Steampunk: Science Fiction or Fantasy?

I promise to get back to the Utopia posts, but I’m in the middle of Nanowrimo now, so here’s something I was working on before I started: A discussion of the nature of steampunk.

It’s often referred to as a genre, an aesthetic, a subculture, a way of life, even. Sometimes it’s only a minor element in a bigger sense of setting in a work of fiction, sometimes it’s the entire point. Some call it science fiction, some call it fantasy.

The obvious: Steampunk is characterized by Victorian or Edwardian aesthetics, or later periods, if you’re getting into Dieselpunk. And there’s the Steam powered gadgetry (or, again, diesel powered, if you’re going Dieselpunk). And finally, unless you’re going Gaslight romance instead of full-fledged Steampunk, there’s the “punk” part – the social commentary.

So, is it science fiction or fantasy? First, then, what’s the defining difference between science fiction and fantasy? The best definition I’ve found is the one given by Robert J. Sawyer: On the difference between Science fiction and fantasy.

So, Science fiction is a possible present or future, where fantasy is a world that never was and never could be. So where does that put Steampunk? It often has “technology” in it, that from where we stand today, we know is impossible and ridiculous, even. Often to bridge the gap of suspension of belief, the author must resort to stating it runs on some form of magic. But just as often, the Steampunk element will be something that, to the people of Victorian or Edwardian times, might have been possible. Like using a zeppelin to fly to the moon. Or even better, a chair with fireworks strapped onto it. (That last one’s an example from a much earlier period than Victorian times, but I had to include it because it’s awesome.)

So people will argue, well, when H. G. Wells was writing, they believed these things were possible. Time machines, making animals sentient, turning people invisible, traveling to the center of the earth and finding live dinosaurs down there, submarines that could carry people deep under the sea (oh, wait, that one turned out to be possible). So if what H. G. Wells wrote was science fiction, then is Steampunk science fiction?

Lets put it in perspective. Look at all the tons of medieval fantasy there is out there. Look at medieval times – what did they believe was possible back then? Well, they believed in mermaids and unicorns, and dragons, and wizards, and magic.  And when people write medieval fantasy now, no one asks whether it’s fantasy or science fiction. Granted, no one asked whether it was science fiction or fantasy in medieval times either – but that was only because they hadn’t invented genres yet. For that matter, when H. G. Wells and Jules Verne were writing, it was still being called “Scientific Romance.”

So if we look at it being not the subject matter or setting that defines science fiction, but the perspective of the author, then Steampunk, even when it contains nothing that the author calls magic, is fantasy. Since science fiction looks forward, to what the author believed was possible at the time he/she wrote the work, and fantasy looks backward, at bygone eras, and imagines what fun it would be if the dreams of the past were not shattered by the reality of present knowledge.

This is why you find Steampunk on the fantasy bookshelves, not the science fiction ones.  The point of genre, after all, is to categorize books into if-you-liked-that-then-you-might-like-this, in order to make it easier for readers to find things they’re likely to enjoy.

P.S. – Halfway through nano – a little behind, but catching up. Wish me luck.

Lamenting the Death of Print or Why I Don’t Have an E-book Reader

There’s been a lot of talk about the death of print and the rise of electronic books. Many say that authors need to get with the times and go electronic, and then others say they like the feel of a book in their hands, and will never buy an e-book reader, and the people like them will keep print alive, if only on a smaller scale.

I keep saying I’d love to have an e-book reader, because it would make buying books easier, and if I got the sony one, I could do copyedits on my fiction on it. Someday when the credit card is paid off, I’ll get one.

Then I read this post, from Seanan Mcguire: http://seanan-mcguire.livejournal.com/390067.html

And there it is. That’s why I don’t have an e-book reader. I can’t bloody well afford one.

The library was my place, right from an early age. My dad took me regularly – it must have been every two weeks, because that’s how long you were allowed to keep a book back then. I went through books like nobody’s business, right from the time I learned to read, which was pretty young – my dad read to my brother and I regularly, and he would point at each word as he read it, so that I started to pick up patterns pretty fast. I would read anything I could get my hands on. When I’d read all the children’s books in the house, he must have started taking me to the library when he saw me reading the backs of cereal boxes for the lack of anything to read on the table.

When I graduated from picture books to chapter books, it was to Thornton Burgess, and his books about forest animals. When I got to longer books, it was because I was in love with horses (what teenage girl isn’t? (well, except for my mother…)) and got into the Black Stallion series, and Marguerite Henry and her Chincoteague ponies. I read every book in the library that had a horse or a unicorn on the front.

When I got into science fiction, that was how it happened to. It was “A Swiftly Tilting Planet” by Madeleine L’engle, and I went back to read the first books in the trilogy first, because I’m neurotic that way. But it had a unicorn on the front, with bonus wings, and I had to read it.

So then I started cleaning out the library of their science fiction and fantasy, eventually moving over to the adult section. This would have been thousands of dollars worth of books, easily. I would go through one a week at least. Lets see, one book a week, for a year, at, say 10$ a book, we’ll be conservative, even though a lot of those we probably 30$ hardcovers, would be around 500$ a year. And I’m not even counting the non-fiction I took out. Which tends to be more expensive. I educated myself on all kinds of things, just browsing the racks to find interesting things.

It’s like a bookstore! Only free!

We do need libraries, and our libraries need funding. As the gap between the poor and the wealthy widens, opportunities disappear. Libraries have always been a haven for enlightenment, and when public schools are losing funding, and teachers are overwhelmed with class sizes, students with the desire should always have the option to initiate their own learning opportunities.

(as the concepts of intellectual property and information ownership and the rights of the poor to access them creep into the setting of my next novel….)

Banned Books Week

So banned books week is coming up, and I always go to read the list of most frequently challenged books thinking I probably haven’t read any of them, because I don’t do a lot of reading gay literature, but then I remember, oh yeah, Harry Potter is on there, and a whole ton of other books that no one who isn’t dumb can really understand why they’re on that list.

“Of Mice and Men” anyone? Yeah, that one was on the list one year. It doesn’t even have racial or homosexual angles. It’s just a sad story. On the list for being in the top ten most frequently challenged books – for being a sad story.

Oh well. At least they haven’t been very successful with suppressing this stuff. I think a book making the banned list would only give the author extra publicity and make their sales skyrocket. When I am one day published, I would live to have my book banned. It would inevitably be for content that I was unabashedly proud of.

The Zeitgeist – Writing in the Spirit of the Times

This is something of a followup to this post and this post. Robert J. Sawyer touched on this on his “Idea is King” lecture as well. It’s about finding an idea that will hit a nerve with your audience.

Think about what concepts are big right now. The current issues and events rocking our world today. A work that makes statements on that is the sort of work that will get people talking, and right from the time of Jonathan Swift and H. G. Wells, science fiction and fantasy have been a platform for making a statement.

I find as I’ve matured, the ideas that come to me are the sort of ideas that are in the Zeitgeist. Obviously I can’t feel strongly about every concept being debated right now, but the bigger ones that I feel most strongly about, I write about.

My last major project, The Box, was about religious tolerance and faith, and the conflict between science and religion, approaching it from the speculative standpoint of “what would a society look like if science was the dominant religion?” From that, the idea was born of a country where an underground group of rebels dedicated to science had overthrown the reigning theocracy, and captured God in a contraption they’d built, and ultimately turn out to be no better ruler’s than the theocracy had been.

My current project, The Eyelet Dove, originally was about a country occupied by a conquering country and revolting against the occupying country. I slowly got frustrated with it, there was something wrong, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then finally I realized that the reason I didn’t like it, was because I didn’t want to write about an occupation – what was on my mind was the conflicts in the world today between the corporate aristocracy and the working class people. That’s what I feel passionately about right now, and when I realized that, the story turned into a people’s revolution, overturning an oppressive and indulgent monarchy and upper class.

And with the way the world is going right now, that’s totally on the front page of the Zeitgeist newspaper.

And now I have NaNoWriMo coming up, which I do every year, and have finally decided on which of many ideas bouncing around in my head that I’m going to do. It’s going to be science fiction this time, possibly classifiable as cyberpunk, with AI’s being a major theme, but then I read this article on debt and my worldbuilding elements began to fall into place. Many futuristic science fiction novels themes center around an extrapolation of how the world will be in X number of years, if things keep going the way they are.

This one’s going to look at debt, and how the current economic situation has turned the lower class into little more than a slave class, with no upward mobility and no power. So that will be the world my main character is trapped in, only with spaceships and asteroid mines, where there is no government anymore – the government has been bought out by the Corporations, and their employees are their citizens, and if they have any debt, they’re their slaves. Only they won’t use that word – that’s an ugly word. There will be internment camp for the bankrupt, and defaulters will be hunted like escaped slaves. The companies won’t pay employees in cash, but in credit that can only be used for buying company goods, so that their employees can survive, but can never get out of debt. And there will be an attack on one of the companies, attempting to delete all of their financial records, so as to free their employees from debt, by a legendary hacker. It will be fun.

Write something that matters

First, read this; it’s relevant and also entertaining:

http://hollylisle.com/index.php/Workshops/how-to-write-suckitudinous-fiction.html

I have read one book of holly lisle’s and I did very much enjoy it. It was Minerva Wakes, about a woman who gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity when her husband bought their wedding rings; the guy at the ren fair or wherever he bought them mistook him for one of the “weavers” who are the arch enemies of the unweaver – basically force of creation, vs force of destruction, good old fashioned good and evil. So, having these rings, they are supposed to take up the fight against the unweaver and their love and powers of creativity, as I remember, is what’s supposed to help them do it. Or something to that effect. It was a long time ago – but that only goes to show how much of an impact on me that I remember it. Them loving one another was important. Catch is, when the story begins, their marraige is in shambles and she’s considering divorce when they find out what these rings mean. So she gets dumped into a fantasy world where she has to get in touch with her dreams again in order to awaken the weaver powers she’s been oblivious to. And of course there’s the happily ever after in the end, but it was cute, and I liked it.

Anyway, that’s only partly relevant. The relevant part is that it had a purpose and a theme and likable characters with flaws and dreams and goals and things they cared about dearly that drove them, and the story.

Some people, particularly in writing circles, don’t like stories to have an obvious message, because they don’t like being preached at. I never like those sorts of stories. Experimental stories that dance around the fact that it doesn’t give me any compelling reason to read on. Drives me friggin nuts, I’m like ok, why did I read that? What’s the point of a story if it doesn’t have a point? Why write it at all, if there’s no reason to write it?

They say, for entertainment. They just want a story to entertain them and nothing else is allowed to creep into it. These people have never given me a more compelling argument than “I don’t like it.” And yet, these people defend their position vehemently, like a rabid atheist, trying to push others to adopt their position, and warning other authors that if they writing something that expresses their opinion, especially if it’s a political opinion, well, be careful, because there’s no market for that stuff.

Which is just not true, I don’t know what kind of crack they’re on, and they never have any statistics to back them up, unlike arguments to the contrary.

I wondered where this attitude comes from. But then I look around at the world, and at my generation, I think, no wonder they’re writing this blather. My generation is a generation that’s jaded by helplessness. Even if we vote, we’re outnumbered by the earlier generations who have vastly different values and ideals, so that our votes don’t matter. We feel that the old guard hasn’t given up the keys to our world and we can’t make the changes we see need to be made. Because there aren’t enough of us, and it’s too big a fight, too much work, and the guy beside us isn’t going to take up that banner alongside and fight beside us for what they believe in and what they want.

I’m not even going to get into all the things we see wrong with the world; that’s not the point of this particular outburst. The point is that we’ve lost hope.

It’s what they want us to believe. They’ve always wanted us to believe that things are the way they are and there’s nothing you can do to change them. Politicians promise it, but they don’t come through. The people in power don’t want change, and they’ve convinced us that there’s nothing we can do.

The complacence is deadly. We give up on our dreams, take jobs that don’t matter to us, and when we feel unfulfilled, we say, well, that’s life, you have to accept it. And when we can’t accept it any more, we put guns to our heads, because we have no hope for anything better.

I may still be relatively young, but I’ve been through a fair bit, and even been close to losing all hope. But I’ve come back from it. Most recently, my last job was really getting rough and it wasn’t allowing me enough time that I was coherent enough to work, to work on my writing, which is my dream. It took a while but I realized that job was outright stopping me from following my dream.

I don’t generally act rashly in those situations, so I didn’t quit right that moment, but I started looking for a new job pretty quick, and awesome friends came through for me in helping me find one. Things are way better now. Because I did something.

I could have survived on that old job. I could live in this ghetto apartment indefinitely and raise kids in here that I didn’t have time to see, and never write another novel. Hypothetically, I mean. I’d actually just do what I did because I couldn’t bear giving up progress or at least the hope of progress.

Right around that time, my favourite band released their new album, with a song that hit home just then:

Letters From A Little Boy To Himself As An Adult
Lyrics by Captain Robert

”Robert as boy:”
Dear Mr. Brown,
One day I’ll be you and
Although I’m only eight now,
You need to hear my rules
Never stop playing
Never stop dreaming and
And be careful not to
Turn into what I’d hate

”Robert as adult:”
Dear little boy,
I’m doing my best up here but
It’s a thankless job and
Nobody feels the same
You work long hours
Watch your credit rating
Pay your taxes and
Prepare to die

”Jody Ellen:”
I have tried to keep my soul
I lost the fight to keep a hold
Now I am not awake
Now I’m not awake

”Robert as boy:”
Hey Mr. Brown,
That can’t be what life is like!
I’ve watched some movies,
And I’ve, I’ve read some books
Life should be exciting
And sometimes scary but
What you’re describing doesn’t
Seem worth the time

”Robert as adult:”
Hey little boy,
I think you are always right
I’ve dropped that worthless life and
I’m moving on
Life should be adventure
I’m stealing back my soul
I’ve lost too many years now
I’m awake

”Robert and Jody Ellen:”
You were right
I nearly lost my soul
I will fight to steal back my soul
Now I am awake
Now I’m awake

This became Etienne’s song, and all my feelings about my life then came out in the novel I was writing for national novel writing month. Etienne is a man who led a small uprising against the oppressive monarchy that was put down brutally. He lost friends, spent time in jail and when he got out, he no longer believed it was possible to change the way things were. Eventually someone convinces him to try again, and he dares to hope again.

Then there’s Claire who dreams of flying a fighter aeroplane, and since it’s a man’s world, she has to fight society’s rules tooth and nail to follow her dream. But she does, right to the end. She never gives up on it.

And there’s the admiral; he doesn’t like the way things are, but he accepts it, and doesn’t believe that change is possible, so he tries to make the best of the way things are.

And finally there’s Maddie, the little girl, who is too young to know she shouldn’t hope for better, and inspires it in others too.

I want my writing, and my characters to inspire people. I think people want to believe and to hope, they’re just inundated with apathy, and there needs to be more hope in the world. I want to put more hope in the world, and this is how I’ll do it.

Book Review: Havemercy, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennet

Debut novel of Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennet, and like Peter S. Beagle and many others have said, it doesn’t read like a debut novel.

Overall, I loved it. It’s the first in a series, so I can forgive them for not killing *all* the characters I would have killed, if it were me writing it, because I know two of the characters I would have killed are POV characters for the next book. And one of the major plot points that was forshadowed and not resolved is centered around one of those two characters, so I expect to see that resolved later as well and forgive that as well.

I love the setting – but then, I’m a sucker for combining technology and magic, so the dragons were right up my alley.

Favourite scene: the exploding dining room table.

My biggest beef with the story was I bought it for the dragon on the front, and the dragon was barely in the story. Her first scene, even was an excercise flight around the city, and it felt like the scene was only there to get her into the story. She was really cool when she was there, but, like I said, barely there.

My other beef would have to be the lack of female characters – strange for a book written by two female authors. All four POV characters were male – and having two of them homosexual didn’t make up for it. Not even really any significant secondary female characters.

But the ending, and the body count at the end was satisfactory. I was starting to wonder about the body count, but they were just saving it all up for the end. And then they really came through.

It’s very political, mostly about relationships, and though I figured out one major plot twist between Rook and Thom at least 100 pages before I got to it, that’s ok, it was a good plot twist. Maybe a bit cliche, but it was well executed, and the characters made it unique.

The characters are some of the most memorable characters I’ve ever read, too. Rook, especially – somehow they managed to do badass from a first person POV, without the character ending up ruined by emo. There was lots of emotion, from all the characters, but this character’s emotion was all anger, he never once let himself sit down and feel sorry for himself. He was a complete asshole, but I loved that character.