A Conversation with The Steampunk Scholar

As a burgeoning steampunk fan I was thrilled to speak on several panels with The Steampunk Scholar at last year’s Pure Speculation Festival in Edmonton. Mike Perschon, the man behind, The Steampunk Scholar, is indeed scholarly – a doctoral student at the University of Alberta and a professor of English at Edmonton’s, Grant MacEwan University.

Mike knows his stuff and the stuff he knows is cool. So cool, that after a short discussion with my high school, social studies teacher husband, he’d convinced him to use Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, an alternate history, steampunk creation, in his classroom.

We’ve kept in touch and will hopefully sit on a panel together at this year’s PureSpec as well. In the meantime, I’ve continued to devour titles in the genre and have even written a steampunk short story which will be published in a YA anthology this October, Strangeways vs The Wraith. In hopes of earning the genre more fans and providing you with a quick and dirty education, here’s a Q&A session with The Steampunk Scholar on all things STEAM:

Your blog: http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.com/ is a wealth of information (and everyone should read it till the wee hours!), but could you give us the Coles notes version on what defines the steampunk genre? Any cliches / norms?

Early on in my research, I realized there wasn’t an awful lot that defined the steampunk as a genre. It seems more useful to me to define it as a style, an aesthetic, that gets applied to genres. That’s why we’ve got steampunk adventure, steampunk fantasy, steampunk romance, etc. But my definition of steampunk as a style contains three, possibly four elements. First, steampunk evokes the nineteenth century, either by setting the story in an alternate version of that time period, or by positing another time or place that feels like the nineteenth century in some way or another.

Second, steampunk is retrofuturist, which is to say, us imagining how the past imagined the future. So Jules Verne and H.G. Wells aren’t steampunk – they’re futurists, looking ahead. Steampunk looks back. Third, steampunk most often includes technofantasy – technology that seems scientific, but is really based in fantasy. For example, despite the physical reality of how airships really operate, steampunk often invents better materials or a special fuel that permits air travel in a technology we abandoned for pragmatic reasons. That technofantasy is often industrial in nature, but that seems to be saying the same thing as the first point, so I haven’t decided if that needs to be a separate aspect or not.

What do you consider to be the first steampunk novel?

Michael Moorcock’s “Warlord of the Air” in the UK, and “Morlock Night” by K.W. Jeter in the US. James Blaylock is arguably the first to write steampunk in the US though, with “The Ape Box Affair.”

Here’s a clip of Mike reading with author, Gail Carriger – whose Parasol Protectorate series is a delicious blend of steampunk and the paranormal.

Can you give us a bit of background on this appearance?

Gail and I met while speaking on a panel in 2008 at a Steampunk convention in Sunnyvale, California. We’ve remained friends by correspondence, phone calls, and meeting up at steampunk events. At the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition in 2010, I suggested the idea of doing a reading together, where she read female voices and the narration, and I read the male dialogue. She liked the idea, and since we were going to be at Steamcon 2010, we decided to do it there. The organizers of Steamcon were nice enough to give us a timeslot to do it, in a little salon room with an intimate crowd. It was a lot of fun, especially because my niece, who is a big fan of Gail’s, was in attendance.

Any steampunk films we should be watching? (And am I alone in thinking Sherlock had such potential, but fell a little short?)

I don’t think Sherlock Holmes fell short of anything except expectations for it. I think it’s very good, for what it is. It’s a good example of why I speak of steampunk as a style. There is definitely an application of the steampunk aesthetic in that film. As to steampunk films you should be watching, I’d recommend Katsuhiro Otomo’s gorgeous anime Steamboy. It’s slow moving in spots, but it’s an incredible technical achievement, if nothing else. Chris Nolan’s adaptation of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige is also noteworthy, as it is the only steampunk novel to be adapted into film yet.

If you haven’t watched The Mysterious Explorations of Jasper Morello on YouTube, you need to. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated: it’s a mix of Poe, Lovecraft, and perhaps Alien, or The Thing. Mike Mignola’s animated pilot for The Amazing Screw-On Head is also excellent, and available on YouTube as well. You can buy both as DVDs, but that’s only necessary for those who love image fidelity. The City of Lost Children also has steampunk elements, and is a brilliant movie, if you don’t mind subtitles. For TV series, I recommend the Anime series Last Exile, which has a new edition coming out shortly. Finally, I should mention that CityTV in Toronto is doing a steampunk spin-off from Murdoch Mysteries. You can check out the trailer here.

Where are your next speaking engagements?

I don’t have anything solid lined up, but there’s a very good chance I’ll be at Steamcon in Seattle in October, and Pure Speculation here in Edmonton in November. Steamcon is dependent upon research travel funds. Those don’t always get approval, but I’m hopeful. Steamcon’s an excellent event.

I had some other opportunities this summer, but had to turn them down, as I’m working hard to get a first draft of the dissertation completed, so I can focus on just enjoying writing for my blogs, and Tor.com. Plus, I want to get back to writing fiction, so I’ll likely have questions for you soon enough, Judith!

Of course! Can’t wait to read your work. Thanks for the steampunk lessons and I look forward to hanging with you in November.