November Quick Reviews

I’ve finally got some more reading done recently. K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard and Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker.

Infernal Devices (1987)

Infernal Devices definitely has the whole steampunk vibe going, which isn’t surprising, as Jeter coined the term the year this novel was published, in a letter to Locus about his earlier novel Morlock Night. Infernal Devices is a fun little adventure novel, although the plot twists were generally unexpected. Steam power itself is not in much evidence here, as the technology in the story is more clockwork oriented. The mad scientist in this story has since passed away, and it is his “infernal devices” which remain the problem of the tale. Other now-common tropes of steampunk literature include mistaken identities, clockwork automata, and flying machines. This was a fast-paced novel, but I wish it had lingered in some areas. While enjoyable, it didn’t get very deep. Fans of steampunk literature should read this, but I probably won’t read this a second time.

The Stress of Her Regard (1989)

Tim Powers was another of the triumvirate of authors initially associated with steampunk (The third being Blaylock). I started reading Powers recently, as the Anubis Gates is sometimes considered steampunk. The Stress of Her Regard is not steampunk, however, but rather what is termed Secret History. Powers uses the real documented lives of historical figures, such as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, weaving them together and providing a supernatural story which fits within the established historical record. In this story, great literary figures such as Byron and Shelley have relationships with supernatural beings identified as vampires (John Polidori, a contemporary of Byron and a character in this book, wrote a short story called “The Vampyre” which is the first known vampire story written in English). However, unlike the beautiful shiny vampires from Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles 1973) , Stephanie Meyer (Twilight 2005), or L.J. Smith (The Vampire Diaries 1991), the vampires in The Stress of Her Regard are ancient stone spirits. Powers weaves a powerful tale, and this work has considerable literary merit. Powers clearly did extensive research into mythology and history to write a fantastic book. While tween vamp fans probably won’t be interested in this story, but those familiar with the literature of the Romantic period should enjoy it. I’ll likely reread this novel again before the 2011 Renovation Worldcon, where Powers will be a Guest of Honour.

Boneshaker (2009)

Cherie Priest’s latest novel is set in an alternate history Seattle while the American Civil War has dragged on for nearly two decades. It has made it on Publishers Weekly’s list of the top novels of 2009. I was really looking forward to reading this story, and it lived up to my expectations. The book itself is crafted well. The text was printed in a dark brown ink. Still easily readable, but it gave this story a much more earthy feel. Boneshaker has two main characters which we follow into the walled off city inhabited by “rotters”. Of the two, Briar Wilkes is a more defined character. Zeke is, well, a teenaged boy.  While his search is for his family’s tarnished legacy, Briar is forced to confront her own personal relationship to the past horrors. Cherie Priest uses several of the common themes associated with steampunk literature of the past. Aside from the obvious airships, and brass goggles, Priest plays on mistaken identity, technological marvels, and the use of real historical figures, in the character of Princess Angeline, eldest daughter of Chief Seattle. The Seattle of Boneshaker is a very gritty, thick atmospheric feel. Cherie Priest has a clear vision of this alternate world, and I’m looking forward to reading future novels set in “The Clockwork Century” world.

Ebook readers

I’ve often had coworkers ask me why I don’t have an ebook reader yet. I would appear to be a good candidate. I almost always have a book with me, and usually have several on the go at once. In the past year, I’ve read over forty novels or short-story anthologies. Having immediate access to my library is certainly a welcome image. However, none of the current set of ebook readers provides the feature set that makes me want to pull out my wallet.

I’m a literature student. I don’t just read books. I also tend to read a number of academic journal articles. The majority of these articles are PDF image scans, downloaded through my library’s web proxy. There usually hasn’t been much in the way of processing on the PDF. The article has not undergone OCR, there is no additional markup. Just the original image. I need to be able to open these, as is. This is not negotiable. Don’t make me send the file away to some third party to transcode it for the device.

Continue reading

Self Critic

I had my creative writing class again this evening. We broke into small groups for critiques of flash fiction.

Despite having one fewer member in our group this week, we finished at least half an hour later than some of the other groups. It was a fun little session. The stories showed good promise, and I hope my suggestions were helpful. I don’t think I pull any punches while providing my criticism. I certainly don’t start off every critique with another version of “I really liked this story”. Where there are problems, either in plot progression, character development, description or dialogue, I point it out, usually with a suggestion as to how to do things better.

My story somehow got selected to be last for review yet again. Thankfully, in the smaller sessions, we’re not working under the same time restraints. I find it disappointing though, to receive minimal feedback, most of which dealt with things I did well. While I’m pleased that people enjoyed it, as a workshop draft, it’s not at a state where I’m particularly happy with it. In fact, I think my story has major issues in plot, pacing, characterization, and point of view. Some characters were certainly not used as well as they could have been.

A few parts of this were mentioned, but nothing specific was cited as being a point for improvement. Maybe my expectations for this course were too high? Ah well. I know where I want this story to go. I’ll revise it over the weekend. I also want to revise one of my stories this weekend so I can submit it for the Tesseracts 14 anthology. It’s a dark little Canadian steampunk story. Hopefully it will interest John Robert Colombo and Brett Alexander Savory.

Defining Steampunk

Attempts to formally define steampunk are exercises in futility, similar to similar attempts at defining science fiction. Even Damon Knight’s definition of SF as “what we mean when we point to it” is problematic, as the “we” no longer refers to a single cohesive group.

While the Oxford English Dictionary defines steampunk as a “writer of science fiction which has a historical setting (esp. based on industrialized, nineteenth-century society) and characteristically features steam-powered, mechanized machinery rather than electronic technology; (also) such writing as a subgenre of science fiction,” I believe that this definition fails to capture the extent to which it is commonly used. Steampunk is no longer merely a literary genre, as adaptations to film have been embraced as a retrofuturistic style, which has formed an almost entirely unrelated aesthetics movement. Some fellow students in my creative writing class were actually surprised when I mentioned that I was reading steampunk novels. “They have steampunk books now, too?”

When K.W. Jeter coined the term in a letter printed in the April 1987 issue of Locus, it referred to the “gonzo-historical manner” in the Victorian fantasies written by James P. Blaylock, Tim Powers, and K.W. Jeter himself. Since then, the term has been embraced and extended by numerous groups. Any particular definition will depend on which books they have read.

What is required in a steampunk novel? What characterizes steampunk? As Mike Perschon notes, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers is in an interesting position. It is much more fantasy than science fiction. It does not really deal with technology in any significant way. It was however, included in Jeter’s original term. Does this make it steampunk canon? Setting aside the technological requirements of steampunk, there are certain aspects of The Anubis Gates which are commonly reflected in other steampunk works. Power’s novel is an adventure story, based primarily in Victorian London. It includes a number of contemporary literary figures, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron. Including historical figures is a technique shared with other steampunk novels such as The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, where characters such as John Keats play a role, as well as Cherie Priest’s novel Boneshaker, which includes the Duwamish indian Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle as a character. One of the key aspects of a steampunk novel appears to be some unbalancing of power, whether it be social or political. This is commonly seen as the “punk” aspect, and Powers certainly includes it in his novel. While Powers is careful not to change historically recorded facts (his works generally fit within a subgenre known as “secret history”, which include fantastic elements framed within the recorded framework of history), there are certain revolutionary aspects of his work.

What is needed to declare a work steampunk? Is steam-powered technology necessary? Jay Lake’s Mainspring and Escapement novels successfully substitute clockwork machinery. Is technology itself needed? Tim Powers shows us a rule-based magic in the Anubis Gates.  Is the neo-victorian era necessary? While many early steampunk books were based in Victorian London, many are now based in America, while others are based in other imaginary worlds, such as China Mieville’s Bas-Lag series. What seems to be important is that the novel is set in a time of political, industrial or social change.

Steampunk may not even necessarily fall under some definitions of science fiction. Often, steampunk uses scientific theories which are no longer plausible. The use of magic in The Anubis Gates would exclude it from some people’s definition of SF. The aetheric technologies of K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices would also cause some definitions problematic. The zombie-producing Blight gas in Boneshaker is another more fantastic element.

Steampunk is generally not hard science fiction. However, Gibson and Sterling’s Difference Engine eschews most fantastic elements. Their main departure from our timeline is that Babbage’s Difference and Analytical Engines worked, were efficient, and formed the backbone of an early information age, leading to large social change. While it was the first steampunk novel I read, and it originally formed the core components of my personal definition of steampunk, The Difference Engine lacks the more fantastic elements which most steampunk novels now include.

Steampunk is a re-imagining of the past. This retaking of the past is inclusive, both of literary forms, and of definitions. When one moves from literature to other forms of media, the boundaries of steampunk become more nebulous. I’m a fan of the anime movie “Steamboy”, and it certainly hits most of the characteristics of steampunk. Other movies, such as Will Smith’s Wild Wild West, or the film adaptation of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen certainly contain aspects of the steampunk aesthetic, but are less successful at being anything other than a dumb action movie. I think an excellent argument could be made for including Joss Wheedon’s Firefly as part of steampunk.

For another look at how someone defines steampunk, see the steampunk FAQ from Cherie Priest.

Advice from a slush reader

Please, if you’re submitting manuscripts to a magazine or publisher, do the slush reader and yourself a favour. Be professional. Your chances at actually getting a story passed on to the editor will increase dramatically. Show me that you’re serious about getting your work published.

In the submission form, there will be a section for a cover letter. Write something here. Put in a short summary of your story, as well as any relevant qualifications that you may have. If you can’t bother to write anything here, why should I expect your story to be interesting?

Your goal is to make it easy for me, the slush reader, to enjoy your story. Asking me to google your name in order to find your publications is not going to earn you any points. Frankly, I’m busy. I’m not going to bother doing this, and I’m going to just pretend that you have no relevant qualifications. For all I know, this may be true. You certainly didn’t point anything out as being especially important. I probably won’t follow a link to your website for your qualifications, unless there’s something really interesting in your cover letter. I have enough tabs open in my browser right now. I don’t really want to open another. What is best here is to provide a short list of your relevant publication history. If the market is smaller, and not necessarily related to the current market, it might help to explain what it is. Is it a small university literary journal? Or is it a flash fiction online journal? Paid markets are likely more relevant.

Most importantly, if you have ever been accepted at my market, mention it here. If you have received personal feedback from the editors here, mention it. Do not assume that I’m the slush reader who read your last story. Do not assume that the editors will immediately recognize your name. If I’m not made aware of any past acceptance or feedback from the editors, I’m going to treat your story like all others. If I know about prior feedback, I’ll still read it and provide comments to the editors, but it will be passed on to them for further review.

Now to the manuscript. For the love of all that is pure and good in this world, do not use the Papyrus or Comic Sans fonts. There is something to be said about a good non-proportional font like Courier. The Van Halen brown M&Ms contract clause is a true urban legend. Paying attention to the small details will show that you’re serious. There are numerous manuscript guidelines available online. Here’s a link to Science Fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer’s manuscript checklist. Ignoring this advice won’t make me reject your manuscript, but following it will help.

As for the manuscript’s content, how many times have you read it? Have you read it aloud? Where does it trip you up while reading? Sometimes it can help if you read it in a different voice. How would James Earl Jones narrate your story? How would William Shatner narrate it? Remember that although his reading of Sarah Palin’s rejection speech sounded poetic, doesn’t mean that the original material was very good.

Try to remember that with electronic submissions, the words you see underlined in red in your word processor appear underlined in mine as well. Don’t draw attention to problems in your manuscript. Do you have a part in your story where you have several paragraphs of backstory? This is called exposition, and it will kill my desire to read any further. This is even worse when the exposition is more interesting than the rest of your story. If you really feel this information is important, break it up into smaller chunks to be revealed slowly throughout your story. Keep me interested in your story.

Pay attention to the mechanics of narration. Don’t suddenly shift verb tenses, or point of view. The traditional modern story is told in third person, using the past tense. “He picked up the gun”, not “I pick up the gun” or “He picks up the gun”. Unless you have experience writing in other forms, try and stick with the standards. Remember, your goal is to make it easy for me to pass your story on to the editor.

In general, be professional and courteous. Give me context in your cover letter, and make it as easy as possible for me to like your story. I will appreciate it.

For a similar perspective on submissions, read Molly Tanzer’s post from higher up on the slush pile.