Blast from the past: What is steampunk?

In preparation for this coming weekend’s third annual Watch City Festival, here’s a look back at a post that didn’t get transferred from my previous blogs. Janice and I enjoyed last year’s International Steampunk City in downtown Waltham, Massachusetts, and we plan to check out this year’s events with friends.

It is a period of incredible progress and terrible destruction. Communications and transportation grow ever faster, but they also hasten the spread of wars and disease. Old tribal rivalries and nascent social consciousness challenge vast aristocratic and mercantile empires, and urbanization and industrialization make life easier for millions but condemn millions more to seemingly inescapable poverty. The arts blossom as alliances tighten and harden, leading to what many believe will be a “war to end all wars.” It is the Victorian era, the setting for most steampunk.

Gears and gadgets

Steampunk is a style of speculative fiction that has been growing in popularity in the past few years. It has literary roots, readily incorporates elements of other subgenres, and is well-represented across media.

Steampunk is alternate history. Much steampunk starts with the premise of “What if everything that authors Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about was true?” From a North America where the Union didn’t win, to humans hunting dinosaurs (and vice versa), to trips through the ether to a verdant Mars, steampunk combines their wildest dreams.

Examples: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, graphic novels by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill; Deadlands (role-playing game)

-Steampunk is romance. The novel, classical and revived folk music (the opera, waltz, and polka), Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist painting, and modern theater all took shape during the 18th and 19th centuries. The swashbuckling stories of Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas reflect this era as much as the ones they were set in, as does the “noble savage” described by James Fenimore Cooper or Rudyard Kipling. International cuisine, celebrity fashion, and travel for pleasure (and the first amusement parks) are all things we now take for granted that started during that period.

Examples: Diamond Age, novel by Neal Stephenson; Castle Falkenstein and Lady Blackbird (RPGs)

-Steampunk is science fiction. Just as its sibling cyberpunk examines the relationship of humanity with technology (specifically cybernetics, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology), steampunk looks at how the Industrial Revolution reshaped the world. The railroad and the telegraph are only the beginning, with anachronistic conveniences such as personal computers, televisions, and jet packs weighed down by clockwork gears, levers, and dials. Real-world advances in engineering are exaggerated for dramatic effect. Getting there is half the fun, with dirigibles the signature conveyance of the genre.

Examples: The Difference Engine, a novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling; Etherscope (RPG)

-Steampunk is fantasy. Like its sibling gothic horror — another product of this era — steampunk often includes elements of the supernatural, just as spiritualism (the forerunner of the modern New Age movement), religious revivals, and utopian experiments were part of the real-world reaction to scientific advancement. Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Dunsanay, L. Frank Baum, and Lewis Carroll inspired J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other seminal fantasy authors. Lost civilizations still seemed possible.

Examples: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, anime by Hayao Miyazaki; D20 Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death (RPG)

-Steampunk is socially conscious. Labor unions, waves of migration, the long struggle for civil rights including women’s sufferage, and the polemics of Charles Dickens and Karl Marx are parts of the wrenching social change underlying steampunk. Unlike the real world, where racism and sexism were at their peak, people of color and women are often found among steampunk‘s protagonists.

Examples: Girl Genius, graphic novels by Phil Foglio et al.; Victoriana (RPG)

-Steampunk is idealistic. Like its cousins space opera, pulp cliffhangers, and comic book superheroes, steampunk roots for the little guy to become the big hero. The American West is full of legends and antiheroes. It’s all about attitude. Anyone can put on a pair of goggles, a bowler hat, and suspenders and attend a steampunk convention. Anyone can be a mad scientist, brave archaeologist, laconic gunslinger, or alluring spy. It’s a century and a half ago as many authors and we wish it could have been.

Examples: The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (television show); Space 1889 (RPG)

-Steampunk is multimedia. In the actual 19th century, wide literacy made possible the rise of newspapers and “penny dreadfuls,” the forerunners of pulps, current mass-market paperbacks, and online fan fiction. Steampunk has taken advantage of modern media, as demonstrated by numerous Web sites, games, sculptures, and graphic novels.

Examples: Rasputina (musical band); Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (video game); GURPS Steampunk (RPG)

-Steampunk is punk. Like cyberpunk, which looks at the disenfranchised in dystopian near futures, steampunk celebrates individualism and defiance of the established order. The 1960s weren’t the first or last time a bohemian counterculture was fueled by artistic license, sexual experimentation, and drug addiction. The chaotic mashup of genres, a loose approach to history and science, and an emphasis on fun have attracted numerous fans. Many goth enthusiasts have also embraced the retro styles of steampunk. The apparent contradictions or ambivalence reflected in the idealist/punk or fantasy/science fiction strains are just fine in this genre.

Examples: Wild, Wild West (TV show), D&D4e Eberron (RPG)

-Steampunk is (pre)apocalyptic. The steampunk era roughly coincides with the growth of the U.S. after the Louisiana Purchase to the outbreak of World War I. The so-called Manifest Destiny, the growth of democracy, and the “Gilded Age” would all come to a close as Europe’s dynasties and colonial domination came crashing down after Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. War machines loom on the horizon.

Just as we today look back at the Cold War or the 1990s with a nostalgia born of post-9/11 fears of terrorism, recession, and ecological catastrophe (floods, epidemics, earthquakes; with the attendant resurgence of zombies and other horror monsters), so too does steampunk look back at the 1800s through rosy lenses. In the 20th century, steampunk gives way to the pulps, noir, and dieselpunk. Who knows what else the 21st century will bring?

Examples: Sherlock Holmes (2009 Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. films); Forgotten Futures (RPG)

Note: This post originally ran on the “Vanished Lands” Yahoo/eGroup Web club in preparation for the Boston-area group‘s return to my “Gaslight Grimoire” steampunk/fantasy campaign.

Reunion report

On Friday, 13 April 2012, Janice and I took half a day off from work and drove to Utica, New York. We checked into the Best Western Gateway Adirondack Inn and had a solid dinner at Babe’s, a nearby Italian restaurant. After Janice’s parents arrived, we went to see our niece Laura as Cobweb in an entertaining community college production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The next morning, Janice, her parents, and I met Janice’s middle sister Shelly and her children Laura and David for breakfast at the Denny’s across from our motel. Janice and I then visited high school chum Damon F.P. at his apartment in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. We got to meet his cat Caesar, and we watched a little of That Metal Show, before going to check in at the Courtyard Tarrytown Greenburgh, where we have stayed before.

The highlight of the weekend for me was an informal reunion that Damon and I have been planning for a few months. Since we didn’t attend Archbishop Stepinac High School‘s official 25th anniversary reunion last year, we organized a gathering with some of our longtime friends in White Plains, N.Y.

Informal high school reunion and friends
Sean F., Frank J.D., Brian D.H., Carlo R., Damon F.P., and Steve M.

Carlo R., who was two years ahead of the Class of 1986, joined us, as did Frank J.D. We hadn’t seen Frank, who was also my first roommate at the State University of New York at Binghamton, in many years, so we were excited to catch up. After checking out the lacrosse game on a field that was much nicer than the one we remembered, we walked the halls of our alma mater.

Janice was patient as we recounted various adolescent misadventures, including a bus riot, assorted teachers who scared us or whom we drove to tears, and the pranks of our classmates. I was thrilled to reconnect with Frank, who was from Yonkers like me and now lives with his family in Connecticut.

We perused old yearbooks together. It’s hard to believe that it has been nearly 30 years since we first met! Carlo reminded me of our shared interest in Doctor Who and our space opera screenplay for “The Zarkonian Bomb,” which later evolved into the short stories of “The Adventures of Jason Delmar” and the “Vortex” role-playing game setting. We also noted the passing of our collaborators Bill B. and Ray C., among others.

Damon and I once sparred over politics, and we’ve been in regular contact — I’ve served as best man at his weddings, and we met other friends at a 40th birthday bash a few years ago. His impressions of our former teachers, including several priests, were hilarious. Frank was just as interested in sports, cuisine, and good times as I remember, and it was like finding a long-lost brother.

From Stepinac, we went to Executive Billiards, where we met classmates Steve M. and Sean F., as well as Brian D.H., who knew Frank at SUNY-B. and was my housemate right after college when we worked at NYPIRG in Queens. Hockey goalie and painter Steve lives near Frank in Connecticut, and Sean, whom we hadn’t seen since high school, lives and works in White Plains. I’ve been away for long enough to find that city’s growth is impressive.

I saw Brian and several other college friends in Manhattan last summer, but it was nice to catch up with him and everyone over friendly games of pool with beer and munchies. Damon, Frank, and I had tracked down a few other Stepinac alumni, but they couldn’t make it. Maybe next time.

All of us but Sean had a late dinner at Hacienda Azteca, a nice Mexican restaurant near the pool hall. Were it not for family obligations and travel plans, we could have talked even later into the evening. We may have matured somewhat, but I was pleased to find that our bonds have changed little. Unlike the promises scrawled into our yearbooks, I expect to stay in touch as our friendships are renewed as adults.

The next morning, Janice and I met Damon, Carlo, and Ron J.K. for brunch. Ron is another Binghamton alumnus and a core member of the “Westchester crew.” Unfortunately, we couldn’t eat at the City Limits Diner as planned because it had suffered a kitchen fire just as we arrived! Fortunately, we found Highridge Bagels 2 nearby.

Janice and I had a smooth drive back to Massachusetts, stopping at Cracker Barrel on the way home. I’ve still got some unpacking to do, but work, various games, and my historical weapons class have kept me busy. I’ll try to review recent genre television, restaurants, and more soon.

Moving weekend, 2012

Townhouse apartments in Waltham, Mass.
Windsor Village

Friends, thanks again for your support as Janice and I moved on relatively short notice. After a few weeks in which we hunted for a new apartment, sold or donated various items, and packed, our relocation was tiring but not as difficult as it could have been.

Janice had to work on Friday, 24 February 2012, so I dealt with the professional movers from Gentle Giant, which we had used before. They efficiently loaded our furniture, numerous boxes of books, electronics, and bags of clothing from the duplex in Needham Heights, Massachusetts, from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. I definitely couldn’t do it all myself (or even with friends and family) anymore.

I then met the movers at our new townhouse in Waltham, Mass., where they had to contend with more stairs as they worked from about 11:00 to 4:00 p.m. Of course, it was the one day in an unseasonably mild February when it snowed and rained. I met Janice for an early dinner at Stone Hearth Pizza, and we got soaked bringing a few carloads of odds and ends north that evening.

The next day, Janice’s parents, her youngest sister Melinda, and Melinda’s son Joshua came from Upstate New York to help set up our kitchen and clean out the old place. Janice and I sold a few more items, such as our refrigerator and carpets, and we junked our old TV and entertainment center (we finally got a flat-screen and a new stand for it).

Josh was disappointed that he couldn’t play with more of my toys, but most were still packed in my now-crowded study because it also had much of the contents of the basement space we gave up. Janice’s folks also brought barbeque (sloppy Joes) and funny cake.

We got the kitchen, master bedroom, and much of the living/dining room set up. Janice and I later checked the Needham site one last time and returned unused boxes to U-Haul. We also discovered that our unit is in a dead zone for cell phone service because of surrounding buildings. Once our land line is up, that’s not a problem, but it was while we were waiting to meet people!

On a blustery Sunday night, Janice and I met college chum Ben P.S. for dinner at Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square, Cambridge, because he’s in town for a major physics conference.

Janice had a shorter commute to work yesterday, while I waited for a technician from Verizon to reinstall our FiOS (telephone, cable television, and Internet) service. (We’re still trying to get our DVD and VHS players and Wii to work.) Fortunately, I had enough boxes to deal with that I hardly noticed their absence, even during the Oscars. I’m glad that The Artist won the Academy Award for Best Picture, since it’s the one nominee that I had seen.

We still have a lot of unpacking to do, mainly for the two offices. Having more bathrooms is nice, as is a more modern space with a patio. I’ll have to get used to parking again in a crowded lot and to my new routes to work. I hope our higher rent and incidental expenses — I still need to get to a hardware store, buy more bookcases, and find outdoor storage for snow shovels — will be offset by more reliable maintenance.

While we already know some of the restaurants on Moody Street, Janice and I look forward to again exploring the northwestern quadrant of Boston’s suburbs!

Relocation reflections

Eastern Massachusetts
Boston's suburbs

Yesterday, Janice and I picked up the keys to our new apartment. The previous evening, more boxes were delivered for our move, and we enjoyed a Valentine’s Day dinner at Acropolis, our favorite Greek restaurant in Needham, Mass.

As we continue packing and trying to sell excess items — with breaks for the annual Westminster dog show — here’s a quick look back at the places I’ve lived.

Childhood in New York City

1968 to 1970: Lower West Side of Manhattan

1970 to 1978: Kingsbridge Heights, the Bronx

I have hazy but fond memories of growing up in New York. The cosmopolitan mix of cultures and cuisines, including immigrants like my parents, made me who I am. I also recall the eventual spread of urban blight as pleasant parks filled with refuse and noisy gangs, especially around the summer of 1977.

Adolescence in Westchester County

1978 to 1986: Dunwoodie, Yonkers; Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains

Although my brother spent more of his formative years here than I did, I recall hours spent biking around, hanging out with other kids on Westerly Street, and discovering my lifelong hobbies with high school friends. Most of the people I knew then were of Irish, Italian, or Central European descent. My “Vanished Lands” fantasy campaign setting and “Vortex” space opera date back to this period.

College in Upstate New York, post-grad year back downstate

1986 to 1990: State University of New York at Binghamton

1990 to 1991: NYPIRG at Queens College-CUNY; Yonkers

Not only did I meet Janice and other friends during this exciting period, but my most rewarding (if least paying) job was teaching urban studies as a community organizer in Flushing. I recall walking through rain, my then-lightning metabolism helping digest dining hall fare, and late-night conversations about life, the universe, and everything.

Grad school, first adult jobs, and marriage around Washington, D.C.

1991 to 1992: Arlington, Virginia; the George Washington University

1992 to 1999: Park Towers in Falls Church, Virginia; BNA

The Clinton years were prosperous. After getting my master’s in international affairs, I spent a few years working my way up from being a file clerk to a copy editor. Our apartment was small, but we were within walking distance of restaurants, Metro rail, and comic book and game shops. Several college friends and my family also moved south.

Boston, Massachusetts

1999 to 2000: Somerville

2000 to 2003: Windsor Gardens, Norwood; CW/IDG

2003 to 2012: Bobsled Drive and Dale Street, Needham Heights

2012: Windsor Village, Waltham; TT

Janice and I first visited Boston during our honeymoon in November 1995. We liked the compact, historic neighborhoods and then-plentiful bookshops, and the information technology boom later provided both of us jobs. While I’ve gone through career and health ups and downs since then, we like living back in the U.S. Northeast, and we hope to continue exploring New England!

Dogs of the “Vanished Lands”

The archetypal fantasy dog
Mythical canine Cerberus

In honor of tonight’s broadcast of the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, here again is a list of the modern equivalents of the breeds that the fantasy peoples of my “Vanished Lands” homebrew campaign setting (currently using Pathfinder) would have:

>>Dwarves (guard dogs)

-Hill (Dverge; most common)-Corgi, Saint Bernard

-Mountain (Khaz, Deep; urban nobility)-Bernese, Mastiff

-River (seminomadic)-Otterhound, Skipperke

-Korubokuru (eastern)-Chow Chow

-Dune (Vanaka/Utuchekulu; southern)-Basenji

-Gray (Duergar, Derro; usually evil)-Bulldog

>>Elves (hunting dogs; Cooshie resembles Whippet)

-Sylvan (Wood; most common)-Pointer

-High (Quelanthi; urban nobility)-Poodle

-Grey (Faerie; mountain craftspeople)-Spitz

-Wild (Grugach; barbarians)-Wolfhound

-Bamboo Spirit Folk (eastern Sylvan)-Shih Tzu, Shiba Inu, Foo Dog

-River Spirit Folk (eastern Grey)-Greyhound

-Dark (Drow, Nannuattan; usually evil)-Doberman, Groendal

-Valley Elves (reclusive magocrats)-Vizsla

-Frost Elves (far northern cousins)-Borzoi, Samoyed

>>Note: Avariel (northwestern winged Elves), Thallasaquendi (western Sea Elves), and Dimernesti (eastern Sea Spirit) have other companion animals

>>Gnomes (terriers)

-Surface (Forest, Rock)-Border/Cairn Terrier, German Pincher

-Svirfneblin (Deep)-Dachshund

-Tinker (Minoi; Mad)-Schnauzer

>>Halflings (hounds; Blink Dogs resemble Beagles)

-Harfoot (Hobbits; closest to humans)-Corgi, Foxhound

-Faldine (Tallfellow; closest to Elves)-Airedale, Spaniel

-Woldan (Deep; closest to Dwarves)-Basset, Pug

-Shan Sao (eastern)-Chin, Pekingese

>>Humans (all purposes)

-Barbari (proto-Slavic/Central Asian)-Afghan, Husky

-Hifalendorin (proto-Western European)-Boxer, Retriever, Tervuren

-Saganim (proto-Celtic)-Newfoundland, Sheepdog

-Shengtese (Oriental, East Asian)-Sharpei

-Suthern (proto-West Asian)-Ibizan, Pharoah hounds

-Zarendo Islander (East African)-Rhodesian Ridgeback

>>Selected Other Humanoid Subspecies/races:


-Goblins-Bull Terrier, Wargs


-Bakemono-Hairless Chinese Crested

>>Ogre-kin (Orcs, Ogres, Bugbears, Oni)-Rottweiler

-Giant-kin (Giants, Trolls)-Neopolitan Mastiff

>>Note: Beast-kin generally don’t keep animal companions.