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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Chapter 26: Preparation

Once again, here we are. I’ve been having a little bit of frustration with my recording equipment, and hopefully by the end of this week I’ll have a totally new setup: phantom power here I come! I’m working on ways to keep background noise to a minimum, which has been an issue throughout the podcast, but I did my best.

As I mention in the podcast itself, music is by my beautiful and talented sister, Llana Barron. You’ll be hearing this music again, so keep your ears open. Only three more chapters to go friends, and this ride will come to an end. Thanks so much for listening along the way…

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.

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?)

When I started this blog, I had finished The Aldersgate. The idea was that I’d post the edited chapters, one at a time, and podcast them. Seems like a pretty straight-forward plan, right? The name made sense, the format and structure made sense.

It’s all fine and good, but I realize I painted myself into a funny little corner. As editing has progressed I realized my little novel isn’t so little, nor uncomplicated. The more I edit, the more I discover; the more I discover, the more I change; the more I change, the more the book looks less and less like the first version and more like something new entirely.

And since my pace isn’t anywhere near as fast as I thought it’d be, this blog has become, ultimately, a writer’s blog about a host of subjects, from the process of writing, to trends in steampunk writing and culture, to music and history, to fantasy writing and science fiction.

Ultimately I realize I made a blog for a book, when I should have made a blog for myself as a writer. I suppose in a way it’s comfortable to hide behind something, like a book–but eventually personality wins out. So I’m contemplating renaming the site (not the address, as that’s impossible) and rethinking my approach a little more. The Aldersgate is a well-intended endeavor and, I keep telling myself any, a worthy one. But the more I edit and rewrite, the more I want to challenge myself and get it right. It’s a big story–a huge story, the largest and most ambitious I’ve ever tried to tell. And I don’t want to risk the telling by taking shortcuts.

So, suffice it to say, this blog jumped the gun a bit. Although, in my defense, when I sat down to serialize the novel I really did think it was 90% there. I just found out it was really closer to, oh, 20%. I’ve never been good at math.

To all the readers and friends I’ve made in the last few months, thank you. I’m rapidly approaching 10,000 views (?!?) and am ever amazed and inspired by the people I’ve come to know through this blog. Expect lots more from me as the months pass into the next year, and prepare yourself for new adventures!

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.