Posts Tagged ‘World Fantasy Convention 2009’

Steampunk (WFC 2009 Part 4)

November 16, 2009

Dark dirigibles glide over a Victorian skyline. Fog swirls along the dark cobbles where a man in a cravat and tall silk hat passes with a tap, tapping of his goosehead cane. Mighty Engines huff in a subterranean labyrinth, from which pipes spread outward and upward, pipes upon pipes. At the turn of a dial, the lamps rush into gas-jet life. High on a tower of skeletal girders, a girl named Sparks Mahoney clambers upward, hand over hand, checking her progress through the telescoping brass goggles on her headgear. On the platform above her, urging her to greater speed, waits Mixmore, the faithful robot assistant she assembled in her father’s workshop — a robot with fire at his core and nary a microchip, his metal limbs powered by steam, which escapes from his elbow- and knee-joints in hissing gusts. But time is of the essence, for below the tower, swarming through the city, are the ever-hungry servants of Baron Doom. . . .

It’s a fashion in clothing and jewelry; it’s a literary movement; it has spawned radio shows and rock bands; it seems to transcend boundaries of age, ethnicity, and geography. Above all, its practitioners feel it’s fun and quintessentially cool.

I’m talking, of course, about steampunk. A year ago, I don’t think I’d even heard the term. (If I had, it hadn’t registered yet on my consciousness.) Then for awhile I was hearing the word and didn’t really know what it meant. Then someone told me, “It’s The Golden Compass. There are dirigibles. There’s no electricity.” Oohh.

At this year’s World Fantasy Convention, there was a fascinating and very informative panel on the subject. One panelist even came dressed in steampunk clothing, which to me looks a lot like goth but without the spectre of death. As I learned more, something occurred to me: without realizing it, I’ve been writing a form of steampunk for years.

Take Dragonfly: we’ve got the balloon, powered by a gas that flows through hoses and ignites. We’ve got gas flames that light up Hain’s Tenebrificium — which also has a giant, whirling, walk-through kaleidoscope powered by the weight, on pressure plates, of the people walking through it. We’ve got pumphouses — again, their machinery driven by twisted automatons (of a sort) who push and pull on levers that turn the gears. Chains slide and rattle behind the walls. We’ve got (scientifically impossible) coaches designed to crawl up and down stairways, the wheel-rims equipped with stair-fitting teeth. And as luck would have it, the Harvest Moon denizens dress, for the most part, like Victorians.

Power provided by pushing and pulling. . . . Doesn’t that sound like a more recent story of mine? The Thunder Rake in “The Star Shard,” with its Pushpull Chamber?

And how about The Fires of the Deep? Loft works for an organization called Watchworks (which name is nothing if not pure steampunk!), where a giant pendulum marks the passage of time. And the subterranean skies of Loft’s world team with airships, their furnaces burning solid krale to fill the balloons — krale, dug with leather-bladed scoops wherever the fuellists can find it — leather-bladed, to avoid cutting into a squirming meeval which could, if panicked or injured, strike a spark with its posterior pincers and blow the whole operation sky-high.

And the aspect of mechanical but non-electric things: the wind-up weapons of Loft’s world — the crickets and nailers — and his own weapon of proficiency, the shikanth, a separating handle, a cable, and a blade.

I could go on, but I think the point is made-and-then-some. But anyway, steampunk.

The panel at WFC was moderated by Deborah Biancotti; the other panelists were Liz Gorinsky from Tor, who edits a lot of steampunk; Ann VanderMeer, who with her husband Jeff has edited a voluminous anthology of steampunk stories; and writers Michael Swanwick and Nisi Shawl. So, here are some things they said:

They made the point that steampunk takes us back to an age when machines were understandable. In many ways, we’re afraid of the world today, a world that is increasingly incomprehensible to the average person. Steampunk is born of the desire to make something ourselves, to manipulate physical objects — to go back to brass screws and twine and lengths of pipe. The movement is all about making things.

Interestingly, one of the panelists found that people who have come into steampunk from the fashion end are often not aware that it’s a literary movement, and vice-versa! But the fashion folks design their clothing and accessories, and the literary folks read and write stories about characters who put things together.

It offers us a world put together partly from the old, partly from the new.

Panelist Shawl talked about how the fashion world of steampunk is very multiracial, but the literary world of steampunk, not so much; she theorized that steampunk “is a reaction against writers of color in the genre,” and, as such, is a trend to watch with caution. (Cyberpunk, she said, is largely a reaction against feminism.) But she added that there is a book by S. Barnes called Lion’s Blood and Zulu Heart, which is steampunk featuring characters of color. So far, the published writers of steampunk are mostly of a white/European background, but the fandom is much more distributed. Shawl made the point that people who were limited and disadvantaged by the Victorian era are now enjoying, through steampunk, an imaginary Victoriana without the baggage of the real thing. In fiction, we can use the best parts of an era. (John Fultz and I talked about this after the “dirty Middle Ages” panel — in our medieval fantasy, we want to keep things realistic, but we don’t really want to go on for pages and pages about lice and offal in the drinking water.) So anyway, with steampunk, you can have the fashions and the atmosphere, the clockwork and the gas lights of Victoriana without the prejudices and repressions.

The panel said that steampunk is much like the Society of (for?) Creative Anachronism (SCA) in that it tries to recreate an era as it should have been, not as it actually turned out.

Steampunk is still in its infancy.

The panel was divided over whether it’s a young person’s thing or an old person’s thing — it’s very likely both.

Someone said The Anubis Gates was more or less “the birth of steampunk.” (That’s Tim Powers, right? Or will I be coming back to correct this? I’m pretty sure that book was written by Powers . . . who said hi to me at the con, probably thinking I was someone else.) So it’s a very new genre. I’m sketchy on the details of this (maybe someone who knows can help me out here), but apparently in the mid-to-late eighties, there was a letter written to LOCUS that coined the term “steampunk.”

Michael Swanwick made the point that “punk” usually means a reaction against something. The Hippies, he said, were anti-technology, and were in favor of getting back to the magical land, the mystical Earth. Steampunk, then, may be seen as a reaction against that. It brings back the technology, but it’s “technology made good, done right.” Wholesome technology.

Steampunk is usually hopeful, fun, and optimistic, but it can have a dark side. At its beginnings in the eighties, it was almost entirely done in novels. Now we’re seeing steampunk in short fiction, too.

A great many writers of steampunk are computer people. Ann VanderMeer brought this up — she’s a computer person herself, who installs systems, etc. Back in the seventies, she said, computers themselves were much more physical. If you dealt with them at all, you dealt with code. You ran punch cards through slots. Today, computer use is much farther removed from the codes. Steampunk lets computer people get back to the hands-on, physical machines. (So it awakens nostalgia in computer geeks. [My words, not hers.])

“Punk” today has mostly a positive meaning — it conveys “edgy and stylish.” But the original punk was a reaction against style, against forms — the first punks were just having fun (with music, for example) — just seeing what would happen. Steampunk recaptures that sense of unfettered adventure, unlimited possibility. [For awhile, Ann played in an all-girls’ band called “The Guise.” Isn’t that a great name for an all-girls’ band?]

Liz Gorinsky said that, for the first time in a long time, we’re seeing huge masses of enthusiasm for something in speculative fiction. Many people who don’t necessarily read fantasy are going from the steampunk fashion world to discovering the literature.

The modern increased concern for the environment is reflected in steampunk: reduce, reuse, recycle. Make your own clothes. Put things together from parts you find lying around. Take things that you love — features of Edwardian clothing, architecture, etc. — and make it your own. There are dark fears in our present society: we’re running out of materials. Steampunk is, in part, an expression of our need to develop physical skills for survival in a dark time; perhaps we’ll have to make our own furniture, our own clothes, our own tools and basic machines.

Swanwick noted that there is great potential in steampunk — but to maintain the genre, we need to keep the deep, political underpinnings of the best steampunk writing. The real enemies of the movement are books that only scratch the surface: they take the trappings of it but have no substance; those are the works that will make it seem like a flash in the pan. Since it’s so early, we may still be waiting for the Great Steampunk Novel that will absolutely define the trend.

You can find this last part on the Weird Tales website, but it’s so good, I’ll try to summarize it here. This is by the Weird Tales editorial director Stephen H. Segal, from his article “Five Thoughts on the Popularity of Steampunk.” (And by the way, the site also has a very pithy definition of steampunk: “science-fictiony stuff built on Victorian-era technology and aesthetics” — now, isn’t that simple and to the point?)

Anyway, Segal says:

1. Steampunk is geekery that the genders can share. It’s “a way to masculinize romance. That is to say: Steampunk takes something stereotypically feminine that most boys hate — Victorian lace and frills and tea and crumpets — and says, ‘Hey, how about some robots with that?'”

2. It’s an aesthetic response to the science fiction in the culture. The point here is that the eighties and nineties (Star Trek: TNG) gave us science fiction that was clean, smooth, glossy, happy, and user-friendly — but not, according to steampunkians, exciting. It was predictable. Steampunk interjects grittiness, unpredictability, and spectacle. [Go and read how Segal says this — he says it a lot better and more funnily.]

3. Steampunk is like being goth without scaring your parents. Adults fear that goths take vampires too seriously and may want to make someone bleed. “Steampunks are — what? Weirdoes who take pocket-watches too seriously? What are they gonna do, vehemently tell you what time it is?”

4. It bridges the subgenre gap. More and more, writers and artists, filmmakers and musicians are mixing in elements of other types of fantasy, horror, and superheroics. “Steampunk is helping to bring us back to the days when the subgenre categories didn’t matter so much and it was all just a big lurching conceptual mass of ‘weird fiction.'” So now we’re seeing steampunk fairies, steampunk vampires, even steampunk Cthulhu. [Hee, hee — doesn’t that sound like fun? “The Shadow of a Dirigible Over Innsmouth” . . . “The Call of Cthulhu Through the Speaking Tube”. . . .]

5. Steampunk says: “The future: UR doin’ it wrong.” The future we were promised in earlier science fiction isn’t here and isn’t coming. “We were expecting Star Trek and we got Blade Runner: all the quirky little bits of science fiction have come true, but we lost the big dream.” Our scientific solutions have often not only failed to solve problems, but have ended up creating bigger, scarier ones. Steampunk lets us go back and try again.

I’ll close with this quote from Stephen H. Segal:

“Whether you’re reading and identifying with Girl Genius or making yourself a pair of functioning telescopic brass goggles, the fact is that when you have to get your hands or brain dirty puzzling out how stuff works, you can’t be blase about technological miracles — you’re forced to realize what miracles we’ve actually wrought. And once you’ve got that sense of appreciation, once you’re not taking all our modern-day scientific accomplishments for granted because you finally understand deep down that people had to sweat them out, experiment by experiment — it seems to me you can’t help but approach the world around us, here, today, with fresher eyes and a more adventuresome spirit. / I think that’s where a lot of the young people jumping on the steampunk bandwagon right now are coming from. It’s not just cool because it’s trendy — it’s cool because it’s inspirational. You know . . . like science fiction at its best always has been.”



WFC 2009 Part 3

November 14, 2009

There were a couple things I did differently about the convention this year: one was that I went to more readings than usual, and the other was that I attended two of the art-related presentations instead of going to purely book stuff. I was particularly impressed with Lisa Snellings, this year’s Guest Artist. She’s primarily an artist, but she’s an excellent writer, too, in how she frames her thoughts.

Highlights from the rest of the weekend were:

1. Seeing agent Joshua Bilmes for the first time since Austin in 2006. We laughed about how at that infamous dinner (our first face-to-face meeting — our first visual impressions of each other), Joshua had a bug of some kind and had completely lost his voice; all through dinner, he was writing on napkins and using gestures to express himself. I, on the other hand, had the 24-hour stomach flu [which I’m told doesn’t officially exist — there’s apparently no such thing as “stomach flu” — but I’m calling it that so you’ll know what I had] — so I couldn’t eat a bite, and spent the entire dinner trying not to pass out or throw up on anybody. We were both in much better form this year, and Joshua related that story to all the agency’s clients who were present at this year’s dinner.

2. Having lunch with Eddie, Joshua’s associate, the agent I now work primarily with.

3. Seeing S.T. Joshi, probably the world’s leading authority on H.P. Lovecraft, and having him invite me to the MythosCon party that night. (Mr. Joshi was the most influential early reviewer of Dragonfly, in Weird Tales — and although he can be scathing, he gave it a very good review.) The next night, Saturday, he and I actually talked one-on-one for about fifteen minutes.

4. Reconnecting with a lot of writer acquaintances I see only at the conventions each year and catching up on one another’s projects — as well as always making a few new friends.

5. At the mass book signing Friday night, instead of trying to sit and sign books (I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have any to sign, since it’s been so many years since Dragonfly), I walked around and got other writers to sign their books, which was a lot of fun. Since Garth Nix was one of the special guests this year, I’d brought my Abhorsen Trilogy for him to sign. He’s as courteous and down-to-Earth in person as he always seems to be. When he said something I didn’t quite understand, he joked about how his accent gets thicker when the jetlag kicks in (he’s Australian).

6. The agency dinner on Saturday evening was very nice — a chance to either meet or get reacquainted with some of my fellow clients of JABberwocky. The two newest clients actually received their agency contracts from Joshua right there at the restaurant, to resounding applause!

7. At the signing, I talked face-to-face with Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, Jay Lake, Laura Anne Gilman, Cecelia Holland, John Shirley, Jon DeCles, Richard Lupoff, Daryl Gregory, and probably several I’m forgetting. I was within scant yards of Robert Silverberg, though I didn’t actually see him because of the long, long line of people waiting to get their books signed by him. Ditto with Peter Straub. I finally saw Stephen R. Donaldson in the flesh! I was oddly surprised that he looked older than he used to look on book covers when we were reading him back in the eighties. (Duh, Fred!) Michael Swanwick was there, and I heard him on several panels — he’s very cool and always has great things to say. Lisa Snellings said hi to me in the art room. Tim Powers looked up from a conversation to smile and say a very bright “Hi!” to me in a hallway — I’m almost positive he mistook me for someone else! David Drake was at the con again this year, as were Guy Gavriel Kay, Scott Edelman, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Kij Johnson, Tad Williams, Lisa Goldstein, Ellen Kushner, Patricia McKillip, Darrell Schweitzer. . . . Jane Yolen won a Lifetime Achievement Award, but she had some speaking engagements and couldn’t be at the con this time. Writer Laird Barron always says hi to me, because we were both part of a dinner party organized by Gordon Van Gelder in Austin (just before I got the stomach flu) — but when Laird and I got to talking at the MythosCon party this time, I realized he thought I was someone else! Heh, heh — funny! — mistaken identities at the cons can be very amusing. [At the con in Saratoga Springs, an attractive young woman materialized out of nowhere and kept talking and talking to me . . . I wondered why I was suddenly so magnetically attractive . . . finally she started talking about “your magazine,” and I realized she’d seen me sitting at the Black Gate table earlier with John O’Neill and thought I was his assistant! Once she realized I wasn’t an editor, she vanished in a cloud of dust!] Okay — I think that’s the end of my fanboy rant!

8. I normally feel totally ignorant among such well-read company, but I was able to look cool twice: once, someone was looking for the word “Esperanto” (“What was that universal language they tried to get started?”) and I supplied it, and once someone was looking for the name “William Morris” (“You know, the wallpaper guy. . . .”) and I supplied it. I don’t get to do that very often — it’s one of those rare, rare occasions such as when I’ve read a book that someone else in the room (or his/her dog) hasn’t.

9. On Sunday, I had lunch with John R. Fultz, a widely-read and well-spoken writer of fantasy for Black Gate and Weird Tales, a writer for the comic books Zombie Tales and Cthulhu Tales, and creator of the graphic novel Primordia which is coming out in hardback in December. For a fantastic interview with John, visit:

10. It seems there’s always a clear-cut “final encounter” of the con, a meeting or image that sends me on my way. This time it was in the wee hours of Monday morning as I was leaving the hotel to catch my flight. Gordon Van Gelder was down in the lobby, too, waiting for the person with whom he was heading to the airport. We chatted for a minute or two about how it was too bad we hadn’t gotten a chance to chat for a minute or two. . . .

Okay — let’s move on to programming. These are the activities I attended:


Readings by Lori Ann White and Blake Charlton

Panel: “Poe’s Influence”

Opening Ceremonies

Readings by Janni Lee Simner, Catherine Cheek, and Louise Marley

Reading by Frederic S. Durbin — thought I’d better show up for that. Without me, he only would have had nine people, counting the sound lady and his agent. . . .

Publishers’ parties


Panel: “Writing Human Characters, Whether or Not Human”

Interview: “VanderMeer on VanderMeer” (The VanderMeers interviewed each other. It was quite entertaining as well as informative. Ann is the current editor of Weird Tales, and I was deeply impressed by her answer regarding her proudest moment. It wasn’t any honor or award — it was when a writer sent her his published book, which she read and absolutely loved, and then he told her how she’d sent him a rejection slip when he’d just been starting out, but it was a careful, detailed, instructive, and very encouraging rejection, and it pushed him to stay with his craft and not to give up. Ann got emotional telling the story — you could tell his letter had touched her. She said that’s why she does what she does.)

Presentation: John Picacio’s “Shelf Lives: The Art and Design of Book Covers” — a slideshow — fascinating!

Lunch with Eddie

Panel: “The Role of the Raven” (This was one of the best panels at the convention. The panelists discussed what ravens are actually like in the real world, what they were like in the Norse eddas, how Poe used his, and the role they’ve played and continue to play in fantasy fiction. More on this when we go through my “content” notebook!)

Panel: “Overlooked Early Writers of the Supernatural” (This was another of the absolute best this year!)

Panel: “The Last Resort” (This was a good one about the use of violence: what it’s really like to physically fight with someone; how violence is often used too frequently and/or casually by writers; how to find a balance and perhaps achieve violent tension without actual violence.)

Group Autographing



Panel: “Why Steampunk Now?” (More on this is coming!)

Presentation by Lisa Snellings: “Know the Soup You’re In”

Panel: “When People Confuse the Author with His/Her Work” (The panelists for this were Mark Ferrari, Scott Edelman, Ellen Kushner, Garth Nix, and Tim Powers. With a lineup like that, I would have gone to hear them if the topic had been the finer points of the tax code! And sure enough, it was fantastic.)

Panel: “Urban Fantasy as Alternate History”

Panel: “Coarse Dialog and Graceful Description — A Balancing Act” (#%*! Nice!)

Panel: “Notable Books of the Year”

Panel: “What Makes a Good Monster”

Panel: “The Sorcerer in Fantasy”

JABberwocky dinner



Panel: “Contemporary Rural Fantasy” (Another good one!)

Panel:  “Bad Food, Bad Clothes, and Bad Breath” (This was about what living conditions were really like in the ancient, medieval, and pre-industrial world. The panelists were incredibly knowledgeable — it was really fascinating. Did you know, for example, that in general, human longevity took a dramatic plunge when we started farming? We gathered together in communities, started wallowing in our filth and breathing on each other, and diseases abounded!)

Awards Ceremony

Panel: “Awards Postmortem” (The World Fantasy Awards judges talked about the task they had and how they made their decisions.)

Watch this space! As soon as I’m able, I’m going to do an entry on my “content” notes — a posting like the one last year that I called “Wisdom from World Fantasy” — and one on the Winchester Mystery House, which you won’t want to miss!

World Fantasy Convention 2009, Part 2

November 7, 2009

Moving along here: on Thursday the 29th, I went to the Winchester Mystery House. Let’s save that for a post unto itself: it was fascinating. I’d read a lot about it, and I’d wanted to see it for a long time. Never did I dream that one day the World Fantasy Convention would be held in the same city! I couldn’t not take the opportunity to go there! I went on that Thursday morning before the Con got started. The hotel desk person was very helpful in giving me directions. She looked up bus stops and times on her computer.

By the way, I need to add here that the Fairmont Hotel yesterday sent a message to the WFC organizers that they asked be passed along to all the members — it was a note of appreciation for how nice the attendees of WFC were! I thought that was really cool. The Fairmont hosts a great many conventions. (The counterman in the restaurant across the street was telling me how they get quite a few famous people through there, people from all over the world.) And the staff made a point of telling us that often, guests treat them like servants, or don’t see them at all. But they were deeply impressed that the World Fantasy people looked them in the eye, said hi to them, chatted with them in elevators, smiled when they passed, and said “thank you.” Apparently these things are not common sense, not a matter of course! So there you have it: people in the fantasy industry are good folks! (I know I did all those things — I appreciate it when someone gives me directions in a strange city, or makes my bed, or washes my towels, or brings me more packets of coffee. . . .)

So anyway, I got up early and took a bus at around 8:00. I wasn’t at all sure I’d gotten on the right bus, because it came earlier than it was supposed to (which never happens in Niigata). But the driver was incredibly nice. I didn’t have two one-dollar bills for the fare, so he said, “Just ride for free.” He talked with me on the way, which I didn’t expect — Japanese drivers aren’t allowed to do that — and he told me exactly where to get off. He even made a special stop for me within a few hundred yards of the Winchester House!

On the way back, another TVA driver told me which bus to get on — very helpful. I did get the gritty San Jose experience when one customer had heated words with the driver about getting his free day pass, and even moreso when a young white male, in his late teens or early twenties, made an absolute jerk of himself by riding his bicycle at a very slow pace in the middle of the lane right in front of the bus. The bus couldn’t pass him. The driver was Hispanic, and I’m pretty sure it was a racial thing — although the cyclist was inconveniencing everyone on board, regardless of ethnicity. The driver never blew his cool. He just drove along at the pace the cyclist allowed him, and he didn’t respond to the faces the cyclist made at him or to the rude gestures. One time, at a traffic light, the driver waved to the cyclist in a gesture that conveyed, “Why don’t you step aboard the bus?” This went on for a good ten minutes. The other riders on the bus were just clucking their tongues and shaking their heads in exasperation. Finally, the obnoxious cyclist planted himself in front of the bus at an intersection while the light was green — blocking us, blocking every vehicle behind us — and kept making faces at the driver, adjusting his hat, adjusting his earphones, etc. The light turned yellow, and just as it was about to go red, the cyclist rode off and turned right, off the bus route. So we had to wait through the red light. That’s something you don’t see in Niigata.

I had a great time browsing through the dealers’ room back at the convention. Now that I’ve been there for several years, there are booksellers I know and enjoy catching up with. The wonderful couple who own Ygor’s Books graciously offered to sell Dragonfly for me again, so I turned over the five copies I’d brought along, and they wouldn’t take a cent of the revenue, though I offered them 50%. We ended up selling three of the copies, plus I signed one that someone bought from another dealer, and I signed one that a guy had brought along with him to the Con from home. [I also signed two copies of Fantasy & Science Fiction for an attendee — the ones with my stories in them, of course!]

I bought two Arthur Machen books in the dealers’ room. I’d been reading some of his work recently and really liking it, so I thought this was a good opportunity. (By the way, at one of the panels, I learned how to pronounce his name. It’s apparently pronounced “Macken” — it rhymes with “blacken.” These were scholars talking specifically about how to pronounce it, so I have every reason to believe that’s right.)

Thursday night, my reading was scheduled in the Market Street Foyer. That was kind of odd, since readings are usually scheduled in rooms. The foyer was basically a hallway — flared wide at that point, with a chandelier overhead. It was outside a big ballroom. As I understand it, the organizers’ thinking was that the foyer venue might help to draw in people who were just passing by. I honed and timed and practiced and practiced my reading, and I thought the delivery itself went extremely well. But I just had 9 people, including the sound lady and Eddie (my agent) — so really, 7 people who came of their own volition and didn’t know me. To be fair, my reading was opposite the Google Books settlement meeting. I’m sure that drew some people away.

More to follow soon — please watch this space!