I just got back from Budapest, where we did an event for Osama. My publishers made me a surprise steampunk birthday cake! I snapped this with my mobile very quickly. L to R are Peter and Csilla from Ad Astra.
It was a fantastic visit – I’ll blog more when I can but after Canada and Budapest I just want to sleep for a week!
NEVER TRUST A PUPPET!
I didn’t realise until recently that James Blaylock‘s considerable back catalogue of (wonderful) novels is now available in e-book editions, and I thought I’d mention this to anyone who had not yet read this great, sometimes under-valued writer.
A California writer, Blaylock was a part of the group of friends formed around Philip K. Dick in the last ten years of his life and, with Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter, was responsible for the birth of steampunk. His classic steampunk novels are being reissued by Titan Books – they include Homunculus, which introduces Blaylock’s hero Langdon St. Ives and the memorable villain Ignacio Narbondo, Lord Kelvin’s Machine, and a forthcoming new novel, The Aylesford Skull.
They also include - tangentially - one of my favourite novels by Blaylock, the wonderful The Digging Leviathan, a love song to childhood and fantasy set in California. It also features Blaylock and Powers’ recurring character, the poet William Ashbless.
Eagle-eyed readers might spot references in the Bookman books to both Ashbless and Narbondo. The importance of Blaylock and Powers to steampunk cannot be underestimated, they are its creators and spiritual godparents, and I would assume anyone calling themselves a steampunk aficionado would have already read these books!
But Blaylock is much more than a steampunk writer. Where Tim Powers writes intensely-researched secret histories with a sense of absolute reality about them, Blaylock is more of a fabulist, a teller of tales: in his books reality often feels like a dream. His Grail Trilogy includes the novels The Last Coin, The Paper Grail and All The Bells On Earth, and there are many more wonderful and strange novels – I’m particularly looking forward to his new YA novel, Zeuglodon, due to be published by Subterranean Press in the US.
Thankfully, many of these novels are now available in e-book format for the very first time! In the UK, several of Blaylock’s novels are now available from Gollancz’s Gateway Project, while in the US they are available in American editions on Amazon.
There is now no excuse to miss out on these novels! Highly recommended.
No sooner did I talk about Nazi steampunk than Ian Sales sent me his story “Wunderwaffe”, which seems to have come out directly from the pages of A Lexicon of Steam Literature of the Third Reich.
Actually, I lie. Ian sent me the story earlier, as it is a precursor (of sorts) to his novella, Adrift on the Sea of Rains, which I recently reviewed. The story was published in an e-book anthology called Vivisepulture, which is apparently Latin for ‘burying alive’. A fate, it must be said, that befalls many more stories than just “Wunderwaffe”.
Anyhow, when I pointed out to Ian that, like the vast majority of people in the world, I don’t have an e-reader, Ian, with remarkable adroity and aplomb, turned “Wunderwaffe” into Wunderwaffe – that is, he created a limited edition chapbook version of the story. I had assumed mine would be one of a kind but I am, in that, sorely disappointed: this is a limited edition of 12 signed and numbered copies, and I believe Ian may be planning to sell the other 11 (for all you collectors out there!).
Wunderwaffe, like Adrift on the Sea of Rains, features the mysterious Bell, a product of occult Nazi science based on a supposedly-real Nazi artefact of unknown purpose discovered at the end of the war.
In Adrift, the Bell acts as a device for moving between alternate realities. In Wunderwaffe, however, it turns out to be a time-travelling device. Gunter Erlichmann, a physicist and devout Nazi, is summoned to Adolf Hitler’s presence. In this world, we find out, the land of Ultima Thule was discovered by Nazi explorer Ernst Schafer, in the North Pole. The Thulans have advanced technology and assist the Nazis in the war. ”Months?” Hitler says, winning over this reader forever. “I need my flying saucers now!”
Hitler sends Erlichmann to check up on secret experiments carried out by a scientist called Rotwang. Erlichmann arrives to discover Rotwang working on the Bell. He sends through a slave, Maria, a woman from the concentration camps, having turned her first into a sort of metal monster. She disappears. Erlichmann follows her through – and finds himself in a futuristic city (not unlike Metropolis), which may have inadvertently been the source of Ultima Thule…
This has the same sense of ironic – and inevitable - denouement as Adrift on the Sea of Rains, and Sales is having a lot of fun with his alternate world Nazis. If you read A Lexicon of Steam Literature of the Third Reich you’ll find many of those elements present – the Black Sun and Ultima Thule being just two of them – but at the same time, like “Lexicon…”, Wunderwaffe is a comment on both pulp and the fetish elements of pulp, rather than a fetishized pulp story in itself. It is ironic, playful, and knowing.
At the same time, Wunderwaffe is less carefully written than Adrift. Where in the novella each sentence is carefully, delicately crafted, and its ending feels both inevitable and rather poignant, Wunderwaffe does feel at times like the self-same pulp stories it parodies. It feels hasty, less weighty than its successor.
At the moment, I am looking forward to the author’s second Apollo Quartet novella. I’d highly recommend getting the first one, and if you get a chance to pick up the limited edition chapbook of Wunderwaffe, I think it makes for a lovely little collector’s item.
Currently reading: Chris Wooding’s The Iron Jackal.
A few days ago, while working on a short story (see below) I made the comment on Twitter that I see Steampunk as “Fascism for nice people”. This was partly borne out from the story below, partly, of course, from the disconnect I feel at what that term, “steampunk” has come to represent in recent years and the worrying (to me) political and ideological implications of it. There are some fine steampunk critics, such as Ay-leen the Peacemaker (Beyond Victoriana) and Jaymee Goh (Silver Goggles) who have written extensively on the subject of empire, race and colonialism within the context of steampunk, and I can only recommend reading what they say.
It is also perhaps worth mentioning that I have written on steampunk for a number of years (see Steampunk in The internet Review of Science Fiction, 2005) or the recently reprinted on the blog Some Notes Towards a Working Definition of Steampunk, dating from around the same time. There is also, of course, my trilogy of steampunk novels, The Bookman, Camera Obscura (Airship Award nominee, Sidewise Award nominee) and The Great Game, and stories in anthologies such as The Mammoth Book of Steampunk (ed. Sean Wallace) or the forthcoming Steampunk Revolution (ed. Anne Vandermeer). Therefore, it would be nice to be extended the courtesy that while people may not like what I have to say they might credit that I know something of the topic under discussion.
I am told my publishers have received many unhappy e-mails since the comment was made. Here are some quotes:
this has (quite rightly) deeply angered and upset a vast majority of the Steampunk community in the UK, Europe and North America. (highlight mine)
I hope, therefore, you can understand why sales of books of his that you publish may diminish, and I am sure you can see the danger of collateral damage in the form of books by other authors you also represent also being hit. I am sure you can understand how yourselves, being his agents, are equally hit by his comments and how if you stand idly by as he pedals his diatribe some may take the view that you support and agree with his stance, which I am prepared to submit that you don’t.
I’m contacting you to inform you that I will no longer be purchasing Mr Tidhar’s work. His recent comments online have been offensive and disrepectful to the SF community as a whole and reached a new low on Friday when he compared steampunk to Fascism. Given what a foul and horrendous ideology that is I do not feel that his comments were in anyway excusable and therefore I will be boycotting his books in the future.
I am contacting you to inform you that I will be avoiding all future publications by both the author and Angry Robot Books.
So, a boycott. I don’t know, doesn’t it sound a bit, you know… like that other thing?
Anyway, in apology to those people who took offence at my thoughtless comments, I would like to say I hold no ill will if you choose not to purchase any of the books. I support your right not to! And moreover, to make amends, I offer a free short story, of sorts. I was saving it for some magazine or other but I may as well post it here. As before, if you liked the story, feel free to press the paypal donate button at the bottom, but do not feel obliged!
A Lexicon of Steam Literature of the Third Reich
By Lavie Tidhar
For the English, the ideal existence was represented in the society of the Victorian age. – Adolf Hitler, in conversation, 22 July 1941
The is a Sampler of material selected from A Lexicon of Steam Literature of the Third Reich, Third Edition. It is not for sale. All Rights Reserved (c) 1979, 1992, 2012 by World Free Media, a subsidiary of Goebbels Publishing GmbH. Available in all Reich Territories, Colonies and Protectorates. Winner of the Schmidt Award.
Steam Power Myths, also abbreviated SPM. Popular genre of German – and, later, American – literature popularised in the immediate post-war period by Joseph GOEBBELS under both his GOEBBELS PUBLISHING and WORLD FREE MEDIA publishing houses (the first for the German nations, the second specialising in translations for the colonies).
Dampfkraftmythen are fantasies of an age of steam, sometimes taking place in a transformed 19th century (for which also see IRON CHANCELLOR, THE) sometimes in the prehistory of the ARYAN race, a GOLDEN AGE sometimes referred to, within the context of SPM if not historical narratives, as the FIRST REICH.
SPM is characterised by the use of steam machines and other fantastical inventions, for narratives of adventure and peril in which the heroes – almost always pure-blooded Aryans – face, and at last prevent, global threats from various monsters or from members of the lower races, often, though not exclusively, JEWS.
It was most popular between 1948 and 1977 and again, briefly, from 1985 to 1991. A resurgence of interest – and a subsequent explosion of the genre – began in the 2000s and is still ongoing.
It is sometimes also referred to as Stahlmythen (Steel Myths) or Maschinenmythen (Machine Myths). However Dampfkraftmythen is the generally accepted term.
See also STEAM CITY. The greatest city of the ARYAN race and capital of the HYPERBOREAN lands in the works of, e.g., Ernst BLAU, Karl JUNKER, Bruno SCHAEFER and others.
Thule first appears in Blau’s now-classic The Swastika Gates (1950) in which a time travelling young hero of the Reich, Hanns von Himmel, finds himself in Hyperborea during the Age of the FIRST REICH, which is threatened by an invasion of JEWS equipped with advanced steam-powered weaponry. Von Himmel, naturally, eventually saves the day. already in that novel many of the recurring elements of SPM can be seen – MAD JEW SCIENTISTS, steam machines, Hyperborea, adventure narratives, improbable science – but, and perhaps most notably, also that sense of a glorious past, a GOLDEN AGE of Aryan supremacy not seen again for thousands of years.
We must remember that those early writers – Blau, Junker et. al. – had only recently come out of a devastating World War in which the forces of the Third Reich only triumphed at great cost. Many of these writers have been soldiers in the war (Junker would later become Hitler’s special envoy to the West African Land Reclamation Programme) and have suffered greatly in many instances. In 1950 Germany was only just recovering from the War, still busy subduing the new colonies (the United Kingdom, Russia) and carrying on a ground war in North America (which only ended decisively in 1954 with the formal surrender of guerrilla leader and last de facto president Richard Nixon). Dampfkraftmythen comes from that sense, that many long years were still to pass before the true dream of the Third Reich could be fulfilled. Until then, fiction would serve.
The Swastika Gates was made into a film by Leni RIEFENSTAHL in 1957. Thule appeared again in Schaefer’s The Hyperborean Trilogy (1963), in Letta BRAUN’s City On The Edge of the World (1968) and widely elsewhere.
MAD JEW SCIENTIST, THE
A stock character of many SPM novels, the Mad Jewish Scientist (also see JEWS) represents the degenerative but cunning mind of the Jewish conspiracy. Often (see also RECURSIVE SPM, FALSE REALITY, HITLER LOST) the scientist is a resurrected Albert Einstein (1879-1954), a Jewish scientist of some notoriety. He expired in the rehabilitation camps established in North America following the American surrender. However as a fictional character he appears often, particularly in the works of Karl JUNKER, where he lives in an impenetrable fortress of ice on ARKTOS, the polar continent, from which he sends his minions to make war against the ARYAN nations of HYPERBOREA.
BLACK SUN, THE
Schwarze Sonne, also referred to as the Sonnenrad, or Sun Wheel. Variously a vast spaceship, a time-travelling device or a doomsday weapon, depending on the writer. Another stock element of SPM, the Black Sun represents the triumph of German science. In The Black Sun (1956) by Letta BRAUN, it is indeed a vast spaceship carrying ARYAN colonists to a nearby star system. Unbeknown to the colonists the ship is secretly infested by JEWS hoping to escape Earth. A steam-based culture is developed on board ship. At last its captain, Schmidt, decides to blow up the ship rather than let the Jew plague infest another planet. The SCHMIDT AWARD is named in his honour.
The Black Sun is a time machine in the classic The Swastika Gates, and a doomsday device in Bruno Schaefer’s mostly-forgotten masterpiece The Führer Machine (1960).
Austrian writer, born 1915. A nurse during the War, she later moved to New Hamburg (formerly New York) in the American colonies, where she lived for the rest of her life. Braun worked across a range of genres but is best known for her SPM work, of which The Black Sun is perhaps the most notable.
THE SCHMIDT AWARD
An annual literary award given every year since 1962 at the DAMPFKRAFTMYTHEN WELTKONVENTION, for an SPM work best representing the ideology of NATIONAL SOCIALISM. Named after the heroic, doomed spaceship commander, Schmidt, in Letta BRAUN’s The Black Sun.
Steam Power Myths World Convention. Annual gathering of SPM enthusiasts from across the Reich who meet each year in a different city to discuss SPM, host a costume competition and award various prizes, the most important of which is the SCHMIDT AWARD.
WORLD FREE MEDIA
Joseph GOEBBELS’s outreach publishing company, this was the most important of the immediate post-war publishers to come out of Germany. Seeking to spread the German tongue, culture and values across the lands now under the rule of the Third Reich, particularly the ANGLOPHONE world, Goebbels set up an ambitious plan of translating, printing and distributing anything from the Führer’s immortal masterpiece, My Struggle (1925, 1926) to such lighter fare as Karl May’s enduringly popular Old Shatterhand Westerns and many important SPM titles translated from the German for the first time.
World Free Media’s American offices established several magazines in the new protectorate, of which INCREDIBLE STORIES had been perhaps the most influential in terms of SPM.
German author, born 1920. Served in the S.S. during the War in charge of an einsatzgruppe, a task force with the purpose of the purification of the races. Wounded in Leningrad, served as a senior member of the Gestapo in Moscow (now Hitlergrad) in the immediate post-War period. He later served in the West African Land Reclamation Programme, purifying that region of the world to make it habitable by the master race (see ARYAN).
Junker began writing early. A memoir of his time in the so called “death squads” was only published after his death. He also published two volumes of poetry. His abiding passion has been SPM, however, in which field he is best known.
He began publishing with short story “The Jew-Box Affair”, in which a soldier fighting the short-lived uprising of the Jewish GHETTO in Warsaw is wounded. When he awakens it is on ARKTOS, a frozen wasteland continent off HYPERBOREA in which the self-same ghetto Jews have found shelter by means of a TRANSDIMENSIONAL GATE. The soldier destroys their hideaway and returns to our world unscathed.
More ambitiously, Junker then began the Arktos Trilogy of novels, comprising Arktos Rising, Return to Arktos and The Fall of Arktos (published 1948; 1949; 1951; collected as The Complete Arktos in 1961). In the series a MAD JEW SCIENTIST, Albert Einstein, creates a JEWLAND on Arktos from which he assails the Aryan Hyperborea. He is defeated, at long last, by MENGELE (for which see separate entry).
Junker had an insightful understanding into the issue of creating racial purity, as well as an abiding interest in science, both of the Aryan (for which see WORLD ICE THEORY; GLACIAL COSMOGONY) and of the degenerate Jewish variety (see also RELATIVITY, THEORY OF). Though not as well known now as he was in the post-War period he remains one of SPM’s deepest and most important practitioners.
IRON CHANCELLOR, THE
Also Otto von BISMARCK, the legendary chancellor of Germany and an important figure in SPM literature. In Blau’s The Iron Chancellor Bismarck raises an army of mighty airships (see also COUNT FERDINAND VON ZEPPELIN) to take on the British Empire, eventually toppling Queen VICTORIA (an otherwise minor figure in SPM) and leading to a Third Reich fifty years earlier than in our own history. In the 1960s American Author Johannes WHITE wrote a series of adventure stories chronicling the adventures of “The Iron Chancellor” – now a gladiator in ancient HYPERBOREA – as he battles various Jewish (see JEWS) conspiracies and eventually rises from his humble position to become the first leader of the FIRST REICH. These were published in INCREDIBLE STORIES to much acclaim: they represent the first significant instance of SPM literature in a foreign language (today, of course, the children of the former “United States” are brought up in German, rather than the decadent English of their defeated parents).
An inferior race. A villainous people often compared with rats (see also Fritz HIPPLER’s documentary film The Eternal Jew (1940)). Popular in SPM literature, in which they sometimes occupy the mythical continent of ARKTOS. Ruled by a secret council, THE ELDERS OF ZION. Control world banking and have secret tunnels dug under the world, through which they scurry on their seditious missions. Now mostly eradicated (see also BLACK RACE, THE).
SPM magazine published from 1958 to around 1976 (published sporadically in the 1980s as a series of anthologies; revived as a magazine in 2005), in English. It mostly died out as the American Rehabilitation Programme began to take effect. Post-1976 incarnations were published in German.
Incredible Stories was edited by Howard W. Campbell Jr. from its inception onwards. It is notable for featuring the works of several American authors of SPM, including Johannes WHITE and Hans WEBER, who created a SPACE-based (for which also see VON BRAUN, Wernher, TRSA (THIRD REICH SPACE AGENCY, THE) etc.) version of SPM featuring his enduringly popular heroine, GLORY GESTALT, and debuting with the serialised novel A Mission of Glory (1964-1965; collected in book form 1970).
One of the most respected and admired of NATIONAL SOCIALIST scientists. Winner of the NOBEL PRIZE for Medicine in 1952, for his experiments on twins, and of the Hitler Medal for Extraordinary Services to the Reich one year previous. Served at Auschwitz (a lower races termination camp) during the War. After the Nobel Mengele retired to the Reich Protectorate of Argentina, where he died of old age.
Mengele is of interest to SPM scholars as an increasingly popular, recurring character in what we might term the SHARED WORLD of SPM. He first appears in a minor role in Karl JUNKER’s Return to Arktos (1949), where he develops a race of telepathic twins who assist the hero in toppling Einstein’s army of suicide GOLEMS. He next pops up as a significant secondary character in Soulless (1972), by COUNTESS MATILDA, a fantasy, where he is the charming yet eccentric companion to the heroine’s light-hearted escapades in a BISMARCKIAN Berlin complete with blood-sucking, vampirical Jews and hideous GYPSY werewolves, which he successfully – by means of a lethal vaccine – helps eliminate.
The anthology Monstrous Science (2002), edited by Koch and Gärtner is of interest. The titular story, by rising SPM star Bernhard VOGEL, in which Mengele faces off against Jew scientist Albert Einstein on the island of Madagascar (see JEWLAND, A) won the SCHMIDT AWARD for short fiction the following year.
A common theme in SPM are plots or sub-plots in which JEWS seek to – or already establish – autonomous nations or JEWLANDS. Sometimes they occur in Palestine, at other times in Madagascar, Uganda or indeed fictional lands such as ARKTOS. They often end with the eventual destruction or complete annihilation of the forbidden Jewland by the ARYAN hero.
An extract from The Hyperborean Trilogy (1963):
. . . ‘Look out!’ shouted Brunhilda. Her long blonde hair whipped in the wind as she clung for dear life to the underside of the mighty airship The Iron Chancellor. Rising ahead was the black airship King David, a dark oppressive presence in the skies. Its mighty guns were aimed at the Iron Chancellor. ‘We will not be defeated by a devolved race!’ cried Brunhilda’s companion, Conrad Bosch, the famed explorer and engineer. ‘Take my hand!’
Gratefully Brunhilda reached for him and his strong, graceful fingers clasped hers securely. ‘Jump!’ called Conrad. Brunhilda closed her eyes and let go. She swung through the air, held by Conrad, and landed in a heap of clothes and perfume in the Iron Chancellor’s lifeboat blimp’s gondola.
‘It could not be easier!’ laughed Conrad. He jumped after her and with the flash of his machete cut the ropes securing the lifeboat to the main hull of the larger ship. Above them the Chancellor was being pummelled with fire from the monstrous Jew ship.
‘But…’ stammered Brunhilda, quite overwhelmed, ‘the ship is on fire!’
And indeed it was so. As they detached from the Iron Chancellor in the blimp they could see the ship tilting to one side as it burned. ‘Damn those filthy Jews!’ cried Conrad. ‘But there are still some tricks up my sleeve!’
‘What will you do?’ cried Brunhilda. Conrad grinned at her disarmingly. She gazed longingly at his perfect Aryan profile as he piloted the blimp away from the Chancellor – and, she realised with horror, on a direct collision course with the Jew ship!
‘Conrad, no!’ cried Brunhilda.
‘I will show those dirty rats the might of the Reich!’ said Conrad, and Brunhilda could only gasp in surprise as Conrad brought forth a curious device, the length of a giant telescope, made of some shining metal unknown to Brunhilda. ‘This is a Krupp III Agitator!’ said Conrad with pride. ‘The most advance and deadliest of Hyperborean war machines ever developed!’ He aimed at the King David, one eye closed in concentration, and pressed the trigger.
. . .
On board the Jew ship the degenerate scientist, Einstein, could only watch in disbelief as the rocket sailed forward. Alone on the deck but for his army of mechanical golems, his mouth opened but no words would come out. ‘What –‘ he managed to say, at last – a moment before the rocket impacted with the airship.
. . .
An enormous ball of flame engulfed the Jew ship, the sound deafening. The shockwave threw the small blimp this way and that, as if on an ocean’s tide, and Brunhilda lost her footing and fell to the floor of the gondola. But strong hands held her and, sobbing in relief and gratitude, she sank her face into Conrad’s strong, comforting, manly chest. ‘There, there,’ he said, his hand stroking her hair gently. ‘It is over.’ She raised her head and looked at him, her blue eyes moist, her lips parted. He was so handsome, she thought. So brave. He smiled, and his blond hair shone in the sun. ‘Oh, Conrad!’ she said. He leaned into her and their lips met as he passionately kissed her.
Brunhilda hoped the moment last forever.
DICK, PHILIP K. (KINDRED)
American author of pulp fiction. His novel The Man in the High Castle (1962) posits a world in which Germany lost the War (see also FALSE REALITY, HITLER LOST). All known copies of the novel have been destroyed. The author perished in a rehabilitation camp shortly after.
A JEW creation, born out of OCCULT PRACTICES and DEGENERATE SCIENCE. A mechanical man.
BLACK RACE, THE
Devolved race, mostly extinct – some are kept (alongside JEWS, GYPSIES, SLAVS, CHINAMEN etc. etc.) in specialised zoos. Perhaps the best way to see them is at the Berlin Zoologischer Garten, where many rare examples of near-extinct lower races can be seen in their native habitat, including such rare specimens as PYGMIES, AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINES and the IRISH.
The Black Race is seldom seen in SPM, with the exception of Blau’s relatively minor work The Dark Continent (1958), set in a prehistoric Afrikaland. A Hyperborean airship carrying a BLACK SUN device travels by means of a TRANSDIMENSIONAL GATE to the black continent, encountering the natives, having many adventures and at last returning to HYPERBOREA, from which an invasion – for purpose of resettlement – of Afrikaland later launches. The book was meant as the first in a trilogy, yet the other two volumes, if written, were never published.
Helene Bertha Amalie ‘Leni’ Riefenstahl, born 1902, was one of the greatest Aryan film directors of her time, and a close personal friend of the Führer himself. 1935’s Triumph of the Will is a masterpiece of German cinema, chronicling the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in which glorious speeches by Adolf Hitler are intersected with scenes of a worshipful assembly.
Of relevance to SPM, however, is Riefenstahl’s so-called Stahlmythen Trilogy (Steel Myths Trilogy) of films, the first of which was a faithful adaptation of Ernst Blau’s classic novel The Swastika Gates (filmed 1957). It was followed by Metal Fist of the Iron Chancellor (1965), based on an original script, in which an Aryan soldier during the War is wounded and remade into half-machine warrior who goes on a mission of REVENGE against a global conspiracy of JEWS masquerading as high-ranking Aryan officers (see also ELDERS OF ZION, THE).
The third and concluding film, Riefenstahl’s Seas of Hyperborea (1977), is considered one of the greatest films ever made, utilizing revolutionary new filming techniques and SPECIAL EFFECTS to truly – and for the first time – bring a grand vision of SPM to the big screen. Filled with magnificent AIRSHIPS and aerial battles, with larger than life monsters (including an entire horde of GOLEMS) and MAD JEW SCIENTISTS (the evil Einstein as Scientist-Emperor of ARKTOS complete with clones of himself), it also includes TIME TRAVEL and a magnificent re-creation of the BLACK SUN plot device as a DOOMSDAY WEAPON. Seas of Hyperborea combines all the classic elements of SPM to create something which is, in spirit, closest perhaps to Rifenstahl’s much earlier Triumph des Willens, showing us not only the essential nobleness of the Aryan race but, most importantly, the historic inevitability of its eventual triumph.
A world in which things turned out differently than in our own. See also FALSE REALITY, Philip K. DICK, HITLER LOST, STEAMPUNK.
Hitler quote taken from Hitler’s Table Talk: 1941-1944, ed. by Hugh Trevor-Roper
Some Notes Towards a Working Definition of Steampunk
By Lavie Tidhar
“I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term…”
- K.W. Jeter, 1987
This piece is, obviously, old. I initially wrote it for an academic steampunk conference that didn’t take place – it was ahead of its time, it seemed. It was finally published in much shorter form in the Internet Review of Science Fiction, in 2005, and then in print in Apex Digest, issue 6 (2006). The field of steampunk has not only expanded and changed almost beyond recognition since then, it has mutated into new forms which owe, I feel, little to their progenitors. My own steampunk trilogy, The Bookman Histories, seems to me indebted to these earlier forms, and thus perhaps somewhat out of place in this new world. Nevertheless – on re-reading this article recently I felt it still offers some valid, and some interesting, arguments, and may therefore be of possible interest to the contemporary reader. I offer it here with the caveat that this was written almost a decade ago, with all that that entails. Still, I hope you may find it of interest.
Steampunk as a generic term seems to have originated initially in Jeter’s letter to Locus Magazine in April 1987, a tongue-in-cheek euphemism for the kind of “gonzo-historical” narratives written by the “Powers/Blaylock/Jeter fantasy triumvirate”. (Jeter qtd. in Berlyne) The term itself is partly an ironic nod to the Cyberpunk movement of the 80s, and indeed seems a suitable choice, exhibiting the inherent tendency of steampunk narratives towards a playful, ironic, sometimes (notably in the works of James Blaylock) whimsical bend.
Initially, however, the term evolved to describe a group of novels written by three California-based writers and friends, the aforementioned Tim Powers, James P. Blaylock and K.W. Jeter. In the 1992 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Peter Nicholls reasonably argues that “in essence Steampunk is a US phenomenon,” (1161) and while it could be argued this is no longer the case, it is certainly an important distinction to make when discussing what I would term “core” Steampunk. Nicholls defines Steampunk as “[a] modern sub-genre whose SF events take place against a 19th-century background”: a usefully-broad definition which – when taken on its own – fails to satisfy either the apparent requirement for the presence of the city of London (or rather, Victorian London) as almost a character in its own right, and – more importantly – the generic instability of what in his letter Jeter significantly called “Victorian fantasies.” Nicholls does go on to say that “it is as if, for a handful of SF writers, Victorian London has come to stand for one of those turning points in history where things can go one way or the other, a turning point peculiarly relevant to SF itself.” It could indeed be argued that, while not all Steampunk or Steampunk-influenced novels are set in Victorian London, the city, to a large extent, dominates these narratives: “a city,” Nicholls observes, where “the modern world was being born.” Modernity – together with post-modernity – are important aspects of the sub-genre, and deserve a thorough examination. First, however, I must point out a significant point of contention which, I would argue, also provides much of the narrative tension within Steampunk: that it is to a large extent a cross-genre phenomenon, that is, stories which discard the somewhat superficial distinction between “science fiction”, “fantasy” and “horror” (not to mention crime, historical fiction or romance) creating what are in effect rationalised fantasies. As China Miéville (whose work I shall be discussing at more detail further on) argues, “if the predicates for a fantasy are clearly never-possible but are treated systematically and coherently within the fantastic work, then its cognition effect is precisely that normally associated with SF.” (Editorial Introduction, 45) Or, in simpler form: “two untrue things are commonly claimed about fantasy [and] the first is that fantasy and science fiction are fundamentally different genres.” (Debate) In his article “Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices”, Steffen Hantke insists on the association of Steampunk with science fiction, providing yet another “working definition” of the sub-genre:
“Steampunk constitutes a special case among alternative histories, a science fiction subgenre that postulates a fictional event of vast consequences in the past and extrapolates from this event a fictional though historically contingent present or future.” (246)
What I find particularly suggestive about Hantke’s article is indeed such a choice of works as to make his definition inclusive. Thus, he avoids the confusion of discussing Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates (1983) (where ancient Egyptian magic, time travel and a homunculus all feature) or James Blaylock’s Homunculus (1986) (zombies, perpetual motion, and a skeleton appearing to pilot a blimp) in favour of, to a large extent, a discussion of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine (1990). I will discuss The Difference Engine at more length later, but suffice it to say that not only is it outside the scope of what I term ‘core’ Steampunk, its use of Cyberpunk motifs and ‘straight’ alternative-history narrative posits it to some extent outside the active (and expanding) sphere of Steampunk, in which it is the blurred boundary between magic and technology, technology and magic which provides the germane attraction. Nor is it always correct to describe Steampunk narratives as alternative histories. It is best, perhaps, to describe Powers’ work, for example, as a series of secret histories, in which historiography’s integrity remains intact but in which the “blind spots” of history are painted in somewhat phantasmagoric colours. As Powers notes,
“The whole point is not ever to contradict actual history. Add to it, sure; provide an unsuspected background, show the secret real story, but never give the reader the opportunity to say, ‘That’s not who was there, or where it happened, or when.’” (Locus Interview Excerpt)
What I would like to concentrate upon, however, is what I conceive to be the underlying theme of all Steampunk and Steampunk-derived narratives, which can be summed up in the oft-quoted Clarke’s Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Hantke argues that “Steampunk focuses on technology as the crucial factor in its understanding and portrayal of Victorianism.” (247) I would argue, however, that rather than explore Victorianism, the underlying theme of all fiction within the Steampunk sphere resorts to that moment whereby technology transcends understanding and becomes, for all intents and purposes, magical. I would further argue that Victorian London represents the moment in history where that transformation happens. Not only is there an explosion of scientific and technical study, but for the first time the products of that Industrial Revolution become commodities, mass produced and thus escaping from the domain of the solitary inventor and into the public domain. This perhaps suggests why so many of the characters in Steampunk novels correspond to the “solitary scientist” archetype: Dr. Ignacio Narbondo in Blaylock’s Homunculus and Lord Kelvin’s Machine (1992); Cosmo Cowperthwait in Paul Di Filippo’s Victoria (in The Steampunk Trilogy, 1995); and, indeed, Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin in China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000). The scientist of late 19th-century London is on the cusp between the Renaissance Man and the Corporation Man – a transformation perhaps best exemplified by Thomas Alva Edison (who lent his name to a sub-genre of his own – the Edisonade – as well as featuring in Powers’ novel Expiration Date (1995)). Those lone-scientist Steampunk characters share more than a silly name, for they are – to begin with at least – in control, being the modern magicians who can operate the spells of machinery. Yet what steampunk narratives repeat again and again is the inevitability of the loss of control, as technology evolves beyond the confines of one person, assuming a mythical force that – echoing theschool ofTechnological Darwinism – shapes and controls narrative causality. Narbondo must be thwarted from his plans of world domination; Cowperthwait, in trying to build the first atomic-powered train engine, kills both his parents (“When they managed to regain their feet, they saw the remnants of a mushroom-shaped cloud towering high up into the sky.” (Di Filippo, 21)) and Grimnebulin, by attempting the ancient hubris of teaching a man to fly, unleashes a Lovecraftian horror upon the city ofBas-Lag (a city which, to all intents and purposes, can be safely read as a metamorphosedLondon). It is not perhaps surprising to learn that Charles Babbage, the eccentric, mainly-forgotten inventor of the Difference and the Analytical Engine (the latter a forerunner of the modern computer) has become something of an icon to the genre.
On the one hand, technology in Steampunk has become magical; on the other, what magic there is has become highly scientific, so that reader expectations for genre stability are confounded. This could be partially traced to J.G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), in which “the principles of magic” are classified in a taxonomy of magical laws. “If we analyse the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves [so that, for example] an effect resembles its cause.” (11) Thus, Thaumaturgy operates as a distinct science on Bas-Lag (In China Mieville’s trilogy of novels) while practitioners of magic in Powers’ The Anubis Gates and On Strager Tides (1987) must not touch the bare ground, dirt acting literally as an earthing device for magic. But the true strength of Steampunk is the way in which the two co-exist: where technology becomes magical, magic becomes rigorously scientific. The resulting tension is at the core of Steampunk.
I would suggest thinking of Steampunk as a set of nestled spheres. The first, ‘core’ Steampunk, encompasses those few works written by Powers, Blaylock and Jeter – the seed, if you will, of the genre. Expanding from that one can trace a secondary sphere of novels in this new tradition: Gibson and Sterling’s Difference Engine and Di Filippo’s Steampunk Trilogy fit the bill. Thirdly, I would suggest a sphere of associated novels, more in the tradition of Victorian pastiche than of the post-modernist sensibilities of Steampunk proper. Here one may lump together Stephen Baxter’s Anti-Ice (1993) and The Time Ships (1995), for example, together with works of so-called ‘proto-Steampunk’ such as Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine (1976) or Michael Moorcock’s The Warlock of the Air (1971). Of course, such a taxonomy is not necessarily useful, but I endeavour to construct this expansionist image of the genre for one particular reason, which arises from the fourth ‘sphere of expansion’: the New Steampunks, which to a large part moved across theAtlantic and belong firmly in a new British setting.
Why study Steampunk? I would suggest that part of the answer resides in the monumental response – both in genre circle and, more importantly, in the marketplace – to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, which was published in 2000 and won the Arthur C. Clarke Award as well as a British Fantasy Award, and has been nominated for every other major award in the field. Miéville, I would suggest, has achieved something by his use of Steampunk tropes that has prompted a corresponding note from the reading public. Other works that have been described as Steampunk since have included Chris Wooding’s Smarties Award-winning novel The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray, Philip Reeve’s Smarties Award-Winning novel Mortal Engines and its sequels and Robin Jarvis’ Deathscent. It appears to me as if, in the time since the publication of the ‘core’ novels, (approx. 1979-1986) notions and ideas of Steampunk have silently taken root and finally – to extend the metaphor – flowered, transporting across the Atlantic in the process. Nor has the flowering of Steampunk been restricted to novels: the field can now boast a significant number of comics and graphic novels, role-playing games (RPGs), art and even film and television representations. Indeed, a contemporary review in a mainstream American newspaper of the Disney film Treasure Planet (2002) as Steampunk, suggesting both its mass appeal and the way in which the word coined by Jeter made its way into the public consciousness.
Perhaps one of the most interesting forms Steampunk has taken recently is in visual art, mainly in the works of several commercial illustrators. It could be argued that if the symbol of science fiction is the rocket, the symbol of Steampunk is the airship. It is there in Edward Miller’s (an alias of UK artist Les Edwards) cover illustrations for Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council (2004), in David Frankland’s cover of Mortal Engines and, naturally enough, in Mark A. Nelson’s cover for Joe R. Lansdale’s Zeppelins West (2001). Indeed, some of the art – in particular Miller’s work – has become so distinctive that his covers are commissioned for new books that fit into the Steampunk mould in order to create a visual identity in the consumer’s mind as, for example, Ian R. MacLeod’s The Light Ages (2003), the Peter Crowther-edited anthology Cities (2003) and others. I believe that the study of Steampunk-influenced artwork deserves some space in which to expand, and certainly that it is proving to be virgin soil so far.
Another interesting aspect is the growing popularity of Role Playing Games that make use of Steampunk tropes – so much so that the most recent one is simply titled GURPS Steampunk. Other notable game environments include Space: 1889, Castle Falkenstein and Forgotten Futures, again offering a fertile field for study. Comics and graphic novels again offer a tantalising glimpse at how Steampunk themes have began to inch their way into every form of medium. These include Joe Kelly and Chris Bachalo’s Steampunk Comics, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and even a host of Japanese manga comics. It is interesting to see how Steampunk evolves in these different mediums, as indeed it does in its new fictional incarnation: it abandons Victorian England for the Wild West, Tokyo, “Steam City”, Bas-Lag or even outer space – but, to my mind, all these diverse elements are still bound up in, firstly, the technology/magic dichotomy and, secondly, in their use of (more often playful) post-modernist tropes, many assuming a whimsical, ironical approach to history that is one of the hallmarks of Steampunk. I believe a discussion of the relationship of post-modernism to Steampunk is another worthwhile subject, as that ability to pick and discard figures of history (and figures of literary history) and subtly play with the rigidity of “period” is an important part of the genre. While the literary pastiche has a long and respectable tradition – which verges on Steampunk most often in the large body of work of Sherlockian and Jack the Ripper pastiches – that in itself is not a sufficient criteria, just as a ‘rationalised fantasy’, in itself, does not constitute Steampunk. Where the two meet most successfully is perhaps in Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series, in particular in the first two books, Anno Dracula (1992) and The Bloody Red Baron (1996), which take place in Victorian London and in World War I respectively. Newman’s masterly touch turns what is in essence an outrageous pastiche – incorporating nearly every real and imaginary character from the respective period – into what is more often than not a thoughtful, serious work of literature which is very relevant for the purposes of this paper. Later volumes – Dracula Cha Cha Cha (1998 Us as Judgement of Tears) and the collection of individually published novellas such as Andy Warhol’s Dracula (1999) – move in time beyond their Steampunk origins into the late 20th-century. They represent, however, one of the most consistent alternative-history narratives in the field, one in which generic tension is always present.
Finally, space needs to be reserved for the study of such films and television programs that have been described as Steampunk. Nicholls suggests that Steampunk was “a vision that also entered the cinema, especially through David Lynch, first in Eraserhead (1976), and then in The Elephant Man (1980) [...] another, rather frivolous Steampunk movie is Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear”, while in television, Nicholls notes that “Steampunk was anticipated several times in the UK TV series Dr. Who, notably in The Talons of Weng Chiang (1977).” There was also the US television series The Wild, Wild West and a subsequent 1999 film by the same name. I have already mentioned Treasure Planet, while it could also be argued some episodes of The Time Tunnel (1966-1967 US), such as Raiders from Outer Space and others, qualify.
Steampunk, for all of its minute beginnings, seems to have quietly infiltrated the public consciousness. It is worth studying.
Berlyne, John. “Tim Powers – Published Interviews and Related Articles.” The Works of Tim Powers.02 Nov. 2004.03 Jun. 2003. <http://www.theworksoftimpowers.com/powers/related.htm>.
Di Filippo, Paul. The Steampunk Trilogy.New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995.
Frazer, J.G. The Golden Bough: A study in Magic and Religion.London: Papermac 1987.
Hantke, Steffen. “Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk.” Extrapolations 40.3 (1999): 244-254.
Miéville, China. “Editorial Introduction.” Historical Materialism 10.4 (2003): 39-49.
- – -. “Debate.” Pan Macmillan 2002.03 Jun. 2004. <http://www.panmacmillan.com/Features/China/debate.htm>.
Nicholls, Peter. “Steampunk”. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls.London: Orbit 1999. 1161.
Powers, Tim. “Tim Powers Interview Excerpts.” Feb. 2002. Locus Online.03 Jun. 2004. <http://www.locusmag.com/2002/Issue02/Powers.html>.
 First stated in “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination”. Profiles of the Future. 1962
I just booked to go to Olympus, the 2012 Eastercon at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel in Heathrow. In fairness, I think it’s the last convention I go to for a while. It takes place 6th-9th of April, over the Easter weekend.
On the Wednesday before the convention – April 4th – I will be at the book launch for anthology Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke (containing my story “A Brief History of the Great Pubs of London”), at the Betsey Trotwood pub (56 Farringdon Road, EC1), 6:30pm. Click here for details and RSVPs.
My Eastercon schedule:
- Saturday, 11am (is that even an hour?) – Room 38 (Edwardian) – panel on Non-Anglophone SF.
What is the SF scene like outside English-speaking countries? Do they have their own thriving scene, or is it dominated by Anglophone SF from outside? Why does non-anglophone SF have such a small weight in the UK and US markets – is it down to the difficulty and cost of translations, or is there some other reason for this? Are the problems unique to SF, or present in all genres? And what can we do to change it?
- Saturday, 5pm – room 12 (Tethworth) – panel on The war on terror (How ten years of conflict has shaped SF).
How has the ongoing War on Terror affected the past decade of SF? How have different works reacted to both the war itself, and the surrounding anti-terror laws?
- Sunday, 6pm – Commonwealth room – the BSFA Award ceremony
- Sunday, 9pm (9pm?? On a Sunday??) – Room 12 (Tetworth) – panel on Multicultural Steampunk.
The stereotype of steampunk is the colonialist Victorian adventure full of gears and goggles, but modern steampunk goes beyond this to addresss issues of race and class. What steampunk works deal with other cultures and other times? How do they address colonialism and other socio-political issues that arise from steampunk works? Can you write the stereotype but subvert it from within?
I chatted to Patrick Hester recently for the SF Signal podcast, which is now online. We talk about steampunk, cover art, Going to the Moon, The Apex Book of World SF and lots of other stuff. Warning: quite a lot of bitching about steampunk follows!
And, for no particular reason, a picture – it’s funny because it’s true!
Photo’s from a pad thai place in Vientiane’s Talat Sao, or Morning Market
And the very nice (ok, lovely!) people of Pornokitsch have announced their new anthology, Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke - released in an e-book edition and a hardcover edition limited to just 100 copies (of which over half, I’m told, are already gone!)
The anthology will contain my “Brief History of the Great Pubs of London”, of which the entry below may serve as a sample.
The Crypt, St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields
Not a pub in the traditional sense but we like it, having spent at least one boozy occasion there. Also they serve a mean apple crumble with custard. An 18th century crypt below the church of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, it has high stone arcs and a hushed but convivial atmosphere. Rumours that this is where Count Dracula made his abode upon arrival in England on board the Demeter are probably false, though it is worth noting many of the staff are notoriously pale. Vampire aficionados do make pilgrimage to the otherwise quiet cafe, and the use of flash lights, like the carrying of wooden stakes, is discouraged.
My latest short story, The Stoker Memorandum, is now up at Daily Science Fiction – it is set in the world of The Great Game and, in fact, partly drawn from the novel – a taster, if you will!
Warning: may contain Steampunk!
Abraham Stoker’s Journal
— From the archives of the Bureau of Secret Intelligence, Pall Mall, London, Classified Ultra, for Head of Bureau Eyes Only —
I had finally arrived at this city, with darkness gathering, casting upon the city a most unfavourable appearance. Having checked into my hotel I drank a glass of strong Romanian wine, accompanied by bear steak, which I am told they bring from the mountains at great expense. I had not enquired as for the recipe.
I am sitting in my room, watching the dance of gas light over the city. tomorrow I set off for the mountains, and as I write this I am filled with trepidation. I have decided to maintain this record of my mission. In the event anything were to happen to me, this journal may yet make its way, somehow, back to London.
Let me, therefore, record how I came to be at this barbarous and remote country, and the sorry tortuous route by which I came to my current predicament.
My name is Abraham Stoker, called Abe by some, Bram by others. I am a theatrical manager, having worked for the great actor Henry Irving for many years as his personal assistant, and, on his behalf, as manager of the Lyceum Theatre in Covent Garden.
I am not a bad man, nor am I a traitor.
Nevertheless, it was in the summer of 18—that I became an unwitting assistant to a grand conspiracy against our lizardine masters, and one which I was helpless to prevent.
It had began as a great triumph for my theatrical career. Due to a fight between the great librettist W.S. Gilbert and his long-time manager, Richard D’Oyly Carte, over – of all things – a carpet, I had managed to lure Gilbert and his collaborator, the composer Arthur Sullivan, to my own theatre from D’Oyly Carte’s Savoy. We were to stage their latest work, titled The Pirates of the Carib Sea, a rousing tale of adventure and peril. The first part, and forgive me if I digress, describes our lizardine masters’ awakening on Caliban’s Island, their journey with that foul explorer Amerigo Vespucci back to the British isle, their overthrowing of our human rulers and their assumption of the throne – a historical tale set to song in the manner only G&S could possibly do it.
In the second part, we encounter the mythical pirate Wyvern, the one-eyed royal lizard who – if the stories in the London Illustrated News can be believed – had abandoned his responsibilities to his race, the royal Les Lezards, to assume the life of a blood-thirsty pirate operating in the Carib Sea, between Vespuccia and the lands of the Mexica and Aztecs, and preying on the very trade ships of his own Everlasting Empire, under her royal highness Queen Victoria, the lizard-queen.
Irving himself played – with great success, I might add! – the notorious pirate, assuming a lizard costume of some magnificence, while young Beerbohm Tree played his boatswain, Mr. Spoons, the bald, scarred, enormous human who is – so they say – Wyvern’s right-hand-man.
It was at that time that a man came to see me in my office. He was a foreigner, and did not look wealthy or, indeed, distinguished.
‘My name,’ he told me, ‘is Karl May.’ – continue reading!