Jul 29, 2009

The Steampunk Scholar's Reading List: Primary Texts

When I decided to study steampunk for my PhD research, I immediately began compiling a reading list of primary sources. I began with Wikipedia's list of steampunk works, augmented by steampunkopedia, and then supplemented these with the shorter lists, such as the top 10 literary steampunk works at darkfantasy.org. While I wanted as comprehensive a collection as my budget could afford, I also didn't want to be wasting my time on peripheral works which only username Dr. Aetheric Tophat on random-discussion-thread-of-your-choice considers steampunk. Recently I came across this link at librarything.com, which tabulates how many times a book has been tagged "steampunk." It's an interesting, though not necessarily accurate list, given that "Flaming London" by Joe Lansdale only has 2 tags, though in my opinion it is clearly steampunk.

Here's the list I came up with, set out in MLA works cited format for all you lazy scholars who want to pirate my work. Most of these books are on my shelves already, awaiting reading. Those in bold text I've already read. The linked ones are the titles I've already made annotated entries for here at Steampunk Scholar. I will be following this list up with another, of secondary texts, like Jess Nevins' Unofficial Guides to the League of Extraordinary Gentlement, another list of primary film examples, one cataloguing the short stories, and then also one concerned with the ostensible "proto-steampunk" works such as those by Verne and Wells.

Anderson, Kevin J. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. New York:Pocket Star, 2003.

---, ed. War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches. New York: Spectra, 1997.

Ashley, Mike and Eric Brown, eds. The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne: Return to the Center of the Earth and Other Extraordinary Voyages, New Tales by the Heirs of Jules Verne.: New York: Carrol and Graf, 2005.

Augustyn, Brian, and Mignola, Mike. Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. New York: DC Comics, 1989.

Baker, Kage. Not Less Than Gods. Burton: Subterranean Press, 2010.

---. The Women of Nell Gwynne's. Burton: Subterranean Press, 2009.

Bear, Elizabeth. New Amsterdam. Burton: Far Territories, 2007.

Blaylock, James P. The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives. Burton: Subterranean Press, 2008.

---. The Digging Leviathan. New York: Ace Books, 1984.

Bush, Emilie P. Chenda and the Airship Brofman. Self-published, 2009.

Carriger, Gail: Changeless: The Parasol Protectorate: Book the Second. New York, Orbit Books, 2010.

---. Soulless--The Parasol Protectorate: Book the First. New York, Orbit Books, 2009.

Dahlquist, Gordon. The Dark Volume. New York: Bantam, 2009.

---. The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, Volume One. New York: Bantam Books, 2008.

---. The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, Volume Two. New York: Bantam Books, 2009.

Di Filippo, Paul. The Steampunk Trilogy. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995.

Ewing, Al. El Sombre: Pax Britannia Series. Gardena: Abaddon Press, 2007.

Flaming, Matthew. The Kingdom of Ohio. New York: Amy Einhorn Books, 2009.

Foglio, Phil & Kaja. Girl Genius: Omnibus Edition #1. Seattle: Studio Foglio, 2006.

Frost, Mark. The 6 Messiahs. New York: William Morrow and Co. 1995.

---. The List of 7. New York: Avon Books, 1993.

Gevers, Nick. Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology. Lenton: Solaris, 2008.

Giambastiani, Kurt A. The Year the Cloud Fell. New York: Roc, 2001.

Gibson, William & Sterling, Bruce. The Difference Engine New York : Bantam Books, 1992.

Gray, Nathalie. Full Steam Ahead. Red Sage Publishing, 2010.

Green, Jonathan. Human Nature: Pax Britannia Series. Gardena: Abaddon Press, 2009.

---. Leviathan Rising: Pax Britannia Series. Gardena: Abaddon Press, 2008.

---. Unnatural History: Pax Britannia Series. Gardena: Abaddon Press, 2007.

Guinan, Paul, & Bennett, Anina. Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel. New York, Abrams Image, 2009.

Hernandez, Lea. Cathedral Child. Fullerton: Image Comics, 1998.

---. Clockwork Angels. Fullerton: Image Comics, 1999.

Hunt, Stephen. The Court of the Air. UK General Books, 2007.

---. The Kingdom Beyond the Waves. UK General Books, 2008.

Jeter, K.W. Infernal Devices: A Mad Victorian Fantasy. New York: New American Library, 1987.

---. Morlock Night. New York: Daw Books, 1979.

Judson, Theodore. Fitzpatrick’s War. New York: DAW Books, 2004.

Kelly, Joe. Steampunk: Drama Obscura. New York, Wildstorm Comics, 2003.

---. Steampunk: Manimatron. New York, Wildstorm Comics, 2001.

Lake, Jay. Escapement. New York: Tor Books, 2008.

---. Mainspring. New York>: Tor Books, 2007.

Lansdale, Joe R. Flaming London. Burton: Subterranean Press, 2006.

---. Zeppelins West. Burton: Subterranean Press, 2001.

Lowachee, Karin. The Gaslight Dogs. New York, Orbit, 2010.

Lupoff, Richard. Into the Aether. New York: Dell, 1974.

MacAlister, Katie. Steamed: A Steampunk Romance. New York: Signet, 2010.

MacLeod, Ian R. The House of Storms. New York: Ace Books, 2005.

---. The Light Ages. Toronto: Pocket Books, 1997.

Mann, George. The Affinity Bridge. New York, Tor Books, 2009.

---. Ghosts of Manhattan. Amherst: Pyr, 2010.

Maumejean, Xavier. The League of Heroes. Manuella Chevalier, Trans. Encino: Black Coat Press, 2005.

Mellon, Mark. Napoleon Concerto: A Novel in Three Movements. Sierra Vista: Treble Heart Books, 2009.

Miéville China. Iron Council. New York: Del Ray Publishing, 2005.

---. Perdido Street Station. New York: Del Ray Publishing, 2000.

---. The Scar. New York: Del Ray Publishing, 2002.

Michael Moorcock. A Nomad of the Time Streams: A Scientific Romance. Clarkston, White Wolf, 1995.
I've read Warlord of the Air, the first book in this collected edition.

Moore, Alan and Kevin O’Neill. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume One. La Jolla: America's Best Comics, 2000.

---. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume Two. La Jolla: America's Best Comics, 2003.

Newman, Kim. Anno Dracula. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1993.

Oppel, Kenneth. Airborn. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

---. Skybreaker. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

--- Starclimber. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Palmer, Dexter. The Dream of Perpetual Motion. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2010.

Pagliosotti, Dru. Clockwork Heart. Rockville: Juno books, 2008.

Peters, S.M. Whitechapel Gods. Toronto: Roc, 2008.

Pondsmith, Michael Alyn. Castle Falkenstein: Adventures in the Age of Steam. Redmond: Talsorian Games, 1994.

Powers, Tim. The Anubis Gates. New York: Ace Science Fiction Books, 1983.

---. The Stress of Her Regard. 1989. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2008.

Priest, Cherie. Boneshaker. New York: Tor, 2009.

Pullman, Philip. The Amber Spyglass. New York: Random House, 2000.

---. The Subtle Knife. New York: Random House, 1997.

---. The Golden Compass. New York: Random House, 1995.

Pynchon, Thomas. Against the Day. Toronto: Penguin, 2007.

Reeve, Phillip. Infernal Devices. 2005. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.

---. Larklight: A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space. London: Bloomsbury, 2006.

---. Mortal Engines. 2001. New York: Harper Collins, 2005.

---. Predator's Gold. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.

Rucker, Rudy. The Hollow Earth. 1990. Austin: Monkeybrain Books, 2006.

Rutoski, Marie. The Cabinet of Wonders: The Kronos Chronicles Book 1. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008.

Sedia, Ekaterina. The Alchemy of Stone. Prime Books, 2008.

Smedman, Lisa. The Apparition Trail. Calgary: Tesseract Books, 2007.

Stephenson, Neal. The Diamond Age, or A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. New York: Bantam Books, 1996.

Stirling, S.M. The Peshawar Lancers. New York, ROC, 2003.

Vandermeer, Ann, and Jeff, eds. Steampunk. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2008.

Westerfeld, Scott. Leviathan. Toronto: Simon Pulse, 2009.

Wooding, Chris. Retribution Falls: Tales of the Ketty Jay 1.  Gollancz, 2010.

Wrede, Patricia C. Thirteenth Child. New York: Scholastic Press, 2009.

Zoem, Dazjae. Wonderdark: The Awakening of Zuza. Self-published, 2009.

I should also note that I have compiled a list of French steampunk works, but will not be adding them to this list until I've actually learned how to read French, aside from the inclusion of The League of Heroes, a translated version of Xavier Maumejean's La Ligue des héros.

Jul 22, 2009

"Fixing Hanover" by Jeff Vandermeer

When I interviewed Jeff and Ann Vandermeer at Steam Powered, the northern California steampunk convention last fall, Jeff stated that in order for steampunk to innovate, it would need to write against itself, and cited his short story "Fixing Hanover" as a potential example of what that might look like.

I saved reading "Fixing Hanover" until I'd read and viewed enough steampunk media to get an idea of what Vandermeer might have been writing against. Given the majority of steampunk I've read so far, it seems to me that Vandermeer and other authors who want to "write against" steampunk are writing against a concept of steampunk, not necessarily the genre itself. That said, I've got a long way to go, and may yet see that it was indeed the literature which was being criticized. I should also mention that insofar as "Fixing Hanover" does criticize steampunk, it does so in the best understanding of that term. To think critically about something should not necessarily be construed as being dismissive, reductive, or insulting. It is to contemplate both the weaknesses and the strengths with the ultimate goal of suggesting a better alternative.

"Fixing Hanover" is the story of a brilliant inventor/engineer who has retreated from the world to a peaceful and somewhat backward village, as a reaction to the horror of seeing what use his inventions were put to, namely, warfare. This is not a new concept in science fiction, but Vandermeer's use of a steampunk automaton to guide us through this lesson oft-told but seemingly never-learned is clever. It washes up on a beach, so the reader has that mystery to uncover, but considering that steampunk has roots in the boy's adventure tale, it is also reminiscent of more optimistic narratives like the film Iron Giant. Boy finds robot, boy fixes robot, boy should befriend robot, but in "Fixing Hanover" this is not the case.

Our hero finally gets "Hanover" to work, through a process highly self-reflexive of steampunk ideas, having made "several leaps of logic" and decisions "that cannot be explained as rational," (388) which many might say is true of the whole idea of steampunk itself. There are other such seemingly self-reflexivity, such as the response to the question, "What does it do?" The protagonist ruminates, "Why should everything have to have a function?" This again mirrors some of the cheap criticism leveled against steampunk makings, decrying the point in making a laptop look nicer when it worked fine without the filigree. Within the context of the story, it is as though the inventor who has been able to make functional devices would prefer to be making pointless items which are beautiful, than ever make another functional item. He has seen the dark side of functionality, the ultimate outworking of infernal devices, the kind which function so that life ceases to function. This ideology is subtly present in the narrative, so that when the automaton is finally fixed, one of the villagers "backs away from Hanover, as if something monstrous has occurred, even though this is what we wanted" (390). It's a move performed a multitude of times in film after film, book after book, and story after story, perhaps best embodied in Colin Clive screaming, "It's alive...Alive!" in the 1931 film version of Frankenstein.

"Fixing Hanover" makes for a great companion piece to Moorcock's Warlord of the Air, and could be viewed as inhabiting that same universe, only from the perspective of a man who designed the technology that permitted the British Empire to continue to hold sway in to the late twentieth century. It echoes the sentiments of the Chums of Chance in Against the Day when they finally witness the horrors of World War I. The passage begins with "They took me to His Excellency by airship, of course," which again feels self-reflexive. After all, what else does one travel by in a steampunk story?

"For the first time, except for excursions to the capital, I left my little enclave, the country I'd created for myself. From on high, I saw what I had helped create...The vision I had not known existed unfurled like a slow, terrible dream...I saw my creations clustered above hostile armies, raining down my bombs onto stick figures who bled, screamed, died, were mutiliated, blow apart...all as if in a silent film" (397-98).

Unlike the stereotype of steampunk, when the airships arrive in "Fixing Hanover," it isn't to embark on high-flying adventure. They are war-machines, come to retrieve their creator, and take him home to make more.

"They come at dawn, much faster than I had thought possible...from behind my bars, I watch their deadly, beautiful approach across the slate-gray sky, the deep-blue waves, and it is as if my children are returning to me. If there is no mercy in them, it is because I never thought of mercy when I created the bolt and canvas of them, the fuel and gears of them." (399)

The tone of "Fixing Hanover" is melancholic, to reference Cory Goss' dichotomy of steampunk. It rejects nostalgia for the remembrance of war. It is not anti-steampunk, but rather steampunk dealing seriously with serious issues, a short story to reference when attempting to answer Dru Pagliosotti's question, "Does steampunk have politics?" I don't know if steampunk does, but within the confines of "Fixing Hanover," Jeff Vandermeer certainly does.

You can find "Fixing Hanover" by Jeff Vandermeer in Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology, edited by Nick Gevers.

Jul 16, 2009

Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon: Part Four - Against the Day

The first chapters of Part Four nearly had me cashing in along with all the other naysayers of Against the Day. I sat wondering if Pynchon had completely lost his way. It's difficult to ascertain on a first read of a book this dense and epic. The scope is to big to take it all in. While I can't say as to whether the author lost his way in part four, I can say with utter certainty that he'd lost me. The opening pages of Part Four present another facet of anarchist life, I suppose, as well as another genre fiction--the spy novel. And interestingly, Cyprian Latewood, the protagonist of these pages, fulfills the sort of James Bond Daniel Craig apparently once mused about in an interview - not a lady's man, but a social chameleon of such depth that gender wouldn't make any difference. Latewood is "a sod" as the text puts it, but he has a powerful desire for Yashmeen Halfcourt. That's all I'm going to say about this aspect of part four, which takes up a considerable amount of the narrative, culminating in a ménage à trois between Cyprian, Yashmeen and Reef Traverse that produces a child.

I'm no prude when it comes to my reading, it's just that by the time the three characters were thus engaged, I had ceased to see anything brilliant about what was being written and felt that it all gotten a bit gratuitous. It was like getting halfway through the first season of HBO's Rome, which seemed to go out of its way for a moment of titillation rather than drama. I get that they're anarchists, so the rules don't apply, so this can be a model anarchist family unit (it's the second ongoing threesome Pynchon uses), but it had all become tired. While one could strain the "punk" in steampunk to encompass the host of anarchists in Against the Day, I just kept wondering where the hell the Chums of Chance had gotten to.

Perhaps that was the point.

Whatever Pynchon is getting at with the Chums' absence, their reappearance in the book came, like a breath of fresh airship. The pages which precede their return chronicle the historical Tunguska event, a powerful explosion in northern Russia in 1908. The Event provides us with an opportunity to sample a bit of the odd humor Pynchon mixes in with serious, dramatic passages without any parenthetical devices.
For a while after the Event, crazed Raskol'niki ran around in the woods, flagellating themselves and occasional onlookers who got too close, raving about Tchernobyl, the destroying star known as Wormwood in the book of Revelation. Reindeer discovered again their ancient powers of flight, which had lapsed over the centuries since humans began invading the North. Some were stimulated by the accompanying radiation into an epidermal luminescence at the red end of the spectrum, particularly around the nasal area. Mosquitos lost their taste for blood, acquiring one instead for vodka, and were observed congregating in large swarms at local taverns...Siberian wolves walked into churches in the middle of services, quoted passages from the Scripture in Old Slavonic, and walked peacealby out again. They were reported to be especially fond of Matthew 7:15, "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves." (784)
I don't know if it's steampunk, but the whimsy of flying reindeer, sideways references to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, boozy mosquitos, and Pentecostal wolves strikes my funny bone at the very least.

The crew of airship Inconvenience spotted the Event from a distance, and fly in to survey the devastation, and in it, find Shambhala, laid visible by the blast, perhaps due to a change in light frequencies. Here the reader learns that while people were only ignoring the Chums in part three, the airship and crew have now become invisible:
What it would take the boys longer to understand was that the great burst of light had also torn the veil separating their own space from that of the everyday world, and that for the brief moment they had also met the same fate as Shambhala, their protection lost, and no longer able to count on their invisibility before the earthbound day. (793)
I don't think this concerns invisibility, but a reference back to their conversation with Lew Basnight at the beginning of the book, where the Chicago Fair is said to have "possessed the exact degree of fictitiousness to permit the boys access and agency" (37). On the next page, Lew answers Lindsay Noseworth's question about his juvenile reading habits with "Wild West, African explorers, the usual adventure stuff. But you boys--you're not storybook characters...Are you?" Randolph St. Kosmo replies, "No more than Wyatt Earp or Nellie Bly...Although the longer a fellow's name has been in the magazines, the harder it is to tell fiction from non-fiction" (38). This becomes a recurring them in the Chums' appearances - the fictionality of the world they inhabit, a fiction they are self-reflexive about. They share a fictional, mythic aspect with Shambhala, perhaps only visible to those with the right frame of mind to see them. Considering Yashmeen's father's ruminations about Shambhala, it follows that this is about a perspective rather than a concrete reality: "For me, Shambhala, you see, turned out to be not a goal but an absence. Not the discovery of a place but the act of leaving the futureless place where I was" (975).

The Chums make another appearance in the fourth part, in an adventure as ridiculous as any other Pynchon has already taken the airship crew of Inconvenience. The Chums, in response to Pugnax's canine girlfriend, a "fiercely beautiful...sheep dog" asking if the boys ever "just have adventures anymore?" decide to investigate "an updraft over the deserts of Northern Africa unprecedented in size and intensity" (1018). The adventure references a much earlier conversation between Chick and Randolph, bringing the Chums' adventures at least, full circle. The Chums end up on an alternate version of Earth, simultaneously rising above the one while descending towards the other, but avoiding crashing into mountains "with the usual 'inches to spare,'" (1020) one of Pynchon's many self-reflexive, intertextual nods to the boys' adventure stories the Chums are a pastiche of.

I will have to engage in another close reading, but it appeared to me that the Chums, in arriving on a Counter-Earth to their own, have actually landed on our earth, since they are witness to a world with atrocities which match our 20th century:
"All through the growing region now, the countryside is torn up with trenches."
"Trenches," Miles said, as if it were a foreign technical term...
"Those poor innocents," he exclaimed in a stricken whisper, as if some blindness had abruptly healed itself, allowing him at last to see the horror transpiring on the ground. "Back at the beginning of this...they must have been boyd, so much like us...They knew they were standing before a great chasm none could see to the bottom of. But they launched themselves into it anyway. Cheering and laughing. it was their own grand 'Adventure.' They were juvenile heroes of a World-Narrative--unreflective and free, they went on hurling themselves into those depths by tens of thousands until one day they awoke, those who were still alive, and instead of finding themselves posed nobly against some dramatic moral geography, they were down cringing in a mud trench swarming with rats and smelling of shit and death."
I was pleased when I read this passage, because it confirmed two things for me: that steampunk's fascination with the aesthetic of the romantic period to WWI is linked to the optimism of the period, and that Pynchon is definitely writing in a steampunk mode (whether he intended to or not) when he is writing about the Chums of Chance. Their adventures have taken place in the Victorian and Edwardian period, but effectively end with the coming of "long-range artillery shells," which "till quite recently objects of mystery, glittering with the colors of the late afternoon, could be seen just reaching the tops of their trajectories and pausing in the air for an instant before the deadly plunge back to Earth." In response to the "distant sounds of repeated explosion...the strident massed buzzing of military aircraft" and the glow of the "first searchlights of evening," Randolph St. Kosmo declares, "We signed nothing that included any of this" (1025-26). The Chums move on to relief work, and then romance, as the novel winds down to its finish. And since this post is now Pynchon sized, I'll save any further ruminations for retrospection in my post on Part Five.

Check out Michael Moorcock's fantastic review of Against the Day, which does the best job I've seen of pulling together the novel's variant threads as well as giving evocative descriptions of its contents.

Jul 10, 2009

The Steampunk Scholar will be at Steam Con!

I've known this for some time now, but I wanted to finish up my Eaton reports and the interview with Rudy Rucker before changing the image header at the top of the blog.

I'll be presenting three sessions at the Steamcon in Seattle on October 23-25, and thought followers of the steampunk scholar blog attending the Con would be interested to know what those will be.

Finding Nemo: Verne’s Anti-hero as Steampunk archetype
In the updated, post-colonial English translations of The Mysterious Island, Jules Verne’s anti-hero Captain Nemo is revealed to be the antithesis of the Caucasian pop-culture portrayal made famous by James Mason and most recently continued by Patrick Stewart and Michael Caine: an Indian prince whose real name is Dakkar, leader of the Sepoy rebellion against colonial rule in 1857. It is this Nemo, Verne’s original character, who embodies the essence of the Steampunk aesthetic of the instability of identity through his repeated death-and-rebirth cycle in both novels. Mixing one part recursive fantasy, one part historical criticism, and one part textual analysis, this paper will demonstrate how Captain Nemo is representative of two iconic steampunk identities, as well as suggesting a third possibility for the future of steampunk.

Steam Wars: Steampunk aesthetic meets Space Opera
While steampunk continues to defy attempts at definition, a coherent aesthetic of steampunk artworks has begun to emerge. By establishing a link between space opera and steampunk, and then comparing and contrasting the well-known cultural icons of Star Wars and their steampunk counterparts, defining features of the steampunk aesthetic may be derived. A close reading of individual artworks to identify these defining features as represented by brass goggles, exposed technology, resistance of Empire, and egalitarian treatment of steampunk heroines, reveals why Star Wars, more than any other science fiction (or pop culture) narrative has been successfully retrofitted with the steampunk aesthetic.

Dungeons and Dickens: How to Steampunk your RPG
What happens when a Game Master mixes two of his favorite writers into one gaming world, and those writers are J.R.R. Tolkien and Jules Verne? You get Steam Lords, the steampunked Middle-Earth campaign Mike Perschon and his Edmonton-based gaming group embarked upon over a year ago with thoroughly enjoyable results. Come find out how to apply the brass goggles, airships, and clockwork automatons to your roleplaying campaign, through a discussion of online resources, a brief review of some of the steampunk RPGs, and a look at the best miniatures for steampunk campaigns.

I do need to post here about Steam Lords, but until Monday, I'll just link it.

Jul 8, 2009

Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon - Part 3: Bilocation

By the time a reader reaches the third part of Pynchon's epic, they're feeling much the same way a marathon runner does when they catch their first wind, that rush where you muse, "this is no big deal, I don't see why people think this is so difficult." Two hours later, your breath coming in ragged gasps and your legs on fire, you wonder what the hell you were thinking getting into this. At the end of Part Three of Against the Day, I was feeling a readerly equivalent.

This isn't to say "Bilocations" is bad reading. It's more of the same disconnected, decade-sweeping action which Parts 1 & 2 delivered. But it is just that. More of the same. The narrative does seem to amble aimlessly, though I know that's not the case. Pynchon stacks the deck with detail after detail, some meaningless, but most not. I was pleased to find a reference to the obscurity of my hometown on page 432, when Lindsay Noseworth of the Chums of Chance goes in for a physical examination at a Chums of Chance Examining Station in Medicine Hat.

I digress. The title of part three, "Bilocations" refers back to a concept introduced in part 2, namely the ability to be in two places at once. This concept is explored in The Anubis Gates as well, and I have yet to ascertain whether it was a fashionable but fantastic fin de siècle theory, like the Hollow Earth. There are numerous references to doubling, which Rudy Rucker plays with throughout The Hollow Earth as a pastiche of Poe and other writers of the fantastic such as E.T.A. Hoffman. I wish I had more time to make a close inventory of all the intertextual nods to genre writing in Against the Day, but they're too numerous for me to cover in these postings. Hopefully I'll have time to tackle an article on it in the next year. It continues to be a surprise each time Pynchon brings an element of speculative, fantastic, horror, gothic, western pulp or spy narrative into this dense text. I keep thinking that Against the Day is where genre fiction goes to die, or something like that.

Like Part Two, which began with the Lovecraftian Vormance Expedition, Part Three begins with a fantastic adventure when the Chums board the HMSF Saksaul, a sub-desertine vessel (it moves through sand like a submarine would move through water) in search of Shambhala. The Chums were commissioned to find a map to the fabled city in part two, and as the third part moves on, the search for Shambhala becomes a major theme. The magical technology element of the steampunk pastiche elements I suggested is found throughout Against the Day, nestled in-between either quotidian events or realistic historical moments, but it reaches one of its most ludicrous moments in the sub-desertine vehicle, which redeploys "energy on the order of what it would take to change the displaced sand into something transparent," by translating the vessel in Time, so as not to be in the middle of the heat energy needed to accomplish the feat (426).

Time travel, a favorite trope of steampunk-related fiction, figures into Part Three as it began to in Part Two. However, in "Bilocations," Pynchon approaches Time Travel and the nature of Time through various characters' mathematical studies, with passages packed with conversations about formulas which were as much Greek to me as the poker diagrams in Ian Fleming's novels were when I was a kid. They likely add great value for people with a background in mathematics in the same way Pynchon's obscure literary references do for people like me (like the brief mention of the street upon which the Museum der Mostrositäten stands - Savile Row, a possible reference to Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, since Savile Row was where Phileas Fogg made his home).

Pynchon also cranks the theme of alternate, sideways realities up a notch here. This is still effectively still a discussion of time--alternate time, when Kit Traverse, traveling via passenger liner the SS Stupendica, finds reality itself being bilocated: "It had begun to seem as if she and Kit were on separate vessels, distinct versions of the Stupendica, pulling away slowly on separate courses, each bound to a different destiny" (514). Kit finds himself no longer aboard the Stupendica, but in the engine room of the S.M.S. Emperor Maximilian, "one of several 25,000-ton dreadnoughts contemplated by Austrian naval planning but, so far as official history goes, never built" (515). The description of how the vessel goes from steamship to battleship seems like a moment out some merging of Titanic and Transformers: "Hydraulics engaged, as entire decks began ponderously to slide, fold, and rotate, and passengers found themselves, often lethally, in the way of this booming and shrieking steel metamorphosis" (518). However, the Stupendica has only 'transformed' in one reality. Dalia Rideout, who had begun a romantic dalliance with Kit, sails on in another reality...and their realities later converge. The ship literally seems to have bilocated. As Kit is told:
No mister, no no--he does not understand--there are no staterooms, it is no longer the Stupendica up there. That admirable vessel has sailed on to its destiny. Abovedecks now you will find only His Majesty's dreadnought, Emperor Maximilian. It is true that for a while the two ships did share a common engine room. A 'deeper level' where dualities are resolved. (519)
A closer look at part three with some colored pens looking for references to dualities, mirrors, and instances of the number two are going to be essential for a fuller understanding at some future point. I'll likely have to take another crack at this monster next year, when I've recovered from running this particular marathon.

The theme from part one, that of the disappearing frontier, makes another appearance, once again in relation to the Chums of Chance. Randolph St. Kosmo makes the observation that people would have once "all been stopped in their tracks, rubbernecking up at us in wonder. Nowadays we just grow more and more invisible" (529). Upon the ground, Darby suckling asks "who are these strange civilians creeping around all of a sudden?" to which Chick Counterfly replies, "The Authorities." Darby Suckling concludes that these Authorities are "Surface jurisdiction only. Nothing to do with us" (550). As civilization becomes more defined, there is less room for adventure, and adventurers, or adventuresses.

Speaking of adventuresses, Pynchon introduces an interesting, potentially steampunk heroine in the character of Yashmeen Halfcourt in "Bilocations." Yashmeen is a brilliant mathemetician, as well as femme fatale with a strong dose of kink thrown in for good measure. While steampunk literature is not necessarily given to the element of erotic adventure, the peformative steampunk culture is, as I noted last year at the Steam Powered convention. Yashmeen's eastern aspect, gender-bending and forays as dominatrix, in combination with her understanding of the advanced mathematics provides Against the Day with an interesting steampunk heroine, the likes of which I've not come across in my reading yet (although I'm suspicious I might once I read Perdido Street Station).

As I look over my notes for Part Three of Against the Day, I can only say I'm thankful for people who have blogged their way copiously through this book, as I can't do it justice in my current endeavor. I'll end this post with another moment of the fantastic in the text, which says a great deal about how Against the Day might be read, and how it might be brought into conversation with steampunk. Reef Traverse, one of the brothers whose family form one of the only coherent links throughout the book, is working in a mine when he faces a Tatzelwurm, a subterranean reptilian creature of legend. Reef's reaction is to yell "Holy shit," and then shoot it with a Mannlicher eight-shot pistol, "whereupon the critter exploded in a great green foul-smelling cloud of blood and tissue. He fired again just on general principles" (659). The action is brief and to the point. In most genre fiction, it would take up pages. Pynchon spends a few paragraphs on it, because near as I can tell, the Tatzelwurm, or any other fantastic element, isn't the point of Against the Day. I don't know if this was Pynchon's intention, but I can't help but think that Against the Day is to steampunk what M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable is to comic books. It situates very real characters in ludicrous, weird, fantastic situations, but gives them reactions and lives that remain quotidian. Reef is supposed to be hunting down his father's killer, but keeps taking his time doing it, by digressing into romances and odd jobs, just like real people do. We don't go on quests to Mount Doom, and we don't go on world-spanning adventures. Yet Pynchon's characters are on quests, on world-spanning adventures. And through it all, they retain a very accessible and familiar humanity.

This is summed up nicely by Lew Basnight's reflections on being a detective: "somewhere else was the bilocational version of himself, the other, Sherlock Holmes type of sleuth, fighting criminal masterminds hardly distinct from the sorts of tycoons who hired "detectives" to rat on Union activities" (689). A desire to escape the quotidian in fantasties of another self, another identity who flies in airships, fights Moriarty, or wears brass goggles.

Jul 6, 2009

Interview with Rudy Rucker - Eaton Science Fiction Conference 2009

The following is an edited transcript of an interview I held with Rudy Rucker, author of The Hollow Earth, at the Eaton Science Fiction Conference on Saturday, May 2, 2009.

MP. People started using the term steampunk around 1985 or ’86, beginning with an offhand comment by K. W. Jeter in Locus. You’ve mentioned to me that you have some reservations about the term steampunk, especially in relation to your novel, The Hollow Earth. Give me some of your impressions about the birth of steampunk.

RR: At the time, Tim Powers and James Blaylock were writing books that were kind of retro, and I think they were what you might call core steampunk authors. The subgenre really got some traction when Bill Gibson and Bruce Sterling wrote The Difference Engine. Because Gibson and Sterling were famous for cyberpunk, it was an obvious move to just affix the word “punk” to whatever they were doing. And they did in fact have steam engines in The Difference Engine, and some politics, so you could make a case for calling that book steampunk. But I still feel that it’s kind of stupid to put the name steampunk on any book that’s set somehow in the past and that is science fictional. But, there it is, people get a label, and they find it useful. And some people stick it on my novel, The Hollow Earth.

MP: Do you think the recent reprint of The Hollow Earth by Monkeybrains Books has something to do with the current increased interest in steampunk?

RR: I think the reprint of The Hollow Earth was a personal decision by Chris Roberson, the author who runs Monkeybrains Books. He enjoys reading and writing historical SF.
It’s true that in recent times I’ve been hearing the word steampunk more—I mean, I didn’t hear it at all during the last five or ten years. But it isn’t totally clear to me what people mean by steampunk these days. I’m not sure what recent book you would point at and call steampunk. My impression is that the current use of the word has to do with fashion, specifically of fashions relating to Victorian England.
It’s worth noting that a lot of the books that came to be thought of as steampunk were set in Victorian England—a standout is Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Of course Blaylock’s Digging Leviathan was set in the U.S, as was, of course, The Hollow Earth. Not to be dissing any specific writers, I have to say that Victorian stuff bores the shit out of me. I don’t want to write about England. I’m an American writer.

MP: That is one of the things I really enjoyed about The Hollow Earth, was that it was decidedly an American setting. It seemed to have a sort of Huck Finn, Mark Twain sort of beginning to it.

RR: Well, that’s what I was looking for—the idea of the boy setting out on a journey. I was indeed thinking a little bit about Huck Finn when I wrote The Hollow Earth, and how Huck runs off with a slave. And I liked the idea of the quintessential American author, Edgar Allan Poe, being a main character.
Often when people write about Poe he tends to be somewhat of a caricature—a parody of himself. I got the collected works of Poe and I read just about everything in there. I was living in Virginia and I came to indentify very much with Poe. I saw him as a tortured writer like I was at that time, a person who always does the wrong thing at the wrong time, and fucks everything up, and is s unappreciated—even now I can relate to all of that. One thing about Poe, though—he’s such a windbag, and a braggart at times, that you get sort of sick of him—and I had some fun by tormenting him in my book.

MP: It’s a very satisfying read in that way, since not only do you torment Poe, but he and the main character don’t always get along. Now, you said you identified with Poe. Is this a bit of your transrealism here, writing yourself into the book? I mean, Jungian psychoanalysts would have a field day with The Hollow Earth.

RR: Whether The Hollow Earth is transreal, or autobiographical—in some ways, yes. There are elements of my personality that I wrote into the boy and into Poe, and there’s certain parts of my life story that match the story in the novel. I grew up in the sticks, if not actually on a farm. And there were times when my father drank a lot. A little transreal joke of mine is that the end of The Hollow Earth, the main character and his wife get on a ship bound for California, and the ship is called The Purple Whale. Right at this time, my family and I were moving from Virginia to California, and we were driving an old maroon station wagon that was purple, and that we called the purple whale.
As for the psychoanalytic elements—I didn’t have them consciously in mind at the start. It often happens to me that when I’m working on a novel, I’ll discover some deeper resonances. I didn’t initially understand why I was so interested in the Hollow Earth. And then I realized that maybe it has to do with a return to the womb or with, more simply, getting laid. I mean, we’ve got Mother Earth, and we go down to her southern hole, and we go inside there, and it’s warm.
Another symbolic resonance is that the Hollow Earth is like a skull, you’re going inside your own head.
In a completely different vein, there’s a technical scientific point I was eager to make in The Hollow Earth. We have an earth that’s like a tennis ball—a hollow spherical shell. The point I wanted to make is that inside a hollow shell like this, the gravitational forces cancel out and you’re weightless, in free fall. Most people sort of glaze over when I try to discuss this point with them—but it’s important, and it’s true, and it’s been known since the time of Isaac Newton.
Science fiction writers often don’t know much about science, and I think it’s actually the case that my Hollow Earth novel is the only one that takes into account the fact that you’re going to be weightless inside the Hollow Earth. People think, “I’m walking on the outside, I’ll go over the lip and I’ll walk around on the inside.” That’s what’s going on in all the Pellucidar stories, but that’s not the way that gravity works. You can do the math, it’s not particularly difficult, it’s just an elementary calculus problem—inside a hollow shell, the forces balances out exactly, the pull from what’s under your feet, and the full from what’s over your head.
The weightlessness is one of the things which really appealed to me about the Hollow Earth environment. You can go to outer space and be weightless, but you can’t breathe out there. In the Hollow Earth you’re able to fly around and be weightless and you can breathe, so it’s a nice combination.

MP: I thought the reversals at the end of the novel were particularly clever. I teach intro English and so I’m always looking for something more fun for the students. The reversal where they ended up being black…it was not something I anticipated, very bizarre. It’s an issue I could see raising in teaching The Hollow Earth, saying “Let’s talk about whether or not Rucker is being racist here, or just writing about the times, or saying something more.”

RR: Yeah, I was trying to flip things over, to have Poe be a black person on the other side. That’s a Poe thing—the theme of the double—so they go to a mirror-Earth and they meet a mirror-Poe—but on the way my characters have turned black. I wanted to write about race for a number of reasons. For one thing, in the years before I wrote The Hollow Earth, I was living in Lynchburg, Virginia, which is a rather small town and there were a lot of black people living there, and a substantial number of them have the surname Rucker. And I even went to traffic school with a black guy called Otha Rucker. Often I would ride my bike around town and I would get sort of a feel for the black neighborhoods. So I had a fairly clear picture in my mind of what a black community would be like, in the center of the Hollow Earth. Another model for the chief down there, by the way, was Bo Diddley, who is a musician that I love a lot.

MP: Was the inclusion of the Rucker River another transreal touch?

RR: Well, there actually is a Rucker River. The way The Hollow Earth really started is that my family, the Ruckers, originally came to Virginia in 1690, and they lived in this town not far from Lynchburg called Hardware, and they were farmers and they had a few slaves. They weren’t particularly successful, it’s not like they had a plantation, and then one of them moved down to Georgia, and my line came down through that. And of course the fact that my ancestors owned slaves plays a role in why I needed to write about this theme and find a way to come to terms with it.
The Rucker who lived near Lynchburg invented a certain kind of boat, called a bateau, which they used to travel down the James River to bring their tobacco to Richmond. You see, the James River is quite shallow and rocky, so it has to be a boat where it’s got a very strong bottom and you can just get out and push it over the rough spots.
The last year before we left Lynchburg, which was in 1985 or 86, somebody had the idea to have a bateau race from Lynchburg to Richmond, and crews. I got together with some guys—I didn’t do much of the work—but they built a boat, and we entered it in the race, and I helped pole or row it down the river. And I was already thinking about The Hollow Earth then, and I was calling my friend next to me, “Otha,” and that was perfect for me to go on that trip, it was deeply transreal.

MP: One of the ideas I’ve had, as I’ve been doing my research, is that the “punk” in steampunk is related to the idea of edgier characters – characters who have an oppositional point of view. It seemed to me like all the main characters in The Hollow Earth were pretty edgy.

RR: Back to one of my pet peeves—edginess is something you lose when you set your books in Victorian England! When you’re writing in a historical setting, it’s very easy to fall into a pastiche with prefab characters. What I always want to do in my novels is to write about real-seeming characters with desperate problems.

MP: I liked the inclusion of poems embedded directly into the text throughout. A lot of people write books about poets and then never include any poetry. I like Poe’s poetry better than his prose myself.

RR: Yeah, that was a nice touch to use his poems — I put in To Helen, The Conqueror Worm, The City Beneath the Sea. Those poems of Poe’s, they’re so wonderfully creepy and evocative.
As for Poe’s fiction, you have to grant that the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is a very cool book. What happens at the end—and once again this isn’t widely realized—what happens is that the main character is seeing the hole that leads into the Hollow Earth. He talks about seeing a cataract along the horizon and he doesn’t really explain why he’s seeing it or what it is. Poe, he’s just so weird that he doesn’t bother explaining things to people. He’s like, “Fuck you, I don’t care if you understand, because I’m a genius and you’re a fool.”
But that’s how an entrance to the Hollow Earth could look, if you were sailing along the ocean, and there was an immense maelstrom hole in the ocean, a hole that’s maybe 500 miles across. You’d see across the hole to the far edge, and that far edge would look like this distant cataract, and you’d be confused – you’d think the cataract was in the sky, because it would seem to be above the false horizon of the near edge, and as you got closer, you’d be tilting down, and the far edge would seem to get higher and higher. It took me twenty years to fully understand what Poe was doing here—I only got the full picture when I wrote about a giant maelstrom in recent novel Hylozoic. Yes, Poe was a genius.

MP: Going from Poe’s journey to the South Pole, to another, could you comment on the Lovecraftian elements you played with in The Hollow Earth? You made your Great Old Ones a lot less malevolent than Lovecraft’s. More benign.

RR: I was thinking a lot about Lovecraft’s novella, “At the Mountains of Madness”—I even gave a chapter that title, it’s when they’re riding a balloon across an Antarctic mountain range, and my main character is watching the balloon shadow crawl over the mountains, and he knows he’s never going to come back. I mean, really never come back, because he’s going to come out in another earth.
In Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” they find an underground city and explore it, and they find the Great Old Ones, who Lovecraft calls radiolarians, but who I see as being basically sea cucumbers. The Lovecraft Great Old Ones want to eat us, or to destroy our souls, but I had my Great Old Ones be more like what you’d want a god to be like. They’re timeless and sort of gentle, and kind of indifferent to us.
Poe’s and Lovecraft’s works are very rich sources; they’re like nothing you read before them. Poe and especially Lovecraft can bleed over into this sort of purple prose, and sometimes that doesn’t work, but when it does, it really gets to you.

MP: You’ve said that what draws you to writing SF is a sense of wonder, and you’ve written quite a bit about mysticism at your website. Yesterday in the panel, there was a discussion about the “death of science fiction,” and you mentioned just “inserting a door to another dimension,” a literal door, when you run out of ideas. Do you think there’s a place in science fiction for that kind of wonder, a sort of turn to a spiritual, mystical mode within science fiction?

RR: I think there’s still a lot of room of all kinds inside science fiction. My genre’s house has many mansions.
The field isn’t very old when you think about it—I’m only like the second generation of science fiction writers, next in line after Fred Pohl. But already you have to be careful not to repeat the old things. I don’t want it to be like I’m throwing down standardized cards that say, like, time machine, spaceship, robot. And I don’t want to write SF that’s parodistically or self-mocking. If the ideas become juiceless tropes, that’s not interesting. As an extreme of this, in certain comedic SF books I feel like the authors are saying “Oh let’s just be silly—SF is all silly garbage, let’s be silly together.” It degenerates into fan fiction where, again, you’re just throwing down picture cards and laughing at them. That’s not a route I want to take.
It’s all about making up new tropes, or using the old ones in fresh ways. There’s always more cool new stuff we can work with, and the future is coming faster than people can absorb. We don’t want to fall back on recycling whatever Heinlein and Asimov did, anymore than a contemporary musician wants to emulate Sinatra or even the Beatles. That’s over, it doesn’t speak to our time.
I’m particularly leery of using things that I see on TV or in the movies…that crap is so watered down, it’s written by fifteen people, it’s completely under the establishment’s control. Star Trek is another way for the government to grind its boot into your face, another way for the rulers to indoctrinate the masses with lies about society.
I like to think of science fiction as an edgy literature, like the beatniks or the punks, where we’re turning our backs on the bullshit, we’re trying to make a new world, we’re trying to look at things with fresh eyes. And it’s always possible to look at things with fresh eyes. It’s never been easy to do that, but it’s not any harder now than it ever was.
I think it’s exciting when you have science fiction where you don’t depend on your characters working in a government lab. If you just need to have an arbitrary door to another world, then let’s do it. I mean, there’s been so many surprises in the history of science, why would we think we couldn’t still have something really surprising happen?
And if it’s mysticism—fine. We really have no idea what’s really going on.

Jul 1, 2009

Legion of Frontiersmen - Aerial Scouts and Airships

The Legion of Frontiersmen - Edmonton, AB - 1915

It's Canada Day, and while I spent most of my day relaxing with family and friends, I wanted to pay tribute to the country I was born, raised, and continue to live in. I love Canada, and feel a sense of pride in representing Canadian academia when I'm presenting abroad. Accordingly, I wanted to blog something about Canada in relation to steampunk today. Of all the possible postings I could have made, the one I found most interesting is an actual historical note.

I was doing a google image search for vintage RCMP recruitment posters when I came across a poster looking for men to join the Legion of Frontiersmen, "a patriotic paramilitary organization formed in Britain in 1905 by Roger Pocock, a former Constable with the North West Mounted Police and Boer War veteran, to bolster the defensive capacity of the British Empire." Sometimes real history makes the alternate histories pale by comparison, and while I can't say definitively, having only glossed the websites devoted to the Legion of Frontiersmen, if there was ever a potential starting point for Canadian steampunk, here it is.

What really caught my attention was this article at The Frontiersmen Historian about the proposed purchase of "The Calgarian," an airship intended to protect Canada's vast western prairie (where I am currently located!). The Legion of Frontiersmen apparently took the proposal a step further, advocating for the construction of airships in Calgary, as well as the training of "aerial scouts." While none of these ideas came to fruition, the article also relates the following note, which will be of interest to steampunk aficionados:
The Founder of the Legion of Frontiersmen was convinced from the earliest days that air superiority in air warfare would decide future wars. A fantasy novel "Chariot of the Sun" that he wrote in 1910, but set ahead in 1980, had little success and has fortunately now disappeared, as it would be almost unreadable today. However, he did describe aerial battles with airships and aeroplanes fighting in fleets like ships of the air. The hero who saves the day for Britain is a Canadian.
I couldn't help but think of Bastable's adventures in Warlord of the Air, and ponder at this Canadian precursor. Happy Canada Day everyone.
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