Monday, November 29, 2010

Open Post: What Steampunk Technology Are You Curious About?

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

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

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

The floor is yours ....

Friday, November 26, 2010

Determining the Roots of Steampunk videos

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Con Report: Upstate Steampunk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

REPOST: Steampunk Technology and Culture: Why the Railways Developed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steampunk Relevance

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 5, 2010

A Word About Historical Accuracy in Steampunk

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

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

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

Steampunk is Alternate history.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Holey Shamoley! A Post at the Archives???

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

Did I mention how much fun I'm having?