Oct 31, 2012

Steampunk Poe and Steampunk Frankenstein


Many fans of steampunk are also fans of speculative literature from the Victorian and Edwardian periods as well. This has lead to confusing the two, with people claiming writers like Verne or Wells are steampunk, but that's like saying Beowulf is Fantasy, which it isn't. Beowulf is one of the literary progenitors of Fantasy, but as a genre, Fantasy is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon. Steampunk  is a late-twentieth, early-twenty-first century phenomenon, as is clearly demonstrated in Running Press's steampunk line of classics: Steampunk Poe (anthology of short stories), Steampunk: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and the forthcoming Steampunk: H.G. Wells (War of the Worlds).

While some will argue that Running Press is simply cashing in on the steampunk name to sell yet another edition of these already much-reprinted classic books, a quick flip through these gorgeous volumes demonstrates the contrary. These books are positively bursting with the steampunk artwork of Zdenko Basic and Manuel Sumberac, which interprets the unexpurgated, unabridged, and most importantly, unamended text through a steampunk lens. Shelley is still Shelley, down to her introduction; the text is her Frankenstein, while the images are Frankenstein done in the steampunk aesthetic. Despite having read and studied Frankenstein many times, I was immediately tempted to put down what I was working on to begin reading the story yet again. The images evoked so many of the key moments, I was transported to the Arctic in pursuit of the Creature, to Geneva, and the University of Ingolstadt in a wonderfully surreal fashion. The steampunk imagery contains historical accuracy, but the steampunk elements lend them a quality of secondary worlds beyond this one, which Shelley's text arguably does. Basic and Sumberac render the Arctic a cold place beyond the Pale, beyond the borders of the spaces we know. My awareness of Roald Amundsen's expeditions fades into the background, and I am transported to a time when this was still a space as far away from European contact as the moon.

Likewise, Poe is reinvigorated. While I still love Doré's renderings of Poe's tales, these steampunk interpretations, with their considerable artistic license, seem well suited to the oneiric quality of Poe's horror. They look like dream images, chimeras matching Poe's perspectives of madness. The steampunk goggles become lenses of nightmare, windows into spaces of insanity, instead of the usual focii of romanticism and adventure.

I was very pleased to see that Running Press had not tampered with the original works. These are not mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Android Karenina. Running Press has put old wine into new wineskins, with excellent results. As steampunk becomes more mainstream, one can imagine young fans of Westerfeld or Slade wandering through the Young Adult section of their bookstore, or searching for "steampunk" on Amazon, and coming across the covers of these volumes. Hopefully, they'll disregard conventional wisdom, and judge these books by their covers, entranced by the artwork. I imagine them picking the book up, and being drawn into the story through the art. They make their purchase, with only a vague idea of the world they are about to enter. They know these are old works; they have heard their teachers or parents speak of them. They are interested in steampunk and know it shares something with these texts. The images have spoken of this pedigree. They open the book at home, sitting in their bed, and take a journey into some of the greatest stories penned in Western literature.

Cashing in on the steampunk name? One may level that accusation at Running Press, but not at the authors nor the works themselves. I certainly wouldn't. These are the grandparents of steampunk. They have every right to cash in on that term.

Postscript: While I have not seen the art for Steampunk: H.G. Wells, it seems likely that Zdenko Basic's cover is indicative on the ongoing quality he has brought to these first books in this series. I'll be reviewing it when it gets released in 2013. I'm excited to see it, and I hope someday we see a Steampunk: Verne from Basic and co. But a note to Running Press - no second rate translations of Verne!

Oct 25, 2012

The End of the Mission

I had hoped to be attending Steamcon IV this weekend, but my summer writing went better than I'd anticipated, and as many of you already know, the mission I began in 2008 is over. The end of the mission has left me mentally fatigued beyond my expectations, and so I regretfully bowed out of my presentations and attendance at Steamcon back in September. While it would have made the best party to mark the end of the journey, a few unexpected sources provided other landmarks to commemorate the end.

On the beautiful fall day of September 17, 2012, I successfully defended my dissertation. It had been four years since I made travel arrangements to attend Steam Powered in California in the fall of 2008, the event which kickstarted my research in so many wonderful and unexpected ways. It was an introspective day. I taught two classes at Grant MacEwan University in the morning, and then headed across the river on Edmonton's light-rail transit to wander the University of Alberta campus. I ate at one of my favorite fast-food stops in HUB mall, and then sat outside Rutherford House, one of the oldest buildings in Edmonton, lazily reviewing my dissertation while reflecting on the import of what was about to happen.

For those who wondered, getting to the end of a Ph.D. is a hell of an anticlimax. The defense itself was not easy, but certainly enjoyable. My committee was rigourous, but congenial. A few commented that they found my dissertation enjoyable and funny. I don't know how often that happens, but I'll take it as a compliment. Drinks afterward were fun; food with my primary advisor, Dr. Irene Sywenky, was a quiet way to end the day. My kids left a phone message before they went to bed: "What's up, DOC?" But there were no fireworks. I rode home on public transit, and listened to music while I walked from the bus-stop. The next morning, I rose, and returned to my teaching duties.

But it was over. It took weeks for this to sink in. And the result? I chose to read something other than steampunk. For the first time in four years, I could choose to read something besides steampunk without worrying I was falling behind on my work. I read Superman: Birthright, which is one of the best retellings of the origin story I've seen yet. I started listening to Dennis L. McKiernan's Iron Tower trilogy on audiobook, a series I've wanted to read since my early teens. I watched a lot of Godzilla movies. I played Pokemon with my son, and fell asleep with my daughter. While I haven't hated the past four years, the pace has been fucking relentless. I am slowing down.

People keep asking me if I'm publishing the dissertation. Maybe. I don't know. Sure, why not? There are interested parties. But significant portions of the final work share ideas with published articles, so I need to look into the copyright issues first. Mostly, I don't care. I'm done. I'm finished. And I did it in four years, instead of the five I'd anticipated. That feels more spectacular than being Dr. Perschon, believe me.

Reading through all those pages in preparation for the defense got me thinking about the goals I set when I started. I wanted to be in the avant garde of some area of research. I wanted to be the person other people had to quote and cite, to have the theory they needed to argue for or against. I wanted to be published in both academic and popular venues.

In the weeks leading up to the defense, On Spec magazine published its summer issue. I am a big fan of On Spec, so when they approached me about writing an article on steampunk for the magazine, I was elated. I have yet to conquer the fiction submission to them, but having the ask me on spec to write for On Spec was a real honour. My article is a summary of the dissertation, an accessible introduction to my theory of the aesthetic, titled "Through a Glass, Brightly: The Goggled Gaze of Steampunk." In it, I explain the aesthetic of steampunk through the "lenses" of neo-Victoriania, technofantasy, and retrofuturism. You can order the issue over at the On Spec website.

In the time since the defense, Steaming into a Victorian Future: A Steampunk Anthology  was released. Edited by Julia Taddeo and Cynthia Miller, this book represents the first academic anthology on steampunk in English. It's a gorgeous looking volume, and it contains the academic article I'm most proud of: "Useful Troublemakers: Social Retrofuturism in the Steampunk novels of Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest." Better still, Taddeo and Miller have organized the book with thematic coherence, so that my chapter is the middle act in an unintentional conversation on social commentary in steampunk. I'm not just proud to be part of this book, I'm proud to share space with writers who have been colleagues along the way, such as Dru Pagliasotti and Diana Pho.


In all honesty, I was more excited about On Spec and Steaming into a Victorian Future than I was about finishing the Ph.D. Sure, I'm relieved all that work is finally over. I'm grateful that I will no longer be graded. But the one-two punch of seeing my work recognized in both popular and academic venues confirmed that I had achieved what I set out to do when my advisor first asked me, "What will you be writing on for your dissertation?" I had suggested Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero as a collage of dystopic fiction, but she dismissed it outright: "Dystopia's been done to death. What else are you considering?"

Steampunk, I thought, I'm thinking about steampunk. I'm thinking about steampunk because no one else seems to be. I'm thinking about steampunk, because if I move fast enough, I can be one of the first people out of the gates with publications on it. I'm thinking about steampunk, because I want to enjoy my research topic with this is all over. "I'm thinking about steampunk," I told her. And four years later, I still am.
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