LitQuake SFinSF

It’s probably been a year since I’ve attended an SF in SF event for a variety of reasons mostly related to extreme lameness on my part, so after seeing Rena Weisman at Denvention I decided to make a concerted effort to start going again. These events are always fun and the Hobart Building is scant blocks away from my place of employment so there really is no excuse. The October 9th event was devoted to Steampunk.

After work I ran a couple of errands downtown before heading over to Market and Montgomery. I was a little early and quite starving, so I grabbed a slice of pizza at Portico to tide me over and made it back at about ten past seven. I was surprised to find that there were well over three dozen people there already. As I approached the door I was handed a LitQuake flier and numbered sticker and everything made sense. I had forgotten that the evening’s reading was tied into the LitQuake events, which always draw a pretty good crowd.

As it turned out the Variety Screening Room had accidentally double booked the room, and things were due to start a little later than scheduled at 8 p.m. However there was a good spread of cheese and crackers, strawberries, and some tasty cookies as well as the customary cash bar, so I grabbed a Guinness and settled in.

As I waited I had a chance to observe the crowd. It was a nice mix of SF in SF regulars, LitQuake attendees, and a sprinkling of steamers, this last contingent identifiable by their costumes. The first costumer to show up was wearing a top had and bustle gown ensemble. A few minutes later another less flashy but very lovely lady in a wool dress came in along with her male companion who had a casual steampunk thing going on.

There were also several men in waistcoats, bowlers and so on including one very sharply dressed gentleman wearing dark glasses who turned out to be the special guest for the evening, Richard Bottoms, the CEO of the upcoming Steampunk convention, Steam Powered.

I wandered over to say hi to Jude Feldman, who was at the Borderlands table. She had a very nice selection of appropriate books, but I haven’t cracked open the Steampunk Anthonlogy yet and my wallet was already empty from SiliCon, so I merely browsed. A gorgeous Subterranean Press special edition of Joe R. Landsdale’s Flaming London with a Timothy Truman cover did catch my eye and I took a peek at the price. That sobered me right up, so I grabbed a second Guinness and perused the rather neat black and white art hanging on the walls until the film screening ended and they started letting us in.

Seating was limited due to the crowd, so we were let in by the numbers on the stickers we had received at the door. I was safely in the middle and managed to get a seat in the back row, which doesn’t have the best view but has by far the comfiest chairs. The woman seated beside me was a Borderlands regular and we discussed the store, the upcoming LitCrawl event, and the Airship Ventures Zeppelin while everyone got settled in.

Rena Weisman started things off by discussing the Variety’s Children Charity, on behalf of which these events are held, and then handed things over to the moderator, Terry Bisson, who introduced the panelists. In addition to Bottoms, the other guests were Kage Baker, Joe R. Landsdae and Rudy Rucker.

Bottoms spoke a little about Steam Powered and his own interest in the genre, citing The Wild, Wild West as an early influence. His opinion seemed to be that it’s an inherently hopeful genre, an optimistic reappropriation of the post-American Civil War era.

I hadn’t quite thought of it that way, but it’s an interesting perspective and would probably explain the attraction for many women who enjoy the femininity of the Victorian fashions but not necessarily the repressive culture and feminine stereotypes of the era, leading to the aviatrix and lady adventuress archetypes that are far more interesting to us.

The first author up was Baker, who read an excerpt from her story “Speed, Speed the Cable,” recently published in the anthology Extraordinary Engines. The story is about an attempt to sabotage the first trans-Atlantic cable. Baker explained her interest in steampunk as part of a more general interest in history and “living in the past” and related to her interest in the Elizabethan era and historical recreation. One of the most interesting parts of her story was the featured technological marvel, a Spanish submarine called La Ballena, built by real life Spanish inventor and revolutionary Narcís Monturiol and based on his actual creations.

Landsdale was up next with a couple of chapters from Flaming London, which it turns out is the second book of a trilogy. His story featured Mark Twain, Jules Verne and an uplifted seal named Ned and was terribly crude and quite hilarious. It didn’t hurt that Landsdale has a great presence and reading style, and is prone to humorous improvisation. His Western accent fit the story well and it was a definite crowd pleaser. I found myself wishing very much that I had a spare $95 on me. Since I did not, I’ve added the first of the trilogy, Zeppelins West!, to my next shopping trip to Borderlands.

Landsdale disdained the idea that he’s a steampunk writer, since not only has he written in all sorts of genres but he’s not much interested in clubs, cliques or movements. However he’s very much a lover of Victorian scientific romances and adventure stories with a particular interest in Western dime novels. Other influences he mentioned were the old Jules Verne movie adaptations such as Master of the World, and the Burroughs adventures. His tendencies lean quite definitely towards the American West pulp style, and reminded me of Howard Waldrop.

Poor Rudy Rucker was left with a hard act to follow, and indeed his reading of an excerpt from his novel The Hollow Earth started off just okay. After Landsdale’s flamboyant style Rucker’s voice seemed a near monotone. After a bit, either he relaxed or the story took over and things got quite better.

The story follows a teenage boy’s encounter with a young Edgar Alan Poe, and their eventual exploration of the theories of true-life crackpot John Cleves Symmes, who theorized that the Earth was composed of hollow spheres nested one inside the other and inhabitable on the inside. Rucker expressed a fascination with the Hollow Earth theories, which are far from just a Victorian era fancy and live on even to the present day.

After the readings, the discussion was quite lively, both from genre fans and from newcomers who had not heard the word “steampunk” prior to that night. Bisson opined that the genre is a mythologizing of the singularity, which he believes already happened. Much discussion was had about whether it is an inherently utopian or dystopian genre, whether it’s just a form of alternate history, fanfic about dead authors, or a desire to do away with the irritations of modern technology for something more elegant and accessible. It was all quite invigorating and naturally no conclusions of any sort were arrived at by evening’s end.

~España Sheriff

SF/SF Issue #75, 2008