Since the official lease of my and Jeff Vandermeer’s The Steampunk Bible almost a month ago in Austin, I’ve been on tour throughout New England promoting the book, meeting many of the people who we featured in the book, and falling in love with the Steampunk community as a whole. With a few stop and go’s in Austin and Waltham, MA, overall I am visiting 7 cities in roughly two weeks. At the time I’m writing this, I’ve already notched five off my list, and it has been a whirlwind tour of not only Steampunk, but Natural and American literary history. Below I thought I’d share some highlights.
International Steampunk City —Waltham, MA.
May 6-8, For the entire weekend, a remarkable event occurred in the city of Waltham. It was invaded and transformed into an International Steampunk City, a new concept not only within Steampunk, but for conventions as a whole. As I mentioned in my last dispatch from Austin, I had just attended World Horror, which was held in a Doubletree far removed from downtown, making it hard to get outside of the confines of hotel walls. While I had a blast, I felt like it was a real struggle to get to see Austin. Though I think I did pretty well with my crazy schedule and local friends who graciously showed me around, were I left on my own sans transportation, all I could have said about Austin would have been, “There was a really cool pool!” This can be a problem with conventions, all of which are usually booked in hip and need-to-see places, so when I heard that the City was to be structured within the city, with events at various venues all around town, I was excited at the idea of getting to multi-task as both tourist and panelist.
Waltham, in its non-Steampunk form, is one of the birthplaces of American Industry, where the Boston Manufacturing Company was born (one of the first that set the precedence for companies all over the states). It is also home to the Waltham Watch Company, which opened its doors in 1854, and was one of the first assembly line companies. Steampunk fits very well within this city, not only because of its labor movement history and Industry; the entire town still retains its nineteenth century charm. The view of the Charles River Museum of Science and Industry is breathtaking, and perhaps best sums up the entire ambiance.
Speaking of the Museum, the entire event was actually a benefit to help the museum recover for a horrible flood. Many pieces within the museum were damaged, and proceeds from this event are going towards renovation and restoration. It is a beautiful museum, and I can’t think of a more Steampunk cause than saving some of our rare relics of the past.
While this wasn’t your typical convention or event, one thing it still shared with the others is the madness of scheduling. They had full programming, but I spent most of my time at the academic track at the Waltham Public Library. This programming was organized by Catherine Siemann, and I can’t say enough for what a wonderful job she did. There were discussions about multiculturism, fashion, feminism, how to build airships, and she was very kindly gave me an hour to prattle on about Poe as a grandfather of Steampunk. This was also the site of The Steampunk Bible signing with Jake von Slatt, Ay-Leen the Peacemaker, Evelyn Kriete, G. D. Falksen, and Holly Brewer and [email protected] McNiss from HUMANWINE.
Because everyone on this panel has different takes on Steampunk, I asked them to talk about what they do within the world of Steampunk, and the ideas were wonderfully diverse. I was especially struck by what HUMANWINE’s discussion about Green punk. HUMANWINE does not consider themselves Steampunk, however, as we touch on in the last chapter of The Steampunk Bible, they are almost definitive of what is emerging from Steampunk’s DIY curiosity of how things work, and take it a step further by getting down and dirty to deconstruct and reconstruct their lives into what they want to live, not what society wants to distract them by. They discussed the making spirit of Steampunk, and how it is important to not be dependent upon our 21st century technology, which is designe—in the pursuit of leisure—to dumb us down and just make us mindlessly fill voids with more crap. They put their money where their mouth is, and have lived on a retrofitted bus for awhile and are in the process of cultivating their land to go off the grid.
While at Waltham, I had the immense pleasure of being accompanied by my friend Rob Velella and my brother-in-law J. J., both of whom were new to Steampunk, and came to the City to get the low-down of the movement. The enjoyment the two derived from the city, I think, is the true reflection of its success. First, my brother-in-law, who fixes helicopters IRL for the Army, instantly fell into a panel on airship building. He emerged an hour later with crazed eyes fixed upon the sky, working out how to construct his own dirigible. To further fuel this newfound zeal, everywhere we went he found knowledgeable makers, like von Slatt, who were excited about discussing mechanics and electronics, and made the idea of his zeppelin seem more probable. Two weeks later, he is still constructing blueprints.
Rob, who is an amazing and learned scholar on American nineteenth century literature, and also a talented performer who has donned the hats of Edgar Allan Poe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was most curious about the more academic aspects of Steampunk. I think he found the spin Steampunk takes on the nineteenth century very intriguing and had a lot of questions he brought to the movement answered.
Beyond getting to see Steampunk through outsider and insider eyes, there were a lot of nice quiet moments, like getting to chat with Mayor Dr. Grymm, seeing Mike Libby’s Insect Labs in person and hearing people gasp as they realized what they saw, a family-and a friendly puppet show by the performance troupe The Wandering Legion of Thomas Tew. All in all, I think it was a great success, and I look forward to the next City. I also want to thank Ellen Hagny, Catherine Siemann, and the Steampunk Empire staff who made this City a reality. It was a massive feat, and they deserve to be recognized for that.
May 20-22—Steampunk World’s Fair, Somerset, NJ
While this was a more traditional convention, it was pretty crazy. From the moment I walked in, it looked like Steampunk had exploded all over the walls of the Crowne Plaza in Somerset. There were zeppelins floating in the lobby, and Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band had this Time Lord ability to manifest in the lobby or hallway and start jamming. Once they began covering Justin Timberlake’s “Bringing Sexy [in their case Polka] Back,” the ante of the festivities was officially upped. There were posters advertizing events, steamsonas surfing luggage carts, and an overall bizarre sense that both Victorian and late 1970s London had been collapsed together and shrunk into a hotel lobby. Madness, I tell you, pure madness. (Which is the most fun!)
The Steampunk Bible was being sold in the vendors room by the illustrious Amy Houser, who was there doing beautiful silhouettes portraits, and also on the 10th floor concierge room thanks to the help of Stephen H. Segal, who was premiering some amazing titles from his publisher Quirk Books, like the to-be-released Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
The Steampunk Bible signing and panel was a lot of fun. This round, I was joined by Ekaterina Sedia, Jaymee Goh, Dr. Grymm, Margaret Killjoy, and reunited with Jake von Slatt and Ay-Leen the Peacemaker. We had a great discussion about Steampunk labeling. Jake and the Good Doctor discussed art vs. making, Ekaterina and Margaret discussed writing within a notion of a Steampunk toolbox, and Jaymee and Ay-Leen discussed using the label of Steampunk to deconstruct its notions and open up exploration into history’s untapped stories. Later that day there was another signing, and I’d like to thank Lois Jones, as well as the World’s Fair programming staff, for doing an awesome job of organizing the literary track, and letting me participate.
After that, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Murder By Death, who performed Saturday night. I am a huge fan of this band, and it was great to see how fun and chill they were, and had a lovely time chatting with them. While the band definitely has a Steampunk sound in their use of thermions, accordions, and a mellow and rich narrative in their lyrics, this was their first Steampunk convention. I was thrilled when they told me that they had in fact used The Steampunk Bible as a primer to bone up for the event, and they were really digging the costumes and the overall positive vibe of the convention. They fit right in and gave a killer set.
Outside of that, I went to Absinthe tastings, had a wonderful evening talking art with Dr. Grymm and the lovely Mrs. Grymm, discussed performance art with The Wandering Legion of Thomas Tew, and enjoyed conversation with Daniel and Mary Holzman-Tweed. I talked about nomadic lifestyles with Magpie Killjoy, and met other amazing writers like Genevieve Valentine, K. Tempest Bradford, Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, and there were so many more I didn’t get to meet and wish I had, like O. M. Grey.
Cambridge, Concord, and Boston, MA May 23-25
Monday, May 23rd, found me in Cambridge to host a Steampunk Bible evening at Porter Square Books. Joining me were contributors Jess Nevins, Mike Libby, Jake von Slatt, and Aleks Sennwald. It was a multi-media extravaganza, with specimens from Mike Libby’s Insect Labs and Jake von Slatt’s Ada Altoid Tin, Steampunk Pickboard were on hand, and Sennwald’s beautiful illustrations were on display.
We had a rousing discussion about art, making, and labeling, followed by very good questions from the audience that called out where exactly the “punk” in Steampunk was. There were musings on modern society’s propensity to not see the inner working of things, whether it be a Harley or the implications of romanticized history. Porter Square Books is a beautiful bookstore, and it was a great pleasure to be there. I also got to meet fellow Bookslut contributor Josh Cook, who was the store’s event coordinator; he did a great job organizing everything and was a cool guy to boot. I want to thank him, Ellen Jarrett for booking me, and the Porter Square staff for letting us invade for a few hours. I also want to thank everyone who came out to talk about the book with us. You were a sizable and smart crowd, and it was a pleasure speaking to everyone during the signing and Q & A.
The event was sandwiched between some marathon sight-seeing. Before the signing, Aleks Sennwald (who has been my travel companion as well as participant in these events) and I visited the Boston Museum of Natural History and were awed by the Kronosaurus and other flora and fauna curiosities. The next day, we were treated to an exclusive tour of literary Boston by literary historian, Bostonian, scholar and gentleman, Rob Velella, who had previously joined me in Waltham. For those who don’t know me, I have pretty much read nothing but nineteenth century literature up until I was 25—so having this concentrated source of literary landmarks in one area was really exhilarating to my lit nerd heart. On Rob’s tour, we saw The Longfellow House, Walden Pond, The Old Manse (where the garden that Thoreau originally planted for the newly-wedded Hawthornes is still there and sprouting tomatoes), the beautiful land around the Old Manse where Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Emerson, and many other transcendentalists wandered and dreamed.
We also saw the burial place of Thoreau, Hawthorne, N. P. Willis, as well as Frances Sargent Osgood, a poetess who has been forever linked to literary history as Poe’s potential mistress. By her was also the baby Fanny Fay, who some think was Osgood’s illegitimate love child with Poe. In addition to final resting places, I also saw where Thoreau was born, as well as Edgar Allan Poe. Many people don’t realize Poe was born in Boston, and it may be because Boston itself hasn’t made a big deal about that. In fact, the building itself has been torn down, and all that is left of the site is a gapping void between the other post-revolutionary buildings. Having said that, there are a group of Bostonian Poe enthusiasts, including Rob, who are working hard to bring more awareness to this hidden landmark.
May 26-27—New York City
New York, New York, heck of a town! I definitely came to understand the concept of a New York minute as I was zipping around all over the place. First stop on Thursday, May 26, was at Abrams Image’s office, where I finally met, in the flesh, Steampunk Bible editor Caitlin Kenney and our publicist Amy Franklin. They’ve been nothing but wonderful throughout the whole process of bringing the book to publication, and it was great to finally meet them. Thursday was a blur, and before I knew it, the Barnes and Nobles at 82nd Street and Broadway event was underway. This time, and sadly for the only time on this tour, I was joined by my co-author Jeff VanderMeer. Jeff and I were joined by the largest panel to participate on one of these events: Aleks Sennwald, Ekaterina Sedia, Liz Gorinsky, Dexter Palmer, Jaymee Goh, and Ay-Leen the Peacemaker.
Jeff warmed up the crowd with jokes about his Steampunk sartorial savvy and put a ban on fake British accents, and I introduced out guests. What then followed was a great mutli-media presentation by Jeff on the book, called “What is Steampunk: Inquiring Minds Want to Know,” as well as the premiere of his cinematic close encounter with The League of Steam in Los Angeles. Then, to continue our “What is Steampunk” conversation into a future tense, we turned to our contributors, all who gave mini-presentations of the projects they are currently working on. Then we all signed books, and walked the audience over to The Dead Poet, a quaint pub where all the drinks are named after, you guessed it, dead poets (guess which poet I had). This was my favorite part of the night, as we were accompanied by several familiar faces from the New York Meet up, and new faces that were a pleasure to meet. Thanks to everyone who came out that night, to Barnes and Nobles for having a wonderful set-up, to Ann VanderMeer who worked the laptop for us and took the only picture I have on hand, and to all who came out to support us.
Believe it or not, I’m not exhausted, which is great because I have a second leg left of this tour, which will be part two of this dispatch. Included will be the marvelous and musical event at Between Books in Clayton, DE, a lecture given at the Library of Congress, and the finale at Fountain Books in Richmond, VA, all of which more information can be found here.
S. J. Chambers is co-author of The Steampunk Bible (Abrams Image), to which she has been touring for since its release May 1st. She is also the Articles Senior editor for Strange Horizons magazine, and a contributor to Bookslut.