On Steampunk

(or, Sign Me Up for Airships, Adventure, and a Pair of Those Ravishing Goggles)

For a long time, I only recognized steampunk as this sort of fringe fad within geekdom.  In my college days, it was the reason why there was always that one booth at conventions that sold ornate goggles, pocket watches, and impossibly tiny hats.  My opinion began to change in recent years as elements of steampunk culture and aesthetics grew more pervasive, or at least more noticeable within my own interests.  Now, I confess, I walked into a used book store seeking one work of steampunk-vs.-zombie fiction (in this case, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest), and yet I walked out with two.  Clearly, this has become a bigger sub-genre than I was previously aware.

© Kyle Cassidy via Wikimedia Commons

Truth is, there’s something vastly appealing about the whole steampunk aesthetic.  My current writing project even includes some steampunk elements.  But what is it about the genre that’s made it so popular, especially in recent years?

All I can say is what draws me to the genre.  For one, the pure visual aesthetics it offers are captivating.  On the one hand, you have the environments: sometimes bleak, grey, and heavily industrialized, other times elegant and ornate in the Victorian tradition.  Either path provides a reader, viewer, or gamer with a world packed with visceral detail, something familiar enough to be relatable but foreign enough to be exciting.  The environment can channel the gritty, coal-spattered atmospheres of industrialized 19th century Europe and America, where the working class struggled through harsh or potentially lethal conditions for the sake of progress, industry, and the ability to keep their families fed, or it can surround you with the captivating wonders depicted by authors like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, wrapped in an opulent, artistic setting.  Sometimes it can do both.  Then, there are the clothes, the devices, the vehicles and inventions.  There is something deeply satisfying about appropriating the ultra-feminine but ultimately restrictive Victorian era women’s clothing into something fit for a fearless explorer of the unknown, likewise with taking the garb of a proper gentleman and turning him into some sort of clockwork crusader.

Part of what makes the aesthetic so fascinating, particularly in regards to the mechanical aspects, is the sense of imagination it represents.  When you were a kid, did you ever try to make home movies, improvising flashy special effects with whatever you could find lying around the house?  Sure, someone somewhere with fancy cameras and computers could do it better, but you enacted your alien invasion scene using kitchenware and some of those leftover poppers from the Fourth of July, and it was epic.  In steampunk, there is a strong sense of scientific inquiry and wonder, but rather than leading to the inventions we now have, it leads to elaborate (and sometimes completely unrealistic) devices based on the technology they did have at the time.  The genre often utilizes the scientific and exploratory tone of science fiction, but it doesn’t hold itself wholly responsible to science fact.  Is it possible to create an automaton powered by clockwork and steam that can function for millenia, or a device made of brass and crystal that can travel through time?  Sure, why not?  The stance of steampunk seems to be that any logical hypothesis can be brought to fruition eventually by someone clever enough.  Still, even the most bizarre pseudo-science is governed by certain rules when it’s done well, just as good magic is governed by rules, so within its own paradigm, it remains believable.

Of course, as I pointed out earlier, there are many sub-sub-genres within steampunk.  Not all of them take such an optimistic approach, but they all seem to have some element of wonder, exploration, and discovery.  Maybe that’s what draws me most of all.  There is a promise of adventure, of unexpected marvels and untold dangers.  You don’t find yourself following “chosen ones” and impossibly powerful demigods, but regular people driven by curiosity and intellect, or resourcefulness and survival.  When these factors come together in the hands of a skilled storyteller, you’re in for a good time.

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Strong Female Character: Round 1!

(or, How “Strong Female Character” Has Become Toss-Around Jargon)

I’ve noticed that some people tend to use the term “strong female character” as a kind of archetype, a generalizing label.  They use it the same way they would “the anti-hero” or “the charming sociopath,” character tropes we grab at to quickly and conveniently sum up a character.  The problem is, a strong female character isn’t strictly speaking a trope, or at least, she shouldn’t be.  Few people generalize a “strong male character,” focusing instead on what specific qualities of strength they exhibit, but many people seem content to group any females with physical, moral, or emotional strength into one category without taking the time to elaborate.

Now, I admit that when I hear a story or game or film features a “strong female character/lead,” I consider it a point in the story’s favor.  I like to see members of my gender sticking up for themselves and/or kicking serious ass.  However, you don’t really know what you’re getting into when your character is described so ambiguously.  There are many ways any character can exhibit strength.  Using a few random films as an example, you could say that Elizabeth Bennet from Pride & Prejudice, Hushpuppy from Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Beatrice Kiddo from Kill Bill Vol. I & II are all “strong,” albeit in vastly different ways.

In one sense, there’s no harm in specifying the existence of a “strong character” in a work of fiction.  You’re saying that there is someone in the story with enough depth and integrity to make you want to read about, watch, or play her.  Showing appreciation for these characters motivates the storytellers to create and develop these and other characters with complexity.  Yet in other regards, it causes problems.

For example, as it’s used with more regularity, people begin to misunderstand or misapply the term.  When someone mentions a “strong female character” anywhere outside of a romantic or comedic setting, more often than not they are referring to physical strength in the sense of a warrior woman or femme fatale.  Similarly, many storytellers will try to justify that they have strong female characters by simply making them formidable fighters.  Over time, this becomes almost the expectation.  But as I already mentioned, there are many ways for a character to exhibit strength and complexity.  She doesn’t need to be a skilled fighter to be considered strong or an equal to her male peers, but this trait is too often used as a crutch to support an otherwise flat or objectified character.  As this expectation grows, some admirable pacifists get overlooked as weak and domesticated while some archetypal, often sexualized Amazons get mistaken for strong-minded, empowered women.  It’s not always the case, certainly, but it does happen.

In the end, using the term “strong female character” to evaluate a story is like using Wikipedia to research for a paper: it’s a great starting point, but if you don’t go from there to look a little deeper, the end result won’t reflect positively on either party.

Writing with Distractions

(or, Despite It All, I Still Love My Cats)

So, while writing at home, I frequently encounter this scenario:

 

Thankfully, my cords are inaccessible to kitties, but the rest applies.  For creatures characterized by their aloofness, my cats can be awfully needy when I spend a day at home.  So, have I come up with a method for beating this frequent distraction?  No.  No I have not.

In all seriousness, distractions are a massive productivity killer when it comes to big projects of any sort.  You need a few from time to time to keep you sane, but succumb to too many and you might as well give up.  For me, at least, writing requires a certain amount of time to sink into the material and get surrounded by it.  Anything that breaks the fragile imaginary world I’m diving into to pull my stories from throws me off my game and increases the amount of time I need to write the same amount.  What do you do when you’re easily distracted by things like kids, or tv shows, or in this case, cats?

First thing I’ve found is that being home is not conducive to getting a lot done.  Even a crowded, noisy coffee shop proves less distracting than being at home, provided you have some headphones to blot out the noise.  When you’re out somewhere, the task you’ve brought with you is the only thing you can do, so you might as well do it!  And for me, being in a public place makes me much less comfortable wasting time dilly-dallying with Facebook or checking updates on my 500 favorite webcomics.

The second thing that helps?  Finding a good soundtrack.  Complete silence leaves too much room for a cacophony of thoughts to fill the void, but listening to my favorite rock tunes just ends with me jamming out karaoke-style.  So, when it’s time to get down to business, I pull out the instrumental stuff.  My favorite music to work by consists of soundtracks from tv, movies, and video games.  These melodies can be beautiful, haunting, driving, and energizing, and they were designed as a part of a larger experience, often where plot, visuals, dialogue, or gameplay take precedence.  They tune out the distracting thoughts (as well as some actual distracting noises) and provide me with a mental place to work from.

The worst distractions come from inside, however.  Nagging thoughts about bills that are due, dishes that need to be washed, birthdays that need to be remembered … lose focus for even a few seconds and they can come cramming into your consciousness like half-drunk concert attendees catching the last metro train of the night.  Sadly, I don’t have a method for dealing with these distractions beyond hoping that I stay lost in the story I’m weaving long enough to keep them at bay.  You’ve just got to keep focused!  Keep trudging onward!  Trudging, I say!

Currently, my writing goals are outpacing me by a few thousand words, but they haven’t beaten me yet!  Good luck to anyone else out there working on something big!  Those little victories on distant horizons can sometimes be closer than you think.

On Love

(or, Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day?  No, for I Spent It Indoors Playing Video Games.)

It’s no secret that I enjoy my video games.  But for me, many games inspire something greater than enjoyment.  They inspire love.  Not a creepy kind of love, but the kind that is moved by beauty and virtues to admire from afar, like some sort of gaming Don Quixote.  There is something very special about the artistry and storytelling of games, and when done well, it’s completely moving!

I recently started playing Skyrim.  Yes, I know, that came out a while ago.  I’m almost constantly broke, so I almost never get a game when it comes out.  Needless to say, by the time I got my hands on this title and started playing it, people seemed to have formulated all the opinions they were going to form about it and slathered them all over the internet.  I came to expect something vast and epic, though perhaps lacking some emotional depth.  After a slow start and some fumbling with the controls (first-person can be my utter nemesis), I was on my way.  That first majestic vista you encounter after leaving the caves; that breathtaking view I’d heard so much about?  It didn’t do much for me, and at that point, I began to wonder if this game was simply overhyped to the point where I could never fully enjoy it.  I spent a couple game days running around on beginner errands, for some reason perpetually drowning in fog and rain, and I was almost ready to call it quits.  Then suddenly, one evening as I was walking into town, the sun set, the moons rose, the sky cleared until it was scintillatingly sharp and bright, and a magnificent aurora borealis struck out across the sky.  The scene took my breath away, and I just stood there for a moment, looking up.  It happened so suddenly and without warning, and somehow it conveyed to me all the depth and vastness of this world I was about to explore.  That was the moment I fell in love.

oooh … pretty …

It got me thinking about what moments like that made me fall in love with other games.  Was it the first time I stood before the Great Deku Tree in Ocarina of Time?  In Bastion, was it the first time I touched the ashen figure of an old friend and watched him crumble to dust?  Did Final Fantasy VII have me by the opening cutscene?  It was this and more, absolutely, but there is always that first moment.  Something beautiful or tragic or humbling takes you, and you lose yourself in the moment.  Maybe it’s something you want to explore, or something you want to protect.  Maybe it’s something you want to avenge.  Or, maybe it’s something you just want to sit and absorb into the recesses of your memory.  Whatever the scenario, games present it to you like no other media can, and that is why I love them.

A Journey of Words

(or, A Euphemism for the Long, Lonely Hours of Eye Strain and Carpal Tunnel)

I aim to be a writer.  Or rather, I am a writer in the sense that I can and do write, but I don’t have that hazy distinction of being “published.”  I suppose you have to finish something before that can happen.  You see, I favor that archaic form of literary expression known as the novel.  Novels, coincidentally, are often quite long and can take a rabbit’s age to complete halfway-decently.  At least, that’s what I’ve found.  So far, my dedication to my craft hasn’t managed to outshine my dedication to my job, my studies, my video games, and all those other trivial day-to-day concerns.  But this year, my goal is to complete, for the very first time, a full draft of a novel.  I mean, we survived a hypothetical Mayan apocalypse for cryin’ out loud.  It would be reckless not to go do something crazy!

NaNoWriMo Winner 2012Last November, I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writer’s Month) for the second time, and “won” for the first.  Those of you who are familiar with this event will know exactly what that means, but for those of you who aren’t, the goal of NaNoWriMo is for its participants to write 50,000 words of a new manuscript in 30 days (the month of November).  That is hard, but far from impossible – and I speak from experience!  But keeping up that pace?  That proves to be a bit more suicidal than I’d originally hoped.  Instead, I’m trying to write about 3,000 words per week until the first draft of the manuscript is finished (around 150,000 words, I’m guessing).  I’ll post updates here as I have them, along with insights on the process and what it’s like to forget what sunshine looks like.

Looking forward, I’m strangely optimistic.  I’ve already written a little over 60,000 words, what’s 90,000 or so more?  I’ll come out of this a legitimate author or a raving lunatic, so basically, it’s a win-win scenario.