Monthly Archives: July 2011

A History of Steampunk, Part 2 – Origins

Not surprisingly, Steampunk’s origins lie in the very time period in which most contemporary Steampunk is set – the middle and late Nineteenth Century. It’s at this point in literature that we witness the birth of what became known as ‘science fiction’, between the covers of penny dreadfuls, dime novels, and the far more dashingly named ‘scientific romances’ of the era. Writers like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, HG Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the man who would NEVER have to buy his own drinks at a Steampunk convention, Mr  Jules Verne began taking us on fantastic voyages to other worlds and other times, often with the aid of fantastical technologies beyond imagination.

This period in history was marked by rapid expansion, not simply in global population, heavy industry and technology, but also of mankind’s influence over his fellows. Global Empires became a reality. ‘Britannia Incorporated’ and her peers had spent decades planting their flags on any piece of dirt that wasn’t securely nailed down, proudly proclaiming to hordes of confused-looking indigenous people the world over that “All your base are belong to us”. And now it was all starting to pay dividends.

This was an age of Industrial Expositions and Great Exhibitions, of Edisons and Teslas and Babbages. It was an age of extremes. Of enormous wealth and crushing poverty, of bold exploration and child exploitation. It was an age where writers truly began to explore the limits of that question which drives the SciFi/Fantasy genre, and indeed, most any genre at all:

“What if?”

Despite the relative euphoria of the age, some writers we most fondly remember seemed reluctant to embrace it. HG Wells reduced London to smoking slag in ‘War of the Worlds’. Poe ridiculed a public besotted with technological progress in ‘The Balloon Hoax’. Verne languished in the Victorian Age’s equivalent of ‘slush-pile hell’ for years, owing to the overly pessimistic and political nature of his stories. But for every one of these, there was another writer singing the praises of technology and the spirit of adventure we’ve somehow retroactively applied to the entire age.

Probably the most well-known writings from this time, certainly where Steampunk is concerned, are Jules Verne’s “Voyages Extraordinaires”: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in Eighty Days. If printed today, both ‘Leagues and ‘Earth to Moon could be safely classified as Steampunk by our earlier definition – “Science fiction set in an industrialized historical period, in which anachronistic technology is present.”

However, it’s important to note that these works aren’t actually Steampunk at all. There’s nothing historical about the setting of 20,000 Leagues or War of the Worlds. Despite these works being held up as progenitors of Steampunk, they were contemporary fiction in their day. Ground-breaking and visionary, yes. But retro-Victorian? Most certainly not. It’s only through dint of the fact that they’ve survived for close to 150 years in our collective consciousness that the requisite historical nature of Steampunk can be applied after the fact.

For the first works that might truly be described as Steampunk fiction, in a feat worthy of any of Verne’s protagonists, we need to jump forward to the next century and a completely different medium – the wondrous world of motion pictures.

Next Week – A History of Steampunk Part 3 – Exploration

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Two Minutes Hate – Sexy Dwarves

Dear Peter Jackson,

I’ve seen Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles. I know that beneath your Academy Award winning glitz, you’re a basement-dwelling roleplayer nerd, just like me. You know how this shit works. And we are both well aware that Charisma is a dump stat for Dwarven Warriors.

I know you need smex appeal in the Hobbit to get the ladiez along for the ride, and the source material (13 short dudes and an even shorter dude doing lots of walking) doesn’t leave much to work with. But Aiden Turner is too good looking to play a Dwarf.

Study the picture. Note the long flowing locks of raven hair, blowing in an inexplicable breeze. The three-day dusting of finely-sculpted stubble that couldn’t even remotely be considered a beard. This ‘dwarf’ would not be out of place beside Orlando Bloom at some uptown Mirkwood cocktail party. If it was your intention to cover the internets with with tide of Kili/Legolas slashfic in which God himself could drown, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

Unless the rest of Thorin’s mob are a pack of dreadlocked, tubby trainwrecks, with manky hair and beards you could hang Christmas decorations from, and unless they spend the entire two movies giving Fili stick about how pretty he is…. ah, hell, who am I kidding. I’ll probably see it four times anyway…


A History of Steampunk, Part 1 – Definitions

Before one can delve too far into the history of what we know as Steampunk, the sensible thing to do would be to define what Steampunk actually is. And therein lies the first minefield for anyone trying to get a grip on the concept. The simple fact is, there are (sometimes wildly) differing opinions about what constitutes Steampunk, and an extraordinary amount of energy, time and yes, sometimes venom has been expended trying to define it, with results that still can’t be considered according to Hoyle (and therein lies the fun imo).

Many people simply see Steampunk as a genre of speculative fiction, encompassing novels, films, comics and other popular media. This seems to be the easiest point of reference for a novice to wrap their head around. In answer to the question “What is steampunk?”, aficionados often cite examples from cinema or books as a starting point – probably because showing what Steampunk is takes around thirty seconds, and telling what Steampunk is can require a good 200 foot run-up and a pair of jet-powered rocket pants, especially if the person you’re speaking to is of the non-SF/F persuasion.

Other people see Steampunk as an entire sub-culture, with all the trappings thereof – fashion, music, cliques and clubs. It’s from this scene that the jibe “Steampunk is what happens when Goths discover the color brown” was, in all likelihood, first derived, and in it, we find a lot of the visual cues that we commonly associate with Steampunk today; the collision of Victorian-era high fashion with rivets and brass and clockwork, an often-extraordinary arts and crafts scene with a firm emphasis on DIY, and of course, all those ladies running about wearing outrageous goggles and very little else at SF/F conventions.

Finally, and at the extreme end of the spectrum, there are some who consider Steampunk a kind of counter-cultural “movement” – a mindset and philosophy that moves beyond the simple trappings of fashion and scene, and becomes a way of life. These are folks who you might hear throwing around odd sub-sub-genre handles like “Dieselpunk” or “Biopunk” or “Gaslight”. These people take their Steampunk seriously.

For my part, in this History of Steampunk series, I’ll be speaking mostly about the speculative fiction side of the equation, and leaving the “scene” to the people who spend the most time there – they’re far more qualified to comment on it than I am, after all. Even still, I’m certain my definitions and conclusions might seem inadequate to some, and for this, good Ladies and Gentlemen, I beg your indulgence. I don’t consider myself a Steampunk scholar. I don’t run in the scene, I don’t own a frock coat or a pair of goggles. I’m just a soon-to-be published author who thought anachronistic tech coupled with a feudal Japanese setting sounded like a fun idea for a book.

But having fun is good, right?

Definition

For the purposes of this series, we’ll work with the following definition (inadequate as it may be):

Steampunk (noun) – A sub-genre of soft science fiction, typically set in an industrialized historical period, in which anachronistic technology is present.

Awfully simplistic, I know. And it does leave out one of the most important parts of Steampunk to my mind; the word “punk” and all the associations thereof. But truth be told, the “punk” has really only been incorporated into Steampunk in recent times (despite the handle having been around for over thirty years), and not everyone involved is certain about the necessity of its inclusion.

So, with our (albeit shabby) definition firmly in the pocket of our waistcoat, onwards we march!

Next Week – A History of Steampunk Part 2 – Origins


Two Minutes Hate: Airline Seating

Dear Airlines,

I understand that we are not a race of giants, and 6’7 can’t be considered “normal height” anywhere outside the locker room of the NBA, but your seats are too goddamn small. The Imp from “a Game of Thrones” couldn’t fit into these things comfortably. Of course, who’s to say if he could’ve sat anywhere comfortably, given that his brother and sister were making naughty in each other’s pants. God knows that would leave me feeling out of sorts on a divan made entirely of playboy bunnies. But if there were a place that a vertically-challenged bystander to sibling incest could rest serenely, I assure you that your bastard seats would not be it.

I appreciate that you’ve supplied me the option to pay extra money for the privilege of not sitting with my knees under my chin for four straight hours. But in the event of a crash, wouldn’t you prefer to know that it will be a freakishly tall man ripping the exit open, all bare chested and glistening*, rather than the octogenarians or plump middle-aged women who can actually afford to pay the extra cash? Are you hoping I’ll be able to leap from my plebeian seat and assist the manicured Dolce&Gabbana horse in her struggles with the emergency release? I’m sorry, I’m afraid I’ll be too busy unfolding my legs from around my fucking head.

STOP IT.

*Dramatization. May not have happened.