Tag Archives: fantasy fiction

416. Steampunk I II III

If you go to Amazon, select books, and type in Steampunk, you will get a supposed 100 pages of 16 entries each. No, I didn’t tap through all of them.

In the novel I am presently working on, I had cause to quote Samuel Johnson’s A man who is tired of London, is tired of life. I think I could paraphrase that as a man who is tired of steampunk is tired of reading. Steampunk seems to encompass everything, which makes it a little hard to throw a rope around.

I have been reading proto-steampunk all my life, but the genre (if it is a genre) has only been identified as such since about 1980. What is it, other than everything? I feel a little like a wild kid in a permissive household; how can I be a rebel if I can’t find any boundaries?

Following that train of thought, I recently got hold of the 2008 anthology Steampunk by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. There are also a Steampunk II and a Steampunk III, hence the post title, but I haven’t seen them. Let me start by quoting from their preface:

In this anthology, we’ve tried to provide a blend of the traditional and idiosyncratic, the new and the old, while remaining true to the idea of steampunk as dark pseudo-Victorian fun. You’ll find stories about mechanistic golems, infernal machines, the characters of Jules Verne, and, of course, airships

The anthology Steampunk consist of thirteen excerpts and short stories, and three essays tackling history and definition of steampunk. I read only bits and pieces of the thirteen, and that needs explaining. I generally don’t like short fiction. I read tons of it when I was growing up and some of it was superb, but generally it is long on the clever and short on humanity.

Perhaps if someone had held my feet to the fire and required that I finish them, I would have found more to like in these short stories. Probably not. I skipped Moorcock because I had read the novel from which the excerpt was taken. I skipped Blaylock because I am reading one of his novels now. Both authors are excellent.

Many of the other stories left me cold. They were strings of events happening to people I could not care about. Also, the stories seemed universally dark. That is a valid anthologist’s choice, but I don’t care for horror and I outgrew dystopias thirty years ago. Life is a mixture of light and dark, and literature has to mirror that if it is going to hold my attention.

Mind you, most of what I sampled was reasonably well written. It didn’t fail for lack of skill, but there did seem to be a lot of throwing ideas around without linking them together. Short stories can sometimes get away with that. The steampunk novels I am presently reading all seem far better structured.

However, there was one shining light. Jess Nevins’ introduction: The 19th-Century Roots of Steampunk was a superb explanation of steampunk’s precursors. I learned a lot from Nevins.


415. Life-long Day Job

After twenty some years of teaching
science, I finally got a lab.  SL

Continuing from Monday’s post — Jandrax came out and I went back to writing full time. Those were the years of A Fond Farewell to Dying, Todesgesanga (FFTD translated to German) Valley of the Menhir, Scourge of Heaven, Who Once Were Kin, and the first iteration of Cyan. I know you’ve never seen half of those books, but you will. I promise.

There is no better feeing than sitting down every day and writing, when the results are good. And they were. However, there are few more frustrating feelings than writing good books that don’t sell. After most of a decade of full time writing, it was clear that I couldn’t go on that way, and equally clear that I couldn’t quit. I needed a day job that would leave me some time for writing.

My wife suggested that I substitute teach. The pay was good (compared to minimum wage) and I didn’t have to look for jobs. I signed up, and the jobs came to me. It worked as a stopgap.

I couldn’t do it again, after being an actual teacher. Substitute teaching is to teaching, as going to the dentist is to being a dentist. The best one word description is probably painful.

However, I didn’t feel that way at the time. Yes, the job was boring, and yes, it was glorified babysitting, but I had made a shocking discovery.

I liked the kids. A lot.

You have to understand, I was an only child, raised on a farm, having little contact with other kids. I never had children of my own — by choice. To me, babies are just pre-humans. Kids under ten bore the hell out of me. But these kids were interesting and fun to be around.

I had discovered that middle school kids are more fun than a bucket of puppies. I realize that I am a minority in that opinion, and I also realize that part of my feeling comes from not having to take them home with me, but there it is.

Most teachers want to teach high school or fourth grade. Not me. My days as a substitute teacher in high school were dismal. My days teaching kindergarten were horrific. But middle school was my Goldilocks age — not too young, not too old.

By that time I had two masters degrees, so it didn’t take long to tack on a teaching credential. I took a job in one of the schools where I had substituted and I was still there twenty-seven years later.

In my mind, it was a day job. I continued writing. I continued working on the novels which weren’t quite right, and I wrote Raven’s Run. Years went by. I wrote a novel about teaching, Symphony in a Minor Key, which is running over in Serial right now.

I could tell you all about my first years, describe my first room, and give you insights into the joys and pains of teaching — except that I already have, in Symphony.

After about ten years, it was obvious that I wan’t going to get back to full time writing any time soon. After another decade, I admitted to myself that I wasn’t just a writer who was teaching. I was a teacher. It took me that long to be able to say it without having it sound like a defeat. I never stopped being a writer. I just became a teacher as well. I had two careers, parallel and simultaneous, and there was nothing wrong with that.

I was a writer, and a good one. I was a teacher, and a good one. Nothing wrong with that. After about twenty five years, I could even call myself a teacher out loud.

Now I am a retired teacher, and a full time writer again, with a new book out and another working its way through the computer. But I wouldn’t trade those years of teaching for anything.

414. Day Jobs

I  have had a lot of jobs in my life. The shortest lasted one day. I took a job as a rough carpenter, and spent a day putting blocking between rafters. I had a rough time of it. I had just spent four years indoors working in a naval hospital followed by a year in grad school, and I was out of shape by the standards of the farm boy I had once been. It was a hot summer day in California and I probably wasn’t worth my wages that day, but I would have gotten better. I had the skills for the job, but it was a physical challenge and I was up for it. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the boss said that tomorrow I was to go to a site in Sonora to work. That was a town fifty miles away, not the state in Mexico. I realized that if I had to drive my dying car that far every day to get to work, it would cost me more in gasoline and repairs than I would make at minimum wage.

If you end the day with less money than you started, that isn’t a day job. That’s a mistake. However, when you write your first about the author for your first book or for your website, having worked at a lot of day jobs is an asset. It makes you look worldly and interesting.

Farm worker. That’s a job I didn’t get paid for at all. I started at age eleven and continued until I escaped to college.

Trim carpenter. That sounds skilled, and I am that skilled now. I wasn’t when I did the job, one summer between college terms. I was hired because the wages were so low that people who had the skills wouldn’t apply. I took the job because I was newly married and needed money to carry me through my last year of college.

Horticultural agent, peace corps. That’s a job I applied for, was accepted to, and really wanted, until Nixon did away with the deferment and I had to face my low draft number. I can’t count that one, since I never made it to India, to my eternal disappointment.

Cabinet maker. Another minimum wage job in a local shop to keep body and soul together while waiting for the Navy.

Surgical technician. Yes, really. I spent my naval career in the dental service of a naval hospital, stateside during the Viet Nam war, and happy not to be shot at. Since I was the only enlisted man with a college degree (the recruiter said, “College man? We’ll make you an officer.” Riiiiight!), I became head surgical tech. That meant standing across from the oral surgeon during about 2000 extractions of wisdom teeth.

Surgical nurse. I never count that one, because no one would believe me. The person who stands next to the doctor and hands him his instruments during an operation in the main OR is written down on the report as surgical nurse, whether they are a nurse or just have OJT. I did that maybe two hundred times while I was in the navy, usually on broken jaws, but occasionally on some pretty sophisticated maxillofacial reconstructions. Fascinating, but it didn’t make me a real nurse.

Writer. Nope, not a day job. A lifetime job, but you don’t make minimum wage.

County Red Cross Director. I earned that job. I had become a full time unpublished writer when I started as a Red Cross volunteer. I became a first aid and CPR instructor and taught hundreds of students, then became a member of the board of directors, and finally went full time for fifteen months. There weren’t a lot of applicants, since the job didn’t pay much above minimum wage. Non-profits are like that; they have to get money from donors, and it goes mostly to providing services, not cushy salaries — and that’s as it should be.

I was proud to work for the Red Cross and considered making it a career, but the bureaucracy is brutal. Besides, my first novel came out from Ballantine and I thought I was going to make a living at writing.

Stop laughing. It seemed possible in 1978. more on Wednesday

413. Wherefore Art Thou Steampunk

As they teach us in high school, when Juliet says, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, she means why are you called Romeo, and then goes into a long bit about identity. This post will do the same thing.

I have been writing a steampunk novel since July, and it is going quite well. I am roughly half way through the first draft, and doing my world building as I write. I am also researching what it means to be steampunk.

My justification for writing in an unknown genre is that it really isn’t all that unknown. It is a first cousin to science fiction, to fantasy, to horror, to the novels of Verne, to alternate history when limited to the near-Victorian, to Edisonade (a new name to me for a sub-genre I’ve been reading all my life — think Tom Swift), and to the old west with neo-mechanical devices (a genre that existed long before the Wild Wild West). I’ve been reading all of these, all my life.

The name steampunk was proposed by K. W. Jeter in a letter to Locus. Jetter, James P. Blaylock, and Tim Powers are three big names in early steampunk, but the genre has come a long way since then.

You would be surprised how much research into obscure subjects lies untapped in college libraries in the form of Ph.D. dissertations. I have learned to use the internet to seek them out, since so many of the things I am interested in are quite obscure.

Mike Perschon’s 2012 dissertation The Steampunk Aesthetic can be accessed at https://era.library.ualberta.ca/files/m039k6078#.WbA9kcdllBw. On that page, click Download the full-sized PDF if you want to follow me down that rabbit hole. If not, you could just try Perschon’s website http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.com.

No? Neither? I don’t blame you. Not many people have that much itch, so hang on and I will quote a few of Perschon’s conclusions.

Accordingly, this is not a study of Victorians or Victorianism, but rather a study of steampunk’s hodge-podge appropriation of elements from the Victorian period.

Non-speculative neo-Victorian writing is characterized by an adherence to realism that steampunk rarely cleaves to.

Steampunk (is) not . . . historical fiction per se, but . . .  speculative fiction— science fiction, fantasy, and horror, all mixed into one—that uses history as its playground, not classroom.

The most useful thing Perschon said, from my perspective, is that steampunk is not a genre, but an aesthetic. I had largely come to the same conclusion. The question for me has become not, “is it steampunk,” but rather, “does it taste like steampunk”.

I found that the more carefully I researched the Victorian past, both historically and technologically, the more I was attempting to make my novel fit a set of limitations. I was approaching it the same way I approached Cyan, where I first created a world with certain characteristics, then worked my story around it.

Steampunk doesn’t seem to work that way. In steampunk, an author has an idea of what his world looks like, then comes up with some quasi-magical dingus to make it work. Do you want your airship to be able to lift more and go faster? Invent a gas that never existed. In science fiction terms, it’s more Star Wars than Heinlein. There is nothing wrong with that, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it.

In addition to academia. I am also half-way through a half-dozen recent steampunk novels. I would be further along, but I’ve been a bit busy writing my own. I’ll clue you in on those novels as I finish them.

409. Man Stuff

I wrote this last Thursday. The post, not the quotation.

          Marquart and Dael took a bench in a completed corner. “Tell me how you have things arranged,” he said.
          “None of the wardens will leave their houses until late in the morning. The first will arrive here about midday. We will have roast krytes ready by then . . .” Marquart waved away her recitation. He didn’t care about preparations for food and drink; he was satisfied that there would be plenty of both.
          “Who will sleep where? Who will arrive first, who will stay latest, who will want to get me alone to talk to, who will get drunk quickest, who is likely to pick a fight, and with whom?”
          “Oh, man stuff.”
                                          from Valley of the Menhir

Today, I was writing chapter eleven of my latest steampunk novel. So far my hero (I don’t do wimpy protagonists) has served aboard four dirigibles and has risen in rank from Sub Lieutenant to Lieutenant Commander, brevet, in the British air service. These craft are the result of an unscrupulous Brit who, through theft, intimidation, and assassination has crippled the German airship effort and stolen all their ideas.

Earlier this morning (as I wrote) Lieutenant Commander David James and I settled thirty passengers into their berths on the Henry V, a dirigible of war acting as a passenger vessel carrying diplomats the the Grand Durbar in Delhi. If you don’t know what a durbar is, you’ll find out in coming months. David hated every minute of it.

Then we got a break of several hours as he got to go back to his real job as the lowest member of the group of senior officers, seeing to details as the dirigible, nicknamed Harry in reference to Shakespeare, leaves London for Paris. We have been following David’s career for eleven chapters now, and he has done a little bit of everything as he worked his way up. He will do even more in the future, and we will (metaphorically) stand at his shoulder and give him our moral support.

Man stuff.

The year is 1887, Victoria is on the throne, and our Britain is even stronger than the real one was since they just won the German War, largely through a squad of spies and assassins that remains Britain’s guilty secret. David is one of the few Brits who knows this.

Now its time for me to take David by the shoulders and march him down to the lounge to preside, as a stand-in for the massively scarred Commander VanHoek, over the first evening meal of the cruise. He hates the idea. Actually, so do I. In writing, as in life, sometimes if you want to go to a certain place, the path to get there passes through places you would rather avoid.

I’ve been researching Victorian aristocratic gossip in order to build a world like yet unlike our own. It’s not my cup of Earl Grey, but it is the job I’ve taken on, and I will do it well. Well enough, in fact, to move my readers through the event without arousing their distaste. That’s the writer’s equivalent of “never let them see you sweat”.

Still, I’ll be glad when the dinner is over so David and I can get back down to the engineroom where we can try to get another horsepower out of those damned, recalcitrant McFarland engines.

Man stuff.

405. Blondel’s Future

You really should go to Serial and finish Blondel of Arden before you read this post.

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I enjoyed writing Blondel of Arden. I like formal language, and I don’t get to use it often. I also rarely get the chance to write something completely light.

Blondel was pure fun, with every possible cliché in place. Quite sexist, actually. Somewhat like John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in McClintock or in The Quiet Man. She gives him hell in both movies, and he paddles her at the end. (Pun unintended, but noted.) That is actually more than I can tolerate and I usually turn the TV off somewhere short of the end.

I understand the bondage symbolism in this kind of fiction. The climax of McClintock when O’Hara is running from her husband with all the town cheering him on is too much like a rape scene with spectators for my taste. I stopped well short of that in Blondel of Arden.

Blondel is a cynic, Grat is an innocent, and Sylvia is a twit. That’s thin characterization, but adequate for a short semi-comic piece. I enjoyed this brief encounter with more-or-less cardboard characters.

However, I’m a sucker for people, even people on paper. I thought Sylvia had some quality hidden beneath her flirtatious exterior. I liked her. I thought she had potential.

You have to understand that I wrote this many years ago. I thought of turning it into a novel, but I never will. I have four or five novels waiting in the wings now, and by the time I finish them, I’ll have a half-dozen more tugging at my sleeve.

But when I was considering a novel, this is what I had in mind —

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Sylvia returns home, sans broach, to a pointless round of “women stuff”. She hates it. She misses the one great adventure of her life. She also reviews he own behavior, and finds it wanting. Grat and Blondel served her well and she served them with contempt. She broods about her behavior, and works to make herself better in her everyday round.

This is not enough. She owes a debt. (See, I told you she had quality.) If she can’t pay it, she can at least acknowledge it.

Something – I don’t know what – happens which frees her from her obligations at home. She sets out to find Blondel and Grat, to do something for them if she can, or at least to say thank you and I’m sorry I was such a twit.

Blondel and Grat have become companions. Grat is beginning to lose his innocence. Blondel fears that it is from associating too closely with him. Grat is also lovesick; Sylvia was his first romance and he can’t forget her. Blondel finds this alternatively endearing and irritating.

Blondel’s crust is thinning, and that is dangerous. He is a smart, little guy in a world of ignorant, thundering clods. His ability to “do unto them” quietly and unnoticed is his only defense. Every time he does something self-serving – which is basically how he survives – Grat looks on, once again disappointed in his friend.

Sylvia eventually finds them and joins them. Nobody is really happy with the arrangement. Any pair of the three could find a way to coexist, but the three-way relationship cuts too close to each of their hidden weaknesses.

Each person finds him/herself in peril and escapes that peril only through the aid of the other two. Grat and Sylvia grow in romantic love, while Grat has to wrestle with the understanding that Sylvia is no longer a damsel in distress. Blondel, to his external disgust and his disguised satisfaction, find himself in an avuncular relationship with these two innocents.

What perils? How do they overcome them? Beats me. Writing peril and escape are the easiest parts of writing a novel. They will present themselves as needed, if you know your characters and where they are going to end up.

I was also planning to use this as an excuse to build a story around a fantasy version of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a real event in 1520 when Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France held an extravagant series of jousts in the fading days of classical knighthood. Think kings in golden plate armor whacking each other for sport and bragging rights, in a world where cannon balls could blow fist sized holes through either of them if the battle were real.

This gives us three real and relatable people trying to survive on the fringes of empty magnificence. Now the kings are cardboard — which is their normal state of being.

I don’t have time to take six months to write this novel, but I would love to spend two days reading it.

Blondel 13

“Now, Grat,” Blondel comforted, “not so dramatic, please. Tell me what happened.”

“The brooch is missing and she accused me of stealing it.”

She, then; not Sylvia, any more. Blondel fought hard not to lose his look of concern and asked blandly, “But when would you get the chance to steal it? It hung between her breasts, beneath her bodice.”

Grat flushed and said, “Well, this afternoon . . . by the river, uh . . . Well, dammit, she was willing!“

Now Blondel grinned outright. “At least your day wasn’t a total waste.”

That was no comfort. Grat caught Blondel’s arm and said, “Her father does business with Duke Corrin and his men are after me. What am I to do?”

“I have a fast horse. It is saddled, and it is yours.”

Grat wrung his hand in gratitude and cried out his thanks.

Blondel said, “It is the least that I can do. I held the illusion as long as I could.”

Grat’s mouth dropped and he shouted, “You left the real brooch on the trail?”

“I told you I couldn‘t hold the illusion at a distance. They would have had us otherwise.”

“But why didn‘t you tell me?”

“When, Grat? When could I have gotten you alone? She was on you like lice all the last two days.” Then he chuckled. “Besides, if I had told you, you would have missed this afternoon by the riverbank.”

A broad grin creased Grat’s face. “Aye. That‘s right.” Then he cocked his head, hearing voices beyond the tents, and bolted for the horse Blondel had tethered nearby. Leaning down from the saddle, he thrust out his hand and said, “If we ever meet again, I am your man. You‘ve saved me from a terrible fate.”

Blondel took his hand. “Yes,” he said, thinking of Sylvia. “I think I did.”  finis