Welcome back for the conclusion of our interview with the Steampunk Scholar, Mike Perschon.
Part One can be read here.
AA: Welcome back, Mike. Your blog lists out the ever-growing calendar of books you plan on reviewing for your readers. What do you look for in a steampunk work as a whole to review?
MP: That it’s on my shelf. Seriously, I own a stack of steampunk books, and being that I reviewed Jonathan Green’s first Pax Britannia book, I’m clearly not being exclusive about what I’m including in my research.
AA: What criteria do you use for reviews
MP: I don’t really review books according to a criteria, although I recently made a list with letter grades like A+ or C- for my readers, as I know some people just want a brief statement about whether I thought it sucked or not. I did that at first, and then realized that wasn’t the goal of my blog. I will sometimes say, “if you like Jane Austen’s comedy of manners but secretly wish to be ravished by a werewolf, then you’ll like Gail Carriger’s Soulless,” but I focus more on an academic assessment of the text. That way it isn’t about liking it or not liking it, but taking the book on its own terms. One of my professors once said it was a bit pointless to go on about the book you wished the author had written, since it didn’t add anything helpful to the conversation about the book they actually wrote. So despite hating Dexter Palmer’s The Dream of Perpetual Motion, I found an awful lot of useful material for understanding the inherent juxtaposition of science and magic in technofantasy.
AA: What is on your shelf now for review?
MP: I complained earlier in the summer that I clearly wasn’t on anyone’s ARC review list, and then was inundated with a deluge of books, which is great, and daunting! I’m reading Steampunk Reloaded one story a day, and I’m also reading Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld, which is pure joy. I love the world Scott created in Leviathan, and have been really enjoying returning to it. Leviathan is my first recommendation to people looking to get into steampunk. [Thomas] Pynchon’s Against the Day is my favorite, but it’s effing huge, so it’s not an ideal place to start. And there’s only one of the two major story threads in Against the Day that is really steampunk. One of these days I’m going to come up with a “Chums of Chance” guide to Against the Day so people can skip the whole revenge story with the Traverse family and just enjoy the Chums at work.
AA: What similarities and differences do you see between various successful works?
MP: Similarities – the writers are focused on writing. That is to say, they are crafting engaging characters in settings that draw the reader in. They are wordsmiths, seeking the best words for each moment, instead of using ridiculous metaphor or tired clichéd tropes. The great steampunk books would be great without the steampunk aesthetic. Take Jim Blaylock as an example – his steampunk stuff is among my favorites, but I also really love his other writing, especially The Last Coin, The Paper Grail, and All the Bells on Earth.
Differences? There are so many, I couldn’t even begin, but this is directly related to the strengths of the similarities. In fact, I think it’s the fact that the best writers don’t all use the same elements that makes them great. Read [Tim] Powers’s Anubis Gates and then read Blaylock’s The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives. What are the similarities? They take place in the nineteenth century, and that’s about it, aside from references to William Ashbless. Blaylock’s steampunk work is far more whimsical than Powers’s. Or compare Cherie Priest with Gail Carriger – again, nineteenth century, but that’s where the similarities end. And that’s what makes their stuff rise above the rest: it isn’t slavishly working off someone else’s. Carriger has Blaylock’s whimsy, but that isn’t the result of imitation, or even shared inspiration. Anyone who’s sitting down trying to write the next great steampunk novel is doing it wrong.
AA: What were some of your favorite works which have come across your desk?
MP: Well, I’ve gushed on about Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan already, but I’ll add that I read that as an audiobook first, and listening to Alan Cumming read it was a double-treat. Great book, great reader. That wasn’t work, it was fun. Working my way through Pynchon’s Against the Day was epic, but I get very excited when I think about that man’s writing. The final pages of the book make me get a bit teary-eyed, to be honest. “They fly toward grace” are the final words, and they’re so powerful in light of the book’s themes. That’s a book I can’t wait to get back to. I have a suspicion it’s going to form the crucial core of my dissertation. Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters was wonderful as well. I love how dark and delicious his prose is. There aren’t any really Big Ideas in that book, but I love inhabiting each of the three main characters’ point-of-view. It’s one of the rare books where I identify with the female lead so strongly. I don’t know if that’s because Dahlquist sucks at writing a female point-of-view (so that’s it’s actually a rather masculine one), or because he makes me want to be woman while I’m reading about Celeste Temple. I just love the characters in that book. I’m actually shocked I haven’t ever seen anyone cosplaying Cardinal Chang at a steampunk convention. And I have to give a shout out for Kenneth Oppel’s Skybreaker, which is everything a high-flying adventure should be. It’s got sky-krakens for heaven’s sake! Everything I’ve read by Joe R. Lansdale has been ridiculously fun. I still giggle about moments from Zeppelins West. What’s been great recently was the decision to start writing in a theme each month. I stole this idea from Cory Gross, and tried it out with the Canuck Steampunk month. It was a much better process, because it was focused on a larger idea, not necessarily just one work.
AA: What are other books sitting on the shelf or in the mail?
MP: The list is too long to enumerate here. I have a plan up until April on the blog. You can see it at the bottom of the page, but the themes for the next few months are as follows: September, Jules Verne – not just his works, but steampunk books inspired by him, like Arthur Slade’s The Dark Deeps; October, H.G. Wells, again as both proto-steampunk and as steampunk inspiration; November, the whole month will be works by Jim Blaylock; December, steampunk comics/graphic novels; January, a remembering of the late Kage Baker; February, steampunk romance; March, steampunk in space; and April, focusing on the works of China Miéville. With all the new steampunk being released, I don’t know if I’ll ever see an end to this work!
AA: As a fan of all the narratives, I think that an endless supply of books to read is a nice problem to have! I have to admit that I’m a bit out of shelf space at home and there are four two-foot tall stacks of new books to be read on the floor, in addition to my books on hold at the library. If you had unlimited access, time and budget, what is one work you’d leap at to review
MP: Well, since I focus on books, budget isn’t much of an issue, unless I was wanting a copy of [Jess] Nevins’s uber-rare Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana (and I do), which sells for around $200 used on Amazon. Everything else is pretty affordable. I think it would be cool to get all the original editions of early steampunk so I could see how the covers are different from current steampunk. Just compare early copies of [Michael] Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air or [K.W.] Jeter’s Infernal Devices with later editions to see what I mean. The look of those early covers betrays how little interest there was in Victorian-era speculative fictions at the time. It’s like the marketing department told the artist, “yeah, it’s got airships, but do you think you can make them look like shiny silver rockets?”
AA: The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana is also on my personal library wish list – so readers, if you find two copies which need new homes, let Mike and I know! My local library has a copy, so it’s nice that I can pop in any time to borrow it for a month. Last time I had it, though, I barely made it through the “A” section. With all the reviews and dissertations you’ve done, what advice or suggestions do you have to people who want to be involved in blogging and reviews
MP: Do something you love. Don’t blog to be the popular blog, or you’ll give up when your numbers are low or you say something your readers don’t agree with. And make sure you love writing. You need to have the need to write, or blogging won’t work for you.
AA: Aside from Steampunk Scholar, what other steampunk things are you involved with?
MP: I speak at conventions, both here in Alberta and then down in the States. I’ve only gone to Steamcon and the Nova Albion/Steam Powered events, but those are making up for all the years of missed conventions. I’m also part of a local steampunk group in Edmonton called River City Retrofuturists. There isn’t much of a steampunk scene in Edmonton, so we’re part of helping create that.
AA: You were one of the moderators for the Great Steampunk Debate, how did that event come about?
MP: I honestly wasn’t privy to the genesis of the GSD. That was Nick Ottens and Allegra Hawksmoor’s doing, as I understand it. Nick emailed me and asked me if I wanted to be involved. I initially thought it was going to be a debate between the people Nick and Allegra had invited to be involved – I didn’t realize my role would be moderation until the debate began, which is largely due to my propensity for skimming emails instead of reading them in full.
AA: How much planning and discussion went into creating the GSD
MP: Tons. The deliberations about topics and approach went on for several months before the debate began. There was a lot of care and attention put into planning the GSD.
AA: It sounds like there was a great deal of discussion among the people involved as moderators, with widely varying viewpoints about what form and format the GSD should take. What were the challenges in finding common ground?
MP: The same challenges everyone involved in steampunk face: what brand of steampunk are you, and do we share the same ideas about this? Are you a fan, a lifestyler, a cosplayer? If you’re a lifestyler, are you pissed off when I say I’m wearing my steampunk “costume”? It’s the stuff I addressed tongue-in-cheek in my Steampunk Tribes article.
AA: Once the debate began, what challenges and rewards were there from people’s involvement?
MP: For me personally, there were few rewards, save for making a friend in Jack Horner, who is a great guy and a smart thinker – he’s @amhlaidgh on Twitter. The challenges were that a number of people who’d signed on as moderators bowed out of that role when the GSD started, leaving a small number of moderators to address issues, and that despite the careful planning, we weren’t on the same page about how moderating should be handled.
AA: What are your thoughts in review about the event, the process, the discussions, and any outcomes?
MP: Without disrespect to either Nick or Allegra, who poured themselves into that Debate, it was a really unpleasant experience for me, as it got ugly on several occasions. People were shitty to each other, there’s really no way to say it. Further, I was reminded of how little critical thought goes into forum debate – arguments weren’t based on evidence, but on self-identified feelings or ideas. So people weren’t saying, “I’ve examined a lot of steampunk art and come to this conclusion,” they were just saying, “I consider myself a steampunk, and because I’m a steampunk, I am what steampunk is.” It was like arguing religion all over again – what is “true” Christianity, etc., and it left a very bad taste in my mouth. I wouldn’t repeat the experience myself, and have withdrawn from forum participation for the most part. I think I’ve sort of “turtled” over at Steampunk Scholar. It’s my space. My conversation. You can’t come to Steampunk Scholar and say, “I am steampunk, hear me roar,” because I’ll treat you like I do my students when they say they hated John Updike, and think he sucks. I’ll simply ask, “Why?” and expect a better answer than “because I said so.”
AA: What are your interests outside of steampunk?
MP: Roleplaying. I love pen and paper tabletop roleplaying. This past year I got to hang up my Dungeon Master’s hat for the first time since 1982 and just be a player. I loved it, loved the sense of surprise and wonder. I was transported back to what attracted me to Dungeons and Dragons back in the 1980s. I really pictured the dungeon, and was tense when the monster was behind the door. It was awesome. I’m really digging Paizo’s Pathfinder upgrade to D&D 3.5, and enjoying all the geek toys they have at their site. And for anyone who cares, I’m a Bard.
I used to play in a band, but I don’t have much time for music, since my wife Jenica and I are parenting our two kids – a four-year-old boy named Gunnar and a two-year-old girl named Dacy. They’re a huge interest of mine. Parenting is incredible, because it takes you back through growing up. I love it. Both my kids love dragons, so I harbor the hope I’ll get to be their DM at some point. It my kids want to rebel, they’ll tell me they want to play hockey.
I love fantastic fiction of all kinds – SF, Fantasy, Horror, and the blending of those by recent writers. I love to read. Comics, books, short stories – I have a subscription to On Spec, a great Canadian speculative fiction magazine. And I love movies, although my work as a literary academic has ruined my ability to enjoy most of them. That said, I enjoyed Avatar just fine.
I want to be a writer. I think all English profs do. We’re all closet-novelists. I blogged a novel called Magik Beans the year I wrote my M.A. thesis. I haven’t had time to do the same with the dissertation, though I have plans. I get a lot of writing time with my new position at Grant MacEwan University, so I’m planning to write that steampunk Beowulf story soon. Plus I need to get back to writing Magik Beans. I left my readers hanging in the middle of book two.
AA: Do you find any overlap or influence of those interests with steampunk
MP: In all of them. With roleplaying, I ran a two-year campaign in a steampunked version of [J.R.R.} Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. With my kids, they like that their dad dresses up – they love costumes. I took my son with me to a day I spent in steampunk garb with friends at Fort Edmonton Park. Obviously, my work in steampunk requires me to do critical work and reading in the larger context of academic writing on speculative/fantastic fiction. And as a writer, I do want to try my hand at utilizing the steampunk aesthetic – it fits very well with a book I’ve been working on for a while.
AA: Are there any final thoughts which you’d like to share with our readers today?
MP: I think I’ll just quote Cherie Priest, who said that if you aren’t having fun with steampunk, you’re doing it wrong.
Thanks Mike, for sharing your thoughts with us in this interview. For more of Mike’s musings, visit his blog, Steampunk Scholar., and see his other published work in the September 2010 issue of Locus Magazine. Mike will also be a panelist at Steamcon in Seattle, WA, November 19 – 21, 2010.