Dec 27, 2013

Top 5 Steampunk Reads of 2013

This year was a tough one for steampunk. While precious few steampunk writers continue to produce quality work, from Gail Carriger's manga editions of The Parasol Protectorate and her new Finishing School series, Cherie Priest's ongoing Clockwork Century (of which I am two books behind - I have no doubt Fiddlehead would have been on this list given how much I enjoy Priest's books), and Mark Hodder with Burton and Swinburne sequels, new steampunk voices worth reading in 2013 were rare. By fall, I despaired of being able to construct a proper top list. Arthur Slade wrapped up his awesome Hunchback Assignments series last year with Island of Doom, and no YA steampunk series really fills the void left by Slade, Westerfeld, Reeve, and Oppel. Friends in the publishing industry have told me that the market was flooded by so much poorly-written steampunk, that the term has become somewhat synonymous with B-grade fiction. Much of what I read this year corroborated that claim; rather than give bad reviews to new authors, I chose to simply not review their work. I'd rather recommend what's worth reading than bash what isn't. The Internet is full of invective, and I'd prefer my blog not be a space that perpetuates pointless negativity. To that end, my top 5 steampunk reads are outside the big steampunk series: Hodder's The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi could easily have made the list, but if you're a regular here, you don't need me to tell you Hodder is awesome anymore: likewise Priest, Carriger, and Gilman. Instead, aside from Nemo: Heart of Ice, I chose my favorite reads that were outside the pale of popular steampunk reading. Blaylock, despite being called a legend by his marketing people, is still vastly underappreciated in speculative literature. That said, none of these are courtesy recommendations. They are genuinely awesome books, well worth your attention.
  1. Nemo: Heart of Ice by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill: The top spot for this year's best steampunk read has to go to Moore and O'Neill, for redeeming themselves after the brilliant-but-far-too-esoteric Century: 1910, the last League of Extraordinary Gentlemen book to feature Janni, Captain Nemo's daughter, as a key character. Heart of Ice is a mash-up on par with the earliest League books for accessibility, intertextuality, and sheer-icy fun. Moore mixes At the Mountains of Madness, She, Eddisonades, and Tom Swift in an adventure across the Antarctic. Nemo + Nameless Terror = Happy Reader. And to think, I was once told steampunk's future didn't lie in mashups with Lovecraft. 
  2. Luminous Chaos by Jean-Christophe Valtat - My greatest challenge as a book-blogger is that I hate having to read books at a breakneck pace to review them in time for their release. Thankfully, the folks who sent me a review copy of Luminous Chaos made no such demands, and I was able to savor Jean-Christophe Valtat's exquisite prose. Comparisons have been made between Valtat and Pynchon, and insofar as Pynchon's Against the Day, I concur. Luminous Chaos is easily the most literary work of steampunk I've read since Dexter Palmer's disappointing Dream of Perpetual Motion. Where Palmer tried too hard to be profound, Valtat revels in the absurdity of the steampunk aesthetic, revealing one batshit-crazy idea after another. However, Valtat's gorgeous writing mediates the absurdity as something wondrous and beautiful. Highly recommended for those expecting more from steampunk than the average adventure tales are delivering.
  3. Kinslayer by Jay Kristoff - While I know that some critics see Kristoff's work as cultural appropriation and/or Victorientalism, I have trouble with how earnest the Lotus War series is. I'm also nonplussed that so much attention is focused on minor foibles of creating a secondary world based on fantasy Japan, rather than celebrating his frequent use of strong female characters or his eco-criticism. Kristoff hamstrings his heroine Yukiko with simultaneous problem and insight: she learns why her father became an addict, and why she faces the same potential future. Rather than simply resorting to force/violence or heartbreak/retribution as drama, Kristoff gives Yukiko an inner battle, rendering her physical challenges and adventures all the more desperate. I remain a dedicated fan of this series, and eagerly anticipate the next installment, which is much more than I can say for many steampunk series.
  4. The Aylesford Skull by James P. Blaylock - Many of Blaylock's trademarks are present here: use of Mayhew's dirty and destitute London denizens, a motley crew of Everymen, and St. Ives once again as the reluctant hero. But this book brings the darkness of Blaylock's horror novels to his steampunk London, with a Narbondo more wicked than ever before. Combining the best of what I love in Blaylock's writing, The Aylesford Skull is one of his best steampunk offerings. FULL REVIEW HERE.
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  5. Steampunk Wells by H.G. Wells and Zdenko Basic: While I consider H.G. Wells's Time Machine and War of the Worlds early SF, not steampunk, RP Classics' omnibus edition certainly puts the steampunk aesthetic to good use, and for that, I'm including it in my top five list for this year. RP Classics' earlier offerings of Steampunk Poe and Steampunk Frankenstein were also laudatory in this way, but I think series artist Zdenko Basic's art works best with Wells's visions. It's really Basic's art that makes the series steampunk. The texts are pure originals: Shelley, Poe, and Wells. And while Basic's art is great eye-candy, his rendering of War of the Worlds in Steampunk Wells is spot-on. He really captures the violence and darkness of Wells's vision. Kudos to RP Classics for finding a sharp way of introducing a new generation to these classic books. 

I also want to give a shout-out to Trent Jamison's Roil and Night Engines, which weren't published in 2013, but were among my favourite steampunk-related reads this year. 

And while this marks the end of the five year journey I began in the fall of 2008, it does not mark the end of my steampunk research. I will continue to read and study steampunk, along with my other speculative interests. I owe the steampunk community a huge debt, and for that I will always be very thankful. I look forward to journeying with you all beyond the worlds of steampunk, into the larger worlds of science fiction, fantasy, and horror!

Dec 23, 2013

Doctor Who: The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe


At the 2009 Eaton Science Fiction Conference in Riverside, California, SF writer Rudy Rucker commented that the Wardrobe of C.S. Lewis' Narnia chronicles was just another way of traveling to another world, no different from spaceships, transporters, or entering virtual space. It was an inversion of Lewis' own reflections on the idea, when he stated that "I took a hero once to Mars in a space-ship, but when I knew better I had angels convey him to Venus." If ever there were a quotation to sum up the blurry lines of science fiction and fantasy in "The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe," it would be that one, slightly modified: "I took a hero to Narnia in a wardrobe, but when I knew better, I redesigned it as a dimensional portal...thingie."


It is also the quotation that springboards me from being the Steampunk Scholar to rebranding the website as the Speculative Scholar, and I'm going to use "The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe" ("DWW"), to explore a bit of what the blog will be like in the New Year.

The bulk of the content will still be a short article, that talks about an aspect of speculative fiction. "DWW" has a mix of all three of the literary genres John Colombo states make up speculative fiction:  Science Fiction, Fantasy Fiction, and Weird Fiction (we might say Horror for this last one). "DWW" might not be fantasy itself, but it certainly makes fantasy references in drawing Act I of the episode from C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (LWW). Certainly, there are minor differences - in LWW, a young girl goes through a portal into another world via a Wardrobe; in "DWW," a young boy goes through a portal into another world via a huge Christmas present. As Rudy Rucker suggested, they are simply devices for getting us into another realm. In LWW, it is magic. In  "DWW," it is technology. We call one fantasy, another science fiction, but in both cases, a small child ends up with in a snowy wonderland beyond the pale of our reality.

But there are further permutations of what be understood as the aesthetic differences between science fiction and fantasy- just as LWW's fantasy wardrobe is rendered as "DWW's"science fiction dimensional portal, the gleaming rocket ship of SF's golden age is made into a flying fantasy tower, powered by the magic of the wooden king and queen. The boundaries of science fiction and fantasy are regularly blurred throughout the episode, much to the delight of someone like me, who doesn't care much for those boundaries in the first place.

Now some might balk that "DWW" has any horror in it, but that would only be those who have long since grown out of their fear of things that go bump in the night. It was plenty scary enough for my children, both from the perspective of the episode beginning with the loss of a parent, and moments with the Wooden King and Queen. These are childhood horrors - the mute creepiness of the Wood Sovereigns, the need for a young priest and an old priest when they speak through others, and above all, the horror of losing a parent. This is a foundational fear of childhood, one I suppose we forget. But as  parent, I could witness my own children's horror, and mirror Madge's horror as a parent who has lost her children. Certainly, it is Doctor Who, and therefore it is a secure horror, but it is a form of horror nonetheless.

Doctor Who is a lovely bricolage of fantasy, SF, and horror elements, pulled together in a speculative soup that continues to delight viewers. And it's a soup I find myself not only needing more tastes of, but also desirous to engage in a similar mission to the one I began with steampunk five years ago. So as with the Doctor, I am undergoing a regeneration - a rebranding. After the top 5 steampunk list next week, the blog will cease to be The Steampunk Scholar and will become The Speculative Scholar. This is not to say I am the only scholar of this nature. Rather, it will be to say that this blog will function as a resource for speculative scholars, and I hope in time, a hub for other speculative scholars to assist in the production of the content.

I will continue to talk about steampunk, but I want to begin disseminating other scholarly studies I've been doing in Giant Monster films, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, the relationship between World Literature and speculative literature, and really, any area of speculative fiction that appeals to my research interests. Thank-you to everyone who came along this far for the steampunk journey - now, let's step into the virtual TARDIS and see where it takes us. After all, what's the point in being a Doctor if you aren't going to take advantage of traveling through Time and Space? 

dimensional portal... thingie
dimensional portal... thingie
dimensional portal... thingie

Dec 15, 2013

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

Steven Moffat's "A Christmas Carol," the sixth Doctor Who Christmas special, begins with a galaxy-class starship, an obvious intertextual allusion to Star Trek, hurtling through a roiling cloud mass, to a voice-over to its passengers, asking them to "please return to their seats and fasten their safety belts? We are experiencing slight turbulence." The Captain conveys the starship's certain doom with a mix of Shatneresque resolve and seasonal Whovian whimsy: "Both engines failed, and the storm-gate's critical. The ship is going down. Christmas is cancelled."  The Doctor's newly wedded companions, Amy Pond and Rory Williams, are conveniently on-board; in a meta-moment of self-reflexivity, Amy speaks the words every audience member is thinking: "He'll come. He always comes." And sure enough, as all seems lost, the Doctor sends a message of hope, to which Amy Pond responds, "It's Christmas."



Like any great work of fiction, cinematic or print, "A Christmas Carol" begins with all the elements that will be used throughout the rest of the story. Moffat sets up three concepts around which the rest of the episode will be structured: intertextuality, self-reflexivity, and whimsy, all in service to the hopeful message that Christmas is a symbol for being "halfway out of the dark."

Intertextuality, a term coined by literary theorist Julia Kristeva is "The need for one text to be read in the light of its allusions to and differences from the content or structure of other texts; the (allusive) relationship between esp. literary texts" (OED). I take umbrage with the Oxford English Dictionary's contention that this allusive referentiality is somehow more the purview of literary texts. I'd argue that Science Fiction trumps many literary works for being intertextual. Doctor Who is often intertextual, but "A Christmas Carol" is a mix of both the obvious intertext--we are fully aware from the title credits onward that the episode will be a riff on Dickens's Christmas classic--and the less overt intertext in the face spiders, which sound suspiciously like the face huggers from the Alien franchise. And then there are the countless intertexts of how time travel can affect the past in an immediate way in the fictional present, from James Blaylock's "Lord Kelvin's Machine," (which would prove a very prolific intertext with this episode, since it concerns changing the past to change the villain's disposition), J.M. Frey's Triptych, to movies like Back to the Future and Looper. Dressing Dickens's A Christmas Carol in Whovian garb reminds us that it is a pre-SF tale of time travel. Scrooge is given visions - he does not actually travel through time, but then again, neither does Michael Gambon as Kazran Sardik, this episodes' science fiction Scrooge (whose father, also played by Gambon, looks very much like Charles Dickens). Sardik too, only receives visions and new memories - and it is in the reception of those visions that the program engages in numerous self-reflexive moves.    

Self-reflexivity in literature is the idea that the text is aware it is a text. In cinema or television, it conveys a sense of the film or show being aware of what it is. This is sometimes overt, as in the breaking of the fourth wall in a program like Boston Legal, when characters spoke of the addition of "new characters" at certain points in "the season." At other times, it is subtle, like the many inside jokes Matt Smith and his companions make, winking at the camera without actually winking, as in the brief moment we see the young Kazran wearing a Tom-Baker-era scarf. But less often, it is even more subtle, as when "A Christmas Carol" uses Michael Gambon's gaze as the eyes of the audience, watching his past as projected image. This is an echo of Amy Pond speaking the words we are all thinking in the opening: "He'll come. He always comes." But Kazran becomes our mirror for laughter and tears: we know when it is time to cry, for Gambon's teary gaze tells us it is so. When his childhood self and the Doctor are threatened by a flying shark, he yells what we want to yell: "Run!" It's a lovely moment, reminiscent of Don Quixote standing in a bookshop holding a copy of Don Quixote. We are watching a character on an episode of Doctor Who watching an episode of Doctor Who.
 This self-reflexivity become the means by which Moffat tells his audience that this episode must be read as whimsical. When the Doctor discovers the ostensible reason the flying fish respond to singing, the young Kazran dismisses his explanation by saying, "The Fish like the singing: now shut up!" The script draws attention to this moment, playing out the dismissal with the Doctor as the voice of the hard SF Who-fan who's seeking causality, while Moffat speaks through the voice of the child, and at other times, the Doctor: "No chance, completely impossible: except at Christmas." After all, this is the episode where the Doctor reveals that "Yes, dirty little steampunk-boy, there is a Santa-Claus," and that the Doctor knows him, not as Father Christmas or Santa Claus, but as "Jeff." The fish may indeed be calmed because "The notes resonate in the ice crystals, causing a delta wave pattern in the fog," but saying so will result in you getting bit by those little fish. They are not pleased with the cynical viewer who is sputtering "Bah, Humbug" at the screen. Moffat seems to be sending semaphore to the audience, warning them to steer clear of such inquiries. Time travel paradoxes be damned -- the aged Kazran will need to meet the young Kazran so he can arrive at a point halfway out of the dark. The choice of Michael Gambon as Kazran is almost an intertextual moment as well - of course magical things can happen to this man - he's Dumbledore, one of the greatest wizards who ever lived, after all.
Kazran's cynicism at the outset of the program is the cynicism many bear towards holidays of light and goodwill: "On every world, wherever people are, in the deepest part of the winter, at the exact mid-point, everybody stops and turns and hugs, as if to say, well done. Well done, everyone. We're halfway out of the dark." He says it with an ironic voice, and we can hear the derision - it's the derision I suppose many feel for episodes of Doctor Who like this one. But it is why Doctor Who, unlike so many geek narratives, can have a Christmas special that doesn't feel like an aberration - it feels like a continuation of the same moves we have seen in the series, over and over, of self-reflexivity, intertextuality, and whimsy.
Knowing that Moffat is playing with these three elements in the fashion he is permits the viewer to allow the episode to speak on its own terms, not those we might impose for it. As hard-SF, the episode fails abysmally: one wonders how the study of brain plasticity weighs into the outcomes of Sardick's life - is his brain physically changing? After all, memories are not just visions - they are part of the pathways and programming of the organ in our skull. Hence the need for a whimsical, child-like faith that people can change overnight. Further, the episode needs that overnight change, for the source intertext of Dickens demands this optimism, and reality be damned. It is a reminder, however, that we choose the fictions we live by. We choose to watch Doctor Who because he's the sort of person who, after 900 years of time and space travel, has never met a person "who wasn't important." Knowing that we choose our stories, choose our visions, if you will, is conceded repeatedly by this episode's self-reflexivity. Moffat knows we're out there, and he's waving at us from time to time, reminding us to not take it too seriously. This is not "serious" SF in the sense many would mean it. But what serious SF could wrap up its story with Christmas special cliches like snowfall and singing, and weave them into the story? It's absurd, to be sure, but then again, so is the practice of Christmas.

Dec 8, 2013

Doctor Who: The Next Doctor



My research kept me from enjoying a lot of geek content between 2008 and 2012. I spent most of my "free" time reading steampunk novels, their antecedents, and secondary sources related to the topic. So while my friends were ranting about how great David Tennant was as the latest incarnation of the Doctor, I was reading Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series. Not a bad trade off, but it made me a latecomer to many speculative-fiction TV series and films. Luckily, on the flight back from my in-laws at Christmas of 2009, I caught bits of "The Next Doctor" broadcast on the Canadian Space network.

The last time I'd seen the Doctor was the 1996 TV movie. Before that, I'd been an ardently faithful follower through the reruns of Pertwee, Baker, and Davison on PBS in the 1980s. I had an issue of the Marvel Premiere Classics featuring Doctor Who (reprints of comics from Doctor Who Magazine, I understand). I had read several novelizations of the series from my Public Library, and even owned one! Fans of Doctor Who from the 1980s, especially those living in smaller cities, will know how tough Who-Merchandise was to come by back then. But my work as a minister didn't offer opportunities for journeys through Time and Space with a Time Lord. Then came the revamped series, and there I was, busy researching steampunk.

As I mentioned in my last article, many people had asked me if Doctor Who is steampunk. I'd say it shares a lot of values and ideas that steampunk uses. But on that post-Christmas flight, I didn't much care about whether the show was steampunk. I was too busy being twelve again. I remember the moment David Tennant as The Doctor and David Morrisey as the Next Doctor yelled "Allons y!" and the theme music started, I cried: fast, spontaneous, unexpected tears. It happened to me again the other day when I was reviewing this episode for this series of posts. It's not a sad moment - there are better reasons to cry in this episode. It was sheer nostalgia, taking me back through time and space to the days when I'd stay up late during a PBS fund-raising campaign, when they'd play entire serials back-to-back. I'd tape them on our Betamax to watch over and over. I began writing my own Doctor Who scripts, to film on that same Betamax system.

I was transported back to a simpler time, when I thought I'd grow up to be a film maker. Since it was one of the Christmas specials, my nostalgia was compounded, since Christmas memories of my childhood are particularly fond. Given the episode's emotional appeal to a Husband/Father, I never stood a chance.  I've since learned that "The Next Doctor" isn't considered a particularly superior installment of the new Doctor Who series, but that doesn't matter much to me. It was the first of the new series I was exposed to, and so it will likely always have a special place in my heart.

Having finished my research, I found my recent re-watch a very different experience, once I'd wiped my tears away. While my first viewing transported me to my childhood, my second viewing had me traveling back through my research, thinking about how the episode makes a number of steampunk, or at the very least, neo-Victorian moves. This isn't about the Cybermen or their technology - they aren't particularly steampunk by design. And I pondered how I could write on any of these: how Rosita Farisi as a black woman in Victorian London is an example of social retrofuturism, or how Miss Hartigan is a nicely subtle dig at the treatment of women in the nineteenth century, but is likewise an interesting choice for the overlord of the Cybermen. But that wouldn't be moving forward. That would be me traveling ground I already have.

Five years ago, I started my "mission" to get my dissertation on steampunk written. I finished that mission a year early, but kept the blog going in the same way I had before. Anyone who has been watching Steampunk Scholar this past year will know how ineffective that was. I still enjoy steampunk, but I want to broaden my horizons, to start a new mission that travels more widely through time and space.

Some of my tears upon seeing "The Next Doctor" for the first time were for twenty years of lost time. When I professed Christianity as a teen, I felt compelled by 1980s evangelicalism to give up a lot of my geek interests. I played Middle-Earth Roleplaying in secret. I threw out a bunch of books that a well-meaning but sadly over-zealous friend deemed "occult." I tried to marry my love of SF and Fantasy with my church work, but it didn't go well. Prior to the success of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and The Matrix as appropriated parable, fantasy and SF weren't all that welcome in the church.

When Morrisey as the Next Doctor realizes that he is really Jackson Lake, a man who has "lost something," I remember tears flowing again. My research had already taken me to three fan conventions, where I felt more at home than I ever had all the years I served as a minister. Getting dressed up as "The Steampunk Scholar" and hanging around with a hotel full of geeks felt more right than any church event ever did. Every time I thought of all the years I'd had to sideline my love of comics, Science Fiction, fantasy, horror, and roleplaying games, it made me sad. "The Next Doctor" was a reminder of the great gap between when I'd dreamed of producing geek content, and when I finally came around to doing that, twenty years later.

But it also reminded me that I had interests outside steampunk: Clive Barker's writing, pulpy Sword-and-Sorcery, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, Terry Pratchett's Discworld, Superman, John Carpenter's movies, and Godzilla. I never fully lost these things, but I had to repress them - my occasional geek footnotes in morning sermons were often pearls before swine.

I love what steampunk has given me: I don't think a dissertation on Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero as dystopic intertext would have resulted in the situation I find myself today. I have a very active web presence, have never had to work hard to get academic publishing opportunities, have met a number of key authors in the steampunk scene, and have traveled (and continue to travel) to speak on steampunk at conferences and conventions. I chose to write on steampunk at what was arguably the best time to do so. I rode that wave, and enjoyed it immensely.

But I love the non-Victorian episodes of Doctor Who as well. The theologian in my loves "The Satan Pit," where the Doctor gets to mock the "devil," something C.S. Lewis posited Old Nick can't stand: "“The best way to drive out the devil ... is to jeer and flout him." The fanboy in me loves "School Reunion," partly because I had an adolescent crush on the late Elizabeth Sladen, and because I love seeing Anthony Head or any Buffy the Vampire Slayer alumnus getting good work in geek circles.

And I want to write about all those things. When I talked with J.M. Frey about this, she said that this series on Doctor Who was possibly one of the best ways to transition from being "The Steampunk Scholar" to . . . something else. In 2014, I will be changing what I'm doing online. The TARDIS provides the possibility to go anywhere, like the blue police box TARDIS, not the hot-air-balloon Jackson Lake TARDIS, which cannot go beyond the boundaries of the nineteenth century.

One mission ends, another begins. It doesn't mean I'm done writing about steampunk. There are steampunk explorations left. But like the Doctor, I want to travel the whole universe of speculative fiction - cinematic, comic book, literary. Maybe that's why I teared up when the two Doctors yelled "Allons y!" this time - after all, it's French for "let's go!" In the words of Tennyson's Ulysses, "’Tis not too late to seek a newer world," or in this case, worlds. Allons y!
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