Saturday, October 15, 2016

Steam Between Panels

First the good news: Melissa Scott has a new series of pulp era adventures mixing aviation, archaeology, and the supernatural. The books are coauthored with Jo Graham, and the first book in the series, Lost Things, is pictured above. A few books in there's an adventure set during Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia. Good stuff.

I learned about this new series during Eleanor Arnason's excellent interview with Melissa at Gaylaxicon last weekend. What I am writing about today is the fact that their discussion also helped me understand something that happened during my panel on Steampunk and Alt History earlier in the convention.

The steampunk panel featured Amy Griswold, co-author with Melissa Scott of a new steampunky alt history Victorian detective series that starts with Death by Silver, and Ginn Hale, known for her groundbreaking gay-and-sexy steampunk novel Wicked Gentlemen. Our panel was focused on steampunk and alt history as a vehicle for exploring stories centered on the experiences of LGBTQ people and other minorities.

We had a good discussion, sharing a number of anthologies, novels, and RPGs that touch on these forms of representation. I also shared some typologies of steampunk RPGs and the differences in how they deal with the conflicting themes of Empire and cultural diversity. My copanelists shared some really fascinating details on aspects of Victorian life based on their research. Their discussion of the complete lack of consumer protection, and the fact that many consumer products (including food and clothing) were adulterated with poisons and toxic chemicals was particularly intriguing. Urban Victorians lived in a toxic swamp!

There was one moment of awkwardness towards the end of the panel, when an audience member asked if we had read Sterling and Gibson's The Difference Engine.  None of the panelists had read it. I've certainly tried once or twice. I used to feel guilty about this until I figured out that Eleanor Arnason actually introduced a Babbage Engine in an SF&F novel earlier than Sterling and Gibson. See Eleanor Arnason's Daughter of the Bear King (1987).

Eleanor's interview with Melissa Scott brought home a reason why my two co-panelists and I never got around to reading The Difference Engine (1990). They were talking about cyberpunk (Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends was an important work in that genre), and Eleanor mentioned that she was never entirely comfortable with cyberpunk because it had too much Bruce Sterling.

Melissa Scott went on to amplify this point. She talked about writing Trouble and Her Friends as an embodied female response to the kind of masculinist mind-body dualism that we tend to see in cyberpunk, where the male mind prevails over all sorts of adversity, virtual and material. Both Eleanor and Scott highlighted that these same works of fiction (which they felt Sterling's work exemplified) showed white males making the most of the future while women and people of color remained stuck in the underclass.

Now you might agree or strongly disagree with their critique. But it rings a bit true for me when I reflected on the audience surprise in the steampunk panel that none of the panelists had read The Difference Engine.  I know one of the turnoffs for me early in the novel is the female character who is essentially a hostage of the male rogue protagonist. There is a similar turnoff early in A Game of Thrones which has made it difficult for me to make headway with that novel.

So rather than view myself as a "fake fan" or a "fan imposter" for not having read a seminal work, I am now going to consider the fact that a gay guy, and two female authors - each well-versed on steampunk and Victoriana - didn't find that particular "seminal" steampunk work very engaging. There are all sorts of reasons why a particular canon (or Appendix N) is insufficient.

I might still read The Difference Engine, but as I mentioned above, I have already read a good novel with a Babbage Engine. An earlier novel than Gibson & Sterling's.

Credit where credit is due.

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