science fiction

Ad Astra 2013

Ad Astra is a speculative fiction convention in the outskirts of Toronto (specifically Markham) that I've attended now for several years. (2012 and 2009 recaps). Last year they moved to a new hotel for the convention, and it looks like they've started to fix some of the problems with last year's event. There were fewer tracks of programming this year, which was helpful. This reduced the heavy load on the elevators from last year, and made panel decisions easier.

Panels scheduled in the smaller rooms on the lower level were a real problem for me, as the rooms seem designed to devour sound. There are no microphones or speakers, and the panelists tend to be soft spoken. I had to bail on one panel because the sounds of people in the hall were far louder than the people at the front of the room.

Book launches and readings

Book launches are always fun to attend. This year, I attended a reading by Kitchener author Suzanne Church. Suzanne read a piece from her upcoming anthology Elements, as well as a few chicken stories that the anthology editor decided didn't fit with the anthology. They were amusing, but don't match the tone of the rest of her work. They would probably fit in with an anthology of Derek Künsken's stories though... He's written about monkey assassins and clown farts lately. Which, now that I've mentioned it, is going to draw some strange searches to my site.

Speaking of Derek, there was also a Bundoran Press launch party for the digital editions of the Blood and Water anthology (review forthcoming), as well as one of Matthew Johnson's stories. A number of authors read selections from their stories in Blood and Water, including Stephanie Bedwell-Grime, Ryan McFadden, Kate Heartfield, Douglas Smith, Derek Kunsken and Julie E. Czerneda.

Julie E. Czerneda also had a reading from her new novel A Turn of Light. Something which I will have to pick up the ebook for shortly.

I didn't attend the reading from Robert J Sawyer's Red Planet Blues. He will be in Kitchener later this month, when he's not competing against other panels.

Doctor Who

A Dalek in the halls of Ad Astra

Wandering the floors of the convention, I turned a corner and almost ran into a life-size Dalek. Thankfully, it did not try and exterminate me. Later in the night, there was a group showing of the night's episode of Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten. A number of Whovians were in costume (mainly the fourth and seventh Doctors), and sonic screwdrivers were waved at the projector to resolve technical issues.

The Dealer's Room

I spent more time in the dealer's room this year, as I was helping out at the Bundoran Press table. Sitting next to the ChiZine table was fun. Brett Savory has a sharp wit, as does the rest of the CZP posse.

This was also the first year where I didn't walk out of the dealer's room with a backpack full of books. Since I started using my Kobo Glo at Christmas, I have read mostly ebooks. This decision was difficult at the con. Some new releases from authors for whom I have their entire backlist signed. This was a struggle between the collector, and the reader. For now, the reader has won.

Panels

I did manage to attend a number of panels, although not as many as previous years. Ad Astra has become more of a social event for me, catching up with friends from the Internet.

Alternate realities

This was a fun panel, and I wish that I had taken more comprehensive notes. There was some good advice, including suggestions to look outside the traditional Western European history. Post colonialism at work.

Building an audience

This was a solo lecture featuring Rob Sawyer. A few people bailed when they realized it wasn't a discussion between multiple panelists. There is of course a difference between a discussion and a lecture.

For the most part, Rob's advice makes sense. You're not trying to sell a particular book or story to everyone. Just like a particular story won't be right for a given editor, a story can also not be right for a particular reader.

Rob instead advised the audience to sell a brand: yourself. It's more of a soft-sale technique, where through exposure to your brand, and a continues, personal interaction, fans will buy your books. Some of the folks in the dealer's room should have been here. Some vendors were trying the hard-sale.

How to write high fantasy

While I'm not trying to write high fantasy, I found the panel on this topic entertaining. Some good perspectives by K.W. Ramsey, Catherine Fitzsimmons, Gregory A. Wilson, and Marie Bilodeau. It did end up going a little off topic, when the panelists started discussing ways to create believable female characters with real motivations.

How do you know it's done

This panel included Stephanie Bedwell-Grime, Gabrielle Harbowy, Marie Bilodeau, and Douglas Smith. It was a really good discussion of the merits an limitations of Heinlein's third rule of writing, limiting the endless editing of finished work. It was really quite fun to see Gabrielle and Marie joking with each other. This is what a really good editor/author relationship is like.

I'm going to come back to this topic in a later post, after I've had time to organize my notes.

Space propulsion

As interesting as this topic is, without a story driving particular research on my part, I really didn't get much from this panel. Escape velocity requires expensive thrust, and can't be nuclear. When in orbit, interplanetary transfers can be fast and expensive (major talk about nuclear options) or slow and efficient for non-human transport. Some interesting facts about solar sails. The guys on this panel would be great people to query with particular story questions. It's all really great information, it's just not very useful to me now.

The parties

a shot of our Aliens game in action

While waiting for the parties to start up, I met up with Adam Shaftoe, James Bambury (who does not yet have telekinetic powers while drinking), Beverly Bambury and David Lamb for an Aliens board game. It was pretty epic. Shaftoe in particular had some awesome moments, even if the acid splash from the Alien caused someone else to fall down the elevator shaft.

The ChiZine party has an epic event. Just like the TARDIS, it must be bigger on the inside, judging by the number of people there. I bet the Doctor has stronger air conditioning though, although perhaps not as free-flowing of a bar.

Book review: Triggers by Robert J Sawyer

20120422-235858.jpg

I recently finished reading Triggers, the latest novel by Canadian science fiction writer Robert J Sawyer. After the television adaptation of his novel Flashforward, there was an obvious desire to tap into a larger market of potential fans. Many of Sawyer's earlier novels had elements of suspense, but none could ever truly be called a thriller. They have all been heavy on the philosophical issues, exploring ideas and thoughts on the meaning of humanity. Book cover for Triggers

Triggers is the combination of this philosophy on the human condition, mixed with high stakes action. Sawyer manages this quite well. While Sawyer's message is as positive as always, the comparison to Michael Crichton's techno-thrillers is more relevant than ever.

Although Sawyer is writing a faster paced story, the primary plot elements are still based on scientific extrapolations, with a focus on what it means to be human. In Triggers, the focus is on human memory. Unlike the common perception of memory as being stored whole and complete, Sawyer draws on recent scientific studies which show that memories are encoded as a series of cues, which are then decoded and interpreted in a framework of our experiences. It is these cues, which contain noteworthy elements, which are then physically stored in the brain. It's a really compelling theory, and explains a great deal about how the legal system now views memory.

Author Robert J Sawyer

In Triggers, Sawyer creates a situation where a medical experiment causes a link to be formed between two people, where the memories of the first could be accessed and decoded by the second. It is a science fiction version of telepathy, with the limitation that only these memory cues are accessed, from formed memories. It's a fascinating premise, and Sawyer gets some good use out of it, with some interesting examples of how it might affect our sense of morality.

At the same time, it challenges our sense of individuality. Certain sensations or events can trigger memories, but how do you decide whose memory is being relived? How could people use this ability to their advantage, with someone else able to recall any of your memories? Omnipresent surveillance is a common theme in Sawyer's novels, playing an important role in Flashforward, the Neanderthal Parallax novels, the Wake, Watch, Wonder trilogy, and now Triggers. In each novel, the circumstances and implications are different, but in all the cases, they affect our understanding of moral choices.

Triggers is not a perfect story. While the ending could be seen as a logical progression from the original premise, it felt too much like a deus ex machina. As intriguing as I found the earlier science about the physical encoding of memory, I found the further progression rather unsatisfying, and the eventual implications of the story rather unsettling. To make a Star Trek analogy, I greatly prefer the Federation to the Borg Collective.

Despite my dissatisfaction with the ending, Sawyer still writes a compelling story which tackles some interesting issues.

Ad Astra 2012

I've attended Ad Astra, a Toronto science fiction convention, for several years now. As the Don Valley Parkway was closed for maintenance this weekend, the change of venue from the hotel used over the last few years was welcome.The convention floor was much more accessible, without the insane number of stairs everywhere, like at the previous convention centre. However, the venue space for vendors was insufficient. The main vendors room had four or five booksellers, including Bakka Phoenix and Chizine Publications. Other vendors had tables lining the hallways. When customers stood outside their tables, walking down the halls became difficult.

Steampunk cosplayers at Ad Astra

In addition to the Steampunk cosplayers, this year a number of vendors were selling Steampunk accessories.

The convention seemed a little emptier this year. Toronto Comicon was this weekend as well, which certainly didn't help. The programming on Saturday appeared to be hit or miss. At some times, three panels of interest were scheduled at the same time, while at others, nothing of interest was going on. Those were the times where I like to circle the vendors room, but it didn't take nearly as long this year.

Perhaps the most engaging panel was one on criticism, moderated by Adam Shaftoe. It was nice to meet him in person for the first time. It's always interesting to see who has twitter notifications enabled in a panel. After I mentioned him in a tweet, I could see him scanning the room to find me. The panelists had a good discussion, about the advantages and disadvantages of ARCs and blog monetization. The best advice was from Ryan Oakley. No, not this, but rather that reviewers shouldn't worry about the feelings of the author. Consider the work alone. Assume a certain level of professionalism on the part of all parties, and follow Wheaton's Rule: Don't be a dick.

I really enjoyed attending a few readings. Suzanne Church read from her Aurora nominated story The Needle's Eye, which was really moving. Marcy Italiano read her short story Dance at my Funeral, a great story about a final farewell. Where S

Later I attended a reading by Matt Moore, Derek Kunsken, and Marie Bilodeau, who read to an engaged audience. Matt had the other authors help read parts of his story Ascension, a story about telepathic zombies. Marie read her Aurora nominated short story The Legend of Gluck, in which a rotten skull is dragged around. Not to be outdone, Derek read from his Aurora nominated story To Live and Die in Gibbontown, which was published in Asimov's. Matt then finished off with a Lovecraft inspired story Delta Pi. The East Block Irregulars writing group is well represented by these authors.

I'm not sure which story I enjoyed best. The reading of Ascension was spectacular, and any story where the characters are monkeys will have my attention. Despite his disclaimer that this was his first public reading, Derek was funny and engaging. Finally, of you've not attended a reading by Marie, you're really missing out. A French accent and rotting sorcerer brains? A winning combination!

To wrap up the night, I attended the start of the Chizine party, where Michael Rowe graciously signed the copy of Enter, Night I picked up in the dealer's room. Chizine made out like the piratical bandits they are in the Aurora nominations, and this modern vampire novel, set in northern Ontario in the 1970s, was one of them. All too soon, I had to depart. It was a good day, and it was nice to see everyone again.

Aurora Award Finalists

The finalists for the Prix Aurora Awards has now been announced. While I've only read two of the nominated works for Best English Novel so far, (Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay, and Watch, by Robert J. Sawyer), I've read the previous two novels in the series by Hayden Trenholm (nominated for Stealing Home, previous novels reviewed are Defining Diana and Steel Whispers.), and have attended readings by Sawyer, Trenholm and Marie Bilodeau for their nominated works.

I'm also pleased that Suzanne Church (a writer here in the Waterloo Region),  Matt Moore, and Hayden Trenholm are finalists for Best English Short Story. Sawyer is also a finalist for Best English Poem, as are Carolyn Clink, and Helen Marshall.

Douglas Smith (of whom I've mentioned the story Radio Nowhere from the Campus Chills anthology) has a nomination for Best English Related work for his collection of stories (Chimerascope), and John Robert Columbo and Brett Alexander Savory are finalists for the Tesseracts Fourteen anthology.

There's a good article in the Metro News about an Ottawa based group of writers named the East Block Irregulars which includes Trenholm, Moore and Bilodeau which shows how a great group can challenge writers to excel. All of the members of the group have reason to be proud of these accomplishments.

Matt Moore holding Steel Whispers

A photo of SF writer Matt Moore holding his colleague Hayden Trenholm's novel Steel Whispers. Both Moore and Trenholm are nominated for Best English Short Story.

The Last Man

Mary Shelley is primarily known for writing Frankenstein (1818), and while many people think themselves familiar with the tale, their knowledge is usually based on the many play and film adaptations, rather than the original literary text. In the Billion Year Spree: The History Of Science Fiction (1973), Brian Aldiss argued quite successfully that Frankenstein is the first science fiction novel. Certainly the creation of a manufactured being, based to some extent on the science of the day should qualify as such. How then should we examine Shelley's later novel, The Last Man (1826)? While I don't believe that it really qualifies as science fiction, many of the themes Shelley includes are familiar to a modern audience. This post apocalyptic tale will seem familiar to readers of modern anthologies such as Wastelands, edited by John Joseph Adams. Stories like The Last Man bear a strong similarity to works by Stephen King, such as The Stand (1978), where a global catastrophe has depopulated the earth. Unlike King's novel, Mary Shelley's story lacks the supernatural elements, aside from the narrative framing device. Shelley mourns for a lost world, just as she mourned for her husband and child. As she notes in her novel, "all things proceed, decay, and perish".

Much of her novel can be seen as semi-autobiographical. Many of the characters seem based off those in her life. The story is a kind of momento mori, memorializing those who proceeded her. In many ways, The Last Man deals with death and emotion in a far more sophisticated way than Shelley dealt with this issue in Frankenstein. While Victor Frankenstein is unable to express grief or true remorse for anyone, in The Last Man, Lionel Verney memorializes the entire world, saying that "my thoughts were gems to enrich the treasure house of man's intellectual possessions; each sentiment was a precious gift I bestowed on them". Verney becomes a kind of living monument to the peoples of the earth.

This theme can also be seen in Richard Matheson's novel, I Am Legend (1954), for which the movie adaptation starring Will Smith utterly fails to conclude in a satisfying manner. In Matheson's novel, Neville is also a "last man", fighting for the memory of mankind.

While Shelley's The Last Man may not fully qualify as science fiction, the themes she used have formed a groundwork for authors who have worked inside and outside the genre ever since.

The Fiction of Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer published his first novel in 1990, but his first SF publication was a short story called If I'm Here, Imagine Where They Sent My Luggage, in 1981. I don't remember when I first started reading Sawyer's fiction, but I do remember his time as the Edna Staebler Writer In Residence at the Kitchener Public Library, in 2006. During his first appearance, I also met Paddy Forde, Suzanne Church and James Alan Gardner, all local authors in Waterloo Region.

Rob is often one to talk of how perseverance is one of the great assets of a writer. The ability to keep cranking out the words, and the stories, day after day, is one of the signs of a writer. His addition to Heinlein's rules of writing is simple: keep writing.

Clearly another important part of Rob's success is his great skill as a communicator. Not only does his writing express a sense of clarity, but his interaction in person is phenomenal. He has a strong, projecting voice, which is great for public readings. His degree from Ryerson is in Radio and Television Arts, where he specialized in screenwriting, which doubtless helped him land so many guest appearances on television. He also had the opportunity to write the screenplay for one of the episodes of the ABC Flash Forward adaptation of his novel.

When talking with Rob at conventions, he shows an earnest interest in what others think, even when it's some mindless fan (namely myself) uttering a spontaneous, unplanned question at a reading, with no real relevance to the story at hand. Rob is quick to deflate the question with a simple but humourous response, and then follow up later. For those wanting to know: "The reason in WATCH that the CSIS agents flew from Ottawa to Toronto then drove to Waterloo is that the first flight from Ottawa to Toronto arrives at 7:00 a.m.; the first flight from Ottawa to Waterloo arrives at 8:30 p.m. -- and the Toronto airport is less than 75 minutes from Caitlin's school, so you get there earlier by doing it the way I described in the novel."

Rob's fiction is based on important, contemporary issues, often dealing with morality. Whether it's the rights of the consciousness transferred into an android body in Mindscan, or that of a nascent AI in Rob's latest Wake, Watch, Wonder trilogy, Rob raises ethical issues which arise due to advances in modern technology.

It's quite appropriate when Rob is held up as the answer to the techno-thriller. Often in American SF, technology is shown as being inherently chaotic. Cloned dinosaurs escape, robots travel from the future to kill a boy who would grow into mankind's greatest leader, etc. Instead, Sawyer brings us aliens who say "take me to your paleontologist", exploring issues of faith and morality in a compelling and respectful way.

Some of his greatest short stories, such as Shoulders of Giants, do not contain an antagonist at all, but are instead testaments to the pioneering spirit. Others, such as Just Like Old Times, examine a Canada where state-sponsored euthanasia transfers the consciousness of convicted felons into people (and dinosaurs) from the past.

Rob's stories are designed to provoke thought, to question beliefs, and to raise awareness of the role science plays in modern society. Keep up the good work.

Reflections on the Past Year

While the beginning of January may seem to be a more appropriate time of year for reflecting on the past year, performance review time in the office tends to be mid-February. Despite some challenges, I think this year was quite successful, both in the workplace and outside work. During August, I presented a paper on Paddy Forde's novella "On Spirit" and Rob Sawyer's short story "Just Like Old Times" at the Social Science on the Final Frontier academic conference at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. It was a nice little conference, and it was nice to see Rob Sawyer and Julie E. Czerneda at the conference. This was my second academic paper presented at a conference, and was a lot of fun.

During the year, I didn't accomplish much fiction writing, something which I'm planning to remedy. Part of my problem in the past year is that I haven't made the time to write. I've proven to myself that I can now write 250-500 words a day for blog posts, in addition to my coursework assignments. I'm going to see if I can add fiction writing to these word counts in the next few weeks. If it doesn't seem to be working, I may decide to reduce the size or frequency of my blog posts. It's something that I've been struggling with.

I've done some nice improvements around the home this past year. I'm particularly happy with my garage, now that it's been organized. Previously, neither car would fit inside. Now, both can fit inside, as well as my snowblower. Yes, this is a first world problem, and I'm aware that I'm contributing to urban sprawl, etc. It's a beautiful property, with a very large backyard for spending time with the family, but city transit doesn't come anywhere near here. The way things stand, I'm just not willing to consider alternative ways to get to work.

Federations: The Culture Archivist by Jeremiah Tolbert

Unlike Robert J. Sawyer's story "The Shoulders of Giants" in John Joseph Adams Federations anthology, Jeremiah Tolbert's "The Culture Archivist" has considerably more bite. Tolbert's story takes capitalist consumerism to the ultimate conclusion: enforced participation in consumerist society. Not only is everyone a consumer, but alien planets are conquered in order to open new markets. It's an interesting concept to explore, and Tolbert's story shows how resistance to such a society might happen.

When reading this story, I was reminded of the movie Idiocracy. Not that Tolbert's world has sunk to the level of mindless media consumption (although there are indications that in other parts of his universe this is the case) but that the point of existence is consumption.

While Tolbert's view of an authoritarian future may be bleak, the core of the story is about the resistance to this authority. It seems particularly relevant today, as we see different forms of protests across the world, such as in Egypt.

While Tolbert's story fits in the post-humanist subgenre of science fiction, it also plays well within the bounds of post-colonial fiction in general. The story is sharp and witty, while also being quite humorous. I especially enjoyed the way he dealt with an emergent AI swarm.

It's a smart story, and fits well with the theme of the anthology, despite its overt pessimism.

Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy

This short story by Catherynne M. Valente is the final story of the Federations science fiction anthology, edited by John Joseph Adams. The anthology contains a diverse set of stories, but for me, Valente's story is the most memorable. While many of the other stories in the anthology focus on interstellar warfare, or diplomatic relations, Valente begins with "the difficulties of transporting wine over interstellar distances," which I found to be an intriguing hook. It took me off guard from the outset, especially as Valente reveals that the wines in question are "wholly, thoroughly, enthusiastically illegal".

The story unfolds as seven glasses of illicit wine are tasted, and their individual stories told, revealing a rich backdrop of corporate intrigue, and blockade running. The feeling is reminiscent of the rum runners from the prohibition era in North America, only instead of running up against the government, Valente presents a vicious corporate embargo. Valente's lyrical language matches the subject perfectly, like a fine wine of its own.

Golubash, or Wine-Blood-War-Elegy is an excellent piece to finish off the Federations anthology, and has left me quite interested in tracking down more of Catherynne Valente's stories.

Book Review: Steel Whispers

I would like to recommend Steel Whispers, by Hayden Trenholm for the Aurora Award this year. This is an exciting sequel to Defining Diana, which was nominated last year. This novel once again follows Frank Steele in a brilliantly imagined future Calgary. The pacing of this novel started off strong, and kept me reading at a frenetic pace. In particular, the opening hook has a great deal of emotional impact, and as the mystery draws itself out, layers of character development are revealed. Within the first pages, Frank Steele begins investigating the murder of his estranged son, as part of an ongoing case of Borg (cyborg) murders. Frank protests his emotional investment in the case, and the novel focuses on how Frank comes to understand his son. Hayden builds on this initial level of emotional tension throughout the novel, in a remarkable novel.

The revelation that his son had Borg implants is particularly interesting, and handled in a manner consistent with gender identity studies. When Frank asks his ex-wife about their son's implants, she replies that he was "like all kids - enamoured with what was new and different. He hung with that dress-up crowd at college" but she also admits that she didn't "pay much attention. I thought it was a fad" (14). She seems genuinely confused as to what actually defines a Borg.

This point is highlighted by one of the viewpoint characters, Buzz Wannamaker, who in addition to being a Borg, is also Native American. Frank notes that "his parents had enough trouble accepting he was Borg without him talking to voices in his head" (26). This dual concept of identity explores the problem of how we see ourselves, and how others see us. When Frank later asks him to define what defines a Borg, Wannamaker suggests that it is not the implants, or at least not just the implants but that "something inside us makes us Borg" (98). This way in which this argument is handled is well done, and quite evocative of some of the LGBT issues in contemporary society.

As a culture inherently different from the social norm, there are other comparisons to gender studies. While "some of the Borg didn't look much different than regular humans with all of the modifications and augmentation hidden under their skin", others "liked to flaunt their changes" (10). Due in part to their refusal to submit to the social norms, the Borg are social outcasts. With regards to the Borg murder case, Frank notes that the "press was having a field day with the idea of a Borg serial killer, alternating between a sick fascination with the grisly details and vicious speculation on whether the culprit should be hunted down or given a medal" (16). As seen throughout history, those who are different suffer persecution from cultural orthodoxy.

The investigation into his son's death is linked together with this sense of identity, and Frank comes to finally learn about his son, and to accept who he became. The action and tension in the story is well maintained, building up towards an exciting confrontation near the end. Hayden's characters are much more fully developed in this story, as they evolve from detective-noir style caricatures and confront their inner demons. This is a great strength of the novel, as Hayden can effectively characterize with a few sentences, later to build very complex characters whose struggles, failures and successes are meaningful.

This focus on identity has brought an interesting Canadian perspective into the novel.

Fast Ships, Black Sails

I picked up Fast Ships, Black Sails at Worldcon this year, and have finally gotten around to finishing it. This is a pirate themed, science-fiction/fantasy anthology of short stories, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and published by Night Shade Books.

  • "Boojum" by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette
  • "Castor on Troubled Waters" by Rhys Hughes
  • "I begyn as I Mean To Go On" by Kage Baker
  • "Avast, Abaft!" by Howard Waldrop
  • "Elegy to Gabrielle, Patron Saint of Healers, Whores, and Righteous Thieves" by Kelly Barnhill
  • "Skillet and Saber" by Justin Howe
  • "The Nymph's Child" by Carrie Vaughn
  • "68° 07′ 15″N, 31° 36′ 44″W" by Conrad Williams
  • "Ironface" by Michael Moorcock
  • "Pirate Solutions" by Katherine Sparrow
  • "We Sleep on a Thousand Waves Beneath the Stars" by Brendan Connell
  • "Voyage of the Iguana" by Steve Aylett
  • "Pirates of the Suara Sea" by David Freer and Eric Flint
  • "A Cold Day in Hell" by Paul Batteiger
  • "The Adventures of Captain Black Heart Wentworth" by Rachel Swirsky
  • "Araminta, or, The Wreck of the Amphidrake" by Naomi Novik
  • "The Whale Below" by Jayme Lynn Blaschke
  • "Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarsköe" by Garth Nix

The VanderMeers start this anthology off with a bang with "Boojum", where we are introduced to a living entity being used as a spaceship, and being attacked by pirates. This immediately brings the fantastic elements of this anthology.

Sparrow's "Pirate Solutions" was perhaps the most unexpected of the stories, as it deals more with data pirates than high seas pirates. It didn't quite match the same feel as the other stories, but was still enjoyable.

Another favourite was "Pirates of the Suara Sea". Freer and Flint do an excellent job of characterizing the alien Altekar: "There are lots more deck-planks. Maybe even... five."

"The Voyage of the Iguana" is an absurdist piece, and quite amusing. It's a series of short journal entries documenting the voyage of an incompetent captain and his crew.

Paul Batteiger's "A Cold Day in Hell" was an interesting concept of piracy on the high ice sheets, in a world undergoing a new ice age. The ships, instead of floating on water, skate over the ice.

Perhaps the most memorable story in the collection is Rachel Swirsky's "The Adventures of Captain Black Heart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail". In this tale, the pirates are black hearted rats. It's a wonderful little story, although I was disappointed to see that in this story, ships guns were called canons instead of cannons. It's not a musical piece,  nor is it a selection of works of literature or art.

Novik's tale was another enjoyable fantasy tale, with elements of magic.

Garth Nix's story "Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarsköe" is an excellent one to end the anthology. I wished it was a much longer piece, as the characters and setting were quite intriguing.

Overall, a good anthology. There was a great depth of literary references throughout the stories, such as to Lavinia Whateley in "Boojum", and Edward Teach in "Pirates of the Saura Sea". Some stories re-imagine pirates entirely, while other stories are a more traditional retelling, with some added fantasy elements.

Defining Steampunk

Attempts to formally define steampunk are exercises in futility, similar to similar attempts at defining science fiction. Even Damon Knight's definition of SF as "what we mean when we point to it" is problematic, as the "we" no longer refers to a single cohesive group. While the Oxford English Dictionary defines steampunk as a "writer of science fiction which has a historical setting (esp. based on industrialized, nineteenth-century society) and characteristically features steam-powered, mechanized machinery rather than electronic technology; (also) such writing as a subgenre of science fiction," I believe that this definition fails to capture the extent to which it is commonly used. Steampunk is no longer merely a literary genre, as adaptations to film have been embraced as a retrofuturistic style, which has formed an almost entirely unrelated aesthetics movement. Some fellow students in my creative writing class were actually surprised when I mentioned that I was reading steampunk novels. "They have steampunk books now, too?"

When K.W. Jeter coined the term in a letter printed in the April 1987 issue of Locus, it referred to the "gonzo-historical manner" in the Victorian fantasies written by James P. Blaylock, Tim Powers, and K.W. Jeter himself. Since then, the term has been embraced and extended by numerous groups. Any particular definition will depend on which books they have read.

What is required in a steampunk novel? What characterizes steampunk? As Mike Perschon notes, The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers is in an interesting position. It is much more fantasy than science fiction. It does not really deal with technology in any significant way. It was however, included in Jeter's original term. Does this make it steampunk canon? Setting aside the technological requirements of steampunk, there are certain aspects of The Anubis Gates which are commonly reflected in other steampunk works. Power's novel is an adventure story, based primarily in Victorian London. It includes a number of contemporary literary figures, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Lord Byron. Including historical figures is a technique shared with other steampunk novels such as The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, where characters such as John Keats play a role, as well as Cherie Priest's novel Boneshaker, which includes the Duwamish indian Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle as a character. One of the key aspects of a steampunk novel appears to be some unbalancing of power, whether it be social or political. This is commonly seen as the "punk" aspect, and Powers certainly includes it in his novel. While Powers is careful not to change historically recorded facts (his works generally fit within a subgenre known as "secret history", which include fantastic elements framed within the recorded framework of history), there are certain revolutionary aspects of his work.

What is needed to declare a work steampunk? Is steam-powered technology necessary? Jay Lake's Mainspring and Escapement novels successfully substitute clockwork machinery. Is technology itself needed? Tim Powers shows us a rule-based magic in the Anubis Gates.  Is the neo-victorian era necessary? While many early steampunk books were based in Victorian London, many are now based in America, while others are based in other imaginary worlds, such as China Mieville's Bas-Lag series. What seems to be important is that the novel is set in a time of political, industrial or social change.

Steampunk may not even necessarily fall under some definitions of science fiction. Often, steampunk uses scientific theories which are no longer plausible. The use of magic in The Anubis Gates would exclude it from some people's definition of SF. The aetheric technologies of K.W. Jeter's Infernal Devices would also cause some definitions problematic. The zombie-producing Blight gas in Boneshaker is another more fantastic element.

Steampunk is generally not hard science fiction. However, Gibson and Sterling's Difference Engine eschews most fantastic elements. Their main departure from our timeline is that Babbage's Difference and Analytical Engines worked, were efficient, and formed the backbone of an early information age, leading to large social change. While it was the first steampunk novel I read, and it originally formed the core components of my personal definition of steampunk, The Difference Engine lacks the more fantastic elements which most steampunk novels now include.

Steampunk is a re-imagining of the past. This retaking of the past is inclusive, both of literary forms, and of definitions. When one moves from literature to other forms of media, the boundaries of steampunk become more nebulous. I'm a fan of the anime movie "Steamboy", and it certainly hits most of the characteristics of steampunk. Other movies, such as Will Smith's Wild Wild West, or the film adaptation of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen certainly contain aspects of the steampunk aesthetic, but are less successful at being anything other than a dumb action movie. I think an excellent argument could be made for including Joss Wheedon's Firefly as part of steampunk.

For another look at how someone defines steampunk, see the steampunk FAQ from Cherie Priest.