How to Punk Your Steam Part 10.3: Make it Travel Through Time (Paradoxes and Pitfalls)

Alright, now that we got all of that boring science and “reality” out of the, it is time to move onto the fun parts of time travel. But, before we can explore the repercussions of time travel, we have to take a look at our understanding of time itself. Namely, is there a single timeline or infinite possibilities? (This is of course assuming that time is linear at all, but that is a much bigger discussion for another… time.)

There Can Be Only One!

So, let’s say there is just one timeline. One classic example of the danger here is called The Grandfather Paradox. A time traveler goes back in time and accidentally kills his own ancestor, thus ending the family line. He can’t return to his present, because he will no longer exist. The only way for him to ensure that the family line continues is to impregnate his grandmother, thus becoming his own grandfather. Personally, I find this particular thought experiment a bit silly considering that we know how DNA and the transference of genetic material works. If the time traveler did in fact kill his grandfather, impregnating his grandmother would not result in an exact copy of himself two generations later. Conversely, if killing his grandfather were to cause him to never be born, then he would cease to exist the same moment that his grandfather’s heart stopped beating, and wouldn’t have time to woo his nana (ewww). If he did not immediately blink out of existence, I suppose that grandpappy might have had some of his little swimmers on ice, but that would really be the only way around it.

Timeline 3But here is the thing about linear time, in a universe with only a single timeline, every decision that is ever made, has ever been made, will ever be made, is already certain. That may seem like a bit of a leap, but think about it this way. Your present is someone else’s past (let’s call her Amber), and someone else’s future (who will be known as Zoe). To Amber, the time at which you are reading this article is the future, and seems uncertain and full of possibilities. But, from Zoe’s perspective, the events of the past are set in stone, immutable and measurable. The “truth” of these events could be obscured, but the events themselves happened the way that they happened. And Zoe’s present is someone else’s past, and so on and so on. In this case, the act of time traveling is moving up or down along this single line and the actions that take place there have happened, are happening, and did happen, already.

Some authors and movie makers get this right. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, for instance, Harry and Hermione end up going back in time a few hours to save Harry’s godfather. During the first time through these three hours, a few mysterious things happen. Rocks fly through Hagrid’s window, alerting the teen wizards of the Minister’s approach. Later, a howl in the distance distracts the werewolf that is attacking them, thus leading it out into the forest and saving the kids. When Harry and Hermione go back and revisit these events, Hermione realizes that it must of been she who threw the rocks and made the howling sound. She acts because she knows that she has already acted. Another series that does a lot with teleportation and time travel and handles it brilliantly are the “Dragonriders of Pern” books by mother and son team, Ann and Todd McCaffrey. If you have never read these books and are looking for a world that straddles fantasy and science fiction to fall into, I highly recommend them.

To Infinity, and Beyond!

multiversetheoryThe other side of this cosmic coin is the idea that there is one timeline for every choice made by every person who has ever lived, because reality splits based on these untraveled roads. There is world where you had strawberry jam on your toast this morning, and another where you had grape jelly. If that sounds daunting, keep this in mind: people are not special. If we follow this idea to its logical extension then there has to be a new branch of existence for decisions made by the human race, then there must one for every dog, fish, amoeba, and atom that makes up the known (and unknown) universe.

So let’s bring our time traveler into this scenario. He travels back in time, or he doesn’t. He makes it to the right time, or he doesn’t. He eats a cheese sandwich, or he doesn’t. While choking on the cheese sandwich he steps on a man’s foot, or he doesn’t. This man is his grandfather, or he isn’t. The man is angry, or he isn’t. They draw pistols at dawn, or they don’t. The time traveler kills his grandfather, or he doesn’t. Not to mention what anyone is wearing that day, whether they put on after shave, kissed their kids goodbye, or put on their pants starting with the left or the right.

For the sake of stories, people don’t generally roll with this notion to the extent that I just demonstrated, because it gets confusing and weird and bogged down in details about pants. Some people only focus life-changing events or big decisions, such as where to go to college or missing the train where you would have met the love of your life. They figure the stuff about pants will probably work itself out, and amounts to very little in the grand scheme of things, and they are probably right. It mattered very little what I was wearing or what I had for breakfast the day that my husband’s eyes met mine across the crowded lecture hall, but the fact that I signed up for a class so far outside my major made all the difference.

But, let us return to our time traveler. We can’t totally abandon everything in the multi-verse, because some choices DO make a big impact. In the case of the traveler, the fact that he traveled through time at all is a huge deal. It seems safe to assume that ripping the fabric of space and time asunder would be enough to create a new branch of the timeline. Next, killing grandpa (let’s call him Mr. Smith) would definitely count as a big deal, at which point time would bifurcate again. Aright, so in this one branch of time where the traveler went into the past Mr. Smith is dead. But, this is still linear time we are talking about here and the split between time travel and no time travel occurred AFTER the events in Mr. Smith’s day, so the time traveler would be safe from disappearing. Instead, there would be a whole new branch of time that snapped into existence to reflect the absence of Mr. Smith.

3103879_700bSo, the time traveler will not blink out of existence. In fact, even if he went back to when the most advanced creature on the planet was a reptile and killed them all, he would still exist in the multi-verse. The biggest issue, then, becomes picking out the right timeline to land in after the trip is over.

Back to the Present

Please do not mistake these ruminations for lack of love or respect for time travel tales. I enjoy them precisely because they make me think about things like this. The idea of visiting another timeline where the choices were all different is an exciting train of thought, and exploring these meanderings through time in stories is a unique way to navigate an examination of the human condition. In a way, traveling into the distant future is a way to cheat death. Traveling into the past allows an opportunity to see our roots and find out more about what brought us here in the first place. We experience the present so clearly, looking for a way to bring the past or future into such focus is not just understandable, but laudable.

I mentioned it in Part 1 of this article, but for people interested in time travel, I cannot recommend The Time Traveler’s Almanac enough. It is an incredible collection that spans over a century of the best short stories around.

Until next time…

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

How to Punk Your Steam Part 10.1: Make it Travel Through Time (Fast Forward)

Do you remember the first time you had a crush? Well, how about an author-crush? That’s what I call it when I find an author whose work I enjoy so much that I feel compelled to read his or her entire collected works. In recent years, this has included Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne, but it all started with Kurt Vonnegut. I vividly remember the experience of reading Slaughterhouse 5 in high school, and within a year I had read every one of his 14 novels. Not only was Slaughterhouse 5 a gateway to science fiction in general and Vonnegut specifically, but it was my first exposure to time travel in literature.

SH5In Vonnegut’s story, the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is “unstuck in time.” He does not travel to the far flung past nor the distant future. Instead, he is able to travel along his own timeline, from birth to death, and is doomed to do so forever. For the reader, the story takes one through different events in his life, but not in a linear fashion, and he always returns to the same experience. He and his platoon were trapped in a slaughterhouse during the bombing of Dresden in WWII (like Vonnegut himself), and he finds himself reliving this trauma over and over again. Pilgrim makes these journeys within his own body, he is not watching the events of his life unfold from outside himself. Rather, he re-visits scenes from his life but is powerless to change them.

rod-taylor-time-machine (1)When a person mentions time travel, this is not what usually comes to mind. Generally, we think of a person climbing into a contraption such as the one in H. G. Wells‘ classic The Time Machine and riding their way through time, their own body unchanged. This may happen purely out of curiosity, but as often as not the goal is to avert a disaster. In some earlier installments of this series I discussed alternate histories and making your story futuristic, so it might seem like there isn’t anything left to say about time. I may have discussed the past and the future, but that still leaves us with the mechanics of time travel.

For my birthday in 2013, I received an incredible collection of short stories called The Time Traveler’s Almanac. This tome, numbering a whopping 948 pages, was edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (of The Steampunk Bible fame), and contains the best of the best when it comes to time travel fiction. In addition to tales written by notables such as Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov, there are very interesting essays that divide the sections. The information in this article is largely adapted from “Time Travel in Theory and Practice” by Stan Love.

Moving Forward

We are all traveling through time, it is simply in one direction at a uniform speed of 3600 seconds per hour. This doesn’t sound nearly as fun as it is to imagine a quick jaunt to the Jurassic or popping over to 2300 for a cup of hydroponic super coffee. This is the stuff the imagination, of science fiction. But, hard science does offer some interesting tidbits about what we could expect from time travel with the knowledge we already have.

a2435a1c-cb94-490c-c15f-0ac7c7e61ab1Albert Einstein offers us two theories concerning traveling forward through time, a General one and a Special one. General Relativity has to do with the interaction between extremely massive objects and smaller ones that are trying to escape their gravitational pull. Now, assuming that your ship can move at just barely slower than the speed of light, and you are trying to get away from say, a black hole or a neutron star, time acts really funny. Inside the ship, time will slow down, at least as it appears to an outside observer. If you get too close, the tidal forces of the black hole will tear you apart. The side of the ship facing the gravitational force would experience a stronger pull than the other side, and stretch away from the other side of the ship, causing the whole thing to elongate. This phenomenon has the delightful name of “spagettification” or “the noodle effect.” The side closer to the gravitation force will also experience time slightly differently (due to gravitational time dilation) than the side that is farther away, and both of these are different than what the outside observer experiences.

Black-Hole-buchi-neri-divoratori-m9wctksxoda99agmfnd7uhouhedq8i5phvhs8vkh4o

When I learned about Special Relativity, I was in a delightful class with the nickname of “Physics for Poets” (the more lyrical counterpart to “Rocks for Jocks”). My professor was a long-since tenured, adorable old man who wrote and illustrated his own text book, which meant stick figures and rudimentary rockets. He explained the classic Twin Paradox of special relativity using stick figures named Moe and Joe (and later their sister Roe, but we only need the first two for this theory). This thought experiment has been part of the discussion of physics since the early 1900s, and will remain a thought experiment until we are able to travel at near light-speed.

Alright, so there are twins named Moe and Joe. Moe gets into a rocket ship, and Joe stays behind on Earth. As Moe’s rocket approaches near light-speed, Joe checks in with a telescope. Moe will appear to be moving in slow motion from Joe’s outside vantage point. Moe’s clock will tick at a slower rate than Joe’s, and the wavelengths of the light source in her rocket will shift toward the red end of the spectrum (because they are being made longer through the noodle effect). When Moe returns to Earth, she will have experienced a fraction of the Earth-time that Joe did, and so Joe will be older.  There is a lot of math and experimentation with super small objects to back this up, and you are welcome to explore that further on your own if you are really into facts and figures, but the stick figures and kindly old professor was good enough for me.

So, in theory it is totally possible to move quickly into the future, but so far we haven’t come even close to reaching the speed required to try it out with a human being. A person would have to get up to about 300,000 km/second in order to do this, and so far we have not discovered an energy source capable of generating this much energy. And frankly, if we did, I doubt we would use it to hurtle someone into the future. Because, like I said, we are already moving into the future all the time.

Later this week, we will take a look at the scientific implications of moving backwards through time, so stay tuned for part 10.2 of the How to Punk Your Steam series.

Steampunk Sourcebook: Victorian Vampires

Fun Facts and Context

  • There are many different terms for vampires (also spelled vampyre in English), such as vyrkolakas (Greek), Bulgarian and Macedonian вампир (vampir), Bosnian: lampir, Croatian vampir, Czech and Slovak upír, Polish wąpierz, and (perhaps East Slavic-influenced) upiór, Ukrainian упир (upyr), Russian упырь (upyr‍ ’​), Belarusian упыр (upyr). However, “nosferatu” was not actually a term in any language for vampire until it appeared in a travelogue. Most likely, this word came from a mis-attribution of a word the loosely means “devil” or “demon” in old Romanian, and referred specifically to the illegitimate offspring of illegitimate parents.
  • Cultures across the ages and the globe have some variation of the vampire in their mythology. But, the vampire as we know it in the English-speaking world is largely based on the same handful of European legends, and aspects of these stories have become canon. The Victorian era (and those immediately before and after) was when many of these tales were recorded for the first time. This is what we know about vampires from that era:
    • They are dead. Or, undead to be more precise.
    • They are cold, on account of said dead-ness.
    • They have bad breath.
    • They drink blood. They don’t seem to do so maliciously, rather they are trying to prolong their existences. (Though of course, certain individuals who were probably jerks in their regular lives as well as their after lives, prove to enjoy mind games in addition to supper.)
    • In these stories, there is a first-person narrator but it is never the vampire. There is a survivor telling a tale to others, be it around the fire at Christmas or just to record it for posterity. This gives the stories the feeling of a warning or morality tale.
  • draculaThen there are the things that we all think we know about vampires, but only became canon later in a large part because of films like Nosferatu (1922) and Dracula (1931), which were both more or less based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. Here are some examples:
    • They hate Christian stuff such as crucifixes and communion wafers. Despite being one of the first things a person will say if you ask them to describe a vampire, I didn’t find many references to this particular phobia in my research. This appears to be a totally Victorian era addition to the lore. It may have had something to do with the belief that the bodies of heretics do not in fact decompose.
    • They can turn into other things, such as bats, wolves or mist. Again, this is not common. They may have power over animals, but this seems to be more like a large predator scaring away smaller ones rather than some sort of magical ability.
    • They need to return to their coffins (or at least to the soil in which they were buried) in order to sustain themselves. Blood alone is not enough. Though many vampires rest in their coffins, this seems to have more to do with safety than any real need.
    • Vampires hate garlic. This is from the Slavic vampire tradition, from which Stoker drew for his material. People in this part of the world believed that garlic was effective against a number of supernatural evils, including witches. If one was suspected of cavorting with the supernatural, they were given garlic either raw or cooked into a dish. This practice continued as late the 1970s in some churches in the Slavic region, as well as stuffing the mouths of the deceased with garlic to keep evil spirits from inhabiting the body.
    • They sleep all day and only come out at night. And, when it is their nap time, vamps don’t put up much of a fight.
  • Then, of course, there are things that are true for some tales and not for others. The earliest vampire stories and myths that influenced the Victorian era were from places like Hungary and, of course, Romania. Each culture has a slightly different take on vampire detection and habits. For instance:
    • Hungarian vampires only feed on family members. In small, rural villages this could mean that an entire settlement can become infected with vampirism due to the shallowness of the gene pool. The family tie vampires seem to be the most concerned with making more vampires, while the majority are only eating folks to keep themselves living.
    • Some vampires only come out at night, while others are at total liberty to walk about as they please.
    • Some vampires are snappy dressers, while others prefer to wear whatever rags they still have from their burial.
    • Many vampires have been imprisoned for centuries, only to awaken because of a disturbance of their tombs. This is an interesting parallel to another fan favorite of the Victorian era, stories of a mummy’s curse.
    • While some tales favor burning the body as a means to a final end, others advocated the driving of a stake through the heart, decapitation, an incantation/prayer, or some combination of these. Starvation can occasionally do the trick, but usually only incapacitates rather than kills.
    • As convenient as it is for vampire slayers when their victims turn to dust, this isn’t always the case in the lore. This seems to only happen if the vampire is extremely old, where new vampires just look like corpses once slain.
    • Some vampires are cold-blooded predators, while others feel really bad about what they are doing to their victims and try to make what is left of their lives pleasant.
    • Some of them have hypnotic powers which can be used to seduce their victims or to make witnesses keep a vow of secrecy.
    • In some cultures you should never speak the name of a deceased person whom you suspect could rise as a vampire or it will come to pass.
    • Though many vampires take pains to get a formal invitation into their victims’ homes, others just break in and take what they want.
    • Some vampires are made by other vampires, but living a “sacrilegious life” in Greece could also do the trick, and includes such small infractions as drinking too much. Slavs should also be on the lookout for people who are excessively happy, while we are told that in the 1700’s in Moravia it was not uncommon for dead people to show up at a party and point out the next to die, who will repeat the performance for the next victim unless precautions are taken.

Vampire-Killing-Kit

As I discussed in last month’s How to Punk Your Steam article, the steam era was full of supernatural stories and creatures to lurk in the shadows of our nightmares. Unlike today, it was not uncommon for people in the 18th-19th centuries to see dead bodies, either right after death or after they were exumed to make more room in an over-crowded cemetery. Public executions and dissections were treated as a cause for celebration. But, even though there was more exposure to the dead, the nature of decomposition was not well-understood. Sometimes corpses just refused to look the way people thought they should, whether due to the amount of moisture or acid in the soil, depth of burial, or some other factor. This often lead to supernatural explanations for totally natural phenomena.

varney-coverMen and women penned vampire tales for periodicals, short story collections and even recorded myths in their travelogues. I recently finished a fantastic collection of these stories published in 2010 called Dracula’s Guest: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Victorian Vampire Stories and edited by Michael Sims (The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime, Arsene Lupi, Gentleman Thief). The following is a partial list of vampire stories based on his selections, and while many are old enough to be in the public domain they can be hard to track down on their own.

A Mystery of the Campagna, Anne Crawford

A True Story of a Vampire, Eric, Count Stenbock

And the Creature Came in, Augustus Hare

Good Lady Ducayne, Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Let Loose, Mary Cholmondeley

The End of My Journey, George Gordon, Lord Byron

The Family of the Vourdalak, Aleksei Tolstoy

The Mysterious Stranger, Anonymous

The Tomb of Sarah, F. G. Loring

The Vampyre, John Polidori

Varney the Vampire, James Malcom Rymer

Wake Not the Dead, Theophile Gautier

How to Punk Your Steam Part 6: Make it Feminist

emma-watson-he-for-she-speech-1The words “Feminism” and “feminist” have become controversial as of late, but I had always been planning to have this subject be a part of this series. For many of us living today, it can seem ridiculous to consider that half of the population was denied the right to vote (and some people denied it twice, once for their sex and again for their race), but the suffrage movement was considered radical in its day. There is an excellent display of photos, paraphrenalia and accounts by British suffragettes at the Museum of London, and I got a real appreciation for the violent opposition they faced for something which we now take totally as a given. Feminism of course transcends the right to vote, but equality between the sexes (or all along the gender spectrum, depending on who you ask) is the underpinning of it all.

You’ve probably heard of the Bechdel Test, but in case you haven’t, here’s the skinny. Alison Bechdel wrote a comic strip in 1985 that featured two women discussing movies. One tells the other that she never sees a movie unless it satisfies three criteria: There are at least two female characters, who talk to each other, and their conversation must be about something other than a man (any man, it doesn’t have to be romantic). Later versions also include that the female characters must have names, and there are of course some biases here against settings or storylines where female characters wouldn’t work in the narrative, but it is the baseline often studied by statisticians. (It should also be noted that just because a work of fiction passes this test, that does not make it inherently feminist. There can still be an overall misogynist message or scenes that degrade women whether or not they pass this simple test. The point is that the test is incredibly bare bones and it is still difficult to pass).

It turns out this is actually incredibly difficult to find in most Hollywood films, and books and television don’t fare much better.

fifth-element-milla_400
Mila Jovavich as Leeloo in The Fifth Element

So let’s take these criteria one by one. First, there must be at least two female characters. It is so difficult to find anything that even satisfies this simple first step. I have noticed in several movies and books that there will be a nod to womankind in the form of a single female in a sea of male faces, and she is often the smartest or kick-assingest one in the cast. In the movie 9, for instance, there are sentient dolls which are totally gender neutral to look at, but one of them has a female voice actor behind it. This is the doll that takes action and performs acts of derring-do. Hermione Granger is the bright one in the Harry Potter trio and Leeloo from The Fifth Element is engineered to be a perfect being.

This is of course better than having no female characters at all, or falling into the timeworn pattern of the early days of film-making where women are only there to be rescued by the male heroes. But I still find this kind of tokenism problematic. In a way, these characters are given special abilities or power in order to justify their presence in the story, because just being a human isn’t enough. They have to be made somehow exceptional or they are not welcome to join “the boys’ club.” In The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film, for instance, Mina Murray is the only woman in the league (which of course, carries the word gentlemen in the title) and filmmakers thought it was necessary to make her a vampire in order to give her some cache in the group. (This is a deviation from the books, by the way, where Mina is the team leader through force of personality.)

barbarella-2Okay, so criteria #2: the two female characters talk to each other. I call this one “The Bond Girl Paradox.” Almost every spy movie features at least a few female characters in the story. They may be heroes or villains, they are always hyper sexualized, and may even be smart or good at their jobs to boot. But, they never overlap. They only interact with the male central figure, but rarely occupy the same space and even if they do, their focus is totally on the James Bond character. Again, this is a step in the right direction, but still puts the man at the very center of the story. This occurs in lots of films, books and TV shows, but I can only think of one movie I have ever seen where a series of beautiful men are throwing themselves into the path of a central female character, and that was Barbarella circa 1968.

I noticed something strange while I was working on my own novel. I couldn’t figure out why I was having trouble with a certain exchange between characters, and then I realized that could have been because it was a conversation between women. I have had so few examples in what I read (especially because I read a lot of scientific romances for my website) that I was probably having an issue formulating this conversation without the experience of reading to back it up. It was only a momentary issue, and I went on to write several scenes where my various female characters have talked to each other on a variety of subjects, but I can’t help but think of this strange moment of realization.

And now, the last step: These two women must be discussing something other than a man. In real life, women have jobs, hobbies, and friends that they talk about. Some enjoy discussing sports, others brew their own beer or go on wine tasting trips. My mother-in-law and I went on a quest to try all of the breakfast joints in her town, and I have sisters-in-law who make their own paper or spend free time practicing calligraphy. I have spent the last 10 days with over a dozen women, and only a few sentences this whole time has had anything to do with significant others or one’s relationship status. And besides giving a character something to talk about, hobbies and interests add depth to people and more interest to scenes.

Woman diving from pier in 1892 (originally appeared in Victoriana Magazine)In the Victorian era, your female characters may be more limited in the types of employment that they could have than today’s women, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have interests and hobbies. Before television, people read extensively, supported the arts, joined organizations like The Temperance League and volunteered through their churches. They had opinions, sometimes totally biased due to misinformation or culture in which they live (and isn’t that fascinating?), and they would discuss them with gusto.

If you are looking for some great Victorian-era women, I suggest you check out The Murdoch Mysteries series. In the first few seasons, it suffers somewhat from the tokenism I mentioned earlier (though occasionally side characters are female) in the form of the coroner, Dr. Ogden. Later, a second coroner comes onto the scene and these two women and their friends try to run a female candidate in an election.

Do you have a favorite steam era book, film or TV series? Does it pass this simple test? Please comment below!

(I will be expanding this article to explore what it means to be a “strong” female character for my upcoming nonfiction book, The Steampunk Handbook)

Want to read about more ways to “Punk Your Steam?” Check out my page for links to parts 1-5.

How to Punk Your Steam Part 3: Make it Multicultural

For some people, Steampunk isn’t Steampunk unless there is some connection to jolly ol’ England, but I find this view to be unreasonably limiting. The period surrounding the Industrial Revolution in England saw unprecedented opportunities for travel and exploration, and the people of Western Europe became fascinated with (sometimes fictionalized) accounts of these journeys. These travelogues were definitely influenced by the culture of the observers and can tell us just as much, or in some cases more, about the writers than the places they actually visit.

For instance, Jules Verne’s contrasting characterizations of the phlegmatic Phileas Fogg (English), the emotional and adventurous Passepartout (French), and the short-tempered, violent Colonel Stamp Proctor (American) from Around the World in 80 Days, as well as the unflappable Hans (Icelandic) from Journey to the Center of the Earth, are all attributed to their country of origin. He and Arthur Conan Doyle also capture classist attitudes that were prevalent at the time in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Lost World, respectively. In both of these stories, there are the people who are really considered people (the aristocrats, scientists and journalists) and those who are barely regarded as such (servants, fishermen, crew and porters). When reading The Lost World, I was particularly struck by this when at one point a character laments being left “completely alone” by his comrades, when in fact there are several native people carrying his gear only a few feet away.

These attitudes were very real and abundant, and it is one reason that there are people who openly criticize Steampunk. They believe that to laud the writings and styles of those times is the celebrate this kind of bigotry and narrow view of the world. I completely disagree. Steampunk is a chance to confront issues like increasing wealth disparity and racism that still exist today. We’ve made some great social strides in the last 100 years, but we are still far from having “fixed” these problems, and fiction is a wonderful way to open the discussion, not to mention the minds of readers. As authors, we can create any world we want, be it “true” to the times we want to reflect, or acting as a direct confrontation to the ideals of that period.

As you probably know, one of the best places to find information about multiculturalism in Steampunk is the Beyond Victoriana website, but if you have never visited I highly recommend it. This the blurb from their homepage:

The Nutshell Explanation
“Beyond Victoriana is the oldest-running blog about multicultural steampunk and retro-futurism–that is, steampunk outside of a Western-dominant, Eurocentric framework. Founded in 2009, Beyond Victoriana focuses on non-Western cultures, underrepresented minorities in Western histories (Asian / Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, First Nation, Hispanic, black / African & other marginalized identities), and the cultural intersection between the West and the non-West.”

One of my favorite features of this site is how many videos of panels and discussions they have posted. Here is just one of the may they have to offer.

The Arrival cover
The Arrival cover

I also enjoy the work that Suna Dasi and Yomi Ayeni do over at Steampunk India. The relationship between England and its various colonies during the Victorian era is a fascinating bit of history and cultural intersection. I missed connecting with Suna while I was in the UK last summer, but I did get a chance to chat with Ayeni while he was selling and signing books at Weekend at the Asylum in Lincoln. I picked up one of his books, The Arrival, and I plan to review it a little bit later in 2015, but the world of Clockwork Watch goes much deeper than just the three books. Ayeni is actively engaged in “transmedia” which involves telling a single continuous story across many different media including online participation, live theater, and film as well as books and graphic novels.

But, there is a lot of the world that was never colonized by the Brits, and there were fascinating things going on during the time period most often involved in Steampunk. Bulgaria, for instance, has a very interesting history. Since living here I have seen distinctive 19th century architecture from the neo-Byzantine period and learned about the turmoil and uprising against the Ottoman Empire during the 1870s. Another place I have called home this year is Greece, which faced impoverished conditions in the 1890s that forced many of its people to the flee to the United States in hopes of finding a better life. Spain had an Empire that rivaled England’s and was in turmoil after Napolean’s occupation (1808-1814), paving the way for multiple uprisings and changes of leadership. History is full of stories just begging to be told through a Steampunk lens!

Bath house, Sofia Bulgaria
Bath house, Sofia Bulgaria

Steam Garden posterThe mid to late 1800s also saw an unprecedented “opening” of Japan. Britain had colonies as far east as China, but Japan had remained totally isolated from the rest of the world until the American government negotiated the first trade agreement in 1851. By 1854 Japan was doing a brisk business in Western Europe, and items like silk and kimonos were all the rage. There are some beautiful examples of this in the Victorian and Albert Museum in London. According to an article published in 1854, “In view of the events that have followed, the ending of Japan’s self-isolation and opening of the country, first to American commerce and later to world-wise intercourse, must now be regarded as an achievement of momentous consequence, far exceeding in important all that even the most prophetic statesmanship of the time could foresee” (Matthew C. Perry)

Steampunk itself has recently gained traction in modern day Japan, and they now hold their own Steampunk events.

And let’s not forget that there was racial and cultural diversity within English-speaking countries. The experiences of free and enslaved Africans in the US in the period surrounding the American Civil War would have been very different than those of their white counterparts. Out West it was largely Chinese immigrants who built the railroads, and the fight for the Alamo (1836) resulted in a victory for Mexico.

Bringing in some of this diversity can really add depth and interest to a story or costume, and you can be sure that many of the people living during the Victorian era would have been very aware of these goings on.

Want to see more images of multicultural Steampunk? Check out this post.

Looking for more fun ways to “punk your steam?” Read the series!

Have you found good examples of racial and cultural diversity in any Steampunk works? Please leave a comment! 

How to Punk your Steam Part 1: Make it Futuristic

The deeper I delve into this genre, the more I find to love. There is such a variety of things to see, wear and do, and so many different ways that people have found to be creative within the aesthetic. When I decided to write a “how to” series, I sat down and had a good think about everything I have learned about Steampunk since starting this blog, and I came up with 12 different ways that I have encountered to give the steam era a twist. So strap on your goggles and hustle your bustle, because I will be bringing you a new How to Punk your Steam article every month during 2015. You can check out the other parts of the series here.

Bringing the Future into the Past

The early movers and shakers in the genre of science fiction set the stage for contemporary authors to dream big when it comes to the kinds of technology one could find in the 18th,19th and early 20th centuries. Jules Verne brought us the Nautilus, H. G. Wells took readers to the moon, Mary Shelley woke the dead, and R. L. Stevenson introduced a concoction that let out Dr. Jekyll‘s dark side, just to name a few. Technological innovations were being developed at an incredible rate, and these new innovations had a deep impact on society. Science fiction grew out of a natural tendency to ask “what if?” and to project the effects of these changes into the future. Steampunk authors also do this, but the “future” is often in their own past. With the benefit of both hindsight and foresight, they can draw from the world of early science fiction as well as from their own lives to create interesting twists on the Industrial Revolution and the greater implications of the Age of Enlightenment.

The Age of Enlightenment (aka The Age of Reason or just The Enlightenment) spanned the mid-1600s to the late 1700s. Due to innovations in printing technology the century before, philosophers like Sir Francis Bacon and Rene Decartes, as well as scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton, were able to share their ideas with unprecedented speed. Literacy was spreading, due in a large part to the use of the vernacular in both religious and popular texts. As printing technology improved during the Industrial Revolution, moving from hand crank operated to steam-powered, it became less expensive, and the demand continued to grow. This, in turn, lead to an explosion of writing, both fiction and non-fiction, and its subsequent consumption on a mass scale. The world would not see such a leap in communication capabilities again until the World Wide Web arrived in 1989 (the “internet” was invented 20 years earlier but did not offer access to the average person). It should come as no surprise that Steampunk also came into being around the same time, drawing from the past to inform the present and the future.

One popular trope in Steampunk literature is the introduction of fully functioning automatons. They are often at the behest of the forces of evil and the heroes must overcome a foe (or in many cases an army) that is practically immortal. Some are run solely on clockwork or steam power, and others are an amalgamation of biological and mechanical elements. Anyone reading these works is aware that this kind of technology has never come to be even centuries later, but that doesn’t stop it from being an interesting game of “what if?”

In the case of automatons, the creators are taking something that has never happened and put it into an earlier time. In other instances, they may only be taking liberties with a few decades. It only takes a clever character (with the right funds and circumstances) to take technology that was really available during their time and modify it to fit a need, like the use of sonar in Murdoch Mysteries for instance, or be the first to create an innovation that we do have a basis for in history. A good example of the latter is the world of The Difference Engine, where the completion highly sophisticated computers leads to something resembling the internet centuries before it really came to be. The “futuristic” technology cannot help but have a large impact on society, and the authors carry the implications to a logical conclusion.

I won’t address the issue of time travel in this post because I have a whole article devoted specifically to time travel planned for another month, but this of course offers interesting opportunities to mesh the past with the future as well. If you are looking for resources to help inform the level of technology available to your own creations based on the time period, here are some places to start:

18th century (1700s) Timeline of Inventions

19th century (1800s) Timeline of Inventions

20th century (1900s) Timeline of Inventions

Bringing the Past into the Future

Another genre of science fiction that sometimes dovetails with Steampunk is post-apocalyptic fiction. In these stories, authors postulate that some kind of event, be it natural or human-made, causes society as we know it to crumble. Often, humans have exhausted the materials, like petroleum, the power our world now and need something to replace it with. The heavy, durable materials of the past have a lot more staying power than the flimsy plastics we use today, which leads to the human race falling back on earlier forms of technology, such as steam and clockwork, in the face of political or ecological disasters.

One good example of a post-apocalyptic setting with a steampunk feel is the world of The City of Ember. The tragedy that befell the earth is not elucidated until later installments of this four-part book series, and the timing is difficult to pinpoint. The citizens of Ember exist in a strange limbo between past and present, where they have access to electricity but have lost the knowledge of how or why the generator that powers the city functions. As I was doing my research I also ran across Terminal World, which came out in 2010. In this scenario, the human race has been confined to a single city with different “zones” that support different levels of technology, and includes a military comprised of airships.

On the other hand, there doesn’t need to some huge, tragic event to facilitate people living with less technology far into the future. Firefly, for instance, is a wonderful space-western where the people inhabiting “the border planets” have much less access to technology than the central ones. By expanding to new planets and moons, people find themselves living once again like pioneers of the old West with space ships instead of covered wagons. Another good example of this approach is The Iron Jackal, where readers follow a crew of space pirates on their adventures. The massive territory and lawlessness of space creates perfect opportunities to draw parallels between the future and the past.

Do you know any other examples you’d like to share? Please comment below!

Check out How to Punk your Steam Part 2: Make it Playable

The Albert Memorial

People spend a lot of their time focusing on Queen Victoria, but the Prince Consort Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel (but just Prince Albert for short) was also an incredibly influential figure in shaping the city of London. Among other things, he was instrumental in organizing the Great Exhibition (1851), reforming education in Britain, and championed the cause of the universal abolition of slavery. Though their marriage was to some extent arranged, the Prince Consort and the Queen clearly had a loving relationship, and when he died at the age of only 42 in 1861 his passing deeply affected Victoria. She wore mourning garb for the rest of her reign– her black clothing and understated appearance have become closely associated with her iconography and are seen in many depictions and monuments.

Albert MemorialThere are many memorials and buildings that carry Albert’s name, and my favorite was the Albert Memorial in the Kensington Gardens. The huge, Gothic Revival-styled architectural part of the sculpture was “opened” in 1872, but it wasn’t formally dedicated by the Queen until the seated figure of Albert was placed into it in 1875. The polished bronze of the sculpture and the gilded angels on the canopy glint in the sunshine and catch the eye even from a great distance.

The figure of the Prince Consort is not the only sculptural element of the memorial. There are also eight allegorical stone sculptures that are divided into two groups. One set expresses the Victorian sciences and arts of agriculture, engineering, commerce, and manufacturing, while the second set reflects the continents of Asia, Africa, The Americas, and Europe. The entire memorial is surrounded by a gorgeous iron fence painted burgundy and gold. There are also several mosaics in the canopy as well as a frieze, but the fence keeps you from getting close enough to see these elements well. I was really glad for the zoom feature on my camera, which allowed me to see some details, or you might consider bringing binoculars.