Tuesday, October 18, 2011

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!

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