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Archive for April, 2011
Writers write. Writers should also read. As there wouldn’t be anything all too original in trying to generate a list of steampunk to read, instead I’m going to make an occasional (perhaps one time only) series about the non-steampunk that can be good to read.
Starting with Discarded Science.
This is a volume I picked up at a bookstore out of complete curiosity, and found myself pouring through, so I figured I better buy a copy. Written by John Grant it presents scientific “facts” from past centuries that have since been discredited. Among them are plenty of concepts from the Victorian era about the how the world worked, the nature of the ether, and the disposition of the planets. The book aims to be wide and shallow, so you won’t get an in depth grounding in any of the subjects, but it has opened me up to dead science that I’ve never even heard of. As a writing reference it can date when theories came into and out of vogue. As an inspirational tool, most of the brief articles can open the door to a story concept merely by asking “what if this was true?”
It’s a jumping off point, a source for inspiration, and at times just a fun read.
A Fortnightcap by DL Thurston
Immortality was one of those things people talked about wanting, talked about needing. Of course, who doesn’t want to live forever? I’ll tell you exactly who: everyone who is living forever. Sure, it seemed like a great idea for a few centuries, but then the ennui kicked in. Eventually there’s only so many time you can do everything you always wanted to do. And in the end there’s only so many people to do things with. After everything else is exhausted, all you can do is wander, and hope to find something new.
We left earth. Let it become what it wanted to be. Let it heal, gave something else their turn. I heard of someone who went back. I guess that was several million years ago now if there still was an earth to go back to. He said cuttlefish had taken over, filled all the spaces that we’d left behind. Good for them, I suppose. In the end, it was like learning that someone had repainted a bedroom in the house sold years ago. Any sentimentality I had for that old place left longer ago than I could really say. Anyway, after the first billion years, time feels rather immaterial anymore.
We wandered. And we waited. There were others out there, those who had made our mistake, and those who hadn’t. At least not yet. I tried to dissuade a few planets, told them what a mistake immortality had been. They just called me unimaginative. I guess there are some mistakes people have to make on their own. Touching a stove hurts. Falling in love leads to heartbreak. Immortality leads to meaninglessness.
The universe continued on. And we waited.
Finally, we congregated again. We were brought together, those humans who hadn’t found a way out, those aliens who had joined us in folly. We were brought together around the last star in a cold and unfeeling infinite. The universe was running out of energy, running out of stuff. All that remained were scattered molecules and this one star, burning hot and bright as it swelled towards a super nova. It was something to do, and then there would finally be nothing.
And we waited. Right up until the end. I remembered a feeling, a sensation I’d left behind so long ago. It was anticipation. It was hopefulness.
The star burst forth with a magnificence that stunned us all, then rapidly contracted into a dead mass. No energy. No heat.
We were so hopeful that the universe would take us with it. That heat death might finally give us release.
Fortnightcaps are biweekly experimentation into short form fiction. All Fortnightcaps are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. So if you like the story, please feel free to link people back here. And if you didn’t, maybe the one in two weeks will be better. Picture of Kepler’s Supernova courtesy of NASA, released to public domain.
I mentioned last week that Urbex intrigues me. Over in the Ukraine there exists the hole grail of Urban Exploration: Chernobyl. It’s been getting a lot of press recently due to the disaster at the Fukushima Plant in Japan, mostly in attempts to explain the present by exploring the past and in efforts to quantify one disaster against the other. It is, after all, vitally important to know which is the bigger disaster. I guess because the nuclear disaster Olympics are coming up, and this will serve as a qualifying event.
So I started doing what I often do, poking around Wikipedia and following links in articles that intrigue me. And when it comes to starting with the Chernobyl article, there’s plenty to find. There’s the city of Pripyat, evacuated just weeks before a new amusement park was set to open. Abandoned so quickly there are still lesson plans written on the chalkboards in classrooms, and textbooks strewn everywhere in school hallways. There’s the sarcophagus, a structure that is heading towards failure, tasked to keep the still quite dangerous nuclear rods in place. There’s just the fact that this area will be uninhabitable by humanity for centuries to come, even under the best of circumstances.
And that’s somewhat amazing. It’s in part what led to my Fortnightcap Take Me Back a few weeks ago. The idea that a piece of land could be almost erased, though in a far less literal sense.
And then, in all of that, emerged a story. And it’s a Steampunk story. So that’ll be added to my queue, along with stories planned for submission to the next two Innsmouth Free Press anthologies. I love all three concepts, going to have to figure out a good way to determine which one gets to be told first.
Membrillo is a Spanish confection, popular in much of western Europe under various names. It’s a thick gel made basically from equal parts of quince puree and sugar. It’s sweet and tangy. I’ve found it in the international sections of Shoppers Food Warehouses.
Manchego is a Spanish cheese that comes from, and is named after, La Mancha. Yes, it is it Manchego the cheese of La Mancha. It’s semi-soft, creamy, and just a fantastically delicious cheese. I’ve found it in the cheese bars at Harris Teeter.
If you cut the manchego into triangles and the membrillo into small cubes, serve them on a toast point and they make a superb tapa. Slice up the manchego and melt the membrillo into a spread with a little water and a lot of whisking, and they can be combined into a grilled cheese sandwich you would not believe. They are so fantastic together, it more than makes up that I’ve never seen both in the same grocery store.
Urbex fascinates me. Not enough so that I will take it up as a hobby, I’m far to risk adverse for that. But I look with fascination the photos taken from abandoned buildings and sites around the US and around the world. Especially the shots taken at long-abandoned amusement parks and Chernobyl. The latter are creepy, and amazing, and there’s any number of stories they could inspire.
I came across something this week that is in many ways the opposite of Urban Exploration. But is in many ways the same, and somehow spoke to that same part of my brain.
There’s a mall in China. It’s called the New South China Mall. It was built to be the largest mall on the planet, over twice the size of the sprawling Mall of America, nearly three times the size of Tysons Corner Center, to provide some context for my Washington-area readers. Within the mall there are spaces for 2350 stores. This is nearly four times the stores that are in the Mall of America, largely because there’s no concept of the massive anchor store within the New South China Mall. The entire structure is split into seven zones, each designed to mimic the look of a major world city. There are canals. There’s an Arc de Triomphe.
And there are 47 retailers.
Let that sink in. In a mall with 2350 storefronts, there are fewer than 50 stores actually open, an occupancy rate of 2%. This would be the equivalent of Tysons Corner Center having 6 stores. The mall is a result of a push in China to build cities to artificially stimulate growth and the economy. It’s reachable only by car in a city with a population of 6.5 million that has no major airports. It really is a fascinating take on Urban Decay and Urban Exploration, flying entirely in the face of “if you build it, they will come.” Instead it answers the question of what if they don’t come. What if stores don’t come? What if customers don’t come? It’s eerie and creepy and wonderful and inspirational. Well, that is to say it inspires me, but things that inspire me are probably not the kind of “inspirational” that city planners are shooting for.
It’s impossible to know the future of the mall. There is a concerted effort to save it, because it’s been declared too big to fail, but how does one even go about saving it?
There’s an independent documentary on the mall called Utopia 3 which is available on PBS’s POV site. I recommend giving it a look. It’s only about 15 minutes long.
Ever have one of those memories that might be a lie? You’re certain you remember some fact but everyone else around you can’t recall it. The classic example is the mythic Thunderbird picture, a photograph that many people claim to remember featuring men gathered around a giant bird they had killed. Many people remember seeing the photograph, but apparently no copy of it exists anywhere. In my own life there are two: one about a television show finale that apparently didn’t exist, and one about a word that I cannot find. I heard it while flipping past the Spelling Bee. It was a German word, as all great borrowed words are. German has the ability to create such complex thoughts as single words.
This word meant a nostalgia for an idealized past that never existed.
What better way to describe Steampunk?
I can’t imagine anyone who has found their way to the blog is unaware of Steampunk, so I’ll spare the definitions. Instead, I ask the question: what draws us to Steampunk? Why do we as writers craft tales in the genre? Why do we as readers devour them? I say a lot of it has to do exactly with that mythical German word, that idea that we can be nostalgic for something that never truly was. It’s been part of the human condition for likely as long as there was a human condition. And in a sense, the word is likely unnecessary, because any nostalgia tends to ignore the true nature of the past and focus just on the good. It’s the whole reason for the phrase “the good old days.”
But Steampunk takes that to another level. It’s not just a nostalgia for an idealized past, it’s a nostalgia for a past that never was. It reaches back to an age where we didn’t know quite so much as we thought we did. As I mentioned over on Unleaded, it’s a time when we thought Mars inhabitable, Venus swampy, and were even still uncertain of the nature of our own planet. Verne, hero of Steampunk writing in the age, presented a world with liquid seas at the poles in 20,000 Leagues, and an inhabitable hollow in the earth in Journey to the Center of the Earth. These weren’t mere flights of fancy, these were theories of the time, a time when we didn’t yet have a full knowledge even of our own planet, much less the rest of the solar system.
And I think therein lies some of the appeal. The Victorian age is a time when mankind realized what it didn’t know and was reaching out in new and different ways to find those answers. Exploration and science were both experiencing boons and booms. Science was moving at a pace that would likely not be met again until the modern era, and without the benefit of computation or the level of mechanization that our modern society has achieved. We still had a few last bits of the planet left to explore, settle, and “tame.” So we think to ourselves, what would they have done if they had what we have? Afterall, they had the same brains as us, the same ambitions, they were just held back by their own technology.
And therein lies Steampunk. Both the concepts and, I believe, the popularity. It’s a chance to look back at an era that was, at least in some perception, much like our own. Save for the limitations of technology. And so we loan them our technology. Our computers, our robots, our flying machines, and we set those plucky Victorians loose with them to see just what they come up with.
There have been attempts to come up with the next Steampunk. Sandalpunk. Clockpunk. Dieselpunk. And while there are certainly stories within each genre, none have really captured the imagination as has Steampunk (save the arguably Clockpunk world of Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood). Because none of those ages really captures the modern imagination quite like the Victorian age, the age of both discovery and the Wild West.
So why Steampunk? Because the Victorian age fascinates us, and because we love our technology. And because it’s when science fiction was really born in a modern sense. Because budding genre writers have always been able to read Poe, Verne, and Wells.
And if anyone knows the German word I’m thinking of, I would be thrilled to find out it’s real. And then perhaps we can get to work on figuring out that TV series.
I continue to find writing lessons in the oddest places. Last time it was as part of a discussion for how to make better video games, now it comes from a YouTube channel that I have posted from before: Cracked After Hours. The discussion is about the Ninja Turtles and how they relate to Sex and the City, but the context is about the four humors and how they define characters. Alright, I’ll stop gabbing, take a look:
A lot of literature is about the lone wolf. The guy who comes in and solves problems on his own. However, there’s also a lot of fiction out there about the team, the ragtag group that has to pull together, work together even though their personalities clash. Why do the clash? Archetypes.
Archetypes are the bedrock for characters, whether the character embodies an archetype or fights against it. If you’ve got a team of characters, they aren’t going to be interesting if they’re all the same archetype, because at that point they might as well all be the same character. But if you set them up with contrasting archetypes, give them that challenge to overcome, then they become a dynamic group and can be more interesting than they each would be as individuals.
And in the end that should be the goal of any group with a work of fiction: they as a whole need to be more interesting than the sum of their character traits. And the reason you see so many groups of four in story telling is it lets the four humors come out and create base characters people can relate to. In the end you can only hope when you create a team people will be creating personality polls about which member they are. Just like trying to figure out which Ninja Turtle or Sex and the City character they are.
Oh, and if the answer for anyone is “the girl, because I’m always the girl” then your team still needs tweaking. Just a little bonus thought.
A Fortnightcap by DL Thurston
They came. Their ships slipped out of space, moving sideways through slits in reality no one had ever noticed. Horrid things with slender necks and small heads, ringed with writhing tentacles. They spoke in a language that broke microphones, hurt ears, caused interference to air traffic control radars. They slipped through the world not caring for such things as geometry or physics. They had evolved far beyond either and cared only for dark malevolence.
We always hoped that the aliens would be friendly, that they would teach us and bring us out of darkness into a new enlightenment. These things taught us, but only new depths of pain and madness. Mankind has become subservient to these things, this fungus that has spread to Earth and left it a place of rot and decay. There is no release. They made us immortal out of some hideous spite. There is no worse fate, as it destroys all others, leaving us with only unending horror.
Our nations crumbled into anarchy as even our best and brightest proved no match for the forces that held us down. Resistance was fomented but would fall apart just as quickly. The last time I can even remember a harsh word being spoken against our new overlords was a century ago. Resistance requires spirit, and our spirit as a race has been so far broken, few can even remember the concept.
They came not from trillions of miles away, but from our own solar system. From a planet that we never knew existed, never even know could exist. While our attentions were upon Pluto, there was far beyond a frozen rock that birthed creatures hardened to such extremes that we could not handle what they had become. For while we could deny Pluto, we could not deny Yuggoth.
Fortnightcaps are biweekly experimentation into short form fiction. All Fortnightcaps are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. So if you like the story, please feel free to link people back here. And if you didn’t, maybe the one in two weeks will be better.
Another month has come and gone, so as I am want to do, a little bit of navel gazing. I’m oddly happy with March, I feel it’s been one of my better writing months in a long time. And I credit that to one thing: Short Stories. I never used to be a fan of writing short stories, though can’t really say why. I think it went back to my first real writing project being a novel and feeling like the longer form was somehow a more worthy endeavor. In the end, though, the short story has given me a chance to explore thoughts quickly, make every word count, and in the end I think I’ve really grown as a writer.
Now the next trick is to keep it up.
I got one short story out the door this month, Vampire of Mars. I’m happier with it than I have been any other story in awhile. It might not find a home the first place I sent it to, but it’s going to go into heavy circulation until someone picks it up. And it’s the first story I’ve written where I can say with real confidence: someone will pick it up.
April will mean a return to my Luchador story, and potentially some work on an idea germinating about a marshy Venus, in keeping with my Unleaded post this week.
Just because it’s been a good month doesn’t mean it’s any time for me to rest. Always onwards. Always forward.