Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Victorian Christmas Rituals: A Steampunk Perspective

A Victorian Christmas Morning

If you were magically transported back to Christmas in Victorian London, you might not discover the same Christmas  rituals you enjoy today. Christmas was much more about religion and much less about commercialism. It was certainly less about children, who are now the main focus of the holiday marketing. The jolly Santa we all recognise was partially invented by the poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas and partly invented by Coca Cola, with a dash of Dickens for added ‘colour’. The ritual  of the decorated Christmas tree was only introduced in the 19th century, by Prince Albert. The wassailing, carolling and excessive consumption of foodstuffs have remained unchanged, as they were part of the midwinter celebrations from time immemorial.

This doesn’t mean you can’t go to town with a Steampunk Christmas. This is fiction, after all. Think of the fun you can have with automated decorations and toys. A special gadget for spraying artificial snow if the weather isn’t cooperating with a white Christmas. Robot reindeer! Krampus traps! Exploding snowballs! Automated gingerbread house construction! The possibilities are endless.

Using Christmas as a setting allows you to use Christmas as an analogy or metaphor. Christmas is balanced on the edge of Paganism, as I previously mentioned, it I the time of the Winter Solstice and the Midwinter Celebrations. If you’ve ever read ‘The Dark is Rising’ by Susan Cooper (highly recommended if you haven’t), this books uses all the old Midwinter rituals and Christmas to structure the book, to deepen resonance of the symbolism of the six signs, and to add depth to the various characters that populate her world. The title says it all … it is midwinter, the darkest time of the year … and the short day.

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What to do with negative emotions

This week, my eighteen year old cat passed away. I have to admit, I have been a bit of a mess since the event. My Josephine had always been her own cat; she was not a snuggle kitty or sweet natured. She was a curmudgeon all her life, and didn’t like people or other cats. However, she did like me and she was always good company for me when I was writing. She was queen of the house.

IMG_2179In the past few weeks, she had stopped cleaning herself, and so I was brushing her three times a day to keep her ‘neat’.  She was still eating, but suddenly the weight was dropping off her and she was thin and frail. Then, she started to develop a wobble in her back legs, which I put down to arthritis. Unfortunately, in the days before her death, those legs started going out from under her. She fell down the front steps (there are only four steps), but that was enough for me. I made an appointment with the vet.

Waylon is a very nice man. He was as gentle as he could be, but in the end he had to give my grumpy old girl a sedative so he could check her hips. She called him some dreadful names, and I was relieved that I’m the only person who speaks fluent ‘Josephine’. Then the vet said, to be honest, he couldn’t really find anything wrong except for her old age. He suspected kidney failure, and our next step would be a bunch of invasive tests to confirm that suspicion. I knew what Josephine would think of all that testing – she would hate it. And, in the end, if it was kidney failure, there was little they could do for a cat her age. If we did nothing, and took her home, in the next few days the vet believed her health would start to fail dreadfully and my darling would start to suffer. Fluid would start filling up her tissues and she would get ill with toxins. Her organs would start to shut down.

The vet was saying everything but those horrible words “It is time to let her go.” So I asked him straight out … would it be selfish to keep her alive.

What's Monorail Cat got that I haven't got?

What’s Monorail Cat got that I haven’t got?

So, while she was sedated, I held my darling for twenty minutes and told her over and over how much I loved her. Then she was given a final injection to take the pain away forever. As it took hold, her body relaxed. It wasn’t until that point did I realise how ‘clenched’ her body language had become. That she had been in some pain, but unable to tell the stupid human. That I had failed her, in the end, by remaining blind to her suffering. So I felt guilty about that, and at the same time I felt guilty at having her put to sleep. Yeah … and my heart was breaking for the loss of my feline friend. I really, really loved my grumpy girl.

Days later, I’m still half expecting a loud and imperious demand to open the door.

So what to do with all this terrible sadness? I’ve been writing it out. I’m using it to fuel some of the more negative scenes in my narratives. That is what writing is all about. You don’t hide the pain away, you share it. We all suffer from the pain of loss. I’m using mine, and Josephine gets to live on in my work.

Josephine at Eighteen

Josephine at Eighteen

Josephine's Famous Impression of  'Something Washed Up on a Beach'

Josephine’s Famous Impression of ‘Something Washed Up on a Beach’

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Sapiosexuality and the Steampunk Feminist

SCIENCE!

SCIENCE!

The sexiest people are thinkers.

Vivienne Westwood

When I was at university, the graffiti in the toilets was of a very high standard. One of the most interesting comments I read was “The reason most women care more about their looks than their education is because most men can see better than they can think.” I’ve often wished I knew who said that first, or at least could have met the girl who wrote that on the toilet wall, to shake their hand. At first glance, this comment sounds rather passive-aggressive and misandristic, but let’s break it down into its component messages.

  1. Heterosexual women want to attract men, because they like men.  People tend to overlook this part of the comment, which is why I’ve mentioned it first. This is the complete opposite of misandry.
  2. Women are encouraged by society to valorise their looks over their intellect. Constantly. Everywhere you look. This is such a prevalent phenomenon that most people just accept this as a given.
  3. Men value looks over intellect when seeking a sexual or long-term partner. A quick read of the ‘men seeking women’ columns in the newspaper will confirm this. This is why men ‘trade in’ older women for trophy wives. But – to be fair – society backs up this mating strategy.
  4. The important word in the comment is MOST. It isn’t often you see a sweeping generalization with a modifier.

Not all women or men conform to this Patriarchal pattern. These people are attracted to other people because they are witty, charming, knowledgeable and intelligent … the sapiosexuals. A true meeting of minds and hearts occurs when sapiosexuals forms a relationship.

The Steampunk genre is based around the Vicwardian era, and this was one of the great ages of Patriarchy. It was commonly thought that a woman who tried to understand maths or hard science would go insane; Mary Somerville’s own father thought she would ‘break’ because her intellectual pursuits. So it was an era when women were most definitely encouraged to care about their looks rather than their education. The advantage of writing in the genre is that you don’t have to abide to that viewpoint.

There were women and men in the Victorian and Edwardian eras that valued intellect in their partners and spouses. In fact, I imagine it was the trait that attracted them to their partners in the first place. I know I’m attracted to smart people, and my own husband is a witty and charming man who enjoys bantering with me. My great grandmothers probably shared my propinquity for intelligent men, and my great grandfathers were most likely to have been quick-witted and resourceful men – and the evidence supports this, as they were, after all, successfully pioneering in the Tweed River/Fingal area of Australia.

A Steampunk narrative can either write against this underlying assumption, or write into an Vicwardian society where women are considered the intellectual equals of men, and a clever and educated woman is considered a wonderful marriage prospect, rather than quite the opposite. This is why Steampunk is a Science Fiction genre … we can create such wonderfully improbable settings. We can break the stereotypes.

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Filed under Characterization, Feminism, Setting, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Stereotypes, writing

Does Sex Really Sell? A Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Victorian Cabaret Thigh High Stockings; image from the weheartit.com website.

Image by Pixie Visions Photography

As we are constantly being told, SEX SELLS. This is used as an excuse to sexualize everything from children’s clothing to cars. I believe that marketing executives who believe this are selling the general population short. In particular, I notice a proliferation of images of sexy young women in skimpy Steampunk gear, but see no corresponding proliferation in handsome young men in skimpy Steampunk gear; nor do I see an increase in silver foxes or platinum vixens dressed in saucy Steampunk apparel. One can’t help but wonder if these photographs are taken by true enthusiasts of Steampunk Aesthetic, or by gentlemen who just like to see young women in corsets and stockings.

Absinthe Dreams  - image from Polyvore

As a feminist, I think a woman or a man should be allowed what they damn well like. By the same token, I do NOT want to see a woman or a man objectified and exploited. A person is a person, and worthy of having their identity respected. In my Facebook newsfeed on my site, Steampunk Sunday, images of underdressed young women completely outnumber all the other images of men and older women, and children. I did a five minute run through my feed, picking a random time, and only counting Steampunk images, and the results were:

  • 13 images of slender young women in tight or skimpy clothing
  • 4 images of young women in full Steampunk regalia
  • 2 images of a young men, both fully clothed (dammit)
  • 3 vintage images – all of men
  • 1 image of an older woman – fully dressed
  • 3 images of older men in Steampunk attire, showing off gadgets
  • 2 images of mixed groups in full Steampunk regalia
  • 1 image of a middle aged couple in full Steampunk regalia

As you can see from these numbers, I received as nearly as many images of ‘sexy’ and slender young women dressed in Steampunk attire as I did of everyone else put together. To be fair, at least half those images were ‘advertising’ for Steampunk clothing lines. (I also have an issue with the lack of Steampunk fashion options for bigger women, but let’s not diverge from the topic.)

For just about every Steampunk group of which I have personal knowledge, this pattern in my feed does not in any way match up with the demographics of the groups. In fact, the middle-aged people out-number every other age group by quite a proportion, and most groups seem to have a fairly equal number of men and women. At the Steampunk Charity Ball, this was most evident. I saw a huge range of ages, but the majority of people were between the ages of 25 and 60, with a sprinkling of people younger and older. And there was a range of gender orientations, and a range of body shapes. The only time anyone was in skimpy attire was when the burlesque dancers were performing (and they did a very fine and tasteful job of it). Yes, it was a ball … but ball gowns can be pretty skimpy, particularly around the shoulders, back and décolletage. Most people opted for something attractive without being revealing.

So, what am I (or you) to make of this inequality in photographic imagery? I try to even things up on Steampunk Sunday, by sharing a more balanced selection of images. In my writing, I try to keep an even balance in the demographics of my characters, even in my YA narratives. I try not to objectify or sexualize my characters. I try to make this balance part of my plot, when and where I can. Young people mix with young people, but they also mix with everyone else.

It might seem like I am fighting a losing battle. But even baby steps will eventually allow you to cross a desert.

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Filed under Characterization, Plot, Sex, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Women in Science, writing

Happy Doctor Who Day

Geronimo!

Corleones & Lannisters

I only have one thing to say and HE will say it for me:

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40 Ways to Stay Creative

I’m always happy to share inspirational posters, when they really ARE inspirational.

Morrighan's Muse

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Richard Trevithick – A Steampunk Characterization

“I have been branded with folly and madness for attempting what the world calls impossibilities, and even from the great engineer, the late Mr. James Watt, who said to an eminent scientific character still living, that I deserved hanging for bringing into use the high-pressure engine. This so far has been my reward from the public; but should this be all, I shall be satisfied by the great secret pleasure and laudable pride that I feel in my own breast from having been the instrument of bringing forward and maturing new principles and new arrangements of boundless value to my country. However much I may be straitened in pecunary circumstances, the great honour of being a useful subject can never be taken from me, which to me far exceeds riches.”

Richard Trevithick in a letter to Davies Gilbert

Richard Trevithick was a British inventor and mining engineer from Cornwall, which was what first brought him to my attention, because my mother’s family is originally for Cornwall. (Yes, I really am a pixie. Let’s get the short jokes out of the way quickly, shall we?) I suspect that Richard was the inspiration for Dick Simnel in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Raising Steam’, At school, young Trevithick, the son of a miner, was considered slow in everything but arithmetic, and he wasn’t trained as an engineer … but he was the first to invent the locomotive. His father-in-law was a blacksmith, John Harney, formerly a blacksmith who went on to form the foundry, Harveys of Hayle; his company became famous worldwide for building huge stationary beam engines used for pumping water. Can you see where the fictional Dick Simnel might have crystallised from Richard Trevithick?

Trevithick was an intuitive inventor, and remained functionally illiterate all his life. As an engineer in a Cornish mine, he was keen to utilise technology that would make mining more profitable. He could see steam was the answer, “Strong Steam”, so called because it was pressurised and dangerous. In 1797, Trevithick constructed high-pressure working models of both stationary and locomotive engines – just like Dick Simnel did.  The models were so successful that he felt confident to scale up and built a full-scale, high-pressure engine for hoisting ore. It was a success, so he built more. They were known as “puffer whims” because they vented their steam into the atmosphere.

This invention would have been enough to make his name as an inventor, but in 1804 he built and demonstrated the first self-propelled railway steam locomotive. And Steam-powered enthusiasts are still rejoicing.

Replica of the railway locomotive designed by Richard Trevithick.

Replica of the railway locomotive, the ‘Puffing Devil’, designed by Richard Trevithick.

Trevithick boult a second, similar locomotive  in 1805, and in 1808, Trevithick demonstrated a third, the Catch-me-who-can, his ‘steam circus’ on a circular track laid in London, where he charged a shilling a ride. He then had to abandon these projects, because the cast-iron rails proved too brittle for the weight of his engines.

In 1805 Trevithick adapted his high-pressure engine to driving an iron-rolling mill and propelling a barge with the aid of paddle wheels. His engine also powered the world’s first steam dredgers (1806) and drove a threshing machine on a farm (1812). Such engines could not have succeeded without the improvements Trevithick made in the design and construction of boilers. For his small engines, he built a  boiler and engine as a single unit, but he also designed a large wrought-iron boiler with a single internal flue, which became known throughout the world as the Cornish type. It was used in conjunction with the equally famous Cornish pumping engine, which Trevithick perfected with the aid of local engineers.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica

Trevithick went on to invent many of the safety features that made his boilers a workable proposition. We went to make improvement and more inventions. However, he never received the credit for his endeavours that he deserved. Taking encouragement from earlier inventors who had achieved some successes with similar endeavours, Trevithick petitioned Parliament for a grant but he was unsuccessful in acquiring one. But after his death, his legacy began to given some notice. The Trevithick Society is a registered charity that was started in 1935, to preserve his inventions as they started to be replace by more modern machinery.

So I can’t think of an individual who deserves the love and respect of Steampunk writers and enthusiasts. If he was good enough to inspire Terry Pratchett, he is good enough for me!

 This post is dedicated to one of the great Facebook Friends: The Historical Detective Agency Ltd., as Dan and the team inspired this blog post.

https://www.facebook.com/TheHistoricalDetectiveAgencyLtd?fref=ts

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Filed under Characterization, Engineer, Historical Personage, Science, Steampunk