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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there.

I had the chance to get an advanced copy for Dan Simmons' latest book Black Hills, which pubs this month, a book that easily falls into several bins: historical fiction, supernatural suspense, and Weird West. In fact, Dan Simmons is one of those writers who has spanned multiple genres in his career, leaping easily from sci-fi to horror to historical to crime thrillers and even blending them all at once. Much of his success lies in his clever inspirational play between classical forms and fantastical content. After all, he's best known for the Hyperion Cantos, a four-book space opera that's structured after Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, and his sci-fi epic Illium/Olympos draws from Homer's Iliad. Recently, the settings for his latest novels have roamed throughout the nineteenth century. The Terror, which landed Simmons on the New York Times list and gave his publishers an excuse to market him as "speculative fiction", is about the ill-fated lost voyage of Sir John Franklin's expedition to find passageway through the Arctic in 1847. His next book, Drood, is a Victorian gothic mystery thriller narrated by Wilkie Collins as he tries to puzzle out the mental stability of his friend Charles Dickens, who had taken a turn for the worst after surviving a horrific train accident. Now in his latest book, Black Hills, Simmons continues his fascination with the nineteenth century, but this time, he writes about the heartwrenching life and times of Paha Sapa, a Sioux Native American who lived through the bloody days of the American West.

The drama of Paha Sapa's life begins when he's a child on the battlefield of Little Big Horn (in a place he knows as Greasy Grass), "counting coup" to prove his bravery. Paha Sapa, however, is no ordinary child; he had experienced moments of "small-vision-backward-touching"times when he'd accidentally absorb people's memories or suffer from visions of the future. After witnessing the death of one of the officers, he goes to "count coup" and instead of a mere touch, he feels the ghost of the dead man flow into him. And it turns out not to be just any dead officer now living inside him, but the soul of General George Custer himself. Thus, Paha Sapa is literally and figuratively haunted by the legacy of the white man throughout his entire life as he tries to figure out a way to fight for the Sioux (who call themselves the Lakota). His lifelong efforts culminate at the construction site of Mount Rushmore, where he plots to save the sacred hills he was named after by blowing them up in front of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Despite being an interesting twist to the narrative, Custer's ghost only serves as a foil to Paha Sapa's perspective and never becomes fully a character of his own. But that is Simmon's intent from the start: Paha Sapa is the focus and his struggles provide the emotional drive of the novel as the story jumps constantly between different time periods of Paha Sapa's life. Obviously, it's rough going at times; Paha Sapa finds happiness and joy, but a lot of the time, he just never gets a break.  He fails his vision quest, gets separated form his people, witnesses the destruction of his homeland, suffers from discrimination from other Natives and white men alike, and slowly loses everything he ever knew in the name of progress and some mystical fate.

In fact, if there were characters who earned a place beside Paha Sapa, they are Progress and Technology. Paha Sapa is fascinated by machines and engineering; as part of the plot, he becomes a powderman who works with dynamite in order to build Mount Rushmore. Simmons spends great portions of the book talking about a various technical details about mechanical things but they, surprisingly, don't drag the story down. The only times that I felt he was tangenting a bit too much was when Paha Sapa visits New York and then relates the story of how his former boss built the Brooklyn Bridge. Still, Paha Sapa (and, in turn, Simmons) manages to engage and I was impressed about the meticulous amount of research that went into the book, both in describing the development of nineteenth century technology in America and the nuances of Lakota culture (there's a substantially long Acknowledgments section at the end of the book for the academically curious). Simmons also uses the technique of incorporating Lakota words into the book, but they don't feel like window dressing and actually has significance in the novel, especially when Paha Sapa talks to his half-white, half-Lakota wife Rain.

In this book, Simmons also proves that there are no small roles, only small actors. The other characters are portrayed vividly, from the wistful and occasionally sardonic Custer to the proud and violent Crazy Horse to the cheeky and intelligent Rain and their brilliant son Robert. The best character moment for me was Rain's: on her first date with Paha Sapa at the Columbian World's Exposition, they both ride the Ferris Wheel and she stands on top of a chair when their car stops at the top of the wheel so she could beat least for a few momentsthe highest person in Illinois. With dozens of moments like that scattered throughout the book, it made me wish that these characters played a larger role. Also, Simmons takes care not to fall into the "noble savage" trap, especially with a sympathetic character such as Paha Sapa. For as much discrimination and hardship Paha Sapa faces in the white man's world, Lakota culture is not painted as the bright and sunny antithesis but deeply flawed with its own complex problems as well.

As the book comes to a close, Simmons takes an especially sci-fi twist to the narration that feels like a heavy-handed silver lining painted around the dark cloud that pervaded Paha Sapa's life. But then Simmons blurs the lines between historical characters doing fictional things and present people doing real things in a way that was still satisfying at the end.


Dan Simmons discusses BLACK HILLS on YouTube
Dan Simmons' official website
Dan Simmons on Wikipedia
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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there.

This weekend I'll be at Wicked Faire (where will YOU be?) and so here is another edition of Odds & Ends to keep you occupied in the meantime.

The Reads

I've gotten a lot of feedback from my Black Victoriana post, including these suggestions:

Black Science Fiction Society - a community dedicated to black sci-fi on Ning

Afrikan Steam/Afrosteam: an updated Tumblr link page maintained by HuemindFantastic

Also related is the self-published book Wonderdark (also available for purchase through Tumblr). It is self-described as an "Afro-Asiatic Steampunk/FaeryPunk/Afropunk meets plant-eating (and in some cases of Anansi-kind: bookeating) tradition of thought-craft and Higher-lense opting. Like just about any book kissed with Steam ethos, it's unconventional, and will not open a door for you to the usual, the 'norm'... the 'generally accepted', etc. Instead, it will open up a door in your mind to higher possibilities, the under-reported splendor of cruelty-free alts, and hope reinstilled for your inner-child that dreams emerge because they're seeking birth. It's not just your imagination... at least not in the way you might think."

Also, there is Cory Gross's presentation about Steampunk & Anime on Crunchyroll. On his blog Voyages Extraordinaire throughout the month of February, Cory is writing a series of posts about Japan during the Victorian era. Notable posts that are especially steampunky include an overview of Japanese Scientific Romances, a tour of the Studio Ghibli museum, and feature about Hayao Miyazaki's Daydream Note.

And not that we need permission from anyone to promote non-Eurocentric steampunk, but here is an observation writer Tim Ayers made about where steampunk is going that I thought was worthy of passing on.

The Buys

Now I don't want to get into the habit of promoting vendors on this blog, but I think is exception is made here for Tess Fowler, who I interviewed about her comic The Seven. Fact is, she has new shirts featuring art from the comic available for purchase on Zazzle. Go check them out!

The Pics

Here is an oldie but goodie, and a source of personal inspiration. The Coalition of Rather Unusual Denizens or C.R.U.D in California is a multiracial group of cosplayers and they all look amazing. A full album of their pictures is at photographer Ed Pingol's site.

Check them out under the cut )
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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there.

Kicking off my crazy February schedule, this week is Beyond Victoriana's small contribution toward Black History Month.  In the United States and Canada, this is celebrated in February, but in England, this month is in October, so I guess I'm giving away my biases a bit, eh?  Now, a linkspam about African/African-American history would be easy to do. And there are many great black figures who lived during the Victorian Era who should be mentioned right now.

But instead, I'll review an interesting book about a view of black history that I don't hear about as often: a series of essays about the lives of both extraordinary and everyday Black Brits in Victorian England called Black Victorians/Black Victoriana, edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina.

Book Description:

Black Victorians/Black Victoriana is a welcome attempt to correct the historical record. Although scholarship has given us a clear view of nineteenth-century imperialism, colonialism, and later immigration from the colonies, there has for far too long been a gap in our understanding of the lives of blacks in Victorian England. Without that understanding, it remains impossible to assess adequately the state of the black population in Britain today. Using a transatlantic lens, the contributors to this book restore black Victorians to the British national picture. They look not just at the ways blacks were represented in popular culture but also at their lives as they experienced them-as workers, travelers, lecturers, performers, and professionals. Dozens of period photographs bring these stories alive and literally give a face to the individual stories the book tells.

The essays taken as a whole also highlight prevailing Victorian attitudes toward race by focusing on the ways in which empire building spawned a "subculture of blackness" consisting of caricature, exhibition, representation, and scientific racism absorbed by society at large. This misrepresentation made it difficult to be both black and British while at the same time it helped to construct British identity as a whole. Covering many topics that detail the life of blacks during this period, Black Victorians/Black Victoriana will be a landmark contribution to the emergent field of black history in England.

Also check out her book Black London as well.

My Review:
The essays in Black Victorians/Black Victoriana are varied and fascinating, ranging from the everyday lives of African Brits to the portrayal of blackness by the British, and, in turn, how the British defined themselves by their whiteness. The topics of these essays are divided into three general areas: the black experience in Britain, the interaction between Africans, African-Americans, British, and African-Brits, and representations of being black in Victorian culture. I enjoyed the essays that focused on aspects of the black experience--nevermind Victorian-- that I had never even considered before. Joan Anim-Addo's "Queen Victoria's 'Black Daughter', examines the life and circumstances surrounding Sally Bonetta Forbes, a young orphaned West African child whom the King of Dohomey presents to Queen Victoria as a "gift" in 1850. Sally was the first of a long line of Empire adoptees who entered the Queen's household as "properties of the crown" and were raised as the Queen's proteges. Other interesting essays included about the black experience is a profile on Pablo Fanque, a black circus proprietor who ran the most successful circus in England for 30 years, and the biracial classical composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

The conclusions each of these essays make about race relations during Victorian England vary, even contradict each other. Fanque, for instance, is widely respected and defended by the general public as a performer, and Coleridge-Taylor's historical biographers skid more about his white mother's illegitimate parentage and servant class than his Nigerian father's background. On the other hand, other pieces such as "Mrs. Seacole's Wonderful Adventures in Many Lands and the Consciousness of Transit" (titled after her memoir of the same name), focuses on the prejudice the Crimean War heroine and nurse Mary Seacole faced from the British medical establishment --and from Florence Nightingale's all-white company of nurses--when on the front lines. And the essay "The Blackface Clown" explains the roots of blackface in England, framed around the concept of "blackness" as the racial Other onto which white Brits transposed everything they considered "unBritish."

The most interesting essay in the collection is Neil Parsons' "No Longer Rare Birds in London," a record about the travels of four different African envoys to England. Representatives from these African kingdoms visited England in order to petition for various reasons, from protesting British occupation to appealing for protection against other European powers. Parsons gives a detailed itinerary account of what each group experienced. Some incidents during their journey were very telling of the conflicting views of black and Africans in Victorian England. For instance, when King Cetshwayo of the Zulu visited in 1882, he was whisked away in a special train because the colonial ministers didn't want the public--who were only familiar with "Zulu warriors" as depicted by mostly African and African-American circus performers and from the news of the crushing British defeat by the Zulu nation in 1879--"to make a spectacle of him." The king, however, was unexpectedly received by cheering crowds and enjoyed being recognized in the streets as the leader of the battle. The envoys reactions to England are also intriguing. Many compared the packed urban sprawl of London to locusts and the Ndebele envoys remarked how the British "worshiped the god of money while they spoke of the God of Love" and how "the hands of the European never tire of making things. It is for this reason that white men's faces are often so fatigued and sad. They wage war with each other not for virile glory or to test their strength, but for things."

Overall, a fascinating book and highly recommended for scholars and history buffs alike.


Another treasure came at the suggestion of Miriavas from the Steampunk Empire: Okinawa Soba's collection of nineteenth-century photos. He features three collections portraying different perspectives on the black experience during this time period.  Below is a sampling from each collection, but I encourage you to go through his galleries yourself.

Click here for the pics )
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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there. While gathering materials and suggestions for things to feature on Beyond Victoriana, fellow steampunks offered quite a few delicious tidbits that were interesting reads and looks, but not quite enough for a full post. So here are some Odds & Ends from the aethernets and elsewhere for you to enjoy---

The Reads:

The Effluent Engine, part of A Story for Haiti project
N.J. Jeminsin (author of One Hundred Thousand Kingdoms) wrote this steampunk tale about pirates set in New Orleans, originally for a lesbian steampunk anthology. Enjoy reading it, but better yet donate, donate, donate.

Pimp My Airship
Another entertaining read featuring African steampunk by Maurice Broaddus.

Distant Deeps or Skies
This just in today -- Mexican steampunk story by Silvia Moreno-Garcia that's featured in Expanded Horizons magazine.

Moon Maiden's Mirror
An evocative steamy fairytale in an Asian setting, written by Joyce Chng as part of Semaphore Magazine. Link goes to PDF of the September 2009 issue.

Steampunk: A Mobile Device Concept for Rural India
The technology blog Adaptive Path wrote an interesting article about how engineers use concepts of steampunk technology to design mobile cell phones in India.

The Pics:

Frist mentioned by Jess Nevins (you may know him as the editor for the Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana) on the speculative blog community No Fear of the Future, about Lu Shi'e's Xin Ye Sou Pu Yan (1909), with the following blurb:

"In this tale, Europe is a Chinese colony and it describes the Chinese government’s suppression of an uprising planned by European "restoration" rebels. The Chinese Emperor orders the generalissimo in charge of Europe, Wen Suchen, to suppress the rebellion with flying warships. Generalissimo Wen not only conquers all seventy-two European nations but continues on to the moon and Jupiter as well. The most marvellous part of this tale is that Jupiter is described as being covered completely with gold and abounding with flora and fauna–the perfect destination for migration. Wen is then appointed Governor of Jupiter. From then on, the means of communication and transportation between Earth and Jupiter is, naturally, by flying ship."

Sent in from Professor Von Explaino in Australia:

"Found this picture in a holiday home my wife and I were staying in and thought it would be something you'd like or have a use for.  The tattoos definitely seem Maori."

"Punk Tribe" by 343GuiltySpark

And, as always, any suggestions for this blog are welcome! Drop me a link on the announcement page or send me a email. ^-^

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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there. This week's feature came to me from MySpace (yes, I still have one, and keep it updated...sorta).  From the steampunk community there, I friended Tess Fowler. She'd done some gorgeous steampunk erotica work in the past, but I noticed that she began posting character designs such as these:

The Seven

Yannick   Nguyen - the Gentleman

Cue the double-take on the names. Characters of color in my steampunk? And (gasp) one of them is Vietnamese-?

Since then, I've been following Tess and her progress on The Seven for months. The project is still in its development stages, but, dying to know more, I had a recent conversation with Tess and The Seven's writer Chris Gutierrez about The Seven and what inspired them to create a multiracial steampunk world.

*** Read the interview under the cut )
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This post has been been cross-posted to Beyond Victoriana's own website. Please submit all comments there.

In 1893, Archibald Campion believed he created an invention that would “prevent the deaths of men in the conflicts of nations”: the Campion Mechanical Marvel, later to be known as Boilerplate the Victorian-Age robot. Constructed with the aid of close friends and inventors Edward Fullerton and Nikola Tesla, Boilerplate was unveiled during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago that summer and fought in several major combat missions between the Spanish-American War in 1898 until its disappearance in 1918 on the battlefront of World War I.

Of course, Boilerplate never really existed except in Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett’s book Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, published by Abrams Books last month. Based on an extensive website that had created and expanded upon the Boilerplate character since 2000, Boilerplate the book is an illustrated history of this Victorian curiosity, who fought in several wars, traveled from China to Saudi Arabia to the brink of the South Pole, and even had his own series of dime novels and silent movies.

My general reaction: the book was a joy to read. It's chock full of interesting historical details and many ingenuous illustrations, many of them cleverly manipulated to look like authentic images of the robot alongside familiar historical figures such as Teddy Roosevelt and Lawrence of Arabia.

The book trailer for Boilerplate

What is just as interesting as these photos is the way Guinan and Bennett used Boilerplate’s story to highlight marginalized histories, emphasize the pursuit of social justice issues during that time period, and dispassionately narrate the full consequences of American expansionism.

Cut for spoilers )

Additional linkage

Boilerplate official website
Boilerplate’s MySpace
Boilerplate Historical Society on Facebook

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