Tag Archives: steampunk

397. University of Steampunk

Here I am, quoting myself, from Golden Age of Science Fiction:

Recently I have been reading Neil and Neal, Gaiman and Stephenson, but I know I must have missed a feast of others. I have probably missed more than one feast. Is there a Golden Age of Steampunk? Probably, but I don’t know the sub-genre well enough to talk about it.

Since I wrote that, I have interacted with a bunch of steampunk authors, done a lot of research, and concluded that, “Yes, I was right. There is a golden age of steampunk and it is now about a century and a half deep.”

I love steampunk. i already knew that. But now I have a better handle on what steampunk is, and I am continuing to pursue my education. Let’s call it University of Steampunk (self-inflicted) and I am inviting you to come along. And don’t hesitate to use reply to tell me when you think I’m wrong.

Not only am I immersing myself in steampunk research, I am also writing my first steampunk novel. Since Westercon, it has tumbled out onto the screen. I have it fully outlined, with initial drafts of the introduction and first two chapters.

The rest of this post is drawn from the draft introduction.

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This novel, as yet unnamed, working title Durbar, is steampunk, pure and simple, and designed to be so. It differs from other steampunk novels only in that it emphasizes strong scientific and historical excuses for the prevalence of steam power and pseudo-Victorian culture.

My literary introduction to that age on our own planet did not come from Austen, the Brontes and their ilk. My literary Victorian/Edwardians were Holmes and Watson, Hannay and all his friends, and Davies and Carruthers; in other words, the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, and Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands.

I can tell you the exact hour the new novel was born. I had gone looking for understanding of the steampunk phenomenon. I was aware of the movement; it seemed to always be in the periphery of my vision, but it wouldn’t come clear. Certainly Jules Verne, especially Twenty Thousand League Under the Sea, was steampunk before steampunk. So was the Wild Wild West, and both were staples of my childhood. I had stumbled onto Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn while teaching middle school. It was a fine novel which seemed on the verge of steampunk without completely fitting the mold.

Add a few inspiring steampunk short stories off the internet and childhood memories of reading my grandfather’s copy of Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle — also steampunk before steampunk — and I was ready to write something of my own. Still, it is foolish to write in somebody else’s genre without understanding the boundaries.

I visited a series to panels on steampunk while I was at Westercon 70. I found an inviting openness and nobody seemed interested in defending boundaries. I also came to appreciate the culture of steampunk (their term) and the joys of cosplay. Appreciate, not join in; I’m the guy in the corner, not the dressed up dude on the stage.

The panel which saw the birth of my new novel was called The Science of Steampunk: What Makes the Gears Go Round? As it turned out, there are steampunk authors who are perfectly happy to write their novels without caring what makes the gears go round, and there are also hard-science types who just can’t live that way. This panel had about an equal mix of those two.

They all had fun with the question, but the only scientific underpinning for some kinds of steampunk is magic. I enjoyed the interchange, and I want to thank Ashley Carlson, Bruce Davis, Steve Howe (not the guitarist), Susan Lazear and David Lee Summers — and Ryan Dalton who moderated — for the education.

As I was listening to the science types trying to find an equation for magic, it occurred to me that is would be great fun to write a novel which did tie up all the scientific and historical underpinnings of a steampunk world, neatly and realistically.

That was when two bombs went off in my head. I’m not ready to go public with what they were, but In the course of an hour, the new novel had gone from nonexistent to a full blown embryo. My thanks to the panel, but don’t expect any royalties.

385. Westercon Report

I flew down to Tempe (part of greater Phoenix) to attend Westercon 70. It was a business trip — right? Like an amusement park attendant going to Disneyland is a business trip. That is, I had to go, but I had great fun.

There were panels and workshop on many subjects. I concentrated on the Books and Authors section, where there were enough things happening to keep me occupied three times over. I missed a lot of good stuff because I was presenting, or because something I couldn’t miss kept me away from something I didn’t want to miss. There were also panels on Art, Diversity, Fandom, Science, Steampunk and more, most of which I didn’t have time to attend.

I finally feel like I have a handle on what Steampunk is all about. I was born on the Nautilus, grew up with the Wild Wild West, and flipped out about Brisco. I have read a few Steampunk novels, and some short stories, and liked them all, but I never got what these people with goggles and gears glued to their clothing were all about. After two panels about Steampunk as literature, by Steampunk writers, and a panel by costumed members of Steampunk culture, I get it. And I like it — although you’ll never see me in costume. I also got the kernel of a new novel. That one is your fault, Steve Howe (not the guitarist) and Bruce Davis. Thank you Ashley Carlson, Suzanne Lazear and David Lee Summers for the literary education on Steampunk, and thank you Dirk Folmer, Katherine Stewart, and Madame Askew for the cultural education.

Those are just a few of the authors I met. They were mostly young people. Understand that, at my age, young is defined as under forty, and there weren’t many under thirty because it takes some time to have enough books published to get invited.

I won’t name drop at this time, except for Amy Nichols whose reading from Now That You’re Here (or was it While You Were Gone — I missed something at the introduction) was calm, clean, and unaffected, and sounded just like a teenager. The character in the book, that is; not Amy. I will testify that science fiction and fantasy are in good hands. I have at least a dozen new books on my must-read list, and a lot more on my want-to-read list. I expect to provide some reviews here and on Goodreads and Amazon. After all, that is how readers keep their favorites in sales, so they will be able to write more books.

I learned a hundred other technical tidbits on writing and publishing, but I won’t share them until I’ve tried them.

Worldcon is in my back yard next year. I can’t wait.

Golden Age of Science Fiction (3)

Raven’s Run concluded Monday, May 22. A new novel will begin soon.  Meanwhile, this is the third of three posts of material for the panel “What Makes the Golden Age Golden?”, to be presented at Westercon.

.  .  .  Some say the golden age was circa 1928; some say 1939; some favor 1953, or 1970 or 1984. The arguments rage til the small of the morning, and nothing is ever resolved.
         Because the real golden age of science fiction is twelve.
                                   David Hartwell

That the golden age of science fiction is twelve — or thirteen — has some validity, but also has limitations. If you are a thinking reader, the golden age of science fiction begins when your maturity begins.

For fun, let’s put that into pseudo-mathematical terms:


Old age comes when you also subtract enthusiasm — some of us will never reach it. A mature reader loves the good stuff (by his/her lights) but doesn’t love everything.

I had a life crisis just short of my sixteenth birthday that drop kicked me into maturity. From sixteen to college was Hell. Then I escaped. Once I was on my own, I grew like a weed after a rain storm — fast, sprawling, and a little bit prickly. I reveled in being part of a community of scholars, but I didn’t ignore that rack of science fiction paperbacks at the back of the college book store.

I had read The Way of All Flesh in high school. Samuel Butler was good. I read Davy after I was on my own. Pangborn was better.

I had read the stories in the Old Testament in church, sitting in the back pew, with my Bible in my lap so I could look like I was listening to the preacher. They weren’t bad. I read A Wizard of Earthsea after I escaped. Le Guin was better.

I don’t disparage the classics, but consider this. Setting aside the universals of the human experience (which are reason enough to go to the classics), Dickens and Butler were fighting the battles of their day. Those battles were won or lost before we were born. The best science fiction writers are fighting the battles of today and tomorrow.

Is Dickson as good as Dickens? I doubt it. But the Friendlies, the Exotics and the Dorsai are probably more relevant to today than Oliver Twist. Aside from the universals, that is.

My college roommate introduced me to Marvel comics, something that wasn’t allowed in my childhood home. That led to a decade long addiction. I finally kicked Marvel cold turkey, so I would have money enough to eat. I swear the idea of crossovers would make Wall Street proud.

My roommate also introduced me to the Lensman books. Thanks, Bob. It’s hard to read them fifty years later without lip-syncing, but I still do.

If you read enough, and treasure the good stuff, you will create your own golden age.

You can find my golden age in tattered paperbacks on the shelves of my writing room. They are the ones I didn’t get rid of, out of the thousands I read. You will find Ursula Le Guin there, but shoved to the back. Her fantasies would be at the top of my fantasy list, and a long way above Lord of the Rings, but not her science fiction. They are all thoughtful, intelligent, meaningful, and powerful. The problem is the people with whom she populated them. They were all Mrs. Brown’s of both genders (including both genders in alteration in Left Hand of Darkness). How someone who created Sparrowhawk/Ged could fail to write any science fiction protagonist I could like, even while I was enjoying her stories and respecting her skill, is a continuing mystery to me.

You will find Pavane on those shelves. It is my second favorite fantasy and near the top in science fiction. Technically an alternate timeline story, Pavane tastes like fantasy. If they ever put on a panel, “Is there any difference between science fiction and fantasy?”, I’ll propose Pavane as exhibit number one, for the prosecution and the defense.

The Road to Corlay is there, along with everything Zelazny wrote; also everything from Dickson’s Childe Cycle, but very little of his other writing. Everything from Heinlein is there, even For Us the Living. I don’t understand why, but I re-read Heinlein more than any other author. If I could solve the conundrum of Heinlein, and apply it to my own writing, I could make a million dollars and be equally loved and hated by the whole science fiction community.

I could go on for hours, but you would quit reading. It doesn’t really matter what makes up my personal golden age. It only matters what makes up yours.

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And then there was New Age.

No concept as fuzzy as New Age has boundaries. It’s even hard to point to a center. Is Michael Moorcock part of it? Certainly. Harlan Ellison? Maybe. Defining New Age is like trying to nail fog to the wall.

During the sixties and seventies, everybody was talking about the New Age. It was going to save moribund science fiction from itself. It was going to destroy science fiction by drowning it in a sea of whining. It depended on who you were listening to.

I never was clear on who was or wasn’t New Age. I just knew there was a lot of weird new stuff coming down and I really liked a lot of it.

J. G. Ballard blew my mind. I never knew where-the-hell his stories were going while I was reading them. I often wasn’t sure after I had finished. If you ever despair of the decency of humanity, don’t read “Deep End”, and least not if you have the means of suicide ready to hand.

Harlan Ellison was the best writer of short stories ever. No qualifiers. If you want a clinic on how to craft the perfect last line, without gimmicks, read “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”.

If you want a clinic on how to write a soap opera, in the sense of a story that goes on and on with each sub-climax leading to new start, with suspense and resolution, but no final resolution — in short, a story that can go on forever and keep its readers happily following book after book — read Zelazny’s Amber series. It will take a while. Or if you want to sample Zelazny in a short novel that doesn’t commit you to a lifetime of reading, try Isle of the Dead.

I think there is one golden age that I missed. About mid-eighties I hit a dry spell in my writing — or more accurately, in my selling. It had consequences. When I saw a newly published science fiction novel that wasn’t as good as mine, I got angry. When I saw a newly published science fiction novel that was better than mine, I got depressed.

I was still re-reading old science fiction, and new novels by old favorite authors. I found some new favorites — John Varley, David Brin, and others come to mind — but I largely bypassed a generation of new writers. Recently I have been reading Neil and Neal, Gaiman and Stephenson, but I know I must have missed a feast of others.

I have probably missed more than one feast. Is there a Golden Age of Steampunk? Probably, but I don’t know the sub-genre well enough to talk about it.

So now I’m off to Westercon to participate in a few panels, including the Golden Age panel that prompted this series of posts. While I’m on that stage, I’ll not only be sharing my thoughts, but also taking notes. I have some catching up to do.

These posts called out a short story, which will show up Monday, over in the A Writing Life side of this website.


This is an insert, placed in the last days before Westercon. The change in the Golden Age panel caused me to write additional material on the subject of political correctness getting in the way of reading old books, but the earliest space available for that post is on July 13. Click here to go there. If you saw me at Westercon, and have arrived here via the Westercon page, I think you can get to the post early. If you click and nothing happens, try again after the 13th. Sometimes posting seems to have all the paradoxes of time travel.