The Steampunk Family

Steampunk Family is a great resource and inspiration to creative families everywhere. They call themselves the von Hedwig Family, and have created steampunk personas to go with their fun lifestyle of turning junk into steampunk, creating an adventure serial, cool DIY turtorials, traveling to conventions to share their know-how, and providing resources so anyone can be steampunk now.

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I asked Anne-Marie York (aka Hera von Hedwig) who is the mom and keeper of the Steampunk Family website, a few questions:

When did you personally become fascinated with the Steampunk world? Did you meet your husband before or after this obsession began?
Considering that Jules Verne was writing 150 years ago, and the term steampunk was coined over 30 years ago, I came rather late to the genre. Like so many other steampunks, the obsession started before I knew there was a word for it, or other people likewise obsessed. Of course, once we figured out there was a wide world of steampunks out there, we became drastically more interested. One of the most captivating things about it is all the amazing projects people are doing, the fantastic art and stories and costumes and the creation of culture. It’s not dictated by anyone, it has the vaguest of principles, it is wide open to creative whim.

My husband and I will shortly celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary, and we met many years before that. Our relationship predates our steampunk endeavors, but we have always made things (often out of nothing because that’s what we had) and always been more drawn to growing culture than consuming prepackaged culture.

In the Author’s Note, you imply that this entire family endeavor began from telling bedtime stories about “a family of Edwardian mad scientists, who live in an airship and have amazing adventures.” Did the traveling about to different conventions and bringing Steampunk into your daily lives come after these stories?
I started telling the stories to my kids years ago. When we went on vacation with friends, and all their kids heard the stories and wanted to be in them as well, that’s when I realized the stories had broader appeal, and bowed to my husband’s encouragement to put them on the web. In some ways, the website and stories are a collaborative effort. The kids I write about make art for the site, and whenever I get stuck in the narrative, I read out loud to the family and they have fantastic ideas about what their characters do. And of course, my husband Phineas contributes hugely, in art and projects and moral support!

Phineas and I both attended conventions in our nefarious youth, but bringing the kids is new. They’re old enough to enjoy it now, they love dressing up, and have even started speaking on panels already! As for steampunk in our daily lives, we have always embraced reusing and repurposing material culture (stuff). We built an outdoor room almost entirely out of things other people threw away – walls, fireplace, lighting, plants, everything but nails and mortar, really. So discovering steampunk just gave us a unifying theme for things we already did – giving daily function beauty on a budget. Now we have an excuse to dress better when we do it.

How has your children’s lives been impacted by your travels (on a daily level and a general upbringing level?)
This year has been a bit crazy, and we intend to schedule more sanely next year. More travel during the summer, if possible. The hectic pace benefits no one, and gets in the way of making more neat stuff. And we try to do a variety of things with our kids, have different kinds of adventures, not just steampunk-related trips. One benefit of steampunk and travel is that we all play together. This is a hobby we share as a family and with friends old and new. (But most of our pastimes are!) Another benefit is that when I was 12 I could barely meet an adult’s eye, much less converse sensibly. My kids can hold their own with all kinds of people.

We believe you should raise children to be adults you want to spend time with. Our kids learn and explore and gain independence and confidence when we travel, and I’m all for that. Their fictional counterparts in my stories survive dreadful dangers. Although I never want my children to experience kidnappers or yeti, I want them to handle whatever they encounter.

The idea of reusing what is already around us to make beautiful functional things comes across clearly. What is one thing you think any family (into Steampunk or not) can take from your example?
Although Phineas would love to make one of those fabulous Datamancer type keyboards, that’s a bit our of our reach. So he went down to the antique/junk shop and found a gutted Victrola case. In it he put our entertainment computer (with all the music and movies on it), the Wii and games. When you close the lid it’s a beautiful piece of carved wooden furniture from another century. When you open it, there’s Doctor Who.

The Victorian artist William Morris said “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. We wholeheartedly follow that advice. But why not both? Surround yourself with things both lovely and functional whenever you can. We encourage people to start small, think about what you have already, make your beauty and function affordable and attainable. One of the simplest fixes we did was to decant the giant bottle of mouthwash in our bathroom into a discarded Patron bottle we pulled from the town recycling bin. Now there is beauty where there once was plastic and advertising.

Thanks Madame von Hedwig!

The Unsinkable Starship Titanic

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Douglas Adams’ Starship Titanic

A few years ago, I inherited some of my dad’s book collection when my mum decided to have a clear out. Included in the books were all five volumes of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy “trilogy.” I couldn’t wait to read them.

As a child, I had been brought up watching the 1981 BBC television adaptation and as an adult, I had also seen the 2005 movie which I unfortunately couldn’t bring myself to like – although the yarn sequence brought me close. The books promised far more detail and depth so I read them almost immediately. Throughout experiencing the series in various forms, a few ideas have really leapt out at me and stuck in my head; the concept of Milliways: the Restaurant at The End of the Universe (although I have to admit that I’d rather eat at the Big Bang Burger Bar), the knack of learning to fly – you need to learn “how to throw yourself at the ground and miss” but one concept that really stuck with me was that of Starship Titanic.

The tragedy of the Titanic has fascinated people since the day of the disaster, almost one hundred years ago. Melissa Peltier, the producer of a 1994 documentary about the ship said during an interview,

“It’s almost like a Greek myth that really happened in our lifetime. It’s so unbelievable. It’s so mythic. The little human stories on board. All the morality plays that are happening, just the whole idea of the arrogance and the hubris of speeding through the ice field because (they thought) nothing could go wrong. It’s a huge moral lesson.”

Such an inimitable story would naturally find its way to be woven into science fiction, as with most other great tales, both fictional and real. In the Hitchhiker’s series, Starship Titanic is mentioned only briefly in 1982’s “Life, the Universe and Everything”.  We are told of its majesty and beauty, how it was built in the “great ship-building asteroid complexes of Artrifactovol” in the early days of Improbability Physics and how, seconds after its launch, it suffered “a sudden and gratuitous total existence failure.” The ship is not mentioned again within the Hitchhiker’s canon, but instead became the star of its own computer game, devised by Adams sixteen years later in 1998 along with Monty Python’s Terry Jones. In the computer game, the ship undergoes “Spontaneous Total Existence Failure” and crash lands on Earth, more precisely, on top of the player’s house. It then becomes the player’s task to restore the sabotaged computer, Titania and save the ship. The game is notoriously difficult, I myself have only ever managed to wander around aimlessly and feed some chicken to a parrot. Gaming site Destructoid ran a “Games that Time Forgot” article on it which stated:

Additionally, Starship Titanic remains one of the most absurdly difficult adventure games ever made: the puzzles often seem designed to be funny, rather than challenging, and as a result their solutions range anywhere from obscure to downright ridiculous. It literally got so bad that later versions of the game came with a 120 page walkthrough, packaged completely free of charge. If you ever plan on trying Starship Titanic out, then, for the love of God, use a strategy guide. That, or plan on ripping out half your hair because you didn’t know that a robotic parrot enjoys eating brazil nuts instead of walnuts.

A book entitled “Douglas Adams’s Starship Titanic” based on the game was written by Terry Jones who was also responsible for development of the game alongside Adams. Jones’ influence is strongly felt in the absurd and surreal humour found all the way through the game.

The year after the publication of the Starship Titanic game, Futurama got in on the act with its season one episode, “A Flight to Remember in which the crew of Planet Express got to sail aboard the maiden voyage of the new Titanic space cruise ship.  The plot of the Futurama episode was based almost completely on James Cameron’s Titanic, rather than the concept developed by Douglas Adams, and parodied it in several scenes including the famous dancing scene on the lower deck. As this was a short cartoon and the plot focused mainly on the characters, the ship was more of a convenient backdrop to the story than an integral part of the plot as it is in the material penned by Douglas Adams.  However the ship has been re-designed to fit into the visual style of the Futurama universe perfectly, even using the famous Tube Transportation System for the passengers to embark upon the ship. The episode ended with the ship being pulled into a black hole rather than sunk by an iceberg after the ship’s captain, Zapp Brannigan, pilots her into a swarm of comets, referred to in the show as “the icebergs of the sky”. In an interesting change to the original story, the Futurama Titanic appears to have had enough lifeboats to evacuate everyone on board.

The concept of Starship Titanic faded into obscurity for almost a decade until the BBC’s re-vitalised Dr Who franchise used it for the 2007 Christmas Special Voyage of The Damned. In this special the Titanic, an interstellar cruiser from the planet Sto, crashes not into a house but into the TARDIS which is in orbit over Earth whilst on a sightseeing tour to observe the traditions of primitive cultures – specifically Earth at Christmas. Naturally a catastrophe is imminent with the sabotaged ship due to hit London causing the Doctor to spend most of the episode saving the ship and its occupants (and falling for yet another attractive – and doomed – young lady.) The special received the highest viewing figures for a Dr Who episode since 1979’s City of Death when it aired on Christmas Day.

For now, Starship Titanic is again at peace but for how long? For almost three decades the concept of Starship Titanic has been revisited and re-written in a multitude of formats. Is it so unthinkable that the future may bring more games, books, perhaps even a movie? The story of the Titanic has always had the potential for almost infinite re-writes and by moving the bones of the story out of our past and into our future, the possibilities become even broader.

For now, the Starship Titanic game is still available for purchase second hand if you feel like taking a tour of the ship and becoming incredibly frustrated, The Dr Who Christmas special is available as part of the Season Four box set and the Futurama episode is available on the Volume Two box set.

Steampunk Philosophy

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© Dave Clifton 2011

A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure to host a steampunk discussion at Mythic Faire, a fantasy/myth/alt culture convention that features live music, masquerade balls and special guests. I had a stellar time, both as a guest and an attendee, with the steampunk panel discussion being the highlight of my weekend. I  type “panel discussion” with a bit of a smirk, because truth be told it was just me up there on the dais.  Every faire or convention has it’s little surprises and this wasn’t the first time I’ve found myself without panel partners. Thankfully I’m an experienced public speaker with a background in theater and improv, so crowds of people wearing expectant expressions don’t generally intimidate me. And hey, at least I know how to make an entrance.

The great thing about doing a panel discussion on your own is that you have the freedom to turn what would be an “us talking at all of you” experience into an “all of us talking to each other” experience. So that’s what we did. The result was a lively and informative discussion on the deep roots and underlying philosophy of steampunk. Beyond top hats and goggles, beyond modded keyboards and brassy rayguns, beyond cos-play, corsets, and Lord and Lady RPG – what exactly is at the heart of steampunk?

What we discovered as we explored this topic together is that to many of us (certainly to the people present in the room that day) steampunk is so much more then a simple aesthetic. It’s a philosophy for life. Steampunkian principles can be applied to any aspect of your life. A commitment to self sufficiency and the creativity of the individual, support of small and local business, respect of artisanship and traditional materials are core steampunk concepts. Hardcore steampunk enthusiasts tend towards a longing to downsize the material aspects of their lives, while simultaneously demanding more function, better design and romantic execution of the objects they choose to have around them.

In fact you might say that the steampunk philosophy could be summed up in this golden rule:

‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful‘

Guess who said that?

William Morris, the Victorian era designer and founder of the Arts and Crafts movement.

I firmly believe that steampunk as a philosophy has it’s deepest roots in the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1860s. This movement was largely a backlash to the Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s. Arts and Crafts philosophy favored the skilled work of human hands and master craftsman over mass-produced and commercially made items. It was this same debate that dominated the discussion at Mythic Faire. Is the value of an object inherent only on it’s surface? What about how, or where the piece was made? Is an object steampunk because you’ve glued cogs to it, or because of it’s purpose? It’s this very same discussion that spurred on the development of glorious movements of art and design that we so treasure today. 150 years later we are having the same debates over mass produced imported goods, versus locally made and artisanal items. It’s a good debate, with complex questions and few simple answers.

For my part I enjoyed the lively discussion that manifested and look forward to exploring the connection that steampunk philosophy has to current social and economic issues more in the future. What are your thoughts? Share them in the comments!

Editor’s Note: There’s still time to enter to win one of Brigid’s Steampunk figurines! Deadline for the giveaway is Sunday night.

Creating a Steampunk World is Not as Easy as It Might Seem

differnce-engine1I first heard “steampunk” used in connection with William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which was published in 1990.

At the time, I thought adding tech to the Victorian Age was a fascinating idea but I was much more interested in reading space-based science fiction and gave it a pass. I didn’t think much about steampunk until last year, when I started hearing that steampunk, particularly romantic steampunk, was the next big thing.

My response was, “Wait, how can it be the next big thing when it’s over 20 years old?”

Intrigued, I attended a workshop on steampunk at the Romance Writers of America national conference last summer.

At the workshop, I learned that  steampunk is all about the gadgets. And the presenters did have the coolest steampunk costumes with a number of gadgets, including steampunk wrist-watches and, of course, goggles.

But still I wasn’t really connecting to the genre. The retro look is very cool but it seemed to me that regular science fiction has plenty of futuristic gadgets. I wasn’t sure what the point was of creating more cumbersome and less efficient gadgets and placing them in the Victorian Age.

Gradually, though, I began to see the appeal. Part of that is due to my love of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series. The main planet in that series, Barrayar, is a backwards society loosely based on Russian society around the time of the end of the Czars. The contrast between the Barrayaran culture and the ultra-futuristic gadgets that they’d adopted from the rest of the colonized planets was a great way to show that while society may be technically advanced, similar advances in cultures and mindsets take far longer.

And that’s what I find the best part of steampunk. On the one side is a culture that is extremely constrained by rules  and on the other side are technological advances that are leaps and bounds ahead of where people are emotionally. It’s a great way to explore the changing role not only of technology but also the class and gender differences of the time period. In some many ways, the Victorian era was at the crossroads of change. Adding technology to it would just accelerate that change, causing as many problems as it solved.

So when my lovely editor, Sarah Hansen of The Wild Rose Press, challenged me a few months ago to write a steampunk story, I was interested but unsure of where to begin.

I started thinking of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. That story had Professor Challenger and his gang of intrepid explorers discovering a hidden world where dinosaurs survived. It’s not quite steampunk but Professor George Edward Challenger is certainly a steampunk-style scientist.

Thinking of Doyle naturally led me to Sherlock Holmes. I’m an  utter Holmes geek. I devoured the Canon as a teenager. I have both annotated editions. I’ve practically got the stories memorized.

Thinking of Sherlock Holmes led me to Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories, which are set in an alternate world where the Plantagenets still rule Britain and magic works. The Watson of these stories is a forensic sorcerer.  That led me to another Holmes-style detective, Simon Archard, the main character in the comic book Ruse. Archard also exists in a Victorian-style age on an alternate word and his assistant is another magic user, female this time.

The answer to my question became blazingly obvious.

I would write a steampunk detective story with a Sherlock Holmes style character and turn my Watson-inspired character into a woman and possible romantic interest.  I figured I’d just add some steampunk gadgets to the flavor of a detective story and I was all set.

Eh, not quite.

The mystery came easy. But I couldn’t just “throw in some gadgets” because that didn’t make sense. It’s never good to just throw in anything to meet a particular genre in any case and certainly it wouldn’t work in this story.

In order to create the gadgets of my steampunk world, I had to find a reason why these particular Victorians would be using steam power as part of their daily lives.

So in order to write a 24,000 word story, I had to create an entire alternate history for my world.  Eventually, I followed Ruse’s lead and added some magic to the mix. The main idea is that the humans in my alternate world have discovered a talent similar to photosynthesis in that they can convert sunlight to energy. The by-product of this talent is a substance called mage-coal, which burns cleaner and far longer than regular coal and thus created a reliance on steam power.

Once I had the technological issues settled, I had to sort  through all the implications of having magic users and what it would mean in term of gender and class issues in Victorian society. It could go either way but I felt there was a great deal of conflict to be had if the upper classes decided erroneously that mage power was something gifted only to them. They would feel that they were superior and that the lower classes would naturally not share such a gift. That would leave the class structure in place but also create untrained mages who would have little love for the current system and might use their raw powers to cause a great deal of trouble.

As in the real Industrial age, I had a conflict brewing between those responsible for great technological advances and those left behind to either be untrained labor or used up by the new system.

It was only until I had these world-building issues were settled that I was able to create the main characters, Lord Gregor Sherringford and Joan Kriegerson. They’re Holmes-inspired but definitely a product of this strange new world. (And if you’re enough of a Holmes geek, you might spot the Easter egg in my detective’s name.)

Having finished the story and sent it off to my editor last week, I was left with two main thoughts about steampunk.

One: it is really, really hard to write well and required far more research than I ever thought.

Two: it’s a whole lot of fun.

 

A Steampunk Primer

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Wikimedia Commons: vonslatt

Steampunk. The name evokes an atmospheric vision of London; streets shimmering with damp, the faint glow of yellow gaslight as it barely penetrates the pea soup fog, and swirls of steam rising up from the pavement.

Perhaps you have never heard of steampunk. Or have only heard the term, but have no clue as to what it means, in which case you are no doubt thinking: That’s all very well and good, but what, precisely, is steampunk? For you, dear reader, we have created a steampunk primer.

Gail Carriger has the simplest, and perhaps, my favorite, definition:  “…steampunk is the future as the Victorians imagined it, where steam power never died, and electricity never dominated.”

At its heart, steampunk is a celebration and reinterpretation of the Victorian era. It takes the technology of the time and builds on it, often taking it much farther than any actual Victorian could have imagined.

Think the Industrial Revolution gone mad.

It is rife with brass goggles, airships, gears, springs, and sees both the beauty and the monstrosity that is inherent in machines. While it is most often associated with the Victorian and Edwardian eras, it can also involve Victorian-based technologies brought forward into a modern, contemporary or dystopic setting.

There are two theories as to where the punk part comes in. Some claim it has to do with the subculture aspect of steampunk–the genre has spawned  an entire subcultural. Others maintain that punk refers to early steampunk literature’s addressing of societal and political themes. There is often an undercurrent of social injustices and class disparities, often reflected in an oppressive environment with a discontented social or working class. Many steampunk works explore the cost of industrial advance when weighed against the cost to society or man as well as the consequences of a despotic government or exploitative empire.

The seeds of today’s steampunk can be found in the likes of Victorian writers such as H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, whose vivid imaginations took science to places it had never been in real life. K. W. Jeter first coined the term steampunk, back in 1987 and he, along with Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and Michael Moorcock are seen as the inventors of the modern steampunk genre. Up until the last five years or so, steampunk was a small but respectable, subgenre of speculative fiction. But recently, a few authors have brought steampunk genre to a much wider audience: Scott Westerfeld, Cassandra Claire, and Gail Carriger’s books have all hit the NYT bestseller list.

There are some differences of opinions on what qualifies as true steampunk. (Like Switzerland, I am neutral on the subject.) Some say it can deal with any alternate technologies and any time period; others say different historical time periods featuring other than steam technology require a different label. For example, clockpunk—which deals with extrapolating the earlier technology of clock gears—is separate from steampunk while others declare it a subcategory.

Either way, there is a high level of individualism running through the genre. It is all about interpreting rather than replicating. Of infusing it with the creator’s own vision of Victorian ideals and technology run amok.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, if you’re interested in further reading you might check out:

  • 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea by Jules Verne
  • The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  • Nomad of the Time Streams by Michael Moorcock
  • Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
  • Mainspring by Jay Lake
  • Airborn by Kenneth Oppel
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest
  • The Hunchback Chronicles by Arthur Slade
  • The Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve
  • Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
  • The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare
  • The Iron Duke by Meljean Brooks
  • Souless by Gail Carriger
  • The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Greyfriar by Clay and Susan Griffith
  • The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

School Library Journal also has a terrific list of ten classic steampunk works along with ten more recent titles.

Steampunk in Film & TV:

  • Full Metal Alchemist
  • League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
  • Howl’s Moving Castle
  • Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.
  • The Wild, Wild West
  • Van Helsing
  • Sherlock Holmes (2010)
  • Warehouse 13

But steampunk is not just about books and movies. It also encompasses art andfashion. It is an entire subculture and aesthetic movement. The artwork often involves a highly distinctive fusion of gears and mechanics, with a heavy dose of Victorian flavor. Fashion, likewise, is a highly individualized mix of the antique combined with the merely old, finished off with a heavy dose of brassy whimsy.

Some more general links to explore if you’re so inclined:

http://brassgoggles.co.uk/blog/

http://www.steampunkmagazine.com/

http://freetheprincess.blogspot.com/

http://steampunkwriters.ning.com/ (A writers and artists guild)

So there you have it. This primer is not by any means exhaustive or even the ultimate authority on all things steampunk, but it will bring you up to speed in time to help you enjoy the rest of steampunk week here on GeekMom!