Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Corsets, automatons, & words like cladistics - a steampunk conversation


There's a rumbling of animatronic tom-toms afoot on the interweb that is related to steampunk books - which includes Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore, of course, because of Jackie's automaton - and it MUST be true because her book is listed in the SLJ article on Steampunk that came out on December 1st (even though I didn't really think of it as steampunk myself – then again, according to a list located by my local librarian in charge of the graphic novel collections for kids, The Invention of Hugo Cabret was steampunk, even though I and the three librarians who discussed the list all considered it historical fiction, really, if you had to classify it; but I digress).

I did a linky post about the SLJ article on Monday as part of my contribution to the Alternate History/Steampunk initiative being organized by Colleen Mondor. But it occurred to me that what I'd really truly like to do is a steampunk conversation involving some of my writerly friends who trend that way, so I contacted Tiffany Trent, Lisa Mantchev and Jaclyn Dolamore to see if they might want to play. And they did – lucky me!

I sent along two or three questions to get us started, and started keeping track of the conversation, which has been pieced together from emails starting . . . NOW:

1. What attracted you to steampunk elements in the first place? Is it the clockwork, the corsets, the awesome inventions?

Jackie Dolamore: I don't really think of my work as steampunk, but as fantasy that draws from the real world and its history, and I'm attracted to that uncanny element in history. One of my favorite museums is the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, FL, which is housed in one of Henry Flagler's grand old hotels and is full of every sort of strange thing from the past, including a few automata, a wonderful collection of mechanical musical instruments, weird collections of things, a mummy, creepy paintings, overdramatic furniture, an electrical machine that was supposed to do something medical or entertaining, I can't remember which . . .

Anyway, it's fascinating but it makes my hair stand a bit on end at the same time, and I like to convey that in a book if I can. I think automatons are one of the most fascinating things from the past, and it's easy for me to imagine myself in the 18th century seeing this technology and feeling full of wonder at its possibility and horror at its soulless humanity . . . Am I being too wordy yet? Anyway, Magic Under Glass was driven by fascination by automata. I'm similarly mesmerized by zeppelins, so I used one in my short story for the Corsets and Clockwork anthology, but I feel like I didn't have enough space to really explore it so I'm hoping I can squeeze one in my next WIP. . .

Lisa Mantchev: I am fully prepared to admit the first thing that attracted me to steampunk was the costuming! What's not to love about cobbling together thrift store finds with a silk corset and shiny brass bits? And then there's my addiction to antique shopping and treasure hunting. My house is already full of bits (more art nouveau than Victoriana, perhaps) but I love owning things with a history, and the dirtier the discovery, the better. Plus "researching steampunk" sounds like a way more legitimate way of spending the day than "surfing eBay for watch bits."

Tiffany Trent: Unlike most, my attraction to steampunk comes from a totally different angle. In tandem with all that was going on in the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian naturalists were revolutionizing our understanding of the world around us. They were also collecting things to the point of extinction. (Meet the world's first hoarders, everyone!) I'm utterly fascinated by the Victorian approach to nature and the things they tended to ignore (racism, classism, etc., etc.) while hunting down beetles in South America. Of course, the awesome clothes and the spirit of invention don't exactly drive me away, though.

Kelly Fineman: (For Lisa) Is the Théâtre Illuminata set in a steampunk alternative universe? There are clockwork horses and a steam train, but I wasn't entirely certain whether you conceived of it as steampunk, precisely, though I'm pretty sure I read a short story of yours that was decidedly steampunk.

Lisa Mantchev: I think the theater series rubbed up against a steampunk costume and come away wearing some of the shiny bits. I do have a novella collaboration with James A. Grant that appeared in Weird Tales Magazine (reprinted in Steampunk Reloaded, edited by the Vandermeers) that is Honest To Goodness Steampunk, though.

Kelly Fineman: I have a follow-up for all of y'all, which is this: How much steampunkishness is required for something be steampunk? If we accept Lisa's proposition that there needs to be steam technology and some sort of industrial revolution (and I think that is a valid presupposition), then how many other elements are required?

Lisa Mantchev: As for "how much steampunkishness is required?" I'd say that's up to both the writer and the reader, Results May Vary. And where I said "Industrial revolution" before, maybe I should have just said "revolution." Anarchy of any kind puts the -punk in steampunk.

Jackie Dolamore: The "how much steampunk is required" discussion . . . well, I'm a poor one for that because I don't think I really write true steampunk. I was told my short story needed more science . . . and I definitely don't think I've got the punk part. I think I'm a wee bit more on the "fantasy of manners" side than the "anything-punk" side.

Kelly Fineman: I love the term "fantasy of manners", which (interestingly enough) is sometimes called "mannerpunk" in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. I suppose it's hard to be focused on hierarchical society and still manage to be a punk, yes?

Tiffany Trent: I must secretly (or not-so-secretly) admit that I'm not sure I'm writing true steampunk with these books, either. But Victoriannaturalistpunk is a bit of a mouthful.

2. To your way of thinking, is there a particular time period associated with steampunk?

Tiffany Trent: Tricksy question. It depends on one's focus, I think. Culturally, we could probably look at Chinese steampunk quite early on--they had invented printing presses and movable type long before Gutenberg. And we could look at the Baroque era with its amazing automatons and observatories. Most people think of the Victorian era, but honestly my steampunk is a mashup of Baroque and Victoriana because I'm weird like that.

Jackie Dolamore: I'm sure everyone thinks of Victorians first, but I agree with Tiffany that it could cover a lot more ground. Would love to see more Asian steampunk!! My aforementioned next WIP could probably be tagged as 1920s German steampunk. Where there's technology I suppose there could be steampunk? And if the trend continues I'm sure we'll see more and more variety.

Lisa Mantchev: Because I view steampunk as alternate history, I think it can function in any time period as long as there is steam-driven technology and some sort of industrial revolution occurring. I think we see a lot of Victorian-era England-ish gas lamp fantasies because of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells (and bustle skirts! and top hats!)

Tiffany Trent: Darwin inspires me, of course. Before I started The Unnaturalists, I started a book about Darwin. (Which I still intend to finish). I loved that there was so much fighting about very nature of our being, about using taxonomy and cladistics to try and describe our world. The Linnaean view of life (prevalent at the time) is very different than the one we hold now, thanks to Darwin.

My steampunk is set in Fairyland, basically. It's a "what-if-the-Victorian-naturalists-got-stuck-in-Fairyland?" book. What would they do if they woke up with dragons outside their windows? I tend to think they would do just what they did with nature in this world--shoot it, stuff it, study it, collect lots of it, and maybe find other uses for it. But I liked using the Baroque trappings to indicate an even deeper rigidity and self-righteousness in the culture. Thus, the mix. ;) Haven't gotten to read a lot of multicultural steampunk, but I hear rumors of it being in the works from various quarters. I see lots of it in art—James Ng's art is what I'm thinking of with Chinese steampunk.

3. Who are your favorite steampunk authors?

Tiffany Trent: Well . . . my fellow conspirators here, of course. Cherie Priest. Caitlin Kittredge's YA steampunk Iron Thorn will be out in Feb. and is awesome. I love Philip Reeve, but am not sure he considers himself steampunk or would much appreciate the appellation. I can name more, if interested.

Jackie Dolamore: I loved Kenneth Oppel's trilogy, especially Skybreaker, because the idea of a lost airship floating around forever with frozen dead people and amazing natural treasures on it is exactly that kind of hair-raising awesome I mentioned . . . And the Vögelein comic. Jane Irwin also did an online serial about The Turk, the same automaton that inspired me in the final draft of Magic Under Glass.

As a reader, I don't like my books to be too gadgety or deviate too much from what feels like real history to me (purely personal opinion) but I'm more forgiving with graphic novels because you can have so much fun with the visuals, so there's also Kaja and Phil Foglio's Girl Genius. I've only tracked down the first two volumes, but that's a lot of fun. I'm sure I'll be adding more to the list because there's so much coming out now!

Lisa Mantchev: I just did a panel on steampunk YA, and we also included:
Incarceron and Sapphique by Catherine Fisher
The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare
Leviathan and Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld
The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade
Worldshaker by Richard Harland
Side note: [still Lisa] the more we try to create a list of Must Haves, the narrower the field gets. I'd rather err on the side of "if it's shiny, invite it to the party!"

Tiffany Trent: Agreed re: categorizing the genre. Therein lies the path to stagnation.

Kelly Fineman: LOVE that side note. And I agree wholeheartedly. Then again, I'm not a "purist", and I rather expect there are some longtime spec fic writers who are gnashing their teeth and calling shenanigans on some of the books being labelled as steampunk these days.

Lisa Mantchev: And then there are the longtime spec fic writers who are calling shenanigans on the entire genre, an attitude I find tiresome and elitist.

Jackie Dolamore: I guess I'm not too much into branding or stifling anything, really. I mean, that's why I love YA--because there is so much more diversity in books published, etc., so I certainly don't want to suppress the evolution of subgenres. (We're talking about YA and adult books here, but still... I just want to see creativity and diversity everywhere!) Even if I think 90% of a genre is crap I still hate seeing people knock it because, oh, the 10% is worth it. I mean, some steampunk is just too goggles and gadgets for me, but that's just me. I can see why others might find it appealing, so I think going around knocking it is just obnoxious. (Although I didn't follow the discussion . . . I don't follow the spec fic world.) That goes for anything: paranormal YA, dystopian . . . whatever.

Kelly Fineman: MAJOR thanks to Jackie, Lisa and Tiffany for taking part in a conversation that I found so very interesting, for making me think, and for giving me lists of authors to put on my TBR list (which was already long enough, thank you, but I'm always glad to lengthen it).

A complete round-up of Alt History/Steampunk Week links can be found at Chasing Ray.

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