If you love steampunk, you’ve got to read this. If you love steampunk literature, you really, really have to read this. I was excited to learn that the incredibly talented Cherie Priest was starting a steampunk series, but this piece makes me a little giddy. You should check out the whole site, as well, The Clockwork Century.

I particularly like her conclusion:

I’ve seen people come at steampunk with sophisticated visions of retro-futuristic China, New England, Africa, the American frontier, gaslamp London, Japan, and India … and everywhere else, which is exactly how it ought to be. Because wherever you came from, whoever you are, and whatever your people were doing a hundred and fifty years ago … it is worth talking about. It is worth examining, and exploring. It is worth playing with, every bit as much as it is worth taking seriously.

And I believe this, if nothing else, puts the “punk” in steampunk. It’s the tongue sticking out at history books; it’s a poke in the eye to a condescending footnote. It’s a pointy boot up the ass of stuffy literalists and stitch-counters. Steampunk refuses to let what was written years ago become the last word or the bottom line, and that’s one very big reason I love it so much.

Advertisements
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?

Like many publications, the Willows Magazine is struggling. From Ben’s blog Literacity:

Well, it’s 2009, and things haven’t gotten much easier at the offices of The Willows. While Jade did finish up the issue, it was several weeks late…and that isn’t the only problem.

For those of you who don’t know, I pay for 90% of The Willows out of my own pocket; always have. Some advertisers sweeten the deal now and then, and my supply costs are (somewhat) covered by subscribers, but by and large, I buy stories and new features as I can afford them, and feel they’re justified. And I’ve always been rewarded by your loyal readership; I have no complaints on that score.

But this year opens on a rather underfunded Willows, which means we’re going to have to print and ship as we are able to afford it. Some of you have already received your December issues, and let me go on record as saying I feel humiliated that the rest of you have not, when it is almost February. I can only express my profoundest frustration. (You can read more here)

To top it off, some subscribers are kinda being jerky about the whole situation. What folks often don’t realize is that many of these publications are labors of love, with very small staffs, who often work thankless hours in editing and production!

Aside from being personally invested (my short story “Dr. Adderson’s Lens” will be in a future publication) the Willows is a rare gem of a publication that really represents Victorian/gothic/steampunk aesthetic and literature. If kids are willing to shell out $100 bucks for a pair of goggles or a corset, I hardly think it’s a stretch to think a subscription/donation/advertisement to be that difficult.

If advertising your wares is your thing, consider that they’re offering 50% off all advertising as well! That’s a pretty impressive deal, considering their rates are a steal to begin with!

UPDATE: So, yeah. The Willows is no more. So, there we go. Read the comments below for an idea of what’s gone on. Sorry to those who have bought subscriptions/ad space, and have not been contacted. I’m not affiliated with the Willows; I only had a story accepted there, and it never was published. I apologize that I can’t be of any more help.

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?

The Alderpod

Alderpod - The Aldersgate Cycle Podcast

Huzzah! Alderpod #6 is up, and it takes off where #2 left off, with Cora Grey returning home just as the Order of the Oak arrive in Vell during the Blooming Day dance. This one took a while to get together, as yours truly is an occasional technological nightmare.

I’ll be posting a .pdf to accompany it, as well, in the coming days.

Click the image or clicky here.

I’m a pacifist.

But don’t tell my characters.

One of my biggest challenges in writing is managing violent scenes. Call me a wuss. As someone who’s never even thrown a punch, you can imagine where I’m coming from. But my own personal preferences have to take second seat when I’m writing because, whether or not I like violence or not, it’s a part of life. Especially considering that war is a major component in my current novel–it is partially inspired by the Old West, you see, and there’s just no avoiding it. (Not to mention there’s a murder by the third chapter.)

Sometimes writers feel like they have to write their own agenda into their work. I think this can work to a certain extent (I’ve certainly included quite a helping of my feelings about society, gender, and spirituality in my book) but often it clouds the tale if gone too far. Readers need to trust a writer completely, especially if they’re going to keep with you for 100,000 words or so. So don’t skimp on violence if it’s part of the story, because your readers will feel like you’re withholding details.

That said, there’s a few things I do when I’m writing a particularly violent scene. The first thing to do is research. Sometimes this includes talking to someone who has first-hand experience. A few weeks ago I interrogated my husband about what getting socked in a particularly sensitive area that I have no personal understanding about might feel like if done with a steel-toed boot. I also take time to read other accounts (a quick crash course would be reading someone like Chuck Palahnhiuk, but only if you have a stomach of steel).

But you also want to make sure your violence is accurate. Often in fantasy people are given super human powers, or receive the most unlikely of wounds. If you’re being attacked by a mace, well, read up about what a mace does to the human body. The same with daggers, knives, blasters, rifles, or fists. (Medieval warfare is a good place to start for the fantasy camp.) That goes doubly for magic or anything high-tech. Take a half second to learn about physics! A quick gander certainly won’t hurt.

Violence has been a part of storytelling from the beginning. (Just take a look at the Bible!) It’s just one of the elements of storytelling that excite an audience, keep them on the edge of their seats. Whether it’s the severing of Grendel’s arm, Roland’s brain bursting from blowing his horn, or the frequent “brain bashing” of Malory in Le Morte D’Arthur, violence is a part of our mythology. We understand violence because it causes pain, and pain is something common to the human experience.

That said, if you’re still uncomfortable with your scene, I have a few more suggestions.

For instance, if you’re describing a group scene (a siege or the like) and the large-scale violence is either too complicated or too bothersome, use a single point of view. Narrow the lens, as it were, and describe what is happening through a character, not just the actions around him/her.

Also, remember that level of detail is always up to you. I’ve read some writers who go as far as the molecular level when describing their violent scenes. The difference between a wound, a gaping wound, and a seeping, putrefying wound… well, you get the point.

In the end, the decision is yours. Different writers have different levels of comfort (I’ve seen, for instance, some writers who don’t balk at writing a bloodbath, but skip over the sex completely). Find your balance, but don’t do it without examining the whys of your own approach.

Hard drive crashes are not fun. Even if you’ve backed up your work, and maintain the bulk of your information, one lapse (say about six days) can cost you. When my HD choked, it was in the midst of a good run of writing and editing, in which I’d changed around a great deal and put about 10,000 new words on paper. As I mentioned before, this work was wiped from the face of the planet.

When bad things happen like that, friends are quick to reach out and tell you it’s probably for the best, and that what you’ll write next will be even better than before. That sort of advice, while always well intended, often feels like a kick in the gut.

As grumpy as I was to lose so much of Brick’s narrative, my well-meaning friends were, actually, quite right.

I’ve finished editing Brick’s narrative through to the last 1/4 of the book, up until the point where his narrative starts intertwining more heavily with others and I have to wait.

And oddly enough (or not oddly, depending on how you look at it) losing all that work on Brick actually made me examine him more closely, to ask some really difficult questions. I thought I knew Brick, I really did. But after rewriting and tightening things up, I’ve realized there were a great deal of things that even through the first draft I hadn’t realized about him. It’s that extra layer of complexity that not only makes for a better story, but a more believable hero.

Coupled with the timing of Villain Month, this edit also happened to be Sir Gregory Ander’s (or just Ander as he’s referred to mostly) real entrance into the narrative. Now here’s a surprise. Even though I was pretty happy with his profiles (see the posts here) he’s turned out to be very different even than that. I’ve promoted him from minor villain in the first draft to major antagonist in the edit, and wow. He’s really taken on a life of his own.

My rambling point is that I’m very happy with the writing of the last few days. I’ve been putting my head down, as it were, and really concentrating on telling a good story.

I guess the moral of the story is to try and not let things get to you. Not to get all Pollyanna on you, but seriously: bad things happen, to everyone. And sure, a hard drive crash is worse for a writer in some ways than just about any other sort of person. You’re allowed a sulking time, but once it’s over: just get over it.

And just because it’s fun, here are five things I didn’t expect editing Brick’s narrative:

  • The appearance of codes and ciphers
  • The loss of appendages
  • A berserker knight
  • Major confessions and admissions of guilt
  • Strange alliances

A bit of an excerpt after the cut from Chapter Seventeen: The Merry Gentleman. Brick’s been recaptured by the Order of the Oak, and has been stowed away, tied up, in the corner of a stable stall for the better part of two days. Sir Ander finally pays him a visit and tries to make a deal with him.

(more…)