Category Archives: Writing

Gathering Steam

Rice University’s alumni magazine informs us that a Rice alum was part of a team that in 2009 broke a 100-year-old land speed record –  for steam powered vehicles.  It was a  British effort that took place at Edwards Air Force Base.  The achievement was lauded on the British Steam Car Web site which describes the steam turbine vehicle as having 12 specially designed water tube boilers, fueled by liquid propane.  It won the team the Royal Automobile Club’s Simms Medal.  A Royal Automobile Club spokesman said, “No one is going to suggest that this vehicle represents a major technical breakthrough, a relatively small improvement has been won at a cost of enormous complexity but it is unquestionably a triumph of determination, persistence and absolute refusal to give up in the face of adversity. Does it exemplify the ‘spirit of adventure’ Unquestionably!”

At ArmadilloCon last weekend, a panel addressed the topic of whether Steampunk is a literary or social movement.  The answer is both – witness the new steam car speed record and how at ArmadilloCon there was a conspicuous contingent of Steampunk costumers and jewelry- and prop-makers.  And one of the people in the panel audience explained that he belongs to Ornamental Turners International.  Reviving the craft of turning wood with antique tools such as lathes, they make beautiful knobs, lids, spinning tops, and other things.

The ArmadilloCon panel listed list of things that characterize Steampunk literature.  Some of these came up in the ApolloCon panel that I reflected on in the Full Steam Ahead post on June 29.  But there are more.  These items explain even further why Steampunk is a literary AND social movement that’s gathered a great deal of steam.

THE SUPERNATURAL.   One way to explain Steampunk is Victorian science fiction as over against fantasy with all kinds of magic.  Well, some Steampunk seems to freely include magic.  OK, how about calling for a consistent and thoughtfully built world with optional elements of ghosts, spirits, mediums, garden fairies, magicians – all of which waxed in the Victorian imagination?

NATURAL HISTORY.  This was something Victorian era had great enthusiasm for, and which is intrinsically fascinating.  To this day Smithsonian Natural History Museum pulls in droves of visitors.

PIRATES (!)  Also fascinating.

ARTS AND CRAFTS.  Like ornamental turning.  The mass-produced age is one in which manual dexterity, mechanical skill and knowing how to draw are unimportant for most of us, but a matter of keen interest for some.  Mention was made of Make Magazine.

LONG-LIVED MACHINERY.  One panelist cited an essay by Bruce Sterling, “The User’s Guide to Steampunk.” Sterling said celebrating dead technology is a comment on modern technology being constantly dying:  how audio tapes, VCR’s, computers and so many other devices evolve into obsolete relics.

But the Ornamental Turning people could walk into a Victorian wood-working shop and roll up their sleeves and start working.  And that British team is giving steam-powered cars an afterlife with a “spirit of adventure” vibe.

Long live the age of steam and adventure.

what’s wrong with this picture?

This regrettable billboard goes two for two in debasing the English language.  “Box of happiness”?   Happiness is more than a cheap fried food!   “I’m lovin’ it?” Love is for important  things!  And fries are not good for you, either.  Boo!  Hiss!

Nobody takes happiness and love seriously in the context of a billboard like this.  But beat the drum of cynical, crass uses of good words long and loud enough and the words may end up empty.  Of course the ad industry has been doing this for years and managed to misuse, mock, and devalue practically every profound word and numinous image known to the Western world.

What’s wrong with this picture is the bottom half.  The sky with the clouds is nature,  weather, the dynamic atmosphere, reminders of the magic of flight.   Cumulus clouds – always changing, sometimes growing mountain-tall with lightening and ice in their hearts, other times staying pretty and fluffy – they can make you happy.  They are worth loving if you’ve ever looked up and imagined clouds to be the shapes of things, or watched hawks soar, or day-dreamed about flying, or actually been up in a small aircraft dancing with clouds.

Full Steam Ahead

Houston’s SFF convention, ApolloCon, just seems to get even better every year.    It unfolded in all its glory this past weekend.  I had a grand good time and so did most everybody else!  One of the great strengths of ApolloCon is programming, with interesting topics that haven’t been done to death at other conventions; panelists who bring energy and fresh perspective to the topic; and lively interest and insights from the audience.

This year my favorite panel was one I moderated: STEAM HEAT – the key literary and visual elements of Steampunk and why it’s so popular.  We came up with a v-e-r-y interesting roster of elements that make up this subgenre.

  • Victorian-era technology, particularly steam power.  Machinery that is understandable unlike the black box high tech of today.  Nifty real-life example:  a hand-sized mechanical calculator invented in the 20th century and known as the pepper-grinder calculator.
  • A sense of a world of frontiers such that a person can sail or fly or ride away into limitless adventure – without need of immense governmental or industrial infrastructure.
  • Rebellion against society, which is where the “punk” comes in.  Fortunately the palette of characters and motives is a lot wider than the hacker subculture of the predecessor genre Cyberpunk.  Instead of inhabiting a seamy social sub-basement, Steampunk characters can rebel by taking off into the wild yonder.  Once they get there they might go native.  Or just be citizens of the wild frontier of land, sea or air.
  • Repressed sexuality, especially female sexuality – but you can invent transgressive women who bend or break the social mores, which is another part of the “punk.”
  • A sense of humor that can get wild and uproarious.  Another nice contrast with bleak, sardonic Cyberpunk.
  • Beauty.  The ornamentation of people and machines;  an aesthetic of ornamentation.  The inspiration for this element is genuinely Victorian.  Most people don’t realize it nowadays, but steam engines used to be brilliantly  colorful.  (See the  replica steam engines at Golden Spike National Historic Site )
  • Costumers love Steampunk, the quirkiness of top hats, goggles, lace and faux fur.  Steampunk has been called the playground of Goths who discovered brown… but astute costumers have realized that our sense of the Victorian era as brown comes from sepia photographs.   Vivid dyes were discovered in the Victorian era.  Flashy fabrics got real fashionable, and people didn’t always mind if their attire clashed.
  • And then there are the delights of formal manners.  Anything goes doesn’t go very far in satisfying the human penchant for ritual.
  • Magic is a definite possibility.  Even magics, plural.  Romance ditto.  Or erotica, putting the steam in Steampunk.  Mystery is a natural element to combine with Steampunk.  And one strong strand of Steampunk is science fiction – Victorian science fiction, whether in this world/universe or another. Steampunk has sticky, irregular edges – perfect for blending with other genres.
  • A nifty element that bubbled up during the  back-and-forth between panelists and audience:  the opportunity to play off history’s failures of imagination.  After the Hindenberg burned, airships took a back seat.  When Mercury Redstone rockets started flinging astronauts into space, the technology of aerospace planes got a hard shove toward the dustbin of history.  Then there’s how roads usurped the rails in American transportation….

With all this going for it – more than I had realized, and I’ve been paying attention, because my new dark western fantasy novel shares some elements with Steampunk – no wonder there’s so much energy vortexing around Steampunk.   Austin’s SFF convention, ArmadilloCon, at the end of August, has a Steampunk theme this year. ArmadilloCon has a fine history of differentiating between a flash of fools’ gold in the sf-literary pan and trends that will amount to something.

Science fiction as a genre is not doing so good lately.  Sales are down, agents and editors are looking for something (or anything) else, and global society is so future-shocked that many people just want to stop the world and get off.  Meanwhile Steampunk is coming on strong.  Maybe the way back to the future is by way of the past.

Making Rounds with Oscar

When somebody may be suffering from Alzheimer’s,  neurologists and geriatricians administer certain cognitive tests.  Some of these tests are devastatingly simple.  One such test asks  the patient to draw a clock face when the time is 2:45.  People with Alzheimer’s are very likely to draw a clock with the short hand on 2 and the long hand between 4 and 5.

I learned this in a remarkable little book.  Making Rounds with Oscar (Hyperion 2010) was written by David Dosa, a geriatrician who works in a nursing home in Rhode Island.   Oscar is a tabby cat who also works in the nursing home. . . a resident companion animal along with several other animals and birds.  (Enlightened nursing home!)  Oscar has a unique talent.   He knows when somebody is dying.  He  goes and stays with them until the end, whether they are all alone or surrounded by grief-stricken loved ones.

This is a helpful, healing book about Alzheimer’s,  the end of life, and the mysterious connections between people and pets.  The savory irony is that Dr. Dosa is not a cat person.   He never gets to the point of doting on  Oscar – but he comes to respect the reality of the comfort Oscar brings to the dying and their loved ones.


brave new word

From an article in a prediction that academic libraries will soon have less to do with curating physical materials, and more and more to do with digital resources; that e-books and e-journals are poised to turn librarians into e-sherpas; and that instead of being ensconced at the traditional Reference Desk, librarians will be embedded in academic departments.  And that these embedded librarians will be (in fact at Johns Hopkins University Medical library, they already are) called informationists.

The Lord of the Hallows

I love Interlibrary Loan.  It’s such a fine way to read books that my own Library doesn’t have, including obscure, scarce, or expensive titles and ones that for other reasons I’m just not in a position to buy.  Today I’m returning an Inter-Library Loan that I enjoyed very much – The Lord of the Hallows by Denise Roper (Denver:  Outskirts Press 2009.) It’s a compact  and insightful summation of the Christian symbolism in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.  That the series is loaded with  Christian symbolism was blazingly obvious by the climax of the seventh book .  Roper places the Harry Potter books  in the tradition of  Christian fantastic novels that includes Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia.   Recommended!

old India cookbook

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, I ran across a new edition of a classic cookbook written for British housewives in 19th-century India. Remarkable book.  It covers cooking, housekeeping, gardening, animal husbandry, and relations with native servants.  It throws light (some of it glaring in retrospect)  on the relationship between colonial England and colonized India.  There is solid practical advice, such as the recommendation to English wives to spend the hottest months in the hills rather than stick it out on the plains and end up so debilitated that it then becomes necessary to spend several years recuperating in England.  There’s a chapter on the special challenges of running a missionary household or living in a camp.  And there are recipes for making English food in India, and descriptions of Indian foods and ingredients.  The book is:

The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook by Flora Annie Steel & Grace Gardiner, ed. Ralph Crane and Anna Johnston, Oxford University Press 2010.

Sniper at 12 O’Clock!

Last weekend I flew a glider for the first time in a long time.  (In 2007 I  had to go inactive in the Soaring Club of Houston and hadn’t flown for a while even before that.  It was a long hiatus due to having a novel published, writing two more novels, having a parent diagnosed with Alzheimers and then relocating out of an apartment complex being sold to developers.  Life happens.)

So I went up with a glider flight instructor and did better than I thought I would.  I flew two flights from tow to full stop,  without the instructor having to take the controls except when I forgot to plant the tail wheel after the first landing.  They say it’s like riding a bicycle – you get rusty but you probably won’t crash into a tree if you haven’t ridden a bike in forever.  Likewise flying skills stay with you even though finesse definitely does not.

The instructor gave me some memorable landing advice.   He reminded me to pick a landing spot to aim for, then once in ground effect – a wing length or so above the ground – to look at the end of the runway.  Like a lot of other things, landing an aircraft is done best when your attention is not overly immediate.  You need to be taking in the whole view of the runway;  it’s vital.  The instructor said, “Pretend there’s a Nazi sniper in the trees at the end of the field and look for him!”

Pretend there’s a sniper in the trees at the end of the runway. I won’t forget that.  It’s the best kind of flight instruction admonition:  pithy and funny enough to stick in a busy brain and be recalled when it’s needed most.

A couple of days ago I discovered the origin of the word sniper. It was in a recent re-edition from Oxford University Press of a classic cookbook written for British housewives in 19th-century India. (!)  Snipe entered in as wild game that might end up on the dinner table.  They are wary marsh birds.  A sniper is a hunter skilled enough to shoot a snipe.

OK, that makes a memorable lesson and a half.  Look for the sniper in the trees to make sure your eyes are where they’ll do you the most good in the last moments of a landing.  And practice toward a snipe-hunting level of accuracy!

Scribal Errors

Proofreading is harder than it looks.  For one thing, anyone who writes a piece ends up too close to it to see all of  the glitches.  For another thing, even the most diligent proofreader can miss something, when you have to check grammar, composition, spelling, sense, sound, and facts.  Written materials are imperfect and always have been.  When I took Old and New Testament courses  in graduate school, the professors made many references to scribal error in the composition and copying of ancient manuscripts. Modern technology has not only not eliminated scribal error but added new kinds:  spellcheck error, cut-and-paste error, find-and-replace error, we-don’t-do-typesetting-anymore-and-can’t-afford-proofreaders-so-it’s-up-to-the-writer-error….

Readers are offended by egregious errors in reputably published books, periodicals and other written material.  Fortunately there’s a balance point just this side of impossibly perfect.  I’m one of several volunteers who proofread for a classical music  performance organization. Our newly minted publicity brochure was found to have a one-letter error in the title of a work to be performed next season – “B Minor”  instead of  “D Minor.” Our fearless leader, Jan (who has a PhD in English from Rice University and is a professor of composition and grammar and superb writer) had a wonderfully sensible reaction.   “I’ll check the web to make sure it’s correct there,” she e-mailed.  “I’m sorry about the error, but it’s not devastating–will give a couple of sharp-eyed people joy to discover it, and most will never notice.”