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2011-06-05 00:00

Fact or Faked: The Travels of Jacob D'Anacona--Guest Blog by Rachel Landau

The City of Light is the journal of the travels of Jacob D'Ancona, a 13th century pious Jewish merchant. Readers follow Jacob on a three-year journey, starting from his hometown of Ancona in present-day Italy, overland through Damascus and Baghdad, and then by sea, stopping at various ports and places until he reaches the city of Zaitun, modern-day Quanzhou, where he stays to buy goods and talk to the scholars of the city. It consists of equal parts travelogue/memoir and a philosophical discussion of medieval Jewish and Chinese ideas.

This was a time when Jews had restricted access to jobs or freedom to run their own lives. In medieval Europe, Jews often had to wear physical signals of their faith: yellow stripes or stars. Jews had restricted job and social opportunities: they were often forbidden from interaction with Christians. In Muslim lands, the restrictions for Jews were somewhat more relaxed, but Jews still paid higher taxes than Muslims did -- though not as high as those paid by the non-"People of the Book".

Jacob himself is an interesting exception to many of the typical rules. He travels with both Jews and Christians, and frequently mentions his young female Gentile servants' romantic lives. Furthermore, Jacob is a jack-of-all-trades, a Renaissance man in pre-Renaissance times. He's a traveler, a merchant, a scholar, a physician, an authority who is consulted by Jewish and Chinese communities alike. He speaks and writes in fluent Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Arabic. Nearly everyone who meets him likes him. He's a bit too good to be true: in modern terms, he's a pretty big Mary Sue.

But the most compelling parts of the book are not Jacob, but the world he's seeing for the first time. The descriptions of Chinese life are vivid and lengthy, and the variety and extensiveness of the Chinese market was stunning and often unbelievable to European eyes. Jacob engages in lengthy discussions (through a translator) with Chinese scholars and even spends several weeks stuck in the sordid underworld, full of gambling, prostitutes, and illicit sex.

There's also political intrigue, and the threat of very real danger: At this time, northern China was under the rule of Kublai Khan and there was a very real threat of invasion by the "Tartars" -- for Europeans and the southern Chinese alike. Meanwhile, the Chinese community of scholars was divided itself between old and new ways of thinking.

Jacob finds many points of contact and connection between himself and several of the Chinese scholars, especially a man named Pitaco, who like Jacob was worried about the lack of respect in the younger generation, the stability of the country's morals, and the justification of trickle-down economics. Perhaps most fittingly for a book about contact and conflict between Western and Eastern cultures, Jacob's habit of pontificating ends up rubbing many Chinese scholars the wrong way. As the inhabitants of the city get upset about the amount of influence the foreign Jew has in the city, Jacob concludes his business and leaves in a hurry, fearing for his life.

There's really just one problem with the narrative: Jacob D'Ancona may have never existed.

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2011-06-01 00:06

Burning High-Action Brilliance: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

Note: While enjoying Wiscon this weekend (con report forthcoming), check out my latest review over at Tor.com. Delayed updates to Con Extravaganza & Asian Identities, Crossing Borders will be posted later this week.


During the Tribeca Film Festival, I managed to catch a showing of Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Watching the preview, this film promised big set pieces, lots of fiery explosions, and awesome martial arts action. A film that has Chinese alternate history and features a detective worthy of Sherlock, a black market underground beneath the Forbidden City, and a plot involving the mechanics of building a 800-foot tall Buddha—it all sounds pretty steampunk-esque. When a post about it went up on Tor.com Steampunk, people scratched their heads about whether it would qualify, or if, yet again, a fad word had been plopped in by marketing.

I think it’s steampunk in the way James Ng’s art is, the way Shweta Narayan’s “Eyes of the Craven Emerald” is, the way that Yakoub Islam plans to write a Muslim steampunk story set in the twelfth century, and the way that Aether Age plays with the concept of highly industrialized ancient civilizations. So for any nay-sayers who are not calling this steampunk, then I suppose these don’t qualify either. But examining how technology can—and has—developed independently from Western influence is an idea that shouldn’t mark something as not being steampunk.

But enough squabbling about labels, because in the end, this is one kick-ass entertaining film in its own right.

Read the rest over at Tor.com.
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2011-05-10 08:45

The Industrial Revolution of Today: A Review of FACTORY GIRLS by Leslie T. Chang

Click to read more on the publisher's website.

When we take about the impact of the Industrial Revolution, we speak of it in terms as if there had been only One Industrial Revolution, and that had taken place throughout the Western world during the nineteenth century. As I had written about before, the Industrial Revolution didn’t just happen then, and in fact, the current industrial revolution is happening throughout the non-Western world just as the West begins to grow nostalgic about it.

In talking about alternative histories, and how the non-West would develop, it’s interesting to dream up scenes of Imperial splendor (like James Ng does). It is equally valid, however, to note that you don’t have to look toward the Qing dynasty to see a Chinese industrial revolution, for, as James himself has noted, China is changing into a fully developed industrial nation as we speak.

With that in mind, I picked up Leslie T. Chang’s book about her observations about today’s current revolution, specifically of those factory girls in China that the West likes to paint as faceless factory drones (occasionally laced by the feeling of guilt toward those “poor sweatshop workers.”) Chang, however, breaks down that stereotype (though sweatshops are very much alive and well in China) and presents a look into the lives of today’s migrant factory workers.

Compulsively readable and engaging throughout, FACTORY GIRLS: From Village to City in a Changing China highlights the stories of the young people (particularly women), who are changing the face of the global economy today. Instead of the masses teeming in nameless sweatshops that the West envisions, these lives are individually dynamic and driven, full of same sorts of fear and wonderment that the young mill girls in the West may have also felt a hundred and fifty years ago, as they sought to make new lives for themselves.

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2011-04-03 00:56

“The West Was Lost” by Beth Aileen Lameman and Myron A. Lameman: A Review


Cover for The West Was Lost. Click to read the comic

Native steampunk has been presented in many different ways and, like the comic Finder (which had been reviewed here a couple of weeks ago), The West Was Lost is another drawn tale that speaks in layers and plays with the concept of linear storytelling. The creators Beth Aileen Lameman (née Dillon) and her husband Myron Lameman are both Native (Beth has Irish/Anishinaabe/Métis heritage and Myron is from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation) and passionate about indigenous representation in their creative projects. Beth Aileen's past work includes her comic Fala--which is described as a Native "Alice in Wonderland"--, the urban fantasy animated series Animism, and the games TimeTraveller--about a time-hopping Mohawk man from the 22nd century-- and Techno Medicine Wheel. Myron is an independent filmmaker whose previous work includes his recent documentary made with support from National Geographic All Roads called Extraction, about the Beaver Lake Cree people's fight against the Canadian federal government over tar sands expansion on their land. He has also done the short films Blue in the Face (also working with Beth Aileen), Indigenous Streets, and Shadow Dances and Fire Scars.

Read more on BeyondVictoriana.com
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2011-03-24 11:49

Period Film Review: Princess Kaʻiulani--Guest Blog by Evangeline Holland

Note: This is cross-posted with permission from Edwardian Promenade.

Princess Kaiulani Movie

Released in 2009 (though with a fair share of controversy over the admittedly tasteless title, “Barbarian Princess”), with limited run last year and a DVD release in September, Princess Kaiulani is a gorgeously-shot tale of an unjustly forgotten figure in American history. Though the writing isn’t as nuanced as it could be, and there are many holes in the tale which require further reading after viewing the tale, for a movie which sheds light on a dark, yet fascinating period not often told outside of Hawaiian history, Princess Kaiulani is an excellent addition to the library of any history buff and period film aficionado. The film follows Princess Victoria Kaʻiulani Kalaninuiahilapalapa Kawekiu i Lunalilo Cleghorn (to give her full name) from shortly before her mother’s death to her own premature death at the age of 23. In between that regrettably short time span, we are shown the tenuous state of Hawaii’s royal family and its inhabitants.

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2011-03-20 15:20

#68 Carla Speed McNeil’s Aboriginal Sci-Fi Graphic Series FINDER: A Review–Guest Blog by Noah Meerna

Outlined routes towards discovering and conversantly addressing Carla Speed McNeil’s graphic series Finder.


Panel from Finder: Sin-Eater, Issue 9: Artist/writer: Carla Speed McNeil, Lightspeed Press, March 1998

One inspired comic maker, Carla Speed McNeil, who began self-publishing Finder through her own imprint of Lightspeed Press in 1996, has been ardently continuing to develop this ongoing graphic series since 2005 as a webcomic. The creative commitment McNeil has applied toward the progressive formation of Finder has been appreciably recognized receiving a Lulu Award in 1997 and numerous Ignatz Awards leading to several Eisner nominations since 2001 1 In transitioning her successive work to a digital domain, McNeil has continued to draw critical accolades while expanding readers’ awareness within this worldly field, and in 2009, Finder was duly awarded an esteemed Eisner for ‘Best Digital Comic’. Topically, McNeil has accepted a representative offer from one of the foremost comic book publishers in the United States, and her prolific graphic saga will soon be widely republished in chronicle volumes by Dark Horse Comics.

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2011-01-30 00:56

Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories — A Roundtable Interview, Part 1

Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories is a very unique anthology for a variety of reasons. By unique, I'm not stating that this anthology is tailor-made for only a specific target audience (though it may scream "niche" to the average reader.) Still, upon first impression, a reader might wonder: would someone who isn't queer or female or a romance lover still enjoy this book? Torquere Books, known for its queer and alternative literature, may be jumping onto the growing steampunk bandwagon that is gaining speed in the publishing world. And, some people might fear the worst after steampunk Palin-- is Steam-Powered just another trend-hopper?

No, it is not. To think so would do a great disservice to the quality of work contained within this volume, and the literary thoughtfulness from both the contributing authors and Steam-Powered's editor JoSelle Vanderhooft.

These stories feature the work of several prominent and up-and-coming writers in the SF/F world. It starts off strong with N.K. Jeminsin's "The Effluent Engine," previously published on her blog for the A Story for Haiti fund-raising campaign, and also includes the work of Georgina Bruce, D.L. MacInnes, Sara M. Harvey, Beth Wodzinski, Rachel Manija Brown, Shira Lipkin, Matthew Kressel, Meredith Holmes, Teresa Wymore, Tara Sommers, Mikki Kendall, Shweta Narayan, Mike Allen, and Amal El-Mohtar.

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2011-01-23 18:01

#58 Multipart Extentions Round the Collected Graphic Series ROBOTIKA--Guest Blog by Noah Meernaum

Note: This week, Noah Meernaum (who previously wrote for Beyond Victoriana about racial representations in Weird West comics) returns with a dual review of ROBOTIKA and its follow-up, ROBOTIKA: FOR A FEW RUBLES MORE. The first review is below, and its companion piece will be posted on Monday.



Steampunk is currently continuing to be abundantly referenced to describe a vast array of fictional works that have presently arisen in the revitalized interest around this peculiar fantastic amalgam. Amid this extensive fictive outgrowth there is an increasing concentration towards advancing beyond any given geographical location, fixed elements, or customary Western outlooks surrounding steampunk. These alternate positions and views, while being openly encouraged as further imaginative formulations enlarging upon the allowable confines of this compound term, are sometimes held as far flung adoptions disproportionately conjoined of disagreeable parts or disparate plots.

One such decisive adaptive outthrust of steampunk is graphically pronounced in the comic series Robotika, that through its principal creator Alex Sheikman’s descriptive reference as being informed of a “samurai steampunk” is sure to directly incite those opposed to such an audacious concoction. Certainly this conjunction of Eastern emblems interacting with Western motifs is not novel in its projected mythical fusion. This perpetual exchange has stemmed from the pioneering films of Akira Kurosawa and continued in current re-shoots or re-slashes such as Takashai Mikke’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) and Ji-woon Kim’s The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008). Afro Samurai (Manga or magazine format, 1999-2000) is another preceding animate example of engaging what would appear to be disparate cultural elements portrayed through alternate perspectives.

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2010-12-12 13:46

Beyond Victoriana #53 Caribbean Steampunk on a Distant World: Tobias Buckell’s CRYSTAL RAIN

In the wake of the Steampunk Kurfluffle that started with Charles Stross' complaint against steampunk, Tobias Buckell wrote an interesting response about fantasy’s tendency to romanticize the past and mentioned his own work:


But ultimately, I share Stross’s discomfort, which is why my steampunk plays have often been about adopting the style and nodding to the history. Crystal Rain, what I called a Caribbean steampunk novel, is about Caribbean peoples and the reconstituted Mexica (Azteca in the book) of old with a Victorian level of technology, using the clothing/symbols of steampunk, but making their artificiers black. Sadly, Crystal Rain, written in 2006, seems to have come out just before all the hotness, as it rarely gets mentioned as a steampunk novel whenever these celebrations happen.

So, now that my curiosity was piqued, I had to go out and get the book to see for myself how he handles steampunk before “the hotness.”


Read on BeyondVictoriana.com

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2010-12-05 03:16

Beyond Victoriana #52 Reporting from Steamcon II: Weird Weird West



The town of Seattle was a-buzz the weekend of November 19th - 21st as an estimated 1700+ steampunks arrived for the second annual Steamcon convention. This was another event I had to sit out on, sadly, since I was involved with The Anachronism NYC at Webster Hall that same weekend (and you can check out pictures here, here and here.) Staff and attendees from the event, however, volunteered their reports and pictures from the second-annual convention, which rocked the theme "Weird, Weird West."

See what these folks have to say:

The man that needs no introduction, Jake von Slatt, who was one of the Guests of Honor, talks a bit about his experiences, including the panel he co-presented with the awesome mistress of the ExoSkeleton Cabaret Libby Bulloff about Queering Steampunk Fashion. Donna Prior, the Games Chair, talks a bit about the tabletop, miniature, and LARPing adventures that took place this weekend. Staff member Kevin Steil, the Airship Ambassador, already provided a gigantic round-up and review of the SteamCon II media coverage, but also gives an exclusive report about his Steamcon experience. Justin Stanley (aka Emperor Justinian Stanislaus), known to most as the Emperor of the Red Fork Empire, gives an on-the-ground scoop in his attendee report.

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