Interview with Mike Perschon – Part 1

This week, we are talking with Mike Perschon, better known in the community as the Steampunk Scholar. His description of himself on his website says he is :

a hypercreative scholar, musician, writer, and artist, husband to Jenica, father to Gunnar and Dacy, doctoral student at the University of Alberta, and English faculty at Grant MacEwan University.

I first met Mike at the Steamcon convention in October, 2009, where his first panel was talking about the three stages of the personal/character evolution of Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo. It was such a great insightful presentation dealing with one of my favorite characters and books of all time that I stuck around to talk with Mike afterward.

In all the activity of the convention, we weren’t really able to connect much during the weekend, but through the marvels of modern aetheric technology, we’re in continued contact and meet again at the Nova Albion convention in March, 2010.

Airship Ambassador: Hi Mike, thanks for joining us for this interview. As readers of previous interviews here know, your name comes up frequently as a source of inspiration, information and motivation for others on several levels and aspects of the steampunk community. I, myself. thank you for your encouragement and feedback this last year. You’ve been a factor in how a number of people have gotten involved in steampunk, so how did you get started blogging as the Steampunk Scholar?

Mike Perschon: It happened a few months after I attended Steam Powered in California in the fall of 2008. I was visiting my sister and her family for the Christmas holidays in Houston Texas. I had two massive papers to write for my PhD coursework, and ended up at Rice University’s library for a day, doing research and a gargantuan amount of photocopying. While I was sitting in a cubicle with a stack of books on Verne and Space Opera, I rested my steampunk goggles on the stack, and took a photo. It started me thinking about doing a blog where I’d publish my formative ideas about the dissertation. When I got back to my sister’s place and started my writing, I took a break to create the Steampunk Scholar page on blogger.

AA: How did previous experiences prepare you for this role?

MP: If you mean the role of the Steampunk Scholar persona, then I’d have to say years of stage experience, as an actor, a speaker, and a musician. When I’m at conventions, that’s what I’m bringing to the table. Online, I’m accessing nearly 10 years of experience as a web-persona at my original site, gotthammer.com. Additionally, I’d say my recent work as an English instructor has helped me a lot – when you teach people how to write well, you teach yourself as well.

AA: What are the qualities a person needs as a blogger?

MP: Sheer nerve? I think it takes a very confident person to put themselves out there on the Internet and not sit in a dark room crying when you get slapped by detractors. There’s a certain level of arrogance involved, I suppose – the idea that what I’m doing is worth reading. No one asked me to start the blog, I just did it, and there’s an inherent arrogance to that. That said, I have a number of colleagues who just thought I was being an idiot for doing it. They figured someone would steal my ideas and research. I suppose that’s possible, but that hasn’t been the outcome yet.

AA: What are some challenges of blogging your ideas, opinions, and reviews?

MP: Avoiding repetition, especially now that I’ve nailed my thesis idea of steampunk being an aesthetic comprised of technofantasy, retrofuturism, and neo-Victorianism. I worry people are reading the blog and thinking, “Damn, he’s talking about technofantasy AGAIN.” The other challenge, which I think I’ve hurdled, is focus. Unfocused blogs don’t attract a strong readership in my experience. If you’re talking about steampunk one day and your dog the next, I’m unlikely to follow what you’re writing. I have a personal blog myself, but I don’t expect it to be the one people read regularly, aside from my mom. About a year ago I realized people were using the site as an acid test for their own steampunk reading lists, and that’s when I decided I’d focus primarily on books, and leave the fashion and DIY to more capable hands.

AA: What are the rewards of your blog, what do you look forward to?

MP: It’s been highly rewarding for pure geek-factor. I sublimated my geek for a long time while I was working as a minister – playing D&D and liking Conan the Barbarian was as bad in Baptist circles as being gay in the ‘80s, so I was definitely in the closet. As a result, I didn’t attend conventions or write about SF and Fantasy as much as I likely would have if I’d become an academic sooner. I used to get sent books on theology for review, but it was never as much as fun as getting ARCs of steampunk books. I never wanted any of the theology writers to sign their books, whereas I’m proud to have author signatures in my copies of The Anubis Gates and The Digging Leviathan. Getting to meet [Tim] Powers and [James] Blaylock was very, very cool. Or having Scott Westerfeld link to my article on the steampunk Disney stuff was very gratifying. And Gail Carriger and I are trying to work out doing a reading of excerpts from her books at some con, some day. I know this is all highly fanboy of me, but that’s been a huge part of the fun of choosing steampunk for my dissertation. I can’t deny that I’m a fan of these writers, and that has less to do with steampunk than it does their ability.

Aside from the fanboy joy, one of the other big rewards has been forming a community of friends who are into steampunk in one form or another. You know, some guy sits down at your panel and the next thing you know you’re Facebook friends, and then you’re doing an interview with him at his blog, only months before you’ll be roomies at Steamcon! That sort of thing! Chris Garcia has not only been a source of spaces for submitting articles with both Journey Planet and Exhibition Hall, but I just love hanging out with him at the cons. He’s one of those expansively gracious people – friendly to everyone. A number of the members of Legion Fantastique in San Francisco are also good friends, and have been since the start of my research – I don’t really even care if I make it to the next steampunk con in the Bay area, but I want to get back to see the people. That’s huge, because that’s something my wife shares in – she loves to hang with those people as well – it goes beyond steampunk. It’s just life. Like when she says she wants to get down to Seattle to see your garden and trade leafy green tips.

AA: Do you talk with other bloggers or authors to trade ideas?

MP: Sometimes. When I started out, I relied heavily on what other people were saying, but as time went on I stopped caring what the authors actually had to say, because I wasn’t approaching the research from that perspective. The perfect example of this is that I interviewed Ann and Jeff VanderMeer about steampunk early on, and in some correspondence early this year realized that Jeff and I don’t really agree as to what steampunk is. That’s not to disrespect Jeff, because he was instrumental in confirming the basic idea of the aesthetic for me early on, but to demonstrate how my reliance on others’ has changed.

I have Jake von Slatt to thank for breaking that reliance on others. He said something hugely encouraging at Steamcon last year, and it made me realize the same thing I did when I was working on my M.A.  In a nutshell, it was just a realization of my own abilities – some of that confidence and arrogance I was just mentioning. When I was a minister, there was a really strong push to always be mediocre – brilliance or creativity weren’t encouraged. So I’d say I spent a lot of my career trying to humble up what I was doing. That’s a reward of this as well, I suppose – realizing my own light, to paraphrase Nelson Mandela.

That’s not to say I don’t have people who are “in the conversation” with me. Up until the Great Steampunk Debate, I did a lot of corresponding with Cory Gross of Voyages Extraordinaire. He was an indispensable sounding board for my research, and continues to be, though not as often, since he’s pulled back from involvement with the steampunk community. I’m also hugely indebted to Piechur, the notorious man behind Steampunkopedia [NOTE: Piechur has sadly retired this website]. I know folks in the steampunk community have mixed feelings about Piechur, but we’ve always been on good terms, and he continues to challenge me both at the blog and through e-mail correspondence. His ideas and critical thinking spurred a lot of great discussions. Both Jha Goh and Ay-leen the Peacemaker are regular correspondents, which is very challenging for me, as they take me out of my WASP comfort zone.

AA: You’ve described steampunk as an applied aesthetic in your blog and at conventions, could you please explain that in more detail?

MP: I hated how people said steampunk could be anything. That’s a nonsensical statement, motivated largely by a wish to be inclusive. As an academic, I can’t say “steampunk can be anything.” It’s the same frustration Jess Nevins talks about in the Steampunk Reloaded anthology when he says steampunk “has no utility as a critical term.” So I was looking for a way to talk about steampunk in a critical fashion. And since I agree with Nevins, that steampunk lacks a “set of clearly-defined tropes and concepts by which it can be differentiated from historical science fiction,” I stopped trying to define the genre, and instead turned my attention to the style, or look that we call steampunk. I basically went looking for what was common to all things popularly labeled steampunk. And what I came up with was a three-fold aesthetic. The first is technofantasy: the technology of steampunk doesn’t really work, at least in literature and fashion. I can’t speak to Maker culture about this, although I do know that none of the rayguns made from brass candle-sticks will reduce me to a quivering mass of protoplasm.

The second is neo-Victorianism, which is simply to say that steampunk draws stylistically from the Victorian and Edwardian periods, though that is not to limit it geographically to England or Europe, nor to say that steampunk stories always occur in those periods. It just means the style of the clothing or setting in a steampunk book is evocative of those periods.

And thirdly, it is retrofuturistic. When steampunk draws from the Victorian and Edwardian period for its style, it is focused on how the past saw the future. This and the technofantasy are what set steampunk apart from works by writers like A.S. Byatt.

I say applied, because while I do not think steampunk is everything, I think everything can ultimately be steampunked. After seeing the Bible steampunked in the Myths and Legends challenge at CGSociety, I’m fairly confident one could apply the steampunk aesthetic to anything. Given enough thought, you’d come up with a cool take on an old thing. I challenged myself to this by coming up with a steampunk short story of Beowulf. Essentially, I don’t see steampunk as a genre – I see it as an aesthetic that gets applied to genres.

AA: that’s the best explanation I’ve heard for all those terms and it is something with which I am in complete agreement. This is a good point for us to end Part One of our chat today.

Join us next time for the conclusion of our interview with the Steampunk Scholar, Mike Perschon.

Click here to read the rest of the interview

Part 2

 

Published in: on October 10, 2010 at 8:30 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Mike–I applaud you for the statement, “I don’t see steampunk as a genre – I see it as an aesthetic that gets applied to genres.” I love this idea. I hope this thought becomes widely adopted.

    As to your comment, “[Steampunk retrofuturism]is focused on how the past saw the future,” I would like to pose the question: Is Steampunk also how the present (or fictional future) re-imagines the Victorian age for its own ends? (i. e., “The Diamond Age,” in literature, “Firefly” TV series, in drama, and Steampunk conventions, in everyday life.

    Looking forward to the next portion of the interview.
    –Michelle Black

  2. Hey Michelle, you’ve nailed it. I really should have included that extra qualification here (it’s on my blog, but I’m always worried about sounding like a ringing gong by repetition), but yeah – it’s how WE imagine the past saw the future. That’s why I refuse to allow Wells or Verne as steampunk, since the steampunk aesthetic is formed by a postmodern perspective on certain aspects of modernity. The Diamond Age is a perfect example of this. It’s not just about alt history, in fact far less than many people think. Sometimes the steampunk thing can result in brilliant commentary on society, as is the case with the Diamond Age, and other times it’s just a great toolkit for fun, high adventure – “Firefly,” or the even-more steampunked “Firefly” of Chris Wooding’s “Retribution Falls.”


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