Friday, January 28, 2011

GUEST POST: You can Steampunk Revolution, but Revolution will Never be Steampunk

Cross-posted, with author Jaymee Goh's permission, from Silver Goggles.

That will be tonight's #steampunkchat topic: steampunk and revolution.

Let me explain this title. 

Revolutions and rebellions are, by their nature, painful things. They come about from oppressive environments. They are started with discontent people who band together to overthrow their conditions. 

Wikipedia defines revolutions as "a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time," which I don't have to tell you is an incredibly flawed perspective. Revolutions turn power structures upside-down, but often, it means a replacement of one elite with another elite. 

But revolutions must occur, because the alternative is to be silent and sit still while an oppressive regime erodes the rights of the community. 

Steampunk as technofantasy, steampunk as retrofuturism, steampunk as eco-critical position, steampunk as alternate history, steampunk as roleplaying subculture -- could never truly encompass all that revolution entails. 

Right now there are revolutions happening all over the place. I'm not entirely keen on discussing revolution, particularly with relation to steampunk, because I'm not interested in applying a Western gaze to the revolutions happening now in Tunisia and Egypt (if steampunk isn't Eurocentric, then Beyond Victoriana and this blog wouldn't exist). You are wholly encouraged to educate yourself and keep abreast of the happenings.

In steampunk literature, however, there can be an undercurrent of discontent and unrest, in terms of class, if not also race. Sterling and Gibson's Difference Engine, for example, has an atmosphere for political unrest (which I'm not going to claim to understand). Westerfeld's Leviathan illustrates how the Serbs were scapegoats for starting WWI, building off the unrest that was building between the governments of Europe at the time, and in Behemoth shows the protagonists working with revolutionaries in Turkey (referencing the unrest with the Ottoman Empire that, in real life, manifested in the Young Turks Revolution). 

Perhaps on a more familiar ground, Stephen Hunt's Court of the Air depicts a revolution of Carlists, paralleling Marxism-inspired movements, overthrowing the Jackellian government. The Carlist movement, however, proceeds to re-create the citizens, "equalizing" them forcibly -- an example of how revolutions, even with the best goals, re-create the same oppressive conditions that the previous hierarchy enforced. 

What does revolution look like in a steampunk setting, in which industrialization has begun? Why would revolutions happen then? How would such a revolution differ from the revolutions we have seen happen in the past? How would accelerated technology be harnessed, either by governments suppressing revolts or the masses pushing back against oppressive regimes? 

Terms for Discussion:

This is not the space to ask "how can we steampunk revolution?" without asking the accompanying questions of, who's revolting? Why? What are the systems in place? 

This is not the space to draw real-world parallels without critically engaging the importance of their happening, their significances to today's geo-political landscape, and their effects on the real people that lived then.

This is also not the space to play conflict resolutions officer. Show some respect for real events and tread with care. 

What's happening right now in Egypt and Tunisia is important, because it behooves us, as writers and consumers of steampunk cultural product, to be mindful of how large-scale changes in just a few aspects of life can affect whole societies. It is imperative that we not create a spectator sport of painful events that are borne out of oppression, even as we speculate on how we might reproduce such events.

See you all tonight.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Victorian Era Recycling

The men and women of Victorian England were one of the most sustainable generations in British history.

Surprising statement, huh? Especially because we equate the Victorian Era with choking smog and dank city streets rife with poverty and waste. Or at least that's what much popular media has shown us of the Victorian Age in Britain.

What's closer to the truth is that social historians have a hard time finding examples of Victorian clothing because the fine dress of an upper class British woman might be passed down to the maid when the lady was done with it. Then the maid wore it for awhile, and then sell the dress at a second-hand shop or pass it down to her daughter. The next level would then use the dress until it fell to pieces. Then they'd either convert the dress into a duster or sell it to a rag-and-bone man who might sell it to a paper-maker to turn into paper.

Take a look at a piece of good quality paper from the Victorian Era and you can probably still see the ink in perfect condition. Paper made from rags doesn't shrivel and decompose the same way paper made from wood pulp does. But of course the contemporary way of making paper is a whole heckuva lot cheaper than making paper from rag content was. Especially because you needed a consistent supply of rags in order to make the paper.

Rags were also used as backing for rugs, or even to make the rugs themselves according to a Birmingham Post article from 2008. The Post interviewed Traci Dix-Williams, manager of the Blists Hill Victorian Town in Ironbridge, Telford. To say the least, Ms. Dix-Williams enumerated a whole mess of ways the Victorians reused materials. Here's a smattering:
“Items made of glass and metals were returned to merchants and ash was turned into building material.”

"... a Victorian kettle with a leak would be resealed, thinning bedsheets would be sides-to-middled, worn collars and cuffs turned, and old coats and trousers which were threadbare transformed into rag rugs.

“People would go to bakers and brewers, begging for old sacks to form the backing for the rugs, which were made from short inch-wide strips of material.

“The brewers in turn would buy old clothes and wool which they dug into hop fields to improve the quality of the beer.”
And we think the 21st Century is the age of recycling!

Henry Mayhew, who writes about the Dustmen of London in his work London Labour and the London Poor, talks about the collection of chimney ash and the dust swept out from homes across the city. According to Mayhew:
The dust thus collected is used for two purposes, (1) as a manure for land of a peculiar quality; and (2) for making bricks. The fine portion of the house-dust called "soil," and separated from the "brieze," or coarser portion, by sifting, is found to be peculiarly fitted for what is called breaking up a marshy heathy soil at its first cultivation, owing not only to the dry nature of the dust, but to its possessing in an eminent degree a highly separating quality, almost, if not quite, equal to sand...The finer dust is also used to mix with the clay for making bricks, and barge-loads are continually shipped off for this purpose.
Ms. Dix-Williams had also mentioned in the Birmingham Post article that a layer of dust would be put between the inner sole and outer sole of a boot so as to make it more comfortable. So there you have at least two industries that need dust -- cobblers and brick-makers.

Thrift was a way of life in Victorian England, and one that the Victorians became quite good at. They had to, seeing as the average Victorian man's salary barely covered rent and food. They had nothing even approaching a disposable income or the types of credit cards that the Western republics exist on today. If you lived in Victorian England, then you made darn sure you used what you had until it fell apart. Now that's a recycling program.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Dark Days in Bright City, Part Five

All right faithful readers, I am proud to present to you the final installment of "Dark Days in Bright City." Enjoy!

Swallow of Butcher is loud in room. Fear shines in eyes when I step back. Gun hammer clicks twice. Cacophony of gunshot vibrates air; smoke fills space between. I wave smoke away. Butcher is slumped in chair, bullet hole in forehead leaking blood. I step close to inspect wound. Brain matter decorates floor in spray pattern from force of shot. I lift head of Butcher and look in dead eyes.

“May soul burn in Appolyon’s mouth.” I spit in face of dead man. Eyes open and staring in shock forever. Butcher did not expect arrival of death. Now I dispose of body. Is not good to leave evidence of vengeance.

Warehouse door explodes inward. I roll away from body and come to feet running. Shouts of Gendarmes carry from front of building, but I do not stop. Only stupid man engages superior numbers when no advantage is had. I slam through back door into alley.

Footsteps clatter against cobblestones. Engines roar to life somewhere nearby. I run three blocks before turn. Second door down alleyway is open, precisely as I left. I slam door shut on moonlit night. Place is hidden well from Gendarmes. Now I wait for cease of pursuit.

Warmth blooms in me at memory of fear in dead eyes of Butcher. Plea in his voice was symphony. Face of Sonya rises in memory, and sadness grows in heart. Death of Butcher important, but does not bring back love of life. No more will I hear laugh, or name called in lilting voice. Darkness sits over grief; satisfaction is not forthcoming like I expect. I caress rough edge of poison pill with tongue again. Perhaps I will see Sonya again if I bite. Idea has merit. I cannot say how much.


Parts One to Four can be found over at this handy link. Remember this story originally appeared in Fissure Magazine's November issue (available for sale through Shadow Archer Press). Hope you liked the story!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Dark Days in Bright City, Part Four

For those tuning in today, I'm posting my short story, "Dark Days in Bright City," in five easy-to-read installments. The story originally appeared in Fissure Magazine's November issue (available for purchase through Shadow Archer Press). Catch up on the story here before you read Part Four below:

Gloopoye dyer'mo.” I run down street. If I can catch carriage, then plan could still work. Carriage turns corner ahead. Rain-slick road makes it hard to run well, but I reach carriage when it slows through puddle. I grab hold of bar on back and jump to roof. Carriage halts. I nearly fall off, but hold tight.

Man’s face appears. “What in the —?” Swift kick knocks him to ground.

“Davidson!” Butcher says. Door opens and closes. I jump down. In clock’s tick I have Butcher pinned against carriage and revolver shoved in face.

“Into seat of driver,” I growl. Butcher’s eyes cross at gun. I shove him toward front of carriage. He scrambles into seat of driver, and I climb into back. Levers and gears click when engine engages. We trundle toward three-story building on corner.

“Turn left at next road.”

Butcher turns. I keep pistol aimed. Is good to make clear I control events.

“I can give you anything you want,” Butcher says after right turn at second street. “Money. Power. Women. I have the ear of the Lord Premier.”

“Bribe attempt is unappreciated.” I click hammer of gun. First click removes safety. Second primes bullet. Knuckles turn white on wheel of steering. “I will shoot if offer repeated.”

Three more turns. I order halt.

“Out of carriage.” I gesture with barrel of gun. Butcher runs when door opens. I leap from carriage. Capture is easy; I tackle Butcher before one block. I jerk him to feet and shove toward building. “Inside,” I say. “Now, before I shoot.”

“In there?” Butcher frowns. Warehouse looks ready to fall down. Windows near roofline are bereft of glass. Graffiti decorates lower portion of structure. Butcher hesitates. I fire shot at feet. He jumps away like legs on spring.

“Inside warehouse. Road will not be next target.”

Butcher walks to building. He pushes door beside huge gate of iron slats. Door creaks open and he enters half-step ahead. I direct past rat droppings and leavings of homeless men to metal chair in center of warehouse. He starts turn. I slam butt of pistol into head. Butcher crumples to floor. I holster gun, and lift under arms. He is heavier than I expect, but still I prop up in chair.

I chain him to arms and step back. Now he is secure, and will not rise until I release. Good. Is time for working. Vial of smelling salts cracked under nose shocks Butcher awake. Chains rattle when he tries movement.

“What are you doing?” Fear fills voice. Slap across face echoes through room.

“I will ask questions, Butcher.”

“What did you call me?”

“Name is Henri Desmarais, Butcher of Kirvan Mountains, yes?”

“I am a doctor.”

Nyet.” I slap again. “Doctor heals people. You turn into mechanical abominations.”

“Please do not hurt me.” He pleads now. Perhaps he sees in eyes anger that heats blood. Perhaps he fears chains. Is unimportant which one. “I will give you anything,” he says. “Anything at all.”

I draw gun, and lean in until we are eye to eye. He gulps at pressure of pistol on his temple. “I want my wife back.”

Tomorrow: The thrilling conclusion to "Dark Days in Bright City."