What We Already Know About Steampunk (#steampunkhands)

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LuftFlotte Steampunk...This post was supposed to be a steampunk short story called The Golden Bird. The Golden Bird was supposed to be my contribution to the Steampunk Hands Around the World initiative to showcase the art(s) of steampunk on a worldwide arena via the web. Obviously that is not what this is.

My short, The Golden Bird turned out to be not very short. Several thousand words in, I realized that my beloved story was turning into a novella length work. When this became clear to me, I decided to put the breaks on it, because I am currently embroiled in a larger long term piece of writing, and unlike many of my writerly friends, I am completely incapable of dividing my time and energies between two large pieces. I can’t. It stunts my creative juices and it steals my time, which is in very, very short supply.

Since I’m not prepared to post The Golden Bird quite yet, I thought I’d share the beginning sketches of the picture that will eventually be the cover of the novella.

Emira Amin from The Golden Bird

Emira Amin by The Artist

This post has instead become my personal tribute to STEAMPUNK.

steam∙punk – a genre of science fiction and or fantasy that typically features steam powered machinery rather than advance technology.

Steampunk has become an especially popular art form within the last 20-25 years, but it has been around for much longer than that. Some of the first progenitors of steampunk are names we know very well from literature such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Steampunk is usually identifiable via certain tropes and props such as googles, brass work, clockwork mechanisms, airships, trains, machines powered by steam or magic or both, bustles and boots, pocket watches and gun holsters, buckles, telescopes and compasses. Can you see it? I can, because in a single yet inadequate word, steampunk is beautiful.

When I first heard of steampunk, not many years ago, I was shocked to realize that I had been enjoying the art form, privately digging on the beauty and artistry of it, without realizing it for many years. And even now, when I feel as if I have a pretty good understanding of what steampunk is, I keep getting slapped in the face with the fact that there remain contributions to this genre that I have enjoyed without once giving a thought to the fact that they are considered works of steampunk.

Just today as I was perusing a list of steampunk literature compiled on Goodreads, I saw a much loved story that I never realized is considered steampunk. Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood. And now that I know, I can see it. It’s the metal work, the industrial feel, and the magic so embedded in the narrative that it feels “normal”. Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood is the second anime series that I ever watched and it remains at the top of my list of favorites and most memorable. Other steampunk manga/anime include the very obvious Steamboy, Metropolis, and Howl’s Moving Castle, and the more subtly steam flavored, sort of new and insanely popular Attack on Titan and Baccano!.

The Emperor’s Edge series by Lindsay Buroker is one of my favorite books series for its fun storyline, quirky characters, interesting perils and of course, its seamlessly woven elements of steam that include magic, weird steam powered constructs, trains and submarines among other things. I also love how Lindsay Buroker throws out the occasional bit of odd word usage, necessitating the use of my dictionary and thereby making me a smarter more well-rounded person and writer… but that’s another story altogether. But this lyrical mixed period use of verbiage is also common with steampunk, as it is a genre that feels caught between many time periods.

steam∙punk – a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in the anachronistic Victorian or quasi Victorian alternate history setting.

Perdido Street Station by China Mieville is another book that I really enjoyed, for altogether different reasons than the EE series. This is one of those books that I read without being conscious that it was a steampunk rendering. But of course, it is. PSS is like a uhm… triple dark chocolate cookie served with a mocha latte. Delicious, but best if eaten slowly and in small quantities. Or like a train wreck, it’s hard to look at but you’re compelled by some sick part of your psyche to watch. None of that is to say I didn’t love PSS, because I did, even more now over a year later, but it’s a heavy piece of writing, to say the least. Which is likely why it didn’t initially dawn on me that this was steampunk. There was so much other stuff happening that I was on overload.

Here are some other steam powered books that I’ve either read or own and have yet to read: The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials, Flash Gold, The Time Machine, Boneshaker, Leviathan, Un Lun Dun, The Alchemy of Stone, Lady of Devices, and as they say, the list goes on.

My favorite steam flavored film has to be The Prestige. That was a scary smart movie about magician friends turned rivals and enemies. The term steam flavored perfectly describes this one because elements of steam are quite subtle here as they appear to be more about time and place, which is industrial era Victorian London than about magical gadgetry, although there is tons of magic. Hugo is an obvious and beautiful steampunk film. This movie is all about gadgets and trains and automatons. The really magical element is the storytelling itself.

steam∙punk – a rising subgenre, culture and movement…

What all of these forms of steampunk art have in common is stunning imagery, genius level creativity, a willingness to rewrite history, stretch and erupt boundaries, and the knack for positing the age old question of “What if?”. I love steampunk because it is brave. It doesn’t care about convention or genre expectations. It says “absolutely anything goes”.

All of this is why Kevin Steil’s idea, Steampunk Hands Around the World, is so brilliant. This inclusive worldwide endeavor encourages diversity of people and thought just as steampunk does. People from all over the world are participating and I am immensely proud to have been invited to participate and I hope you continue the tour when you leave my site!

Review: Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, You Had to Be There

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I finished this book several days ago but waited to write the review. I wasn’t sure for a long time what I would say. I mean, I know I liked the story, the set up, the complexity, but there was also something a little off putting but I wasn’t sure what that was. Then I broke down and looked at some of the other reviews to see if anyone else had the same sense that I did. I was very pleased to note that I wasn’t the only one.

Like many of the other people who reviewed this book, I will not get caught up in enumerating the plot points. It would simply take too much time and it would never really convey the true sense of the book. It’s like the old saying, “You had to be there.”

Perdido Street Station is an enormous book in every way. China Mieville has written a book so layered, and rich, and sensual that I think that one of these days I may need to go back and reread it to get the full effect. The prose is lovely and aged and yet not. The amalgamation of genres here, because I’m not sure I would call it steampunk (but then again, I am not the expert), is well executed. A blending of genres, in the way that Mieville has achieved, I imagine, is not something easily done, and I give him mad kudos for that. It works so well. PSS is fantasy and science fiction and drama and romance and steam and something unnameable all rolled into one. The effect is stunning.

Bas-Lag, the fictional world that Mieville creates in PSS is so richly and thoroughly conceived that I will have clear pictures of the places and people who lived there for a long time to come. Mieville’s style of world building is complete and concrete with so much presence you can almost smell the stink of it. New Crobuzon, the city in which this story takes place is a dirty metropolis populated with many races (as in non-human) all with their own histories, customs, affectations, and physical characteristics.

Mieville does not pretty up any of the races either, by offering idealized fantastical elfin beings. He gives the reader a view of each of his racial creations, including humans, through the same brutally honest eyes. No one is spared inspection, no one is absolved of their own shame or glory. And through the muck of each person’s weakness, beauty, and shame, Mieville has managed to weave an adventure, a mystery, bromance, romance, magical/science lore, and a quest.

I read every word of this book with a sense of writerly awe… and yet there was that off putting “thing”, for lack of a better word. But I do know the word, now, after giving it a lot of thought.

VERBOSITY. Every reader is as different as every author, so I understand and appreciate Mieville’s style here. That said, I tend more towards crisp spare prose. I don’t need the author to guide me or convince me of how I should feel. I can make up my own mind. Just give me the bones, I’ll imagine the flesh on my own. In this tale, and considering Mieville’s story telling style, I see the necessity to embellish and paint, so I can accept much of the wordiness. But not all. I would have preferred to see this manuscript pared down by at least 1/4.

There is also the question of the profanity. Some people are okay with it. Some people even like it, thinking it lends a real or raw quality, I’d venture to say. But me? I find it repellent. More than that, I find it not necessary. Even more than that, I find it shocking. Profanity adds shock value, causes the reader to sit up, pay attention, in my case cringe a little, recognize that something big or deep or noteworthy is happening. In my estimation profanity is a device used to prop up weak prose. It is distracting and lame. Mieville’s prose is absolutely breathtaking, even in all of its verbose glory, and totally DOES NOT require the multiple helpings of profanity in order to keep a reader’s attention. Not mine, in any case.

Mieville uses a lot of “big” words. I think I read in another review that it is almost as if he had a thesaurus on hand as he wrote this. That works for me. I like Mieville’s brave use of uncommon words. I don’t believe in dumbing down prose. I think its okay to ask the reader to step up their game a little bit.

I vacillated about how many stars I wanted to give PSS. For the crafting of unique, varied cultures and races, the inventive use and blending of genres as well as language and style, and also for the central story I’d give PSS five stars any day of the week. But there is the matter of the profanity and verbosity (editor please!). All together I’m giving PSS 3 stars.

I’d likely still read Mieville again. As a reader I feel that Mieville did his job in rendering a compelling story. As a writer, I’ve learned tons from Mieville about writing fearlessly and about giving the imagination freedom to crank out what it wills.

*****

Also posted on Goodreads.