Category Archives: Subgenres of Steampunk

Do Genre Restraints Create Ageism?

 

Wouldn’t it be nice to visit with Buffy now that she is middle aged?

Being a middle-aged woman who has been a fangirl most of her life, I find there is a dearth of middle-aged women characters in popular culture (unless you count all the evil stepmothers in fairy tales). And yet, with middle-aged women being one of the largest consumers and creators of pop culture and anything in the fantasy/science fiction genre, you would expect plenty of representation. I can only think of one or two really memorable middle-aged character; most female protagonists are usually very young or very old females.

My favourite is the menopausal witch, Jenny Waynest, in the Winterlands novels by Barbara Hambly.

This image is from the cover of Dragonsbane. That is meant to be Jenny being cradled in the talons of the dragon. As you can see, that damsel is a rather attractive young woman with a strategically torn dress. Jenny is meant to be short, mousy, and not fashion model pretty.

A quick search of the usual fan art sites on the internet comes up with just a few images of Jenny – with only one showing Jenny as a human. Most show her in her dragon form. If I turned up dressed as (the human) Jenny to a cosplay event, I doubt anyone would get my character right. Most would think I was Nanny Ogg or Professor McGonagall, who are considered elderly rather than middle aged (though McGonagall was only middle-aged in the books).

Lady Sybil with her husband Sir Samuel Vimes, the Duke of Ankh Morpork

Even Terry Pratchett has only a few middle-aged female characters, like Lady Sybil Vimes and Lady Margolotta (though, as a vampire, does Margolotta Amaya Katerina Assumpta Crassina Von Uberwald really count?). They are only secondary characters, though Sibyl does manage to play a major role in several Discworld novels. Middle-aged women are nearly invisible in Discworld, think Doreen Winkings (vampire by marriage), Mrs Evadne Cake, and the series of humorous landladies that pop up in the books. It must be noted that in all the Tiffany Aching books, we never learn what her mother’s Christian name might be, though we know her father’s name is Joe and her grandmother was Sarah.

(By the way Disney, you couldn’t do better than to convert Tiffany’s books into animated movies. The story for ‘Wintersmith’ will make everyone forget Frozen.)

 

Thanks to Doctor Who being such a long running show, we have had the opportunity to see characters age, including everyone’s favourite companion, Sarah Jane Smith. Sarah Jane managed to remain feisty, opinionated,and strong willed to the very end; it is a damned shame Elisabeth Sladen died so young and will never get to see an elderly old lady with grit and wisdom. And River Song has to be considered middle aged, even though she isn’t exactly human, as she is played by Alex Kingston who is 53 (same age as me).

Of course, genre has a major impact on the ages of your main characters. In Young Adult fiction, the protagonists are going to be teens or a little older (or at least look like teenagers, even if they are hundreds of years old – I’m looking at you Twilight). Older women might play secondary roles, but they are never going to be the protagonists. However, why does nearly every other television show, movie or dystopian novel assume only young people can be protagonists? Where are the middle-aged female superheroes suffering from menopause and finding it difficult to fit into the same clothes they were wearing in their twenties? Do the genre markers for our various narratives actually encourage ageism?

Captain Janeway – she never seems to garner the same enthusiasm in fans as Kirk, Picard, Sisko or Archer. (Except in slash fiction.)

Genre fiction is supposed to be able to take risks and envision strange, new worlds. So why are middle-aged women so under-represented? If you can think of a middle-aged lady protagonist in any Steampunk narratives (not a secondary character or antagonist) that will rock the world like Buffy, please feel free to let me know!

 

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Filed under Ageism, Characterization, Feminism, Gender and Sexuality, Genre, Genre Markers, Pop Culture, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, Steampunk Writer, Subgenres of Steampunk, Uncategorized, writing, Writing Style

Steampunk and Doctor Who – in particular the Christmas Specials

Doctor_Who_Christmas_Carol

Doctor Who had always had a love affair with the Victorian era, and Science Fiction plus the Victorian Era is pretty much what Steampunk is all about.  I am certain my on interest in all things Steampunk was partially inspired by my love of all things Whovian.

Victoria Waterfield

Victoria Waterfield was the daughter of scientist Edward Waterfield, who in 1866 was experimenting with time travel. She was a companion of the Second Incarnation of the Doctor, and friends with Jamie (my very favourite companion, as I love a man in a kilt). She ended up living in the 20th century.

The majority of the Christmas specials seem to gravitate to the Victorian era as a setting. This is because the British are nostalgic and love the idea of an old-fashioned, traditional Christmas (and there is nothing wrong with that, says the Australian woman who has never seen snow). And – of course – it was in the Victorian era that most of those traditions were started, like the Christmas tree and the exchanging of cards.

Doctor-who-christmas-special-2012

As well, Christmas makes a perfect setting for a scary story. Charles Dickens knew that, with his famous  Christmas ghost story The Christmas Carol. (And let’s not forget that Dickens appeared in the episode The Unquiet Dead, with ghosts and all and it wasn’t even a Christmas special!)

The Christmas specials are also rather famous for their guest stars and cameos as well, and that is one of the genre markers of the Steampunk literary genre.

But it just hasn’t been Christmas specials that have been set in the Victorian era. I’ve already mentioned The Unquiet Dead,  but there was also Tooth and Claw, which actually featured Queen Victoria.

Any episode featuring the Paternoster Gang – Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, and Strax – is set in the Victorian era except for A Good Man Goes to War;  their episodes have been The Crimson Horror, The Snowmen, The Name of the Doctor, and Deep Breath. I am hoping we will see them again.

 

 

 
doctor with missy

And, last but not least, there is the Doctor’s own preference for wearing outfits based on Victorian gear – a style choice which Missy seems to be emulating. The First Doctor was most certainly dressed as a Victorian gentleman, as was the Eight Doctor. The Fourth Doctor was dressed in a Victorian era walking outfit. And this latest incarnation is most certainly influenced by First’s wardrobe. Even the TARDIS wears a Victorian-inspired paintjob; her disguise might be based on the Mackenzie Trench-style police box (from a 1920s design) but the very first police boxes were invented and used in the 19th century.

The 8th Doctor

As both a fan of Doctor Who and a Steampunk Enthusiast, I can’t escape the aesthetics of the Victorian era.

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Grimdark: a subgenre of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and how it relates to Steampunk and Gothic genres.

Grimdark is a subgenre or a way to describe the tone, style or setting of speculative fiction (especially fantasy) that is, depending on the definition used, markedly dystopian or amoral, or particularly violent or realistic.
From the Wikipedia article on Grimdark

Let’s get one thing straight from the start: even though Grimdark and Gothic share some common genre markers, they are not the same genre. The best way to define Grimdark might be to first look at the Gothic Literary Genre, and highlight the contrasts.

Gothic Genre Markers:

Symbolism – The Gothic style depends heavily on symbolism to create resonance within its setting, characters, and plots. A good example of this is the use of weather in Gothic novels; it is always thunderous and gloomy when the author is trying to create suspense. Indeed, flashes of lightening accompany a revelation or epiphany; thunder and downpours will foreshadow the appearance of a villainous character or the beginning of a significant – and usually tragic – event. Nature is seen as great and mysterious force.

Romance – I don’t mean kissy, kissy romance (though there may be some of that too), but Epic Romance, with weird fates, inescapable destinies, strange journeys and the unending battle between good and evil, the stuff of ballads and poetry. Stylistically, a Gothic novel had its roots in epic poetry. In fact, the Romantic literary movement had a strong influence on the development of the Gothic novel; the Romantics favoured natural, emotional and personal artistic themes.

Ambiguity Ambiguity dominates the characters, their motivations and lives. Anti-heroes abound. This was the genre that provided literature with the Byronic hero; brooding, damaged, and damn sexy.

The Macabre and the Supernatural – The Supernatural is the obvious flipside to the normal and natural. Vampires, ghosts, monsters, they have all had starring roles in Gothic novels. Often, science is seen as both a force for good and for evil (more ambiguity), creating both problem and cure. The darkness of humanity often meddles with the unknown, with dire consequences.

Morality and Consequences – Because of this darkness, there has to be consequences. Someone commits a crime, whether purposefully or accidentally, and there are repercussions: revenge, hauntings, and such like. The villains are punished, the protagonist receives some sort of reward if not an anti-hero. Not every Gothic story ends happily. Justice will be done, as the power of social stability is stronger than any transgression; this was particularly important in Victorian Gothic literature.

The Outsider  as a character – This could be the protagonist. This could the the antagonist. This could be the monster, as in Frankenstein,or, The Modern Prometheus, the most famous literary outsider of all time.By being ‘outside’ society, whether physically, intellectually, emotionally, or culturally, the Outsider works against society’s constraints. The Gothic novel can’t function without this vital character.

Secrets – Gothic novels abound in secrets: secret marriages, secret children, secret tragedies. It is often the hiding and final revelation of these secrets that underpin the entire plot. (Who is that woman you’ve got hidden in your attic, Mister Rochester?)

Some well known Gothic novels are Dracula, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Picture of Dorian Grey, The Woman in White, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Turn of the Screw. You can see how these genre markers are common to all these narratives. Even modern Gothic novels, like An Interview with a Vampire, confirm to these genre markers.

George R R Martin

The most perfect modern example of the Grimdark genre would be George R R Martin’s series, A Song of Ice and Fire. A Grimdark novel might have secrets, symbology (Ice and Fire, for starters) and a horde of Outsider characters, like a Gothic novel, but there is a strong streak of cynicism and violence in this series that is completely opposed to the Romantic themes in Gothic literature. It is a dark and dystopic vision of human nature, in a fantasy setting with dragons and white walkers, and it is absolutely brilliant. Justice or morality have been thrown out the window.

Grimdark Steampunk isn’t my writing style, but I enjoy reading it. Many of the recent Steampunk novels I’ve read lean towards being Grimdark rather than Gothic, such as Jay Kristoff’s The Lotus War series and Stephen Hunt in his Jackelian series.

I like the definition by writer Jared Shurin, that Grimdark genre has three key markers:

  1. a grim and dark tone;
  2. a sense of realism (his example, monarchs are useless and heroes are flawed), and;
  3. the agency of the protagonists. Whereas in high fantasy everything is predestined and the tension revolves around how the heroes defeat the Dark Lord, Grimdark is “fantasy protestantism”; characters have to choose between good and evil, and are “just as lost as we are.”

You can immediately see that relates back to the genre markers for the Gothic Literary Genre. I have heard of the term ‘Steampunk Gothica’ used for Steampunk novels that borrow heavily from the Gothic Literary Genre, but the modern Steampunk genre has evolved from the Gothic genre so I consider it a redundant term. Grimdark is something else again. Something gritty. And when grit gets into the mantle of an oyster, it turns into a pearl.

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The Ghosts of Victorian Past: Gothic Steampunk

The Castle of Otranto, A Gothic Story was the very first Gothic novel, so it predates the Victorian era by several decades. It was published in 1764, and written by Horace Walpole. Walpole’s style was heavily influenced by the tragedies of Shakespeare. The Castle of Otranto was a popular book and its style was to be much imitated in the later 18th century and early 19th century, created the Gothic literary genre. The Gothic literary genre is considered to combine melodramatic fiction with the Victorian-era genres of Horror and Romanticism. Some of the most famous books of the Victorian era were Gothic tomes, like and it is easy to trace the influence the Gothic genre had on some of the more lurid genres of modern Science Fiction and modern Horror.

The Gothic novel held a particular fascination for the Victorians, with their morbid obsession with mourning rituals, mourning clothing and jewellery, mementos, Spiritualism, ghosts, post-mortem photography and death in general. In Britain, Charles Dickens wrote Gothic novels, like Bleak House and The Mystery of Edmund Drood and even A Christmas Carol. Edgar Allan Poe was the king of Gothic fiction in America, with his recurring themes of bizarre deaths, the effects of decomposition, concerns of premature burial, the reanimation of the dead, and mourning. Many of his works are considered part of the Romanticism subgenre of Gothic literary fiction, or fall into the genre of Gothic Horror.

Edgar Alan Poe by Pablo Bernasconi

Edgar Alan Poe by Pablo Bernasconi

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by English author Mary Shelley is another classic Gothic novel, and one of the direct progenitors of Science Fiction literary genre. It is consider Science Fiction because Victor Frankenstein creates his monster through scientific techniques, and he deliberately experimented with the specific goal of recreating life. It is also a Gothic Horror because it conforms to all the genre markers of the Gothic literary genre: the melodrama, the Romanticism, the use of Supernatural forces, the classic Gothic settings, and the ‘fatal flaw’ in the plans of the protagonist which leads to his tragic fate.

Some people have preferred to Steampunk, particularly Steampunk cosplay, as when ‘Goths were brown instead of black’. To the untrained eye, this may seem to be the case, as both genres are heavily influenced by the Victorian aesthetic. But in reality, they have very different underlying discourses. Steampunk isn’t exclusively about Romance or Horror, it is more about intellectual exploration, adventure and SCIENCE! Your average Goth doesn’t need goggles and a raygun, and most Goths wear their outfits as a lifestyle choice and not as cosplay. With not a cog in sight…

There is plenty of overlap between the Gothic literary genre and the Steampunk literary genre, but there are plenty of differences too. Many Steampunk writers use Gothic literature as a stepping off point for their own narratives, and very successfully too. Steampunk can adapt to ruinous castles and melodrama as easily as Doctor Jekyll can concoct a potion.

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Sharing Steampunk: some thoughts about popularity

Colour group photo.

Steampunk is a subgenre of Science Fiction. In the past three decades, Steampunk has managed to generate several subgenres of its own, like Gaslamp Fantasy and Dieselpunk. These are growing large enough to count as genres in their own right, with their own aesthetics and genre markers, and with their own authors, illustrators, artists, and cosplayers. Some people think Steampunk is getting too popular, and this popularity is ruining the playing field for the ‘real’ enthusiasts, because the genre can be interpreted in too many ways.

Let me be the first to disagree with that attitude.

Some people see Steampunk devolving into an uchronic mythology based on the Industrial age in Victorian England. These are purists who want to see all the historical details remain accurate, forgetting that Steampunk shares many of characteristics of the Alternative History genre. The important word in the previous sentence is ‘alternative’, which means creative changes can be made to the details. Lots of changes, such as changes to the time period, social mores, technology levels, the existence of magic and magical beasts, and anything else that takes your fancy.

It is these fluctuations in the details that creates the subgenres.

While a Literary genre is growing and changing, it can’t get stale. It is this acceptance – nay, embracing! – of change that keeps Steampunk vibrant and interesting. This is the same reason why the English language is alive and well in the modern world, because it isn’t afraid to try out new words and new concepts. Steampunk loves to experimentation and innovation; in fact, it is one of the biggest genre markers of the category. New subgenres are just a sign of a healthy literary genre.

I don’t understand how Steampunk can be ‘too’ popular. Popularity means more Steampunk genre books & art, and Steampunk-themed movies and television shows, and much else. It means that people understand what Steampunk is without a lengthy explanation. It means more creative people joining the Steampunk community, making it richer and more complex.

Steampunk isn’t a secret to be clutched to your chest and hidden away, like some old curmudgeon in a dusty apartment. Open that door and let other people join the party. The more, the merrier!

HANDS2015-white

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The Edisonade Literary Genre: a Steampunk Perspective

The 1868 cover of 'The Steam Man of the Prairies' by Edward S. Ellis.

The 1868 cover of ‘The Steam Man of the Prairies’ by Edward S. Ellis.

Edisonade – definition gleaned from Wikipedia

‘Edisonade’ is a modern term, coined in 1993 by John Clute in The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, for stories based around a brilliant young inventor and his inventions, many of which would now be classified as Science Fiction. This sub-genre started in the Victorian & Edwardian eras and had its apex of popularity during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains, circa 1875

I don’t know about you, but that sounds suspiciously like something I would write about the Steampunk genre. In fact, you could almost classify my current Work-in-Progress as sitting in the Edisonade genre. Almost … except my protagonist is a female inventor, and I am writing in the 21st century. Does this mean I write in the Neo-Edisonade genre?

 At this point, let’s take a deep breath. Genre is all about labels, and labels are nothing more than a way of organising. And I know I said I was looking for a better term for Steampunk, but Edisonade isn’t the label I am looking for! Neo-Vicwardian Retro-Futurism is still out in front.

The perfect example of the Edisonage genre hero would be Frank Reade (and Frank Reade Junior). The four Frank Reade stories concerned adventures with the character’s inventions – robot-like mechanisms powered by steam. The first book,  Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains, is frankly a rip-off of The Steam Man of the Prairies, even to the illustrations (see the examples above). Frank Reade Junior was a cog that didn’t fall far from the engine. This teenaged inventor built airships, submersibles, steam-powered and electrical vehicles for getting about on land, and steam-powered robots (proving that he was just as able a plagiarist as his father). He has been the protagonist in many a story and novel, even to this day, by an assortment of authors.

Tom Swift is a slightly more modern example of the boy inventor genre. These books were also written by more than one author. They made famous the ‘Tom Swifty’,  in which a ‘spoken’ sentence is linked by pun-ish adverb. For example:

“I find the interior of this submarine very roomy,” said Tom, spaciously.

“The lava is hot,” said Tom magnanimously.

“We have to move, right now!” exclaimed Tom, swiftly.

(Gosh, I can hear you all groaning. I’ll stop.)

What I find sad is the lack of girl inventor fiction. Thank goodness for ‘Girl Genius’ webcomic and Michael Pryor’s ‘The Extraordinaires’!!

Joking aside, the term Edisonade was only ‘recently’ been coined in 1993, well after the term Steampunk was coined in 1985. Because of this, I would argue the Edisonade could/should be considered a subgenre of Steampunk. As well, Steampunk is a much broader genre.

 

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The Subgenres of Steampunk

Dieselpunk

Dieselpunk

I want to be right upfront and state that this list of Steampunk subgenres is of my own devising, and I’ve made a stab at developing my own categories and definitions. However, Dieselpunk looks to be a subgenre with legs, and the others look to be making a good attempt at marking their own territories, so any inaccuracies or fuzziness can be attributed to me.

The Steampunk literary genre is a subgenre of Science Fiction, and it has subgenres of its own. Science Fiction is a genre that is changing and evolving as new technologies are discovered and as we grow to understand the human animal better. It can be used to tell a simple and straightforward adventure story, or it can be a multilayered narrative that is making pointed observations about a culture, such as ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ by Margaret Atwood, and so can be everything in between. There are hundreds of subgenres of Science Fiction, and more are being generated all the time. All of the Steampunk subgenres are a type of retro-futurism.

Dieselpunk

Dieselpunk is set in the early days of development of the car, the motorcycle, and the airplane. As you can see, this means there is quite the timeline overlap with the Victorian and Edwardian era, but the technology is of a more sophisticated level. Less steam engines, more petrol engines. More of an obsession with speed. Less of the florid and fussy Victorian aesthetic, and more of the streamlined beauty of the Art Deco (I mistakenly put Art Nouveau here last night).

Valvepunk

Valvepunk

Valvepunk

It is all about valves, obviously, the technology of radio sets and the early television. I have also heard this referred to as Teslapunk. I would place this at a slightly later timeframe than Dieselpunk, but with lots of overlap. Valvepunk’s aesthetic is all about Bakelite, which was invented in 1907 and stopped being popular around the Second World War, after which it was replaced with more modern plastics and resins in the home and most industrial applications.

Cogpunk

Again, the name on the box tells you exactly what’s in it. Cogpunk is about clockwork and gears, which many might argue is the heart of Steampunk. However, Cogpunk includes the handmade automations and horological wonders that were made before the Industrial era, and the French Industrial clocks of the Victorian era, Twentieth Century clockwork tin toys and much, much more. It is a meticulous aesthetic, all about uniqueness and one-offs.

The Strasberg Clock at the Powerhouse Museum

The Strasberg Clock at the Powerhouse Museum

Gaslight Fantasy

Gaslight Fantasy is where Steampunk is leavened with magic, or mythological creatures, or time travel, anti-gravity, or aliens; anything that isn’t strictly a technological innovation invented by human beings. Most of the books I’ve read in the Steampunk Literary genre have a Gaslight Fantasy aspect. The webcomic Girl Genius is classed by its creators as a Gaslamp Fantasy.

Girl Genius

Girl Genius

If you have any categories you want to add, or to comment about these definitions, please comment. I would love your input! As well, I have on Facebook, Steampunk Sunday: https://www.facebook.com/SteampunkSunday

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Filed under Cogpunk, Dieselpunk, Gaslight Fantasy, Science Fiction, Steampunk, Subgenres of Steampunk, Valvepunk