Photos from Arisia 2012, in Boston, Massachusetts.
This book which I didn’t finish had perfectly fine prose. It had decent worldbuilding, as in, it had Steampunky Things that were presented gradually as part of the action. It had good characterization. Alas, it had All The Steampunky Things That Are Steampunk. As in, if you were reading this and playing Steampunk Bingo, everybody would win in about twenty pages. Probably less. In other words, it was all the same as every other steampunk novel that I’ve tried to read. My lack of interest built up like steam in a boiler that’s having digestive issues.
2. What! Steampunk/Romance/Flavor of the Month Sub-Genre?!
The writing was good in this one, too. However, see above. There were All the Steampunky Things. Even though the Steampunky Things were clearly just window-dressing. Apparently the author thought a story could not claim to be steampunk without them. In an attempt at mitigation, the narrator admitted the Steampunky Things made no sense in the society as presented…more than once. And we hadn’t even got to the flavor-of-the-month sub-genre. Also? A clever mashup tag line does not a story make. So I stopped reading.
3. At least this one wasn’t steampunk.
Active heroine? Alas, no. Only a martyred one, with stereotypically troublesome family. It may have improved later. I didn’t stick around to find out.
4. Same old, same old.
5. Ummm…interesting biology you have, there.
It’s true this book was in the middle of a series I hadn’t read. But still. The biology didn’t make sense, except to create plenty of angst. I mean, it really really didn’t make sense. So I guess the series will eventually end because the species won’t survive. I didn’t stick around to find out.
6. I don’t usually nitpick historicals, but really, no self-respecting researcher of World War One would fail to note this mistake.
Steampunk story set in 1880s, in an England with only tiny differences from reality. Not one but two characters are wearing trench coats. *buzzer*
I had a note to myself that I should blog about “active settings.” I didn’t remember exactly why I’d written that phrase down, but ideas began to spill into my mind, as if the phrase was a cue.
Thinking of setting as active could be a useful concept for both historical and speculative fiction. After all, setting in where and when characters move, where they act. Setting can say things about character, and character can say things about setting. Our perception of a setting can change completely based on the point of view. In that case, character and setting can illuminate each other; it’s an active interaction.
Consider this brief extract from Arkfall by Carolyn Ives Gilman: “[The landscape] would have looked hellish enough to other eyes. A chain of seafloor vents snaked along the valley floor, glowing in places with reddish rock-heat…Everywhere the seafloor was covered with thick, mucky vegetation feeding on the dissolved nutrients: fields of tubeworms, blind white crabs, brine shrimp, clams, eels, seagrass, tiny translucent fish. The carefully nurtured ecosystem had been transported from faraway Earth to this watery planet of Ben. To Osaji, the slimy brown jungle looked like the richest crop, the most fertile field, a welcoming abundance of life.”
Setting can create tension. In Kage Baker’s The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, the actions of the characters conflict with the mores of their society/setting – even though it’s a steampunk universe, it’s overall Victorian England: “Secrets were, in fact, the principal item retailed at Nell Gwynne’s, with entertainments of the flesh coming in a distant second. Secrets were teased out of sodden members of Parliament, coaxed from lustful cabinet ministers, extracted from talkative industrialists, and finessed from members of the Royal Society as well as the British Association for the Advancement of Science.” The tensions of the historical setting make the plot possible; I think that could be considered an active setting. Another variation along these lines might be the setting is part of what the characters have to overcome.
Other thoughts I had, which I won’t expand on too much yet, include when the setting changes and the characters have to change with it. For example, when a stable situation is torn apart by apocalypse, and the characters have to go through the apocalypse and survive the post-apocalyptic world. A more sedate example might be when seasons change: viewing characters’ lives against a background of changing seasons that might have thematic meaning. In historicals, a background of dramatic historical events could be active, especially depending on what the author does with them.
I’ll have to consider what role setting will play in my new project. I’d like there to be more conflict between my characters’ goals and the setting than there is right now. I also have some vague thoughts of dealing with active conflicts within the setting, between the real world historical elements and my fantasy alterations. It will be fun to see if I can build some of those ideas into my concept.
There were so many amazing costumes at Arisia! I could have spent all my free hours there photographing. But since I was often hurrying from one panel to another, I only managed to stop and ask a few of my absolute favorites to pose.
For instance, this one. I love her pose! To me, it’s a goth-dieselpunk version of The Thinker.
I’m a huge fan of Dr. Who, so these Dalek dresses made me literally squeal with delight. If I ever get married, these would be the perfect bridesmaid dresses.
I have several friends who knit and/or crochet, and they are always talking about the size of their yarn stashes. Here’s an alternate solution to using up some of that stash!
Finally, this isn’t really a costume, but is linked in to costuming; it’s a steampunky puppet theater. So cool.
What are some common themes of steampunk fiction? (If you have suggestions, please comment!)
Because steampunk is influenced by the culture of Victorian England, I also feel there needs to be some kind of commentary on colonialism and empires, and on class divides. Looking at these issues through a “real world” lens is an important part of this.
Technology versus nature also ought to be in there, though on the whole I feel technology in steampunk is usually favorable so long as it’s wielded by the good guys. Tech might be temporarily bad, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything steampunk in which technology ended up being abolished. If it causes bad effects, they’re usually outweighed by the good.
Here’s an interesting related post at the Age of Steam blog: The Darker Side of Steampunk.
I’ve begun basic research on the history of the American West for a western steampunk novel. My book isn’t going to be a historical, but I want it to be informed by history and in dialogue with history.
I chose Frontiers: A Short History of the American West as my basic overview book.
The Encyclopedia of North American Indians: Native American History, Culture, and Life From Paleo-Indians to the Present was recommended by Debbie Reese at her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature.
Peoples of Color in the American West is a textbook and has a lot of material that’s more modern than I need, but I think it will be a good guide to further resources.
I chose The Comanche Empire partly just because I wanted to read it!
Check out its awesome reviews. “In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, at the high tide of imperial struggles in North America, an indigenous empire rose to dominate the fiercely contested lands of the American Southwest, the southern Great Plains, and northern Mexico. This powerful empire, built by the Comanche Indians, eclipsed its various European rivals in military prowess, political prestige, economic power, commercial reach, and cultural influence. Yet, until now, the Comanche empire has gone unrecognized in historical accounts.” So far, this book is just as incredibly cool as it sounds.
If you’ve got any more book suggestions for me, please comment!
Today, some recent steampunk novels.
Caveat – I have not yet read any of these books, but I’ve been collecting them for my To Be Read pile. Suggestions welcome if you have them! Please refrain from spoilers in the comments.
The Native Star by M.K. Hobson. “The year is 1876. In the small Sierra Nevada settlement of Lost Pine, the town witch, Emily Edwards, is being run out of business by an influx of mail-order patent magics.”
The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia. “Mattie, an intelligent automaton skilled in the use of alchemy, finds herself caught in the middle of a conflict between gargoyles, the Mechanics, and the Alchemists. With the old order quickly giving way to the new, Mattie discovers powerful and dangerous secrets – secrets that can completely alter the balance of power in the city of Ayona. This doesn’t sit well with Loharri, the Mechanic who created Mattie and still has the key to her heart – literally.”
Leviathan and Behemoth, Young Adult novels by Scott Westerfeld, are set in a universe where WWI went differently. “This global conflict is between the Clankers, who put their faith in machines, and the Darwinists, whose technology is based on the development of new species.”
Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare is linked to a present-day Young Adult series by this author.
I’m in the early stages of creating a world in which a steampunk Western can take place. Here are some of the questions I’m asking myself. Some of them I answered promptly; some of them I’m still pondering.
1. Alternate history or alternate world fantasy? How close will my world be to the “real” world? Is geography the same as in the real world?
2. Overall mood: is it utopic, dystopic, or somewhere in between? How is the world organized politically?
3. Technology, magic, technology that might as well be magic, or some other variant?
4. How are women and people of color positioned? What plot opportunities does that create?
5. What are the boundaries of technology? What can be done? What can’t be done, and why? What plot opportunities does that create?