Friday, October 28, 2011

We Interrupt Very Srs Blog Bsnz To Bring You Story Ideas

So tonight in #steampunkchat, we were talking about queer steampunk, and author Nisi Shawl said, "Sex and war move technological progress. Sex includes queer sex, right?" 

And something just PINGED in me, you know, as in, "OMG! A setting where sex drives the technology, not war!! ALL KINDS OF SEX!"

And I hear this whole "conflict drives technological innovation!" meme so much, it's really fucking tiresome. Technology adapts to our needs at the time, which doesn't have to depend on conflict. Assuming that conflict is the only way to drive forward technological innovation is a kind of tired old trope that just has us falling back on war as a setting and doesn't paint us as very imaginative creatures who can dare dream about progress without ridiculous notions of bravery and nobility through slaughtering each other.

So NaNoWriMo is right around the corner and if you were looking for a challenging setting to work with, here's my challenge, write a steampunk world where technology is inspired by, not conflict, but sexual activity. ANY KIND OF SEXUAL ACTIVITY! As Nisi continued to say, "yes, the vibrators and milking machines belong in queer steampunk." Hell, vibrators and milking machines belong in ALL STEAMPUNK! 

So maybe it's my being single and not getting laid for just about two fucking years now, but I really want to see this happen! Like, Chester 5000 XYV, except society-wide! 


We now return you to your regularly scheduled srs blog bsnz.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Culture, Not a Costume

Oh hey, it IS about close to Halloween, right? I know it is because I've been seeing more anxiety about people dressing up as racist stereotypes than usual. I mean, I have this anxiety all the time! I do steampunk! Non-white steampunk, even. 

But all this stuff I do in steampunk? It's just a continuation of stuff that happens outside of steampunk. Dressing up as something from a different culture? Happens every year on a pretty mass scale!

So here are two related but separate links about cultural appropriation during Halloween which I think are extremely pertinent for steampunk:

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Happy Blogiversary to Beyond Victoriana!

It is! I know! Yeah, our blogiversaries are only a few days apart! No it's not because we're sekrit twins or anything like that (though we HAVE confused people before by our similar-but-not-same content)! 

Ay-Leen, as you may know, began writing about steampunk and being Asian in steampunk MUCH earlier than this first official Beyond Victoriana post, aaaaand she's also been a lot more disciplined about getting a post out every Sunday, on schedule. She's also featured some terrific people on the scene, such as Jess Nevins, and Evangeline Holland, as well as people overseas such as Eccentric Yoruba (who is one of my favourite people to follow on Twitter). Since then, Beyond Victoriana has grown, won awards, and gained recognition all over the place, and still kicks ass. 

It's terrific and exciting and I'm glad to be sharing the Internet with her! Happy Blogiversary, Ay-Leen!! 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

SteamCon III: Starts with a mugging, ends with dog poop

OK, these things did not happen to ME, but I think that's kind of indicative of the mixed bag that was my first SteamCon experience.

The mugging actually happened to Pablo Vasquez, a con-chair of Aetherfest, also known as Mr. Saturday. You should ask him about this story sometime, as it involves himself being a Panamanian and getting lost in Bellevue, and the mugging didn't actually follow through, ending with Pablo receiving a free bowl of chili. This was Thursday night, while I was out having dinner with Airship Ambassador Kevin Steil, Steampunk Workshop owner Jake von Slatt, Out From Behind the Curtain founder Phineas Von Stitch, and Seattle-based writer and Steam-Powered 2 contributor Nisi Shawl.

From left: Kevin, Nisi, Jake, Phineas, all in civvies

It's on this weird note that my SteamCon experience began, with several ups and downs, meeting new people and getting re-acquainted with folks I'd met before, and gnashing my teeth at not having had enough time with others.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Steam-Powered II Roundtable! Nisi Shawl

Nisi Shawl is one of my fucking favourite people, and I am so honoured to share a TOC with her! She wrote a very useful book on Writing the Other, and has a short story collection or two. She's part of the Science Fiction Writers Association, has a LiveJournal, and recently got Twitter and Facebook, even.  In Steam-Powered II, she writes us a story called “The Return of Cherie.”

A two-sentence summary: 
Twenty years after she helped found a socialist Utopia in the Belgian Congo, Lisette Toutournier returns to the nation of Everfair with urgent advice about its role in Europe’s fast-approaching “Great War.”  And despite their ages, Lisette also hopes to rekindle the love she once shared with another co-founder still living there, Daisy Albin.

How did your characters come to be? 
Three of “The Return of Cherie’s” five characters are loosely based on historical figures: Matty on Peter Pan's creator, J.M. Barrie; Lisette on Colette; and Daisy on children's author E.M. Nesbit.  Rima is a sort of mash-up of Josephine Baker and Zora Neale Hurston.  Fwendi evolved from photos and anecdotes of several sub-Saharan children and women; the histories of indigenous peoples in that area are pretty much eradicated, so I have to use lots of references as her armature.  Her name is a phoneticization of the nickname a young playmate gave to Barrie, which he eventually elided into Wendy.

Why this setting? 
I chose this setting because it’s where most of Everfair, my novel-in-progress takes place, and the story is a fragment of said novel.  And I chose this setting for Everfair because King Leopold’s devastation of Equatorial Africa is one of the most extreme examples anywhere of the costs of Victorian technology, which is the fetish and domain of most current steampunk. 

You’re in an antho of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting? 
In emerging pan-African culture at this time, in this world, I’m positing grudging acceptance.  Lesbianism is okay, but it’s not great.  Like burned toast—scrape it a little and it’s edible, with lots of jam.  Everfair is of much the same opinion on “inverts,” with a thin layer of liberalistic tolerance sprinkled on top. In Europe (which Lisette just left) lesbianism is simply shameful.  Think “Well of Loneliness.”

What was the funnest, or most hair-tearingly frustrating thing in writing your piece?  
What has been the most fun about writing “The Return of Cherie”?  It's hard to choose between the research and the characters.  And then there’s researching the characters.  I’ve wanted for years to write about Colette and E. Nesbit and J.M. Barrie.  I love them so much!  Lisette’s voice is an emulation of Colette’s, in this story and in Everfair.  She’s so sense-oriented, and that makes her scenes are tremendously engaging for me—and, I hope, for our readers.  Thinking of the project as a whole, research has in some ways been a nightmare, because much of the material I’d like to draw on for indigenous viewpoints is gone.  Millions of people died during King Leopold’s reign of terror.  History is told by the unslaughtered, so there are huge gaps in our recorded knowledge of this time and place.  However, there are material traces of Kongolese culture, museums full of looted goods.  I have a book on these museum collections (African Reflections, edited by Enid Schildkrout and Curtis A. Keim) that has helped me immensely.  Of course I want more—I could spend thousands on an Everfair library.  I’ve already spent over a hundred, even though I’m also using lots of the supplementary information available on the internet.

A random ramble? 
“The Return of Cherie” is a reference to two of Colette’s best known novels, Cheri and The Last of Cheri.  Colette’s Cheri is a young man in love with an older courtesan.  I’m 55, and I think about age and love a lot.  In my story, Daisy’s 55 and Lisette is 41, and there’s some concern that the advancing years may be putting an end to their amours.  Race is also a factor.  As for the technological aspect of steampunk in this story, there are gears, and gleaming brass, and dirigibles, and rubber fittings, just like in most current genre works—but it’s what people do with these icons that matters most.  It matters to me and it matters to them.  I hope it matters to you. 

And this concludes this round of author interviews! By this time you should have enough information to make a decision whether or not to pre-order, so I shan't ask again. Thanks to all the authors for answering these questions, and thanks everybody else for reading!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Today's Steampunk RaceFail: Wolsung

Via my friend bankuei comes this, uhm, delightful example of casual racism dressed up as entertainment.

Bankuei's only posted the two images, and it's possible that there may be more egregiously racist images that I'm not seeing. 

Now, I get that this is a Polish RPG game, so there may not be a whole lot of African, indigenous, or Asian peoples there who have lived there long enough to find these kinds of racist caricatures of their home cultures insulting. But this is, in fact, an example of what I'm talking about when I say steampunk is not a form of escape for many, and is not immune to racism. Here we have caricatures of... I don't know, pygmy Africans? Carib natives? And then there is, of course, the pinch-faced caricature of Chinese people, complete with pointed ears; this hobgoblin figure draws on the Fu Manchu character (as well as an exaggeration of other Chinese characteristics). 

I don't really know what goes on in Poland in terms of race relations, but that doesn't really excuse the fact that it draws on racist stereotypes of what Foreign Peoples look like, stereotypes that render the Foreign People looking Not Human or Completely Barbaric. And thus the tradition of dehumanizing the non-West by cultural producers continues to feed the ignorance of folks who may likely never interact with these stereotyped peoples on a personal basis, to see folks like us as, you know, normal people. 

Which is why it's so important for us POC to be creators of our own worlds, where we won't be these kinds of caricatures. Because these stereotypes live on, and sometimes in us. How many of us are working hard to decolonize our minds of what has been taught to us about our own people, as inferior to Westerners? How many of us are products of the White Man's Burden to civilize us? How do we re-invent ourselves to be free of that? 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Steam-Powered II Roundtable! Alex Dally MacFarlane

Alex Dally MacFarlane is another of those rare souls among us with a .com URL and stuff and a prolific writer to boot. Her story is “Selin That Has Grown in The Desert.”

A two-sentence summary: 
Dursun, a teenaged girl in 19th century Central Asia, must soon be married—but she is starting to realise that she only wants to be with other girls.  

How did your characters come to be? 
Even without the lesbian parameters of the anthology guidelines, I would have wanted to write about women.  Their stories are too often ignored in favour of male endeavours.  The lesbian aspect immediately gave me more details: my character is a lesbian, and I quickly decided she would be young, grappling directly with the difficulties of being a lesbian in a time and a place where such a concept was not acknowledged.

Why this setting? 
My starting point for the story was actually my quite strong disinterest in most of the steampunk I've ever read.  In short, it's very male and Victorian, with a great deal of glorification placed on Victorian England (and a lot of terrible attempts to write in Victorian prose).  JoSelle asked me to write a story for the anthology, but I didn’t really want to write a steampunk story.
At the same time, I was reading a really beautiful manga, Otoyomegatari (A Bride's Story) by Kaoru Mori, set in 19th century Central Asia.  I loved the domesticity of the story, how it focused primarily on female relationships and day-to-day life.

These two combined, giving me the idea of a story set in a part of the world where steampunk was at best irrelevant, at worst an indicator of foreign imperialism.  And I wanted to focus primarily not on the technology, but on the people of Central Asia.

You’re in an antho of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting? 
As far as I can tell from my research, lesbianism was simply not a concept in 19th century Central Asia as it is in a number of present-day countries.  Women married men and bore children—and that was that.  Dursun does not want to fit into this norm, and the story is about how she deals with this problem.

What was the funnest, or most hair-tearingly frustrating thing in writing your piece?
Research!  I've spent many hours in the British Library, reading about Turkmenistan past and present, and many more hours online, sourcing pictures and snippets of historical texts and travel stories and Turkmen-authored information—it is not an easy place or period to research in the English language, and I enjoyed the challenge (and still do). 

My greatest find so far has been Carole Blackwell’s Tradition and Society in Turkmenistan, which collects several hundred folksongs sung by Turkmen women and recorded throughout the 20th century, now translated into English.  It is a rare and wonderful resource—far too often, women's voices are simply not written down, and are gradually lost over time. 

A random ramble? 
I am now turning the story into a novel, which I am really excited about.  I even have an idea for a second book, narrated by someone else—also a young Turkmen woman, with a story of her own that connects to Dursun's.

Hey, hey, hey! Less than a week to Steam-Powered II's release! [HINTHINTHINT]

Happy Blogiversary

So, about two years ago, I started up this blog and made the basic housekeeping items. Two years later, I'm still writing on it, and I feel it's been underwritten. This is mostly my fault: I started the blog, liked doing the subject of steampunk and postcolonialism so much, I took it to grad school, which sucked up my time, and I never made much effort to update here, except to let ya'll know when I would be at conventions and such. 

My bad =(

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Using the term "multiculturalism"

I'm currently re-reading Angela Davis' Abolition Democracy, and her interviewer, Eduardo Mendieta, in response to her reiteration that "we need a new age--with a new agenda--that directly addresses the structural racism" (30) about multiculturalism: "very smart strategies are being used, ones that displace attention from issues of racial justice by speaking in terms of multiculturalism" (31).

Over the last year or so, I've become incredibly disillusioned with how the term "multiculturalism" is used in various spaces, including steampunk.

Steam-Powered II Roundtable! Beth Birdsall

Beth Birdsall's main internet presence is at LiveJournal, and she brings to us the story “Journey’s End.”

A two-sentence summary: 
In an alternate 1910, Chief Engineer Dolores Salas has spent her career working on sentient, aetherium-powered airships.  When her airship’s time to die comes, Dolores agrees to accompany her into the unknown—but the sky contains more surprises than the certain death she thinks she’s sailing towards.

How did your characters come to be? 
I wanted to explore a character who was blue-collar, from an immigrant background, and not an aristocratic officer from a privileged upbringing.  Dolores is the child of Mexican immigrants, and a no-nonsense woman who’s spent her whole life working with her hands and navigating a world that may not be actively against her, but also isn’t set up for her success.  For Mabel, her sort-of-potentially love interest, I wanted another working-class character, but one from a different background—she’s mixed-race, daughter of an ex-slave, from California—who grew up in a different setting, and had slightly different challenges in life.

Why this setting? 
I wanted to do a steampunk take on a fantasy trope, and I settled on the idea of ships sailing into the west, and into the epilogue, and what happens when a character gets to live into her ‘epilogue.’  Airships were the logical choice.  I didn’t want to rework an active war, and I didn’t have time to do as much research as I would have wanted to do a setting I didn't know as well as the US—but I definitely wanted to address the blue-collar side of the military that a lot of military-set history ignores.  I also liked the slightly claustrophobic self-sufficiency of a vessel on a long voyage, and this version of airships let me play with that to an extreme.

You’re in an antho of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting? 
It’s a semi-accepted, semi-ignored subculture of Dolores's US Navy—basically, an officially ignored open secret.  Women refer to it as being "old maids together" or "particular friends" or similar, but because the US military accepts women and forbids them to be pregnant or married while enlisted, there’s a large proportion of women who for various reasons aren't interested in heterosexual marriage.  Some of them are asexual, or heterosexual women willing to postpone marriage in favor of a military career, but women who are interested in other women have pretty good odds in the military, and a subculture has grown up around that.

The civilian world varies a lot.  In the town where Mabel grew up it’s fairly similar, except with less statistical assurance that the ladies around you may well be amenable.

What was the funnest, or most hair-tearingly frustrating thing in writing your piece? 
The science!  *laughing*  Both fun, and frustrating, which made it a really interesting challenge.  The aetherium propulsion system is pure handwaving, of course, but I did a lot of work on figuring out whether what I was proposing for high-altitude life could actually kinda-sorta work.

The other funnest part doesn’t show up in the story in any detail, but it was designing a 1910 naval uniform for women.

A random ramble? 
I don’t often listen to music when I'm writing, but nearly the entire time I was writing this story, I listened to Dougie Maclean’s “Ready for the Storm” on loop.  When it comes up on my iTunes now, I still have to repeat it a few times before I can move on to another track.  It’s habit, and it makes me think of Dolores.  I’m very fond of her now!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Back from SteamCon!

There is no con report yet because my brain is way too fried.

Highlights include Pablo of Aetherfest's near-mugging, a jellyfish family, music, and KW Jeter talking about leather and dog poop. 

There are a ton of pictures. And this report will also get cross-posted to too, so it don't make no nevermind to me where you read it first (I don't often check comments that-a-side, though). 

I'd like to thank everybody who made it out to my 9am program items. I know that's a pretty early hour to be talking about heavy issues in steampunk, and those of ya'll who came out for "fun" just to "check it out", I really appreciate it. Also, thanks Russ for the bottle of wine; it made for a great way to continue the Social Issues Roundtable after we ran out of time! 

If you liked the programming, feel free to contact the SteamCon programming committee to tell them to bring it back next year!

And if you just wanted to say hi on this blog now that we're all safely ensconced behind our computers, feel free to do so. I know some people find me kind of, um, intimidating in real life. 

Or, you know, say nice things about stuff that happened during the panel, or bad things, I don't care, just let me know you're out there.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Steam-Powered II Roundtable: S.L. Knapp

S.L. Knapp can be found cross-posting between LiveJournal and Dreamwidth, and she brings us a really cool set of answers about her story that features Cuba, “Amphitrite”

A two-sentence summary: 
An engineer from newly-independent Cuba must recover her stolen submarine. While crossing the open ocean, she has just the plan to evade anyone who might try to claim her vessel.

How did your characters come to be? 
I knew I wanted a submariner and a mermaid and had the basic plot structure laid out, but they really came into existence as I wrote the story. Two paragraphs in and I knew the sort of woman Consuelo was. I mentioned Amphitrite, and I knew that at age twenty, Consuelo had met this rough-around-the-edges older woman who taught her what’s what. Twenty years later, she does the same thing for the naive but earnest Aurelie.

Why this setting?  
I don’t see much about Cuba in fiction and I wanted to put more out there (I’m also lazy and it required less research). I set the story a bit later than traditional steampunk, but the War of Independence was a fascinating time, especially for Cuban-American relations, and it’s fairly close to when my great-grandfather graduated from medical school and had female classmates. I figured a woman engineer would be historically believable. You know, if Cuba were building a fleet of super-subs.

 You’re in an antho of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting? 
In the confines of the story, being queer isn’t that big a deal. That’s not historically accurate in larger society, but a lot of women flew under the radar this way—Consuelo’s an inventor and engineer, she’s probably a spinster being single and over 40, and nothing more is said. Consuelo knows what’s up, and that’s all that matters. I just wanted to set a story where being a lesbian is normalized, even if it isn’t in society.

 What was the funnest, or most hair-tearingly frustrating thing in writing your piece? 
The submarines! I went a bit overboard with the Jules Verne-y fantastical elements but that’s the sort of universe I was hoping to evoke: a little more science-flavored magic than science itself. Can the machine work? Probably not. Do I care? No. It’s pretty in my head, just like the Nautilus. I mostly relied on my knowledge with sailboats to write it, and some reading up on historical submarines, which were mostly pedal or diesel-powered.

 A random ramble? 
My grandmother studied medicine during the Cuban revolution. She has stories about fights she’d have with the guard at a US hospital she worked at because “only doctors can park here” and seeing as she was a woman, she couldn’t possibly be a doctor. Whereas, in Cuba, her father’s class in medical school graduated three women (in the 1920s). According to my grandmother, a lot of women didn’t go into medicine, but there were really no institutional barriers to stop her from doing so if she wanted to like there were in the US. I found the disparity interesting, given how often I’m told that I come from a culture brimming with machismo and sexism by fellow Americans. I used to take it for granted that a given patriarchal society (especially in the West) behaves in similar ways to others—but the nuances that come up in the differences have been really interesting to me. So that colored my decision to set the story in Cuba, too, and how I wanted to frame some political relationships.

As an aside, gender norms re: occupations varies so much in different countries! In Malaysia, we're fairly evenly split in the IT field, so I was really surprised when I got to North America and found that there're so few women in IT. Mind-boggling. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Steam-Powered II Roundtable! C.S.E. Cooney

C.S.E. Cooney, also Claire Cooney, lives at LiveJournal, and brings to us a piece reminding us of the source of steam power in C.S.E. Cooney on “The Canary of Candletown.”

A two-sentence summary: 
A burnt-out revolutionary’s kindness awakens the passionate devotion of a young mining laborer. But the Candletown Company is careful to stomp out any flame ignited underground. 

How did your characters come to be? 
It started with the name Kanarien, which is the German for canary. I’ve always been haunted by the idea of sending a singing thing into the dark, then waiting for it to stop singing. And I really like the name Dagomar. I didn’t necessarily want two German characters, so I played with the idea of a girl growing up in the mines without a name, and also what it would mean, suddenly, to be given one by the first person to care about her.
Why this setting? 
I share my morning commute with a very clever Belgian named Thomas. One day, we had this conversation:
Thomas: What are you reading?
Me: Steampunk’d. I have to write this story, and I'm trying to get a feel for the genre.
Thomas: What is steampunk?
Me: Still figuring it out, myself.
Thomas: (looking up the definition on his smart phone) Ah. I dislike the literature of the aristocracy. Where does steam come from?
Me: (getting goosebumps) Coal.
Thomas: Where does coal come from? Earth. Who digs it? The people. Children. This is the era when Dickens was writing Oliver Twist. Zola's Germinal...
It was at that moment I had an idea for a story that might have to do, rather than with the great inventions of air and industry that were possible because of coal, with the coal mines themselves.
You’re in an antho of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting?
 These characters are the lowest of the low. They’re so far down the social ladder, they’re underground. Nobody cares about them, or what they do, so long as they get their work done and don’t raise dust. They have no one and nothing else to care about than each other. They’re best friends and lovers and family—and none of that matters in a world where they are already invisible. 

What was the funnest, or most hair-tearingly frustrating thing in writing your piece? 
I wrote mine at the same time, and in the same room, where Patty Templeton wrote her “Fruit Jar Drinkin’, Cheatin’ Heart Blues.” She was letting me sleep on her couch for the month of April, and she’d bring home these huge bags full of research material from the library. We were writing in sort of the same time period, in a generally similar geographical location, and we’d each discover these interesting (or sickening) things in our research and say to each other, “AAUGGH!!! If you don’t use that, girl, I’m gonna!” 

So that was fabulous. 

But then! Then, later, writer Delia Sherman offered out of the blue to beta-read my early draft. I don’t think I’d ever spent an hour on the phone talking about writing that blew my mind quite so far into the stratosphere. She has a way of making previously nebulous ideas diamond-clear. Her encouragement was incredibly heartening during the mire of the draft process. 

Two fabulous things. Both were the funnest. 

Whaaaat, a little under two weeks before Steam-Powered II comes out? How exciting! Didja get your order in yet?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Steam-Powered II Roundtable! Rebecca Fraimow

Rebecca Fraimow is also one of us dual-denizens of LiveJournal and Dreamwidth, and wrote the Mid-Eastern-inspired piece “Granada’s Library.”

A two-sentence summary: 
In an alternate Emirate of Granada that never fell to Christian Spain, a great mechanized library has for centuries peacefully guarded the wisdom of three faiths. But as the spirit of the Enlightenment starts to reach Al-Andalus, Chief Curator Pilar—a woman who has her own secrets—finds herself at the center of a battle for the library's future.

How did your characters come to be?
I knew that I wanted to write about an established couple who were very secure and comfortable with each other, because that’s something I always want more of in fiction than I get. From that point, I started to develop Pilar and her lover Zainab, older women in positions of authority who know each other very well and can communicate with each other very well, and whose duties and responsibilities play an important role in their relationship.

Why this setting? 
The golden age of al-Andalus provided an incredibly rich and exceptionally tolerant intellectual atmosphere for philosophical and scientific development, with scholars from all over the world taking inspiration from the work being done there—and that was circa the year 1000. Once I started to wonder what would have happened if the Reconquista had played out differently and that culture had lasted through the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment, it seemed to make perfect sense that al-Andalus would have managed to develop sophisticated clockwork technology before our Europe ever did!

You’re in an antho of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting? 
I wanted my characters to feel comfortable in their sexuality without having to angst about it, so I set up the library as an almost entirely-female space in which the existence of homosexual relationships is a fairly open secret.  Nobody in this context is going to particularly care if two librarians develop a “special friendship,” although it isn’t something they could be public about in the wider city.

What was the funnest, or most hair-tearingly frustrating thing in writing your piece? 
I have a total weakness for stories about THE REVOLUTION, so I had a lot of fun taking the kind of idealistic young revolutionary women that normally I would be all over in fiction, and then showing them from the perspective of older women with completely different priorities who are really uncomfortable with all these excitable teenagers running around trying to pull their world down around their ears!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Steam-Powered II Roundtable! A. Tuomala

A. Tuomala has a novel, Erekos, from Candlemark & Gleam. Her Internet home is here, and her story featuring a Moroccan mercenary lady is “Dark Horse”:

A two-sentence summary: 
The evening before her mercenary company departs for the Balkans, Suhailah al-Saghira bint-e-Azzam meets a desperate stranger: Prudence Crewe, who claims to be searching for her runaway husband. Before they’ve exchange three words, Suhailah knows that the steely-eyed Mrs. Crewe is trouble—but Suhailah has a taste for trouble, and she could never resist a woman with a secret.

How did your characters come to be? 
I’ve been looking for a home for Suhailah for some time. I created her ship and crew over a year ago, when I thought I’d be writing a comic book about her captain; unfortunately, that project never panned out, and the Ebony Horse’s crew had to wait for another war. When I saw the call for submissions for Steam-Powered II, I thought, “Yes! Finally, a chance to bring out my Moroccan mercenaries again!” The engineer Suhailah was always my favorite, with her keen mechanical mind and her need to uncover secrets. I put together Prudence Crewe as a foil for Suhailah—someone who would engage her curiosity and make her fierce intelligence work. I got a stunning James Bond of a woman for my trouble, and I couldn’t be happier.

Why this setting? 
I’m terribly fascinated by 19th century Balkan warfare; if you check who allied with whom at any point in the drawn-out slugfest between Russia and Turkey, you could get a reasonable idea of European politics in the day. I knew when I started this story that I wanted to play with those shifting alliances in an urban, commercial space—a space as potentially potent in the steampunk imagination as Victorian London (but alas, woefully underused!). For me, Istanbul was that space: a commercial hub mediating between numerous confluent cultures, modern and urban and ready for war.

You’re in an antho of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting? 
“Dark Horse” takes place in a kind of alternate history and culture, like many other steampunk works; in this alternate Istanbul, I’ve treated lesbianism as largely a non-issue when it occurs in private, sex-segregated spaces. Female mercenaries make coarse jokes about it in coffee houses, after they’ve driven out the people who usually drink there, and Suhailah feels comfortable making an advance to a stranger in that enclosed space. Part of what thrills Suhailah about Prudence, though, is how brazen they can be together—kissing in the market, of all places! I wish I’d devoted more time to this aspect in the story, because lesbianism is an important cultural phenomenon as well as an interpersonal one.

What was the funnest, or most hair-tearingly frustrating thing in writing your piece? 
I’m a huge language geek, so I really enjoyed playing with Istanbul as a multilingual space. It was also fantastic devising Mr. and Mrs. Crewe’s coded messages, which was a bit like piecing together a language of my own from mythological and literary references.

Little over two weeks to Steam-Powered II's release! Get yer orders in!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Steam-Powered II Roundtable! Nicole Kornher-Stace

Nicole Kornher-Stace, besides having an impossible name, has an actually functioning website complete with bibliography and stuff, as well as LiveJournal. I don't know if this needs saying, but LiveJournal is still cooler than Facebook, ya'll. She wrote “Deal,” another steampunk western.

A two-sentence summary: 
Alt-western silver-mining tall tale. Midwife vs. Pinkertons!

How did your characters come to be? 
I don’t remember when or how I realized I wanted my narrator to be a midwife. I know I wanted her to be a Strong Female Character who specialized in something that’s traditionally very much women's work. I don’t see enough of those so I thought I’d try making my own. As for Deal, she’s a rabble-rouser and a would-be revolutionary because those tend to crop up in almost everything I write. Together they fight crime. Not really. But they’re fantastic at pissing off the Pinks.

Why this setting? 
Well, earlier this year, I wrote a poem in a similarish setting/voice (“The Witch’s Heart” in Issue 21 of Apex) and had an absurd amount of fun with it. I wanted to get back in there and play a bit more. Also, Claire Cooney read my mind and reminded me—though she hadn’t known—that I’d always wanted to write a Western. And then I got to thinking how much fun it would be to write a Western steampunk story using traditional tall tales as a framing device. Somewhere along the line, the story decided it wanted to take place in a failing silver mining camp. After I got all that squared away, the rest pretty much wrote itself.

You’re in an antho of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting? 
The story takes place in an alternative California in the late 1800s, where it seems that what with race, gender, and class issues running high and none-too-subtly, lesbians were probably lumped in with the rest as “secondary” citizens and didn't really stand out as much more or less “inferior.” To write “Deal,” I did a lot of research into the time period in that part of the country and didn’t really come across anything suggesting otherwise. I’ve been meaning to read more into this topic, actually—I’m curious as to what the actual answer for real!California might have been, but I couldn’t find much on it at the time. Now I’m extra-curious.

What was the funnest, or most hair-tearingly frustrating thing in writing your piece? 
Oddly, there was nothing frustrating about writing this one. I loved playing with the narrator’s voice, with the language I picked up in my research of 19th century mining towns, with writing my own tall tales. Really, it was the most fun I’ve probably ever had writing anything ever. I hope it shows!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steampunk is a Subculture, not Escape

Whenever people talk about steampunk as "an escape," I used to snarfle out loud. Of course I'm usually reading such sentiments, so my obnoxious laughter is usually kept to myself, and in offline contexts, I strain a smile. I don't really want to ruin anybody's fun, you know?

I've said it before, and I've said it again, there's something very apt about the term "subculture," which we should be paying attention to. It means that steampunk is a part of a larger culture. I've yet to hear steampunk referred to as "counter-culture," and I suspect the reason runs along the lines of how we don't wanna end up vilified like the goths, or we don't want to be seen like those angry punks. Not that all of us are averse this, of course.

I could go on with theory on how steampunk is not counter-cultural (check out, for example, Brian Ziff and Pratima Rao's anthology Borrowed Power: essays on cultural appropriation), but I want to keep to the community aspect of steampunk for the moment and speak to concerns that I suspect many people aren't thinking about when they say, "steampunk is an escape."

Steam-Powered II Roundtable! Shveta Thakrar!

Shveta lives on LiveJournal, and her story is “Not The Moon But The Stars.”

A two-sentence summary: 
What would’ve happened if Buddha had never become Buddha? In its way, it’s a tale of first contact.

How did your characters come to be? 
I was gazing up at the full moon as I drove home from work one night last fall, and the thought struck me how much it looked like a silvery pendulum at rest. Not long after, I typed out that image, and before I knew it, I was writing about a jeweller who loved the moon and wanted to recreate it in her own style. Her lover soon followed, unintentionally bringing the seeds of conflict with her.

Why this setting? 
Siddhartha Gautama, the man who didn’t become Buddha, is very much a product of his world. Besides, ancient Nepal seems like it would have been an exciting place to be, especially when you bring in steampunk technology.

You’re in an antho of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting? 
Definitely accepted. I wanted to write a story where sexual orientation wasn’t an issue, so the characters, who were already in a loving relationship, could go on to have rollicking adventures, solve mysteries, save the world, and all that good stuff.

 Also, even if Siddhartha didn’t go on to become Buddha, I imagined he would still be a wise and compassionate man, so his kingdom should reflect that in its acceptance and empathy. (Whether that’s actually the case or not, well, you’ll have to read the story to find out!)

What was the funnest, or most 'hair-tearingly frustrating thing in writing your piece? 
I’ll go with option B. Oh, wow, the characters came so naturally, but trying to get the plot together was something else. It sprawled in all directions, and I couldn’t figure out how to fix it. I was seriously close to tearing out my hair; just ask my critique partners! But somehow, after much gnashing of teeth, I eventually found the story’s heart and built it into a more coherent foundation, embellishing from there. (My critique partners could not be more grateful that they don’t have to hear about this anymore.) 

For your dignity's sake, do NOT confuse her with Shweta Narayan, who was in the first Steam-Powered anthology! To see how different their stories are, you can get the first anthology here, and pre-order the second here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Steampunk Postcolonialist at SteamCon

Yes, folks, I will indeed be attending SteamCon III. I'm not crazy about how they define steampunk (really? "Victorian science-fiction"? Really?) but since it's the biggest one out West, I figure I should give it a go. On the way there, I'll be stopping by San Francisco to visit Roget Ratchford, whom I met at Nova Albion, and will spend Monday, Oct 10, swanning around San Fran like a tourist. If anybody has any ideas for me, or would like to hang out that day, let me know! Then it's off to Seattle to visit Nisi Shawl, who will be in Steam-Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories. Nisi is one of my heroes and I'm glad to be sharing a TOC with her! 

So! Here's my nefarious itinerary for SteamCon:

Friday, 6pm - 7pm, Regency B - Cheng I Sao, Queen of the (pre-)Steampunk Pirates, moderating Beth Wade and Margo Loes. We'll be discussing this legendary lady, starting from some generalities, to historical specifics. Beth will provide some comparisons to show how awesome she is. We'll finish with some discussion on how to include her into your steampunk narratives. SANS FAIL. 

Friday, 8pm, Sepiachord Music Lounge - Performance by Unwoman. This will then devolve into absinthe tasting and general alcoholic socializing. I will have a bottle of Kittling Ridge ice wine and brandy on me. Feel free to ask for a sip, because I ain't finishing that on my own. 

Saturday, 9am - 11am, Grand Ballroom J - Steam Around the World: Steampunk Beyond Victoriana. A presentation, which some of ya'll may be familiar with. But I'll be glad to see some familiar faces!

Saturday, 2pm - 3.30pm - Amphitrite Annual Tea. I'm there to watch Erica, really. I missed all her solo performances at GearCon so I'm compensating.

Saturday, 9pm - Nautilus Concert. Well, yeah fuck yeah I'm going to get my dance on.

Sunday, 9am - 11am, Regency B - Envisioning a Better Steam Society: Social Issues in Steampunk. This is a roundtable discussion. Some of ya'll know what this is, feel free to come again. =) I'll be a bit more focused this time, with a specific frame for racial issues, because I hear Seattle is another Whitelandia, and sounds like ya'll could use some practice. 

Sunday, 1pm - 2pm, Grand Ballroom J - Evolution of Steampunk, moderating K.W. Jeter. I haven't actually talked to the man yet, so I have no idea what will go down, but generally, what the title says. 

I leave for the airport around 4pm, because I'm very tetchy about timing. 

See you there!

Steam-Powered II Roundtable! Zen Cho

Zen Cho is the other Malaysian writer in this anthology. She's based in the UK, is a loyar (as we say) by trade, and her work's appeared in Strange Horizons and Expanded Horizons. She can be found on LiveJournal, Dreamwidth and Twitter. Her story is “The Terracotta Bride.”

A two-sentence summary: 
Siew Tsin died young and has been trying to avoid surprises ever since. But her hopes for a quiet death are destroyed when her husband brings home a new wife—a beautiful terracotta automaton who comes with secrets that may overturn the order of the universe.

How did your characters come to be? 
They arose naturally from the setting. The viewpoint character being Chinese Malaysian was a bit of a departure from that setting, but I like to include Malaysian characters in my stories where I can.

Why this setting? 
Since I first encountered Eileen Chang's short stories, I've been wanting to write an elegant, tragic story about glamorous Hong Kong women leading miserable lives poisoned by family and love. Plus, robots! I can’t remember how Hong Kong morphed into a version of the Chinese afterlife plucked from TVB series and a Singaporean amusement park, but it probably proves that I’m not very good at being Eileen Chang.

The great thing about working off a vision of the afterlife derived from Hong Kong TV is that it allows for deliberate anachronism, which is very steampunk if you think about it.

You’re in an antho of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting? 
Lesbianism is marginal, but not unacknowledged. I had the idea of a romance between wives before I read Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life, but in it, he describes how his wife seeks to arrange for a singsong girl to be his concubine because she’s in love with the girl herself. The point is made by a reference to “Cherishing the Fragrant Companion,” a Qing era play by Li Yu about a married woman who successfully conspires to have her husband marry her female lover so they can be together. (This is still performed as an opera, the Fragrant Companion.) So it’s obviously a bit of a cliché!

What was the funnest, or most hair-tearingly frustrating thing in writing your piece? 
Nailing down the terrifying but vague childhood recollections I had of the Chinese hell (thank you, Haw Par Villa) by research. It’s the kind of thing that makes you think conversion might not be such a bad idea. At least the Christian hell only features one pit of flame...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Steam-Powered II Roundtable! Patty Templeton

Patty, like so many of us awesome people, can be found on LiveJournal and Tumblr. She contributed the steampunk western “Fruit Jar Drinkin’, Cheatin’ Heart Blues” to the anthology!

A two-sentence summary: 
Balma Walker is plain tired of Cazy Tipple’s cheating, especially now that it’s interfering with business. The moonshine ain’t gonna make itself and who has time to feud with ex-lovers, current sheriffs and make ends meet?

How did your characters come to be? 
Once I name someone, I can think clearly about them. I start to see their personality form on the page. I wanted women who, even for their opposite natures, found solace in one another. Balma Walker became a sturdy, town educated woman and Cazy Tipple, a hard drinking rake. 

Why this setting? 
My father’s from Harlan, Kentucky and it’s a setting that I haven't written much in, but have plenty more to spill about.  

You’re in an antho of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting? 
This story is set in an alternate 1914 Kentucky. People live and let live. Folks think more on Balma and Cazy’s moonshine than they do on their bedroom. Unfortunately, what is acceptable to most, doesn’t mean acceptable to all. The town sheriff has an idiotic bone to pick with Cazy about his daughter... who is not Balma.

What was the funnest or hair-tearingly frustrating thing in writing your piece? 
The best part of writing for me is always the research. This round I was able to call my dad and jaw for an hour. He told me piles of moonshine tales from when he was a kid in the ‘50s in Kentucky. I still need to write a few stories inspired from that conversation, like the drunken plane crash or the juke joint brawl or the tree-climbing spy.

The next best thing about writing Balma and Cazy's story was that C.S.E. Cooney* was sleeping on my couch while I was writing it. It was wonderful to live with another writer, not only to keep me on task, but to share in each other’s creative processes. Now if only we could actually make time to write the John Henry story we thought up while researching our Steam-Powered stories...

*C.S.E Cooney is ALSO in this anthology. Keep an eye out for her answers in the upcoming days!

Theory Adventures: Civility and Colonialism

I know there should be more of substance but right now I'm catching up on theory I didn't get to read. I'm currently reading Homi Bhabha's Location of Culture, wherein he talks about mimicry and hybridity. 

And this line caught my eye:
... at the same time as the questions of cultural difference emerged in the colonial text, discourses of civility were defining the doubling moment of the emergence of Western modernity. Thus, the political and theoretical genealogy of modernity lies not only in the origins of the idea of civility, but in this history of the colonial moment. (46)
Note that the concept of "cultural difference" is different from "diversity"--cultural difference refers to the sense that many philosophers and theorists have that apart from their subject position in the West, there is an Other space, against which they compare their own civilizations to. It's very much tied to how we construct identity by contrasting ourselves to something different from ourselves. 

The reason why this line in particular caught my eye is because there is a sentiment I see every so often in steampunk conversations, usually by some well-meaning white person, waxing poetic about how the Victorian era was so refined, so polite and well-mannered, and part of the draw of steampunk is to bring those good manners back. 

Because let's face it, the Victorians as a civilization were terribly ill-mannered. I would consider stomping yourselves all over other people's homes and taking their resources, forcing them to surrender their crops so they can buy it back from you at high prices, and finding excuses to launch an attack because they wouldn't let you sell your stuff on their shores by encouraging the use of poison to be very, very bad manners. 

When I took an etiquette class, I was taught that etiquette's more than just knowing how to use the right kind of spoon... it's about making the people around you comfortable. And therefore, if someone next to you isn't Using the Right Spoon, it's not really a faux pas. Those are things we can overlook. 

And there is a lot to recommend of a way of life that encourages poise, graciousness, and wonderful clothing, a culture that encourages articulation and reading, as well as enterprise. But let's not forget that often, the price of this graciousness is that someone else must be uncouth so you have a yardstick for measurement, someone else must do all the labourious work so you can focus on your reading and writing.

Understanding where we get this idealization of Victoriana from, and understanding what we elide so we can believe in those ideals, is really important. We got many of our ideals of modernity, civility, and prosperity on the back of colonialism, land appropriation, cultural genocide. 

Yes, be well-mannered! But remember, good manners should be more than just your individual gracefulness and more than how you perform it. We need to think about what we mean by good manners, and who that serves, and why. We need to think about where we learn about good manners from, and from who, and what we do with this knowledge. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Caricature and Sense

Sometimes I like to turn my Judgey McJudgerson eye on people's costumes, and judge them. I try not to do this very often because usually it ends up with me counting the ways a costume is wrong, trying to balance them with what is right, and then getting pissed off anyway. 

And yes, it is true, there are definitely some costumes out there which do not piss me off. 

I was thinking about two particular costumes while considering what my own lines are (but if you want a nice comprehensive list on whether or not you should do this outfit you really want to do, Thursday of the Sadness of Pencils has a pretty good list). I've mentioned them before, too: during Nova Albion, I saw a terrible outfit which appeared to consist of disparate Random Asian Things pulled together into some semblance of a peacock-themed outfit. The other is a traveler's outfit at GearCon.

What's the main difference?

The first outfit, though it looks like a lot of love has gone into it, doesn't make sense. In no historical period would anybody be wearing a giant fan at their backside to approximate a peacock that I can think of. Staring at it, I couldn't place what or where this person is supposed to be, except at some a-historical space where one can apparently pull random shit together. 

Outfits, to me, generally ought to have some sort of sense, even if it's a bit of a stretch. Even if it means really stretching. This Cthulhu bustle, for example, is a bit of a stretch. But you can tell where it comes from: Lovecraftian lore, combined with a Victoriana-inspired outfit. 

The fact that outfits really should have sense is even more imperative when you're not using an outfit from your culture. And I really wish people had more of an explanation for why they're doing it besides "I love this [usually non-white] culture." I get it if you're not white and you're wearing white fashions, because assimilation and the imposition of white culture has been pretty widespread. That's what colonialism is all about. But the only reason I can ever think of, for white people using non-white cultures, is this sense of entitlement that's so often on display: "I SHOULD be able to!" Cue racist bullshit about post-racism, culture-belonging-to-anybody, you're-racist-for-noticing-racism-and-harshing-our-squee.

There are totally outfits that make sense, even when non-white on white bodies.

Dude I met at GearCon, for example? His was a traveler's outfit. It was a plain white shirt, and a shawl, and loose trousers, and a pointy straw hat. I really liked it. Why? Because it made sense. It is entirely possible that a white dude would be traveling in Asia, and he'd adapt these random things, which have some goddamn function, by the way, not like a bustle in the shape of a giant fan, into a workable outfit for traveling. It's comfortable, looks sturdy to protect against the elements, and even though I can't exactly place the outfit historically, it looks like something that belongs on the Silk Road. It looks like something an actual traveler would wear. 

I've only been able to articulate this because other people have already done it, of course. Monique Poirier recently took an attempted NDN steampunk cosplay to task for its appropriation:

If you want to dress as a character who wears NDN attire, be prepared to have a backstory that explains why you, a white person, are wearing it (please not ‘My character was adopted into X tribe!’ either as a child or later in life or through marriage when they fell in love with a Badass Native/Chief’s Beautiful Daughter - that is the most overplayed Mighty Whitey bullshit fantasy ever and for fuck’s sakewhen, when, WHEN will white people get tired of it? I cannot tell you how many white people I have heard expound unto me thier Dances With Wolves or Little Big Man or Every Third Romance Novel With NDNs In It backstory. Shit gets old, and you do not have enough we-sha-sha.). Do some historical study on what characters might be likely to do this (fur trappers and prospectors come immediately to mind). Know that some things are never, ever ok to wear (war paint, feathered headdresses, ESPECIALLY war bonnets, specific religious symbols, etc.) and that evern of you think you’ve done all your homeworks, NDN people might still be pissed at you and that they are right to be so. If you’re not willing to do this, to take these extra steps, then just don’t do it.
Stop and think about why you even want to.

Note the bit about fur trappers and prospectors. Those were real people, who interacted a lot with NDNs and therefore, it makes sense that they would be wearing some NDN attire as a result. When people bleat about "cultural exchange", I doubt they're actually thinking about situations like this; too often, I get a sense of "cultural exchange" being "I SHOULD be able to!"

The first outfit, because it makes no historical sense, nor even functional sense, ends up being a caricature of Asian Things, drawing on everything that looks Possibly Asian to create an image that Looks Asian, but doesn't actually say anything besides the fact that this person that the wherewithal to buy Asian-Looking-Things. And you know what? White people pulling random Asian-looking shit together is part of white privilege. It reminds me that a white person can do this and they can take it off later and not suffer for it; that it's only a costume, and thus meaningless when taken apart.

I don't even trust that GearCon dude did homework or has a profound sense of respect for Asian cultures. I can't read that from his outfit. What I can read is that it's historically-logical that a white person in Asia would be wearing such an outfit, and that signifies a story. And fine, white Orientalists traveling the depths of Asia, that's not a new story either. But it's a story that potentially engages with Asia and Asians, as a fellow human being, not as a consumer.

And that makes a real difference in how I'm going to feel about an outfit.