Nov 25, 2010

Steampunk Star Wars - the Slideshow

I'm an open source kind of guy. I think education is for everyone, and that's why I've made my work available via this blog. To that end, I'm making my slides for Steampunk Star Wars available to all. If you use them, please just make sure to let me know when and where you're doing it, and make sure you don't present them as your own. They're free for y'all to use, just don't be dicks about it, ok?

Stormtrooper Image by Albert Feliu Gomis

Nov 22, 2010

Steam Wars: the Steampunk Star Wars article

I'll return you to our regularly scheduled programming, "Journeys with James Blaylock" in my next post, but I wanted to wave my arms enthusiastically to crow about the publication of The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies' fully steampunk issue. To my knowledge, this is the first academic publication of its kind. After a two year process of multiple drafts, convention presentations, artist permissions, and formatting minutiae, my article on the Steampunk Star Wars images from 2007-2008 is finally available for your perusal. With steampunk Star Wars cosplay showing up and getting a lot of attention, I'm pleased to finally be able to draw direct attention to the brilliant work of the digital artists who inspired that Boba Fett costume you all think is so kick ass. Ironically, I say nothing about Fett in the article, but there's a lot about Princess Leia being a "damsel without distress," so it's still worth reading.

While steampunk continues to defy definition, this article seeks to identify a coherent understanding of steampunk as an aesthetic. By comparing and contrasting well-known cultural icons of George Lucas’s Star Wars with their steampunk counterparts, insightful features of the steampunk aesthetic are suggested. This article engages in a close reading of individual artworks by digital artists who took part in a challenge issued on the forums of CGSociety (Computer Graphics Society) to apply a steampunk style to the Star Wars universe. The article focuses on three aspects of the steampunk aesthetic as revealed by this evidentiary approach: technofantasy, a nostalgic interpretation of imagined history, and a willingness to break nineteenth century gender roles and allow women to act as steampunk heroes.

Here's the TOC for the issue as well - from what I've seen, the whole issue is solid gold!


 Introduction: Industrial Evolution
Rachel A. Bowser and Brian Croxall

Clacking Control Societies: Steampunk, History, and the Difference Engine of Escape
Patrick Jagoda

Technology and Morality: The Stuff of Steampunk
Stefania Forlini

Betrayed by Time: Steampunk & the Neo-Victorian in Alan Moore’s Lost Girls and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Jason B. Jones

Steam Wars
Mike Perschon

Time Machines: Steampunk in Contemporary Art
Caroline Cason Barratt

Democratising the Past to Improve the Future: An Interview with Steampunk Godfather Paul Di Filippo
Lisa Yaszek

‘The Steam Arm’: Proto-Steampunk Themes in a Victorian Popular Song
Kirstie Blair

“God Save the Queen, for Someone Must!”: Sebastian O and the Steampunk Aesthetic
Joseph Good

The Rocky Terrain of British Novel Adaptations: Review of Dianne F. Sadoff, Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen
Thomas Witholt

Re-Imagined Memory: Review of Kate Mitchell, History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages
Marie-Luise Kohlke

On (Neo-Victorian) Re-Visions and Foldings: Review of Rachel Carroll (ed.), Adaptation in Contemporary Culture: Textual Infidelities
Rosario Arias

Steampunk Show Time: Review of Robert Rankin’s The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions: A Novel
Marie-Luise Kohlke

And as an added bonus, here's a link to Greg Peltz's neo-Vic/steampunk Star Wars images

Nov 19, 2010

Steampunk Scholar at Steamcon II: November 19-21

The five year mission takes me south of the border yet again! That's why I've put the Twitter feed at the top, so people who drop in and aren't twits (or whatever we who tweet are called) can enjoy any updates I post.

Here's my itinerary for the weekend at Steamcon II in Seattle. If you're attending and you make it out to one of these, please come up and introduce yourself. It's always fun to meet the people who keep the blog worth doing.

Steampunk: Technofantasy in a Neo-Victorian Retrofuture      
9:00 AM - 10:00 AM - Emerald C, Hilton        
Mike Perschon - the Steampunk Scholar, breaks down his theory of steampunk into three aspects: the technology that doesn’t do anything, the past that never was, and the future that never will be.    

Meet James P. Blaylock                                              
10:00 AM - 11:00 AM - Emerald D & E, Hilton
An Interview with Author GOH James P. Blaylock

Joe and Jonah’s Weird West 
Noon - 1:00 PM - Mercer A & B, Hilton
An overview of some of the Weird West works by Joe Lansdale, focusing mainly on his three Jonah Hex miniseries, Two-Gun Mojo, Riders of the Worm and Such, and Shadows West.

The Triumph of Vision - The Prescience of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Mary Shelly  
1:00 PM - 2:00 PM  Emerald B, Hilton        
Early pioneers of what we would call Science Fiction, living in the era we draw upon as Steam Punk, were remarkable in their visions and postulations about the future. What did they get right? How has our concept and understanding of science and our worldview been shaped by these and other major writers of classic fiction?   
Panel with Suzanne Jachim

A Soulless Reading with Gail Carriger & The Steampunk Scholar                    
6:00 PM - 6:30 PM - Suite by Pool, Marriott
Mike Perschon & Gail Carriger read excerpts from The Parasol Protectorate series.     


Canuck Steampunk    
11:00 AM - Noon - Orcas A&B, Hilton       
A survey of steampunk set in Canada and/or written by Canadians: this will include an introduction to The Northern, the Canadian equivalent to the American Western, a look at the Deadlands supplement The Weird North as well as synopses and analyses of six pieces of steampunk written by Canadians: Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters, The Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee, The Apparition Trail by Lisa Smedman, and Airborn, Skybreaker, and Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel. 

Nov 18, 2010

"The Idol's Eye" by James Blaylock

I wanted to crack off another post before Steamcon II - I've been re-reading Blaylock's works furiously, but I got distracted from his steampunk writing by Paper Grail, the first book in his "Christian" trilogy. I also started All the Bells on Earth as a warmup to the holidays, and got lost in it immediately - it's amazing what reading a work many years later (or should I say older?) will do. So despite loving Homunculus, it will have to wait for next month. I've decided that I'm not going to bind myself to a timeline with my themes. I'll work through each one to its end, and not concern myself with getting it done in a month's time. I simply don't have the leisure to do that.

This post is less about the content of "The Idol's Eye" than it is its overall tone. Published in 1984, this short story introduces Ignacio Narbondo to the Langdon St. Ives series. "The Idol's Eye" wasn't the only appearance of Narbondo in 1984: he shows up as the ancestor of one of the oddball characters in Blaylock's contemporary novel, The Digging Leviathan. A number of other St. Ives names are included in The Digging Leviathan, including Hasbro and William Ashbless, the recurring fictional poet invented by Blaylock and Tim Powers. I'll talk more about the way Blaylock doesn't seem terribly concerned with strict continuity insofar as his characters when I post on The Digging Leviathan.

What I wish to focus on instead is the transition of reading "Ape Box Affair" and "The Hole in Space" to reading "The Idol's Eye." The whimsy is still present: in the middle of a tropical rainstorm, narrator Jack Owelsby notes that Professor Langdon St. Ives, the hero of Blaylock's steampunk tales, manages "through a singular and mysterious invention of his own, to keep his pipe alight in the downpour" (47). The sense of adventure and exploration from "The Hole in Space" is still here as well, as demonstrated in a passing reference to that earlier story:
Roundabout twenty years back, then, it fell out that Priestly and I and poor Bill Kraken had, on the strength of Dr. Birdlip's manuscript, taken ship to Java where we met, not unexpectedly, Professor St. Ives and Hasbro, themselves returning from a spate of very dangerous and mysterious space travel. The alien threat, as I said before, had been crushed, and the five of us had found ourselves deep in cannibal-infested jungles, beating our way through toward the Bali Straits in order to cross over to Penguinman where there lay, we fervently prayed, a Dutch freighter bound for home. (46-47)
Yet this sense of adventure and whimsy is tempered by a darker tone, one that anticipates the darkness of some of Blaylock's later works. The mix of humour and horror is found in The Paper Grail, which jumps back and forth between laughter and tension. A banal early-morning walk in the woods culminates in the discovery of a junk pile in a clearing that seems initially benign, until the walker notices "[t]here was something about the way the fenders were tilted together . . . as if they were meant to form a little shrine" (102). While there is nothing literally frightening about the junk pile, the way Blaylock builds to this scene caused a shiver to run up my spine, as it evoked a memory of The Blair Witch Project or darker moments in Twin Peaks.

In All the Bells on Earth, there isn't a trace of whimsy to balance against an early scene of terror, when a man enters the sacristy of a Catholic church, his face hidden by a "rubber mask that resembled the face of a goat, complete with a protuding rubber tongue, curled-back horns, and a tuft of coarse hair" (5). While the image alone is somewhat ludicrous, the build to this intrusion has been all heimlich and hearth, a warm moment of reflection on the part of Father Mahoney, the church's priest. The appearance of a man in normal clothes wearing what is clearly a Baphomet-style mask in a Catholic church is creepy: Bad Things are about to occur, and they do.

The dark tone of "The Idol's Eye" is less chilling, but remains a stark contrast to the upbeat playfulness of the first two Langdon Ives stories. It has the feel of a well-told ghost story, with its frame narrative on a dark and stormy night, the recollection of an expedition into dark jungles, and echoes of curses upon those who pillage sacred treasures. It isn't scary in the way Algernon Blackwood's The Wendigo is, though it shares affinity in style with that early 20th-century work of horror.

What it demonstrates is the diversity of Blaylock's writing. To read his steampunk works is only one facet of his ability - unlike many writers who get pigeonholed into one genre of fiction, Blaylock's writing resists uniform classification. His part in the beginnings of steampunk in North America is unarguable: yet there's a great deal more to his writing than just the St. Ives stories - the darkness in "The Idol's Eye" is a shadow of things to come: Homunculus will delve further into the shadows, and for those interested in darker fare, they'd be well-rewarded by a detour from Blaylock's steampunk works to try some of the "Ghosts" trilogy, or the other works I've mentioned.

I'll be discussing as much with Blaylock this weekend at Steamcon, and I'll let you know what I find out. To those who will be there, make sure to come by and say hi: it's always good to meet the readers.

Nov 10, 2010

"The Hole in Space" by James P. Blaylock

Whatever "The Ape Box Affair" lacked in technofantasy, this second short story in The Adventures from Langdon St. Ives makes up for. Blaylock admits Lewis's Space Trilogy as an influence on his work, and while I was reading "The Hole in Space," I couldn't help but think of what Lewis said about technology in science fiction: "I took a hero once to Mars in a space-ship, but when I knew better I had angels convey him to Venus." Blaylock takes the middle ground between those extremities, imagining the sort of solution to a blackhole an eight-year old boy might, especially the sort disposed toward plugging up dikes.
Blaylock has shared the story of the origin of “The Hole in Space” at public appearances, and records it in “Parenthetically Speaking,” at the end of The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives:
So there we were at O’Hara’s Pub, talking about something vital…K.W. [Jeter] tolled his eyes at something I’d said (something involving “science”) and suggested that given my curious notions of that subject I’d be likely to write a story in which someone plugged a black hole with a Fitzall Sizes cork. After a momentary silence I asked him whether, with all due respect, he was willing to let me have that idea or whether he wanted it for himself. He said I was welcome to it, and I went home and wrote “The Hole in Space”…” (469)
Here at the genesis of steampunk, as today, there isn't much interest in real physics or astronomy: this is Victorian science fiction, to be sure. Steampunk may have pulled away from these roots in the last decade, but Blaylock is clearly paying homage to the scientific romances from a century earlier.

The narrator of "The Hole in Space" is Jack Owlesby, the "boy downstairs" from toymaker Wilfred Keeble in "The Ape Box Affair," who is described as having been "mixed in with Langdon St. Ives himself some little time ago in another of St. Ives's scientific shenanigans" (14). While Owelsby was only one of many characters engaged in the pandemonium of "The Ape Box Affair," here he acts as first-person focalizer, in a voice that conveys anything but boyhood. I spent a bit of time wondering about timelines, and then remembered that Blaylock has all sorts of characters recur in his books without establishing any hard link between them. They're like characters in a David Lynch film, morphing in and out of roles, maintaining certain attributes despite arguably being entirely new characters. It's something I want to ask about when I interview Blaylock at Steamcon next week. For the time being, I'm assuming "The Hole in Space" is part of the Langdon St. Ives cycle of stories, but not to get too bogged down in trying to establish chronology.

Once again, as in "The Ape Box Affair," the frame narrative exhibits the traits of a secret history, something that you've heard only rumours about, but lack the whole story: "Virtually no one knows what actually occurred on that wild night"--but we're about to find out the truth.

The truth of "The Hole in Space" is nowhere near as slapstick as "The Ape Box Affair," though it still has its moments worthy of Buster Keaton. At one point, Owlesby is thrown bodily from a moving train by a pig-faced alien, and later returns a lit explosive, fuse still burning, back to his assailant, after ruminating that "there's something in a man that doesn't love a bomb ... And without a second though, I ... pitched it through the open the open door, out in to the meadow, where it rolled like a game of nine-pins down the hill toward the forest, gathering speed, bouncing and hopping toward the very place where the pig man had taken shelter" (37).

Professor Langdon St. Ives plays a more direct role in "The Hole in Space," as does his manservant, Hasbro, who is everything the film versions of Alfred Pennyworth have been to Bruce Wayne, and then some. When we first meet Hasbro, he is entering St. Ives's home from a heavy rain, carrying a "long smoking rifle of monstrous proportions" (33), having just dispatched one of the pig-faced aliens. Keeble makes an off-page appearance, having transformed from mere toymaker to an inventor of some merit. 

St. Ives plays the role of leader-hero "on camera" this time, so to speak, having discerned that the alien threat are utilizing a black hole to drain our galaxy/universe of its essential energy. St. Ives plans to put a stopper in their plans quite literally, and before the tale is done, Hasbro, Owlesby, and the Professor will have journeyed into space aboard a vessel described as "a gothic assemblage of metal and glass" with the "appearance of a great ruddy bullet that had been decorated in the style of Chartes Cathedral." Blaylock remains a wonderful wrench in the great brass gears of those who decry modern steampunk as "not being serious enough." Apparently one of its ostensible originators wasn't taking it seriously either (it should be noted that although "The Hole in Space" has a 2002 copyright, it was originally written in 1977, shortly after "The Ape Box Affair," which is why it appears second in The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives). The technology here is far from the Hard SF John Campbell espoused: "There were gyros to ameliorate and fluxion sponges to douse," is how Owlesby relates the operations of St.Ives's spacecraft. When it's time to finally lift off, the Professor will jab buttons, and then heave on "a bloody great anti-something-or-other-crank with silver wires sprouting from it like tentacles" (40). Not much punk ideology here: if Blaylock has a political agenda, then the gag's on us - you'll know what I mean once you've read St. Ives's solution to sealing up a black hole.
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