Tag Archives: steampunk

Amster Damned – A review

Amster Damned, by Nils Nisse Visser is a steampunk novel and clearly the start of a series. The author and I were recommended to each other by a fellow reviewer. I love how this stuff works.

The main action in this tale takes place over a very short time frame, as private detective’s assistant Miss Kittyhawk is in Amsterdam on a missing person’s case. We’re offered an initial setup that looks mysterious enough – the case of the missing botanist – but as a few days of plotting and dramatic escape unfold, it turns out there’s a lot more to it.

Now to try and review without spoilering!

As the main drama plays out, we get details of Miss Kittyhawk’s back story, and she is certainly not as she first appears. There’s smuggling in her family background, and social unrest in her social background and rebellion against the state in her heart, but the state seems to be trying to recruit her, so that’s clearly all going to go well in future books!

The world building around the action-orientated part of the plot is superb, as a large and complex reality emerges. This is a world in which time travel is a criminal offence that will get you executed if you don’t have the right paperwork. This is a world where the skies hum with many different kinds of craft, and the scope for adventure, and misadventure, is vast.

I have one fairly small niggle over the level of description and technical information – this however is mostly a matter of personal taste. I know for some steampunk readers, the details of dress and technology are really what makes the genre, so for some people this is going to be a distinct asset, not an irritation. Less description would have been more, for me.

What really made this book for me, was the startlement of getting a little way in and going “Hang on, I KNOW THIS PERSON!” I’ve since discovered that the author is in the habit of recruiting real life Steampunks into his fiction, which adds a really interesting extra dimension, to my mind.

I also really appreciated that this is a story whose main characters all come from the back alleys and slums, and who are not enchanted by the great colonial, industrial machine, nor are they profiting much from it – well – smuggling aside! There’s an explicit critique of the ways those in power see and treat the masses, and plenty of real life relevance in that mix.

On the whole, a charming and entertaining read with the potential to develop into a really good series. I’ll be looking out for the next one.

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The Dandelion Farmer – a review

Mathew McCall’s The Dandelion Farmer is an extraordinary piece of steampunk writing. It’s set on Mars in the 1800s (there are reasons, but they are a fair way into the book, so, no spoilers). So we have steam trains, guns, airships, and telegrams, in what would more normally be a high tech, futuristic kind of setup if you’re used to reading sci-fi. Retro-Mars is dealing with all the issues of empire and colonialism that beset the Victorian era. Exploring those issues in such an imaginary context is brilliant because it allows the author to raise issues and express the breadth of attitudes – from the abhorrent to the enlightened – without it being too uncomfortable.

There’s a definite wild west vibe when the book opens. An unscrupulous man is trying to make a land grab, and sends thugs to terrorise a farming family – the dandelion farmer of the title. The dandelions are being farmed for biofuel. Gun fights, chases, corruption and heroism duly ensue.

From there we get into unravelling the back story of Mars, seen from various perspectives. The plot moves forward around a quest to make touch with the apparently vanished Aresian people. There’s a fine example of the kind of thinking going on in this book. People who have come from Earth to colonise Mars, are Martians. To distinguish them from original peoples, the former inhabitants are called Aresians, for Ares, the older god associated with the planet. Earth people are Tellurians. However at the outset there are a lot of names for groups of sentient beings and there’s a lot of fun to be had figuring out, who exactly, is what.

The narrative emerges from ephemera – reports, telegrams, letters, diaries, text books. It means the story is told through multiple voices, and I found those voices consistent, identifiable and engaging. The possible downside is that often you see the same events two or three times from different angles. Either you’ll love this, or you won’t. I really enjoy the way characters emerge in this process, and doubt over what, precisely happened at key moments, can develop from the differences.

The politics are really interesting. There are female characters trapped in Victorian standards and modes of behaviour. There are also female characters striking out and breaking the rules and finding varying levels of support for doing so. While most of the main characters have titles, there’s plenty of attention drawn to the poverty and exploitation that goes alongside colonialism and empire building. There’s also an underlying theme about corporate power that speaks to modern issues and pulls no punches in doing so. The author asks explicitly what happens when democracy is for sale to the capitalist with the most money, and the real-world parallels are obvious.

In terms of world building, this book is vast and epic, setting up for what I hope is going to be a series. It stands alone, but certainly left me wanting a lot more, because I was so fascinated by what happens in The Dandelion Farmer. I want to know what happens to these characters. I’m an occasional sci-fi reader, and it felt to me as though Matt has read every book imagining Mars and somehow distilled it all down into this uber-text. As though all other writers had glimpsed facets, and he’s somehow seen the whole. It’s impressive. This is a Mars unlike any I’ve seen before (I haven’t read everything, mind) yet it seems familiar. The book is full of nods to other writings, some of which I laughed over when I realised what they were. It’s clever, funny, knowing, and rewarding.

On top of that, the book explores questions about what it means to be alive, to be human, to be not-human. No answers are offered at this stage and these, I suspect, will be key issues in future books.

You can find The Dandelion Farmer here – https://www.amazon.com/Dandelion-Farmer-Mathew-McCall/dp/1549539140


Beneath the surface

You can’t tell if someone or something is superficial by looking at its surface. (Yes, this is the post-Asylum steampunk blog post!). It’s easy to look at the kit and play in steampunk and decide the whole thing must be very silly, trivial and pointless. As Pagans we cheerfully do this to each other, we look askance at the ones who wear a lot of velvet, and the ones whose pentagrams are too big…

Seeming superficial doesn’t make something superficial. It’s only by looking more carefully at what something does that we can work out how to value it, and that valuing is itself a subjective process.

If something is superficial, it changes nothing. There are no significant consequences.

Of course how we spend our money has massive implications, so a Pagan who is all about the bling may be contributing to the Pagan economy by supporting original creators and makers. Equally they might be buying cheap tat, made by slave labour and thrown away too soon. Here are spiritual implications for superficial practices.

It is good to play, to mess about, have a laugh and do things for the sheer pleasure of it. That can look silly from the outside, but for the goth decked up to the nines, it can be a matter of soul and emotional expression that gets them through the days when they are obliged to tone down, fit in and seem normal. There’s a lot of creativity involved in dressing outlandishly, and the bard path is all about creativity. How we look has as much potential to be a meaningful art form as any other art form.

Too much seriousness can make us stuffy, egotistical, self important and anally retentive. It’s good to be able to muck about, to be able to risk other people not taking you seriously.

There are deeper layers to this, too. Visually manifesting your identity can help people feel a sense of belonging. It’s good to look around and know that, just for a little while, you are with ‘your people’. Be that a comics con full of folk cosplaying superheroes, a steampunk event full of hats, a Pagan gathering full of cloaks or anything else of that ilk. These things can affirm our sense of belonging. For many of us, day to day life is short on that kind of affirmation, some time on the inside of a group can be powerful.

Apparently silly things can have the power to transform people. I note from steampunk gatherings that people are empowered, encouraged and inspired by the experience and this often has consequences long after the event is over. These kinds of activities open the door to friendships, explorations, creativity, feeling able to make yourself seen and heard in other contexts.

On the whole, I think one of the most superficial things we can do is Pagans is waste our time putting down other people based on the surface we’ve seen. All that can do is make someone else a bit sad, or a bit angry for a while. Perhaps the person doing it gets a brief hit from being smug and superior, but if that’s where you go to feel powerful, you really have issues with a lack of power that won’t be dealt with knocking other people down.


Away with the Steampunks

One of the things I love about Steampunks is the number of people who are full on doing the thing they love without apology. Many of the people I’ll see in Lincoln over the weekend will be playing at being something they aren’t, whether that’s with extraordinary costumes, membership of some fictional team (like The Mars Expeditionary Force), tea duellers, leather batpersons…. there will be a lot of happy messing about.

Alongside that, there will be a lot of people who are being who they really are. Makers, creators, musicians, performers, costumers, tea duellers, leather batpersons.

I have yet to figure out quite what it is about Steampunk spaces that allows people to deselect the mute button and let all the glorious passionate madness out into the world, but it does. No doubt this is a big part of why I feel so secure and at home in these spaces.

Most of the time, the expectation is that we will dress in bland, sensible, unimaginative ways to blend in with all the bland people around us. We’ll keep our obsessions to ourselves. We certainly won’t paint nerf guns to look like brass and carry them in the street in case of zombie bankrobbers. Most of the time, we won’t let ourselves love anything enough to let it come pouring out into the world as some large and dramatic wave. But this weekend there will probably be jetpack races, and it takes a lot of love to build a jetpack and then run with it in a public place on a warm summer’s day.

This weekend the odds are I will laugh loudly, hug fiercely, share without hesitation, dress outlandishly, and move confidently. For a few days, I won’t be awkward in my body because this is a space where I know I won’t be fat shamed, or ridiculed for any aspect of my appearance. I’m going to sing loudly too (on Monday morning at the Cathedral Centre) and talk about the project I love (Saturday afternoon 3pm, also Cathedral Centre).

And when I come back next week, I will wonder, as I wonder every year, why more spaces can’t be like this.


The Adventures of Alan Shaw: A Review

Craig Hallam’s The Adventures of Alan Shaw is in many ways everything a person might expect from a steampunk novel. Set in something much like Victorian London, there’s lots of anachronistic technology – the monorail, dirigibles, automatons, some with ‘Babbage inside’ (I giggled about that, and about many other things). There’s also magic, crime, an inevitable event at The Great Exhibition, and a freak show. However, it is the ways in which Craig pushes out from those steampunk standards into unusual territory that makes this book such a good read.

Alan Shaw is a series of short stories, in chronological order. In many ways it functions like a novel, there are story threads that weave the tales together but each adventure is also a standalone. The main character is unusual because he’s a pauper. Steampunk can be a bit too fond of titles for my liking, so I really enjoyed seeing a proper filthy urchin taking the lead. At 11, young Mr Shaw is as dirty as he is disreputable. He’s also trying not to starve or freeze to death in a London that does not treat orphans kindly.

Although rescued from his sordid beginnings, Alan Shaw does not transform, Cinderella style into a handsome prince. He remains a misfit, no longer really working class, certainly not a proper fit for high society. He’s a young man with something to prove, and precious little sense when it comes to proving it.

There are all kinds of social issues laced through the adventures, and this is done with a light touch so it never feels like a lecture. Issues of what moral choices look like when you’re starving. Issues of class, and how society still works even now, advantaging some and crushing others. This is a London in which menial jobs are going to automatons. What are the poor to do? No answers are offered, but it parallels our own loss of employment to cheaper labour from machines. There’s some good subversion of gender norms, as well.

Colonialism is a big issue for anyone interested in reclaiming bits of Victorian spirit. I greatly appreciated the way in which Craig tackled this head on, with the final story of the book set in India. He manages the delicate balance of exploring some of the Victorian colonial mindset without ever letting the reader feel comfortable with it.

The book is laced through with humour, and written with considerable style. Craig has a real knack for working out which sense to draw on to convey a scene quickly. As a person whose thinking isn’t mostly visual, I appreciated having smells, sound and sensation as part of the descriptive mix. Plots bound along at a cheerful pace, characters are always rounded enough to engage, disaster is narrowly avoided. If you want to balance wild escapism with the option of dwelling on the implications, this is a very good read.

Alan Shaw on Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Adventures-Alan-Shaw-Craig-Hallam/dp/1908600322/ref=tmm_pap_title_0


My latest steampunk adventures

Last year at Asylum in Lincoln (biggest steampunk gathering in the UK) I spent quite a lot of time stood outside a venue being the signpost, because there wasn’t a sign, and one was needed. While I was doing that, another author at the event asked how on earth I’d ended up doing that. I said I’d offered. This year I’ll be co-running that venue, and Tom and I have had the honour of putting together a team of authors for the event as a whole. How did we end up doing that? Well, in no small part because we are the kinds of people who pile in and do what needs doing.

It’s not about the money, or the glory. Ok, it is a bit about the glory. We were keen to jump in because we want to change what happens around ‘literature’ at steampunk events. Tom and I will not be touring venues across the weekend as part of the author team, we’ll be looking after the Cathedral Centre/Steampunk embassy. If you’re in town, come and find us, it’s not a big building.

It would be fair to say that as things stand, ‘literature’ is not something most steampunks are that excited about, and with good reason. It’s not the sort of thing you can easily engage with when there’s loads going on. It doesn’t grab your attention like art or music, or clothes or devices or just about anything else at a steampunk event. If you aren’t already into an author, you may not be even slightly excited about hearing them read, and you don’t want to go to a talk about how they self published their first novel, and if you don’t write, the standard fayre of talks about how to write books may not appeal. And then there’s the room of gloom – I’ve seen these at too many events and not just steampunk ones. Tables full of books behind which mournful and obscure authors sit in puddles of grumpy entitlement wondering where all their adoring fans have got to.

Of course that’s not steampunk writing, or steampunk books as a whole, and even in the rooms of gloom there are always people worth meeting. This year, Asylum has taken a radical new approach to how it deals with authors. With that as our underpinning,  Tom and I have done a number of things to further change what happens. We’ve brought in more comics people – because unlike books, comics are easy to engage with quickly. We’ve brought in authors who are great performers, we’ve got all kinds of drawing workshops on the go, and the talks are full of ideas and interesting concepts. Around the authors we’ve lured an array of fascinating folk to come and do their thing at the cathedral centre, and I think it’s going to be a really interesting space.

We will be doing some Hopeless Maine stuff – we’re using it as a recruitment opportunity for The Hopeless Vendetta (if you feel a sudden urge to be recruited, comment below!) and we’re taking out a show called Songs from a Strange Island – a mix of material written for the Hopeless Maine project, (like the Hopeless shanty) and things that inspire us (gloomy and magical folk music for the greater part).

I know we’re not alone in wanting to see things change around books and book events. I’ve been having all the same conversations with the people running Stroud Book Festival as I’ve had with many people on the steampunk side. ‘Literature’ turns people off, and often what happens under that banner is dull and self-congratulatory. I want to see more spoken word content. I want to see authors stepping up to entertain and engage people. I want to be talking about books, comics, fat comics, ephemera, writing, and creativity. I want things people can join in with, not the literary on one side and the audience on the other.


Community and Creativity

Every now and then I get to write the acknowledgement section for a book, and I usually start it by saying that no book is written in isolation. You’ll find a number of books that specifically mention how important this blog is in my writing process. These are workouts, tests, development sessions, they help me build towards those bigger projects. The feedback I get here enlarges my knowledge, broadens my perspective.

Of course it’s not just books. We are all doing whatever we do in a wider context. Most of us are supported or encouraged, or inspired by some else. Most of us are interacting with others, in whatever way makes sense. We’re engaging with other people who do the things we do so that our work is rooted, and relevant. We don’t have to slavishly copy what everyone else is doing but at the same time… books by authors who have read nothing in their field are easy to spot, and seldom good to read.

In any project, we stand, if not on the shoulders of giants, then on the shoulders of our many ancestors of tradition. It’s interesting to think about who they are and what they have given us.

I’m very, very lucky in that I belong to a number of creative communities that support me and give me places to put down roots. Moon Books, my Pagan publisher, is very much a community of writers and fellow travellers. I feel connected to the wider Pagan community, too. I feel a strong sense of connection with the Steampunk community, it inspires me, and means there’s a group of people I feel I’m creating things for. There’s comics community, and folk community and local community and these are all part of my mix as well.

What’s proved even more powerful for me is to be a part of a creative community that shares – be that in gathering together to air poems, stories and music, or co-creating art, or passing written texts back and forth. People who are willing to make larger and deeper connections around creative process. You can read Kevan Manwaring’s It Takes a Village to Raise a Story – about a project I’ve been involved in recently.  It’s an excellent reflection on collective creativity.

I’m also in the process of building a collective creative space, as hopelessmaine.com slowly draws people in to its dark and crazy world. People are coming to it from all the places I call home, and that’s heart warming. It’s important that there be safe spaces for people to stretch and develop, and this is one such.

The image of the lone genius, set apart from the world, making their thing in isolation, is not a healthy image. It’s not a sane image, or an image that offers the creator much joy or comfort. Some of us do need to retreat to the high tower now and then, but if there’s no one waiting for you to come out bearing the fruits of your labours, it is a sad and lonely sort of business. It’s a lot easier to keep creating when someone else believes in what you’re doing, and when what you are doing is part of some greater whole.


Frankenstein Clothing

I hate throwing anything away – not if there’s any possible use it can be put to. Where I can, clothing that no longer works for me gets sent to charity shops. However, worn out, damaged, stained items have no re-sale value. So, finding re-uses for dead clothing is an ongoing issue, answered by rag rugs, rag baskets, and the like – these are traditional solutions to squeezing the last bit of mileage out of fabric.

I got in to Frankenstein clothing in my teens. I can sort-of sew – I don’t like sewing machines. But, my ability to think in 3D is lousy. Clothes making from scratch requires things I don’t have – flat space where you can cut cloth without being compromised by a cat would be useful, and I’ve not had that in a very long time. Working on the floor in the living room isn’t viable – I’ve tried. There aren’t patterns for the kinds of clothes I really, really want, and new bought fabric can be pricey.

What I’ve done for much of my life is to either pick up cheap second hand clothes, or up-cycle my own dead clothes to create something new, and weird, of my own imagining. Frankenstein clothes are often made of the dead remnants of other items – hence my name for it. It’s cheaper than making from scratch, I feel safer about mistakes if what I was using was on the way out anyway. I’ve got the shape of the existing garment to help me.

Over the weekend I did over a pair of trousers. I’ve lost a fair amount of weight, so they didn’t fit very well, and the cat had pulled threads on one thigh. I took off the old waistband and made a new one, shortening the waist. I turned the garment inside out – hiding the cat damage, and cut the seams and re-sewed them to enable the reversal. Then, with assistance, I took the legs off just below the knees. I’ve elasticated the new hem, and added broiderie angalise (black).

What this gives me is something evocative of the Victorian knickerbockers. An echo of the kind of garment women swimming and cycling in an era where it wasn’t acceptable to uncover, tended to wear. This is a look I can use for steampunk escapades, but it’s also a garment I will wear for other activities. I don’t have the space to keep a steampunk wardrobe, it all has to be wearable in the rest of my life. I’ve always liked trousers that stop below the knee, and I’ve no qualms about going out in attire other people will find weird, ridiculous or bemusing.

Every piece of clothing I can Frankenstein into a second life reduces my need to buy and consume. I keep usable things out of landfill, I get to play, and I get to wear outrageous things of my own imagining despite not having the technical skills to make my own clothes from scratch.


All Ages Communities

Being in the school system tends to culture us into associating with people who are within a year of our own age. For a lot of people, this habit continues through life, creating generation gaps and a lack of social cohesion. There are assumptions about what different ages and life stages mean. As a consequence, most social activity is either child free, or revolves around amusing the kids. Teenagers are expected to go off and do their own thing. Older people aren’t even present, much of the time.

Some events and locations will try to get round this by providing crèches and amusements for the younger folk, freeing up their parents to do the things. This of course still means dividing people by age.

All of this is very much on my mind because I’ve just come back from Lincoln’s Asylum – the biggest steampunk gathering in the country. It’s an all ages activity, in the sense that people of all ages can actively participate (some of the evening things are 18+ but given how many things are totally  accessible to younger folk, this isn’t a problem).  Kids really get into it, with costumes, and enthusiasm for many of the events.

What really affected me, was talking to older women who were not steampunks, but who were eyeing up attendees at the event. One woman said to me, “This is amazing, I’m 60 and there are people here who are older than me, and they’re dressed up and clearly having a fantastic time.” Of course Victorian based attire looks great on older folk in a way that modern clothing doesn’t. The assumptions about what older people can and should wear, in all other contexts, are both dull and restrictive, but steampunk elders can be as punked, glamorous, outrageous, playful and innovative as anybody else.

In most contexts for women, there’s a lot of pressure to appear young (while not falling into the ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ trap). We’re supposed to be sexy if we look young enough, and to cover up if we don’t. But not too sexy, so as to avoid the ‘slut’ trap. When we are older, we are to hide sags, wrinkles, grey hair etc as best we can. We are not to celebrate our aging. I love that in steampunk spaces none of this applies. The results are varied, wild, unpredictable and deeply inclusive of all kinds of ways of being female. There’s also an abundance of space to play with gender representation and identity as well, which is incredibly liberating.

It seems mad to me that we so often have so much age-based segregation within our societies. Communities gain breadth, depth and long term stability when they can accommodate people at all life stages. It’s a very different thing being in a space you know will always have room for you, rather than being conscious of an obligation to grow out of it at some point. It’s good to be in a space that genuinely makes everyone who wants to be there welcome, so long as they uphold the one rule – be splendid. I love what happens when the default is inclusion, and look forward to the scope for getting older disgracefully.

I suspect that no matter how old I get, I will always be a filthy urchin at heart, so I‘m going to need the spaces that won’t try and shoehorn me into a twin set and a sensible haircut.


My Druidry. My Steampunk

Recently at a Steampunk event, a very fine chap (Paul Adams) spoke about how just because something isn’t ‘his’ steampunk, doesn’t make it invalid. Like Druidry, steampunk has breadth and depth, and every so often someone tries to explain why some other set of people are doing it all wrong. This is a subject I’ve poked before, but new things have occurred to me.

When it comes to communities and interests, we should all have the right to choose how we identify and what we do. In any given community, there’s likely to be a critical mass forming a centre somewhere, and also people pushing the edges. To me, this seems intrinsic to a lively community. Enough definition, and enough challenge makes for something alive, able to change and not too controlling. The more people push at the edges, the more the people in the middle may feel they need to say ‘our bit is the true bit’ and reduce the size of the project to make it more ‘real’. They will vocalise the fear of being too diluted, too vague. It doesn’t mean anything anymore, we must get back to the core principles.

This way can lie fundamentalism, with all its nasty habits. However, if the centre has limited power, or ideally no real power at all, it can only make noise. Having people passionate about the centre is a good thing. It creates stability and gives the people on the edges something to rebel against. Yes, sometimes people can get so far outside a thing that they become something else entirely. This is also fine, so long as they don’t have the power to make everyone else do it their way. This is how we get new things, evolution, adaptation and learning.

There should be a little bit of natural tension between people who are part of the centre and people who push edges. We shouldn’t be afraid of that tension – it’s what’s holding the overall shape of the thing.

And let’s face it, if these processes of holding and testing had not already been part of Druidry, we’d still be wearing fake beards and white robes. We’d be a small, probably cultish thing centred around a few big names. Without our long, healthy history of people saying ‘sod that’ and going off to try their own thing, we could be a narrow and maladaptive little thing able to do only what its first few founders in the modern era were ok with.

If, ultimately, so many people moved to the edges that the centre collapsed, this would also be fine. It would happen if the centre no longer related to lived experience and social change. I’m passionate about Druidry, but if so many people ran off in different directions as to make it unviable as a community, I’d be fine with that. I would still do whatever it made sense to me to do, on my own terms. We don’t actually need the validation of other people doing it our way.

However great we think our practices are, they are never great enough to make people hang onto them when they want to be doing something else. I hold that this is true of all religions, all communities, all traditions and all cultures. If you aren’t driven by love of them, and working with other people of the same persuasion, what you’ve got is already dead.