Posts Tagged Steampunk

Write Your Frustrations

I wouldn’t call myself a Goon.  I do have a Something Awful account, I pop into the forums infrequently, but I’m by no means a regular and have likely made fewer than a dozen posts.  However, it’s a fantastic site to be any part of because of the width and breadth of the membership.  No, that was not a Goons-are-fat joke.  But it’s hard to imagine another place on the internet where the readership can simultaneous raise $61,000 to help a village in Haiti and generate photoshops of a character named “Dickbutt.”  It’s a site of opinions, some of them insanely pedantic, most of them well thought out, and all of them shared with little timidity.

I bring the site up because of two ongoing threads about Steampunk.  I’ll owe this post an update this evening with the actual links, but one in traditional Goon style is a takedown of a self published Steampunk novel, which has turned into opinions about both self publication and Steampunk in general.  The other is an offshoot, looking to talk more specifically about the opinions and gripes that people have about Steampunk both as a literary subgenre and as a movement in general.  I won’t say I understand the latter myself.  I don’t cosplay in general (I did one time for a Steampunk-themed wedding reception) and while there are some who have turned it into a fantastic artform, much of what I see falls into the categories of “Just Glue Some Gears On It” or “when goths discover brown.”

The discussion of Steampunk literature has largely revolved around the frustrations many have with the typical tropes.  The frequent failure to consider the effect on the working and servant classes when their jobs are largely taken over by machinery.  Suggesting the existence of complex coal-powered-steam driven devices that lack hoppers or the apparent need to refill on either coal or water.  I’m not suggesting that either of these issues are endemic of all Steampunk, but they are frequent enough that I’ve noticed them, and that the Goons posting in these threads have noticed them.

So what do I with my personal frustrations with the genre?  I face them head on.

This post is not my attempt to paint Nickajack as some sort of magic cure to the ails and shortcomings of other Steampunk novels.  That’s presumptuous, and really setting an unobtainably high standard for the novel.  Instead I’m simply saying you should embrace your frustrations with your favorite genre.  Sometimes you may decide to solve the problem with a dose of handwavium, after all sometimes tropes are tropes because they have no good explanation that wouldn’t otherwise dismantle the genre completely.  But more often than not these frustrations can serve as a fantastic source of tension within a story.  Just be careful not to mistake response to trope with plot.  While contravening cliché can result in enough of a plot for a story, too often these attempts when highlighted come across as too clever by half.

What can I say, there’s always a delicate balancing act when it comes to writing.

So what if you don’t have any frustrations with your genre?  Well, first I’d like to ask how you know it well enough to write in it, but I’ll avoid getting quite that confrontational.  Instead, I’ll suggest finding some.  Oh, I don’t mean you are required to track down every common frustration with your genre and correct them all at once.  But know what’s out there, know what people complain about, and be ready to have someone ask you about them while on a panel or at a signing.  You might not care to have an answer, but at least knowing what frustrations are out there let you sound more knowledgeable about your chosen genre.


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Hell on a Christmas Carol

Last night I stumbled on the George C Scott version of A Christmas Carol as it started on AMC.  It stands as my favorite adaptation of the story that involves an all human cast (Muppets forever), so I decided to sit down and give it a watch.  Being it was modern television, there were little bugs at the corners of the screen advertising the network and other shows.  Being it was AMC, the show being advertised was Hell On Wheels, their new (and fantastic) period drama about the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.  I was thrown by the juxtaposition of the two works, so I decided to look them both up.

Hell on Wheels takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, 1865.  The Railroad was authorized years earlier, but the eastern leg was held up due to a lack of able bodied men to work the project.

A Christmas Carol was first published in 1843.  The novel actually had a lot to do with the adoption of Christmas in the United States, which had previously seen the holiday as overly British in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War.

22 years difference.  With A Christmas Carol as the earlier story.  I’m not at this point going to pretend I’m the first person to observe the stark differences between life in the United States and Great Britain during the Victorian Era.  And I’m certainly not going to be the last to make that observation.  And it’s not even the difference between the US and UK, it’s the difference between rather polite city society and the frontier that the United States was pushing forward.  But it wasn’t until that little bug, sitting on the corner of the screen, that I really considered what different worlds existed on either side of the Atlantic Ocean in a time when the US was the little sister to the great powers of Europe.

It’s the kind of relationship that informs a lot of Steampunk.  While there are the outliers, most of the entries into the genre I’ve read (important distinction) take place either in Victorian England or the American frontier.  In short: they take place either in the worlds of A Christmas Carol or Hell on Wheels.  And it paints the Victorian era as a dichotomy, the civilized English (and, by extension, Europeans) and their grubby American cousins still trying to wrest a country out of their savage continent.  It really is amazing that both realities were interposed, considering how quickly America caught up and how much more homogeneous the two sides of the Atlantic are.  Oh, certainly there are differences, but not the differences of the Victorian.

So we stand with this oddly dualist world view of the Victorian era that disregards 99% of the world, which I will not turn into an “Occupy Steampunk” joke.  But I will turn into an opportunity.  I find Steampunk interesting when it gets away from Victorian England and Frontier America.  Move it into the rest of Europe.  Take it into Asia.  Explore the coasts of North America rather than the dusty interior.

And if anyone has any recommended reading where this happens, I’d be glad to have them.  Just keep in mind…I’m oddly airship adverse.  Because I’m a bad Steampunk.

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Steam and Soda

Odd things lead me back to writing related topics.  Last week I wrote about heading to America Eats, and as part of that talked about their retro menu of non-alcoholic drinks.  There was one off-menu drink our server told us about that we didn’t get a chance to try called a Baltimore Cream, an orange, peach, and cream beverage he described as similar to an orangecicle.  Problem with a menu as deep as America Eats was not getting to try everything, and that Baltimore Cream didn’t make the cut in favor of trying the Lactart.

So that lead to a search for Baltimore Cream recipes.  And Lactart recipes.  And Phosphate recipes.  Which all lead me to the book I’m rapidly digesting called Fix The Pumps (available on Amazon).  It’s half history and half cookbook, but the cover is what really drew me in, as there’s only one word I can use to describe that illustration.

It’s pretty Steampunk, isn’t it?

And here’s the thing, even though there wasn’t much steam involved, there’s a lot there that could work in a Steampunk novel, especially since the rise of the soda fountain happened coincident with the era that Steampunk is typically set.  And really, the seediest and most interesting era of the soda fountain was during those early few years.  Not only did many of the drinks actually contain alcohol (but much more cheaply than available at a bar due to different tax laws on alcohol and “medicine”) but also contained “butyric ether, acetic aldehyde, chloroform, amyl butyrate, glycerin, and ethanol,”1 any number of drugs including, “strychnine, cannabis, morphine, opium, heroin,” and most infamously, cocaine.

The original recipe of Coca Cola is not an urban legend.  It had cocaine in it, and that was a common ingredient in fountain drinks for several decades until the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906.

The cocaine made for an interesting daily ritual for “brain workers,” working as a feedback loop with alcohol.  The day would open with a cocaine laced drink to get the brain going better than coffee ever could.  A few more drinks during the day (up to 8 for some customers) would keep the brain going at the hyper rate that cocaine’s stimulant effects allowed.  The day would then end with the application of a depressant, alcohol, to counteract the stimulation of the cocaine.  Next morning, no worries about hangovers, as cocaine also served as an effective cure for them.

These addicts doing the cocaine-alcohol daily cycle were almost exclusively men, and even then were largely people who thought for a living.  Politicians, bankers, lawyers, and the like.

It really is a fantastic potential base for a character.  Now, soda fountains don’t belong everywhere within Steampunk.  There was some spread of the fountains to London and Paris, but they fed a lust for sugar that was almost exclusively American.  They were located within pharmacies, and were crafted with the same care as bars of the era with fine woods, the later image of a soda fountain in a diner environment was a WWII era modification.

Which means they lived in the right era, but in a location were Steampunk isn’t as frequently set: the cities of America’s East Coast.  But it’s still a fantastic use, a fantastic construct, and a part of the era that’s easy to forget.

So, I’m throwing down the gauntlet and hoping some writers might put the old soda fountain into their late 19th century stories.  Sure they don’t always fit, but it’s hard to turn down the old cocaine drinks of a bygone era before the US Government started protecting people against the things they were eating and drinking.

1. Both lists of used ingredients from pg 9 of Fix the Pumps.  The first, if you’re curious, was a recipe for pineapple syrup.

Soda jerk picture digital ID cph.3c13825 from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division. “No copyright restriction known. Staff photographer reproduction rights transferred to Library of Congress through Instrument of Gift.”  Retrieved from Wikipedia.

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State of the Writer: May 2011

Hey, look at that.  It’s a new month, so it’s another chance for me to unbutton a shirt button to allow for optimal naval gazing.  April was an oddly productive month for me, which is largely to say that I was productive in odd directions.  The primary project of the month has been working on updates for my Lucha Libre story, something that’s turned into a pure joy to write and work on in a way few other stories have.  Almost a shame it’s so short, but there’s really nothing else I can do with it.  Going into May, that story is still going to get much of my focus because even though it’s not due until July 1, I’ve got a personal deadline of May 12 set.

In other projects, Future Lovecraft has just opened up, and yes, that’s the story I was talking about in my previous post.  I have a concept that I like, I just can’t quite crack the blank page to really get a start that I like.  Perhaps because I’ve got a few other stories running around my brain that are insisting on being told one-by-one.  These are the Steam Worlds.  These are the stories that came from my curiosity with the way that the Victorians imagined the earth and the cosmos working.  One already existed, then four more titles came about in the course of about an hour.  By the end, these stories will head to Mars, Venus, Phaeton, the Moon, and even inner Earth.  Right now they exist in the following formats:

  • Mars: Submitted to an anthology, still waiting to hear back (anxious, anxious)
  • Venus: Plot noodled.  I’m loving the plot I’m coming up with, which will include elements of Chernobyl, UrbEx, and 1940s air pollution disasters.  And robots.
  • Phaeton: Title with a vague X meets Y notion.  Least developed of the five.
  • The Moon: Change of title, change of focus, and suddenly there’s a story to be told here.
  • Inner Earth: This one depresses me a little.  Possibly the most ambitious theme and concept of the set.

I don’t know what will ultimately end up happening to them.  Mars, being in current circulation, could really help the others get told and sold.  Perhaps one day when several are sold and some rights revert they might merge together and be my first short story collection.  For now, I’ll search for homes where I can find them without worrying about continuity between them.  They don’t share characters, and don’t really share a timeline, they just exist in similar worlds.

Been reading too much Save the Cat.  Has me wanting to write another screenplay.  A proper one.  Maybe one that I could put up on Amazon Studio.  More on that if it actually starts happening.  Also been thinking about a certain xenophobe and his Serbian mentor.

State of the writer’s beer: Mustache Cat fermentation has slowed.  Bottling could happen this weekend, is more likely to happen next weekend.  Might be able to crack a bottle in time for June.  Looking at my options for batch two, considering a Ginger/Lemon/Honey Ale offered by Austin Homebrew.

It’s going to be a three Fortnightcap month.  First one will be up tomorrow, probably in the form of a new article.

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The Steampunk Reader: Discarded Science

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.

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The strange places inspiration comes from

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.

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Why Steampunk?

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.

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