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The second day of OddCon 2012 began with a spirited conversation about steampunk. The discussion immediately delved into academic territory as the panelists debated the nature of literary canons. There was general agreement that steampunk is a very open-source canon that is open to a lot of different influences.
According to panelist Janice Bogstad, who has an impressive list of academic credentials including two Masters’ and a PhD, “Canon is not like a metal bell that prevents its constituents from touching other genres.” She even went so far as to describe George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones as a steampunk novel, though she did not elaborate on her reasons for doing so.
But although the canon is incredibly broad, there are limits. Eric Larson pointed to a recent poll on a blog that showed that the overwhelming majority of respondents did not want to see magic in steampunk novels. Gregory Rihn countered that argument by saying that steampunk often has its own form of magic. In the Girl Genius comic, the main character can bend the laws of physics with the ‘spark.’
After getting the theoretical stuff out of the way, the panel moved to the nuts and bolts of steampunk—literally. Rihn claimed that steampunk favored external combustion over internal combustion, and zeppelins over fixed-wing aircraft. “If it breathes steam, exudes steam, and goes “choo-choo-choo” when it walks, it is probably steampunk,” Rihn said.
But technical details are key. Because Jules Verne does not describe the power source of Captain Nemo’s submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, it falls into the realm of science fiction rather than steampunk, according to Rihn.
A question from the audience led to a discussion of what the ‘punk’ means in steampunk. According to Rihn, the critical element is the violation of Victorian social norms. “It involves expanding not just tech possibilities but social possibilities,” he explained. Some of the panelists saw a divide between older writers, who preferred to merge technology with social graces, and younger ones who were more interested in ‘gadgets and punk.’
After the steampunk panel, Toonari Post went to a panel entitled “Just the Facts, Ma’am,” which focused on the importance of facts in fiction. Moderator Shane McCook was inspired to put the panel together after listening to an audiobook where a character living in prehistoric Europe went out to pick blueberries, which are native to North America.
Richard Chwedyk explained that he normally does ten times more research than will ever show up in the story. When teaching science fiction writing workshops, he advises his students to provide just enough detail for the reader to make sense of the situation, without bogging them down in facts or taking them out of the story.
Chwedyk also pointed out that most experts are more than willing to talk about their work, and so are valuable resources for writers seeking to get their facts straight.
Jeannie Bergmann also stressed the importance of handling human emotions accurately. She cited an example of a romance novel where a nobleman takes a girl from an orphanage and raises her to be a proper lady a la My Fair Lady. Despite having suffered horrific abuse as a child, the girl is able to transition from victim to aristocrat smoothly. Bergmann noted that, in real life, the child would not be able to bounce back from her misfortune so quickly.
She also slammed romance novelists who write books where a ‘bad boy’ is reformed thanks to the heroine’s love. According to Bergmann, these books can encourage women to stay in abusive relationships. “Authors have an obligation to write books that won’t damage people,” she said.
Perhaps appropriately, the day ended with a panel on death in fiction. As one might expect there was a great deal of discussion as to why we are fascinated with the subject. Jeannie Bergmann noted the “dichotomy between person’s consciousness and body. Fascination with the body is an odd peculiarity of humans.”
“Death is disturbing because we don’t know where consciousness has gone,” she continued.
The conversation also covered notable deaths, including Janet Leigh’s famous demise in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Eliminating a main character a third of the way through the movie is certainly unusual, and its unexpectedness helped to make it all the more gripping. This stands in contrast to George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, where death is quite frequent and the reader knows they cannot count on their characters to survive.
Stay tuned for yet more coverage of OddCon 2012!
Eli Parke contributed to this report.
Image Courtesy of http://odysseycon.org