Monday, October 24, 2011

MileHiCon 43

So - As one can probably guess from lack of posts/pics, I did not get a full-on steampunk outfit put together for MileHiCon 43 this past weekend. I went ahead and work "civvies" on Friday, then donned Utilikilts and my Steamhammer for Saturday and Sunday. Evidently, this was sufficient to identify me as an Interested Person to the panelist handing out fliers for AnomalyCon after the "Bling Your Brass" panel - she headed straight for me with a handful after the panel was over, and I was able to grin and point out that I already had one...

MileHiCon is a long-running SF/Fantasy con here in Denver - 43rd annual edition this year - and its focus is primarily literary. Lots of books in the dealer room, lots of authors and editors on panels, and not as much cosplay as my wife was expecting - but what there was, was largely steampunk or SP-inspired... Plenty of steampunk programming as well:

  • A Bartitsu demo (which, unfortunately, was scheduled at the same time as a different panel I really wanted to see...)
  • A presentation on Victorian (and slightly later) steam-powered carousels, organs, and other attractions
  • "Bling Your Brass", a multimedia exploration of the steampunk aesthetic as expressed through fiber arts, drawing/painting, jewelry making, polymer clay, and miscellaneous making
  • "Sounds Like Steampunk", on Steampunk music (didn't see - was opposite another writing workshop)
  • "What's New In Steampunk", panel discussion on current trends (literary and otherwise).
I did find myself chuckling after a somewhat self-congratulatory comment on "diversity" within Steampunk was followed up by one of the panel pointing out the same thing I'd been noticing - aside from one older Asian gentleman and a vaguely Sephardic-looking fellow, every other person in the room was, as the panelist put it, "in pretty much the same category, albedo-wise...". This, in turn, triggered a promising discussion of the notion of multiculturalism in steampunk, with the panel (and audience) all in agreement that it's "a good thing" - and engaging the problematic ideas of Imperialism within the steampunk sandbox was likewise seen as "a good thing". Not a full-on panel discussion dedicated to the idea - but it's a start, and the groundwork's been laid. Should be interesting to see what AnomalyCon comes up with in March.

Also found out that Cherie Priest's new novel, Ganymede, is out - and Ms. Priest will be in town for a book signing next month. W00t!

Monday, September 12, 2011

A Quick One

Really, this one's more like a Facebook status update than a blog post - I've acquired a pith helmet as one piece of headgear (I really, really want a leather Glengarry, but the helmet is cheaper), and I've got a pair of modern, plastic welding goggles that I intend to modify - the bead chain nose piece has got to go, and I've got multiple colors of metallic spraypaint to play with. I'd also like to put some sort of targeting/range finding reticule on the clear lens, just to see if it will show...

So - once I pick out a shirt, I've got all of the 'Buy My Way In' bits of costume done, and I can focus on the DIY projects. More on that later.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Work In Progress - Gaiters

Little by little, my first Steampunk outfit is coming together. This weekend, I worked on making a set of gaiters, which are akin to spats (or spatterdashes, from which the shorter term derives), but which provide coverage not only for the shoes , but also for the lower leg - or limb, if you're being properly stuffy and Victorian...

I own a couple of sets of gaiters - one is a button-up set that unfortunately doesn't fit my calves well at all, and the other is a modern nylon set that I use for snowshoeing (and which subbed for the button-up set in a Halloween costume the year I went as Othar Tryggvasen from Girl Genius), so I've got some idea about how they should go together - but I wanted to try my hand at pattern making, as I'd like a set that are custom fit to my legs.

I found a tutorial on sewing fabric spats that was helpful, but my plan is to make mine out of leather. I could probably buy a set of knee-high boots (and really, I probably will at some point) but for now, I've got a perfeclty serviceable set of black ankle high boots that will lend themselves nicely to some gaiters. I'll be wearing them under a kilt for the most part, but I'd like to be able to wear them over trousers as well, should the need arise. So with all that in mind, I employed a technique I read about back in the days when I was considering making my own leather jerkin (for a very different sort of fandom/cosplay outfit) - I cut up a couple of pairs of oldish socks and pulled them on over my boots and trouser legs so that they were covering the area that the gaiters should cover, and then wrapped 2-3 layers of duct tape around that area.

I cut the duct tape and sock mold up the inside of my leg, since that's an area I want to be solid.

I then removed the sock fabric and covered the slightly less sticky than normal side of the duct tape mold with another layer of duct tape, then taped the molds back together temporarily.

Next up - I'll review the spats tutorial and compare both my nylon gaiters and my cloth ones to see how to cut the leather so that it fits correctly (ideally, 3 pieces sewn together), and then make a cloth sample pair before I buy and cut any leather.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Unexpected Moments of Steaminess

So – I went on vacation last week, and had a few unexpected encounters with stuff that may inform my own ideas about Steampunk. I downloaded a couple of Cherie Priest’s novels to read on the plane (Boneshaker and Dreadnought), and continued my reading of the works of Jules Verne (Journey to the Center of the Earth complete, most of the way through Around the World in Eighty Days). I’ll have more to say about those if I ever get around to doing some sort of capsule reviews – the literary side of Steampunk is definitely an interest of mine, but I don’t really just want to put up yet another plot summary, nor am I in any danger of replicating the work of The Steampunk Scholar, so my own minor works of literary criticism will have to wait until I’ve figured out an angle…

Anyway. The vacation trip involved stops at several of the Smithsonian Institution’s marvelous museums, and while it’s not entirely unexpected that some of the exhibits covered historical eras that are important wellsprings for Steampunk inspiration (the American Civil War era, the history of flight), I had not actually expected to find an entire exhibit hall in the National Museum of American History devoted to the history of steam engines, water wheels, turbines, and electrical generation plants… So I spent a goodly while ogling the scale models, the full-size examples, and the historical data and contextual signage.

The exhibit suffered a little, in my humble opinion, from a certain amount of disorganization. There were two sections that appeared to be trying for some sort of chronological order, in an attempt to show successive improvements to the technology over time (straight-bladed wheel in flowing river -> sluice to modify water flow onto a wheel -> bucket-shaped blades, undershot for increased power transfer -> turbines which could be fully submerged, for example…), but they weren’t directly related to each other (the second section dealt with steam engines), and in between were a bewildering array of other steam engines, generators, and mechanical devices that made little sense taken out of context – and since I don’t have a background in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, hydrodynamics, thermodynamics, etc., the “obvious benefits” of certain fiddly bits weren’t really all that obvious. Still – a lot of interesting data, and some ideas about how this stuff actually looks when it’s working properly.

At another museum (National Air and Space Museum this time), the Early Flight exhibit got off to a marvelously steamy start with a model of La Minerve, a fanciful 1804 “proposal” for an airship/balloon capable of circumnavigating the globe. I’m not sure that the laws of physics in any possible world would have permitted La Minerve to function, but it’s a marvel of fantasy engineering, and definitely a source of whimsical inspiration for an airship with all the modern conveniences…

Friday, June 24, 2011

Steampowered Cliches

One of the hazards of participating in any new subculture (well, new to the participant at any rate) is figuring out the cultural landscape, so to speak. It's one thing to sit at one's desk and peruse pictures of people and/or things that are considered part of the subculture, but quite another to actually go out and interact with those people and/or things. Anyone who has taken an introductory sociology class can tell you that cultures have unwritten rules, or mores, that aren't always obvious to the casual observer - and being transgressive about mores can get one in serious trouble.

Take the example of Nerf guns in Steampunk. If one looks through, say, The Steampunk Bible (or a quick Google search on Steampunk images), one will find a plethora of images of painted Nerf guns used as props for costumes. They're sold on eBay, and both YouTube and Instructables have multiple sets of instructions on just how to go about steampunking/modding a plastic foam-dart shooter. You'd think that anyone calling themselves a Steampunk would have one (in addition to a set of goggles), right?

Not so much, as it turns out. Even from the outside, I've figured out that the specific Nerf model most often seen in these pictures (the Maverick) has become something of a cliche. In part, the Maverick is a victim of its own successful design - it really is the most Steampunk-looking dart gun on the market, when it comes right down to it. Slap a coat of paint on it and you're halfway there already - it's got a big ol' revolver-style cylinder, an adult-sized hand grip, decent ergonomics, and it functions pretty well for a kid's toy. It's inexpensive, widely available, and easy to take apart. Anyone interested in the crafting side of Steampunk will likely need to learn some basic painting techniques that model makers have been using for years (washing and drybrushing at the very least), and this gun has lots of little bumps, nooks, and crannies that lend themselves to these techniques.

All that said - it's still a plastic toy gun. More accomplished prop makers have gone on to doing their own resin casting, or brazing, or soldering, and prefer to paint their own creations. Retro-grouches turn up their noses at plastic anything, preferring more authentically Victorian raw materials (brass, leather, natural fabrics, etc.). Experienced Steampunks have, no doubt, seen plenty of folks "make" their first modded Nerf gun and then not really do anything else... and may not want to expend a lot of energy encouraging yet another Johnny/Janie-come-lately who is just going to latch onto the next Big Thing whenever it comes along.

I get it. Really, I do. I've been on both sides of this conundrum in various subcultures, which is one reason that I started posting stuff in this blog, rather than  hopping on a forum somewhere and thrashing through my own newbie transgressions in public. I had actually realized just how cliche a painted Maverick was well before I decided to participate in Steampunk actively, and even looked around at pretty much every other plastic dart gun model before succumbing to the urge... Yes, I have a Maverick and a set of paints, and I"m not afraid to use them. After all, you gotta start somewhere. But I promise not to glue decorative brass gears to it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Where to Start?

So now that I know that there is a subculture out there that isn't completely hung up on historical accuracy, that has a sense of humor as well as a sense of style and a sense of history, that encourages DIY and experimentation, and that's large enough to generate its own series of cons, how does one go about joining in?

In my case, being a perennial introvert, I start by reading about it. I've got several lists of blogs and websites (the ones I refer to most frequently are linked in the "My Blog List" sidebar, along with several books (both Victorian and Modern) and a Pandora station set to Abney Park for atmosphere... As I look around, I realize a number of things. One, I already know several folks who are involved to a greater or lesser degree - a friend who attended a recent con as Mama Gkika (of Girl Genius fame), another who got tagged in someone else's Facebook album wearing a pith helmet and khaki shorts while fondling a repainted Nerf rifle, and a co-worker whose steamsona evidently operates of the same basement that my Real Life job takes place in...

Being acquainted with other introverts of a scholarly nature, I also discuss my budding interest with them, and the conversation almost immediately turns to questions of privilege, identity, and racial projects - because that's what we do for fun. Seriously. Look up "Moff's Law" - I found it via the Silver Goggles blog, and had an epiphany. Turns out that while there is a certain amount of reification of imperialism and Victorianism inherent to a Steampunk worldview, the precise amount is highly variable and subject to irony, parody, reflection, deconstruction, and serious analysis. Wheee! I'm already following blogs by two graduate students working on Steampunk projects, and I look forward to finding more. It's almost enough to get me to dust off my GRE scores and try to get back in myself...

But then I might not have time to start the craft projects. After purchasing my second Utilikilt, I had a sudden thought that the canvas duck model with the leather hammer loop would make a pretty good foundation piece for a Steampunk outfit, and that's when I suddenly got the research bug. I'm saving up for a pair of premade boots, but I've picked up a couple of Nerf guns that I plan to spraypaint this weekend... I found out that there's a Tandy Leather Factory outlet just north of my neighborhood, and I've still got some leftover odds and sods from the short-lived Viking Garb making era. And I found out that one of the guys that I work with (and game with, and do game development with) knows how to weld... Time to complete a project or two.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Crossing the Streams

The man who stands at a strange threshold,
Should be cautious before he cross it,
Glance this way and that:
Who knows beforehand what foes may sit
Awaiting him in the hall?

-Havamal, Auden & Taylor translation

So here I am, standing at the strange threshold of the Steampunk community. As so often happens with me, I've been trying to acquire as much advance knowledge as I can before jumping in with both feet - I hate getting tagged as a noob first time out, and as the Havamal has suggested, taking one's time to check out the lay of the land is always a good policy. With that in mind, I've been looking at the various sub-cultures within Steampunk to figure out both where I might fit in the best, and where I'm more likely to create friction. The Steampunk Scholar wrote an article on steampunk tribes last year, identifying (in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner) some of the fault lines and socio-political boundaries between various groups. In his terms, I would be a Boneshaker with aspirations to both Jeterism and Datamancy...

I've also found an essay by Bruce Sterling (thanks to a link at The Steampunk Workshop) that resonates with me. This paragraph, in particular, echoes a concern/frustration of mine that I've been dealing with for decades:
The heritage industry does not sell heritage, because heritage is inherently unsellable. Instead, it sells the tourist-friendly, simplified, Photoshopped, price-tagged, Disneyized version of heritage. Steampunk is great at mocking and parodizing this activity. That's what makes steampunk a thoroughly contemporary act.
In real life, I've been seriously alienated from any hint of ethnic culture or heritage that I might have come by via "normal" channels - i.e., family heirlooms and traditions. I grew up in a suburb, and although our various ethnic heritages were mentioned, it was simply presented as a fact of where some of our great-grandparents hailed from - there were no family recipes handed down, or quaint family traditions that we engaged in either among ourselves or with others of those ethnicities - we'd completely assimilated to American pop culture. As an adult, I've examined aspects of some of these cultures, and it occurred to me a long time ago that many people at cultural festivals are doing the same thing I'm doing - trying to purchase what was denied to us via normal channels of inheritance...

Sterling also makes reference to the "troublesome 10 percent" who are not content to just engage in cosplay and LARPing, but instead want to participate in the actual creation of the "steampunk scene" (I make no guarantee that the percentages are accurate - see the definition of Boneshaker linked above...). Again, I'm a complete noob, having engaged in cosplay precisely once so far (dressing as Othar Tryggvason of Girl Genius fame for a Halloween party), though it did involve repainting a Nerf gun... But there's so much more to this that I'd like to do!

More on that later.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Reorg Boots Already

So after posting an introduction, I started 4 more blog posts on various topics, trying to figure out just what it was that I wanted to say in this space. For now (and for some time to come, I imagine), I'll be largely talking to myself, so making some attempt to craft deathless prose for the ages seems a little presumptuous. I'm drawing inspiration from a number of sources (starting with the other blogs listed off to the right), but I don't want to be simply a pallid imitator of other people's work. I've got notes on various topics stashed in the cloud, so I don't need to take notes for myself here. Basically, then, what I'm looking at this space for is a journal of my explorations, ideas, and so forth as I look into this thing called Steampunk. The ideas may not be original; the research may be based on other people's reading lists. The projects may be cribbed from Make and Instructables - but they'll be mine, and I'm curious to see what comes up as a result.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Obligatory Introductory Post

So who is this “MacAuslander” person, anyway?

That’s what I’m figuring out. As I write these words, I’m in the process of creating a new identity for myself as a Steampunk. Okay, so I’m late to the party… These things take time, and I’ve been busy.

My intent, as far as this blog is concerned, is to document my journey as I transition from curious outsider to active participant.  I tend to get a little obsessive about things when they capture my interest, and this time around I’d like to keep a record of stuff as it happens.  I’ll be recording the research that I do, the books I read, the ideas that I play with, the new skills I suspect that I’ll need to learn, and so forth. There are many things about the Steampunk Community (yes, generalized grand umbrella term – I know there are subsets and so forth, there always are) that absolutely fascinate me, and I’ll hash through my thoughts about those things as well as any worrisome concerns that may pop up along the way (I’ve already found other blogs that deal with some of those – more on that later).

Why bother? Curiosity, mostly – a friend of mine once described me as “the most aggressively self-aware person I know”, and this is just the most recent example. Since childhood, I’ve “reinvented myself” on numerous occasions (some more consciously than others), and this time around, I want to have fun with the process. This blog gives me an opportunity to jot stuff down when it occurs to me, a place to collect all of the scattered ideas that I find, and I get to do it semi-anonymously without having to link it to my other online and meatspace personae. At least until I’m good and ready…