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Glasses To Goggles: Why, and How I Write Steamfunk

Posted in 104, awesomeness, cheap publicity, creativity, effectiveness, entertainment, fandom, fiction, history, inspiration, shameless pandering, writing on March 3rd, 2013 by Hannibal Tabu
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For the longest time, I had one sentence I used in reference to all things steampunk:

“I don’t get it.”

From what I’m reading, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. I saw people posting their cosplay, which for all intents and purposes to me seemed like it could have been costuming from the movie Hoodlum that had a watchmaker throw up on it. The idea of whirring and clanking gears left me indifferent, the corseted pomp and circumstance felt contrived. The different steampunk takes on Star Wars even left me cold, and honestly, if you can’t hook me with Star Wars, it might be impossible. Based largely in the Victorian era, my mind couldn’t help but think of the global realities for Black people in that era, with metal accoutrements that were not at all ornamental and much less shiny.

I don’t remember how I got into the Facebook group State of Black Science Fiction, which (at least in my initial estimations) was a place for fairly serious writers and fans of science fiction who wanted more of an African slant, focusing largely on events and programming in Atlanta, Georgia. I read posts from writers like Balogun Ojetade, Milton Davis, my own friend Geoffrey Thorne and more talking about steampunk and I thought to myself, “Well, they don’t seem to be cape wearing wackadoos, so maybe there’s something to this …”

Then either Milton or Balogun (I honestly cannot remember, probably Balogun) announced the request-for-pitches that would lead to the Steamfunk anthology on Milton’s MV Media Publishing imprint. I’d missed the deadline for the last Sword & Soul anthology, which had material close to stuff I’d done for Stranger Comics and had been on this real “publish or die” kick as (at the time) I approached my fortieth birthday. I said to myself, “Well, I’ve always said I could write anything, this is a chance to expand my horizons and figure out whether or not that’s true.”

I started poking around the web, Googling my way towards comprehension, as is my way. Technology based on hydraulics, steam power and what have you … well, that’s a limitation, but I looked at it like it was a villanelle or a press release or any other formulaic kind of writing I’ve had to do in the past. There seemed to be a focus on extravagance, so my brain started envisioning this big, impossibly ornate parade (which ended up being the big dance number for my story). I wasn’t really on board mentally until I saw this image …

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… when I saw this sister, probably dead more than a century (unless it was staged), so serious, so stoic … I started to get an idea.

I know an actual NASA scientist, a woman of great knowledge and even greater whimsy, a friend of a friend. However, she wasn’t Black. I started to remix her personality and reactions through the differences of a Black perspective and the woman in this photo started to come to life in my head. My NASA friend was willing to play along and answer a lot of personality and technical questions, which was truly invaluable.

I still needed a way to get her into a steampunk environment. I probably was flipping through my files and saw something Futurama related (a favorite of my NASA scientist friend) and remembered Phillip J. Fry, falling into a cryogenic chamber and waking up somewhere very different. The elements of this character excited and interested me, and with a personal narrative to hook into, I was suddenly excited to see where I could put my plucky scientist and what sorts of experiences she could have.

I have built a fictional universe through my novels The Crown: Ascension and Faraway that has a ridiculous amount of room for my imagination to run wild, so I posited a scientist worried about the climate of the world and in a mood to run away from it, only to have her cryogenic chamber rerouted … somewhere else. I didn’t really figure out the location until my iPod was playing its thousands of songs on random and coughed up this

… and I should note that, before writing this blog, I’d never seen the video.

I don’t regularly listen to country music, but this song snagged a spot on the pop charts, so when I got a big download of “pop” music, there it was, and eventually it found a way into my consciousness. The detailed storytelling and delicacy of the singer’s voice did it for me. This provided a loose framing device for my story, which would give the events happening to my scientist lead emotional resonance (I hoped). Likewise, the open frontiers and lawless possibilities of a western setting seemed to provide more room for my narrative to work without hundreds of years of colonial oppression to stifle my politics.

Anyway, my brain put Taylor Swift in the role of the character from the song, because I’m a horrible, twisted human being and it amused me to put an end to America’s sweetheart (that’s not much of a spoiler, as the funeral is literally the first scene of the story). With all those pieces in hand, it became time for research.

Newave Comics owner Rashida Lewis and contractor Michael Inskeep provided much of the technical data I’d need outside of what my NASA pal told me she would pack if she were climbing into a cryogenic chamber (and her list was quite interesting, as she provided the means of income as well). My own fictional universe gave her a “place” to be, and I spent about a day developing the religious beliefs of the people of the planet Pless (you’d never believe what Pless really is, and if I do three or four more stories, maybe you’ll find out). From there it was just riffing — a flamboyant character who’s essentially a steamfunk T-Pain mixed with Foghorn Leghorn …

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… and an ethnic mix that’d make things interesting. From there, it was easy.

For me, anyway.

Putting those pieces together — spending the time researching bleed off valves and open compressors, weaving the religion of a non-existent people into the events of their lives — is the alchemy of fiction, the building of worlds, and one of my greatest joys. It affords me a level of control real life cannot match. Despite my initial indifference, I did enjoy the steamfunk settings and would be happy to return there, as I’d submit work for pretty much anything Milton or Balogun offered.

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You’ve taken a look behind the scenes of my story for the Steamfunk anthology, and next (in theory) I’ll talk about how this kind of “difference” makes one, if you grok.

Playing (Music): “If I Die Young” by The Band Perry

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