Tag Archives: Westercon

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.


387. Buchan the Racist

Getting ready for Westercon, I prepared a set of notes, placed as posts, for the panel What made the golden age golden? I was under the impression that it would be history and homage, and made notes appropriate for that. I was wrong, and it isn’t the first time I have spent time off track by starting before I had full information. When i’m ready to start a project, I’m ready, and sometimes I pay the price.

After I had posted my notes-to-self, but long before Westercon, I received this description of the panel:

Heinlein and Asimov are two pillars of the Golden Age of Sci-Fi. But reading those works with modern eyes can reveal attitudes that would be unacceptable in modern times. What can we learn from the classics when we look past the sexist and racist attitudes that pervaded the works of that time? Can we still appreciate works that present unacceptable ideologies?

Well, that’s a bit of a different story. No problem. I am always ready to fight the forces of political correctness.

I’ve been to this rodeo before. Once, several years ago, I was looking at on-line reviews of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps. I don’t remember why, but I do remember a review that ripped Buchan as a racist for seemingly anti-Semitic statements in that novel. I wrote a counter-review; both have since disappeared.

For those who don’t know him, John Buchan was a popular British novelist of the early twentieth century. He is very much a pro-British patriot, with the prejudices that implies. Think Kipling light. And he was a racist, but not an anti-Semite. I say that not as a scholar, but as a fan, who has read and re-read his works.

If you read him at length, his distaste for African blacks comes through loud and clear. His Jews, on the other hand, show up as both heroes and villains, just like his Germans and his Englishmen. But if you only read a little, you can be fooled.

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To follow through on this, I used one of my favorite techniques. I recommend that you put this into your bag of tricks. I went to Project Gutenberg, downloaded The 39 Steps in Rich Text format, then cut and pasted that into my word processor. Now I had all 41,264 words in a searchable form.

One more hint. RTF will be hard to read because its wide line-length makes it look like bad modern poetry. Just switch your word processor to horizontal format and it will be much easier to work with.

The reviewer who started this controversy had complained about Buchan because of the words of one of his characters, Scudder. If you don’t know the book, Scudder is a kind of amateur spy who finds out that bad people are about to start World War I, and catch England off guard. This is what Hannay, the main character, says, quoting Scudder:

The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern.  If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English.  But he cuts no ice.  If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog.  He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes.  But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake.  Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.

Wow! That sounds pretty anti-Semitic, and the reviewer who started this conversation took it as proof positive. But let’s wait a minute. Assume that the character Scudder is the worst anti-Semite since Hitler — does it follow that Buchan hated Jews? I wrote a mass murderer into Cyan — does that mean I approve of mass murder?

You can’t read the words of a fictional character as the opinion of the author, especially if you are looking at a minor character of questionable honesty.

Scudder dies in chapter one and his quest is taken over by Richard Hannay, the actual main character in this and several other novels. If you look closely at the character of Hannay and a dozen other lead characters in two dozen other novels, then you will come closer to having a fair and defensible picture of Buchan’s attitude.

In point of fact, not only was Scudder a minor character, he was also a liar. The reviewer who cried bigot never found this out because he quit the novel early. I knew that he was, but I needed a quote as proof. To find this, I searched for the word Scudder in my Find and Replace function. His name appears 65 times in the book because Hannay keeps thinking about him. Click and read. Click and read. Click and read. I found the passage I remembered at the beginning of chapter four.

The little man had told me a pack of lies.  All his yarns about the Balkans and the Jew-Anarchists and the Foreign Office Conference were eyewash . . .

Hannay worries at Scudder’s diary, taken off his body, because it seems odd, almost as if it were a cypher, and Hannay is good at cyphers. Sure enough, the Jew-Anarchist plot is just a cover for a much deeper plot (not by Jews), which Hannay foils by the end of the book.

So, everybody was a nice, unbigoted person and it was all a misunderstanding? If it were only that simple.

Reread the first quote, if you can stomach it. How would that passage play in a book published in 2017? When it was published in 1915, the book was a hit. Nobody minded that passage at all.

After Hitler and the holocaust, anti-Semitism fell out of favor. Before that, it was everywhere, in Europe and America. An actually anti-Semitic book in England in 1915 would have raised no eyebrows.

Was Buchan a bigot? Yes and no. He was not anti-German, he was not anti-Semitic, but he was anti-African. How do I know? I have more than a dozen of his books, some multiple times. You can’t know from assumptions, and you can’t know from reading one book.

Bringing this back to the Golden Age of science fiction, we should be able to read and appreciate authors like Heinlein when he depicts mannerisms that are foreign to us. (Or to be fair, foreign to you; I grew up in the same era and it all seems normal to me, even when I disagree with it.) The fact, for example, that Joan Freeman in Lost Legacy is the object of mild sexist teasing should not mask the fact that she is a full participant in the action.

Nevertheless, understanding is one thing, enjoyment is another. There is a limit, and it varies with each of us. For me, Heinlein sometimes seems silly, but I still read and enjoy everything but Farnham’s Freehold. That one goes on my never-again list, along with John Buchan’s anti-Black tirade Prester John.

POSTSCRIPT: As it turned out, everyone on the panel ignored the description and we just talked about how great the golden age was. The forces of political correctness never raised their heads.

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.

384. How to Sign an Ebook

I was involved in a book signing years ago, and had/will have two at Westercon. [Two weeks from now as I write this, one week ago as you read it.] Which begs the question — how do you sign an eBook? I’ll answer that below, but first . . .

Jandrax came out in 1978, and the Stacey’s book store in the local mall invited me to do a signing.


After writing that last sentence, I did a quick internet search to see what happened to Stacey’s. I knew it disappeared later, but I couldn’t remember what year. I discovered that my Stacey’s was a spin-off of the well known San Francisco store and I had to work my way through obituaries to that great institution. I finally found someone who knew the fate of my local store. It closed in 1994. To quote my source

 . . . in 1994, Borders and Waldenbooks joined forces – and like a tidal wave of orcs, they swept across the land, mercilessly engulfing independent bookstores. Ashes to ashes, Stacey’s.  RIP, The Bookstore in Modesto.

Waldenbooks? I had completely forgotten them. They used to be at the other end of the mall, but they too are gone with the wind. I liked that store. I also liked both of the Borders stores that were within driving distance. Barnes and Nobel wiped them out years ago.

The upside is that Barnes and Nobel is also a fine bookstore with two local outlets. Today it is beleaguered by Amazon. If they go I’ll miss them, too.

I also miss The Bookstore, a true independent in another location across town. It was replaced by a Christian bookstore. The Christian bookstore went out of business later. Apparently, not even God can fight The Big Book Monopoly.

Because I like old books, and because I am usually short of cash, I shop at used bookstores. There are half a dozen in my five county area, but I also know of another ten, all of which have gone bankrupt in the last two decades. Ironically, when I want an old book that isn’t available locally, I buy from used bookstores on the internet — brokered by Amazon.

If you want to buy my latest novel, Cyan, you have to go to Amazon for now, where you can download it or order it in paperback. On July 17 it will become available everywhere. That is, everywhere on the internet.

The internet giveth, and the internet taketh away. That’s not a battle cry, just a recognition of the reality of change.

So back to what I was saying:  Jandrax came out in 1978, and the Stacey’s book store in the local mall invited me to do a signing. It was great fun, although most people stopped, smiled, looked, and left without buying a copy.

When things got slow, the manager explained some of the financial realities of his life. He said that when books came in, and didn’t sell, it would cost too much to send them back. They simply ripped the covers off and sent them back instead, for full credit against their account. Then they threw the coverless books into the dumpster.

He pulled a copy of Silmarillion, just published, off the shelf, tore off the cover, and gave it to me. He said he would return the cover and it wouldn’t cost him a dime.

I took it. I didn’t want to insult my host, but I felt guilty at the time, and I still do. It sits on a shelf in my library, an odd souvenir of my book signing. I still haven’t been able to force myself through it, so it remains unread. Tolkien without hobbits is a hard go.

I thought of that event three years later when A Fond Farewell to Dying came out with a cover that was — not beautiful. It didn’t sell. I had a vision of book store managers everywhere taking one look at the cover, deciding it wouldn’t sell, ripping it off for credit, and tossing FFTD into the dumpster, as unread as my copy of Silmarillion. Maybe that is just me making excuses.

Maybe not.

So here we are, back in the present. I have two book signings coming at Westercon, and Cyan is primarily an eBook. What to do? EDGE, my publisher, allows me to buy print-on-demand copies, so I ordered 50. I’ll keep some for myself and take the others along.

For the other thousand people at Westercon, I am making up a half-page, double-sided sheet with a thumbnail of Cyan’s cover, the Westercon logo, and a sample of text from chapter one. It amounts to a come-on for the eBook and a weird souvenir for those who attend Westercon. At least it gives me something to sign at the “book” signing.

Still, it was more fun signing a physical book.

Welcome to Summer

Hi, just a personal note, here; not one of my usual mini-essays.

I went to Tempe, Arizona to Westercon over the Fourth of July weekend. It was from 109 to 111 or thereabouts, but I felt no pain because the Mission Palms was well air conditioned. I have a report on that scheduled for the 11th.

I came home to find things weren’t much cooler. Yesterday was 109 here in the foothills of the Sierras, so my wife and I cut out for the coast and spent a few hours walking along the beach at Carmel. Today I’m home, hiding under the air conditioner, working out the details of a new novel that was sparked at Westercon.

I am also watering our non-native trees. When I just went out to change the sprinkler, I saw two mother wild turkeys with twenty-one gawky, half-grown chicks in our yard. They were panting, and looking miserable.

They and I are both asking — is it fall yet?

379. Westercon

You know that I write these posts in advance, and it’s a good thing because today I am leaving for Tempe, Arizona and Westercon 70.

Westercon is a western US regional science fiction and fantasy convention. It has been around since 1948, when the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society organized it for those who could not travel to the east coast where most Worldcons were held at that time.

This will be my third Westercon. I attended Westercon 33 in Los Angeles the year Zelazny was the guest of honor. I stepped out for air during the afternoon and a lovely young woman told me I looked lonely (I wasn’t), told me she was a wannabe actress – actually she said “I’m just an LA nobody” – and told me the story of her life. I know what you’re thinking. There is no romantic ending, no money changed hands, and she didn’t steal my wallet. I think she was just exactly what she said she was.

Later that night I was cornered at a party by a guy who wanted to tell me about his screenplay. He wouldn’t take the hint that I wasn’t interested, or that I was in no position to further his career. The screenplay turned out to be for a space opera about a ray gun shooting femme fatale. He whipped out a copy of Playboy and showed me a beautiful naked black girl on the centerfold. He said she was the one he had in mind to play the part.

I don’t remember his name (a high functioning forgettery is a very useful tool) but he is probably living in a big house in Hollywood today. The plot was just dumb enough to sell.

I don’t think most Westercons are that weird, costumes notwithstanding. I think it was just LA.

The next year Westercon 34 was in Sacramento. It was a bit more sedate and I gave the paper “How to Build a Culture”. There was a good turnout; as best I can remember a couple of hundred attendees in a small auditorium. I had prepared a piece of mat board with a hand-drawn circle, divided into four pie-slices with the words environment, technology, world view, and biological structure hand written in the quadrants. It was makeshift because my first computer was still five years in the future.

When I said, “Which brings me to my visual aid”, I stood it up and, to cover it’s crudity, added “We have spared no expense!”

The joke got the small chuckle it deserved, but the sound died instantly. A young man in the middle of the auditorium was saying, in a conversational voice, “He is showing a chart. It’s circular, divided into quadrants . . .” We all realized that he was describing the chart to a blind companion, and for the length of time it took him to give his description, you could have heard a feather drop in the room. The respectful silence from crowd made me proud to be a part of the moment.

Last year I wanted to go to Westercon 69 in Portland. I hadn’t gone during all the years of my dry spell; it just didn’t seem like it would be fun under the circumstances. Then Cyan’s release was delayed again, so I skipped Portland. Now that Cyan is out, I am off to Tempe.

It will be good to be back.

375. Science vs. Magic (1)

This is another set of posts which acts as a backdrop to one of the panels I am scheduled to be on at Westercon this year. In this case the panel is Science & Technology versus Magic: what makes this such a compelling trope? In part it draws on a very old post, 37. Fantasy, Whatever that is.

It has been a grand ride.

Since I started reading science fiction and fantasy in the late fifties, I have seen the rise of Amber, Witch World, the Dorsai, the Lensmen, LeGuin, Zelazny, Ellison, Varley, Ballard, and hundred of others. I was there for the Tolkien revival and the revival of other fantasy writers under Ballantine.

Through the years, avid readers waged war on one another over the most trivial of notions — just like any other family. It used to be that, if you called science fiction “sci fi” (never mind SyFy) you were being disrespectful. You had to call the genre science fiction, or maybe SF.

However, if you called it SF, then you had to argue whether that stood for science fiction of speculative fiction or . . . I’ve forgotten what the lesser contenders were.

Mimeographs and postage stamps were the internet of the early sixties. Whole forests went to the pulp mills to make paper to support arguments about what was or was not science fiction, whether fantasy was worth considering, and where one ended and the other began. Then Heinlein published Glory Road and sent shock waves through the SF community by landing with one foot squarely in each camp.

I mention all this because, although my publications so far have been science fiction, I have spent more time and taken more satisfaction writing fantasy.

Things have changed — somewhat. Today, everything goes, but you still have to declare yourself. I recently dealt with a publisher who required that you shoehorn your submission into one of about forty SF/fantasy sub-categories. Let’s call this generating chaos through an excessive allegiance to order.

All of this is probably subsumed under Clarke’s Third Law. Or, look at it this way: the Creation as given in Genesis is fact, allegory, or fantasy depending on whether you are a fundamentalist, a religious liberal, or an atheist.

Put still another way, if it tastes like fantasy, it is (for you) and if it tastes like science fiction, it is (for you).

But maybe not for the rest of us.

Clarke’s third law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

Heinlein on technology:
I try never to get a machine sore at me. There’s no theory for that but every engineer knows it.

“The car won’t start unless you hold your mouth just right.”
folk wisdom known to all owners of elderly automobiles

So what do we mean by science and technology, and what do we mean by magic?

Does anybody care?

I think the general answer is, “No”. Most readers just want a fun ride, whether with ray guns or magic wands. You, on the other hand, did sign up for Science & Technology vs. Magic, so I’m going to assume you do care. Before we go any further, let’s try to answer the question. It may prove difficult — especially if there really isn’t any difference — but let’s try.

Science is a rigorous and careful attempt to discover the nature of the universe by observation and experimentation. Okay, that seems reasonable. I think we can be provisionally satisfied with that, and move on.

Technology is a little trickier. A computer is technology, sure. But so is a flaked stone spear point. That spear point didn’t flake itself. But what about the stick that a chimp picks up and uses to get ants out of an anthill?

Nothing is ever easy, is it? Let’s just file technology as a sub-set of science and move on, or we we’ll never get to the fun stuff.

Magic is harder to define. We’ll tackle that next Tuesday, because on Monday I have to devote a post to things that are happening with Sprit Deer, over on the Serial side of the website.

Click here for next post.