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The Kitschies – Steampunk Evening


This coming Thursday – 8 December – The Kitschies are hosting a Steampunk Evening at Blackwell’s Charing Cross, the flagship branch of one of the UK’s most respected booksellers. The evening promises to be filled with Victorian fact and fantasy, and the bookstore will be packed with authors, artists, giant squid and tasty rum.

Blackwell’s has a strong academic reputation – they’re the first stop for students and professors alike. For them to host a fantasy event, especially in partnership with a new award like The Kitschies, says a lot about the prevalence of genre literature. If there is a division between genre and literary fiction, events like this show that said gap is not as great as we supposed.

Steampunk is, on the surface, a strange and unlikely choice for us to host. The Kitschies are an award for all speculative and fantastic fiction. But this particular subgenre fits with Blackwell’s overarching theme of the “Victorian Christmas” and, when it comes down to it, there’s no subset of genre fiction that’s currently stronger, more inclusive or more robust. This is also ironic: there may be no subset of genre fiction that’s also currently more undervalued. For every book categorised as steampunk, there’s an author actively avoiding that definition. For every fan passionate about steampunk, there’s a blog that that derides the fiction as frivolous.

Anne Perry, one of the Kitschies judges, kicked off the event on the Blackwell’s blog with a passionate defense of steampunk. It is definitely worth reading, but, in short, she argues that steampunk is, amongst other things, modern and fun. These are the two characteristics that also symbolise its polarising nature.

“Modern” is a peculiar one, as steampunk is ostensibly about a specific historic era. Steampunk’s modernity, however, comes not from its historical aesthetic but from how contemporary authors use it to consider timeless issues. China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station uses a quasi-Victorian setting to discuss themes of political freedom and scientific responsibility. Likewise Adam Roberts’ Swiftly speaks both to gender politics and individual freedom and Philip Reeves’ Mortal Engines discusses imperialism – as relevant an issue today as 150 years ago.

Another aspect of Steampunk’s modernity is its vibrant fan base. Steampunk enthusiasts are all over the Internet, packing the halls at conventions and present even in the media. Steampunk also includes a disproportionately high number of young, female and international fans and authors. Frances Hardinge’s and Kim Lakin-Smith’s Cyber Circus, for example, both break the SF mold and reach outside traditional genre boundaries to appeal to new readers. Steampunk is often derided for not being ‘proper’ science fiction, but that’s exactly what makes it so exciting.

Steampunk is also fun – shamelessly so. Jonathan Green uses steampunk as an excuse to create swashbuckling romps that combine history, pastiche and science fiction, and in his series’ latest installment, he’s even playing with the format of the book itself. Chris Wooding’s Ketty Jay series is another wild adventure – crazy heists and set-piece action scenes, equal parts Joss Whedon and The Wild Bunch. Lavie Tidhar’s The Bookman mixes a literary allusions and historical fact to create a vibrant “secret history” of the Victorian era. These series all use brushed chrome and airships, levers, cogs and submersibles, but the “steam-” mechanic is really “that magical goo that makes the plot go”. Hard science fiction it ain’t, but when it comes to well-composed escapism? These books are hard to beat.

It is worth noting that all the names above (except Joss Whedon, sadly!) will be guests on the evening, ready and willing to discuss their own interpretations of the genre and what it means to them.

Steampunk has transcended the written word to influence the visual arts, as well. Our guests at the Steampunk Evening also showcase the genre’s aesthetic presence in some of these other mediums – from crafts to fine art.

Nicola Tedman and Sarah Skeate have created Steampunk Softies, a guide to creating wonderful (and adorable) steampunk-inspired characters. Deadly Knitshade from Whodunnknit, London’s guerilla knitting community, will be equipped with examples of DIY steamy crafts, created in a fuzzy medium (no prior knitting experience required). Nelson and Derek the Sheep’s Gary Northfield will be on hand to show off his latest illustrative work as well, a print created just for the occasion. Other artists – from Darren Goldsmith to Doctor Geof – will also have their steampunk-inspired work on display.

One exhibit that we know will turn some heads is the fine art project from (Nowthatwouldbe) Telling. The ongoing exhibition, by artist Hayley Lock and writers like Liz Williams, combines both history and fiction. Ms. Lock and her writing team have been working together to fabricate elaborately embellished alternate histories for a series of Britain’s most famous stately homes. (Now that would be) Telling is a visual representation of everything that steampunk can do – provocative stories, strong characters, cheeky reinterpretations and a lot of fun.

Finally, thanks to The Kitschies’ sponsor, The Kraken Rum, we’ll have some tasty (and liquid) holiday cheer to spread around. Our last guest, Plarchie, may need a bottle of his own. Giant squid have giant appetites, and we don’t want him nibbling on the guests.

The Kitschies’ Steampunk Evening. Thursday, 8 December, 2011 – 6.00pm – 8.30 pm. Blackwell’s Charing Cross, 100 Charing Cross Road, London.

Guests include China Miéville, Adam Roberts, Deadly Knitshade, Philip Reeve, Lavie Tidhar, Gary Northfield, Jonathan Green, Kim Lakin-Smith, Frances Hardinge, Nicola Tedman and Sarah Skeate. Entrance is free. No tickets required, but optional RSVPs can be made on Facebook.

The Kitschies, sponsored by The Kraken Rum, are an annual prize presented to the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining genre literature. To learn more, please see http://www.thekitschies.com.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar Libertine says:

    Yay! I’m coming along, see you there 🙂

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