Tag Archives: steampunk

556. How it All Began

Let me offer a slightly belated Happy New Year. My first post of the year was tied in to the last/first/only year of the novel Like Clockwork, and my second was an apology for any posts that might be missing this month. I still may miss some, but I am trying to avoid that.

Since we are in the month of beginnings, I thought I would remind my newer followers how this enterprise started. In 2015, EDGE publisher bought my SF novel Cyan, to be released as an e-book in their new EDGE lite (dumb name) line. In honor of that — which is a sneaky way of saying to drum up business for that — I began a blog.

By the way, if you haven’t bought Cyan yet (and why haven’t you?), you can pick it up from Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

Actually, I began a website containing two blogs. The website was to be called A Writing Life and the two blogs were to be called A Writing Life and Serial. It was a glaringly bad decision to call the site and one of the blogs by the same name, but I’m stuck with it now.

Cyan was due out at the beginning of 2016 and actually came out nearly a year and a half late. I had the embarrassing task of explaining every delay in the blog.

Posts were short at first. Here is the first one:

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1. Welcome to my World

Hi, I’m Syd Logsdon. I have been writing novels for four decades, but I’m a new blogger.

When I began, writers wrote, publishers published, and readers bought their books in bookstores – or at least at bookstands which might pop up anywhere. E-books, nooks and kindles, and the internet have changed all that. Now e-books outsell hardbacks and writers have to adapt.

Actually, this is an opportunity for me. Over the years I have accumulated a mass of knowledge, ideas, complaints, irritations, joys, disappointments, and backstage savvy that didn’t fit into any format available to me. Now I have a place to share these things.

What prompted me to start blogging at this time was the release of my e-book Cyan from EDGE, due in January of 2016. If you don’t know them, EDGE is the premier science fiction publisher of Canada.

Cyan is the story of the discovery, exploration, and colonization of a nearby habitable planet, set against the backdrop of cataclysmic overpopulation on Earth, and carried out by a fascinating and varied group of characters.

Old fashioned? No; just temporarily out of fashion.

Recent science fiction has often lost sight of the next century. This is too bad, since we are the last generation which can write what we want about nearby stars before astronomers map the actual planets which exist there.

You can expect daily posts here at A Writing Life. It is set up like a blog, but it isn’t a chronicle of daily activities. Each post is a mini-essay on some subject, current, historical, or timeless.  Most of the time, these posts will come four days a week.

At Serial, in the menu, you will find serialized fiction. Pop over there for details.

Drop in often; you will always find something new.

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A few things changed over the years. It quickly became obvious that running A Writing Life (the blog) four days a week and Serial five days a week was an unnecessary complication. I dropped Serial to four days a week early on.

After nearly four hundred posts of the A Writing Life blog, the four day a week schedule became unsupportable and I dropped to two days a week. Serial changed as well, but I’ll talk about that on Wednesday.

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554. Midwinter Midnight

Last night (Dec. 6), I watched a PBS special on the Highwaymen and heard Kris Kristofferson singing Me and Bobby McGee. One familiar line jumped out at me, and I added it to the page of short quotations that opens Like Clockwork.

I’d trade all of my tomorrows
For one single yesterday

That line encapsulates one of the strongest human sentiments, the fear of loss and the nearly insane clinging to that which cannot last.

What would you do if you were given the chance to relive the prime year of your life? Would you take the chance, or would you proceed into the unknown future?

Like Clockwork asks — and answers — that question. It begins and end at midnight on the last/first day of the Only Year.

Here is the Prolog to Like Clockwork. Or is it an epilog? Or something else altogether? You decide.

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“Tonight Snap has gone down to the Clock for Midwinter Midnight. In just a few minutes, the reversion will occur and I will forget writing this note. It will be midnight of January first, 1850. Not next year, nor last year, but the only year there is.

It isn’t a bad year and it isn’t a particularly good year, but if it is to be my only year, I want more.”

Pilar laid down her pen and listened, straining to hear the song they always sang at midnight:

The year that ends, but never ends,
That ‘ere again unfolds,
We live that year forever and
We never shall grow old

It was probably her imagination. Surely voices could not be heard over such a distance. She rose to move closer to a window and as she did, the note she had written ceased to be. All her memories of the past twelve months ceased to be. Her body sloughed off a year of age and it was January first of the last-this-next-only year.

Again.

553. The Babbage Bureau of Accountancy

Yesterday was Christmas. Today is the 26th of December. Happy Boxing Day.

If Boxing Day is just something British you’ve vaguely heard of, let me explain. It is the holiday on which various workers expect to receive their Christmas-box from those they serve.

I have never written about the commercialism of Christmas. That notion has been done to death, and besides, even Santa’s elves get paid in cookies. Christmas gifts don’t make themselves, you know.

So you can imagine my surprise when, seven chapters into Like Clockwork, the Dickens-inspired steampunk novel that turned out to not be about Christmas, Hemmings appeared without warning and dragged me into exploring the commerce of my pocket London. Take a look.

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Throughout the main building of the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy, ten thousand human computers were required to keep up the constant cross checking of the Great Babbage, as it kept track of every transaction in all the factories and warehouses of London.

It was late November. Christmas was coming, the warehouses were nearly full, and the remaining raw materials had to move through the system to produce the goods, neither running short of materials too soon, nor finishing the last needed item before the final day.

Full employment, full consumption. Everybody has a job. Everybody consumes the goods that everybody else makes. Every tally book balances. The capitalistic ideal.

A single employer. Every job suited to the person who does it. All those tally books replaced by the Great Babbage. The communistic ideal.

Either way, it was no place to be unemployed.

The ten thousand computers counted themselves lucky. They were Time’s Favored Ones. They worked seated, in gentleman’s clothing. They returned home at night unstained. Not for them was the curse of Adam, to work by the sweat of their faces. The middle fingers of their right hands all bore the honorable callus that came from holding a pen. The skin on the rest of their bodies was smooth. Time moved crisply for them, to the smooth rhythm of numerals filling up little blue squares.

In the factories, time moved differently, slowing down and growing more resistant to human movement as the day wore on. That does not seem possible, but young Albert had done work in time dilation according to theories of his own. Time moved smoothly for the computers; time dragged on more slowly as the day progressed for those who bent their backs.

It had always felt that way, throughout the history of mankind, and now it actually was that way.

Morning, morning tea, and luncheon all rolled by with stately grace. It was at 2:18 in the afternoon, November 27, 1850, that Hemmings the computer hit a reef.

His whole job was to check by hand the calculations made by the Great Babbage, looking for errors. On November 27, he found one. Did they thank him? Of course not. The Babbage was incapable of error — even though Hemmings had found one — so they fired him.

Hemmings stood on the street in front of the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy and stared upward, considering the machine which had just become his nemesis. He had never seen the Great Babbage itself, but he imagined it as a massive collection of repeating components, interlaced with walkways where the technicians came and went to clean and oil and inspect. There were a trillion gears, cams, and escapements in his mental image. There were Jacquardian punch cards by the waggon load, as many cards as there were oysters in the ocean.

As many as there had been oysters, when there was an ocean.

Now the picture in his mind had changed. Not much, really, but enough. There was rust on some of the gears now, and some unidentifiable ooze coming out of some of the housings. Hemmings shook his head, trying to clear his mind. He knew the rust was hatred and the ooze was envy, and that they were in him, not the machine.

Still, here he was, with no place in the world, ripped out of the one thing he had been trained to do. With no money to buy his food or pay his rent, no companions, no usefulness to stabilize his identity.

Every stone and brick in London was unchanged, but Hemmings was changed, and suddenly he was as adrift as a chip of wood floating somewhere on the ocean.

When there had been an ocean.

There was no fight in him. He ate his supper where he always did, but this time he sat alone. There were very few coins left in his pocket. Then he walked.

All the streets were well lighted by gaslight. There was no refuse in the gutters. There were few pedestrians, and they all were moving purposefully toward someplace they belonged. He looked at their faces. He had never cared before to look into the faces of the strangers he passed by each day, but now he chose to examine them.

Their faces were calm and peaceful, but there was no joy in them.

He wandered into darkness. By that time, he owned the empty streets. He needed sleep, but it was hard to choose a place to lie down. Every place was identical to every other place. It clearly did not matter where he slept, but that was why he couldn’t choose.

Every clock-face on every building-face in all of London said 3:35 when he could no longer stand. He crawled behind an ash can and let go of everything.

He dreamed of whirling gears, and rust, and ooze.

On the third day, his coins ran out. He did not eat on the fourth day. He had never been hungry before, and the misery of that condition frightened him. He considered stealing. He could go into the place where he had always eaten, scoop up a loaf of bread, and walk away. They probably wouldn’t chase him, at least not far.

Then what? Would the — bobbies, peelers, cops, pigs, police — come to get him? He realized that all the names he had dredged up from deep memory were without weight or taste. He had never seen a policeman, not in a thousand iterations of the year.

What kind of place is so smug, so self-righteous, so self-certain that no one breaks the law? How could there be no rebellion?

He could probably become invisible to the machinery of the state and make his living by simple theft. Could the Great Babbage find him? How? Track him by arithmetic errors, by all the places which reported one less loaf of bread than the Great Babbage had predicted?

Try to find me, you bucket of rusty gears and ooze.

He considered the possibility of living by theft, outside the norms of the rest of mankind, and it tore at his heart. The thought hurt him more than hunger.

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Now, back to our world.

There I was, sitting at my computer, comfortably contemplating my novel of a variant Dickensian London, when suddenly Hemmings appeared. Now my pocket London was split in two. Half would have looked familiar to Scrooge, and the other half was as four-square and linear as an equation. One half was under thrall to the Great Babbage and the other half to the Great Clock that kept turning time back on itself.

Weird. I’ll let you know when you can read it for yourself and see just how weird.

548. Victorian Steampunk?

 

Please note that Serial is back temporarily, to present the short story by Dickens which was a predecessor to A Christmas Carol. It starts today. Check it out.

 

 

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The Victorian era — was there such a thing?

Victoria became Queen in 1837 and died in 1901, a reign of just short of sixty-four years. Everything in Britain changed in that time except the Queen, so does the phrase Victorian Era have any real meaning?

If you are going to write steampunk, that is a fair question. Of course steampunk usually takes place in an alternate Victorian era — sometimes extremely alternate — but you have to have at least a reasonable knowledge of the original if you are going to mimic it.

Most of us get our history everywhere but a history book, so let’s see what fiction we can use to subdivide the era. Jane Austen, the Brontes, and the Queen were born only a few years apart, so if you enjoy those authors, you are reading about the early Victorian period. Not my wheelhouse, but to each his own.

More to my taste, Charles Dickens’s first novel was published in 1837, the year Victoria became queen. His last novel (uncompleted) and his death took place in 1870. At that time Victoria still had three decades to live.

The Dickensian era is almost as widely known as the Victorian. In full disclosure, I have read all of Dickens’s Christmas novellas — A Christmas Carol several times — but his larger works tend to defeat me. I think I was inoculated against them by being force-fed Great Expectations at too young an age.

Not everyone reads Dickens by choice, but everyone knows what Dickensian means. Judith Flanders in The Victorian City, said:

Today “Dickensian” means squalor . . .(Dickens was) the greatest recorder the London streets has ever known — through whose eyes those streets have become Dickensian . . .

She got it right for her literary audience, but wrong for those who never read a Dickens novel that they weren’t forced to read. Dickensian, to the average Joe (or Joan) means carolers in fancy dress, Scrooge redeemed, Tiny Tim getting a second chance at life, and a village of quaint houses for the Christmas mantle. The actual harshness of Dickens’s other novels is excluded.

The squalor and the sweetness: that is the dual heritage that steampunk authors have to work with if they set their works in variations of the early Victorian period.

As I explained last Wednesday, Like Clockwork is derived from A Christmas Carol, although it morphed into something very different from a Christmas novel. I don’t think Dickens would recognize my London at all.

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From 1870 when Dickens died, until 1901 when Queen Victoria died, the world became a very different place from the home of Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and Oliver Twist. The industrial revolution changed the world into something much closer to the present.

You might choose Jules Verne as the author that most represents this era, but not if you are concentrating on England. Verne would be the right literary reference for a steampunk novel set in the La Belle Époque, Paris. If you know of such a work, send me the author and title. I would love to read it.

My earlier steampunk novel, The Cost of Empire, travels across five continents by dirigible, but much of the action takes place in London. For that time period in London, there is only one literary creature who is in everyone’s DNA; not an author, but a character who is more real to most of us than the author who created him — Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes first case, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887, and there were flashbacks to earlier cases. His Last Bow was on the eve of World War I. This neatly fills in the rest of the Victorian era and spills over into the Edwardian.

Gender gets involved here. Dickens appeals, or doesn’t appeal, to men and women alike. The rest of British popular literature, contemporary to the era (not historical fiction) is largely gender biased, with Austen and the Brontes for the gals, Kipling, Buchan, and Conan Doyle for the guys.

In other words, if you are a guy (guilty as charged) and you consider Victorian characters, you are more likely to think first of Sherlock Holmes than of Elizabeth Bennet — or even Mr. Darcy.

When I first became involved in the Victorian era, after becoming interested in steampunk, my knowledge of everyday life in London came largely from multiple readings of the canon. That is what Holmes fans call the fifty-six stories and four novels written by ACD himself.  My internal vision of Victorian London was that which could be seen from 221b Baker Street, even though Sherlock himself never makes an appearance in my writings.

Yet.

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If you want a reference book for each era, I recommend:

For the early Victorian period — The Victorian City by Judith Flanders. She gives a modern scholar’s look at the reality behind the world that Dickens wrote about.

For the late Victorian period — Sherlock Holmes: the Man and his World by H. R. F. Keating. He provides commentary on Holmes’s world, with contemporary photographs of scenes from the canon.

547. Where Do You Get Your Ideas (2)

Continued from Monday.

In the movie Scrooge, just after Bob Cratchit leaves Scrooge to return home on Christmas eve, he meets his two youngest children outside a toyshop. Inside is a wonderland of toys, including mechanical marvels. Most notable is a clockwork strongman who lifts himself horizontally and then holds himself suspended by one arm. You’ll no doubt see the movie on TV sometime this month; you can watch for the scene.

When I saw it — and every time thereafter — I found myself asking who, in an obviously poor corner of London, would buy such toys? Who would make them? Why were they there?

I buy into Christmas and its magic 100%, but I also look behind the curtain. If you are a writer, you know the feeling.

Clearly, historically, these were late Victorian toys. Their existence was a product of Dickens’ push for humanity, kindness, and his desire to make childhood the joy it never was for him. In short, these toys existed in the 1970 version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol precisely because Dickens had called them forth by the writing of the novel in 1843.

If that confused you, don’t try to write time travel stories.

As I saw the toyshop, and the poor children outside who would never have such toys, I said to myself:

Let’s write a story about the toyshop, and the man who inhabits it. Let’s make him the toy maker, not simply the proprietor. How does he feel when he see children pressing their faces against the glass, knowing that they cannot afford the toys he makes? Why is he in this poor part of London? What is his backstory?

Let’s not make him a simple fellow like the one in the movie. Let’s make him a brooding figure. Let’s unfold his story slowly, and let him find his own kind of redemption. Let’s not make him anything like Scrooge, but the product of some irreversible tragedy outside himself. And then let’s reverse the irreversible, but slowly.

The skeleton of this idea floated about in the ether for decades. The final connections came when I was writing The Cost of Empire and getting acquainted with steampunk traditions.

Clockwork. Steampunk worlds work on steam and on clockwork. The toys in the toy shop are clockwork. Clocks are clockwork. Clocks measure time. Steampunk is full of time travel. Time travel is based on unsupportable science, so it touches on fantasy. A Christmas Carol is full of fantasy, if you count ghosts impinging on the “real” world as fantasy.

Remember, the subtitle of Dickens’ story was Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.

When you come right down to it, A Christmas Carol is a story about time travel. Three ghosts take Scrooge to the past, present, and future. And it displays the most cliché time paradox, that Scrooge goes back in time (from the future to the present) and becomes a different person than he would have been if he had never seen the future.

So suppose a time traveler from the future goes back to Victorian London to — no, I don’t want to tell you that yet. I have to leave something for the book.

Don’t think of all this speculation as something that moves in linear order, like an outline. Think of it as ten thousand bees in a swarm inside the author’s head. Nine thousand of those bees will be blind alleys and will never appear in the final product.

The ones that made the cut were dragged out of the cosmos by hard thought and reflection over the year it took to write Like Clockwork. Those are the “ideas” no one ever asks about, but they are the ones that really count.

The ironic thing is that Like Clockwork ended up not being a Christmas story at all. In fact, it takes place in a universe where Christmas has been all but forgotten. The part of the novel actually dependent on the toy shop ends up as about ten percent of the whole.

So if, on some future date, you are reading Like Clockwork and you ask yourself, “Where the hell did all this come from?” — the answer is, “Dickens made me do it.”

Or the answer could be, “Out of the ether.” Both answers are true.

543. The Door

 

Photo: Marcin Konsek / Wikimedia Commons

Here is a quote for you, hot off the grill.

There is a door. On one side is written Science Fiction. On the other side is written Fantasy. You can come from either side, and pass through either way, but it will still be the same door.

You can write pure, hard science fiction, and you can write pure fantasy. At least you can try to, but no matter how much you try there will always be a modicum of fantasy in science fiction. And fantasy will always have a hard edge of life and death, or it won’t be worth reading.

Like Clockwork sounds like fantasy until half way through, when all the weird things are shown to have a scientific basis — more or less. And in the middle of the setting of the story, there is an arch between Inner London, which looks like a Dickens movie set, and Outer London, which looks like an equation.

 Snap’s world lay pinned against the Thames, from St. Paul’s to the Clock and on to the Tower, with London Bridge somewhere near the middle. It would be hard to chart the boundaries of Snap’s world, as it was a world of fogs.

Balfour walked with Snap as far as Pickwick’s and took his leave. From there, his path took him along the wider thoroughfares — and the widest were none too wide — past the shell of St. Paul’s. It was familiar territory for Balfour. He was one of the few whose nature allowed him to move freely between Inner and Outer London.

Eventually, he reached The Wall at Newgate Arch. As he faced the opening, it was a weathered arch with carvings mellowed by the corrosive fog until they were quite unreadable.  He passed through and looked back. On this side of the wall, the gate was foursquare and framed in brick. Every brick was identical and a caliper could not have found a variation in the lines of mortar.

The city beyond was foursquare as well, with rectangular buildings on rectilinear streets. A small fragment of humanity lived with Snap in Luddie London; the rest lived here.

Yin and yang. Dark and light. Old and new. The look of fantasy and the look of science fiction. It makes for a nice tension.

541. Who is Balfour?

If there is a single characteristic of Steampunk that stands out as nearly universal, it is the use of changed versions of real persons. For instance, in The Cost of Empire, I made some fundamental changes in the British royal family (Victorian era) to get the Prince of Wales I needed for the story.

In Like Clockwork, there are quite a few alternate real people who pop up at the very end, but the most important is Balfour who is one of the main characters. You met him just before and on Halloween. Today we find him ruminating on what he has learned.

#     #     #

What do you do the day after your alter ego calls you out? Balfour spent the day in bed.

First he replayed the moment Hyde — he still thought of him as a separate person — had said, “Why now? Why not now?” It was a valid observation, but it missed the point. For endless iterations of the year, Balfour had not remembered.

“Why now?” was a valid question, and Hyde had not answered it. Why not yesterday, or a year ago, or a hundred years ago? How could Balfour change in a changeless land? Or was the land itself finally beginning to change?

Balfour took The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the shelf where it had lain unread and unremembered. He spent some time with it. It now seemed cumbersome and circuitous, but the ghost of Hyde had understood it well. It was a piece of rebellion against his father’s religion and a piece of youthful arrogance, all jumbled together.

Balfour remembered other books he had written, or Stevenson had written, now that the dam against memory had partially broken. He remembered his youthful travelogues, and he remembered Treasure Island, the book that had made him rich. When he wrote Kidnapped he had finally given David Balfour one of his own names, and now he was using it again. He thought fondly of that character, and fondly of his young self, so far in the past that even the memories were ghostly.

He remembered Edinburgh and thought, “London is not my town. Give me Auld Reekie any time, with its narrow twisted streets stretching from Holyrood to the Castle.”

He remembered Fanny, his wife, and how hard it had been to win her. He remembered her children. He had written a book of poems for them, and for all the other children of the world.

He remembered a race of dark skinned people who had found him strange, but had made him one of their own. He also remembered a single poem written on a grave in that hot and humid land.

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

It was a lie. He had not laid himself down with a will. He had laid down in exhaustion after a lifetime of fighting tuberculosis, happy to have the pain stop and happy not to face once more the terror of being unable to breathe; but not happy to let go of the life and the people he had loved.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born in 1850, and now he was living in an eternal 1850, not as an infant, but as a grown man with the accomplishments of a lifetime behind him.

A whole lifetime. A lifetime that tunneled all the way from that squalling infant in Scotland to a tombstone on a mountaintop in Samoa.

How could that be?

He had some of the memories of Stevenson, but the man himself had lived and died, and surely was no more. Hyde, who lived in his soul, had said to call himself Stevenson, but what was he really? Not the man himself; at best, a shade of the man. A memory, lying in bed, remembering.

He squirmed and groaned, and fought with those memories that were his, and yet were not his.

The first memory he could call his own, separate from Stevenson, was this room. He had no memory of choosing the Clock in the time Before. Whatever had brought him here, it was by a different path than any other citizen of this new London had taken.

Whatever else he was, he was Balfour, and he had been Balfour for endless iterations of the year. He had a face that looked like the face on the cover of Stevenson’s books. He had a lean body that served him well. Stevenson had been sickly, consumptive, and Balfour was not.

The man — or the shade of the man — who had passed from Edinburgh to Samoa, wracked with tuberculosis, fighting weakness all the way, through poverty to riches, from obscurity and parental disapproval to universal fame, was not content to leave things the way they were.

He was not truly Stevenson and this was not truly 1850 by a wide margin. He was Balfour, and he was ready to do battle once again to find out what it all meant.

Curious? Sure you are. Want more? It’s coming.