I recently had a conversation with someone about how an artist didn't want his work labeled as steampunk because of what he called 'plagiarism' in the movement. I think the "imitation as creation" aspect of steampunk art is part of its draw. Not all of us can be as original as a Jake von Slatt or Anthony Jon Hicks - but once we've been shown a "how-to" tutorial, we can make our ray-gun out of candlesticks, or etch some brass. All art is ultimately derivative, plagiarizing from someone else - steampunk is unabashedly so. What I didn't realize about Jake's work is that little of it actually works, which underscores my idea of steampunk aesthetic once again. This isn't really about making neo-Victorian-looking gadgets - it's about making things that look like neo-Victorian gadgets. That said, Jake has produced a number of excellent items that do work, such as the amplifier for Abney Park's guitarist, Nathaniel Johnstone, and has inspired a number of other Makers to produce working versions of ideas he's had. It should also be noted that Jake readily admitted in his presentation that there are many other people doing what he's doing, and doing it better (which I would echo for my own work here at Steampunk Scholar). But let's face it, none of them look as cool Jake does in a Fedora.
Jake von Slatt with the aforementioned amplifier
Jake and I hung around chatting for nearly an hour after his session, about steampunk politics, anarchists in steampunk, and other sundry topics. We were joined by Justin of Redfork Empire, who was fun to hang with, not only because he's a nice guy, but because he had on one of those costumes that gets photographed every 2.45 minutes. It was a clear indication of the suck level of my own costuming that, despite standing with Justin for several hours over the weekend, I was never once asked to stand in the photo with him.
Justin of Redfork Empire
I abandoned Jake and Justin to introduce myself to Paul Guinan, the artist and co-author of Boilerplate. I was going to be chairing two hours of interview and questions with Paul as Steamcon's Artist Guest of Honor, and wanted to touch base with him before the panel took place. That done, I went in and caught the tail-end of "Girl Genius Radio Theater", which was incredible. Phil and Kaja Foglio, along with a cast of very talented friends, delivered a wonderful dramatic reading of an episode of "Girl Genius". I'm glad I caught it, as I'm making it a priority to attend if they repeat this as the Artist Guests of Honor at the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition in March. I highly recommend anyone who attends to do the same.
Chairing Paul's interview session was a real treat: not only did Paul deliver well-spoken, incisive thoughts on his book, but the audience asked questions that brought out the areas Paul was most interested in. One of the notable comments Paul made was that he did primary historical research on Boilerplate, into what was effectively the first Korean war the United States was involved in, prior to the nineteenth century. Finding out the level of historical detail in Boilerplate was fascinating, as was Paul's "behind-the-scenes" comments on how he achieved a number of the images. I was surprised to find out that he utilized natural light for shooting the Boilerplate figure, requiring that he estimate/calculate the time in the photos or pictures he wanted to put Boilerplate into.
After my epic two hour panel with Paul Guinan, I went for lunch with Chris and Linda, where we discussed upcoming issues of Exhibition Hall, how cool the location for the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition is going to be, and argued over whether or not furries can be steampunk. The food was once again, fantastic, and while we were waiting to get into the restaurant, Jay Lake came up and said hi to Chris - like I said, hang with Chris for a few moments at a Con, and you'll rub shoulders with the famous. I made sure to gush to Lake about "Lollygang", because I love it, but also to avoid having him recognize me as the guy who said not-such-nice-things about Mainspring. On that note, I've been meaning to write another piece on Mainspring, since I don't really review steampunk literature so much as discuss each work's contribution to the aesthetic, and my piece on Mainspring was written before I concluded I wouldn't focus on reviews. Mainspring is one of the few works that has included religion as a major theme without resorting to the very tired monolithic and usually corrupt Church ala Philip Pullman: I'm nonplussed that steampunk writers write rich alternate histories but produce caricatures of religious establishments, despite their import to nineteenth century life. I digress.
The Steampunk Scholar and his femme fatale
While I'd wanted to attend "Readings by Cat Rambo and Jay Lake", I ended up getting mentally prepared for my own session, "Dungeons and Dickens: How to Steampunk Your RPG." While I put more work into my academic presentations at Steamcon, this one was the most gratifying, and the best-attended. I approached the subject matter from the perspective that I was showing them how I had 'modded' my Middle-Earth-Roleplaying campaign, and that I hoped it would inspire them to do likewise with their own games. There was lots of laughter, good banter, some great questions (especially those from a precocious young man who was in attendance with his father), and follow-up discussions outside the salon after it was all over. You know it's been a good session when people want to continue it outside. A huge thank-you to my fellow gamers who attended that session, making it an immensely enjoyable time. As promised, the slides for that session will be going up when I finish my Steamcon reports.
Blaine and Kim in costume, Saturday nightJake von Slatt had said to me he was limiting himself to only one presentation at Steamcon, so he could actually enjoy taking in some of the panels. After giving two in one day, I could understand why. I was pretty tired, and ended up skipping out of going to "Steampunk Literature 101" in favor of chatting with Daniel and Autumn. As it so happened, we mostly talked literature anyhow, discussing Gail Carriger's Soulless, Dickens, why China Mieville might have anything to do with Dickens, and Tim Powers, author of one of my top ten steampunk books, The Anubis Gates. Autumn is a big Powers fan, and since they were both going to be attending the "Meet With Tim Powers" panel, I opted to tag along.
On a whim, I decided to record as much of it on my pocket digital recorder as I could before the batteries died, and I'm glad for it. Tim Powers is not only a solid writer, he's also very funny. His dry wit had the room in stitches several times, with topics ranging from whether or not he writes steampunk (he's pretty sure he doesn't), Door-to-door Evangelicals (he claimed to have set their Bible on fire with his reading glass) to what Disney is doing with On Stranger Tides for the next Pirates of the Carribbean movie (contrary to rumor, he didn't sell the rights so he could meet Johnny Depp). If time allows and Tim Powers is amenable, I'll post a transcript here in the new year (I would just post the audio, but it's punctuated by me laughing really hard, much closer to the mic than Powers was).
It was now 7:00 pm, and the day nearly spent. Jenica, Blaine, and Kim had returned from their adventures about town, and, once dressed for the concert, we joined Daniel and Autumn for great food and conversation once again. If I had to characterize the major difference in my first steampunk convention vs. Steamcon, it would be with the word "friends". I was engaged in research for the most part at Steam Powered, largely because I didn't really know anyone. But I met some great people, and through Facebook, have become better acquainted with them, so that a lot of my Steamcon experience was about talking with friends face-to-face, instead of Facebook.
Some of you might remember that I nearly didn't get tickets for the concert. Let's just leave it at nearly, since I can't reveal how I got into the show, save to say that pity was taken upon me. Thanks once again to those excellent souls who made it possible for Jenica and I to get into the show.
We heard, rather than saw "Unwoman," as this solo-voice-cello artist is not only diminuitive in stature, but was sitting down. My recommendation to all future steampunk concerts is - everyone has to leave their tophats at the door. A standing-concert makes it tough enough to see the band on a low stage, but top-hats exacerbate the problem. I'm 6"2, so I'm not bothered by it, but I was standing with enough people in the average height range than I could sympathize. Despite only being able to hear her, "Unwoman" was great, and I'm excited she will be the musical guest at the Victoria Steam Exposition in Victoria, BC (Canada's first steampunk con!), which I'm hoping to attend. If you have a catch her in concert, I highly recommend.
Vernian Process took to the stage, but the mix was too tinny, and consequently drove us out of the hall for the duration of their show (yes, I know - if it's too loud, you're too old...clearly, I've gotten too old). What I did catch of their show matches their influences, which include Danny Elfman and David Bowie - very theatrical. Their show begs for multimedia. At any rate, we joined Joel Browning and oft-photographed steampunk belle Devon McGuire for some lively conversation which kept involving Neil Gaiman.
Jenica and I with Cap'n Robert
Finally, Abney Park took to the stage, and while I had the pleasure of really seeing them last year at Steam Powered, they were still fantastic, even though I could see only the heads and shoulders of band members over the tophats. Steampunk accoutrements aside, I enjoy their music, and front man Cap'n Roberts banter with the crowd is always entertaining. New female vocalist Jody Ellen can't replace Finn von Claret as either dancer or associate front-man, but she makes up for that lack with superior vocal chops. Both Jenica and I were blown away by her voice. The band tried out some new material on the crowd, with one in particular sticking in my mind that reminded me of a ramped-up "Putting on the Ritz" by 80s one-hit-wonders Taco. It's a great tune, and I'm excited for the release of Aether Shanties in early December. Jenica had a great time singing and dancing along to the tunes; it's been ages since we've enjoyed a concert together like that.
In addition to learning that steampunk making doesn't have to work, that the Foglios have a great career ahead of them in radio should television be struck from the face of the earth, that tophats do not make for concert-friendly headgear, and that I need to talk less at the supper table (complete inside joke for those who were there), I also discovered that, even if you put gel-inserts into costume boots, your feet will still hurt like hell at the end of a day like this one. Still, sore feet is a small price to pay for experiences and sessions like these. As my son would say, fully awesome.