. . . well, nothing happened to steam. It’s still pretty important.

It’s always nice when the post I actually have a few minutes to write somehow ends up following the last one I did from god knows how long ago. Picking up on the criticism of nostalgia in the previous post, I was just thinking more about the fetishization of particular technology in any ****punk genre.

Calling Victorian-inspired fiction “steampunk” kind of implies that the technology is stuck in that era. It’s as if only Victorians used it and as soon as people started driving Model Ts, nobody ever used it again, thus giving it some kind of cachet. This is ridiculous. Steam is still a crucial technology.

Okay, so maybe the defining factor is the steam engine. I can live with that. It makes sense. So maybe the idea is still legit and I’m just typing out of my ass. But while I’m here for like 30 more seconds, let’s appreciate how important steam still is . . . you know, just for shits and giggles.

The properties of steam are actually pretty neat. I don’t want to throw numbers around here, but due to its density, you can get huge flow rates from it when compared to plain hot water. This is more efficient. And unless you’re on a hippie commune in California, a lot of facilities/homes need a lot of hot-something to function properly. A pressure vessel–a boiler, preferably steam and not just hot water–is still how we do this. Boilers are everywhere, and I can’t see how we’d function without them no matter what kind of awesome technology makes us think we don’t need basic large-scale industrial solutions.

So what has changed? Well, thousands of people used to die in boiler accidents. That’s a neat steampunk theme, and I’m not being sarcastic for once. I’ve seen it in a couple books. To me, there’s an example of punkin’ it right. Anyway, now that we have mechanical engineers and boilers aren’t just something pieced together by Balloon Captain Englishman McBritishperson in his hobby workshop; they’re pretty safe and accidents are low. But they’re still there, and you wouldn’t be fretting about being too hot in the mall with your winter coat when Christmas shopping if it weren’t for boilers. So yeah . . . there isn’t a guy with coal on his face and a bunch of poor children at home tending it, so it’s harder to write a neat story about the power engineer watching the boilers nowadays. But it’s still pretty cool . . . at least to me. It’s also a decent paycheck.

Another tack to this is how people view energy, especially now. There’s so much talk about ditching things that work but take a big corporation to produce (like natural gas, which is pretty clean, but I digress) for downright silly ideas like “solar roadways.” What I’m getting at here is that the requirements of a huge facility, like a hospital or a factory (even one that makes solar panels) tend to demand a lot of power, especially for heating. It takes 60 percent more water to heat a surface using liquid than steam. I don’t think I’d want my hospital to rely on solar panels to output millions of BTUs to keep the place running. Just sayin’.

Even in the Nuclear Age (atomicpunk?) you still have steam doing the dirty work. Are we still in that age? I don’t even know–we use it, and it’s good, but we’re not supposed to acknowledge that anymore. Derp.

I guess in reality, you can’t just chop our technological state into different  . . . erm . . . things. It’s mutable, and some old things are repurposed because they are so basic and practical, other technology pivots around them and they fade into the backsplash where nobody looks because there’s not a lot to say about them politically or socially. I guess, then, that’s the true measure of a successful or important technology–when people stop talking about it but still rely on it.

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I often see these twitter/blog/social media whatever posts pop up on various feeds from kind of successful authors and other marketers who spend a lot of time writing shit online to keep relevant. The kind I’m thinking of are those “TEN THINGS YOU SHOULD NEVER DO ON SOCIAL MEDIA IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENTIRE WORLD TO WISH YOU’D NEVER BEEN BORN” sort of generic advice offerings.

I’m fairly certain I probably do all of them. I admit, I’m not that great about doing this kind of thing on demand, at least outside of professional life. If I don’t feel like talking, I won’t. And if I’m going to talk, it has to be something that actually interests me. The only things that interest me in this context are things other people haven’t done or talked about much.

Where dieselpunk is concerned, I can’t handle any conversations about home-made jetpack costumes. I just can’t. What I can talk about is the way this particular idiom fits into everyday cognitive life.

Today, that means writing a criticism of nostalgia.

The hell??? one might ask in this case. Well, being a dieselpunk author doesn’t give me a free pass for questionable thinking.

Midnight In Paris

A while ago my wife and I watched Midnight in Paris. Part of the reason was because it would be cool to see familiar places in a film, since we got married in Paris this May. In reality, this film was a fascinating study of what I think is a big factor in why people choose genres like steampunk or dieselpunk. This movie nailed in particular the way writers, intellectuals, and artists in general tend to look backward. The previous era has an intellectual and aesthetic halo-effect for thinkers. We get sucked into thinking the present is boring and crude. Maybe a psychotic version of this is responsible for end of the world prophecies. I mean what is an end of the world prophecy but “the present sucks, nothing of value exists beyond the golden age I’m stuck to” on bath salts?

By the way, normally Owen Wilson annoys me, but this movie made me respect him a whole lot more. And I totally got sucked into my modernist fetish when he went into Shakespeare’s bookstore and talked about Joyce . . . mostly because I did the exact same thing when I went into that place.

But fantasy authors don’t give a shit what Woody Allen thinks, right?

The Diesel Era (Not in Paris or New York though)

This line of thinking made me stop and look around my own environment. I saw no shortage of modernist wonders in Europe. Train stations and other banal things that had been built in my favourite era all had some kind of significance, and it reinforced the pedestal I had put this other era onto. However, in Western Canada, I noticed that the diesel era looked a lot different.

Western Canada functioned in three or four capacities at that time: mines, lumber, agriculture. Also training camps for soldiers during the wars. It was not a cultural centre. Engineering and technology might have piggybacked on the industrial things going on, but there was no Chrysler building or anything like it built anywhere East of Ontario. It was also pretty swell to build internment camps back then, and British Columbia had a few.

So my current town does have a palpable aftertaste of the era. I don’t know that it ever will shake that. It’s kind of cool, but the significance of this town lies in a wartime military camp (this is where my office is), and an internment camp.

The contribution of this training camp was huge. Not only did soldiers train here for both wars, but you can still see markings on the range to guide pilots practicing strafing runs. The lake and much of the undeveloped land is full of unexploded ordinance. There is a lot of history here.

It just looks nothing like what our ideal version of the era is. This goes for most historical buildings in the interior too. There’s very little steel, very little concrete, and nothing whatsoever that shows inspiring designs ripped from Howard Roark’s libidinal frustration. It’s all big wooden timbers–like seriously, you’ve never seen timbers this large. When you don’t know how to properly engineer a building, you just choose the biggest members you can find to be safe. Stuff was slapped together by cowboys, not heroically fashioned by an army of steel workers. You can go into a 600 year old palace in europe and it’s still just as fresh as it ever was. Here, you go into one of these structures and are instantly hit by a mouldy pong that refit after refit hasn’t been able to clear.

Now this doesn’t apply to all historical buildings or other issues. Victorian architecture is much stronger throughout, especially along the railway–see Banff Springs and several buildings in Winnipeg. Also there are quite a few impressive Victorian armouries across the country. It’s not like I’m accusing us of being behind or too poor, because that’s definitely not the case.

I just wonder: where were the architects, writers, surrealists, and petty-bourgeois adventurers? I have no idea, besides New York and Europe.

This leads me to ask myself: why spend so much mental energy in that era then? The look? Not really–as I frequently mention, I hate wearing costumes and don’t find myself wishing I could get away with wearing pants up to my goddamn nipples and putting axle grease in my hair. Maybe it’s the explosion of advances coupled with the traumatic shakeup of war–a kind of uncertainty that somehow warrants some optimism. But then again, you could say that about any time period. Everything is always moving towards nothing in particular. Unless, I guess, you’re one of those dudes who sell end of the world prophecies.

It would be interesting to ask people who are into *punk genres if they actually would like to live in the particular era they like to read about. You know, like Owen Wilson in that movie I was talking about.

Are these genres actual nostalgia in the pathological sense? Look, I realize that 99 percent of the people who read this and have read my book would just shrug and say “eh, they’re neat stories. I don’t think about it more than that.” Like I said though, I don’t like to do anything that isn’t interesting. If I wrote books just because they were neat and didn’t have some complicated structure of thoughts behind it, I’d have gotten bored with writing ten years ago.

In summary:

Nostalgia is a trap, but being human is full of such traps so it’s probably not something to worry about unless you’re thinking about ditching your wife for the 1920s. I guess. Well, thanks Woody Allen!

So what could make a post on a dead blog special? Well, the fact that I’m posting at all! Also, I’m writing this at a resort in Jamaica.

Seriously though, life as an actual person is more demanding than I had ever thought. With a popular wife, a new appreciation for the powerlifting end of the weight training spectrum, and a kickass 8 month construction management coop, free time is rare.

We’re at Sandals in Negril. It’s pretty awesome. I’m not a beach person, actually. But this isn’t like the beach in Canada. I learned this last year in Cuba, but it never ceases to amaze me: I still maintain my dislike of frittering away a summer weekend at a rocky gross Canadian beach teeming with stoned teenagers, but you can’t put that in the same category as the caribbean.

I think the main reason I’m enjoying this extraordinary resort is because of the aforementioned life as an actual person. As my indulgent author/musician self, I didn’t see the value of vacations because I was in complete control of 90 percent of my time. Not that being busy/responsible is a chore–it’s something I’ve craved and hadn’t found until getting into engineering and married life. I definitely understand the value of these seemingly vapid endeavpours now.

The beach in Negril is ideal, the service at sandals is absurdly good, and I’m super pumped to suspend the weight training for lying around, smoking Matterhorns (gasp!) and enjoying top shelf drinks for a week.

I’ve been somewhat more involved with some diesely things in my job lately. Things like old buildings, military history, and so on. It’s interesting to compare what the diesel era was like in real life where I am, versus the vision in my head that drives my fiction. Huh???? Am I still in fiction mode? Yes. I don’t get to write  at the moment, but it’s still there. Anyway, I want to do some posts about actual conditions in the diesel era as opposed to the idealized version that’s focused on pulp serials and high modernist architecture in big cities. The story is a bit different in western Canada to New York or Paris. The people here didn’t really give a shit about Gertrude Stein, Schoenberg, or the use of setbacks in the Chrysler building. It’s actually a really cool thing to delve into, and I can’t wait to write these “un-punking of dieselpunk” posts.

For now though, I have a lot of nothing to do!

 

I admit, I didn’t check the date of the last post. For sure one, if not both, of my readers have likely by now assumed that I’ve been completely swallowed by the non-writing world of contract management, never to be heard from again. This is so terribly overdue that it’s pretty embarrassing.

Well, I’m here at nearly midnight after a long day of renovating the condo I don’t live in and am not allowed to rent out to prove otherwise. Sort of.

 

Where did I leave off? Something about being in Europe and getting married and all that? Yeah, the awesome travelogue I’d planned didn’t pan out. This is a failure I’m happy to display to the world, because it’s the best failure possible: I was too busy travelling to be able to write enough. Sure, I amassed some haphazard notes, but the statute of limitations on turning them into something interesting has lapsed. And that’s okay–unless you’re travelling as a professional and part of the reason you’re doing it in the first place is because someone’s paying you to write about it, why the hell would you spend any significant amount of precious time abroad writing, even if it was one of your passions and few things you’re good at?

Robert Heinlein pulled off a great travelogue. Tramp Royale came out of an entirely different situation–I don’t think most people travel the way Heinlein did. The ones who kind-of-sort-of-do these days often seem insincere and tend to be weird social media personalities who use their fantastic travel plans to build up some YOLO-ish persona, often with some charitable lip-service thrown in just in case anyone is cynical enough to doubt their sincerity. No, Heinlein did it with genuine curiosity and enough intelligence to write something meaningful from it. You should probably put down whatever you’re reading and check it out.

Me? I just stumbled around Paris and Germany with my wife and had a good time. I didn’t even take many photos. Why would I? The way I see it is that the human eye has better resolution than any camera; therefore it is redundant and wasteful to spend time making digital images when all I have to do is sit back and chill for a bit if I want to revisit those experiences. Typical INTJ hubris, I know, but it is what it is . . .

Speaking of hubris, how about that title? Yeah, I don’t mean to invoke The Stephen King in a bad/stupid/clueless/ham-fisted way. But the point right now is that I’ve been sucked into the real world, or Babylon, or whatever you like to call it. Writing is always there, especially in my chosen field. This is probably something most people with adult jobs intuitively know, but since I’ve been writing “professionally” for so long, of course I’m going to view it more mechanically than my coworkers.

Part of my education included a technical communications course. Everyone hated it, but to me it was a refuge. It was the only course where I could sit back, enjoy a break, and occasionally pick up something new. Actually, I picked up more than anyone else in the class did . . . I guarantee this. The hubris didn’t last long, because soon it became obvious that writing at work was nowhere near the same as writing novels.

I kept a certain amount of cockiness, sure. But because I had a million words of fictional crap behind me, my weaknesses in real world writing soon magnified in my editor’s brain and I had to take it seriously. During my work term job interviews, I had to sell myself on communications skills because I’m a 30-something with average grades, and that was all I had to show for it. My pitch relied on this, and yet in reality, writing effectively in the real world is one of the most difficult things there is. It’s confusing because the standard is actually so low, yet the stakes are high: in the world of building things, legal contracts and specifications, one small oversight in precision can result in a bridge collapsing and reputations crushed, not to mention money and jobs lost.

These are all things our instructor told us. But it’s such a complicated thing that merely being told these things amounts to . . . not much. This is really the advantage being an experienced fiction writer gave me–the tools to see the value in being told I didn’t have a clue and why it was important. I don’t blame the other guys for thinking it was all bullshit. It’s not like calculating the point of failure on a column . . . if you haven’t written much, some guy telling you that writing in the workplace is important isn’t going to be all that convincing, especially if you’re a boss at math and aren’t intimidated by dynamics.

I should have gotten this clue a couple years ago when I’d first attempted to document travel. It was an obvious failure, but for some reason I didn’t take it seriously enough to analyze exactly why.

Going further–if you only have to deal with words, you’re lucky. Take drafting, for example. It’s writing too. Or, in the politically-correct parlance, “communication.” Now, talk to most draftsmen, and they’ll probably tell you to fuck off and stop talking about bullshit, but it’s true: drafting is a form of writing, and similar to what I’d learned above, isn’t about whether or not you can draw something. Beside me I have a small drawing of a very simple post and concrete pad setup. I volunteered to make an awesome CAD version of the sketch my coworker had made and used for a project. I’ve been staring at it for a couple days wondering just what exactly the best way to communicate the intention of the drawing is. Still haven’t drawn much. This isn’t a discussion about drafting so much as it is a reality check about non-fiction communication–I’m left with the same sense of bewilderment as when I need to write something detailed, fast, and simple for work. Just like I whipped up some crazy-assed psychoanalytically-based experimental fiction that was terrible, my final drafting project in school featured a feverish isometric drawing of a house. If you’ve ever dealt with building houses, you probably know that a complicated isometric drawing is about as useful as a weight-loss supplement. Like my experimental writing, it looked cool on the page and took a lot of technical thought and effort, but in the end meant nothing. My project overall earned a poor grade despite the effort, and all because I missed the point: to communicate the idea properly and nothing more.

 

But hey, I have a backlog of fiction ideas that I could (in theory) crank out in no time and with little effort. I have more ideas than I’ll be able to write in my lifetime if I were able to write fiction full-time. You’d think that some published fiction and the confidence that comes with that would make you an All-Encompassing-Great-Writer.

The point of this post is to assure you that such an assumption is horseshit.

 

The next time you read a good DVD player manual or see a good set of house blueprints, take a moment to appreciate real-world communication. It’s even harder to find than good fiction.

 

 

 

 

I haven’t done a lot of interviews, but when I have done them, or had to prepare talking points about writing, one of the things I mull over beforehand is science fiction. For some reason, the topic always gets derailed and I’m left with a lot of things to say about it, even though I’m strictly a fantasy author with no real intent to challenge the hard SF guys. I mean the Aurora Award might as well just be named “National Robert Sawyer Appreciation Day.”

The weird thing is, sometimes I have way more to say about science fiction than I do fantasy. Why? It’s hard to say. Without wanting to sound like an elitist douchebag, I think some of my motivation to write fantasy is the fact that so much of it makes me want to jump out of my skin and throw the book into a vat of molten steel. But like the Skynet chip or whatever the hell it was they were trying to destroy at the end of whichever Terminator movie I’m thinking of, it would likely just keep coming back in different, more upsetting incarnations. I like a challenge, especially when I know it is within my grasp.

This post isn’t about things that drive me nuts about fantasy, but about why science fiction is so cool. And difficult.

Before I wrote Blightcross I wrote a lot of crappier novels. One of them was hard science fiction. It was doomed from the beginning, and part of me actually knew this as I wrote the first draft. But I also knew that abandoning projects in your first few attempts at writing is a good way to fail. So I pretended nothing was wrong and finished it, revised, revised again, and tried to sell. I describe it as “hard” science fiction but it probably wasn’t even close. It might have scraped by as hard SF in the 80s, but having been written in an entirely different millennium kind of made even that ridiculous.

So, let’s try to summarize the problem without getting into detail about the embarrassing story. See, one of the sins I had committed was writing from a place of opinion or protest. My opinions at the time meant nothing and weren’t based in much, and because I was young, were naturally pretty strong. The story was about some stupid trans-humanist fearmongering (on my part), and the objective of this novel was to tell people interested in transhumanism and the idea of the “singularity” that it was “bad” and should be stopped before it starts. Well, recently I read an article that outlined exactly why the “singularity” idea wouldn’t happen anyway. My understanding of the whole thing was embarrassingly outdated because I had been involved more in writing and music than I had been with computers and technology at the time, and had fallen way behind.

Anyway, I think the “singularity” idea came out in the 1970s, so it wasn’t exactly cutting-edge subject matter to begin with. I’m not entirely sure why I had become freaked out about the idea at the time.

Here’s the thing: you can make even an outdated premise work . . . with enough skill. Actually, you don’t even need that. You just need enough skill to barely make the material interesting PROVIDED THAT YOU HAVE EXPERTISE IN THE FIELD WITH WHICH YOU’RE TRYING TO BULLSHIT THE AUDIENCE.

To clarify: I knew nothing whatsoever about the topic. Well, except that for some reason it freaked me out.

Even John Ringo (if that is a real person, and I’m too lazy to research this but the one novel I read of his was so ridiculous I figured it had to be a joke . . . a really awesome, ironic joke) demonstrates some credible expertise that shockingly legitimizes the story’s bad taste. At that point in my life, I was offended that this guy was making money writing science fiction. Now I admire the guy’s chops. The books sell. They are definitely entertaining. I don’t care about his politics—not that you can tell from a writer’s fiction what those truly are.

A lot of hard SF drives me insane because it’s so boring, but at the same time really, really interesting because the author knows their stuff. I mean, the magnitude of boring some of these hard sf novels have is mind-blowing. The fact that they end up being good novels in spite of just how boring they are is a testament to the major chops these guys have. So when literary snobs trash genre fiction, they might have a point when it comes to hacks selling more stories about Jizznar the Elf Warrior, but they really need to examine just how amazing the hard sf writers are.

Flash forward to the present. I’m in a position that I never, ever would have dreamed could be possible: I have a good short haircut, lift weights, and . . . am in an engineering program. Suddenly the issue about expertise doesn’t seem like such foreign territory. And now, even with the most basic applied science education—barely scratching the surface—I’m seeing a clearer picture of what goes into good science fiction. Like I mentioned in the previous post, the amount of control and perception we actually have of the world is like magic. But it’s magic most people can learn, if they apply themselves.

When us fantasy writers debate the differences, we get all pissy and claim that oh yes, we had to make detailed worlds too! They had to be convincing and internally consistent. Yeah, that’s a tough thing to do. But not as hard as building a story around real technical knowledge. And a lot of fantasy writers still have that—there are a bunch who know every detail about medieval life and it’s equally impressive. But it’s not necessarily required. Fantasy authors, if they’re good at it, can fake it if they have enough intelligence and attention to detail. There’s rarely a hard sf author who can fake it. That was basically the approach I took in my attempt, and it was just awful.

At school, stuff that’s boring is still interesting. Instantly my imagination is triggered by dry technical material. It’s hard-wired to find a way to make this stuff into a story, and an awesome one at that. There was a thread on r/engineeringstudents about what job we all wanted. Of course I put the absolute ideal, which for me would be on Mars. I mean, of course, right? Doing even the most mundane geotechnical work would be fucking awesome on Mars. It’s not that far-fetched, since private companies are already trying to throw together a Mars colony. I wanted to do it, but being old and tied down now, I can’t sign up. Hell, I even debated with my fiancée the morality of steering one of our future children into going to Mars. Sadly, the consensus is that being concerned about having one of your children get to Mars is “not normal” and probably not something to talk about in everyday conversation. Anyway, I might not be able to do civil gruntwork on Mars, but I can damn well write a good, convincing story about it someday. That would be impossible if I had thought of the story idea and knew nothing.

Some pros can pick a storyline that needs fleshing out, then immerse themselves in the technical details it needs for a month and pull it off. I don’t know if that works with hard sf. Stephen King does well spending a week or whatever with a police department to do research, but hard sf needs something more. It needs to pick up on the drive the author has to pursue the technical knowledge in the first place. It does come through in the writing—but don’t mistake this for “passion.” On the list of things that ruin a story, an author who is merely writing about pet interests is close to the top.

Will I end up writing science fiction in the future? Hard to say. Archon has some sf elements in it but is still going to be fantasy, which actually might bother people. My fantasy writing is evolving with the technical knowledge, but I wonder what it would be like to try my hand at a good, classic hard sf story someday.

 

Since this page has been dead for a few days, I should probably write something about what happened.

I’m improving my website and making it more specific. Now it will be, for the most part, engineering and dieselpunk-related. I still might add the occasional post about fitness on here, but with school and struggling to promote dieselpunk, I need to refocus any extra time I might be able to find on the computer so I can provide something of interest to the reader. And that means cutting a lot of the excess out of my blogging and articles.

Soon there will be a proper bio, a technical writing sample, and resume. I also have a short article about a concrete building from 1910 that should be up soon, and of course there’s that eternal promise of my dieselpunk serial . . .

While I won’t post a lot of fitness stuff on here anymore, I still am willing to answer questions!