Tag Archives: Steampunk Themes

The Gigantron

This is my gift to you all for your support over the past year.

 

Amedee Bollee's first 1878 steam-powered car

1878 Steam-powered Car

 

“Miss Stevens, your car is ugly.”

Renee rolled her shoulders to relax the tension sitting between them, and pretended she didn’t hear the comment. She didn’t bother looking up from her white wine. She was the only woman who frequented the bar – a known hangout for car enthusiasts – and she had earned a reputation for not taking shit from anyone. However, it had been a long day and she was bone-weary.

Alas, the man would not take the hint.

“Didn’t you hear me, girl? Your car is ugly.” He stood aggressively, with his fists on his hips and his chin thrust out, trying to look bigger than he was. Renee has seen a hundred men like him every day since she had started on her quest to build the fastest car in the world. They always managed to make the word ‘girl’ sound like a curse, rather than mere fact.

Renee suppressed a sigh. She said in a low voice, “I don’t recall being introduced, but since you know my name you must know of me and my car. I built her to be fast, not fashionable. You are not the first person to tell me that my car is not beautiful.”

The man was not the sort to be turned aside with gentle words. He snarled, “Are they the same people who tell you a girl shouldn’t build and race cars?”

“Yes, they usually are,” said Renee. She took another sip of wine and her mouth puckered; it was too dry and didn’t suit her mood. She needed a sweeter wine, something light and fruity.

“And they are right!” declared the man. “No woman has a brain that understands the mechanics.” He was short and dark, with a luxuriant moustache. No grease clogged his nails or the pores of his hands. He was too clean to be an inventor, engineer or mechanic. Most likely, he was a driver; they tended towards being highly strung.

Renee’s own hands were not as clean, even though she wore gloves when working on the Gigantron and took extra care to wash after work. She wondered if the man suffered ‘short man syndrome’ and saw the large size of her glorious Gigantron as an attack on his manhood. He seemed to be quivering with suppressed rage at her, and she couldn’t recall having any prior conversations with the chappie, so he couldn’t have a personal grudge against her. Pondering this, she said, “Really? If you are so interested in holding with traditional values, why are you picking on someone who is smaller than you?”

The quiver turned into a tremor that shook the man’s whole body. Renee concentrated on her wine. If he actually swung at her, she knew the entire bar would leap to her defence. As much as the other patrons might disapprove of a woman in their bar, they wouldn’t tolerate such ungentlemanly behaviour as a man striking a young lady, even if she was a peculiar young lady who invented and built automobiles. They weren’t to know that Renee had a spare wrench in her reticule for emergencies of all kinds.

“Your ugly car will not race,” growled the man, and he turned and stomped away. His spot was taken by a well-dressed, elderly gentleman with enormously expressive eyebrows dominating his face.

“How do you do, my dear?” said the gentleman, while a twitch of his eyebrows dismissed the rudeness of the short, dark man. “May I have a word with you?”

“You may,” said Renee. She smiled at the old gentleman. The eyebrows were clearly delighted at her welcoming response. The gentleman settled himself in the other seat at her table. Renee took the opportunity to study him. He was of average height, but was so thin he appeared to be tall and rangy; she imagined people often used the word ‘spry’ when describing him. His clothing was well made and well cared for, but fragile with age. His shoes were brand new and looked to be very expensive. Once he was comfortable, he smiled back at her.

He said, “Thank you, my dear. My name is Mister Erasmus Whittingstall. We haven’t been formally introduced, but I know your name is Miss Renee Stevens. You have a formidable reputation as an automobile inventor.” His eyebrows conveyed what an honour it was to make her acquaintance.

“How kind of you to say,” said Renee, and she meant it. People tended to use the word ‘bad’ whenever they mentioned her reputation. “How can I help you?”

“I would like to hear about your car, the Gigantron.”

“What do you want to know?” asked Renee.

“This might sound strange, but I have pretentions of poetry,” said Mr Whittingstall. He grinned and leant forward as if imparting a delicious secret. “I have seen you and your car in action. You will have the last laugh. Your car is a masterpiece. I can see how you have must have grown bones of steel and iron, and how you must sweat rust. I can see how you have rattled your teeth loose, suffered welding burns, and jarred your bones to splinters for your quest for speed. I want to capture your energy and enthusiasm in a poem; a poem to capture the zeitgeist of this new age.”

“Pardon?” Renee was taken back.

With a sympathetic swoop of his eyebrows, Mr Whittingstall explained, “I think your car is a great beauty, in the true meaning of the word ‘great’. Some automobiles seem to be airy-fairy filigrees of wire and chains. Your car is a warrior princess, a Valkyrie, big and powerful with sleek lines, breathing out smoke and steam and speed in return for your care. She looks like a rocket.”

“Like a bullet,” said Renee. “She is meant to look like a bullet.”

“Ah-ha. A bullet is another metaphor for speed,” said the Mr Whittingstall. He folded his hands across his chest and beamed.

“So how can my Gigantron and I help you with your poem?”

“I would like to pay you for a ride in your car.”

Renee relaxed. There was room for two in her vehicle. She could tuck the elderly gent behind her in the seat behind her driving console and chair. If she took it easy, he shouldn’t take any harm. She nodded and said, “You need not pay for a ride. I can take you with me on one of her test runs.”

The eyebrows jumped so high that they nearly disappeared into his mop of unruly white hair. “Oh no. You misunderstand me, though I appreciate the kind offer. I want to ride with you when you attempt to break the land speed record, and I am prepared to fully sponsor your attempt.” Mr Whittingstall nodded and continued, while his eyebrows dropped lower and lower, “I am quite wealthy. And I know how your expenses must be piling up. With my help, you can afford to best of everything.”

“And now I appreciate your very kind to offer, but it is much too dangerous,” said Renee.

“Now look here, Miss Stevens. I am an old man, but I still have a sound mind and a sound body. I promise not to be a distraction. One of the reasons I approached you is that I thought you might understand how it is to be constantly warned not to take risks. I am quite aware of the risks, and I have not discounted them.”

Renee couldn’t argue with his logic. He was certainly old enough to know his own mind. On top of that, she could use those extra funds. She made her decision.

“You will have to train with me. I must know I’m not endangering you, Mr Whittingstall. And some of your money will go to increasing safety measures on your behalf.”

The eyebrows danced with delight. “Excellent,” exclaimed Mr Whittingstall. “Come to my office tomorrow and we can make the arrangements. I’ll have my lawyer there so that no one can blame you for any mishaps. Though I’ve seen you drive, and I am sure I will as safe as in my own armchair. Then we can go visit my bank and arrange for the start of your funding.”

“Oh my,” said Renee, her voice rather faint.

“Let’s shake on it, shall we?” said Mr Whittingstall.

 

Two months later, Renee was polishing away the grease and grime that had condensed on the Gigantron overnight, and the car gleaming like the bullet she resembled. She whistled as she rubbed a shine onto every available surface. Some people might call the Gigantron ugly, but Renee knew beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Mr Whittingstall had taught her that.

If only those naysayers knew Gigantron better. Her chassis was similar in shape to a rocket, a long cone that curved to a point at the front, was finned at rear, and with six massive wheels supporting her weight. She was powered by a variety of methods, rather than just by coal or kerosene. She had two radial aero engines, the same sort of engines found in an airplane, air-cooled with propellers and gel-cooled with a refrigeration unit. In conjunction with these, Renee had added a magnetically-propelled motor, which could only work when the other engines are running at full bore. When she reached her maximum speed, she was as mighty as an avalanche or a tidal wave.

Stopping and turning when at full speed, on the other hand, was something of an issue. Newton’s Law of Motion and all that…inertia could be a killer when your car massed as much as the Gigantron. She wasn’t just a lady made of iron, she had an iron will. The lady’s not for turning. She could be the fastest car on the planet, but she wasn’t manoeuvrable.

Because of her lack of a turning circle, the Gigantron couldn’t race on a circuit. She needed a straight road, as smooth as you could make it. Renee had considered giving her a track like a locomotive, but a derailment at high speed would mean certain death. With Mr Whittingstall riding with her, certain death was not an option.

Today was going to be his first ride.

Renee was hoping for an uneventful day.

Mr Whittingstall turned up just as Renee was going over her checklist.

“How are you today, my dear girl?” called out the elderly gentleman.

“Are you talking to me or to the Gigantron,” said Renee, turning to meet him. It was quite the sight that met her gaze. Mr Whittingstall was dressed in the driving clothes of an earlier era, with a woollen coat, gaiters, heavy driving gloves, goggles and a leather aviation-style helmet. It was all Renee could do to suppress a laugh, but she felt safe enough with a smile.

“I think your outfit is quite wonderful, Mr Whittingstall,” she said. “Did you buy it especially for this occasion?”

“Well, no,” said Mr Whittingstall. “I own quite a collection of automobiles. This is just one of my driving outfits, one of my favourites, to be truthful. I think it looks dashing.”

“I’m glad to see you have dressed with safety in mind,” said Renee, and meant it. She was dressed in a padded leather boiler suit, and also sported gloves, a helmet and goggles. Even though the canopy of the Gigantron was designed to protect them from the wind, a stray draft would be dangerous at high speeds, driving dust into their eyes. To be driving blind would be fatal. Goggles were an important part of any driving outfit.

A couple of assistant mechanics came over to help load the two of them into the Gigantron. The car was too tall to get into without a stepladder. Mr Whittingstall had to go first, as his seat could only be reached while the driver wasn’t occupying her seat.

The old man gamely climbed into the car without too much trouble. He really was a spry old duck. The assistants carefully strapped him into his seat, a seat designed with a superior suspension to minimise any rattles or sudden jerks. As well, Renee has added padding to any hard surface around Mr Whittingstall’s seat, in case of a sharp stops or turns. Old bones were brittle.

It wasn’t just because he was her sponsor that she was taking such care. You had grown quite fond of him. He was a cheerful and undemanding mentor, asking intelligent questions. Renee had been expecting the poet to be much less sensible and more of a nuisance. Indeed, Renee found his enthusiasm for her Gigantron refreshing and inspiring. She had even stopped frequenting the bar, as she no longer needed to drown her money worries over a drink or two. Mr Whittingstall had been true to his word, and signed cheques without a peep of protest. It had made her life so much easier, being able to afford the proper equipment and staff to do things right. One of those things she made sure was right was Mr Whittingstall’s comfort and safety.

Renee climbed up the ladder and into her own seat. Her assistants buckled her in, making sure she was almost part of her console. Her back was immovable; only her arms, feet and head were unrestrained. Both her and her sponsor’s chairs were custom-made to their physical specification, to minimise jolting and bruising. The canopy was lowered and bolted down.

The Gigantron surrounded them like a fortress.

“Now remember your training, Mr Whittingstall,” said Renee. “You can halt this test at any point right up until I start our final acceleration. Once we are at top speed, we can’t stop quickly.”

“I understand. Mainly because you’ve told me this about a hundred times, Miss Renee.”

“And I will probably tell you a hundred times more,” said Renee, but the poet could hear the smile in her voice. “If you are all settled and ready, I’m starting her up.”

Renee flicked several switches, and with each switch a different part of the Gigantron roared into life. Other men spoke of growl or purr of engines, using the imagery of lions and tigers to symbolise the power of their motors. To Mr Whittingstall, it sounded like a hundred different drums beating their own individual rhythms and yet all coordinated into creating a heartbeat; this was mechanical teamwork at its very best.

The poet Whittingstall could hear the patterns within the engine noise, like when a child is learning to speak, and it repeats the same word over and over. The language spoke of cog and gears, of forces harnessed, of woman and machine working together to make a dream come true. Humanity has always pined for wings, and speed gave the illusion of breaking the bonds of gravity. Had speed become a metaphor for flight? The poet believed the urge to fly was really a search for higher things … like truth and beauty. The thought pleased him immensely. He knew that Renee was a pragmatic and sensible woman. It enchanted him that she might be secretly as big a dreamer as he was; so secretly she herself didn’t know it.

Unaware of Mr Whittingstall’s train of thought, Renee was carefully driving the Gigantron out to the especially prepared track. It was two hundred kilometres of perfectly straight roadway constructed to support the weight of the Gigantron without buckling. Today was a test of the track more than it a test of the Gigantron. Either side of the track was lined with bales of hay and bags of wool, for a softer ‘landing’ in case of a spinout. Renee was taking no risks with her car or her mentor.

From her seat, Renee could see approximately twenty-one kilometres down the track. There were no obstacles. She had already driven the entire track the previous evening to check, using a motorcycle of her own design. Twenty-one kilometres should give her plenty of time to stop at the speeds the Gigantron would be travelling today.

Renee waved to the watching staff, signalling she was ready to go. They waved back.

“Righty-o,” said Renee. “We are all set to go. Comfortable?”

“Immensely. I really should get a chair like this for my study.”

Renee grinned. “Get two. I’m certain Mrs Whittingstall would like one as well.”

“Oh my. Of course. She could use one for her knitting chair.”

“She knits?” asked Renee, while she straightened the Gigantron so that she was lined up between a series of white marks on the bitumen. Even though Renee had a steering wheel, it was safer to reduce any chance of trying to turn at high speed.

Mr Whittingstall said in reply, “She is a terrible knitter. But she likes to show willing. In fact, I believe she is knitting you a present.”

“Something to look forward to, then,” said Renee, her mouth running on automatic. She was concentrating; two hundred kilometres was a long way and even a small deviation from the straight would mean the Gigantron might end up veering off the road.

“How kind of you to say,” said the poet. He fell quiet as Renee went through her final checklist. She was letting the motors run to warm up and ensure that the lubricant was coating everything. Then she started the Gigantron down the road.

Mr Whittingstall admired how the Gigantron shone, nearly sparkled, in the sunlight. Every surface that could be polished on the car was polished. But – as much as Renee might refute it – the Gigantron was an ugly car when compared to the confections decorated with wood and brass you could see on the roads and byways. But those little toys just puttered along, thrilled to make even a hundred kilometres an hour; they were earthbound. Renee’s invention might look more like a train or a rocket than a car to the ignorant, but mere rails were not her natural environment. The Gigantron only looked clumsy because she spent most of her time out of her element, like a seal on land, and yet the seal was an athlete and an acrobat in the water, while the Gigantron’s natural element was speed.

As the car went faster and faster, Mr Whittingstall was expecting her to start rattling. After all, he had ridden in other cars and had suffered the shaking they gave his bones. The Gigantron didn’t rattle. The road was smooth, and the machinery beautifully made and balanced. It was more like riding in a sailing boat than in a car. Trains had a constant clackety-clack. Even airplanes made more noise than the Gigantron, and he knew the car had two airplane motors.

Renee broke into his thoughts. She said, “I’m about to switch on the magnetic propulsive engine, as we are now at a speed where it can be useful. This is your ten second warning.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Oh no. It is well insulated from the other motors. But we should speed up even more …now!

A new voice was added to the chorus, and the poet felt himself gently pushed back into his chair. A glance outside confirmed the car was going faster; even middle-distance objects were quickly falling behind them.

“How are you doing back there?” asked Renee. “Are you feeling any aches or pains? Feeling breathless?”

“I’m feeling nothing but inspired, my dear,” said Mr Whittingstall.

Then I am pushing her up to 300km an hour,” said Renee. “That is just under the current land speed record, but should be well within the tolerances of the Gigantron. Then I am going to run her for five minutes at that speed, and then start the braking process.”

Everything went according to plan. The car made a smooth transition to 300km and back without the motors straining at any point. At the end of the track, Renee had invented a special rotating platform that turned the Gigantron 180 degrees, so that the car could set off on her trip back to base without the bother of trying to steer her.

They were halfway back to base when the unexpected happened. As they approached one of hummocks of sandbags and straw bales, it seemed to collapse and fall onto the road.  It left an obstruction in the middle of the road. Renee’s heart stuttered as she saw the problem.

“Hold on! We’ve got a blockage on the track!” she shouted to Mr Whittingstall.

The old man peered over her shoulder, straining to see.

“Sit back and brace yourself,” ordered Renee.

This time he did as she asked.

Renee thought quickly. Should she risk trying to brake and possibly send the Gigantron into a spin? Should she try to make for a break in the barrier and risk the rough ground?  The Gigantron was a heavy car, her wheels sturdy, and she was pointed at the front like a cow-catcher … it was probably best if they tried to bully their way through the barrier. And the faster she was going, the better. If the barrier was enough to stop them, they would die anyway.

So, Renee hit the accelerator.  The Gigantron surged forward. The barrier seemed to take a leap to meet them.

Renee could hear someone roaring like a berserker, and realised she was the one making the sound. It wasn’t a scream of fear; it was a warrior shout of challenge. She kept the noise up as they hit the barrier. She forced herself not to flinch or close her eyes.

The Gigantron didn’t even slow down. She hit the barrier in a flurry of sand and straw and … blood. A splatter of it bubbled and slid across the front windscreen while Gigantron bounced like she was a plane hitting turbulence. Then they were through the barrier and on their way again.

Renee finally stopped roaring long enough to take a breath. She carefully re-started the slowing down process and made a slight adjustment to the Gigantron’s direction.

Then she gazed at the smear of blood with mounting horror.

“Are you all right back there?” she asked.

“I am fine,” said the old poet, and Renee was relieved to hear his voice was unruffled. A couple of trickles of blood were being pushed and battered by the wind along the windscreen and down the sides of the car. Mr Whittingstall could see them. He continued on, “I gather we hit a rabbit or some such?”

“No. I’m sure this was an attempt at sabotage. There was a wall of straw bales and sandbags across the road. It had to be deliberately built to damage or destroy the Gigantron,” said Renee.

“But … the blood,” he said. “Where did the blood come from?”

“I think the saboteur was standing behind the wall,” said Renee, and gulped down a sudden rising tide of nausea. “We hit at least one person. We may have killed them at this speed.” The horror overwhelmed the nausea. “Oh god! I’ve killed someone!”

“Well, it certainly wasn’t your fault,” said Mr Whittingstall. “You weren’t to know someone was hiding behind that obstacle.”

“But still…”

“And you don’t even know if what you hit was the saboteur. It could have been a goat or any wild animal. And you can’t know for sure what you struck is dead. Don’t borrow trouble.”

Renee took a deep breath and let it out slowly to clear her head and calm her nerves. “Thank you for your sensible advice,” she said.

“You have nothing to thank me for. I should be thanking you for saving my life by keeping a cool head. As well, you won’t get into any trouble for this even if you did kill some idiot trying to damage the Gigantron. I was a witness to the whole event. There was nothing you could have done differently. You might as well say the fool committed suicide.”

Renee still felt shaky, but her brain agreed with Mr Whittingstall’s assessment.

“I’m just so glad you are safe,” said Renee, and meant it. She returned to concentrating on her driving,

 

As it turned out, a man had died under the Gigantron’s six wheels. What little wasn’t laminated to the bitumen was identified as Lorenzo Wheeler, another car designer who was also trying to develop a fast car. The local authorities took the same view as Mr Whittingstall; the man had brought his fate upon himself. They were also certain that only Renee’s cool head had saved her and Mr Whittingstall.

“After all this fuss, did you get any ideas for your poem?” Renee asked Mr Whittingstall as they walked out of the hearing.

“Actually, I did,” said the elderly poet. “In fact, this unfortunate incident just adds more grist for my mill. Speed is a beautiful thing, but like fire and knives and electricity, it can kill just as easily as it can help humanity.”

“I guess this means you don’t want to take another drive with me?”

“You would then be guessing wrong, my dear. You have proved to me that you are the safest driver, with the best car. I seriously doubt that any other jealous individual is going to make another attempt to wreck your car.”

Against all propriety, Renee gave the poet a bear hug. “You are brave, Mr Whittingstall,” she declared. “I have to admit, I never thought a man of words would be so stout of heart.”

“My dear! Poets are always brave. We have to see things as they really are, and often the truth is quite ugly.”

“As ugly as the Gigantron?”

“Only a dimwit would consider your stately Gigantron as ugly. And I will make certain that the world grows eyes to see how lovely she really is.”

“Well then, we’d best go and plan our world-breaking speed attempt.”

The eyebrows of Mr Whittingstall bristled with glee. “I think that sounds like the most sensible suggestion anyone has had all day.

The Gigantron did make the world record for speed, that remained unbreakable for eleven years. And it was another woman who broke Renee and Mr Whittingstall’s record … but that is a story for another time.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Humour, Steampunk, Steampunk Author, Steampunk Genre, Steampunk Sunday, Steampunk Themes, Stereotypes

A Steampunk Feminist’s Perspective on Science Week 2017

Warning Science Ahead

 

You can’t have Steampunk without Science … it would be like trying to build a locomotive without cogs! You could do it with great difficulty, but is the result worth the effort? And is it in a recognisable form? Do the wheels fall off when you try to run with it? I have read Science Fiction stories that claim to have no science, but it sneaks in under the door like smoke from a coal fire. After all, you can’t have a coal fire without coal!

Rocket for SCIENCE

This week is World Science Week, celebrating all the various fields of science from the so-called ‘soft sciences’ like Sociology and Anthropology all the way through to the diamond-hard sciences involving Physics. (Personally, I find this sort of description of the fields of science rather judgemental and divisive, and pretty damn useless.) In Brisbane, the majority of the festivities are taking place in and around the Cultural Precinct. You can find a description of the events here: http://www.worldsciencefestival.com.au/

I attended a Science Writing workshop that was one of the events to kick off the celebrations. I wondered if I should attend, since I have considered myself a science writer for over fifteen years, but curiosity and interest got me there in the end. I am endlessly fascinated by how other writers work. It was a well run and very useful workshop, and I always gain insights into my own process as well as garnering some very good tips.

What I did notice was that most of Science Writers mentioned in the course were men, while at the same time, only one man attended the workshop; the rest were women (including me). Several of the women attendees were already working as science writers or scientists (or both). I wonder if this a sign that things are about the change in the field of Science Writing, to reflect the increase of women working in the STEM fields. As well, the workshop didn’t mention too much about blogging, which is a growing arena for science writing. My favourite female science blogger is the SciBabe: http://scibabe.com/

Science!

So, as more women find their feet in the various fields of science, gain respect, and go on to have stellar careers … so should the women science writers … as should the female writers in the Steampunk genre. There is a knock-on effect.

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Filed under Feminism, Science, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Themes, Uncategorized, Women in Science

Being Productive whilst on Holidays; Flights of Fancy

steampunk-book-as-vehicle

I went away to spend some time with my parents.I was away from my computer … but took plenty of pens and paper with me. I often do my ‘chunking’ exercises with pen and paper. ‘Chunking’ is when you write out your idea, as it comes to you in chunks and pieces; this is what my first year lecturer called the process. You might call it something else. It doesn’t matter what it is called, it is just the very first step – after thinking – towards writing a story.

I thought I was in holiday mode. My muse disagreed.

I came up with three solid ideas for short stories, including the ‘Dissected Graces’ story based on the artistic anatomical models. I finally have got a handle on the (hopefully final) structural edit to my Steampunk novel; I will have to kill quite a few of my darlings in the process. I also wrote five individual timelines for characters within the novel, which support the structure and at the same time give them all logical stories of their own that don’t conflict with their characterisations or motivations.

I even came up with a strategy for the structural edit that doesn’t make me too fearful of messing up. I am going to write up the new timeline I came up with, and copy and paste into it. In this way, I keep the original draft ‘pristine’ in case I do stuff things up. I’ve been trying to make better sense of my story and plot for a couple of months, so I am very pleased to be moving forward again.

Writers don’t really get proper holidays, because you can never predict when a great idea is going to strike. The muse can’t be ignored. So, I might not have done much in the way of writing on my computer, but I was certainly doing a lot of writing by hand. I was gone for five days, and I have over 13 pages of notes and observations, timelines and research plans. Some of this stuff is pure gold.

Sometimes, getting out of your familiar work routines kick-starts a new train of thought. That is what happened to me. So I am adding this to my writer’s toolkit.

 

 

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Filed under Editing, Personal experience, Steampunk Themes, Steampunk Work-in-Progress, the Muse, The Writing Life, Uncategorized, writing, Writing Career

Ghosts as Big Business: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

the-ghost-child

Just as vampires and zombies are big business at the moment, ghosts were popular everywhere in the Victorian era. A sure sign of their popularity is that Dickens climbed onto the money wagon with his own ghost story A Christmas Carol. We all know how very popular that story was and still is. You can’t say it is not a commercial success!  Why were ghost stories so popular?

whose-afraidscared

 

Part of the blame can be laid at the foot of the growing interest in Spiritualism, mediums, seances, and Ouija boards. On both sides of the Atlantic, it was not unusual for fashionable parties to be themed with a spot of Spiritualism. Who could resist the lure of contacting a departed loved one? I know how much I miss my deceased family & friends, so why would the Victorians be any different?

seance

The esteemed literary historian, Jack Sullivan, argues a “Golden Age of the Ghost Story” existed between the decline of the Gothic novel in the 1830s and the start of the First World War, brought about by popularity of the works of the American author, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Irish writer, Sheridan Le Fanu. It is important to realise that the ghost story has never really gone out of print, but the popularity of the genre fluctuates, both through time and geographically.

the-haunting

Even though the Steampunk genre stands squarely as a subgenre of the Science Fiction genre, this doesn’t mean a ghost story can’t add some excitement to the plot. Sheridan Le Fanu was famous for construction hauntings that were only visible to a single character and inferred the ghost (or other gremlin) was only a figment of that character’s imagination. And seriously, who doesn’t like to be given a bit of a scare while sitting safe in an armchair?

i-feel-a-presence

 

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Filed under Ghosts, History, Horror genre, Steampunk Genre, Steampunk Themes, Uncategorized, Victorian Era

‘The Other’ as a Characterization Device

The Other is a literary and sociological concept, used to understand the construction of identity. There is an ‘Us’ and there is ‘The Other’; the outsider, the foreigner, the nonconformist, the maverick, and the rebel are usually identified as ‘The Other’. It isn’t a cut-and-dried concept, because Otherness changes with location, time period, and circumstances. My own personal definition of Otherness relates to the underlying Patriarchy of my Australian ‘Western’ culture – the Other is someone who is not white, male, heterosexual, rich/middle class, or human – someone who isn’t ‘normal’.

Ming

Master

In the early decades of the Twentieth century, in the Modern era, someone like Ming the Merciless was ‘The Other’. His East Asian appearance, his name, referencing the Ming dynasty of China, and the name of his planet Mongo, “a contraction of Mongol” (Brian Locke, Racial Stigma on the Hollywood Screen: The Orientalist Buddy Film) all delineate to his foreignness and otherness. This made him a cookie cut-out classic villain of the era; no real motivation was given to his character because being Other was apparently motivation enough.

Tilda Swinton as the White Witch.

My personal favourite example of the female Other is Jadis, the White Witch from Narnia. She is a powerful female and refuses to submit to any authority other than her own. Of course, this makes her completely evil …

In this Postmodern era, society has become more accepting and tolerant of the Other. In the 1960s and 1970s, Doctor Who’s the Master was made to resemble Ming somewhat. Lately, the Master has been quite human looking, John Sim’s Master was given a more in depth backstory. It might be argued that the Doctor has always been a representation of the Other. They are both 3D characterizations, and more understandable and likeable for their rounded personalities.

In the Steampunk genre, Otherness may equate to
• Femininity, and in particular nonconforming women.
• Being ‘Foreign’
• Non-heteronormative sexuality
• Living to the precepts of an Alternative Philosophy to Capitalism
• Not being a human (like a Timelord or Frankenstein’s monster)
• Being poor (or, rarely, extremely rich)
• Being a criminal
• Being under or over educated.

Mustrum Ridcully

Now, we can all think of villains that are examples of these sorts of Otherness. In fact, using Otherness to create a villain is overdone. Otherness can also be used as a virtue when creating characterization. Terry Pratchett was the supreme master of this: Captain Carrot, Granny Weatherwax and Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully.

 

Captain Carrot Ironfoundersson is a six-foot-tall dwarf (by adoption), and could pretty much be the poster boy for Otherness. He is in a serious relationship with a vegetarian werewolf. He is a policeman who is the opposite of street smart, being kind to a fault, trusting, and believes everyone is good at heart. He is a simple man, but never confuse simple with stupid, because he is also one of the most intelligent characters in the Discworld universe. He is clever enough to hide this, though his close companions have a fair idea of his genius. More criminals have been caught due to Carrot’s apparent naivety than ever by cunning. And before you point out that he is a tall, white man in a position of power … remember that context is everything for defining Otherness.

Yep. Carrot is a redhead, but that isn’t how he earned the name.

 

So, if you are contemplating making your villain one of the Others, recall that this is using a stereotype and lazy writing. Think about how scary a villain might be if he appears completely bland and normal, a razorblade hidden in a slice of bread. How much deeper will be your characterization, and you will give your audience much more to think about.

 

There you go, Erin! A deeper discussion of Otherness.

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Filed under Antagonist, Characterization, Doctor Who, Steampunk, Steampunk Genre, Steampunk Themes, The Other, Uncategorized, writing, Writing Style

Susan Baker of Ingleside – a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

Canadian author L. M. Montgomery is best known for her Anne series, which commenced with Anne of Green Gables and finished with Rilla of Ingleside. The first seven books in the series are basically domestic ‘coming of age’ end in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and ending before WW1. The last book, Rilla of Ingleside, is more of a war story, as told from the viewpoints of the women left behind as their young menfolk go off to war.

Even though the main protagonists of these books were Anne and her family and friends, the stand-out feminist character in Rilla of Ingleside is Susan Baker, the family’s cook and housekeeper, though she is not treated as a domestic and is considered by Anne & Rilla to be more of a senior family member. Susan is in her early sixties, which makes her an unusual choice for a secondary character in book written for Young Adults. She has a few scenes when she is the comedy relief, but she is the representative of all the older women who threw themselves into supporting their soldiers and their countries while the war was fought.

 

Dear old Susan! She is a perfect dynamo of patriotism and loyalty and contempt for slackers of all kinds, and when she let it loose on that audience in her one grand outburst she electrified it. Susan always vows she is no suffragette, but she gave womanhood its due that night, and she literally made those men cringe. When she finished with them they were ready to eat out of her hand. She wound up by ordering them–yes, ordering them–to march up to the platform forthwith and subscribe for Victory Bonds.

Montgomery was able to support herself comfortably with her writing, and she avoided accepting marriage proposals for the first part of her adult life. It wasn’t until the release of Anne of Green Gables cemented her success as an author did she eventually marry. Because her novels always feature strong female characters of all ages, we can assume she had suffragist leanings.

All the women ‘who have got de age’–to quote Jo Poirier, and who have husbands, sons, and brothers at the front, can vote. Oh, if I were only twenty-one! Gertrude and Susan are both furious because they can’t vote.

‘It is not fair,’ Gertrude says passionately. ‘There is Agnes Carr who can vote because her husband went. She did everything she could to prevent him from going, and now she is going to vote against the Union Government. Yet I have no vote, because my man at the front is only my sweetheart and not my husband!”

As for Susan, when she reflects that she cannot vote, while a rank old pacifist like Mr. Pryor can–and will–her comments are sulphurous.

Susan Baker is the classic Victorian woman coming to terms with new  social structures that were emerging at the start of the Twentieth Century. She was the ‘voice’ of the mature single woman, to contrast with the married mother, Anne, and the teenager, Rilla. From a Steampunk feminist’s perspective, Susan exemplifies how a sensible woman would manage to remain both respectable and support the rights of women. It is not just the young who feel passionately and deeply about their beliefs.

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The Most Kissed Face in the World; the Madonna of the Seine

Madonna

Is Beauty a concept that is ephemeral for a moment, or is it eternal? The body of the young female drowning victim was pulled out of the Seine River at the Quai du Louvre in Paris around the late 1880s. The girl child was never identified and no one ever came to claim her; it was assumed she was a suicide as there were no signs of a struggle on her body. However, the serene loveliness of her expression encouraged a pathologist to make a cast death mask of her face. Plaster copies of this death mask went on to decorate the sitting rooms and studios of artists and other fashionable people throughout Europe and North America, becoming the muse for thousands of artworks and literary works.

The Death Mask

L’Inconnue de la Seine means ‘The Unknown Woman of the Seine’ in French, and in America she was known as La Belle Italienne. The death mask inspired so many others with her Mona Lisa smile.

Art

Earrings

 

The death mask as art

This death mask was also used as the basis to Resusci Anne – the CPR dummy that everyone uses to learn first aid techniques. This means this face has been kissed over a million times, by people learning to save lives, including drowning victims. Not a bad way to be remembered.

Resusci Anne

Resusci Anne masks

 

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The Cryptozoology of the Victorian Era

feejeemermaid_bostonmuseum_midgley_sightsinboston

The Feejee Mermaid on display in the Victorian era.

The Australian platypus probably contributed to the proliferation of rogue taxidermy and out-in-out hoaxes that occurred during the Victorian era. When skins and specimens were sent back to Europe, scientists thought the animals were constructed from parts cut from ducks and beavers and who knew what else. The platypus, a real animal, was discounted as a fake.

A Victorian-era illustration of the Platypus – body too fat, tail too small, and with frilly feet and a square bill. Still cute.

That the example of the Feejee Mermaids (there were more than one) was obviously following. The original was construction from the taxidermy remains of an infant monkey sewn to a fish. It looked nothing like the lovely mermaidens used on the advertising. In fact, it was a grotesquerie of the highest order, displayed under glass for the edification of the masses.The original mermaid was exhibited by P.T Barnum in Barnum’s American Museum in New York in 1842.

Feejee Mermaid

The Original Feejee Mermaid

Feejee mermaid of monkey plus fish tail

Modern example of a feejee mermaid.

The infamous Hydrarchos – the alleged skeleton of a sea serpent – was brought to New York City in 1845 by the amateur German-American fossil hunter Albert Koch. It had previously been on exhibit in Europe. The Hydrarchos skeleton  was constructed mainly from the remains of several specimens of the prehistoric whale Basilosaurus with the exception of its paddles, which were made from collections of invertebrate shells. During the early 19th century, Basilosaurus cetoides fossils were so common they were regularly used as furniture in the American south, and so were easily to obtain for his Hydrarchos.

Hydrarchos exhibited in the Hall of the Royal Iron Foundry in Berlin, 1842.

Hydrachos exhibited in Berlin in 1842.

This wasn’t the first time Koch had tried to hoax the public; he had previously used wooden blocks and extra vertebrae to construct a mastodon. He managed to sell the grotesquery to the British Museum in 1842. They took out the extra bits, put the tusks back properly, and recovered the original mastodon for their collection.

The Missourium or Koch’s Mastodon.  Note the tusks have been twisted around to make for a bizarre skull.

At least Koch had used actual bones to create his masterpieces. New Yorker George Hull hired men to carve out a 3.2 metre block of gypsum in Iowa, telling them it was intended for a monument to Abraham Lincoln in New York. He shipped the block to Chicago, where he hired a German stonecutter, Edward Burghardt, to carve it into the likeness of a naked giant. Various stains and acids were used to make the giant appear to be old and weathered, and the giant’s surface was poked with steel knitting needles to mimic pores. In November 1868, Hull transported the giant by rail to the farm of William Newell, his cousin. Nearly a year later, Newell hired Gideon Emmons and Henry Nichols, ostensibly to dig a well, and in October 1869 they found the giant sculpture.

the Cardiff Giant.jpg

The excavation of the Cardiff Giant

People flocked to see the giant, happy to pay the admission to see the ‘petrified’ man. (I can’t find any reference to the exhibitors hiding his rather prominent man bits from the ladies.) Palaeontologists declared it a fraud, but that didn’t stop the crowds. Hull sold it to a syndicate. P T Barnum went as far as creating a copy, when the syndicate wouldn’t sell him the original. This all came out  on December 10, 1870, Hull confessed to the press that the giant was a hoax. He claimed he did it to prove a point about the gullibility of people who believed in giants.

I am finding this topic fascinating. But I will get back to the X club members.

 

 

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Filed under Cryptozoology, Frauds and Hoaxes, History, Science, Steampunk Themes, Uncategorized, Victorian Era

The X (Club) Marks the Spot: a Steampunk Feminist Perspective

T H Huxley with human skull

T H Huxley

The X Club was a dining club of nine  British scientists who supported academic liberalism in late 19th-century England. The club met in London once a month, except in the summer months, from November 1864 until March 1893. During this time, this ‘social’ club exerted a major influence on the scientific arena. The group went a long way in supporting Darwin and his theory of natural selection. I plan on doing a blog article on each of the men over the coming week.

The Members of the X Club were:

Thomas Henry Huxley, biologist and anatomist, also known as Darwin’s Bulldog, and the founder of the X Club. To my mind,  his dedication in developing scientific education in Britain is what made him a truly great scientist. He believed schooling was a lifelong process and adult education should be encouraged.

George Busk

George Busk, a British naval surgeon, zoologist and palaeontologist, and he nominated Charles Darwin for membership in the Royal Society in 1864. He was the responsible of bringing to England the Gibraltar skull, the first known adult Neanderthal skull, even though identification of the skull as belonging to a Neanderthal was not made until the 20th century.

Joseph Hooker 

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, English Botanist and a director of Kew Gardens for twenty years, an explorer and discoverer of new species, and a great friend of Charles Darwin. With George Bentham, he is the co-author of The Handbook of the British Flora, still considered a standard text by botanists and taxonomists. He was the first of the three X-Clubbers in succession to become President of the Royal Society.

In my Steampunk novel, we meet with Hooker, and he though he is open minded about evolution, he is still something of an old fogey when it comes to women academics and their rights to Kew Garden.

John Tyndall

John Tyndall, physicist, covered a broad range of research in his lifetime. Among his discoveries was the scattering of light by particulate impurities in air and in liquids, still known today as the Tyndall Effect or Tyndall Scattering. He was a science teacher and supporter for the cause of science. As a science popularizer and communicator, Tyndall lectured on the benefits of a clear separation between science and religion.

William Spottiswoode

William H. Spottiswoode was a mathematician and physicist,. He was President of the Royal Society from 1878 to 1883. He published mountains of original mathematical work and, in 1871, he began to turn his attention to experimental physics. He researched the polarization of light and the electrical discharge in rarefied gases.

Edward Frankland – around 1860

Sir Edward Frankland was a research chemist, applied chemist, and something of a prodigy.  Frankland engaged in original research with great success, and he was only about twenty-five years of age when an investigation yielded the discovery of organometallic compounds. I consider his work on water pollution and lobbying for the creation of a clean water supply to be the highpoint of his career.

Sir John Lubbock

The Right Honourable John Lubbock, 1st Baron Avebury, also known as Sir John Lubbock, was a banker, Liberal politician, philanthropist, scientist and polymath, and one of Darwin’s neighbours and friends. His day job was as a banker but Lubbock also made significant contributions in archaeology, ethnography, and several branches of biology.  I consider his greatest achievement the introduction of the first law on the protection of Britain’s archaeological and architectural heritage.

Thomas Hirst

Thomas Archer Hirst was a mathematician, specialising in geometry, and a supporter of science education for everyone. He was awarded the Royal Society’s Royal Medal in 1883. He was an active member of the governing councils of the Royal Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the London Mathematical Society. He was the founding president of an association to reform school mathematics curricula and also worked to promote the education of women.

Herbert Spencer when 38

Herbert Spencer was a philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist of the Victorian era. Spencer is best known for coining the expression “survival of the fittest”, after reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Spencer was “the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century” but his influence declined sharply after 1900. The low point of his career was the concept of Social Darwinism.

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H G Well and Future Studies: A Steampunk Feminist Perspective

H G Wells

H G Wells

Human history in essence is the history of ideas.

H G Well published Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought in 1901, and it was a successful best-seller. It made some amazingly accurate predictions, while still managing to get some key points wrong. However here is a quick overview of this book:

Chapter  I. Locomotion in the Twentieth Century
Chapter II. The Probable Diffusion of Great Cities
Chapter III. Developing Social Elements
Chapter IV. Certain Social Reactions
Chapter V. The Life-History of Democracy
Chapter  VI. War in the Twentieth Century
Chapter VII. The Conflict of Languages
Chapter VIII. The Larger Synthesis
Chapter IX. Faith, Morals, and Public Policy in The Twentieth Century

Well’s predicted women taking a much larger part in society, particularly in politics and education. He saw the breakdown of the traditional family unit as communities grew closer. However, as wonderful a feminist his opinions might seem, he was also very racist. Some of his musings can be very hard to read.

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Filed under Historical Personage, History, Steampunk, Steampunk Themes