Just wanted to post these photographs from Gaslight Gathering, courtesy of the Tobias Eastman Photo Booth (Thanks, Jerry Abuan)! This was Friday and Saturday … unfortunately, my writing panel Sunday clashed with the photo booth hours, so you won’t see me in frock coat, vest, and ascot!
Category Archives: Steampunk
I’ve been struggling for years to reconcile my appreciation for the steampunk aesthetic and my personal need to live in a minimalist environment. I love the rich, baroque look of steampunk but I function best with minimal distractions and quickly become uncomfortable in a cluttered or crowded room. I love studying a cabinet of curiosities but I don’t want it making visual and cognitive demands on me when I’m trying to work.
Friends often send me photographs of steampunk interiors or furniture because they know my rooms make an aesthetic gesture toward steampunk, or at least industrial, design — I own adjustable ironwork tables, old metal chests, leather chairs, a vintage barrister bookcase, etc. But as much as I delight in those busy, gleaming steampunk interiors, part of me knows that I’d go crazy if I had to live in them 24/7.
What I’d like to see developed is a sort of wabi-sabi steampunk — call it that, or steampunk zen, or minimalist steampunk, whatever you like. They’d all look a little different, but they’d emphasize a reduction in clutter and an opening of space.
Are wabi-sabi and steampunk irreconcilable concepts? Wabi-sabi has a variety of meanings, but its essence is the natural, impermanent, unpretentious, and antique. Steampunk also has a variety of meanings, but as a visual aesthetic, the areas in which it probably differs most from wabi-sabi is natural vs. industrial and unpretentious vs. gadgeteered.
As far as natural vs. industrial goes, I’d suggest that the heft, weight, texture, and patina of vintage industrial furniture and decor have elements that can be reconciled with the wabi-sabi aesthetic. The scratches, dents, and rust on the 19th-century antiques (real or faux) beloved by steampunk designers bring to mind a sense of nostalgia and age, imperfection and impermanence as much as an old, hand-thrown clay pot or woven basket. Both steampunk and wabi-sabi value craftsmanship and artisanry (there’s a strong DIY maker-culture in steampunk), and they both value materials that weather well, aging with strength and grace. Wabi-sabi may be more rustic than most 19th-century-inspired steampunk design, but there’s no reason why steampunk can’t look away from middle- to upper-class English urban Victoriana toward more modest, perhaps international, 19th-century modes of decor.
More difficult to reconcile are the opposing values of unpretentious vs. gadgeteered. Without a doubt, much steampunk style is intentionally pretentious and overdone, with a sense of humorous quirkiness in its unnecessary twists and flourishes. By contrast, wabi-sabi prefers the simple and understated, although it values the flawed, “ugly,” awkward appeal of the weathered and/or handcrafted object or environment. The person seeking a wabi-sabi steampunk aesthetic will have to choose steampunk objects with care, looking perhaps for those manufactured with simpler lines and from darker, more worn materials.
I don’t know how feasible it is to mesh these aesthetics, but I’ve been trying to do it in my own home for some time — which is something of a challenge in rented, relatively recently manufactured spaces (distressed-wood floors, natural stone walls, and vintage appliances are well out of my budget!). Does anybody else share my desire for a more minimal steampunk aesthetic, or am I just strange this way? I’ve started a Pinterest board for wabi sabi steampunk; I’d enjoy getting examples from other people to add to it!
My partner-in-costumed-crime Terry and I hosted a Steamdrunks Soiree at my house this weekend — the party name was shamelessly ripped off of the fantastic book Steamdrunks: 101 Steampunk Cocktails and Mixed Drinks. We mixed up a quartered version of its Loyal Legion Punch, which was quite a hit despite its no-holds-barred, prepare-to-boarded alcohol content! Of course many other drinks were offered, although nobody partook of the absinthe, alas. I will never get rid of those bottles… Smoked kraken and a variety of goodies from the Indies, Americas, and Asia were also brought in by airship. All time travelers were welcome!
Official Conjecture/ConChord 2012 photographer Kimberly Paul did such a fantastic job on the photos, I just have to show one of them off! This is me in my steampunk cowgirl costume; I was a cowboy the day before but didn’t get a photo taken (you can see an older version of my steampunk cowboy costume at the bottom here), and I dressed as a very proper gentleman mage the next day. I’m hoping the mage photos came out; they’re not on her Facebook album yet, but I’m checking back later!
Take a look at her work; there were a lot of wonderful costumes at the con, and she did a fantastic job capturing them for us.
I’ve been having fun browsing around costuming sites and stores recently. My most recent acquisition is this plague doctor’s black half-mask from Tom Banwell Designs.
I fell in love with the mask when I saw it because the plague doctor is one of my favorite of the traditional Carnevale masks. Called the dottore delle peste or the medico delle peste in Italian, the full beaked mask with glass lenses was used by 14th-century doctors to protect themselves from the pestilent scents thought to cause disease. The hollow beak was stuffed with herbs, vinegar-soaked rags, and other items in an attempt to ward off the foul fumes; an early gas mask, really. Combined with gloves, a heavy waxed robe, boots, and a cane used instead of hands to inspect people during an examination, it probably wasn’t completely ineffective.
The mask and corresponding outfit became part of the Venetian Carnevale after Venice was hit several times by devastating plagues; I imagine it functioned as a sort of chilling memento mori during the pre-Lenten festivities. The traditional mask is white and, for Carnevale, made of papier-mache; this black leather version is a little more steampunkish/gothic.
I bought the half-mask version because it can be worn with my regular eyeglasses. Most masks aren’t made to cover prescription glasses, which is unfortunate for those of us who aren’t comfortable wearing contact lenses. When I was in Italy during Carnevale several years ago, I visited every artisan mask shop I could find, and even a mask-maker’s workshop, asking for a bauta or plague doctor’s mask that would go over glasses, with no luck. The only place I’ve ever found someone who manufactured full-face leather masks to fit over eyeglasses was in New Orleans, and that was nearly twenty years ago, although I still own the demonic leather mask I bought from him then. So when I saw this steampunkish, glasses-friendly version of the plague doctor mask, I knew I had to get it.
And now I’m ready for Carnevale Ventura next February!
I’ve been hunting about for a few steampunk bits and pieces and happened to run across these steampunk icarus wings on Etsy. Very cool, Kyle!
First, sorry for the downtime; I spent a couple of weeks figuring out how to move all my WordPress blogs to an upgraded hosting plan. Second, I’m still editing/downsizing this blog, so although I’ll try not to kill any of the posts people seem to like, I’m actively weeding out old posts.
Anyway, I wanted to share with you my steampunk rifle project, created for Steampunk Week at the Southern California Renaissance Faire…
I found this toy rifle at a strange little shop on my way home from Las Vegas in April and immediately bought it because I knew the wooden stock would be perfect for steampunking! It had a nylon strap, but I cut that off and replaced it with an old military satchel strap I bought loose at an antique store.
Then I spent a long time browsing a few hardware stores and examining parts scrounged from my father and bought at Gaslight Gathering last year. I live in an apartment and don’t have much in the way of equipment, so I needed to do something with nothing but a drill, pliers, and glue. Well, I did buy a small pipe cutting tool and learn how to cut through copper piping!
Curling the pipe, however, wasn’t easy. Finally I added a crystal doorknob from Anthropologie as some sort of arcane power source. I know, it would have been better to carry around a big gas tank on my back, too, but that was more work and weight than I was ready to handle. Maybe in the future, along with soldering the parts together….
And here I am with the rifle at Faire; it was a very warm day, so I left my duster in the car.
My guest post for Steampunkalooza, over at Age of Steam, is available today and offers my perspective on how to write a steampunk story that is steampunk, rather than steampulp.
Not that I don’t enjoy steampulp, but I am one of those academics I mention in my conclusion, who wants to sort out the genre’s details….
Jha’s Silver Goggles/ SteamPunk Magazine article “Countering Victorientalism” (SPM version here), and a related post by Ay-Leen, “The Semantics of Words & the Antics of Fashion: Addressing ‘Victorientalism‘” at Beyond Victoriana, have been the subject of some very interesting and controversial discussion in comments. I’ve already recommended Jha’s articles on this blog with regard to the consideration of steampunk and race.
The challenge, for those of you new to the discussion, is that steampunk, in its classic form, is grounded in Victorianism. While that can make for an interesting aesthetic, it inevitably raises questions about steampunk’s political and ideological assumptions.
Victorientalism, defined at The Gatehouse, is a neologism coined to try to capture steampunk set in non-Western countries (remember, the term “Victorianism” refers to Queen Victoria, titular head of the British Empire). It calls on the term “Orient,” used in English in the 19th century to refer collectively to Asian and Middle-Eastern countries. In particular, it appropriates the word “Orientalism,” the ideological perspective of scholars and artists in the Victorian period (and beyond) that was critiqued in a groundbreaking book by that same name by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said in the ’70s.
Thus, the term “Victorientalism” accurately alludes to a term in use during the Victorian period (the Orient, Orientals, Orientalists). However, “Oriental” isn’t politically correct; like the use of “Indian” to describe the various indigenous peoples of North and South America, “Oriental” is broad, vague, and laden with stereotypes. Its coinage to describe a particular subgenre of steampunk is, therefore, unfortunate. Instead, Jha suggests “Asian steampunk,” or “Asian-inspired steampunk,” or even more specific terms, such as “Meiji-era steampunk.”
The only defensible purpose to using Victorientalism as a descriptor that I can think of might be in the pejorative sense (“that story was so Victorientalist; doesn’t the author know anything about what was going on in the Punjab in 1845?”) or, perhaps, to describe a story that deliberately sets out to parody or undermine Orientalism within a steampunk framework.
The discussion in comments at SteamPunk Magazine includes some very good critiques of steampunk itself (is it really Victorian? is it, in itself, parodic?) and of phrases such as “white privilege” vs. “cultural privilege,” the purpose of fiction, and so forth. It’s worth reading, if nothing else for the reminder that nothing in human language is innocent of ideology — and we writers must be ready to face that reality and make the best, most well-considered linguistic choices that we can.
Image Credit: The Terrace of the Seraglio (1898) Jean-Leon Gerome — an Orientalist painting. The role of women in Victorian culture is another post entirely….
Wicked Gentlemen is a dark and lush gaslamp fantasy set in the Victorianesque city of Crowncross, where the Covenant of Redemption brought Ashmedai, Sariel, and Satanel up from hell to experience baptism and the Great Conversion. Now the demonic offspring of hell’s great princes, the Prodigals, dwell in the Crowncross slum called Hells Below, where they petition for equal rights and are closely monitored by Inquisitors and Confessors intent on maintaining peace in the Holy Capitol.
The novel, which won the 2008 Gaylaxicon Spectrum Award, consists of two sequential books. In the first, “Mr. Sykes and the Firefly,” readers meet first-person narrator Belimai Sykes, an ophorium-addicted Prodigal hired by the Inquisitor Captain William Harper and his brother-in-law Dr. Edward Talbott to help investigate the disappearance of Harper’s half-sister, Talbott’s wife, Joan. Joan Talbott, who was an active advocate for women’s and Prodigals’ suffrage, vanished from a locked carriage just a few minutes from her house. The only clue Harper has is a handful of letters written to her by a fellow suffragist that warn of some impending danger.
Sykes is initially hired to talk to the letter-writer, a Prodigal who is being detained in the Brighton House of Inquisition. But when the suspect is found brutally murdered in his holding cell, it becomes clear to both Prodigal and Inquisitor that this mystery won’t be so easily resolved. And neither will be the partnership between them, as Sykes and Harper find themselves drawn to each other but separated by differences in upbringing, values, and rank that seem impossible to overcome.
As they unpeel the layers of corruption and black magic that lie behind Joan’s disappearance and the Prodigal’s death, both Sykes and Harper find that they must rethink their relationship with their own pasts in order to reach a decision about their relationship with each other.
In the second book, “Captain Harper and the Sixty Second Circle,” the story shifts to Inquisitor Harper’s third-person point of view. While on his way out of Crowncross to visit his family estate, Harper is drawn into a murder investigation that is quite obviously being manipulated to protect the rich and guilty and frame the poor and helpless — that is, the Prodigals. Soon realizing that Bellimai Sykes is on the short list of suspects, the captain must move quickly to hide his ailing lover, only to find himself drawn into the frame. Ethics and necessity clash as Harper pits himself against his own superiors to avenge a child’s death and save an innocent man from execution.
Wicked Gentlemen is a short but rich read, a male/male romantic thriller with a touch of polite reserve that gives it a charmingly Victorian sensibility. Both Sykes and Harper are appealing characters, each struggling with his own weaknesses but essentially good at heart. Interestingly, their two story arcs form something of an X — while Sykes’ story arc moves him from cynicism to hope, Harper’s story arc goes in the opposite direction, as he becomes increasingly dismayed by the Inquisition he serves.
The city of Crowncross is also well-described, allowing for the restrained presence of magic but otherwise maintaining an atmosphere of fantastic realism. With its urban backdrop and restrained use of magic, Wicked Gentlemen calls to mind Ellen Kushner’s male/male romance Swordspoint (it’s tempting to draw parallels between Alec and Sykes and Richard and Harper), and its use of a fantasized Christian mythos invites comparison with Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy novels. However, Wicked Gentlemen‘s Crowncross is more modern and oppressive than Kushner’s Riverside, and less erotic and magical than Jacqueline Carey’s Terre d’Ange. Indeed, despite its references to demons and the Inquisition, Wicked Gentlemen avoids any direct mention of Christianity, using its religious allusions primarily to create a framework of political and social oppression within which its cross-class romance and mysteries can be set.
If Wicked Gentlemen has any weakness, it’s that by the end of the first book, one has to wonder why Harper hired Sykes in the first place. However, that’s a minor plot quibble, not hard to rationalize away — most readers won’t even pause to think about it as they eagerly turn the page to start Harper’s story.
I bought this novel from the publisher’s booth at Yaoi-Con 2008 hoping that it would be the kind of story that would please a boys’ love fan, and I wasn’t disappointed. Wicked Gentlemen is, without question, better-written than any of the boys’ love novels currently being translated from Japanese, although some BL fans may find its sex scenes overly restrained. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent example of the kind of male/male romance that’s starting to be recognized as a distinct publishing genre in the U.S., and its Victorianesque fantasy setting couldn’t help but appeal to me. I turned the last page hoping that Ginn Hale will soon revisit Sykes, Harper, and Crowncross in a sequel. In the meantime, I’ll be reading the excerpts from her latest fantasy, Lord of the White Hell, on her blog….