Thursday, 28 January 2010

How wise we are in the full blush of ignorance

I think I'm going to have to come clean about Jeff and Ann VanderMeer's Steampunk. I'm more of a lifestyler than a fan of the literary side of things, and there's an increasing gap between the British and US scenes. I need--no, I want to get into the literary and aesthetic side of Steampunk. I at least want to understand the mainstream literary Steampunk. I'm a writer, I'm a Steampunk, and it's foolish to be in ignorance of what else is happening around me.

The problem with a lot of the things which seem to be coming out the US of late is that they somehow don't seem to 'get' my idea of Steampunk. Look at Abney Park: They're selling pre-made, leather 'high-altitude masks' on their website. Captain Robert, their lead singer, is winning a popularity poll for Steampunks for, 'making Steampunk sexy'. In short, it's all steam and no punk.

I thought the VanderMeer's anthology would be more of the same.


Let me quote a bit from Jess Nevin's wonderful introduction (which I read while sitting in Speaker's Corner on a Sunday morning):
“Steampunk, like all good punk, rebels against the system it portrays (Victorian London or something quiet like it), critiquing its treatment of the underclass, its validation of the privileged at the cost of everyone else, its lack of mercy, its cutthroat capitalism. Like the punks streampunk rarely offers a solution to the problems is decries--for steampunk, there is no solution...”

Maybe one day, I'll learn to control my expectations before I judge. I'm about half-way through, and already I've got an awful lot of food for thought. I've been made to pause at least once and think, 'what's that doing in here? That's not Steampunk', only to go away, think about it, and realise it's probably the most Steampunk story of the collection so far.

I've mentioned Jeste der Vries' Shine Anthology before. I love the fact he's going out of his way to find positive SF. The tendency for SF these days is to be all doom and gloom, and it gets on my wick. I don't want to read stories about how climate change is going to kill us all and it's all our own fault, no matter how well-written they are. 'Humanity is going to kill itself through its own arrogance, short-sightedness and greed' is a tired old sci-fi trope, and I much prefer it explored through the Cold War.

He's made me go away, and look at the things I'm writing. Am I wallowing, or am I trying to do something positive? When critiquing someone's writing or ideas, I don't like to point out problems without offering solutions.

Let me quote a little more from Jess Nevin:
“But most second generation steampunk is not true steampunk--there is little to nothing 'punk' about it. The politics of the punk position have largely disappeared from second generation steampunk, and most of it is more accurately described as 'steam sci-fi' or, following John Clute, 'gaslight romance'.”

So let me introduce third generation Steampunk: Steampunk with solutions. Steampunk written by people of China, India, Tieland, Mexico and everywhere else in the world that deals with the issues they have to fight with a thousand miles geographically, culturally and socially from Victorian London as well as we British with our issues. And Steampunk that sees hope on the horizon. We're not just writers; we're environmentalists, activists, anarchists, makers and a dozen-and-a-half other things. Our solutions runneth over. Us writers, we've got to stress-test them, try and break them and then try to fix them.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

February Reading

Around the end of December, I realised that January was going to be a hectic month. By the 31st, I had to:
  • Finish planning and write Symphonie Magnifique;
  • Finish researching, plan and write The Man Who Ate Germany, a piece on German unification under Bismark for SPM;
  • Work with Allegra to plan and write a piece on being a Steampunk every day instead of just for gatherings and conventions for SPM;
  • Think about, plan and write my story for an anthology being published through Vagrants Among Ruins;
  • Read and review Hartman the Anarchist for SPM;
  • And I’ve just found out about a Big Finish competition to pitch an idea for an audio drama featuring the Fifth Doctor (the best Doctor) and Nyssa.
In most realities, any one of the above would take a whole month.

I impressed myself and submitted Symphonie Magnifique to Crossed Genres on the 13th. I’ve since been working with Bismark, the mad Junker. I’m in London for the Steampunk Spectacular this weekend, but I still have confidence that it will all be done on time.

The anthology story has had to be pushed back due to factors outside my control. Partly, I’m relieved. I’m also partly annoyed, because I had a nascent, half-formed idea which I was beginning to nurture when I found I’d have to somehow keep the embryo warm but in status.

All this unfortunately means that I don’t have time for reading this month. Well, I do, but only reading which serves the Greater Good. That’s annoying, because I got some books for Christmas and spent the few pence I had left from my wages this month on more books. So, February I’m going to read. And no one can stop me!

As well as all the magazines and 'zines, we have:
  • The Judge Dredd/Batman Files and Vendetta in Gotham. Seriously, Dredd vs. Batman? The first scene, the first scene, has Batman squaring off against Judge Death.
  • Grandville. Written by Bryan Talbot and inspired by the work of nineteenth-century French illustrator Gerand, who worked under the pseudonym Grandville and frequently drew anthropomorphic animals. When it was claimed by both the furry scene and Steampunk scene, I decided I had to get it. It arrived on Tuesday, and it’s a beautiful book. It’s hard-backed and the covers are textured like those volumes from the 60’s which still lurk on my parent’s bookshelves, and the inside covers have an almost marbled design which echoes those same books. The binding is solid… in short, it’s turned all the shortcomings of graphic novel production into things to be proud of.
  • Steampunk. Steampunk short stories collected and edited Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. I’d be a fool to walk away. Especially because I submitted Of Mice and Journeymen to the follow-up anthology, Steampunk Reloaded.
  • The Apex Book of World SF, edited by Lavie Tidhar. Difficult though it’s been for me to accept, the world of SF/F has tended to be dominated by white, western, able-bodied men. The strange new worlds and brave new civilisations imagined have, a lot of times, had WWAM values at their core no matter the fantastical creatures which populate them, and the colonies and cities of the future are images of our western metropolises. It takes delicacy and skill to open up new cultures to old minds like mine, and I trust Lavie’s judgement to collect stories which, above any sort of agenda, are stories. They entertain, create and are driven by ideas and characters first and foremost. I brought this book because I need to read it and because the publishers need to be supported for producing it. Also, the publishers need to be supported!
  • Crimea, by Trevor Royle. The Crimean war is, in my opinion, the Steampunk European war. In the comfortable houses of those in charge, it was a cluster-fuck of diplomatic and military blunders with each side only being saved by the disasters of the other. In the tents of the soldiers, it was filled with breath-taking acts of humanity and bravery by both sides which have become part of our treasured history. It was also the first ‘media war’, the battlefield ending up on the breakfast tables of London the same way the Vietnam war was beamed live into the living rooms of a generation.

There are probably enough straight reviews out there already, but I may write something about the Apex book on it’s Amazon page as @apexjason would like some good reviews there (even if he wouldn’t send me a review copy :P). I’m sure I’ll be inspired to write something here by all my reading. And I’m expecting to reap bountiful harvests of fiction-fertilizer, especially for The Colossus Engine, my Crimea war story about a plucky group of rag-tag soldiers and their attempts to destroy Britain’s ‘ultimate weapon’ before it can be used.

And it looks like I’ll have a chance to put some of those fiction-flowers to good use: I’ve just got an email from Absent Willows about a new fiction contest they’re running. The universe may or may not be trying to tell me something, but I’m going to err on the side of caution and act like it is. After all, of all the things you could piss off the universe is probably one to avoid.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Can I be cool and be myself, please?

This post over at Apex Books’ blog got me thinking.  And by thinking, I mean ranting.

There seems to be a lot of these sorts of feelings going around… The idea that, now we have big budge computer-generated special effects, the sci-fi/fantasy/spec-fic genre can finally be a popular, freed from the shackles of dodgy plot, dodgy sets and even dodgier ‘aliens’.

I mean, I’m not going to argue that SF/F/SF doesn’t have a reputation for those things.  Ask someone to draw a sci-fi fan, and you’ll get a picture of an over-weight, white guy in his thirties still living with his mother and a picture of the NCC-1701 on his wall.

What I don’t like is what people seem to be saying.  There seems to be an attitude of trying to reach out to the normal people and saying, ‘hey, you know all those shitty films with their shitty ‘aliens’? Yeah, they were shitty, weren’t they? Ha ha!  But look, we’re cool now!  Come play with us!’

I have a special place in my heart for bad sci-fi and less-than-great special effects.  It’s what I grew up with.  Those skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts?  Pure awesome.  But I’m not going to try and sell anyone on the idea they’re going to get new people into the genres.

But it wasn’t all that bad.  You remember Alien?  How about Blade Runner2001PredatorVideodromeA Clockwork OrangeWestworld.

There were fistfuls of excellent movies (hey, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure!) made before The Matrix.  These aren’t just movies which deserve to be remembered, they are our heritage.  They are our childhood.  They are why we love the genre.  Hell, they are what made us fall in love with it in a lot of cases.  Why the sudden rush to disown it?  Why is everyone changing their clothes, getting their hair cut and disowning their old friends to get in with the cool kids?  Why is everyone remembering The Queen of Outer Space and forgetting the original Terminator?

What we should be saying is, ‘hey, you liked Avatar?  Yeah, pretty cool film, isn’t it?  You know, we’ve been doing shit like that for years.  Hell, would you share Pandora if you didn’t have to?  Well, we didn’t want to either.  But as you’re here, let me show you a few things…’

Monday, 11 January 2010

Profession dysphoria? Pur-lease…

Wait, work with me on this one. 

Gender dysphoria--your body is the wrong gender.  Species dysphoria--your body is the wrong species.  Profession dysphoria--your body is wired for the wrong profession.

See, I’m a writer.  That’s a fundamental, basic fact of my existence I can do no more to change than I could to change my sexuality or skin colour.  But like a man who’ll try on his girlfriend’s underwear while she’s at work and insists on being a ‘she’ when he’s online, I’m not sure that’s who I’m meant to be.

I think… I think I’m actually an engineer.

It feels kind of good to say it at last, but also very scary.

I’m no good with engineering-type things, though.  All those equations about pressure and torque and voltage make my head go squishy.  It’s like being a surgeon but being perplexed by the offal.  I want to be good at them, I want to understand and be fascinated by all those numbers and Greek letters, but they just don’t fit into my brain.  There’s no holes for them to go into. 

I love listening to engineers talk, though.  I love the discussions they have about, say, whether a USB cable plugged into a laptop electrocute a toddler.  I love those bits in Freefall where Ambrose explains why the ship isn’t working and in xkcd where the punchline is a string of computer code.  I love the way engineers take a problem, break it down into parts and argue about how to solve each part while entirely losing track of the bigger picture. 

I want to be able to take a bunch of shafts, gears and equations and make a windmill out of them.  I want to be able to boost the power on my TV remote control so it becomes a deadly weapon.  I want to turn my work chair into an orbital observation platform using only items I can find around the office.

Well, I want to be able to spend my time scribbling on Post-It notes, working out just how impossible those things are and how I can make them possible.  I have a yearning.

But I’m a writer.  My equations are grammar and my gears are adverbs.  I can pull apart a paragraph and make it five times more efficient, but re-wiring a plug is a foreign land full of language sounds I can’t make.  The only poetry in motion I’m likely to produce is when a screwed up scrap of paper that used to be a first draft sails through the air and into the bin.

Sigh.  I’m a fox engineer in a human writer’s body.  Maybe I should form my own support group…

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Open brain and tip the words out

ABC News has an article from the Adult Entertainment Expo, with a report on the world's most advanced AI 'Sexbot'.  According to the maker's site, she "can carry on a discussion and expresses her love to you and be your loving friend. She can talk to you, listen to you and feel your touch."  All important things in a lover.

When I read about it, my thoughts went a bit like this:

“The most advanced AI and we make a sexbot with it?  Sheesh, my species sucks at being intelligent.”

“But then... the only times we really excel and push ourselves is for sex and war.  At least it isn't killing people.”

“Huh, huh-huh... Sexbot... huh-huh...”

And that's when I tweeted about it.  Yeah... I'm guilty of bringing down the tone on Twitter.  Sorry about that.

It raises an awful lot of interesting questions, the sexbot.  If men and women don't feel the need to have sex with each other, will they feel the need to interact at all? 

If a man wants sex, is it so bad to give it to him?  If we remove this primal drive we're always fighting with to get our end away, will men start to see woman as people first instead of sex objects?  Will that mean an end to the culture of exploiting women's sexuality to make a buck? 

If sex becomes like a Burger King burger--your way, when you want it--will sex between human beings become better?  Freed from the burden of basic satisfaction, will people start to treat sex like the art form it should be?  I mean, I've said for a while that if you remove the necessity of something, you'll rediscover the art.  Just look at what gourmet chiefs have produced now we don't have to worry about where our next meal is coming from.

Or will this just perpetuate and entrench the 'my way, my terms, fuck you' culture that's consuming us as a society at the moment?

Would I buy one, if I could afford it?  How long before they can make ones for those that like men?  Would my partner and myself end up with our own sexbots that we used whenever we felt a bit horny, and spend our evenings intellectual discourse with each other?  Or would we just never talk to each other again?  And, if we did never talk to each other again, then that kind of means the only reason we're in a relationship is for the sex... that can't be a good thing, can it?

You know, maybe I should buy half-a-dozen and open up a brothel.  It would mean there's less demand for human prostitutes, which has got to be a good thing, right?  Mind you, imagine being a species that evolved from sex toys.  Going to church to sing hymns to the Great Pimp in the

Friday, 8 January 2010

In my own image

I just wanted to share two, very different, maps with you.

The first is from the BBC and does a good job of explaining why I've been finding it so hard to get out of bed recently:

It's from this page on the BBC, but was also on the front of the Indepedent and the Telegraph this morning. I really, really hate the fact that, the moment weather deviates from the norm in this country (too hot, too cold, too windy etc) the entire infastructure falls apart. It makes me want to move to France. It's not that pictures like this make me any more forgiving, but it's something of a shock to see our green and pleasant land covered in Tip-Ex.

The other picture was this, very different, one:

All about family values, eh? You know, keeping things in the family...

In other news, the BBC reports that we should be getting a whole load of new wind farms here in the UK. Wonderful news. Of course, people will protest. 'It spoils the view', they'll say. Now, that's talking from a position of privilege. Words don't describe how stupid, arrogant and selfish those people are. They should be made to live in a world of their own creating. What really gets me is that wind farms are far, far less intrusive on the landscape then over-ground electricity pylons. Do these people campaign to have them taken down? Do these people rename their towns, 'a-quiet-and-beautiful-little-Welsh-village-where-those-bastard-English-are-endangering-some-wildlife-I've-found-I-can-hang-my-NIMBYism-on'? No. That would mean them giving up their electricity. Can't even contemplate that. Can't fathom the idea of giving up their entitled privilege for their principles. Far, far better that other people--people they don't know--suffer so they can maintain their cosy, selfish little worlds.