Monthly Archives: September 2014

Ada Lovelace as a Steampunk Character

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, the child of Lord Byron, was a woman of contrasts; she believed that intuition and imagination should be part of a scientist’s skill set. This may be due to the shameful way her father treated her  and her mother, abandoning them while Ada was a mere child. It motivated her mother bring Ada up with an education based in maths and science, rather than literature, art and poetry. Her tutor, and later her friend, was Mary Somerville, another famous scientist and polymath. Ada Lovelace is often considered the first computer programmer, thanks to her association with Charles Babbage and his invention, Analytical Engine. She died young from uterine cancer, which I consider a tragic loss to the world of Science.

Baggage and Lovelace from 2D Goggles, Dangerous experiments in Comics

Baggage and Lovelace from 2D Goggles, Dangerous experiments in Comics

One of the highlights of my life was seeing pieces of one of Babbage’s invention in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney Australia. How I longed to be able to reach through the glass and stroke them!

As you can see, I am a fan of both Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. Ada appears frequently in Steampunk stories, because of her interesting background, and because she is one of the rare women in the 19th century that was recognised as a mathematician. My favourite is her starring role in the 2D Goggles comic at http://sydneypadua.com/2dgoggles/

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15 Years Late, I’ve Joined the Neil Gaiman Fan Club

Sometime, you wish you could rediscover your writing heroes, simply for the pleasure of reading their books for the first time. This article is by someone discovering Neil Gaiman … lucky little individual. All the treasure about to fall into that lap!

Sorry Television

neverwhereFor even for the most casual observer of book publishing today, Neil Gaiman is something of a household name. He’s an author that seems almost serendipitously ubiquitous–one morning there’s an interview in the New York Times, a week later your friend mentions she loved Smoke and Mirrors, four days after that you scroll past a Facebook status praising American Gods. Nearly a decade ago now, those types of impromptu nudges finally drove me to pick up a paperback copy of Neverwhere at The Strand, and it’s languished on various bookshelves in my apartment ever since.

See, I am, for reasons that elude even me, oddly wary of fantasy books. If I had to guess, I would say it stems from some childhood fear of being nerdier than I already was—for most of my formative years I was rocking glasses, braces and a head of hair that went…

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Using Real Historical People in Steampunk Stories

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

I was exceedingly lucky in high school, I had history teachers that focused on individual people in history and not just events. This meant we saw past the monuments and to the real people living real lives. We knew that our heroines and heroes had warts, and loved them all the more for their amazing achievements. We could see the struggle and the personal courage it took to stay on track, and succeed spectacularly or fail magnificently.

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, using historical personages as characters or in ‘cameo appearances’ is one of the genre markers of the Steampunk literary genre. In my current work in progress, Charles Darwin, his wife and children are making an appearance, as well as a character loosely based on Oscar Wilde. My character based on Charles Darwin shares many of the original’s physical, intellectual, and personal characteristics, but I am picking and choosing through my research to tailor this representation of Darwin to my story.

This isn’t a shortcut to characterization. In fact, I have spent a lot of time researching Darwin, reading biographies, and his own published works, to get a proper handle on the gentleman. I know that, in his later years, he became retiring partly from ill health, partly because he wanted to spend time with his research, and partly due to the mixed reception to his theory of evolution. I know that he was greatly dependant on his wife for moral support when he did give lectures. We might take his finding for granted, but in his day he was considered controversial … most tellingly, he was never knighted for his contributions to science. With his sensitive nature, I can guess how disappointed he must have felt, even with the support of his friends and many noted scientists.

By using real historical characters, you can ground your text and give verisimilitude to the more fanciful aspects of your narrative. But you don’t have to use just the ‘superstars’ of the Victorian era to gain this advantage. A little extra research can uncover a multitude of interesting people. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, took the basis of Darwin’s theories and applied them t the human race, inventing the pseudoscience of Eugenics.

Francis Galton

Sir Francis Galton

Just looking at a picture of a person can help inform your fictional version of that character. Notice how extremely well groomed Sir Francis Galton is? I would guess he was a man of some wealth and education, and indeed, he was a polymath and science innovator, and quite the racist. However, you have to remember that racism was the norm, rather than not, in his era. Obviously, intelligence ran in the family, but it could be argued that Francis was actually more intelligent that Charles, as he was an expert and innovator in many fields. For example, it was his work that is still used today in identifying individual fingerprints. The cousins share a similar determined expression, and Francis obviously supported his cousin’s theory of heredity since he built the idea of eugenics upon it. So, is he a likeable man, or not?

That is the exciting part of the process … you decide.

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When words fail: women, science, and women-in-science

As a woman of science … hell yeah!

The Contemplative Mammoth

I don’t want to write about women in science today. I want to write about glaciers, or passenger pigeons, or the way the tilt of the earth is making the squirrels outside my window stash acorns, or about how sharks have been on this planet longer than trees, or why sometimes, the public doesn’t trust scientists.

You don’t get those posts today, because I’m a woman in science. Being a woman in science comes with expectations, you see. It comes with my own expectations for a fulfilling career, for having it all, for defining what that even means, and for doing it under my own terms, but those aren’t relevant.

Being a woman in science comes with the expectations others have for me, too, including that I not only must talk and act and dress in certain ways, but also that I work hard enough to justify investing in me even though I’m a pre-baby-incubator. Meanwhile…

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Mash-ups and the Steampunk Philosophy

Steampunk might seem to be the last genre to ever be eco-friendly, but it only seems that way if you confuse the Postmodern genre of Steampunk with the historical reality of the Industrial Revolution. They are not the same, particularly in their underlying philosophies. The Industrial Revolution was powered by Capitalism; Steampunk is all about recycling, upcycling, repurposing, sharing, reusing, valourizing Science for its achievements and not for what it can do for the profit margins. This holds true for the Aesthetic, the alternative lifestyle, and for the literary genre.

With the Steampunk Aesthetic, cosplayers take pride in making a lot of their own kit. I know that, even as the world’s slowest sewer, I have made my own items of my Steampunk wardrobe. My friends and I raid op shops looking for suitable items to be made over into Steampunk fashions. We almost make a competition of who can find the best second-hand items, and who can make the best outfit. It just isn’t environmentally friendly, or pennywise, it is also a lot of fun. In fact, we make our costumes because of any idealistic values, but because we achieve an unique style by making our own costumes.

My hand-decorated hat and recycled vest.

My hand-decorated hat and recycled vest.

This is the case for my community. We have swap meets, workshops, ops shop adventure days and other events. We make quite a few of our own gadgets, including my lovely backpack that Matt the Tinkerer built (with some help from me).

Backpack designed and made by Matt the Tinkerer.

Backpack designed and made by Matt the Tinkerer.

This has all been a longwinded introduction to the concept of Steampunk Mash-ups. I love a good mash-up, I really do, be it a cosplayer dressed as Steampunk Batman, a group of Steampunk Ghostbusters (I am a member of such a group), or a story that borrows settings, characters, and situations from other literary sources.  The most famous example would be The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which borrows something from just about every well-known Victorian novel.

One of the literary markers of the Steampunk genre is this use of well known individuals, both real life people and literary characters. This is a very Postmodern strategy, incorporating the old and traditional into the new, to create something that exceeds the impact of both as single entities. A mash-up can add a depth to the story that wouldn’t be achieved otherwise.

The series by Michael Pryor, The Extraordinaires, has Rudyard Kipling as a character. Kipling’s Junglebook is the jumping off point for the series, as this series also explores what defines civilisation and what defines the ‘Other’. So Kipling isn’t just a character, his work supplied the inspiration for the other characters and the plots, and so he acts as an analogy and as an allegory within the story. Masterful stuff!

 One of the books in The Extraordinaires  series by Michael Pryor.

One of the books in The Extraordinaires series by Michael Pryor.

It is fitting that the Steampunk literary genre ‘recycles’ other literary works in this manner. Most of the literature from the Victorian era is no longer in copyright, and can be used safely without stepping on anyone’s toes. You can use quite famous characters and real historical people, like Dracula or Brunel, and really go to town with them. Or you could research obscure Victorian characters to use in your stories. I like to research scientists, myself.

So don’t be frightened to try a mash-up. Not only is it fun, but it is in the finest tradition of the Steampunk literary genre.

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Multicultural Steampunk

StormdancerCuttlefish by David Freer.The Steam Mole by David FreerCassandra Clare 'The Clockwork Prince'

What do all the above novels have in common? They all have protagonists that are of races other than white European or white American. Three of them are partially or completely set outside of Europe and America. They are all excellent Steampunk books. Unfortunately, because Steampunk is considered to be centred on the Victorian-era industrialisation of Britain and America, most books are set in the UK and the USA. This might seem to limit the racial palette of characters that can be considered character in the Steampunk literary genre. It doesn’t.

Technology and innovation weren’t (and still aren’t) limited to one part of the planet. It was happening (is happening) at different rates wherever any inspired and educated human being can tinker with tools and source good reference material. And if you have read Terry Pratchett’s ‘Raising Steam’, you know that even non-humans can get in on the fun. In the Victorian era, there was innovation occurring all over, in Asia, in Russia, in India, in South America and in Australia & New Zealand.

Of course, racism was a major issue in the Victorian era. The British Gentleman thought himself superior to every other race on the planet, including any person of British descent who was from the ‘Colonies’. This doesn’t mean that a Steampunk story has to reflect that ugly and outmoded attitude. In fact, I would recommend, in this post-colonial era, that you take to opportunity to write against that attitude.

Dorothy Winterman's Asian-influenced Steampunk outfit by Luisa Ana Fuentes.

Dorothy Winterman’s Asian-influenced Steampunk outfit by Luisa Ana Fuentes.

We now live in a global village. Why set unnecessary limitations on your characters?

At this point, I would like to bring up racial stereotypes. If you are going to have a multicultural cast of characters, do not resort to lazy writing and use racial stereotypes in the characterization of your protagonists, antagonists and secondary characters. As well, the race of a character shouldn’t be their defining characteristic, and make them ‘exotic’ or ‘other’.

In my own YA Steampunk work-in-progress, two of the three main characters are from mixed-race backgrounds, and one compounds the issue by being a colonial from Australia. This wasn’t a deliberate choice I made when I was first fleshing out the novel, but it became clear to me that I wanted both the characters to have a broader experience of the world than would be available to a British gentleman. This was made easier by giving them backstories that included travel to other countries without having the superior attitude of men from the British Empire; such an attitude would have interfered with their education from non-British sources.

Of course, this means more research, to get the details right. But think of the fun you will having exploring other cultures!

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The Care Taker: a Doctor Who episode for the fangirls

If you haven’t yet watched this episode: SPOILERS ALERT! Come back after you’ve seen it.

Peter Capaldi

I am an unashamed fangirl when it comes to Doctor Who. The First Doctor, played by William Hartnell, was my first Doctor, and this new incarnation reminds me of the Doctor’s origins. The First Doctor was mysterious and moody, wiry and tough, a genius with monumental reserves of knowledge who was also a bit forgetful and not quite up-to-date with human behaviour. Capaldi is all that, with an extra topping of energy and wild eyebrows.

My favourite character this episode? Disruptive Influence. The Doctor isn’t as secretive about the TARDIS as previously. In fact, he seems rather inclined to show her off. He still enjoys being cryptic though.

I really like the double meaning of the title. As a writer, I am more than a little obsessed with good titles, and this one is perfect. You might start off thinking it refers to the Doctor’s undercover character, but as the episode progresses you realise that it could refer to Clara and/or to Danny. The interaction of the three main characters is more important that the actual ‘alien threat’ of the episode. The more I see of Danny, the more I like him.

As to discovering more about the Doctor … several of the conversations he has with Clara gives you the idea that his ‘how you look’ comments may be evidence of his sense of humour and not of his lack of noticing. After all, the Doctor sees everything. This episode also gives an insight as to why he might seem to be pushing Clara away … human beings don’t live for very long. This has been an issue with the Doctor and his companions before.

Well, this wasn’t meant to be a lengthy breakdown of the episode. Tomorrow, business as usual, looking at how post-colonialism and its impact on the Steampunk Genre.

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