steampunk_lordnevermore

Lord Nevermore by Brigid Ashwood

It’s been a few years since I first stumbled upon the term, drooled over the aesthetic, and learned about the culture. From a writer’s perspective, it’s been an interesting ride. I didn’t start out with a steampunk novel in mind, and I hope I’ve never given that impression. However, since discovering that the world of the Aldersgate Cycle was a fantastic take on steampunk, I’ve done my own delving into the culture.

I came to steampunk, as I’ve written before, by way of the American West, and through a love of fantasy and alternate worlds. While I spent some time in the early 2000s hanging around lots of punk rockers in the Baltimore area, I’ve never considered myself very counter-culture. I mean, sure. I’m weird. I’m a geek. I’ve always been a maker of words. It’s not to say that I don’t have plenty of political views that might be considered unusual, but I try not to let that leak into my blog or (too much) into my writing.

What’s been interesting to watch, however, is the greater absorption of steampunk culture into the mainstream. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a progression like that before, save perhaps the goth progression in the late 80s and early 90s (though I was listening to the Beatles at that point, I certainly watched from the wings). Search trends for steampunk continue to rise, and everything from fashion to home decor shows signs of cross-pollination.

But I wonder, is the definition of steampunk changing? As it becomes a known part of our culture at large, does it diminish? Or does it grow? Here’s a few scenarios I think we might see in the coming months.

Gaining literary steam. I’m not the only writer out there with a love for steampunk. In fact, I see more and more writers trying their hand at incorporating alternate history/fantasy steampunk facets into their writing; we’ve seen Steampunk Tales for the iPhone, for example, and of course the VanderMeer short story collection (which, I believe, is in talks for a followup). From a novel approach you’ve got people like Ekaterina Sedia, Tobias Buckell, and Cherie Priest (among others) either publishing or actively working on steampunk-esque books. Why? While “steampunk” literature has been around a long time (well, they didn’t call it that when they were writing it in the late 19th century) it’s seen a rebirth. With appeal for fantasy, science-fiction, horror, and thriller writers, it’s not surprising to see growing trends in steampunk writing. It’s wonderfully fertile ground, and can be written in a multitude of ways. From a fantasy perspective, it’s a nice break from the standard medieval approach.

The -punk phenomenon. We may start hearing about lots of other “new” punks. You’ve probably already heard of cyberpunk and dieselpunk, etc.. I know plenty of writers who hate these terms (even the term steampunk itself) but it is what it is. In a way steampunk has become an umbrella term, incorporating bits and pieces from the 17th century onward to the Edwardian, and sometimes beyond. There are definitely divided camps, here, some who believe steampunk is only Victorian, and others who want to broaden the definition. Of course, there are positive aspects of each, but I certainly see–especially in the realm of fashion–the second camp winning out. It tends to give historical nitpickers hives, unfortunately… Is “steampunk” the right term? I dunno. It is what it is at this point.

Movin’ down the dusty trail. As with any subculture, there are always folks who are transients. That is, people who “find” a movement, become active, and move on. Now that you can buy steampunk inspired clothing at JC Penney, it’s not as hard as it once was to fit in at an event or a club. But, given time, and other new subcultures bound to crop up, people will move on to other things because, by nature, they always need to be different. Hell, there are already folks disenchanted with steampunk, or frustrated with the growing commercialization of steampunk. Or just bored. Because for some people, being different is all that matters. What lies beneath is inconsequential. (Although, if you join a movement to look like a bunch of other people, “different” is very relative, I suppose.)

Makin’ a steampunk buck. I’m sure you’ve seen it. The superfluous gear. The short story that tries too hard. That friend of yours who has become a born-again steampunk and is now making bookmarks, postcards and t-shirts all proclaiming love of the culture. Yeah, it’s tough territory here. You want to be welcoming to everyone, but at the same time, so much of what I’ve been seeing lately just comes across as people trying to make a quick buck. And I hate that.

Asking the hard questions. Steampunk isn’t perfect. The Victorians, for all they gave us, were highly flawed people. They were often racist, sexist and classist. And while some writers, in particular, have explored these issues, it hasn’t really seeped into the culture. I love corsets, from an aesthetic perspective, for example. But, some of the extremes women went through–or were made to go through–in attempt to “look right” is downright uncomfortable. That we can choose to wear corsets or not in this day is rather amazing. Know what I mean? It’s amusing to find that one of the instruments feminists rallied against has become a symbol of feminine power and sexuality… Anyway. I digress.

Not your parents’ steampunk. Steampunk will change. People will push the envelope. It’ll move beyond gears, cogs, and goggles, and become something else. It will be reinterpreted, re-envisioned, re-appropriated. It will move to Asia, to Africa, to the Middle-East, and bring new flavors, sounds, sights, and influences. And it will be better for it. I, for one, can’t wait!

What about movies? I think they’ll continue to be few and far between, and of middling quality. So far, most attempts, including most recently City of Ember, have not done terribly well. There’s something steampunkish, certainly, about 9, as well as a few others (not to mention new RPGs). I mean, in the past, the outcome just hasn’t been that great. Not even I could sit through Wild Wild West again. My hope is that something comes to television, soon. I think there, steampunk might find its home. With shows like Warehouse 13, which certainly cater to the aesthetic, I’m optimistic!

So, what do you forsee for the future of steampunk?

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I knew, from having heard their two songs, “Sioux City, South Dakota” and “House of Cards” that, musically, I had only marvelous things to say about Lemming Malloy. They set the bar very high for themselves with those two tantalizing little songs on their site, and so I admit, I was expecting a good deal from them at their debut show. Is that fair? I don’t know. I just figured, if someone takes the time to create a modded steampunk keytar, the music should be as cared for, too.

And I was not disappointed, not in the least.

From the second they stepped on the stage I knew that this was something different. This was something unique, lovely, and wonderful. The first opening chords of “House of Cards” were even more electrifying than in the recording, the voices of Mr. Cartwright and Ms. Spitzer melting together to pure audial happiness. I was bopping and dancing and singing along, riding on a current of energy, excitement, and steampunk musical goodness.

As the set progressed, the band never lost momentum. In fact, they seemed to be having a good time. Can I tell you how refreshing it is to watch a band perform that actually looks like they’re enjoying themselves rather than being moody, dark, and over performative? Goggles and Marvelons, suspenders and headlamps, the steampunk aesthetic is certainly a part of the magic–but really, it’s the smiles, the winks, the conversations with the audience that made Lemming Malloy’s performance at the Local 506 in Chapel Hill so amazing. I was totally engrossed in the songs, including those I knew and those I didn’t–I was so excited to see “Don’t Act Like Prey” and “Brother Rabbit” on the EP because I was totally wowed by them both (not to mention all the other songs I wish I had right NOW).

The Curse... of Greyface!

The Curse... of Greyface!

This is, of course, not to mention “The Curse… of Greyface” (ellipses are mine). Such fun!

The camaraderie and band banter was second to none, and I honestly can’t remember having this much fun at a concert since my son was born. Even better, it’s a local band that really, truly, rocks. Even my husband, who isn’t exactly a steampunk aesthete himself, was completely blown away and truly impressed by the band’s tight, happy, clever set.

The EP is also quite lovely to look at; it folds out into a poster, and includes all of the lyrics (which show you just how much craft Mr. Cartwright puts into the words he uses–footnotes and everything!).

I give the show five out of five gears!

Visit Lemming Malloy here.

Buy the EP!

An early poster of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

An early poster of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

History is beautiful puzzlement.

For many people, the concept of fantasy literature in and of itself must be restrained to medieval settings, where swords and sorcery define the landscape. But much of what we perceive as fantasy has little to do with the so-called “real” Middle Ages, and everything to do with the Victorians, their ideals, and their cultural obsessions.

In fact, the images the majority of people conjure up when someone says “fantasy” or “knights” or “King Arthur” come directly out of the influence of the Victorian and early Edwardian periods and their desire to rediscover, reinvent, and reincarnate the Middle Ages. This influence swept across the arts, from furniture making to novel writing. Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is perhaps the most familiar, along with the works of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and William Morris (who is, arguably, the father of the modern fantasy novel).

What’s important about the Victorian perception of the Middle Ages is that it directly affected the writing that came after (and in some cases, rebelled against) it. Because, as in all retellings, the Victorians could not leave the stories well enough alone–some, like Tennyson injected his ideals of courtly love and good conduct (Guenevere and Lancelot languish away as a nun and monk respectively) while Morris sought to illustrate the social ills of his day through Utopian visions of other worlds.

Aside from the Victorian preoccupation with the Middle Ages, there also came something else: the Gothic. And by this I not mean the style of building, nor do I mean a dark-haired pasty girl writing poetry about dead flowers in a corner at a coffee shop. No, I mean gothic literature, a combination of horror, science, romance, and history, all blended together to create some of the most enduring characters of our time (Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Invisible Man just to name a few). In many ways the Gothic typifies the Victorian perception of medieval landscapes–seen in earlier examples like Coleridge’s “Cristabel” and Keats’ “Lamia” poems–and contrasts their own concerns about science, magic, and power against them. Brilliant stuff.

And then there’s science and technology. Victorian literature, and later much Edwardian literature, often brims to the edge with excitement and enthusiasm on the subject of growing technologies in the wake of the Industrial Revolution (Verne‘s Voyages Extraordinaire) or skeptical of the power of science (Robert Louis Stephenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”). That these stories still resonate with us today, still frighten us and inspire us over a century later, is quite remarkable.

I see steampunk fantasy, and steampunk science-fiction, then as a natural next step in this progression. We are, in a sense, reinventing the reinvention. We look to the Victorian period and understand their simultaneous excitement and tenuous approach to technology; we know what it is to want to discover our roots and delve into the mysteries of myth. New advances in DNA and gene research have given place names to people who sometimes feel as if their cultural identities have been lost in the melting pot.

Writers, makers, and cosplayers alike see the allure in the Lost Age of Steam because it in so many ways reflects our own. And as before, steampunk isn’t purely a movement across one or two disciplines. It’s pervasive. It’s become an aesthetic, a recognizable divergence from the norm (was is the goggles that gave it away?).

And I think what I love about it most is that, like Victorian medievalism and early science-fiction, it balks in the face of definition. It is not strictly historical, nor is it easily explained. It is moving and changing, different things to different people.

The gears, they keep on moving. Who knows what will come when the next century views ours?

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.

Avalauncher

Avalauncher

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.

William MorrisFiction is curious. In the last century or so, it’s seen more movement and change than ever before, morphing and shifting as culture, philosophy, religion, and expression continue to influence writing.

I mean, fiction wasn’t even a viable means of writing at all for many centuries. Sure, there’s allegory and myth, legend and religious writing–but the concept of alternate worlds, horror writing, romance novels, these are all concepts we’ve accepted now as fairly standard.

So, I’ve been wondering about steampunk writing. In fact, I posted about it to the Brass Goggles forum last week, wondering what people thought: is steampunk writing an offshoot, or its own genre? I tend to think it’s growing into its own genre, even as a subsidiary of its cousin cyberpunk. It either will represent a new genre, or it will prove that, perhaps, genre writing is dying itself.

Why do I say this? Well, I think that, more and more, books are failing to adhere to the expected. Horror blends with fantasy blends with mystery blends with science fiction. Take something as mundane as Harry Potter–it’s part mystery/part fantasy/part bildungsroman. Take away any of those elements, and you make for a boring, unmarketable piece of writing that surely wouldn’t have spawned a multi-billion pound empire. Even big “fantasy” writers like George R.R. Martin adapt history, intrigue, mystery, to come up with something else entirely.

No, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a glossy “Steampunk” section pop up at Barnes and Noble any time soon. But I don’t think compartmentalization is the right way to approach any emerging writing. When Tolkien published his Rings books, many people simply didn’t know what to do with them. But he wasn’t the first! In fact, William Morris was at it half a century before (if you’re really intrigued, you can read the whole text of The Well at the End of the World online), writing “fantasy” worlds. It just didn’t catch on in his time.

I guess I’m just cautiously optimistic about where steampunk is going to go in the next few years. Will it go the way of Tolkien? Or a less-traveled? As an internet phenomenon, and already at the brink of the digital text age, it’s an intriguing question. Already, magazines like Steampunk Magazine are available completely in digital format.

So, I wonder: what do you think?