Queen Victoria, aged 4

Queen Victoria, aged 4

I use the phrase quite a bit here at the Aldersgate Cycle. And for good reason. As some have noted, this is not historical steampunk. There is no Queen Victoria, there are no alternate histories. I’m in the middle of The Difference Engine right now, and I imagine it’s the book that most people equate with the initial “steampunk novel” idea. That, or of course, someone like Verne. It’s beefed up Victorianism, suffused with a sense of “if only this had happened, then…”

But my starting point was not Queen Victoria, not England, not a clear conscious effort to engage the high-flouting Victorian culture that is so much a part of steampunk. The aesthetic exists in the art, the fashion, the literature, a kind of gauzy brilliance. I found steampunk not in the back alleys of London, but somewhere in the desert of a land that doesn’t really exist but, in part at least, resembles places in Arizona and California.

See, even though I’ve been handily obsessed with the fantasy/medieval all my life, there’s always been an undercurrent, like a tumbleweed in a sandstorm: the American West. God only knows where this came from as there’s not even a remote connection between me and these pioneers to be found genealogically, but there it is. The history, the mythology, the adventure.

And the inspiration for my getting into steampunk had more to do with researching the time period–which is, of course, Victorian at the late end, anyway. And the aesthetic there, in the West, was so much more raw. I saw a real possibility to open up a world influenced by that time, tempered with the notion of advances in steam technology, and spiced with a heap of magic. Because, to me, setting “fantasy” in a Neo-Victorian setting is just as plausible as setting it in a Renaissance or Medieval setting. And I’m certainly far from the only person that sees it that way.

So, certainly, I have my own idea of how the aesthetic of steampunk affects what I write. For me, it’s extremely visual and tactile. I look to people like Jake von Slatt, like Datamancer, the incredible folks over at Etsy, to see what can be–and is being–done. It’s a combination of color and form, of arc and line. It’s part of what translates to me, what inspires me to write, that actual seeing process. But I translate the visual into something else. In the end, I only have words to use.

I don’t mean to come off as grumpy toward fashionistas, and I think I may have in the past. My biggest gripe is that, to me, there is sometimes too much of a concentration on the look, and not the underlying aesthetic, craft, history, and literary influence. But that’s what happens when popularity is achieved; and honestly, if it makes people happy, that’s all that matters in the end. Ultimately, steampunk in this world is about doing things your own way, identifying with something far and away from the norm, and making it uniquely yours–it’s punk, after all, not just steam. What it means in my world is quite different. And that’s quite okay.

To me, the steampunk aesthetic can be molded in a thousand ways. I’m having a blast writing quasi-historic steampunk for Pilgrim of the Skies, which is urban American steampunk (if there is such a thing). This does draw heavily from history, and alternate history, and goes much further than just a Victorian flavor. It’s more like the Victorian period on steroids; it’s lush, colorful, vibrant. But it doesn’t feel the same to me, at all, as the Aldersgate stuff. It’s in a class of its own, but it shares the aesthetic.

Anyway. I admire and adore steampunk: culture, aesthetic, literature, you name it. It represents to me the best combination of new and old; a convergence of technology and magic, of mystery and horror… And as you might have noticed,  I like to share what I find; that’s been one of the most fun parts about this blog. Steampunk continues to inspire me, and will continue to, regardless of how mainstream it gets. Because sometimes exposure means innovation; look at Victoria herself. She was an icon, and the period named after her continues to inspire, more than a century later. That, dear people, is quite the accomplishment! (Vicpunk anyone?)

I got the chance to interview Jay Cartwright of the new steampunk band Lemming Malloy and talk about all things steamy, marvelous, and musical. More than just a music interview, though, Cartwright also contributes some fascinating thoughts on steampunk in general, the power of music, and individuality (and of course, steampunk keytars).

Lemming Malloy’s debut album Avalauncher takes to the skies this week! Get it here!

Jay Cartwright of Lemming Malloy

Jay Cartwright of Lemming Malloy

Nothing says steampunk like a Marvelon.

In this case, I mean the steampunk modded keytar of the same name, prominently featured on the steampunk band Lemming Malloy’s debut album Avalauncher, and lovingly created and played by frontman Jay Cartwright.

Based out of Chapel Hill, NC, Lemming Malloy is comprised of Cartwright (on the Marvelon), Wendy Spitzer (bass), Joe Mazzitelli (guitar) and Dylan Thurston (drums). Their music is infectious: a rousing concoction of peppy yet complex rhythm, thrumming Marvelon, catchy guitar riffs, and harmonies both unusual and lovely.

Cartwright’s songwriting provides both ample musical and lyrical space, creating a layered whole that satisfies the guy who’s “just here for the music” as well as the one who wants to pore over references to Foucault and F. Scott Fitzgerald. As evidenced in our interview, Cartwright demonstrates he’s a a real song-crafter, one of those who writes from an amazingly rich place.

Lemming Malloy is a welcome and eclectic addition to the music scene here in NC, and certainly a wonderful new voice for steampunk adherents and dabblers alike.

You owe it to yourself to visit their website, snatch up the album, and take the next airship to audial bliss.

Natania Barron: So, first things first. Who is Lemming Malloy?
Jay Cartwright: We culled the band name from a favorite children’s novel of mine about forest creatures overrun by a cadre of animal Commies.  Also, many believe that lemmings run in mobs off cliffs to their deaths in an act of fatal conformance.  In actuality, this belief has root in legend and was only captured on film once–by a documentary crew who used trick photography to get the shot they wanted.



The metaphor is that as much as the establishment wants you to believe that lemmings are a mob-ruled conformist species, we all know that ultimately we cannot let them trick us into believing that this is true!  The same goes for our own species: HUMANS!  All of the above seemed to capture our feelings about the interaction between the group and the individual, the weak and the strong, and authority and the populace.

NB: What’s the background on some of your musical compatriots?
JC: Wendy, Dylan and I all met at UNC Chapel Hill.  Dylan and Wendy were both music performance majors.  Their background contributes to the tightness and ambitiousness of their playing.  The three of us played in the defunct Eyes to Space.  Joe was a supportive fan of Eyes to Space, and his recent project Invasion opened for us a number of times.  From many conversations with him at shows, it became clear we were quite musically aligned, and from watching Invasion, it was clear he could play!  When we formed Lemming Malloy, he was an obvious choice.  Wendy is currently heading her own project Felix Obelix, which also features Dylan and I, and she plays in the all-girl-skronk trio Gates of Beauty.

NB: Steampunk certainly extends well beyond the borders of your sound alone. Your costumes, your personas, your instruments–the Marvelon! Tell me all about the Marvelon.
JC: For most, steampunk is a genre born in literature.  My primary exposure to steampunk instead was through reading about the efforts of steampunk modders online who were re-fashioning their laptops and CPUs to seem as though they were steam-powered.  I played a keytar in my last band but smashed it to pieces at our final show.  I knew I wanted to make another one, and since steampunk was on my brain, I fashioned my new keytar to look Victorian.  Actually, technically I suppose it’s more Edwardian.  Our bassist Wendy nicknamed it the The Marvelon, and I thought that name was hysterical. (more…)

Since I’m home sick with the virus my kid had two days ago, I’ve been doing something I haven’t had time to do in a long while: troll the Internet.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there’s a fabulous steampunk radio show right in my own county. Yes, the lovely, talented, and marvelous Davenport Sisters at the Clockwork Cabaret are just one town over. Who knew NC was so steamy?

If you’re in the mood for a truly steampunk experience, mosy on over to their site; they’ve got banners and podcasts and all sorts of beautiful things.

Tristan and ISoldeThe Steampunk Novel Checklist post was one of the first posts I wrote when I started this blog. The post was not intended to be all that serious, but as a way to look back at what I was writing and show that I was, indeed, displaying all the common indicators of a steampunk novel.

Having both read the recent VanderMeer collection, and received a most thoughtful comment on the aforementioned post by Tim, I think it’s important to talk about steampunk writing and steampunk novels as social commentary. Because as fantastical as it may seem, and as tongue-in-cheek lots of steampunk can be (even rather campy, eh old chap?) there are some important things to consider.

See, steampunk isn’t solely about the clothing, the culture, and the music. It’s about something bigger. As with any genre of writing, steampunk has a responsibility to engage the mind of the reader, to ask the tough questions, and to–ultimately–say something important. And I tend to think that steampunk as a genre, as a setting, as a mood and a time and place, offers unending possibilities when it comes to making social commentary.

Sure, my book doesn’t take place in this world. But it’s like our world. Its residents have similar prejudices, concerns, and social restrictions. One of the first important thing I realized about The Aldersgate was that, first and foremost, it told a story about people, regardless of sexuality, gender, or religion. It asks the question “What makes us human?” I’ve always been fascinated by human rights, by the Otherness assigned to groups of people that the majority doesn’t understand. As an American, it’s baffling to think that just 150 years ago, slaves walked around my state, and many people thought there was nothing particularly odd about it. Once you transform someone into an Other (and no, this isn’t from Lost: it’s from Edward Said) it’s almost impossible to go back.

I didn’t want to shy away from questions of religion, politic, and gender, because that’s what makes the story actually important. Sure, there’s a love story, a mad tinkerer, and a few power-hungry villains. But you know, when the hammer meets the anvil, if the end product doesn’t stand up, it doesn’t matter how much work went into it–it won’t stand in the end.

Although I’m not gong to divulge the exact details of the plot, I promise that anyone who is following around won’t be disappointed. Of course, you might not agree with my conclusions in the end–but that’s okay. I’m passionate about making a point with the stories I tell, and I would be honored if you’d stay with me on the journey.

A short excerpt, though, to give a little teaser.

From Chapter Fifteen: Fiddles in the Dark

The crowd, once again, began moving and speaking all at once. The sea of faces blurred in Emry’s vision, and he felt all the blood rush to his head. Sleep, he thought. Damn it to the hells, but I haven’t had sleep in days.

“Hush, Children of the Rood!”

Whatever this meant, its impact was surprisingly swift. Every mouth closed, every set of eyes turned to the speaker: Nesme.

“I vote we conduct him to safety, with the others, provided… when the time comes, that he composes a song for us. It has been a great many years since we have been blessed with the company of the Bard. And as such, you would be beholden to us—would you not, Emry Roy?”

Emry was struck dumb. Nesme wanted a commission? “I—I would,” Emry said. “By the Barding code, once asked to work… for a commission, I am beholden until the piece is final.”

“What if you break your Oath?” asked a voice, sharp and sure—it was Ezz’s voice, Emry was certain, but he couldn’t locate the Sib.

“If… if the Academy at Dunlee were to find out, I would be killed,” Emry said flatly.

“Then let us have a vote!” cried Nesme. “Those wishing to conduct Emry through the Nithings safely, and to commission him for a song in exchange—and, I may say, as collateral—raise your fingers.”

What looked to Emry like two thirds of the crowd raised their arms high, extending their forefingers. But it was hard to tell if it was a majority.

“Those opposed?”

There was a moment’s hesitation, and then hands were raised. But they were clearly less—not drastically so, but enough to dispel the utter dread that had been mounting in the center of his chest. His arms were trembling now, and he could no longer keep his tears at bay.

“Good. Now, Riz, Kaze, and Xen—take our Bard to the Inn, and see to it that he’s refreshed, fed, and kept after, will you?”

Emry couldn’t hear the rest of the instructions for he had, quite unceremoniously, fainted.

Calvin Coolidge at AmherstThere’s an awesome writeup about steampunk fashion and culture at the Times! They even interview Jake von Slatt!

I think there’s some really good quotes in here, as well as some delightful interview material. I have yet to really get into steampunk music but, I’ve decided, right now I’m going to go to iTunes and fetch me some for my upcoming trip up to the Great White North.

My favorite part is a quote from Abney Park’s Robert Brown: If steampunk has a mission, it is, in part, to restore a sense of wonder to a technology-jaded world. “Today satellite photos make the planet seem so small,” Mr. Brown lamented. “Where is the adventure it that?” In contrast, steampunk, with its airships, test tubes and time machines, is, he said, “sort of a dream , the way we used to daydream. It’s like part of your childhood’s just bursting forward again.”

You can find the rest of the article here.

I’ll be a little on the quiet side during my trip up North, but hopefully will get some writing time in. I’m hoping to have a short story up and edited by the end of the vacation, but finding a wireless connection may prove sticky. We shall see!

Steam on, folks.

I’ve been pondering all things steampunk as of late, after my husband and I have had some rather humorous conversations. He showed me the recent Merlin Mann sketch about steampunk, and I saw this morning that Jake Von Slatt had added his two gears.

I’ve got to say my money is in Jake’s corner; I do don my hat to you, sir.

So, how hard core do you have to be to be considered steampunk? How absolutely down to the every detail do you have to remain to keep the cred?

I’m not sure. I’ve played around with the idea of some of my characters working on an internal combustion engine–nothing large, mind you, but on a small scale–does that kick me out of the club?

I’ll say this: I didn’t start out writing a steampunk novel. It’s not like I was sitting in my workshop, pondering the inner workings of a steam-powered flying machine. In fact, I started out wanting to write a fantasy Western, and as a result (and admittedly, probably from reading much too much BoingBoing) realized that much of what I was doing was, in fact, steampunk.

So let’s review the following.

  • Steampowered machines. Check.
  • Goggles. Check.
  • A resident tinkerer/mad scientist sort. Check.
  • Victorian sensibilities. Check.

While the list is far from exhaustive, I think it does establish that at least my novel has steampunk themes–though, like I said, I certainly can’t pretend to be one of the Cool Kids who’ve been on to this for quite some time.

I’m not an engineer. I’m not a technician. I can’t for the life of me make sense of steam-based engines. But I can, I believe, tell a good story.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a book to write.