archduke and a Princess instead of an Ambassador and a Princess because I needed to give her a larger pedigree to have it make sense for her to lead a rebellion. I know what you're going to say -- it's possible for someone to be an average person and lead a resistance movement -- but Moriah's family name needed to mean something to the people of the kingdom. Why? Because then she started off more visible to the populace as an example of the thing the villains wanted to destroy.

I think I'm going to end here before this post becomes too long. If you folks are all interested in finding out more about my thought process in developing the world and ideas that swirl through CALLARION AT NIGHT, then let me know and I'll do another post.

Until then, HAPPY EASTER!!!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Pericles Commission and Awesomeness

Friend-of-the-blog and all-around awesome guy Gary Corby just announced that he finally has a cover for his debut novel, The Pericles Commission, via his blog A dead man fell from the sky.

Also, the book is up on Amazon for pre-order. Go here to purchase the hardback version of the story. If you've read Gary's blog at all (if you haven't why the heck not???), then you know that Gary's a hardworking, brilliant writer who deserves all the success we can give him. The release date's not until October, but still. Work with me, people.

To Tweet or Not to Tweet

Stephanie Thornton asked Tuesday for my opinion on the positives and negatives of Twitter. So did Susan Quinn, so I figured it's a valid question because two of the three people who asked me questions wanted to know about it.

The positives of Twitter far outweigh the negatives, in my opinion. Several positives are the ease of networking with writers, agents, and editors; the instant feedback you can get from your Tweets; and the general camaraderie you can experience by having a community of writers on there sending 140 character messages back and forth to each other.

Using Twitter has helped me connect with writers all over the country and the world, and also some published authors who I would've otherwise not connected with. I occasionally tweet with Gail Carriger (she of Soulless fame), and the Tweets of Generalissimo Stan Lee are always entertaining (but that's because Stan Lee is effing amazing, so nothing more need be said).

I've also been able to tap into the wealth of resources that other writers can provide. A recent conversation I had on there involved determining a name for what I used to call "bionics" in CALLARION AT NIGHT. After consultation with Twitter (and the fabu L.T. Host), I decided to use the word Mecho instead -- which would be short for Fabricated Mechanical Organism (and yes, Bane will be happy to know that a few people on there did misread the word Organism the same way he did awhile back).

Short version is that while Twitter can suck several hours down the drain, the usefulness of it far outweighs the downside. That and there's sometimes very entertaining conversations revolving around wagels, pork loin, and shoving Jeeps into the Mississippi River (those are the subjects of two different conversations, by the way).

But Twitter's not for everyone. I adore it, but you may not. It's really up to you guys. If you do decide to join, or have already, feel free to follow me on there. I sometimes say interesting things. Sometimes.