Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Deconstructing Men's Regency Clothing

The Regency era in the United Kingdom is the period from 1811 to 1837, from the time King George III was declared unfit to rule through the reign of his son, George IV, first as Prince Regent and then as King in his own right after his father's death in 1820. This is the era of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility, as well as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and other great literature. The literature of the period isn't my focus today, however. Rather, I'd like to pull apart the common dress of an upper-crust gentleman in the wider Regency era of fashion, which actually runs from 1788 to 1825.

My focus is on the upper crust because they were the only ones who would be able to afford the latest styles coming from London or Paris. Your average drover or textile worker would be lucky to get a quality shirt and trousers handed down several levels from the lord of the nearest manor. In detailing clothing of any particular period then, the best (and really only) recourse one has is to look at images of the upper classes.

The prototype of fashion for men in the early Regency period (1797 to 1810) is one Beau Brummel. In the image at left (Jessamyn's Regency Costume Companion), Brummel wears the standard tailcoat cut without a waist seam (all Victorian coats had waist seams), and you can see approximately two inches of his cream-colored waistcoat beneath. The U-shaped way the tailcoat was cut gave the hips their distinctive shape, and also created some bunching in the coat itself, which you can see if you look closely. The sleeves, as you can see, are extraordinarily long. Modern men's shirts and jackets are worn with the cuffs touching the wrist, but these cuffs hang about half-way down the hand. The coat itself would've been made from wool, fancy bengaline, or serge, and it was only the dark blue jackets that had gold buttons. Every other color of tailcoat had buttons the same color as the fabric. Note also the M-shaped lapels of the jacket.

The waistcoat Brummel wears here extends over the pants and slightly below the edge of the tailcoat. Gentlemen's waistcoats in this period would be made of wool, linen, or silk; with a single row of buttons and sometimes sharp collars. More often than not, the waistcoat would be of a brocade or similar pattern, even though solid-colored ones did exist.

A gentleman's shirt, however, would not have a long line of buttons. Rather, there would be a single button near the collar of the shirt, and a ruffle to cover the button when it was worn. A gentleman slipped his shirt on over his head, rather than buttoning it up in the Regency period. Shirts were made from linen or cotton.

To a proper gentleman, according to Brummel, the cravat was one of the most important parts of the outfit. There were easily a dozen different ways to tie a cravat, some very outlandish indeed. The work Neckclothitania (1818) described 14 distinct ways of tying a cravat, with the specific amount of starch, type of material, and color of cloth that should be worn with each. One of these tying styles was the Oriental, which was tied thus: "The Oriental made with a very stiff and rigid cloth, so that there cannot be the least danger of its yielding or bending to the exertions and sudden twists of the head and neck. -Care should be taken that not a single indenture or crease should be visible in this tie; it must present a round, smooth, and even surface - the least deviation from this rule, will prevent its being so named. This neck-cloth ought not to be attempted, unless full confidence and reliance can be placed in its stiffness.-it must not be made with coloured neck-cloths, but of the most brilliant white. It is this particular tie which is alluded to in the following lines. 'There, had ye marked their neck-cloth's slivery glow, Transcend the Cygnet's towering crest of snow.'" (The Regency Collection).

The breeches, worn here tucked into knee-high boots, were either buckskin or nankeen (a fabric originally acquired from Nanking, China). Buckskin was definitely the more common of the two, and nankeen was generally only used for summer wear. The front of the breeches were actually a flap of fabric affixed with buttons. You can see the edge of the flap beneath the curve in the jacket if you look closely; this is in stark contrast to the fly front of today. Breeches were generally light-colored, in contrast to the darker tailcoat, and didn't become fashionable for evening wear until later in the century.

Pants would come more into vogue as the century wore on, and between 1810 and 1825 really came more into prominence, as the image at right (again from Jessamyn) of Lord Grantham shows. How can you tell that Grantham is wearing pants? Look at the height of his boots. They're mid-calf length here, as opposed to Brummel's knee-high boots. If Grantham were wearing breeches, we would be able to see the ends of the legs with boots that low.

A word about boots as well -- good leather boots were essential for the gentleman of the Regency period, even when they went into town on business. According to Jessamyn, this reliance on boots as part of proper attire is the key thing that shows the roots of Regency fashion in the riding dress of the previous century.

Lastly, there's the accessories. Leather gloves, a top hat, and a cane were the proper accessories that no gentleman would be seen around town without. An aside: you might not see it in Grantham's picture, but by the time the 1820s rolled around, the common U-shape cut on the tailcoat had more or less been replaced by a straighter cut across the torso.

One very interesting note is that no Regency gentleman of any social standing would be seen without his coat on. There's an image of Hugh Grant lounging backstage at the filming of a movie version of Sense & Sensibility with his tailcoat off. It's useful so one can get a good look at the shirt sleeves common to the Regency period, but it's something that would never ever have happened during the actual Regency period. It would be a scandal if a gentleman was seen without his tailcoat on.

Now, I can kind of tell what you're thinking. What does talking about Men's clothes in the Regency period have to with Steampunk, seeing as Steampunk is a Victorian aesthetic and not a Regency one? Well, many of today's most formal apparel still has its roots in Regency fashion, and if you have an older man in a Steampunk alternate-history story set in 1865 in England (for example), then that gentleman would probably still wear Regency-style clothing. We see even today that older generations hold on to the clothes that were fashionable when they were young. A Victorian gentleman who came of age during the Regency period might do the same.

Monday, June 28, 2010

From Natural Philosopher to Scientist

Open the 1818 novel Frankenstein and, though the very plot of the story deals with science, the eponymous Victor is never referred to as a "scientist." This isn't because of a lack of scientific theories in the novel, far from it in fact, but rather because the term itself didn't exist until nearly two decades later. Englishman William Whewell, a gifted polymath and wordsmith, coined the word in 1833, four years prior to his book History of the Inductive Sciences. Whewell was a gifted wordsmith, and in fact suggested the words "anode" and "cathode" to Michael Farraday (one of the first researchers into electricity and batteries).

Prior to Whewell's creation of the term, those few men who investigated the world around them were known as either "natural philosophers" or "men of science." Even that's stretching the definition though, as natural philosophers tended to only craft theories and not perform rigorous experiments to prove their theories. Men placed in the pantheon of scientific achievement, such as Aristotle, saw no need to test their thoughts about the world. Instead they merely crafted the theories and let them stand as is. It wasn't until Alhazen's Book of Optics, written between 1011 and 1021 C.E., that a basic form of the contemporary scientific method was even introduced.

Fast-forward to the 1500s, when Francis Bacon championed inductive reasoning -- conclusions reached by experimentation -- that Europe slowly began getting on the proverbial bandwagon. Even then, the most common form of scientific inquiry was still the deductive reasoning of Aristotle. Bacon stridently rejected the a priori (independent of experience) reasoning that the Church carried through from the ancient natural philosophers and such famous Christian thinkers as Saint Anselm and Thomas Aquinas. Instead, he focused on empirically gathering information from the natural world.
"There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms: this way is now in fashion. The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried."-- Francis Bacon
 Of course, Bacon's methods didn't really begin to gain traction until Robert Boyle (of Boyle's law fame) wrote his 1686 work called A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of Nature. Inductive reasoning quickly gained prominence after Boyle's work, even though the sciences remained lumped together under the phrase "natural philosophy."

It wouldn't be until around Whewell's time that the scientific method became its modern form, and scientific investigation took on a more divided form. It was actually Whewell himself, in his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), that classified the field of scientific inquiry into the divisions we know today. 

Whewell's classification of the sciences (from VictorianWeb.org)

This classification system, and Whewell's authorship of one of The Bridgewater Treatises, cement his place in the scientific pantheon. He also famously opposed the concept of Evolution, publishing an 1845 book called Indications of the Creator, which refuted Charles Darwin's theories.

You might perchance be wondering why this all matters to a writer of Steampunk fiction. Truth be told, it's more a matter for the writer of historical fiction set in the years before or immediately after 1833. But, seeing as a lot of Steampunk is alternate history, the fact that the word "scientist" didn't exist until Whewell came up with it is an important thing to note. You can't use the word "scientist" in a pre-1833 story because the word didn't exist then. Also, it wasn't until the 1830s that men of science began to specialize in a set discipline. In other words, it was excessively uncommon for someone to only study biology, or chemistry, or physics before Whewell's period. 

Taking this to its (somewhat) logical conclusion, the splitting of science both during and after Whewell's active period means that the writer of alternate history Steampunk needs to take care with what time frame they set their story in. Even though the story is alternate history, that's no reason to use words that didn't necessarily exist in that timeframe, unless you can come up with a very good explanation (and really, "natural philosopher" serves perfectly well for "scientist" for pre-1830s stories. Gives you the writer more freedom.).

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Changing Things Up (Yet Again)

I'm back from vacation, folks! Did you miss me?

I know I said my blog break would last a full two weeks, but I'd been sending an idea through the gears in my head while I was gone, and I wanted to get it out in the open (so to speak) as soon as possible.

Effective immediately, Tuesday posts on this blog will no longer be my Writing Thoughts. For that particular brand of musings, you'll have to visit The Secret Archives of the Alliterati every Wednesday. From here on out, you'll see all Steampunk all the time. So, without further adieu, here's my new posting schedule:

Monday: Steampunk Technology/Science/Industry
Tuesday: Steampunk Culture/Fashion/Architecture
Wednesday: Secret Archives Day
Thursday: Steampunk Books (both contemporary and classic)
Friday: Random Historical Nonsense/Whatever Comes Up

This will serve the dual purpose of focusing my blog more, and giving me a clearer idea of what the heck to post about each day in each place. Also, since Steampunk means (at least to me) the period between 1800 and 1920, you'll see a lot of posts about various real bits of history and how it's related to the genre.

Stick around for the ride. I promise I'll try to make it interesting.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

REPOST: The Crafting of a City Map

This post originally appeared on March 23, 2010. 

My propensity for doing a lot of research is well-known across various people's blogs (and now on Twitter), but perhaps less well-known is my need to do a lot of background figuring because of this.

One of the criticisms I got from my fantabulous betas (you know who you are) was the lack of a sense of place/time differential when Moriah travels through the city of Callarion. The easiest way to fix this is to design a map of the city. However, one of the problems with doing such a thing is my lack of any drawing ability whatsoever. Instead of drawing that map then, I've decided to craft some background information on architecture and distances in various parts of the city.

This amounts to yet more research (and some unrepentant cribbing of real places) to craft the exact city map that I need in order to give the city its verisimilitude. So far, today, I've written capsules on Marketplace, Quayside, and Woodsedge (three districts of the city) and will at some point finish the ones on Lowtown, Academe, and Gardens Hill as well.

The map and geography that I'm using for Callarion borrows from three places -- Rome, San Francisco, and San Diego. San Fran and San Diego provided the proper winding coastline that I imagined, and Rome's Seven Hills provided the basis for what I kind of wanted to do terrain-wise (turns out Callarion's looking more and more like San Francisco by the minute, but that's beside the point).

What purpose does all this serve? Perhaps the biggest benefit to doing this is having a map means I don't accidentally place Thomas's shop in two different sections of Marketplace. It also means Gardens Hill consistently stays in the center of the city, and other landmarks start to gain more and more importance because they're located in a concrete place in the fictional city. Correction: the biggest benefit is that my distances stay the same. That's important, because I can't have Moriah cross Marketplace on foot at two different speeds. There lies inconsistencies my friend.

And I very much dislike being inconsistent (which is why I always like people to point out when I am). What about you, loyal blog readers? Do you craft maps of your settings? Or do you let it fly like Terry Pratchett, who's of the opinion that "You can't map a sense of humor"?

Monday, June 21, 2010

REPOST: Steampunk and Automatons

This post originally appeared on February 12, 2010.

Back in my post about cyborgs in steampunk, I mentioned that the Ancient Greeks had automatons. This is borne out by the historical record: Philo of Byzantium (3rd Century BCE) crafted an automaton maid that would pour water or wine when a cup was placed in its left hand.

The very word, automaton, is derived from the Greek word automatos -- "acting of one's own will." And, as so many cool advances that occurred in Greece during the time of the great inventors, the automatons were considered toys, religious tools to impress worshipers, or even as ways to demonstrate general scientific principles. Hero of Alexandria (who gets more press on this blog than any other inventor besides da Vinci) created siphons, a fire engine, and a programmable cart among other things as examples of his automaton skills.

There's a stanza from Pindar's Seventh Olympic Ode that refers to the island of Rhodes, well known for its proliferation of automatons:

The animated figures stand
Adorning every public street
And seem to breathe in stone, or
move their marble feet.

The Ancient Chinese also had automatons, as evidenced by this excerpt from Lie Ze:

"The king stared at the figure in astonishment. It walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being. The artificer touched its chin, and it began singing, perfectly in tune. He touched its hand, and it began posturing, keeping perfect time...As the performance was drawing to an end, the robot winked its eye and made advances to the ladies in attendance, whereupon the king became incensed and would have had Yen Shih [Yan Shi] executed on the spot had not the latter, in mortal fear, instantly taken the robot to pieces to let him see what it really was. And, indeed, it turned out to be only a construction of leather, wood, glue and lacquer, variously coloured white, black, red and blue. Examining it closely, the king found all the internal organs complete—liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines; and over these again, muscles, bones and limbs with their joints, skin, teeth and hair, all of them artificial...The king tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of locomotion. The king was delighted."

Automatons have existed in the Middle East since the 9th Century CE, and are described in numerous texts from the time of Islamic scholarship. Al-Jazari, the famous Muslim inventor of the 13th Century, described a boat with four automatic musicians that he used to entertain partygoers. There was even an automaton duck in the 18th Century that mimicked digestion.

Suffice to say, automatons have existed for a really, really long time. What's this mean for the writer of steampunkery?

Playtime! Because the science of how to craft automatons has existed for so long, it's a well-documented method of adding robotics to your steampunk tale without applying too much modern science. Studying the texts of Signore da Vinci and those of Jacques de Vaucanson, the French inventor who crafted the aforementioned Digesting Duck, is a good start for more contemporary designs. Philo's automatic maid is well-documented via translations of his works, if you want to go more ancient.

George Mann's automatons in The Affinity Bridge are controlled via punch cards, if you want a literary example of how to do it. And The Difference Engine has an example of the Japanese Karakuri ningyŨ, which were designed in the 19th Century.

 A tea-serving Karakuri, designed in 19th Century Japan, with the mechanism at right. 
It functioned exactly as Philo's automatic maid did.

All you have to do, of course, is to make sure your automaton design makes sense. There's little worse than crafting some awesome technological advance and having it fall flat because the design isn't logical. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

REPOST: The Affinity Bridge by George Mann

This post originally appeared on May 13, 2010.

The Affinity Bridge by George Mann can easily be called a blend of Urban Gothic, Detective Fiction, and Scientific Romance into the milieu that becomes Steampunk. Mann, who is the head of a major British SF/Fantasy publishing imprint, takes tropes from each of the three aforementioned genres, and has a grand old time twisting them into one mystery after another.

Sir Maurice Newbury and Miss Veronica Hobbes, his brilliant assistant, are charged with the tracking down of an escaped automaton, the investigation of a series of strangulations attributed to a glowing policeman, and oh yes, the plague of revenants ravaging London's slums.

Newbury himself is a detective in the vein of Sherlock Holmes -- brilliant, logical, fascinated by the new steam technology spreading around England, and slightly addicted to drugs. Of course, the Holmes enthusiasts among us will correct me that Holmes wasn't actually addicted. He merely experimented.

The story itself is in 1901 London, with airships and other steam-powered and mechanical innovations spreading quickly around the nation. Queen Victoria is kept alive by a rudimentary life support device of bellows and mechanical workings, and is still very much in the thick of the action. Newbury acts on her orders and hers alone -- as an agent of the Crown he goes where the Empire wills him to go. And Hobbes follows behind him, partially to help, but also to make sure Newbury remains a loyal servant.

The "affinity bridge" of the title is a link that allows for transference of a human consciousness from a living person into one of the story's ubiquitous automatons. Newbury and Hobbes uncover the secret behind this act in a factory belonging to some automaton makers, who are also connected to the plague revenants (zombies). We have Urban Gothic from the fog of the slums and the "hidden city" therein, the Detective Fiction piece from Newbury and Hobbes' investigations, and the Scientific Romance from the dark use of technology in the form of the affinity bridge.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this novel is that it ends up being very Victorian in language and grammar. It's a fascinating choice for Mann to make, and one that actually ends up working quite well when you get into the swing of the novel. Mystery, action, science, and a breakneck pace ... what more could you want?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

REPOST: Originality

This post originally appeared on November 25, 2009. Is it still plagiarism if I copy myself?

"Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright." -- Sam Seaborn, The West Wing Season 4, Episode 2 "20 Hours in America."

One of the banes of the writer's existence is the push to produce something that is fresh, new, and original. Some people actively try to write something truly original, and in fact purposely avoid anything even close to what they're attempting to compose.

I can't think of any artist (of any stripe) working in a vacuum that can produce something accessible to the general populace. Even the great epics of ancient history -- Gilgamesh, The Iliad, the creation of myths of Scandinavia and other nations to name a few -- came from rich oral traditions of these same stories. The Iliad and the Odyssey were even spoken for decades before someone wrote them down.

No worthwhile art, I feel, is "original" in the purest sense of the word, i.e. that nothing like it ever came before. Mozart, Stephen King, Archimedes of Syracuse, Leonardo da Vinci, and other artistic and scientific luminaries of the past how-ever-many thousand years of human history all had influences from somewhere. And yet we call the greatest among us "original thinkers."

Why is that?

Because they had the ability to synthesize what was available into something new. Leonardo da Vinci took concepts that already existed in the Renaissance and used them to design his inventions. Archimedes developed weapons of war that held back the Romans through experimentation and study. Stephen King's Dark Tower series was, by his own admission, based off a viewing of Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. And Mozart composed some of his most famous music -- The Marriage of Figaro among that -- while at court in Vienna, where he was exposed to other composers.

This process, synthesizing our influences, is how we create original works. Everything we write is influenced by something else. Accept that, and you'll be better equipped to make a story that shines with the one original element you possess.


Monday, June 14, 2010

REPOST: Steampunk Aeronautics

I'm taking a two-week break from the blog. My official vacation starts Thursday, but I want to spend what free time I have this week working heavily on my various writing projects. Hence, you get a look back, on schedule, of my various posts on Steampunk, Writing, and etc. This post originally appeared on November 2, 2009.

Airships such as zeppelins, hot-air balloons, dirigibles, and blimps, which are collectively known as lighter-than-air aircraft, operate based on the principle of buoyancy. The principles of buoyancy were first described by Archimedes (the genius Greek as I call him), and are also the reason why ships float and submersibles sink.

Now, the three above types of airships are also called rigid (zeppelin), semi-rigid, and nonrigid (blimp). The first manned flight of any airship, though the buoyancy concept is several thousand years old, came about in 1783 when the Montgolfier brothers (Joseph and Etienne) flew their hot-air balloon over their hometown of Annonay, France.

The Montgolfiere balloon, 1783.

According to About.com, the first passengers were a sheep, a goat, and a duck. The history of using animals as test pilots goes back quite a bit, apparently. In October 1783, Pilatre de Rozier and Marquis d'Arlandes became the first human passengers in the Montgolfiere balloon; the balloon was in free flight during that October journey, meaning that it wasn't tethered to the ground.

Subsequent advances added flaps to control the balloon's flight (Jean Blanchard, 1785), and crafted a silk balloon that was filled with hydrogen gas (Jacques Charles, 1783) instead of the superheated air that filled the Montgolfiere balloon.

Blanchard's hydrogen balloon with flaps, 1785

These early balloons couldn't be navigated very well (at all really), and several advances were made to improve that aspect of their design. One of the first was adding an air screw that operated similar to a rudder on a ship; the balloon's shape was also elongated into the cigar that we know today.

Steam power as a method of propulsion and navigation came into play in 1852, when Henri Giffard's dirigible was the first to add the system onto an airship. Giffard's invention flew from Paris to Trappes, a distance of 17 miles, but didn't have enough power to fly against the wind in order to make the return journey.

Giffard's airship, 1852

The top speed of Giffard's airship was 5 miles an hour, which was the top speed until Brazilian Albert Santos Dumont crafted his gasoline-powered airships in the late 1890s. Airships, for lack of a better phrase, really took off after Dumont's innovations.

In 1900, Ferdinand von Zeppelin, a German count, designed and flew the first successful rigid airships. His designs were so successful that rigid airships are commonly called Zeppelins in his honor. It's these rigid airships that figure strongly into steampunk, sometimes with elaborate designs as seen in the Girl Genius online comic (Castle Wulfenbach) and in other literature in the same genre (Keith Thompson's War Zeppelin).

The LZ-126, USS Los Angeles, 1924

The above photo is of one of the Zeppelins that were ubiquitous before the 1937 Hindenburg disaster that pretty much ended the commercial use of lighter-than-air aircraft.

Because of this, in fact, one of the easiest ways to show that you're writing steampunk is to include zeppelins zipping across the skylanes or other aerial vessels that aren't airplanes, helicopters, or gliders.

For design considerations, take a look back at the Steam's Limitations Series.

Friday, June 11, 2010

New Project (Because I'm Crazy, Apparently)

So as if writing a Steampunk short story, an academic research article on Steampunk, and a Steampunk novel wasn't enough to keep me busy, I've today (upon coercion from L.T. Host and suggestion by Gail Gray) decided that I'm going to write a non-fiction primer for anyone wishing to write a Steampunk story in any way, shape or form.

The primer will contain, but isn't limited to, the following topic areas:
  • Technology
    • Communications
    • Transportation
    • Aeronautics
    • Robotics
    • Weaponry
    • Industrial Equipment
    • Computers
  • Science
    • Genetics
    • Biology
    • Physics
    • Chemistry
    • Astronomy
  • Commerce
    • Major Industries
    • Factory Conditions
    • Trade
  • Fashion
    • Men's Clothing
    • Women's Clothing
    • Children's Clothing
  • Architecture
    • Design of Homes
    • City Layout
    • Factories
    • Slums
    • Mansions
  • Interior Design
    • Furniture
    • Portraiture
    • Layout of Homes
  • Politics
    • Monarchy
    • Republics
    • Treaties
    • Wars
  • Speech Patterns
    • Cockney Rhyming Slang
    • Backslang
    • Slang of the American West
  • Daily Life 
    • Foodstuffs
    • Hygiene
    • Shopping
  • Culture
    • Literature
    • Theatre
    • Music
    • Motion Pictures
I'm planning on using Steampunk novels of all stripes, and the research I've done for this blog, as a jumping-off point for putting this sucker together.

Why am I telling you about this, loyal blog readers? Well, because I'm curious as to what you'd want to see in a book like this. Is there a particular topic area you'd love to see covered? Something on my list you think should be struck?

Truth be told, you're the reason I'm putting this together. I know there's an interest in Steampunk in place, and I want to contribute the knowledge I've gained over the past year to help further the aspirations of Steampunk novelists everywhere.

What do you think?

Resources on the Victorian Era (and Steampunk)

When I talk about the Victorian Era, most people think I'm limiting myself to England. This is partly true, but partly a misnomer as well. The phrase "Victorian Era," for me at least, refers specifically to the events of world history that happened during Queen Victoria I's reign (and what a reign it was). It also refers to specific cultural changes that went on in the latter part of the 1800s across the Industrialized nations.

I limit myself to the Industrialized nations for two reasons: Friend-of-the-blog Ay-leen the Peacemaker has the market cornered on non-Eurocentric Steampunk at the blog Beyond Victoriana, and the requirements of the Steampunk aesthetic almost forces one to pay more attention to the Industrialized nations. Ay-leen will disagree with me, but that's why Beyond Victoriana is so epically awesome. If you're not reading that blog, then you definitely need to. (Ay-leen will also do some guest posts here in a few weeks.)

Anyway, since I first began writing CALLARION AT NIGHT more than a year ago, there have been several websites that have been my go-to sources for Steampunk and Victorian Era information:

Victoriana Magazine -- Kind of an ad-heavy website, but if you want a good resource in terms of furniture, fashion, and general Victorian society then this is the place to go.

VictorianWeb -- This is a very intense research experience; the fine folks at this site have detailed pretty everything you need to know about the Victorian Era in England in one fell swoop. They've also got very detailed sections on primary sources in every topic area on their site. It's helped out of innumerable tough spots to get the sense I want.

About.com's Age of Invention page -- From Benjamin Franklin, through James Watts, and the rest of the manic innovations that peppered the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries, the About.com page on the Age of Invention has showcased a whole heck of a lot about the inventions that flavor the world of Steampunk.

The Computer History Museum -- Charles Babbage theorized the Difference and Analytical engines in the 1820s. At the Computer History Museum's website, you can learn all about the innovations that led us straight into the Computer Age. This includes Babbage, punch cards, and all the other assorted mechanical computer goodness.

Wikipedia -- As a launching point for research, there's few sites better than Wikipedia. Yes, it's user-generated content, and yes it's notoriously unreliable for certain topics, but all that knowledge in one corner of the Internet is astounding.

Gentleman's Emporium --Dozens of photos of actual clothing worn in the 1800s and early 1900s. They also have a Steampunk section, with minimal outfits but certainly enough to get the creative juices flowing. As an added bonus, there's an Old West section for anyone who wants to write Steampunk set in the American West.

The National Maritime Museum (London-based) -- They've got ship plans, weapons of the 19th Century, and all sorts of other fun bits of information you can make use of to suss out your military's culture. Or that of your tyrannical government.

Crabfu Steamworks -- The innovator behind this site is brilliant. I'm not even talking slightly brilliant; I'm talking genius-level. He's designed and built a whole mess of radio-controlled Steampunk vehicles and showcases them on his site here. It's also the place I found resources on how to draw Steampunk tech. His Lobster tank influenced my Turtle tank quite a bit.

And lastly, though this is a new resource, I have to give props to my Twitter friends. You want to talk random knowledge? The folks on there have it in spades. I've asked questions on corsets, the proper use of a grappling hook, gunshot wounds, etc -- you name it, there's probably someone on there who knows the answer.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mainspring by Jay Lake

Mainspring (2007) is Jay Lake's third novel, and his first offering to the Steampunk subgenre. Like Boneshaker, Soulless, and The Difference Engine, Lake's offering to the subgenre is an alternate history. However, unlike those stories, the point of divergence with our world occurs at the very moment of Creation.

God, called the Tetragrammation in Mainspring, created the world as a giant clockwork mechanism placed on brass tracks. There's an Equatorial Wall that splits the industrialized Northern hemisphere from the agrarian Southern hemisphere, and the tracks that lead the Earth around the lamp of the sun run along it. The Mainspring of the title is the mechanism at the center of the world, which needs to be rewound or disaster will strike.

The story opens with the archangel Gabriel's visit to one Hethor Jacques in New Haven, Connecticut. Gabriel informs Hethor that the mainspring of the Earth is winding down; he charges Hethor with finding the Key Perilous and rewinding the spring before disaster strikes. This is the same action that the Brass Christ (Jesus) performed centuries ago prior to his horofixion (crucifixion) on a wheel and gears. In fact, the wheel-and-gears and not the crucifix are the symbols of Christianity in the Mainspring universe.

The story itself is a classic example of the Hero's Journey blended into a Christ-like, messianic tale. That Hethor will succeed in rewinding the mainspring is never in doubt, and the message of the story seems to be that if God wants you to accomplish a task then by-gum you're going to accomplish that task.

There appears to be some token conflict from the Rational Humanists, a group that wants the mainspring to wind down so humanity can be free, but Hethor never gets into a situation where you think he might fail. There's not even a sense that the "DISASTER!" of the mainspring actually stopping is a real possibility.

The most interesting thing about this story, I find, is the Steampunking out of Christianity. Lake actually makes Intelligent Design theory interesting by making the gears of creation visible for everyone to see. There's no question in Lake's universe that God exists. I mean, look at the brass tracks the Earth runs along around the lamp of the sun. That there are still people who doubt the existence of God in that mechanistic world, even when the evidence is right in front of their faces, is absolutely fascinating.

Also, and this is kind of cool, Lake actually Steampunks the Lord's Prayer:

“Our Father, who art in Heaven
“Craftsman be thy name
“Thy Kingdom come
“Thy plan be done
“On Earth as it is in Heaven
“Forgive us this day our errors
“As we forgive those who err against us
“Lead us not into imperfection
“And deliver us from chaos
“For thine is the power, and the precision
“For ever and ever, amen. (102-03)" 
That is ten different kinds of awesome, that Lake decided to go full-tilt and Steampunk out a major world religion. Even if Hethor Jacques isn't that interesting of a character, or is in any real sort of danger at all, I'd suggest reading Mainspring purely to get a sense of the sheer scale inherent in wholesale alteration of a religion to fit your fictional universe's worldview.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Influences on My Writing Style

Last night on Twitter, I was bemoaning the fact that I couldn't come up with a post for your regularly scheduled Writing Thoughts segment. Then, lo and behold, the talented Cynthia Reese suggested I talk about my writing influences. I figured: "what the heck, I've got nothing else to discuss." And besides that, if you're reading this collection of random ramblings you might want to know about who I can think can rub two words together the best. (Then again maybe not, but I'm nearing 100 followers and figure I've got some breathing room.)

To say my writing influences are many and varied is kind of like saying Thai food is spicy. If you've never tried Thai food, you really really need to. Pad Thai is my favorite dish -- with peanuts and shrimp and rice noodles -- oh so very good. Excuse me while I clean the drool off my keyboard.

Anyway, in the interest of time (and word count), I'm limiting myself to the five major authors that I can say most influenced my style. The reason for this is mostly because these are the authors that I've read multiple books from; every book I've read influenced me, but these five writers more so than others. So here goes:

Glen Cook

Glen Cook is well-known among fantasy readers as the author of The Black Company series of books, among other military fantasy stories. His recent series, The Instrumentalities of the Night, takes place in a world torn apart by religious factionalism and battling against the forces of the Old Gods for control of civilization. The Night, in this context, is the darkness of the Old Gods and their agents. 

Cook's fantasy has been described as "Vietnam War fiction on peyote" by several reviewers, and is some of the sparest, tautest writing you'll ever see in a fantasy novel. Heck, the only reason you even know you're reading a fantasy story is because he talks about gods and magic. Pull Else Tage, the hero of the Instrumentalities books, out and drop him in Arabia of the Middle Ages and boom you've got historical fiction. 

I've borrowed a lot of Cook's sparse writing style, particularly for fight scenes and for my more militaristic characters. He's one of those authors who's never written a massive bestseller, and yet has quietly changed the face of fantasy fiction irreversibly. 

David and Leigh Eddings

The husband and wife team of David and Leigh Eddings wrote the Belgariad and Mallorean cycles -- both about ancient prophecies and how sometimes no matter what you do the prophecy comes true. Their characters carry a uniformly biting wit and refuse to let the main character get away with any sort of childish silliness. Their characters Belgarath the sorcerer and his daughter, Polgara, served as both guides and "controllers" for the main character of both novels -- Garion, who was Polgara's many-times great nephew, and Belgarath's many-times great grandson. 

The Eddingses created one of my all-time favorite redeemed hero characters too -- a thief named Althalus, who ended up saving his world from a dread god's servants with the help of the goddess of fertility (who would later become his wife). 

J.R.R. Tolkien

Most every fantasy fan has read either The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings or C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia as their introduction to the genre. I'm no different. Tolkien was my first introduction into the wonderful world that fantasy opened up, and I've never looked back. If you want a world of brave warrior kings and hallowed halls of ancient law standing against encroaching darkness, then you could do much worse than Tolkien's Middle-Earth.

Stephen King

King's The Dark Tower series has offered a lot of the dark flavor my writing's taken on in recent years. Prior to when I started reading those stories, I tried to focus too strongly on the "good" side of the good guys and on the "bad" side of the bad guys. Now, after reading those stories, I find myself much more interested in the darkness and light that all sides have. 

You'll notice that Moriah, my heroine in CALLARION AT NIGHT, is not the nicest person in the world. She's been betrayed one too many times to keep putting herself out there, or so she thinks, and keeps people at an arm's distance through her (admittedly) bad attitude. She is a hero though, and will do heroic things to save those that need it. Like Roland Deschain, except without the whole letting a boy die because saving him would deter you from your goal thing. 

Terry Pratchett

And now we come to the grandmaster of humorous fantasy. Pratchett's Discworld novels are some of the few that I reread over and over again. He lovingly skewers the tropes of fantasy and science fiction, with a skill borne only from someone who knows the styles and cliches backwards and forwards. His sarcastic brilliance has influenced my own snarky characters, and I plan on using Ponder Stibbons as a basis (along with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who) for the revamped hero of SON OF MAGIC. 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I thought I could write mystery stories for awhile, and for that I place the blame squarely at Sir Conan Doyle's feet. I devoured the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was younger, loving every adventure of Holmes and Doctor Watson. Still now, if you hand a book that even obliquely attempts to mimic the Sherlock Holmes stories I will read it quicker than you can say Banana Biscuit. 

Conan Doyle's sparsity and logical thrust had a massive influence on my own. Because of his writing, probably more than any other, I find myself leaving out more details than I put in. Of course, later authors have helped to mitigate that tendency. In particular, King, Cook, and Pratchett have crafted tremendously vibrant worlds. In fact, it was Pratchett's detailed description of how much food Ankh-Morporkians consume on a daily basis that really struck home how hard it was to create a fictional city (I think it was in Night Watch he did this; unfortunately I don't have the book in front of me).

So there you go, dear readers, the five primary influences on my writing style. Other authors that I've adopted things from have included Cherie Priest, Simon R. Green, Jim Butcher, China Mieville, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Gail Carriger, and Brian Jacques. And then of course there's the fantastic writers, both pubbed and unpubbed, that I've met through the blogosphere. There are far too many to name.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Steampunk Mass Communications

A lot of Steampunk takes place in the latter half of the 19th Century, or possibly the very early days of the 20th. As such, one of the things that takes prominent position -- especially for those stories in the 1890s/1900s -- is the concept of improved mass communication. In The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which takes place in the 1850s, mass communication innovation takes the form of a machine that can slap handbills up on walls while the worker rides in comfort inside the body of the machine.

In terms of historical innovations, there are several inventions that improved mass communications far beyond what it was for hundreds of years. These include the telegraph, the radio, and improved printing presses as some of the primary changes happening in the 1800s. In the early portion of the 1800s, we also see the invention of the postal system in Britain and the first stamps issued in 1840 -- invented by a schoolmaster named Rowland Hill. Hill was also the first one to design a system where the price of post was determined by weight instead of size.

Samuel Morse invented the electrical telegraph in 1837 while working at New York University as an artist. Yes, Samuel Morse was an accomplished portrait painter, and worked at NYU teaching students how to paint while he also perfected his design for the telegraph. He would eventually receive patents from both the United States government and European nations, and permission to build telegraph lines linking major cities around the world.

In 1843, after receiving permission to connect Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, Morse first attempted to lay telegraph wires underground using a machine designed by Ezra Cornell (the founder of Cornell University). However, experiment soon showed that the underground method was unacceptable. Thus, we see Morse deciding to string the wires along poles. Eventually, telegraph wires would become such an integral part of communications in the United States that the Native Americans cut the lines in order to effectively disrupt any and all communication between outposts.

Newspapers also took a quantum leap forward during the mid- to late 1800s. The New York papers realized that the telegraph would change the way people communicated, and were thus early adopters of the technology. Also at this time, we see Robert Hoe's invention of a double-cylinder, steam-powered printing press that exponentially increased the number of broadsheets a newspaper could print. Then, in 1845, his son Richard developed the rotary press. This steam-driven rotary press could produce 100,000 newspapers per hour, a 250 times improvement over traditional hand-cranked presses.

A second, but no less important, innovation that affected newspapers and communication in general was the typewriter. For the first time, people didn't have to rely on hand-written documentation (which as we all know can be nigh unreadable depending on penmanship). In 1868, Christopher Latham Sholes, in collaboration with Samuel Soule and Carlos Glidden, invented the first usable typewriter.

However, the initial machine was prone to mistakes and could break easily. Eventually James Densmore, an investor, bought Soule and Glidden out, and he and Sholes built several machines in succession to perfect the device. Densmore and Sholes offered the machine to Remington in 1873, who would eventually purchase the patents after the machine was perfected.

By the 1880s then, we have the telegraph, the improved printing press, and an actual postal system that are connecting the world. Move into the 1890s and the early 1900s, and we see Guglielmo Marconi and the invention of wireless telegraphy, which would change the communications landscape yet again. (But that's an entirely different post).

Anyway, what does all this mean for Steampunk? Well, it means several things. First off, you've got a vast array of communications technologies to play with. No television yet, but motion pictures arose in the late 19th Century, and Gibson and Sterling had a kinotrope that was used as a rudimentary projector for presentations.

As with most Steampunk then, you can take these inventions -- printing presses, radio, telegraphs, etc -- and turn them into some sort of entertaining blend of mechanics to craft an innovation that makes sense for your world. Case in point: in CALLARION AT NIGHT, there's a device called a Wireless Aetheric Communicator. Could I have called it a radio? Probably, but that wouldn't have been nearly as entertaining.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Karl Marx and His Theories

Hal Draper (1914-1990), who was a leading Karl Marx scholar in the U.S., once remarked that "there are few thinkers in modern history whose thought has been so badly misrepresented, by Marxists and anti-Marxists alike." Draper's magnum opus, in fact, was a complete and total re-evaluation of Marxist theory based on extensive study of the writings of both Marx and Friedrich Engels. He eventually postulated the theory of "socialism from below" -- from the working class -- as perhaps the purest form of Marxism.

Karl Marx was born in Prussia in 1818, the son of a lawyer who converted from Judaism to Lutheranism in order to advance his career. Unfortunately, that's pretty much all that's known about Marx's childhood. He was married in 1843 to Jenny von Westphalen. The couple had seven children, but only three survived to adulthood. Perhaps the most interesting part of Marx's life is that his main source of support was from Engels, who drew an ever-increasing income from the family business in England. Marx supplemented this income by writing weekly articles for the New York Daily Tribune for a short time in 1851.

Marx's theories on social evolution were based on several things (from Wikipedia):

Marx eventually composed what became known as a "materialist conception of history." This idea is based on the thought that humanity enters into a series of certain productive relations throughout different eras. These relations involve hunting and gathering, master and serf, capitalist and laborer, etc, which then give rise to a certain form of social consciousness. "He maintained that: 'It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. . . .' (VictorianWeb.org)

One of the more interesting things about Marx is that he advocated social revolution of the masses to move toward his ideal society. He recognized capitalism as a necessary historical step, but did not see it as sustainable because it took too many things from too many people while giving too much to too few. Marx envisioned socialism as the first step after capitalism, where the government allocated resources to everyone and then, when the government was no longer needed, it would disband.

Human nature, however, very much gets in the way of this process. People in power tend to like being in power, and thus make many moves that keep them there. For object lessons, take a look at the numerous "Marxist" governments around the world today. Marx himself was disgusted by these variations on his work, and refused to acknowledge them as anything less than pedantic tripe.

In fact, Marx wrote letters in 1883 "to the French labour leader Jules Guesde and to Paul Lafargue (Marx’s son-in-law) — both of whom claimed to represent Marxist principles — accusing them of 'revolutionary phrase-mongering' and of denying the value of reformist struggle (Wikipedia)." These letters gave rise to the now-famous declaration that "If that is Marxism, then I am no Marxist."

What does the study of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and their theories offer to Steampunk writers? Flavor more than anything, particularly for those writers who play in First-World Steampunk. Seeing as Marx was a prominent thinker during the timeframe, his socialist thoughts would be read by quite a few people. Maybe even some would be attempting implementation of the theories.

Of course, as with any political theory, the more interesting side for writers is how it can go wrong rather than how it can go right.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! By Harry Harrison

Published also as Tunnel Through the Deeps, Harry Harrison's alternate history about the 1970s, A Translatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! was first serialized in Analog magazine beginning in April 1972. With Michael Moorcock's Nomad of the Time Streams series, this is one of the first novels to be considered Steampunk in tone.

Like Moorcock's Warlord of the Air, Harrison's A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! takes place on a world parallel to our own. On Harrison's fictional world, the American Revolution was halted in its infancy and George Washington executed as a traitor to the Empire. However, where many writers would mark that as the point of divergence between our world and the world of the story, Harrison's divergence point occurs several centuries earlier than the late 1700s.

Harrison postulates that Spain never emerged as a world power because the Moors were never booted from the Iberian peninsula. He accomplishes this by having the Moors win the Battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212. Because of this, the Catholic states in Spain never allied under Aragon and Castille. This then extended to Columbus never getting his funding for the cross-Atlantic voyage in 1492 and left the way open for John Cabot to discover America instead.

This would eventually translate into Britain dominating both North and South America, and creating a worldwide empire of such power and magnitude that it could do pretty much whatever it wanted. From Harrison's 1976 article explaining the genesis of the story:
"Now the idea of the transatlantic tunnel became exciting -- and possible. With the English explorers opening up all of South, Central and North America, as well as India and all the rest, the power of the empire would have been incredible. The African colonies of the other European colonists could be picked off one by one if needs be. If the European countries united early enough they might have stopped the growing British strength, but in my book they never got around to it. Divide and rule is the name of the game, so the European states still exist and monarchy is the rule, with all the royal families united -- as they once were -- and the power of Britain behind each one if needs be."
With this newfound strength on the part of Britain, can you see why the American Revolution failed so utterly in Harrison's world? Which of course immediately brings up the hero of the novel -- Augustine Washington, the descendant of George, who wants to clear his ancestor's name. Gus works with Sir Isambard Brassey-Brune, the descendant of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, on the project of building a Transatlantic tunnel between the heart of the Empire and its far-flung North American colonies.

The story is Neo-Victorian in that it takes Victorian ideals and technologies and places them squarely in the 1970s. Harrison discovered the novel had to be this way based on research he did over the course of a five-year period. He also figured out that he couldn't write a Victorian novel straight, and thus had to make it either humorous or at the very least a parody. Except ... according to the people in the fictional world, the novel would be taken at face value. We, on the other hand, would laugh at the differences -- the burned-out Mount Vernon and the paltry Washington house next to it, secondary characters such as detective Richard Tracy and the minor Royal British Intelligence executive J.E. Hoover.

Through the course of the story, we see coal-powered flying machines among the vast array of late Victorian high technology that makes up part of the Steampunk aesthetic. In addition, we also have a classic tale of engineering that fits quite nicely in with the science aspect of Steampunk novels. As a result of this, and the language of the novel, Harrison fits into the proto-Steampunk canon quite nicely.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

How I Know What Preserved Frog Guts Taste Like -- My Embarrassing Moment

I place all the blame for this squarely at the feet of one of four women -- Kari Lynn Dell, Tawna Fenske, Susan Adrian, or Linda Grimes.

So, Tawna and Susan today posted on their blogs about some of their most embarrassing moments. Tawna's moment about throwing up in her underwear was pleasantly hysterical, and Susan's rapid-fire embarrassing stories had me fairly well laughing the whole way through. Since Kari Lynn Dell suggested we make it a blog tour, I figured "what the heck? I have no shame left anyway."

Picture, if you will, me in seventh-grade science class. That was the year that we did our first dissections -- Life Sciences was the intro to Biology, which we took sophomore year -- and one of the assignments was to dissect a preserved frog.

Well, yours truly being the awkward smarty-pants 13-year-old that he was, was plugging along with his group pinning back and cutting free the pieces of the frog. I've always loved doing dissections (kind of morbid, I know, but this me we're talking about).

So there I am, awkward, trying to impress the girls in my group (Again: I was 13), and we get assigned by the teacher to blow air into the frog's lungs so we can see them inflate. We were to insert an eye-dropper down the frog's throat and blow. My team chooses me to blow into the eye-dropper, and so we shove the eye-dropper down the frog's gullet.

I take a deep breath and blow, only to have nothing happen. What did I do next you might ask? Take my mouth away, inhale another deep breath and try again, right?

Weeell ... you're half right.

I did take another deep breath. But I ... umm ... kind of forgot to take my mouth off the end of the eye-dropper.

Lo and behold, I get a full-on mouthful of preserved frog guts. Two things happened next -- I hear an "ewwww" from the girls, and I run out of the room to scrub my tongue clean of frog guts. Then I had to go back to class and well, yeah, suffice to say that if the girls in my class already thought me a dweeb they now also thought me a gross dweeb.

And that's just my favorite embarrassing moment out of the myriad in my repertoire.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

REPOST: Books vs. Movies

This post on the differences between books and movies based on books originally appeared on July 20, 2009. I'm reposting it now because I've been thinking about this again lately, and wanted to reference it without rehashing my thoughts (which haven't changed).

I saw the newest Harry Potter movie yesterday, and I got to thinking afterward about the differences between books and movies. J.K. Rowling's books are a perfect guinea pig here because both the books and movies are wildly popular, so a wide swath of the population will see the movies after reading the books and go "wait a second here, they cut x, y, and z out."

That's enough of a lead-in I think, so onto the discussion (read: my thoughts). Books are, by their nature, more detailed than movies. Think about it ... a movie can be at most 2 to 2 1/2 hours long. Any lengthier and people tend to stop paying attention (Lord of the Rings notwithstanding) and begin wondering when they're going to be able to go home. These same people may happily spend 12 hours reading a book however, and there's usually enough detail in the really good stories to keep the average reader entertained for at least that long, between the multiple subplots and supporting character motivations that thread most novels.

Movies can focus on one, maybe two storylines at any given point. Books can have as many subplots and tangents as you the writer can shove into 300 pages, and have those subplots be woven into the fabric of the main story. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the novel does this several times: Remus and Tonks' romance, Fleur and Bill getting engaged, Harry and Ginny getting together, Kreacher is gone, so is anything about 12 Grimmauld Place, and an entire bit with Dobby gets lost. The scriptwriter of the movie decided, rightly, that we want to mostly see the story directly involving the Golden Trio. But to do that, the scriptwriter was forced to cut out huge swathes of the book, losing a lot of the rich characterization those subplots afforded.

Side note: Joe Queenan over at The Guardian wrote an article recently about movie novelizations and how they work (link taken from Pimp My Novel -- thank you Laura and Eric!).

I'm not saying books are better than movies, and if this post came across that way I apologize. Both forms of storytelling have their pros and cons, and there's something magical about watching your favorite books come to life on the big screen (anyone else think Dumbledore looked cool in the scene with the Inferi?) that can't be described. So in the end, movies made from books will almost inevitably leave things out in order to translate the story from one medium to another.

Doesn't mean it's bad. Just means it's different.