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


Filed under Characterization, History, Personal experience, Steampunk

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!


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.


Filed under Mash-ups, Steampunk, Steampunk Themes, writing

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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Burning the Bustle; Steampunk and Feminism

Dr Julia Oden, Suffragette, from Murdoch Mysteries

Dr Julia Oden, Suffragette, from Murdoch Mysteries

Ah yes, that F word, Feminism. It still has the power to polarize communities, split opinions, and horrify the Patriarchy. I can just about guarantee it doesn’t mean what you think it means. I am a feminist, but I still love and adore men, and I certainly don’t want to dominate my husband (much). Feminism, for me, is about opening doors that are closed simply because of a person’s gender; like the right to vote; the right to feel safe on the street no matter how one dresses; the right to a tertiary education to the same levels and in the same fields; and the right to have the same rights within the legal and political arenas. See … not so scary.

The Victorian era was when the Suffragette Movement started, the movement to see women get the vote. The Suffragette movement was active from 1865 in Britain, and spread to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand almost immediately. New Zealand was the very first country to allow white women to vote, in 1893, but it was South Australia that gave white women the right to vote and run for parliament in 1894. Alas, my own state of Queensland didn’t give white women the right to vote until 1905, and the right to run for parliament until 1918. It wasn’t until 1962 that the Australian Indigenous people, women and men, were given the right to vote. Modern Feminism is the descendant of the Suffragette Movement.

Steampunk Cosplayers re-enacting a tiff between authorities and suffragettes.

Steampunk Cosplayers re-enacting a tiff between authorities and suffragettes.

My own Steampunk stories tend to have an underlying theme of Feminism. I try not to make it too overt, but sometimes I can’t help myself. So many scholarly women were unable to get university educations, because most universities would allow women to attend classes, and allowed them to take examinations, but wouldn’t allow them to matriculate. For example, Oxford University was allowing women to attend classes from 1870, but they weren’t able to matriculate until 1920. One of my characters, Alice, is a polymath and a genius in the botanical sciences, but is unable to gain acceptance from the British scientific establishment. She can’t join the Royal Society, she isn’t allowed into Kew Gardens without a special permit, she isn’t accepted for publication by any of the journals. If she marries, all her worldly goods are put into the hands of her husband, and she is expected to become nothing more than a wife and mother. Wouldn’t you feel resentful?


Mrs Banks from the musical ‘Mary Poppins’

It wasn’t just the corsets that were restricting. Is it any wonder that one of the stock characters of the Steampunk genre is the Plucky Girl who dresses like a boy? Dressing as a boy meant freedom! No corset, no bustle, no layers of skirts and petticoats. Sensible boots with steel caps! Hardwearing trews that you could get grease on. No expectation your brain will melt if you learn something technical or mechanical or mathematical. Real freedom.

Being a female in the Victorian era affected your health. There were no female doctors or scientists, so the medical fraternity had little understanding of what they referred to as ‘women’s problems’. This is the era that created the idea that pregnancy was an illness, mainly because the lack of hygiene meant many women died after successful childbirth from postpartum fevers. Male doctors took over from midwives, who knew all about boiling sheets and clean hands. And many female maladies were classed as a form of hysteria, a word from the same Latin source as hysterectomy: hystera, meaning ‘womb’. Being female was automatically seen as being weaker physically, emotionally and mentally.

A Steampunk Suffragette

A Steampunk Suffragette

If you write or read in the Steampunk genre, you don’t need to be a feminist. But an awareness of how much women owe the Suffragette movement might enrich the experience for you.

If you are interested in Steampunk, I run a site on Facebook, Steampunk Sunday, Queensland, Australia:


Filed under Feminism, Personal experience, Steampunk

The Steampunk Literary Genre: a scholarly summary

Captain Nemo's favourite lounge chair.

Captain Nemo’s favourite lounge chair.

For the past week, this blog has been dedicated to describing the building blocks of the Steampunk Literary genre: Setting, Characterization and Plot. But how do we define Steampunk? There are as many definitions as there are Steampunk enthusiasts. Here is a small sample:

  • Neo-Victorian Retro-Futurism (my personal favourite), though I might modify that to Neo-Vicwardian Retro-Futurism.
  • Quasi-Victorian Alternate History
  • A subgenre of science fiction and fantasy featuring advanced machines and other technology based on steam power of the 19th century and taking place in a recognizable historical period or a fantasy world. (
  • A subgenre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. (Wikipedia)
  • a genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery rather than advanced technology. (Oxford Dictionary)

I favour inclusionistic definitions, rather than definitions than exclude possibilities. Once a genre is set in stone, it stops growing, and when it stops growing, it becomes dull and unchallenging. I also don’t believe that my definition could be (or should be) the definitive one, which is why I listed a few different definitions. All of these definitions are are both right and wrong; right, because they do cover some of the aspects of the Steampunk genre, and wrong, because they aren’t detailed enough. Because the genre differs from each day to the next, for each individual writer and reader. The Steampunk literary genre isn’t a butterfly you can pin to a board.

However, there are some aspects of the genre that can be used as genre markers:

  • There will be a major character who is a scientist or inventor
  • the genre involves scientific innovation as a major plot point
  • there is a tendency to utilize Victorian notables as characters (Queen Victoria)
  • the genre does ‘borrow’ characters from Victorian and Edwardian fiction (Sherlock Holmes)
  • Steampunk settings most often are industrial; and may be borrowed from Victorian or Edwardian fiction
  • Stylistically, the genre tends to mimic Victorian literary style and language
  • Many Steampunk novels incorporate ‘fantasy’ elements like magic
  • Mash-ups are a popular literary device

Steampunk, as a literary genre, is still in the process of being explored and defined.  There are no real don’ts or must haves. If you aspire to writing something in the genre, just grab your muse and hold on…

Lately, there has been a growing trend towards alternative culture becoming mainstream. I welcome the idea that everyone has suddenly realised how much fun we ‘outsiders’ have enjoyed all these years. It means there is a proliferation in the sort of  movies and books and events that I love. But there have been two ugly fads to appear with this trend.

Firstly, there are the people who think all newcomers are ‘second-best’ enthusiasts, and some of these individuals grow to actively dislike their subculture because it is now popular. I feel like telling these people to GROW UP!  You’ve spent years complaining about the lack of opportunities in your subculture, and now that there are more creative people entering it, things are only going to get more vibrant and interesting. And just because you like something, that doesn’t mean you own it.

Secondly, there are the people who hop onto a growing fashion trend just to make money. People in the know are quick to pick a phoney. There is nothing wrong with being a newbie and still learning all the aspects of a subculture like Steampunk, but don’t expect to make friends if your enthusiasm is simply to make a quick cash killing from that subculture. This includes people who write in the Steampunk genre without really understanding it, hoping to make a sale on the back of the growing readership for the genre. This usually means taking any story and just ‘sticking cogs on it’, which means it won’t have the proper characters, setting or plot for a genuine Steampunk novel.

I don’t want to discourage anyone who sincerely wants to write in the Steampunk literary genre. Your enthusiasm and sincerity will glow in your work. It is an amazing genre, because it can be so many different things.

For anyone interested in Steampunk, there are many wonderful sites in the webiverse.

I have a Facebook site dedicated to Steampunk:

Feel free to drop by.


Filed under Characterization, Plot, Setting, Steampunk, YA Work in Progress

CSI: Victorian London

Dr John Snow was one of the first people to realise it wasn’t ‘bad air’ that caused many diseases.

Airship Flamel

Take one part Dr. Gregory House, add a bit of Sherlock Holmes and a pinch of modern forensic science, and you have Dr. John Snow, a man who solved one of the largest mass killings in Victorian London.

The culprit: cholera. Ever since it first appeared in Britain in 1831, cholera periodically ravaged the cities, leaving thousands dead in its wake. In 1848-9, over 14,000 Londoners died; in 1853-4, another 10,000 succumbed. That the disease was somehow related to the deplorable conditions of British cities at the time was clear, but the means of transmission was believed by all authoritative men of medicine to be via “miasma”. Miasma was thought to be a sort of poisonous vapor or mist originating from decomposing matter, called miasmata. (Similarly, the word “malaria” comes from the Italian meaning “bad air”.) To prevent outbreaks, it was thought to be a simple matter of removing the…

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