Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Season's Greetings

Christmas has come around very quickly this year (although I say that every year - you'd think I'd be used to it by now!), and so I just have time to send some festive greetings to my fellow Lost Victorians, before retiring to eat lots of turkey and unwrap presents. 

I've been raiding the bookshelves for some festive reading, and have found two fine examples. First up is the ever-popular A Christmas Carol (in a fine Collector's Library edition, pictured). Next is the faux-Edwardian The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill, a book full of period atmosphere. A pair of beauties for any bibliophile, I'm sure you'll agree!

So, with the reading material sorted, I shall wish you all the compliments of the season. Cheers!

Friday, 6 December 2013

Dear Points of View...

As my followers on Twitter and Facebook will know, the BBC has recently taken the decision to axe the excellent TV drama ‘Ripper Street’ after just two series. The timing of the decision and the apparent reasons for it are a bit hard to swallow. That’s why I’ve hijacked the blog for a day to write an open letter to the BBC…

It’s not often that I feel compelled to email a TV company about the decision to axe particular shows. In most cases, I just figure that a show has run its course, and accept the decision. But in the case of Ripper Street, I just can’t believe that’s the case. Moving it from its Sunday night slot, and citing the ratings being won by ITV’s “I’m a Celebrity” as a main cause for concern smacks of short-sightedness.

Ripper Street is hands down my favourite show on TV at the moment. The writing is getting better and better, the production values are incredible, the cast is superb. Just when I thought it was ‘finding its groove’ I heard the news that it was being cancelled. It seems like it’s the victim of a scheduling mishap. Never has a show been more suited to Sunday night viewing – it’s certainly on a par with Poirot, Sherlock, Foyle’s War, et al, and should probably be treated as such, with a bit more respect. (I am, sadly, reminded of the similar – and excellent – Murder Rooms, which received the same treatment years ago).
Well, when you see it like this, how
could a quality drama hope to compete?
What guile. What mastery.

Let’s be charitable and say that someone at the Beeb has considered these things. But to me it's obvious that people watch less TV on a Monday night than on a Sunday, and nowadays most people record their favourite shows. I can't believe that all of the old 8 million viewers just stopped watching – many probably just record it.

Several options have been mooted by fans, such as to get BBC America to jointly fund and produce the show; move it back to Sundays; give it to BBC2 where perhaps it’ll find a more natural home; or even make a shorter series with longer episodes to avoid slicing the budget too much for a third season. I’ve seen messages of support, incidentally, from US fans who are eagerly awaiting ‘season two’, only to learn that it’ll be the last. Surely, at the very least, the hard-core fans (numbering in their millions still!) deserve to have the existing storylines wrapped up satisfactorily? Or at the very least a response to their concerns?

The axing of this show has basically produced a strength of feeling that I don’t remember seeing in recent history. Just search Twitter for #SaveRipperStreet, or check out the growing petition over at https://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/reverse-the-bbc-s-decision-to-cancel-ripper-street (almost 3,000 signatures in 24 hours). The arguments seem to be that the BBC is a publicly funded channel, but is making a conscious decision to remove intelligent period drama in order to compete with dumbed-down pointless reality/celebrity fare. If the BBC is no longer interested in giving viewers genuine options, then what is it for?

As if to compound matters, this letter was originally posted to the Points of View message board, the address of which since found its way onto Twitter. All other Ripper Street boards had been closed, with a message pointing the one official ‘active’ board. Sadly, the moderators have now chosen to close that one too, this time with no explanation. What is going on BBC? Why don’t you want to listen to the people who pay for your programming?

The #SaveRipperStreet campaign is going well, and I’d love to think we could change the BBC’s mind, but with the lack of response so far, it seems that perhaps ratings rather than quality are the Beeb’s prime concern these days. A shame. 

EDIT: If you're on Twitter, then I also urge you to follow @saveripperst for the latest on the campaign.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

So, You Write Steampunk?

I’ve been meaning to blog on this topic for quite some time, but never got around to it. Ever since, in fact, I read an article by esteemed steampunk author G. D. Falksen, which began with this: “What is steampunk? In three short words, steampunk is Victorian science fiction.” Actually, it's not. At least, I don’t believe it is.

Author G. D. Falksen in full steampunk garb.
He wears it well!
And I was prompted to revisit this subject just the other day. Whilst talking to another writer, I tried to describe the novel I currently have in the works. I said: “It’s basically a Victorian thriller, with bits of science fiction and a twist of horror. I suppose you’d call it Victorian science fiction, like H. G. Wells.” And he said: “Oh, you mean steampunk?” 

This in itself didn’t bother me, because I really like steampunk (although I’ve always kind of disliked the fact that the steampunk movement has fully subsumed VSF in the niche genre consciousness). In fact, I’d normally have just shrugged and said: “Yeah. Kinda.” No, what bothered me was that the fellow sort of rolled his eyes, and derided my work by association. Because steampunk itself isn’t ‘respected’ outside of its own niche, and therefore he was implying that if I was a steampunk author, my work must be hackneyed and amateurish.

None of the above reflects my own opinion, I’d hasten to add. Good fiction, steampunk or not, is still good fiction. There is no room in this game for genre snobbery, despite what some professionals may have you believe. I own steampunk comics and graphic novels, games, object d’art and bits of fashion. It fits my obsession with the Victorian era like a glove. In short, I like steampunk, and I like VSF; I just don’t believe they are the same. Let me explain.

Steampunk keyboard by the late
Richard 'Datamancer' Nagy, who very
sadly passed away in November 2013.
Steampunk is the fiction of Victorian futurism and ‘scientific romance’. It takes the excesses of the era, the zany inventions and patents, the Victorian predictions about where science could take us; and then it creates a fantastical alternative reality where all of these things actually happened. Steampunk doesn’t always follow a ‘real’ historical timeline, and its characters don’t always behave in the manner befitting a real Victorian. Quite often, the fiction is in a non-specific place, or even a fantastical land, allowing for the many American steampunk authors to ply their trade without alienating their fellows. Common to the stories are races other than humans (primarily the Fae/Faerie, although it varies), sentient robots made of brass and powered by steam, ray guns and bionic parts, advanced airships, overt magic and sorcery, and even dragons… it’s more urban fantasy than historical fiction. It takes the cool aesthetics of Jules Verne and asks "what if there was a world where this was commonplace, and it was the pinnacle of human advancement? What if technology had actually continued to develop, using steam power as its basis?"

Victorian science-fiction, however, could ostensibly be historical fiction. It has its basis in the factual Victorian world (usually Britain) that we all recognise from history books. The writer has to have done some research regarding people, places, events and language. It’s a facsimile of the fiction read by the Victorians themselves. The science fiction elements may be integral to the plot, but they are very much portrayed as otherworldly, unusual and somehow ‘infernal’. These elements may well take the form of alternate dimensions, steam-powered machines, Tesla-built death rays or time machines, but they are the singular exception to all the laws of the narrative, not the norms of the world. It is the fiction of H. G. Wells, whereupon normal, everyday people in a normal, everyday town are suddenly attacked by Martian war machines; or where a scientist surrounded by ordinary friends in an ordinary suburb of London suddenly perfects a time machine and goes on a fantastic journey through time.

They are the definitions I work with, and unashamedly so. Some people would argue that there’s no longer a distinction; that the two have become one in the collective imagination. And yet I’d say that the distinction is still an important one. Personally, although I love to read steampunk (and if you haven’t tried the Newbury & Hobbs series by my good friend George Mann, then you’re missing out), I don’t tend to write it. But I’d caveat all of this with the fact that the two can, and do, cross over. I’ve used a couple of steampunk aesthetic ‘tropes’ in my book, for no other reason than that it’s cool, and I remain unabashed at doing so!

I think the real point of this meandering blog isn’t just to ‘educate’ about these specific genres, but really to have a poke at genre snobbery. I see it again and again in the fiction world, and it’s not very nice! Writing cannot be bad because of the genre that it sits in; writing can only be good or bad due to the inspiration, skill and imagination of the writer. Writing off a book because it sits in the Young Adult section, or the Steampunk section, or even the Romance section is just a bit silly; if there’s a good story well told, then it’s worth looking beyond the [brass-plated] surface.

Got something to add? Want to get in touch about this or other aspects of my ramblings? Then come and join the discussion over on my Facebook page.