Ad Astra Writing Workshop

I just want to give a last-minute plug to the Ad Astra Writing Workshop, which is accepting applicants until June 2, 2023.

This workshop continues the methods taught by Chris McKitterick and the late James E. Gunn for the something close to 20 years. Chris gives great feedback and knows how to manage groups of talented writers so that everyone learns something applicable to their own unique style/voice/POV. And check out the photos of previous guest instructors on that site! It’s an impressive crew.

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Ad Astra Blog on Mark Twain

I wrote something about Mark Twain’s place in science fiction for the new Ad Astra Center for Science Fiction & the Speculative Imagination at my alma mater, the University of Kansas.

The Ad Astra Center is doing some fantastic things including science fiction writing workshops, community outreach, and public talks in the Lawrence area (and online).

NOTE: the symposium itself is at Elmira College in New York, not at University of Kansas.

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2023 Quarry Farm Symposium: Twain and Sci-Fi Theme

I’m chairing the annual Quarry Farm Symposium at Elmira College, October 6-8, 2023, and we’re looking for folks to come talk about early science fiction, steampunk, basically any science/literature overlaps during Mark Twain’s lifetime (1835-1910).

If you’re reading this and that sounds cool, see the full Call for Papers at

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Proposing Stuff: An Essential Part of the Process

In the past three months, I have written one non-fiction book proposal, proposed two papers at conferences, and written a Call for Papers for a soon-to-be-announced conference that I’m running next fall.

This is, of course, one of the toughest dilemmas in academic and/or creative work: you spend a decent amount of time explaining stuff you’re going to do before you actually get to do it. I feel pretty elated when I finish a good 250-word abstract or a chapter summary of a chapter I plan to write, but it’s easy to feel like it’s not the same as the “real” work.

Truthfully, in terms of the actual sentence-by-sentence level crafting–editing out repetition and wordiness, finding the one word that does the work of seven, making a concept really clear–the work is as difficult and challenging as actually writing the thing itself. As a professional writing teacher, I’m always trying to help students develop those skills in their own grant writing, cover letters and resumes, and memos. Doing a lot of it myself keeps me honest.

And this is part of the process. I know the proposal for my first book was really where I figured out what it was “about” and how the pieces fit together, even for the parts that were already written. This is similar. And, if my papers are accepted, they’ll be that much closer to finished material. Such is the game.

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August 2022 Updates

I had a great time at the Ninth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (aka the Elmira Quadrennial) earlier this month. Smoked a cigar on the hilltop where Twain wrote most of his major works while a few Twain scholars played spirituals on mandolin and guitar.

On the writing front, I have two non-fiction projects on the burner—one short (about Twain), one very long (about pulps), both taking more time than I’d hoped. More news as it comes.

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Talking Twain at Truman (Virtually)

At the end of this month, I’ll be giving a Zoom lecture called “Mark Twain and American Science Fiction’s Legacy” at part of Truman State University’s Folklore Minor Colloquium Series.

This is a version of the talk I gave last summer, but I’m planning to do more about Orion Clemens (Samuel’s brother) and his science fiction reading/writing this time around. Orion’s home of Keokuk, Iowa is close to Kirksville, where Truman is. So is Hannibal, MO where both brothers grew up.

Although less famous than his brother “Mark Twain”, Orion Clemens was an interesting guy who penned a “hollow earth” exploration story. Twain read it and kind of tore it apart.

It’s a funny story, and happens a lot with writers. One brother makes it big. The other one tries to follow suit in the same field, hoping for encouragement (and maybe even a little help with the writing). The successful one is underwhelmed with the sibling’s results and is alternately encouraging, brutally honest, and downright mean in his response to the manuscript.

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Conference Acceptances

Quick update: I’ll be presenting at the SFRA online conference and the State of Mark Twain Studies conference later this year.

The SFRA paper will be based on work I did during my first-year seminar class on crime and prisons in science fiction. It covers rehabilitation in the Doc Savage series.

The Twain paper is called “Learning to Dislike Tom Sawyer” and covers Twain’s relationship with his famous creation.

More info will be posted under Appearances soon.

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Crime and Prisons in Science Fiction: First-Year Seminar

This winter, I’m teaching a new seminar for first-year students at UC Davis. It’s called “Crime and Prisons in Science Fiction.” (I couldn’t fit the word “Rehabilitation” into the course title without the online display cutting it off, and “Rehab” means something different to most college aged folks.)

Yesterday, we discussed articles on the prison-industrial complex and the new Jim Crow. Students also discussed one chapter excerpt from the 4th Doc Savage novel, the first to describe his “delicate brain operation” to help captured baddies turn into productive “desirable citizens.”

Here’s the reading/viewing list in chronological order:

  • Doc Savage: The Annihilist (1934)
  • The Demolished Man. Alfred Bester (1953)
  • A Clockwork Orange (film, 1971)
  • Escape from New York (film, 1981)
  • Bitch Planet, Vol 1 and 2. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro (2014)
  • Too Like the Lightning. Ada Palmer (2017)

I’m finishing Palmer’s Perhaps the Stars right now, so I’m excited to cover the first book in that series. I’m looking forward to talking to undergraduates about all these alternatives to traditional punishment.

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What I Read & Stuff I’ve Enjoyed: 2021

I’m posting what I read last year along with a short list of a few things I enjoyed.

General Stuff I Enjoyed in 2021

  • The single “Let’s Do It Again” by the Reigning Sound, which is really this year’s theme song
  • New music by two great Kansas City bands, Passerine Dream and Namelessnumberheadman
  • The Sparks Brothers documentary
  • Andy Stewart’s book, We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep
  • Reprints of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck comics from the 70s
  • The TV series Stargirl, which has been fun father/daughter viewing
  • The Bandsplain podcast, even though Spotify may have stolen the name and I never quite make it to the end

Leisure Reading List for 2021 (not a year’s best list)

This list doesn’t include re-reads, non-fiction/biography, comics, or material read for research. If I read it to “accomplish” something, it’s not on here. I do count books I blasted through in grad school and promised myself I’d read at leisure sometime, hence the presence of stuff like Passing and Mardi.

Compared to most writers and academics, I am a sloooow reader. Maybe other folks with ADD can relate. I’ve been playing catch up for most of my adult life. So, I feel guilty and “imposter syndrome” phony that this list isn’t longer, but proud of the fairly eclectic list under my circumstances.

  • The Dragon Waiting
  • All Systems Red
  • Terror Squad/Mugger Blood/Brain Drain (The Destroyer series)
  • Forced Perspectives
  • The Long Valley
  • Camp Concentration
  • The Hustler
  • Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down
  • Mardi
  • We Shall Sing a Song into the Deep
  • Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters /Seymour, an Introduction
  • Age of the Pussyfoot
  • On Basilisk Station
  • Baltasar and Blimunda
  • Main Street
  • Masters of Atlantis
  • His Majesty’s Dragon
  • Swann’s Way
  • The Moviegoer
  • The Shadow Laughs/The Grove of Doom/Dead Men Live (The Shadow series)
  • The Real Cool Killers
  • From a Buick 8
  • Passing
  • Swan Song
  • Doomsday Book
  • Down and Out in Paris and London
  • Jane Eyre

NOTE: I fought WordPress’s block editor ferociously while formatting this. Apologies for typos.

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New Mark Twain Article

Before putting 2021 behind me, I want to be sure to mention my article that came out in the Mark Twain Annual at the end of the year. It might interest anyone who wants to know more about Twain and Jules Verne.

The article, “The Mysterious Origins of Twain’s ‘Skeleton Novelette,'” covers the writing and history of “A Murder, A Mystery, and a Marriage,” which ends with its villain describing how he threw Jules Verne from a hot-air balloon. The novelette was supposed to be part of a writing contest that never happened, and it went unpublished until 2001!

I’m the book review editor for the Annual, and our 2021 issue has my Brief Reviews section covering excellent new books from Nathan Wolff, Elizabeth Freeman, and Sarah Meer.

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Call for Papers: Long Shadows of Pulp Modernism

This may be of interest to SF, SF-adjacent , and fan theory folks. I’m seeking 20-minute papers with innovative approaches to pulp fiction for a prospective panel at the American Literature Association conference in Chicago, May 26-29, 2022. See below:

Long Shadows: Pulp Heroes & Pulp Modernism’s Legacy

In 2021, writers James Patterson and Brian Sitts revamped pulp hero the Shadow into the protagonist of a dystopian futuristic novel. In many ways, this simply continued a tradition of reinvention and collective authorship going back to the character’s origins in 1930s mass-market publishing. Revisiting such adventure texts, including Doc Savage, G-8, and others, can teach us much about seriality, commercial markets, and audiences. Consumed by casual readers and continuity-minded fans alike, written by multiple authors under a single branded pseudonym, and often adapted to/from other media (radio, comics, etc.), the hero pulps prefigure today’s “creative property”-driven narratives on Disney+, Netflix, and elsewhere.

Paper suggestions that cover any pulp writers, publishers, or characters are welcomed, particularly ones incorporating any of the following concepts: 

·       Contemporary approaches to seriality and periodicals (distant reading, et al.)

·       Critical reception studies of any period of pulp printing/reprinting or adaptation

·       Science and technology in pulp texts, from hard-tech (gadgets and crime detection tools) to more intangible technologies

·       Fan studies approaches to literature, including influence of “fan curators” and the fate of pulps in the archive due to contrasting goals of public and private collectors

·       Reprinting and rebranding pulp heroes (as children’s literature, as camp, etc.)

·       Pulps’ role in developing 20th-century aesthetics 

·       Economic influences on creation and production, including property rights and ownership

·       Contextualization of pulps in 1930s theories of criminal psychology, criminality and rehabilitation, violence, race and gender.

If interested, send CV and short description of your paper to Nathaniel Williams at on or before December 20, 2021. Feel free to share this widely or email me with questions. 

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Fact Check: Did Dylan Quote Star Trek?

A few years ago, I wrote a post about Bob Dylan’s 1985 single “Tight Connection to My Heart” and the origins of two lines that appeared to come from the Star Trek episode “The Squire of Gothos.” At that time, I dug around and noted several published sources that indicated the line originally appeared in the Humphrey Bogart film, Tokyo Joe.

Long story short, I was incorrect and my sources were too.

I checked the facts, partly because of Dylan’s new collection Springtime in New York had me thinking about the song again. The lines in question are:

I’ll go along with the charade / until I can think my way out.

I’ve seen “Squire of Gothos.” Those words are dialogue, an exchange between Sulu and Kirk.

Well, now I’ve watched Tokyo Joe. I watched it twice, with the captions on. I never heard the lines.

A week later, I watched Sahara, another Bogart vehicle mentioned by writers who have analyzed the song. Again, never heard those lines.

Where does that leave us?

Well, if the lines originate with Star Trek, then Dylan pilfered them from Star Trek. Plain and simple. The dialogue mirrors the lyrics too much for coincidence, and everyone agrees that Dylan was creating pastiche lyrics from many sources in that song–although mostly from Bogart films.

It’s also possible that the lines are from another Bogart movie, one critics haven’t pinned down. After spending $4 a pop to watch two black-and-white minor (very minor) classics, I can’t really do more research. But I can say that the evidence favors Star Trek and the episode’s screenwriter Paul Schneider.

Still from “The Squire of Gothos” from a great entry on
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The Best of The Destroyer (Author’s Choice): Revisiting Remo and Chuin

I’ve been working on a project that plays with 80s action-adventure tropes. To refresh my memories, I thought I’d re-read a series that I’d enjoyed in middle school: The Destroyer by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir. Reading all 100+ novels was unrealistic, so I did the logical thing—I started grabbing the reprints that appeared in the mid-80s on eBay that were labeled “Author’s Choice.” Surely, these would be the cream of the crop.

Well, I had a hard time figuring out which stories had been re-issued this way. To save anyone else from doing the digging I had to do, here’s what I learned about the reprints and my thoughts on their literary value today.


As near as I can reconstruct, the “Author’s Best” of the Destroyer includes the following books:

  • Death Therapy (originally #6)
  • Terror Squad (originally #10)
  • Slave Safari (originally #12)
  • Funny Money (originally #18)
  • Brain Drain (originally #22)
  • Mugger Blood (originally #30)

Many stories are standalone, although Brain Drain is a sequel to Funny Money. To complicate things, my copy of Slave Safari lists Voodoo Die as the next in the “Author’s Choice” series, though I have never found a copy after months of searching used books sites on the internet. I suspect, but can’t prove, that they stopped republishing them before it came out. To complicate things even more, Chinese Puzzle (shown below, originally #3, so the earliest of these) has an intro indicating it is part of the “Author’s Choice” series though it isn’t branded as such.


Here’s the conceit of The Destroyer novels. Our hero, Remo Williams, is a cop with no family whose identity is erased by the US government so that he can operate outside its laws. It seems one US President (heavily hinted to be John F. Kennedy) realized that American laws don’t work and we need an enforcer to operate outside them. Conveniently, there’s a centuries-old Korean assassins’ guild that’s willing to train this American enforcer (for a fee). So the old Korean master named Chiun comes to America and takes Remo under his wing. Each novel is a mission where they stop spies, terrorists, and other baddies.

But it’s all done (mostly) tongue-in-cheek. The bad guy in Funny Money and Brain Drain is a cluelessly deadpan robot who predates The Terminator by a few years and may have inspired it. Mugger Blood dispatches with its Soviet super-spy villain hilariously within the first 50 pages, then follows Remo as he fights a Harlem gang. I never felt like I was being asked to take its tough-guy act seriously.

If you’re interested in finding and reading these “Best of” the Destroyer novels, here are my overall thoughts:

  • They are part of (and in many ways, parodies of) the 80s “men’s adventure novel series” phenomenon. These series were James Bond on steroids with some Mike Hammer and Rambo thrown in. Lots of violence, lots of sex, and lots of tough-guy posturing. That’s part of The Destroyer’s DNA though, as I said, it’s a willfully comic version of it.
  • They are funny. I laughed out loud at least once reading each novel, sometimes a lot more than once.
  • They are pretty conservative, though in an ironic way that was probably humorous in the 1970s but doesn’t seems as funny today.
  • They’re sure to offend. I cringed a few times in each novel, either because of dated ideas (70s/80s norm), sexist stuff, or intentionally offensive ethnic content. At least 2 of the 7 books (Slave Safari and Terror Squad) had pretty repulsive rape scenes. Proceed with caution.

If you’re going to enjoy Destroyer novel, you’ll need to be comfortable watching two white writers use an elderly Korean character to voice deep cynicism about America, rule of law, and human nature. And it’s funny—dear God, is it sometimes very, very funny. Chuin despises Americans, but loves 70s soap operas and Barbara Streisand. He loves Remo, but he does nothing but criticize him mercilessly. So, he’s two stereotypes for the price of one: an Asian wise man and a Jewish Mother. (And it’s not even subtle; in Chinese Puzzle, the third book, there’s even a scene where he and a group of Jewish moms commiserate the awful failings of their obviously successful sons.)

At this moment, we’re lucky to have a number of researchers doing nuanced work on Asian characters in US literature. Those include Josephine Lee, Yunte Huang, and many others. I would be really interested to see a scholar who is studying yellowface and portrayals of Asians in US literature take an in-depth look at this series. It seems ripe for re-examination.

Similarly, these are the kind of books where, when a Mexican guy says “is” it’ll be spelled “eez.” Sure that was pretty common practice at the time, but it takes the fun out of reading them, especially if you’re part of the group being portrayed. I was surprised and disappointed by the number of times a book’s villain turned out to be a Black man. Mugger Blood, for example, was criticized for its portrayal of young African-Americans at the time. This great 2009 AV Club story explains it well. In the “Author’s Choice” edition, the authors respond by having Chiun mock their racism in a truly funny introduction. Regardless, at least two of the other “Author’s Choice” novels have Black guys behind the evil plots (and, unlike Mugger Blood, those books aren’t intentionally satirizing American racism). If the “Author’s Choice” are supposed to represent the best of the series, I’m leery of the rest.

About the politics: at least two of the introductions in the “Author’s Best” feature the writers explaining their left-leaning origins as newspapermen. They’re not neo-Nazis or Nixonian douchebags. They come across as the kind of folks who started on the left, felt like the 60s revolution went too far, then elected Reagan and developed a distrust for “big government” anything. I was never 100% sure how much they really admired their books’ “Let Remo take the law in his own hands, Constitution be damned” conceit and how much was just schtick. So, know what you’re getting into.

In the “Author’s Best” reissues, the writers not only provide contextual introductions, but also have responses to them written by Chuin. Take a look at this one:

Just look at those similes. Hear that disdain. If you can enjoy that, you’ll probably enjoy reading The Destroyer.

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At Twain Museum for Big River Steampunk Fest

As I’ve noted before, Hannibal, Missouri hosts one of the biggest outdoor steampunk festivals in the Midwest. This year, I am coincidentally driving cross-country and will be in Hannibal for the event.

So, on Sunday, Sept. 5 at 1pm, I’ll be giving a talk on “Mark Twain and the Origins of Steampunk” at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. I’m thrilled to attend the event and participate with a little of my own contributions. I couldn’t ask for a better audience.

Many thanks to the folks at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum for hosting my talk, and to University of Alabama Press for arranging a special online offer for my book.

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Gears and God Reviewed in American Literature 93.2

I learned from University of Alabama Press that Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith, and Empire in Mark Twain’s America will be reviewed in the September 2021 issue of American Literature.

It is part of Carol Colatrella’s group review on 19th-century technology studies that also examines Telegraphies: Indigeneity, Identity, and Nation in America’s Nineteenth-Century Virtual Realm by Kay Yandell (Oxford) and Modernizing Solitude: The Networked Individual in Nineteenth-Century American Literature by Yoshiaki Furui (also U of Alabama).

It’s at Duke’s American Literature website. Because I know many readers won’t have access to the full review (which is behind an academic subscription firewall), I’m excerpting two sentences below:

Yandell, Furui, and Williams discuss how… texts and technologies are shaped by American politics and spiritual values, revealing underpinnings of modernist and postmodern ideas of self and society.

Accessibly written and offering analyses of texts and contexts, these books should be useful for students and scholars interested in the nineteenth-century communications and transportation revolutions as an analogue to a more recent paradigm shift to digital communications shadowed by pandemic and lockdown in our own time.

It’s good to see the book is still getting reviews a few years after release, which is not uncommon in academic circles.

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Last Half of May Updates

Two short stories sent out. Three short book reviews for The Mark Twain Annual written. Forty-eight tech writing student proposals graded.

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Science Fiction Studies New Issue: Nostalgia & Reviews

The new issue of Science Fiction Studies came out this month. I’m calling attention to it for two reasons:

First, it’s a special issue focused on nostalgia in SF, a topic near to my heart and mind. Guest editors Aris Mousoutzanis and Yugin Teo do a splendid job of gathering a range of papers on Octavia Butler, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Jack Womack and others. They cover the theoretical high points (Svetlana Boym, Fredric Jameson, et al.) and keep a nostalgia-positive goal “to challenge the assumption that nostalgia is especially about the past and thus out of place within a genre conventionally associated with the future” (Mousoutzanis & Teo1). As the editors note, “nostalgia becomes a source of hope… rather than being a regression to an idealized past…” (2).

If you care about the future-that-never-happened or steampunk or how critical investigations of the past can help form a better future, it is well worth your time.

Also, this issue features a review of The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link’s tremendous undertaking that features a chapter I wrote on Edisonades (called “terrific” by reviewer Carol McGuirk).

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Discussing The Mandalorian and Mark Twain on American Vandal Podcast

I’m part of this week’s edition of The American Vandal podcast from Elmira College’s Center for Mark Twain Studies. I discuss connections between Twain and The Mandalorian TV series (and Star Wars in general) with host Dr. Matt Seybold and Tor Books writer Emmet Asher-Perrin.

The Mandalorian‘s working title was, get this, “Project Huckleberry.” So how much Mark Twain is embedded in the show? Is Baby Yoda like Huck or like Jim? How does the “rebels vs. empire” narrative of Star Wars jibe with the science fiction stories Mark Twain wrote? Listen and find out.

It’s available on Spotify, Google, and Apple podcasts.

Here’s a related article link from Animated Times, and a photo of Grogu (Baby Yoda) from inews UK, because he’s the real star of the show. This is the way.

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Updates for Early 2021

I haven’t posted for a few months for fairly simple reasons.* Yes, teaching 3 college classes remotely while overseeing two elementary schoolers’ online education is hard. Props to all the others out there doing something similar.

I haven’t sold any stories since last April, but I have several projects in the pipeline:

  • Revising a couple of short stories almost ready to send out.
  • Pulling together a long-term research article involving Mark Twain’s “A Murder, A Mystery, and a Marriage” novelette.
  • Reading (or re-reading after decades) some of Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir’s Destroyer novels in hopes of doing a post on this site similar to the one I did for Doc Savage earlier.

In general academic work-life news:

These are trying times. Stay sane. Stay safe.

*oh, and WordPress’s editing software redesign is utter, high-maintenance garbage.

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Gears and God Discount

University of Alabama Press has given me permission to share the 30% off price reduction code we set up for the C19 conference with the public. That means anyone can buy Gears and God: Technocratic Fiction, Faith and Empire in Mark Twain’s America directly from them for 30% off.

When you order, use this Promo Code: WILLC19

You can buy it at University of Alabama Press.

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C19: Teaching the Weird Nineteenth Century

I’ll be on the “Teaching the Weird Nineteenth Century” panel, organized by Erin Pearson and hosted by Duncan Faherty, at #virtualC19 this week.

The panel is at 10:30 a.m. PST. I’m linking to where you can see the program. Presenters and titles below:

Teaching Old Weird America
Jennifer Brady (Harvard University)

Pros and Cons of Steampunking a C19 Syllabus
Nathaniel Williams (University of California, Davis)

“Fun Forever and No Grubbage”; or, Glories of the Nineteenth Century
Maura D’Amore (Saint Michael’s College)

Virtual Material Culture
Erin Pearson (Elon University)

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Essay from Worlds of Steampunk Exhibition

NOTE: UC Davis Librarian Roberto Delgadillo asked me to write this essay for Shields Library’s exhibition Worlds of Steampunk: Fiction, Art, Fashion and Culture in 2012. The online display has been taken down, so I’m reprinting it here before the C19 Conference where I’m presenting on steampunk in October 2020.

As the great folksinger John Prine once wryly noted, “We are living in the future.”  We carry powerful computers that weigh less than 5 ounces and fit into jeans’ pockets.  We load entire libraries’ worth of books onto a single, thin viewing screen.  We listen to music through pea-sized earbuds. 

What does all that have to do with steampunk?  Everything.

Steampunk celebrates an era when technology was different—ornate, intricate, just plain BIG.  It rejects our modern “smaller and sleeker is better” aesthetic.  As a result, steampunk has transcended its literary roots to become a cultural phenomenon that playfully and critically mashes up old and new, real and imaginary.

Contemporary steampunk literature developed in the 1980s, in part a reaction to “cyberpunk” science fiction tales that took an angry, edgy look at computer-generated realities.  Steampunk transplanted that attitude into the 19th-century when steam—not cyberware—powered cutting-edge technology.  In those days, locomotives and cotton gins were new innovations, and citizens dreamed of a near-future in which we’d all be criss-crossing the globe in airships that looked like giant Fabergé eggs while listening to music on wax cylinder players hand-cranked by robot butlers. 

Steampunk gave modern readers a fresh take on the cultural territory that once belonged solely to actual 19th-century science-fiction authors (Poe, Verne, Wells, et. al.).1  Writers started asking provocative questions:

What if steam had been used to power the enormous calculating machines envisioned by Victorian mathematicians, jump starting the computer revolution by 100 years and enabling Victorian-era nobility to have their own web pages and PowerPoint slideshows?2 

What if Frankenstein’s monster went to the center of the earth described by Jules Verne, or if Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson had a contraption that allowed them to visit the spirit world (and they fell in love along the way)?3

What if we were made by a God who really was the watchmaker envisioned by Deists, and our universe needed to be periodically re-wound to keep running?4 

What if child laborers staged a successful rebellion against robber baron technocrats?5

The writers who tackled these questions wanted to create stories that melded historical research with futuristic sci-fi gadgetry.  That weird blend of old and new fuels steampunk. 

Two classic novels show the genre’s range.  Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates (1983), for example, emphasizes fantasy instead of technology.  The modern-day heroes use magic, rather than a time machine, to get back to the 1800s.  At the same time, however, the book has deep historical research behind it.  Powers discovered a very real, but unusual, factoid: several people in 1810 reported seeing Lord Byron around London, while the poet was actually in Greece.  The author turned this into a major plot point.  In The Anubis Gates, Byron is duplicated as a ka (a sort of magical Egyptian clone), and this double is sent to London as an assassin who must be stopped by the protagonist.  Thus, Powers’ story may present different reasons for historical events, but history itself remains unchanged. 

In contrast, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker (2009) willfully alters the dates of the Civil War and the Yukon Gold Rush to imagine what would happen if mining equipment had released toxic gas that turned most of the population of 1860s Seattle into zombies.  If history isn’t held sacred in Priest’s work, the defining technological elements of the genre certainly are.  Her Seattle is littered with airships and giant machinery.  Citizens wear ornate goggles that make the toxic gas visible.  They carry battery-powered energy rifles with multisyllabic names straight out of Wild West medicine shows.  In Priest’s steampunk, history can be bent any which way as long as the iconography remains.

Priest in particular has promoted steampunk’s values of “salvage and customization” and its rebellion against contemporary techno-culture’s sleek design ethic and disposable mentality.  “Steampunk” has become one of the more popular search terms on eBay and Esty because of crafters who take everyday items (TVs, laptops, phones) and redesign them with neo-Victorian artistry.  Similarly, corners of the fashion world have been “steampunked,” giving us accessories such as leather top hats, brass goggles, and elegant corsets that are (I’m told) far more comfortable than their 19th-century counterparts. 

Steampunk’s mix-and-match aesthetic gives it an ability to both celebrate and critique early science fiction tropes, good or ill.  It revels in the high adventure and fantastic journeys, the mad scientists and monsters, and, most importantly, the cool, clickety-clanky technology.  It also wrestles with the not-so-pleasant elements of 19th-century western civilization, including empire carving, flagrant racism, and a huge gender-equity gap.

Steampunk frequently uses clockwork imagery and, on some level, encourages us to treat it like a brass pocket watch in the hands of a novice mechanic.  Take it apart.  Examine it closely.  Don’t worry.  You can fit it back together.  And if it doesn’t work perfectly, it will still look cool.  Maybe cooler than it was the first time.

1As H. Bruce Franklin has noted, most 19th-century authors dabbled in something they’d have called “science fiction” if the label had been around back then.  He includes Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce and many others (and that’s just the Americans).  To learn more about nineteenth-century SF, see Franklin’s Future Perfect anthology, Mike Ashley’s Steampunk Prime,  Jess Nevins’ wonderful introduction to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s Steampunk anthology, or E.F. Bleiler’s monumental Science Fiction: The Early Years. And be sure to check out Roberto Delgadillo’s awesome Pinterest showcase made for this exhibition.

2See William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine.

3See Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley’s short story “Black as the Pit, From Pole to Pole” in Waldrop’s Custer’s Last Jump for the former, and Paul DiFillipo’s “Walt and Emily” from his Steampunk Trilogy for the latter. 

4See Jay Lake’s novel Mainspring.

5See Rachel E. Pollock’s short story “Reflected Light,” reprinted in the VanderMeer’s first Steampunk anthology.

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Strange Stars Book Review in SFRA Review

My review of Jason Heller’s exceptionally great book, Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded, is finally available online in the new issue of SFRA Review.

If you haven’t seen the new layout for the Science Fiction Research Association’s SFRA Review, you’re in for a treat. Download the PDF copy from their site rather than just using the links on the web page and see for yourself. They even used the fantastic cover art from Heller’s book (by Butcher Billy and Marina Drukman) for the section header (sample below).

From SFRA Review 50.2 Strange Stars Jacket Design: Marina Drukman, Illustration: Butcher Billy

I volunteered to review the book shortly after seeing a panel of pop musicians at the Worldcon in San Jose in 2018. They all raved about Heller’s work. (I finished it later that year but sometimes in academia it takes a while to get a review published–especially when the journal is going through the amazing stylistic overhaul that SFRA Review has seen in the past year.)

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Celebration of Authors at C19 Conference

I’ll be participating at the “Celebration of Authors” event for the all-online C19: Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists conference this October.

My book came out over a year ago, but it’s a biennial conference and the book wasn’t available last time we met.

This year, they’ve created an online slideshow of everyone’s book promotional material. The good folks at the University of Alabama Press created a cool slide that I’ll share here in advance of the meeting:

I’ll also be presenting on a panel called Teaching the Weird Nineteenth Century. My topic: “The Pros and Cons of Steampunking Your Syllabus.” More on that later.

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Americana Music in Sci-Fi Games

There’s a fascinating video on Polygon from last week that begins by asking “Why is there so much banjo music in science fiction video games today?” (I’m not a gamer, so I wasn’t up on this trend–but I’m obsessed with ways science fiction uses music and have covered similar trends here.)

Journalist Clayton Ashley’s answers to his question instigate a really fascinating 150-minute look at science fiction’s treatment of technology, blue-collar workers, and Southern/Appalachian themes. It is totally worth watching, for both Lisa Yaszek’s succinct explanation of SF history (with requisite nod to Mark Twain) and the examples of older pop music.

Remember, using 19th-century culture in SF doesn’t always result in things that are obviously “steampunk.” I think music’s a great example of that.

Addendum: the influence of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is worth commenting on. When the radio show needed a theme, Douglas Adams and crew used the Eagles’ instrumental “Journey of the Sorcerer” because of its blend of sci-fi whooshes and banjo. So the tradition has been around since 1978, when the show first aired.

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