The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition

I'll begin this post with a brief introduction about my state-of-mind heading down to Nova Albion back in March. In addition to my teaching duties, I was feeling very burnt out from working on a number of articles in a short space of time. One of my articles had been rejected for reasons of content, which had punched a hole in my confidence. Here I was, getting ready to go into a weekend of presenting as a so-called expert, and I wasn't feeling terribly "expert."

  Alcatraz Island
After our flight-cancelling adventures en route to Seattle last fall, Jenica and I decided we were going to leave early for The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition in Emeryville, CA. Our friends Blaine and Kim were heading down a week early to see the sights in San Francisco, and we wanted to hook up with them and catch Alcatraz and maybe a city tour as well. Our flight was on-time, the weather upon arriving was great, and we had an excellent evening touring "The Rock." While it rained on Friday, I still enjoyed touring the city the convention was taking place in, as I usually arrive, go straight to the hotel, and am locked in by presentations and panels.

Canucks on the Bay: me, Jenica, Kim, and Blaine
Unlike my previous excursions to steampunk conventions (Steam Powered 2008, Steamcon 2009), Nova Albion was less about me carrying out research as it was presenting it. Whereas at Steam Powered I was being introduced to off-the-page steampunk, Nova Albion was more of a mingling with friends, and as odd as it may sound (it did to me!) fans of the blog. Comparatively, Steam Powered, which was effectively planned by most of the same people as Nova Albion, was 'bigger.' I can't say why this was exactly, but I'd wager it has to do with the frequency steampunk events have happened in the Bay Area in the past year and a half. I got the impression at Steam Powered that it was the first really big event of its kind in California, potentially even the U.S. and by extension, North America. There was a grander feel to it, though that may simply have been me: never having any serious exposure to steampunk culture, it was all new and shiny. Having been to a few events now along with immersion in online forums and the blog may have jaded me somewhat. So take that remark with a grain of salt.
Steampunk rifle and bass guitar from the exhibit
It's difficult to talk about Nova Albion without making comparisons to Steam Powered and Steamcon, so rather than avoiding it, I'll admit it's a major part of how I processed the weekend. Steamcon had the advantage of taking place in one of the nicest hotels I've stayed in, with an atrium and foyer that acted as a great backdrop to the attendees. Steampunk fashion didn't seem as out of place at Steamcon, whereas the hotel for Nova Albion was a very standard hotel, with no flash or panache. We looked out of place in our outfits, so the comfort one felt in lounging about at Steamcon could only be felt on the floors dedicated to the convention. I also noted a difference in the steampunk look of both events - Steamcon was more anachronistic tech and punk costuming, while Nova Albion seemed to be more historically accurate. That's a broad generalization, but Bay area steampunks seem to be more concerned with the historical connections steampunk implies, while Seattle steampunks seem more interested in the Science Fiction/fantasy aspect of the aesthetic.
Gail Carriger's "spoon dress"

On Friday night, my Canadian crew (we call ourselves La Ligue des Frontraliers) was dressed in our "adventuring" outfits. These are the ones "for traveling in an airship or hiking through forgotten lands." My outfit for this evening was a great learning experience for me, as I took a page from Diana Vick and eschewed any attempt at historical accuracy, and went instead for historical evocation. I spend all my money just arriving at these events. Great costumes are optional. Nevertheless, I think I threw something pretty cool together. It's steam because it has a little bit of a "adventure academic" to it, but 'punked' by including the Marc Ecko jacket (still tweed!), the Roots hat (very Canadian, both by brand and by the fur lining - and still tweed!), and my Doc-Martenesque boots. I didn't win any awards with it, even though Jenica and Kim convinced Blaine and I to enter the costume contest, but I felt good about it, and it didn't cost me anything extra--it was all already in my closet.

La Ligue des Frontraliers in "adventure" wear:
apparently professors only need pipes for adventures...
(we're like Hobbits that way).
Friday night was great for all the now-familiar faces I ran into. As seems fitting, Chris Garcia of Exhibition Hall and Journey Planet was one of the first people I ran into. Along with the always-present Linda, Chris was talking with Kevin Steil, better known since Nova Albion as the "Airship Ambassador." It's amazing to me how like attracts like - I met Kevin at Steamcon and we became good friends on Facebook, but Chris and Kevin hadn't known each other prior to Nova Albion, and yet, our interest in critical evaluation of steampunk is the same, though the three of us certainly approach it in very different ways. You might say Chris is the fanboy, I'm the stuffy scholar, and Kevin is the sociologist.

 Chris and Linda in the exhibition hall. How fitting.

Moving from the lobby to the top floor, Howard Hendrix and Gail Carriger provided me with some great encouragement over my recent publishing disappointment. Howard is no stranger to controversy, and was quick to offer words that bolstered my confidence. Gail did likewise, and continued to throughout the weekend. Howard and Gail helped restore the necessary academic arrogance needed to be "the Steampunk Scholar," and I was able to proceed with head held high into the rest of the weekend.

 A time machine, if I recall correctly. Looks heavy!

I literally ran into Erin McGauley Hebard, aka Senora Sara Paz of Legion Fantastique, who has been one of my most outspoken advocates since Steam Powered. When I say ran into, it was because she gave me a huge hug, which was awesome, since Nova Albion felt a bit like a steampunk homecoming for me. After all, the Bay area is where I effectively kicked off my research in the fall of '08. Erin's always giving me supportive feedback on Facebook, and I can say without reservation that being at Nova Albion wouldn't have been the same without her and Rich Medley, aka Robur the Conqueror of Legion Fantastique. Erin's half the reason I ended up in a corset on Sunday afternoon. How I got through the weekend without getting a photo of us together is beyond me, but it's clearly a mission for the next time we're down that way.

 So, no photo of me with Erin, but I DID
get a shot of me with Rich Medley, her beau.
The trouble with standing with a Medley brother is 
you never look as stylish as they do.

We finally located Daniel Silveira aka Michel Ardan of Legion Fantastique, and Autumn Adamme, owner and designer of Dark Garden Unique Corsetry, who have become great friends of ours. Daniel was one of the first people I met at Steam Powered, and we had a great time hanging out with both him and Autumn at Steamcon, so it was great to see them again. One of the best benefits of choosing steampunk for a dissertation topic is that I not only enjoy my research, but it's resulted in meeting so many great people, a number who have become good friends as well.

 My vote for best costumes in the competition

While there were certainly steampunk things happening that evening (like the costume contest I mentioned - no, we didn't win (these are the folks I think should have won - great costumes, great props!), but we showed up on Flickr and Facebook as a result, something that rarely happens to me at these events!), most of our night was spent in conversation with the dramatis personae I've introduced to you. There were can-can girls and Girl-Genius lookalikes, but the main attraction for me on Friday at a con is interacting, and when I can swing it, imbibing. Our evening finished up with drinks and conversation with Autumn and Daniel back in their hotel room. Needless to say, surrounded by friends, I felt a lot more confident than I had only eight hours earlier.

Girl Genius costumes - they won that category, and deserved it!

My first panel on Saturday was "It all Began with a Puff of Steam: The Origin and History of Steampunk." The panel was moderated by Howard Hendrix, which was exciting, as I'd seen Howard moderate SF giants Greg Bear, Rudy Rucker, Kathleen Ann Goonan, and Tim Powers at the Eaton SF conference in 2009. Howard is witty, incisive, and erudite - he's exactly the sort of person for moderating a panel well. I didn't know any of my fellow panelists, but that didn't hurt the conversation: Jean Martin edits an SF fanzine, Alexander Logan is a student of history, and Liz Gorinsky is the associate editor at Tor who brought us Cherie Priest's Boneshaker and George Mann's The Affinity Bridge. Liz is really well-spoken and thoughtful: I'd seen her on panels at Steamcon and was honored to get to share the table with her three times over the course of Nova Albion. The panel was enjoyable and polite, despite differences of opinion between Alexander Logan and myself. I don't remember many of the details of the panel, but here are the memory words I typed into my iTouch (which aren't triggering much memory right now): Twelfth Night (likely a reference to the steampunked version playing this year), Liz transgression (I think Liz said something about steampunk having something to do with transgression), Alternate History (I was likely already arguing steampunk isn't really alternate history, as I know that was part of the disagreement Alexander and I had), Anubis (really? me mentioning Tim Powers - imagine!), Difference Engine (it always comes up...and yet isn't nearly as steampunk as everyone thinks), Exquisite Corpse (I wish I could remember what this was about - I'd put money on this being a Liz Gorinsky reference, if for no other reason than all those steampunk zombies she's brought us!), and Flying Fish. That last one seems so random, it sounds more like it belongs to Chris Garcia.

 The first panel: Me (typing on the iTouch), Jean, Howard, Alexander, and Liz

My next panel was Steampunk Philosophy, and I came out of it fully convinced steampunk has no philosophy. I enjoyed moderating this group: J. Daniel Sawyer, author of Cold Duty, one of my favorite steampunk short stories, Liz Gorinsky again, the outspoken and energetic Thomas Strange, and the author Guest of Honor for Nova Albion, James Blaylock. I introduced James Blaylock by suggesting that since he's the only original steampunk author who admits to having written steampunk, we ought to make him the first steampunk saint. He was amenable, so however we go about doing this, we need to get to it. Maybe at Steamcon II? The discussion was lively: so lively, that Ryan Galiotto of Legion Fantastique jumped up from the audience to join the panel, to introduce everyone's favorite steampunk chestnut, "where's the punk in steampunk?" (I should digress to note that I loved Ryan joining us - it added fuel to the fire of the panel!) A number of philosophies were suggested - I like Thomas Strange's best: epicureanism, as it fits well with the idea of steampunk as an aesthetic. I like "individualism" least, since I find the idea of a room full of people dressed in various modes of neo-Victorian retrofuturistic costume as "individualistic" subject at best. That's not to say that steampunks are individualistic - but the philosophy of steampunk doesn't strike me as particularly individualistic (that's going to get me some heated comments, isn't it?).

 Neko Kelly, wearing the outfit I wish I'd been wearing.

In the late afternoon, I gave my updated "Steampunk Star Wars" presentation, streamlined as the result of refining edits to the article soon to be released in the Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. The group in attendance were a lot of fun, and gave some great feedback. As seems to be my lot in life, this is where the most photos of "me" have shown up from this event, except that the photos aren't of me - they're of my slideshow (this also happened at Steamcon, which tells me I'm a better slideshow builder than costume designer). When the article is published, I'll post the slides here as well.

 Formal La Ligue: Blaine, Kim, Jenica, me, Kevin

Saturday evening was fascinating: La Ligue was dressed in our "evening finery" (made it on Flickr again!), engaged in more great conversation (a lengthy one with good friend Joel Browning, aka Impey Barbicane of Legion Fantastique), in anticipation of Dark Garden Unique Corsetry's unveiling of the "Dollymop" line of corsets - designed with steampunks in mind. With dark cabaret music in the background, we were treated to a fashion show that was like a mix of Twin Peaks' strobe-light style scenes (due largely to the number of flashbulbs going off) and Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge! This has lead me to consider an article on the relationship between steampunk fashion and that film. I might need someone like Gail to help me write it though, as we've already identified that fashion is a weak point for me. This was definitely one of the highlights of the weekend for me, as I found myself returning to considerations of fashion and steampunk repeatedly in the weeks following. Along with Gail, I'd argue that it, more than anything else, is what is currently driving the popularity of steampunk. Literature put steampunk on the map, Makers brought it to the media, but fashion is what is going to create the tipping point for it. Speaking of fashion, I have to give a shout-out to steampunk sweetheart Devon McGuire, who unveiled a new creation on Saturday night as well (loved the feather-goggles).

Autumn and Jenica after the fashion show.
On Sunday morning, Chris Garcia, J. Daniel Sawyer and I were reunited on the panel "Steampunk Fans in Action." The three of us were on a panel together at Steam Powered, and we've all laughed many times about how well it went, given how worried we all were it wouldn't go at all. These are both guys I love sitting and just shooting the shit with. Between the two of them I have a lot of common ground, on everything from fandom to theological ruminations. We were joined by Liz Gorinsky and Jean Martin, and despite a very spartan attendance, it was a lot of fun. In place of a cohesive debate, we mostly gushed about what's getting us excited in steampunk, or ranted about what isn't (which was Steamed by Katie MacAlister, if I recall correctly).

Reunion: Chris, Me, and Dan

My Sunday afternoon was fantastic: chatting with Liz and Gail about publishing for a few moments before watching Chris Garcia interview James Blaylock, followed by my "Dungeons and Dickens" presentation. Gail was in an uncharacteristically adventurous costume, but since she's also one of those people I met at the beginning back at Steam Powered, I had to make sure to get a photo with her. Even if Gail weren't one of my favorite writers, I'd enjoy chatting with her about the steampunk scene, the frustrations of academia, or life in general.

 Gail and me.

Chris' interview with James Blaylock was great - it was like a sequel to Tim Powers' interview at Steamcon, but with the added surprise that Blaylock counts C.S. Lewis as a strong influence. I had already been playing with the idea of tying Lewis' eldila with Philip Reeve's Larklight, so to find another connection to steampunk from The Space Trilogy was fascinating. I'm planning a "James Blaylock" month for November here at the blog, in honor of Steamcon II happening that month, so I'll save further ruminations about his work for then.

Chris interviewing James Blaylock

The "Dungeons and Dickens" presentation was as much fun at Nova Albion as it was at Steamcon. There's nothing like being in a room full of gaming geeks talking about the best campaign you've ever done. And to those who have been waiting far too long, please note that I'll be wrapping up my "Dungeons and Dickens" posts here at the blog in early June. I've been asked to run a game at Steamcon, which is very cool, though I haven't decided whether to go through with it or not.

Me and James Blaylock

The weekend wrapped up in the vendor's room, with a wonderful gift from "Flotsum and Jetsam's Emporium" (a steampunk grenade), the vendor the rest of La Ligue had purchased costume odds 'n ends from. Professor Flotsum had attended my D&D presentation and wanted me to have something to lob at my players in the final game. As it turned out, I ended up handing it to Blaine in the final game, for his character to throw. It was still a great moment, both an honor to receive, and a lot of fun to use in-game. This was followed by a great chat with Jacob and Rhina Weisman of Tachyon books about teaching SF. I purchased James Morrow's delightful homage to Godzilla, Shambling Towards Hiroshima, which I read in its entirety on the return flight. The pinnacle of the vendor-room experience was Autumn Adamme fitting Jenica in a corset (which I think looks smashing on her!), and then doing the same to me! While mine isn't as fantastic as Daniel's, I did enjoy what it did for my posture and waistline!

Jenica in a Dark Garden corset, standing with Autumn.
Daniel, looking great in a corset, with me, in a corset.

So, as I said, attendance at the Nova Albion was more about sharing research than gaining it, and this is due in no small part to the way in which the SF Bay steampunk community is so incredibly supportive of my work. Unlike any other group I've presented to, the Californian steampunks are the ones I like to party with the best. I have individual steampunk friends across the continent, and even across the world. But for just hanging out and having a good time, my clockwork heart belongs to the Bay area. I can't wait until Nova Albion next spring! Thanks to Ariane and Tofa for putting together another great event!


  1. Oh my God. Do you have any idea how much I now want to attend this? Sigh...are there any summer/later spring steampunk events on the West Coast (California here) you know of?

  2. It's a shame, at every convention I'm torn between spending the day sitting through panels or exploring and people watching, which is only a challenge because there are so many great panels to attend! So far I have settled the dilemma by sicking with the ones that sound the best (*cough*Dungeons&Dickens*cough*), but it seems I missed out on a bunch of really interesting panels.
    Unrelated, in the first pic you look more like a "resident" than a tourist...

  3. Yeah, I was going for that look Josh, so I'm glad I pulled it off!


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