Eaton Science Fiction Conference 2009 - Day 2

Having endured one of the most difficult eight months of my life, taking a full time load of graduate courses while teaching full time, I was exhausted when I arrived in Riverside. With my own presentation behind me, my body clearly told the brain to shut the alarm off when it rang, and as a result, I was too late to take in the first session, although I did arrive in time to get some books signed by Tim Powers, and thank Greg Bear for his fantastic short story “Petra,” which is featured in Bruce Sterling’s Mirrorshades cyberpunk anthology. Fanboy business completed, I went early to the room where the paper session I was to chair was taking place.

A few conference technicians were busy assisting one of the presenters with his laptop, so I decided to stand back and let them do what they needed. While I was waiting, Bill Jones came and introduced himself to me. Both Bill and his wife are both lovely people and were a huge encouragement to me over the course of the weekend. Bill is the author of Classics Illustrated: A Cultural History, which looks at the impact of the Classics Illustrated comic book series. Accordingly, Bill’s presentation on the Classics Illustrated Verne canon, representing the largest number of Classics Illustrated issues by any one author, required a slideshow with images of covers and interior art.

In obeisance to Murphy’s Law, which is that anything that can go wrong will, and subsequently to Hardy’s Law (coined by good friend George Hardy), which states that nothing ever works, the two presentations which ostensibly were most in need of good tech did not have it.
Halfway through Bill’s presentation the bulb on the projector shut down to prevent burning out and potentially exploding. After a vain restart, we took a quick break while conference tech brought in a new projector. Thankfully, Bill was unflappable, and weathered the technological adversity (a bit of situational irony at a conference devoted to Verne) and gave an excellent overview of the Classics Illustrated Verne adaptations, referring to Classics illustrator Henry Carl Kiefer (1890-1957) as “the original steampunk artist.” In an email to me, Bill explained his “half-serious” nomination of Kiefer:
“In the Verne realm, he illustrated Twenty Thousand Leagues and Around the World, but his true specialties for the series were Dickens (Great Expectations, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol) and odd pockets of 19th-century fiction (The Adventures of Hans Pfall, Mysteries of Paris, King Solomon's Mines). The reason I applied the term steampunk, however loosely, was because Kiefer deliberately opted for a Victorian visual style in an era when EC-style realism was becoming the dominant aesthetic in comics art. Even when he was called upon, in other series, to draw contemporary characters, he managed to invest them with what his detractors viewed as old-fashioned woodenness. But Kiefer truly inhabited another age.”
I should note that Classics Illustrated have been re-released, and Bill is the writer of the introductions: you can check them out here.

Matthew Snyder followed Bill Jones with “Oceans of Noise: Archetypal Readings of Jules Verne in The Abyss”. Once again, technological problems plagued us, this time of a far less serious nature – Snyder’s laptop kept going to the screensaver, which effectively ceased to send a signal to the projector, shutting it off. That aside, the content of Snyder’s paper was good, once he got past his over-long introduction which reiterated basic biography any cursory scholar of Verne’s work should know. Many of the points had already been covered in other presentations on the first day, so it was a relief when Snyder finally moved onto how a reading of Verne can be brought into conversation with Cameron’s underwater films, and particularly, The Abyss. While he didn’t take it in directions I would have, his basic premise is solid, and I’ll be including a critical viewing of The Abyss in my introductory English classes at King’s University College this fall, along with Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I'd have to say Matt's shining moment was assessing The Abyss as an "archetypal re-rendering of Verne's mythopoetics." Those are some words worth a thousand pictures.

Walter James Miller, a living legend in English Vernian studies, was unable to attend the conference to deliver his plenary address, but Terry Harpold did an excellent job of reading Miller's "The Role of Chance in Verne's Rehabilitation in America," which was the second inspirational note of the weekend for me in deciding to teach Verne this fall at King's. I'm hoping that Miller's entire paper will be printed in the forthcoming special issue of Verniana devoted to papers from the Eaton 2009 conference.

I skipped the next paper session to interview Rudy Rucker, author of his ostensibly steampunk novel The Hollow Earth. The transcript of that interview will be posted here at the blog, following my completed reports on the conference itself. For the time being, I'll merely make the observation that Rudy has a really dry sense of slightly left-field humor which made the interview immensely enjoyable and relaxed.

Rudy Rucker, Tim Powers, and Greg Bear

I went straight from standing in the courtyard speaking with Rudy Rucker to sitting inside for the panel he shared with SF giants Greg Bear, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and Tim Powers. This was easily the most enjoyable panel of the weekend for me. Howard Hendrix chaired the session, and kept the discussion lively. Here are some highlights from that panel, all of which are the best notes I could take, not necessarily verbatim quotes.

Tim Powers (TP): The punk in steampunk is partly nineteenth century adventure, which was not self conscious, crossed with twentieth century characters who are self-conscious.

Greg Bear (GB): Steampunk is lighting off fireworks with old elements.

Kathleen Ann Goonan (KAG): Steampunk puts fun back into fiction.

GB: 1955-56 was the beginning of steampunk with the film version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, especially considering Harper Goff's design of the Nautilus.

Rudy Rucker (RR): We need to be careful to not romanticize the past...we sometimes imagine people in the past weren't as screwed up as we are.

TP: Steampunk currently applies to t-shirts and shoes as much as literature. It's also important to remember that spiritualism was considered a form of science...ectoplasm, mesmerism, bilocation. As fictional devices, these things are a lot of fun.

KAG: A sense of nostalgia for a time when people could decipher how something worked. Steampunk is human scale, hands-on...more Darwinian and Newtonian.

GB: Conrad's Heart of Darkness is the end of Verne's world...Perhaps steampunk is the "exhaustion of our imagination."

I have some other notes from this session, but they relate directly to Powers' Anubis Gates, which I will be reviewing soon.

The day ended with another presentation done in absentia. Frederick Pohl was feeling too ill to accept the J. Lloyd Eaton Lifetime Achievement Award in Science Fiction, but we were fortunate enough for him to present it via a pre-recorded video. The speech was witty, thoughtful, and gave me a sense of pride about being someone who studies Science Fiction and other "junk" fictions as literature. In truth, this pride was the recurring theme of the weekend for me, as each night I walked back to my hotel room.

On Saturday, my return to the hotel was slightly and thankfully delayed by dinner with Chris Garcia, the man behind the fanzine Drink Tank, and someone I shared panel space with last year at the Steam Powered steampunk convention in Sunnyvale, CA. He and the lovely Linda and I ate some great food, talked fantasy football, religion, stampede wrestling, and the Tragically Hip. It was a great end to a fantastic day. I think that's the thing I'm appreciating most about my steampunk travels. The research is exciting, but as time goes on, I'm having more fun just connecting with people who have similar interests, which is of course, the whole point of this blog.


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