Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Get (steam)punk'd at the World Steam Expo

     Anyone who's been curious about this steampunk stuff I've been blogging about will have a perfect opportunity for a full immersion experience next month.
      Jules Verne might smile knowingly at the world of the future glimpsed at the 2012 World Steam Expo. It’s not literally an expo of steam but rather of steampunk, and will be held May 25 through 28, at the Hyatt Regency Dearborn at Fairlane Town Center in Dearborn.
     Steampunk is many things. According to the FAQ section of the World Steam Expo website, it “is the science fiction of the steam age, re-imagined with the advantage of modern hindsight. Drawing upon the wealth of historical technology and the scientific fantasies of the Victorian and Edwardian periods, steampunk seeks to reinvent modern wonders such as the computer as the people of the age might have envisioned them. Following in the footsteps of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, steampunk authors blend history, science and imagination into a world of wonder that might have been.”
     So, it’s science fiction and fantasy stories, and several steampunk authors will be on hand, but steampunk has long spread far beyond the confines of the printed page, and the World Steam Expo celebrates it in all its varieties. There’s fashion, jewelry, art work, role-playing and hobbyists who build real retro-futuristic devices with rococo brass. It’s even infiltrated film and television (recent versions of “Sherlock Homes” and “The Three Musketeers” incorporate some steampunk elements).
Among the authors who will be present:
  • G.D. Falksen is author of “The Hellfire Chronicles: Blood in the Skies” and “A Cats Steampunk Alphabet.”
  • Gail Carriger is the author of the “Parasol Protectorate” series, including “Soulless” and “Timeless.”
  • Jay Lake is the author of the “Clockwork Earth” trilogy: “Mainspring,” “Escapement” and “Pinion.”
  • John White is working on the “Tales of the Airship Neverland” trilogy, a steampunk “meta-fiction” rewrite of J.M. Barrie’s "Peter Pan." The series has yet to be published, but there are excerpts, background, art and more on his website as he allows you to follow the process “from writing to editing to publishing.”
  • Editor/artist/party and event planner/ /fashion designer Evelyn Kriete, also has illustrations in fellow guest G.D. Falksen’s books of “The Hellfire Chronicles: Blood in the Skies” and “A Cats Steampunk Alphabet.”
Perfomance and musical acts include:
  • Abney Park, led by "Captain" Robert Brown, who has written a steampunk novel “The Wrath of Fate” which explains the band’s backstory and transformation from a goth industrial band to “steampunk.” An audio version of chapter one is available here. There are also RPG (role playing game) books on their website.
  • Steam Powered Giraffe also has a fictional backstory, explaining their persona as automaton entertainers. They describe their act as a  “Clockwork Vaudeville Circus Cabaret Show.”
  •  Euro-American duo Frenchy and the Punk (formerly The Gypsy Nomads) mix cabaret, vaudeville, folk and punk, with "a dash of steampunk flavoring."
  • Detroit's own Bawdy Boys draw on the "rich heritage and culture of Irish Americans through bawdy versions of traditional favorites, toasts and bits of history and every sea shanty, rebel tune and drinking song they can put their instruments and voices to."
  • Hayley Jane, another Detroit-based entertainer, is "a true believer in the neo-vaudeville movement," and is, among other things, "a burlesque dancer, a faerie performance artist, a cabaret folk musician, a costumer, a make-up guru."
  • Dr. Toon, aka Dr. Tomas Maxwell Toon aka Thomas Downey is a "scientist of Ethnomusicology, Sociomusicology, and Cognitive Musicology, a specialized Weapons-Grade Gramaphonist," a professional DJ from the Detroit area and the host of the monthly Detroit Up in the Aether steampunk gathering at the Phoenix Café (24918 John R, Hazel Park, 248-667-8817).
  • Harpnotic has "a song list that spans the centuries and a wardrobe to match," including Celtic, classical, Renaissance, gypsy, folk, rock and original music fusing intoxicating middle eastern rhythms and harmonies with songs both Ancient and Modern."   
  • Illuminatus 2.2, a Michigan-based laser-light show that performs "feats of laser lighting, video visual mayhem, and assorted other photon-related activities."
     There will even be beauty pageant, presented by the online Blonde Swan Hat Boutique, with women 18 and older competing for the brass-and-leather crown of Miss World Steam. Deadline for entries is April 24. You’ll find the details here. There’s a questionnaire that includes the usual suspects persona name, phone number, birthday and email – plus several steampunk-specific questions, of which my favorite is: “In a fight between Abe Lincoln and Capt. Nemo, who would win and how?”
     Besides Blonde Swan, other merchants pitching their wares at the expo include:

     There will be more special events and activities. Scheduled so far are:
  •  A "Fairy Tales, Myths, and Tall Tales" costume contest, not to include urban legends, comic books/graphic novels, theological figures (unless re-conceived in steampunk terms), original characters, or characters created in a work by a specific author, such as "Alice in Wonderland" or "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."
  • A "high tea," sponsored by Off the Beaten Path Books & Cafe, the steampunk bookstore, in Farmington. Tickets are $20, and seating is limited. "Alongside a discussion of the history of tea and tea etiquette, diners will enjoy this scrumptious menu: assorted tea sandwiches, petit roast chicken salad sandwiches on fresh local bakery bread, assorted scones cranberry, white chocolate raspberry, blueberry, and lemon poppyseed chocolate or vanilla petit fours/cakelets, a selection of tea cookies, European strawberry jam and fresh whipped butter, Assam Tea, Earl Grey, and Darjeeling Tea, plus various  tea accoutrements."
     More details on the World Steam Expo will be forthcoming, though at present the site doesn't even reveal what admission will cost day-by-day. It's $60 in advance for all four days (I plan to attend, but probably for only one day). Check out the World Steam Expo link for details, and any of the above links for more about a writer, musician, artist or vendor.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The French revolution

Review: Vive la Revolution: 
A Stand-up History of the French Revolution
By Mark Steel
     Before reading “Vive la Revolution” by Mark Steel, I knew a little about the French revolution — King Louis and Marie “let-them-eat-cake” Antoinette, Robespierre and the Reign of Terror, the Bastille being stormed, the guillotine, Marat assassinated in his bath by Charlotte Corday — but it mostly came from various films (Peter Brooks’ 1967 “The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade” — usually shortened to “Marat/Sade” — Bud Yorkin’s 1970 comedy “Start the Revolution Without Me,” Ettore Scola’s 1982 La Nuit de Varennes,” Sofia Coppola’s 2006 “Marie Antoinette” and various iterations of the Scarlet Pimpernel) and literary fictions (including “Thermidor,” a surprisingly informative issue of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” comic book).
     Then I stumbled upon this book, first published in 2006, at Barnes and Noble last month. After checking how it treated some of the obscura I did know — Thomas Paine, American revolutionary and author of “Common Sense” was imprisoned and awaiting  awaiting execution — and enjoying the writing style, I decided to buy it. That the style is less ponderous and pompous than most histories, and more entertaining, is only natural, because Mark Steel is a stand-up comedian by trade.
     I’m less sure he's gotten his history right. Some reviews on Amazon criticize him for allegedly making dumb mistakes, such as confusing Louis XVI with Louis XIV. And he is a biased reporter with a true socialist viewpoint (not what right wing pundits call socialism), but he’s open with that bias, so you can factor that in with what he says and decide with how much salt to take it. He’s a Palestinian sympathizer also.
     When Steel focuses on the French revolution, however, he offers a refreshing take on historical personages who are almost universally reviled. Among other things, he argues that the excesses of the Reign of Terror took place during a time of war, when most of the surrounding countries didn’t take kindly to regicide and wanted to restore the king — or any king, after Louis XVI was executed. There was even dissension from factions within France (which wasn’t a unified country in the sense we think of today). Even many of the revolutionaries themselves didn't want to do away with the monarchy or kill the king. France before the revolution was in bad shape, corrupt, with food held back from the public to drive up prices, and Louis' excesses helping to drain the nation's purse. So, while some of their acts were appalling, Steel argues the revolutionaries weren't necessarily power-hungry or evil.
     Steel's history is not complete or comprehensive — in particular, I'd have liked more about the revolutionary calendar — and I wouldn't take it as gospel, but I enjoyed spending a few days with it. Now maybe I'll try a book by a conventional historian.