Tuesday, March 02, 2010


Here is a nifty article at the Smart Set, via the League of Ordinary Gentlemen (how appropriate!).

The aesthetic movement Steampunk wants to bring the wonder back into our relationship with machines. Its tack is to fully embrace (and affect) an Edwardian orientation to the world. Though Steampunk has been a growing cultural trend for a few decades, it really came into its own in the aughts and is now a full-fledged phenomenon. Steampunks dress like the Wright Brothers and Arctic explorers. They write alternate history fantasies in which alien clones ride around in dirigibles by the light of gas lamps. Steampunks are fascinated by mechanics, and Steampunk art, jewelry, and fashion often involve gears, wheels, pulleys, and, of course, steam: a laptop computer fused with a rickety typewriter; an arcade game redesigned to look like a mini-submarine. What most defines Steampunk as a culture, however, is attitude. The “punk” in Steampunk confronts technology's alienating qualities with messy DIY defiance. The “steam” (besides its literal connotations) is almost like another word for magic: brute, utilitarian contraptions powered by clouds, and breath — ephemeral energy.

Steampunk tries to capture that Edwardian moment when steam power still ruled and the romance of technology lay precisely in the line it toed between destruction and possibility. Equally fascinated by flying machines and trench warfare, Steampunk is both optimistic and nihilistic. I like to think of this attitude as Gleehilism. It's this Gleehilism that makes Steampunk one of the defining aesthetic movements of the early 21st century.
Image: Extraordinary gentlemen/woman.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Do androids dream of electric sheep?

That was the answer to a quiz question on CBC Radio One's comedy show The Debaters this morning. It is the title of the Philip K. Dick novel that was the inspiration for Bladerunner.

I read the Dick book in a fresh hardback copy right out of the public library in 1967. I wonder what my teenaged self would have thought about today's little incident.

Time travel, even if it is one way, is interesting and puzzling. Reference: The Door into Summer, set in the remote year 1970.

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Thursday, July 16, 2009

The New York Times finally notices Jack Vance...

...now that he's 92 and blind. A development right out of Vance's fiction, which is always more like "real life" than you might suspect at first blush. To say the least.

Carlo Rotella is to be congratulated on an excellent article. Thanks to Brad DeLong for pointing this out.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Frederik Pohl tells stories...

...and if you are an old science fiction fan, you know he's got a bunch.

Here is a fascinating and touching one about Arthur C. Clarke.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Time for some more Crown of Creation

The Jefferson Airplane on the Smothers Brothers Show.

I feel a desire to point out that the words of this song come, more or less, from an excellent post-apocalyptic novel by John Wyndham entitled The Chrysalids (UK) or Rebirth (US). This book was an assigned text in one Toronto high school for years, presumably until too many copies fell apart. Not a bad choice. Perhaps it led a few students to conclude "I've seen their ways too often for my liking" a little more quickly.

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Russia's steampunk future

English Russia says:

"Some say that Russian Post Office is considering on using special Postal Dirigibles on the distant Siberian parts of Russia and those are leaked project drawings for this project."

The designers seem to have taken the whole steampunk aesthetic to heart, as these pictures indicate.

Steampunk is a retrospective futurism: stories featuring technology as it might have developed with airships rather than airplanes, in a world that hadn't yet gotten to the First World War, or never did. The movie The Wild, Wild West is a good example; League of Extraordinary Gentlemen a not so good one.

Note in this picture the Golden Compass in front of the building?
That movie, too, has steampunk elements.

Homage, I believe that's called.

Update: Eventually steampunk turned into this. Ah, nostalgia.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Living in the present: Phil Dick's world

The same evening I watched 300, set in a mythic past where people with delusions of godhood really like body piercings, I saw on TV an episode of CSI: New York where the cops had to investigate a murder by tracking his/her avatar down in Second Life. I've occasionally written here about my occasional sense of "living in the future;" watching the episode Down the Rabbit Hole, I had a slightly different feeling, that I was living inside a Philip K. Dick novel. Dick was a prolific science fiction writer who worked mainly in the 1960s and 70s. If you don't know his books, you may have seen films based on his work, especially Blade Runner and Total Recall. I'm very fond of Blade Runner, which I think Dick would have liked, but even it does not give more than a hint of what Dick's universe was like. He was scorned by many dedicated SF readers back then because he tended to focus on the ludicrous or trivially aggravating aspect of the future. A good example is quoted in a recent article on Dick in the New Yorker (brilliantly entitled Blows against the Empire; hijack the starship!):

In “Ubik” (1969)...the first premise is that the ancient human dream of communication with the dead has been achieved at last—but, when you go to speak with them, there is static and missed connections and interference, and then you argue over your bill. At the beginning of the novel, one of the heroes, Runciter, tries to connect with his “passed” wife, Ella:

“Is something the matter, Mr. Runciter?” the von Vogelsang person said, observing him as he floundered about. “Can I assist you?”
“I’ve got some thing coming in over the wire,” Runciter panted, halting.
“Instead of Ella. Damn you guys and your shoddy business practices; this shouldn’t happen, and what does it mean?” . . .
“Did the individual identify himself?”
“Yeah, he called himself Jory.”
Frowning with obvious worry, von Vogelsang said, “That would be Jory Miller. I believe he’s located next to your wife. In the bin.”
“But I can see it’s Ella!”
“After prolonged proximity,” von Vogelsang explained, “there is occasionally a mutual osmosis, a suffusion between the mentalities of half-lifers. Jory Miller’s cephalic activity is particularly good; your wife’s is not. That makes for an unfortunately one-way passage of protophasons. . . . If this condition persists your money will be returned to you.” . . .
Facing the casket, von Vogelsang pressed the audio outlet into his ear and spoke briskly into the microphone. . . . “This is very unfair of you, Jory; Mr. Runciter has come a long way to talk to his wife. Don’t dim her signal, Jory; that’s not nice.”
As the author of this article, Adam Gopnik, implies, this is just too similar to someone today complaining about their telecom problems.

I got a strong Phil Dick flavor from Down the Rabbit Hole. It partly took place in an online social interaction "world," and this had a touch of Dick's fascination with reality lurking behind appearances and semi-human simulacra. Most of the action, it turned out, was the result of a plot to kill a Congressman who met women in Second Life as a way of initiating affairs; Dick could have written that, his books were full of fraught relationships. But what drew the Dick comparison to mind was the little remote device, armed with video cameras, that the cops sent into a silent apartment to show them if there was any danger lurking. If it had only made a cute noise or held conversations with the cops it would have been a perfect Dick touch.

And none of this was at all fantastic; it's just life in the present, as depicted on broadcast TV.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

An optimistic American

At the Group News Blog.

No matter how true it is that things are terrible, you do need some optimists to get things moving in the other direction.

This is how Americans used to talk -- and may again.

Anyone feel like writing some good science fiction?

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

I heard future archaeologists weep

As I picked up little pieces of trash at our medieval-re-creation-event campsite prior to leaving, I thought I heard future archaeologists weep over the destruction of evidence for a peculiar late modern sub-culture. But it was probably just a delusion caused by too much time in the sun. Chances are that such archaeologists will not be the poorly-supported scholars of today, but treasure hunters. Not Indiana Jones-style golddiggers, but specialists in directing miners to the most valuable lodes of modern junk for recycling purposes.

This thought owes something to Gene Wolfe's multi-volume novel the Book of the New Sun, from the 1980s. When I read it my reaction was "Finally, an SF author who is paying attention to what is going on now!" (The main character is, or starts out as, a torturer. So I guess he's still relevant.) I was more than a bit disappointed by the ending (all the world's problems solved by the Return of the King) and never read the sequel, The Urth of the New Sun, but I got a lot of good reading in before that let-down.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Robert Heinlein was born on July 7, 1907. His centennial inspired this article in Reason Magazine which does a reasonable job of summing up his career and influence.

As someone who like so many others was deeply influenced in my youth by Heinlein, I have a few things I'd like to add to Brian Doherty's article.

First, it's a little unfortunate, but in the United States perhaps unavoidable, that the whole framework for discussing Heinlein is based on how it fits into American cultural obsessions. I like, however, Doherty's final conclusion that Heinlein was a "full-service iconoclast." Well said: whatever your sacred cow, Heinlein could slaughter it with a few well-chosen words or a long, perhaps excessive rant. Whichever way he managed it, he'd make you think -- if not necessarily agree with him.

Second, Doherty says little, except in connection with conscription, of Heinlein's loathing for slavery, and nothing at all about his hatred for racism. A complete and utter rejection of racism was not so common among Americans of the early 20th century, especially those raised in former slave states. As for slavery itself, no child who ever read A Citizen of the Galaxy (a bit of an homage to Kipling's Kim, but smarter) will doubt for a second that slavery is evil or that slavers' excuses for their attempts to own human beings are contemptible.

Third, and perhaps even more important than the second point, Doherty hardly touches on Heinlein's own great obsession, and the lack says a great deal. Heinlein spent most of his life not just writing about space travel, but promoting the real thing, and his influence on government research into rocketry in the late 40s and early 50s is an untold story. Heinlein believed that space exploration and the expansion of the human race throughout the universe was the obvious road to a great future. His extraordinarily influential juvenile novels were so because they made that future expansion -- with its rewards, costs, challenges and unimaginable discoveries -- look real and attainable. He would be appalled that going to Mars is for most people a fantasy, for the American leadership a cheap talking-point to be trotted out once to distract people from the rolling catastrophe.

He might say now, why can't we have the world of Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars -- quite a scary place in some ways -- instead of the futility of the Iraq War and Darfur and heads in the sands about global warming?

Soundtrack: Written while listening to a track called They Came in Peace by Tranquility Bass, cablecast by the Galaxie music network of the CBC.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Living in the future (?)-- battling Apocalypses

Brad DeLong says it best in his post Battling Apocalypses, where he cites other linked material. The story, briefly, is that the location of Jesus' appearance on the Last Day has become a minor (we can hope) issue in the American presidential campaign. And as Brad points out, there are international implications...

This reminds me that Robert Heinlein's pioneering science fiction series "Future History" featured a theocratic dictatorship in the USA.

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