Sunday, 26 September 2010

VEx September Contest - Tea?!

September's giveaway is quite probably the strangest one we'll ever do. Having spoken of my trip to Victoria and having world-famous afternoon tea at The Empress Hotel, I now have a souvenir box of that tea to send to one lucky reader.

The explanatory blurb on the box declares that
This blend of seasonal quality tea was specially created for afternoon tea at The Empress. The Assam component (2nd flush June production) gives a thick malty and full bodied character; the Kenya component (Kiambu region, January production) gives floral-like flavour and a golden coppery infusion; the South Indian component (Nilgiri Mountains, January production) gives superb fruity and sprightly flavour with a lovely finish; the Ceylon (Dimbula region, January production) gives and airy almost piquant flavour that opens the blend; and the China (Anhui province, April production) gives a burgundy depth with light oaky notes. Truly one of the world's great teas!

The box includes 10 two-cup bags. Plus, given that The Empress was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway as one in its chain of Grand Railway Hotels, I'm also including a tacky little steam train toy for the heck of it!

To enter, just leave a comment in this thread. The draw will be made at 12:00am on Sunday, September 26th. Thank you for continuing to visit Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age, and good luck!

The results: Congratulations to Niko for winning a nice box of tea and a train to play with while drinking it! Niko, look for a message in your inbox. And to everyone who entered, thank you! Keep an eye out for future giveaways!

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded (2010)

Due for an October release, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded is the sequel of sorts to the 2008 anthology Steampunk. I qualify it as a sequel "of sorts" because a wide gulf exists between the two which makes them a unique document of pop-culture history.

The first Steampunk anthology, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, still laboured under the definition of Steampunk as a literary genre. It deliberately set about reprinting stories by the pioneers of that literary genre, such as Michael Moorcock, James Blaylock, Paul Di Filippo and Neal Stephenson. These works were prefaced by a trio of essays charting the genre's development through literature, film and comics.

Steampunk II, edited by the same, engages Steampunk post-genre. The aforementioned gulf is that of its development from a genre to a scene, on one side of which are the older authors whose writings shaped a literature and on the other are the newer authors writing to a subculture. Not only are the stories different - including a number of what the Vandermeers call "steampunk tinker" stories that are literary paeans to the scene's DIY fashionistas - but the essays moreso reflect this transition.

The Vandermeers begin with a crude overview of Steampunk that is only as accurate as necessary for a scene that neither wants nor needs a comprehensive history. Well, unless you're Mike "Steampunk Scholar" Perschon, who asked to republish the History of Steampunk piece deleted from this weblog (and got one of my tiresome rants in the process). The only relevant historical essay was that submitted by Jake Von Slatt. As his greatest invention is the Steampunk scene itself, he speaks credibly when he declares that "Steampunk is part of this Maker Movement..." The idea of Steampunk represented in this anthology does owe more, as he implicitly suggests, to the existence of Radio Shack and Make Magazine than to a genuine interest in the Victorian Era or Scientific Romances. At this juncture, I'm not even sure why he chooses to belabour any kind of idealistic, romantic fantasy about how "The Victorian era was the last time that the typical high-school-equivalent education... gave the graduate all of the tools that he or she needed to understand the technology of the time." [citation needed]

Gail Carriger attempts to link the reading of Steampunk fiction with the wearing of Steampunk costumes, to irrelevant effect. She concludes her essay with what is supposed to be an affirmative note, but in the course of it articulates the fact that fashion scene rose independently and has nothing to do with the Steampunk genre. Following Carriger's and Von Slatt's pieces, there is a "roundtable interview" on The Future of Steampunk in which various and sundry of the scene's Internet celebrities comment on how they would like to see it further overwritten with their own values and interests.

The included fiction is a grab-bag of established authors slumming out a few Steampunk stories and a few aspiring ones who owe their success to writing for the scene. Of greatest value for readers who actually enjoy Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances is the first English translation of Danish author Vilhelm Bergsøe's 1870 short story Flying Fish 'Prometheus' (A Fantasy of the Future). "Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolutions" is not in store, according to the Vandermeers, but an anthology translating and/or reprinting the lost and out-of-print volumes of Scientific Romances of the 19th century would be a welcome new course after Steampunk II.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (2010)

Our friends at Pyr/Prometheus Books were kind enough to send us a review copy of their American release of Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. According to the publisher's blurb:
London, 1861.

Sir Richard Francis Burton—explorer, linguist, scholar, and swordsman; his reputation tarnished; his career in tatters; his former partner missing and probably dead.

Algernon Charles Swinburne—unsuccessful poet and follower of de Sade; for whom pain is pleasure, and brandy is ruin!

They stand at a crossroads in their lives and are caught in the epicenter of an empire torn by conflicting forces: Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier, and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labor; Libertines oppose repressive laws and demand a society based on beauty and creativity; while the Rakes push the boundaries of human behavior to the limits with magic, drugs, and anarchy. The two men are sucked into the perilous depths of this moral and ethical vacuum when Lord Palmerston commissions Burton to investigate assaults on young women committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack, and to find out why werewolves are terrorizing London's East End.

Their investigations lead them to one of the defining events of the age, and the terrifying possibility that the world they inhabit shouldn't exist at all!

Michael Moorcock has cited Spring Heeled Jack as "the best debut novel I have read in ages", and Hodder certainly has impeccable credentials. Webmaster of Blakiana: The Sexton Blake Resource, he has a degree in cultural studies, has worked for the BBC as a writer, editor, and journalist, and has an avid interest in British history. It shows in this monumental league of historical figures.

Of course, it also leads to some of the novel's eye-rolling faults. When Sir Richard Burton sends off a quick-witted Irish paperboy off on a mission, he remarks to his companions that this little Oscar Wilde will be famous some day. Yes, we know. At times, Hodder's alternate 19th century reads like a prospectus for a new White Wolf role-playing game. The Eugenicists, Engineers, Libertines and Rakes are so neatly defined that they may as well be character classes.

What it lacks in subtleties it makes up for in heavy symbolism. From the beginning, the Rakes are simply obnoxious; the sort of faux-revolutionary hedonists whose high-sounding philosophy does not go deeper than the bottom of a bottle and broader than the novelty of idly contemplating murder because it's, like, so against The Man, man. True Libertines are mentioned but never really given the floor. They are aligned with the Pre-Raphaelites who temper their radical politics with a productive idea of the shape society should take. Then come the Engineers and Eugenicists, united under the flag of the Technologists as embodiments of Jacques Ellul's technique.

When the Technologists reveal themselves, in faces once familiar, they are the ultimate perversity of technique. Both their aims and means are disgusting, their bodies appallingly mutated, their centre of operations echoing Kenneth Strickfaden's laboratories and the chop-shops of Star Trek's Borg. They are so horrifying that one would not be blamed for seeing the Technologists as another of Science Fiction's near-hysterical caricatures of science. However it is not the technology in itself, not the scientific research in itself, that poses the problem.

When Ellul, a French Catholic philosopher and theological father to Christian Anarchism, coined technique, he was not speaking simply of technology. In fact, he warned against such a view. Jerry Mander, following suit, argued in The Absence of the Sacred that to view technology as neutral was itself not neutral, but rather served the interests of the whole technological system. For Ellul, technique is "the totality of methods rationally arrived at, and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity." Furthermore, "Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity."

In response to an article proposing a scientific utopia of food pills and eugenic breeding, Ellul asked,
how shall we force humanity to refrain from begetting children naturally? How shall we force them to submit to constant and rigorous hygienic controls? How shall man be persuaded to accept a radical transformation of his traditional modes of nutrition? How and where shall we relocate a billion and a half persons who today make their living from agriculture and who, in the promised ultrarapid conversion of the next forty years, will become utterly useless as cultivators of the soil?... There are many other "hows," but they are conveniently left unformulated... there is one and only one means to their solution, a world-wide totalitarian dictatorship which will allow technique its full scope and at the same time resolve the concomitant difficulties. It is not difficult to understand why the scientists and worshippers of technology prefer not to dwell on this solution, but rather to leap nimbly across the dull and uninteresting intermediary period and land squarely in the golden age... If we take a hard, unromantic look at the golden age itself, we are struck with the incredible naivete of these scientists. They say, for example, that they will be able to shape and reshape at will human emotions, desires, and thoughts and arrive scientifically at certain efficient, pre-established collective decisions. They claim they will be in a position to develop certain collective desires, to constitute certain homogeneous social units out of aggregates of individuals, to forbid men to raise their children, and even to persuade them to renounce having any. At the same time, they speak of assuring the triumph of freedom and the necessity of avoiding dictatorship at any price. They seem incapable of grasping the contradiction involved, of understanding that what they are proposing... is in fact the harshest of dictatorships. In comparison, Hitler's was a trifling affair. That is is to be a dictatorship of test tubes rather than of hobnailed boots will not make it any less a dictatorship.

This is what is at stake in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, what Sir Richard Burton and his hapless, poetical sidekick strive against. Hodder's Victorian Era is one reshaped by the power of technique three centuries ahead of itself. It is one of the oldest definitions given for Steampunk: how the past would look if the future happened sooner (hint: not good).

That also makes it something of a satire of the genre, very nearly an anti-Steampunk book. Hodder pokes and prods at it. There are motorized pennyfarthings ala. Artimus Gordon and flying armchairs and it is all quite cute. There is also the unromantic, unadorned poverty and Hodder's almost delerious delight in describing every foul stench permeating his toxic London waterfront. He lights on the insanity-inducing culture shock that a modern mind would feel being exposed to the alien 19th century. When the brass-encrusted cyborgs emerge from their cog-wheeled factories, it does not induce wonder so much as vomit. On the far side of the spectrum, the subcultural sexual fetishes and substance abuses of the Rakes, masquerading as liberality, offer absolutely nothing and therein simply play into the technique as so much bread and circuses. Just as John Clute lauded Gibson and Sterling for making Victorian London worse than it actually was in The Difference Engine, Hodder accomplishes the same in his Steampunk'd capital. As the past stops being what it used to be, the reader fervently hopes it gets put back.

Perhaps it will. Hodder has already been at work on a sequel, and it's safe to say that I'm actually looking forward to it amidst the glut of genre novels.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

To the Rockies by Steam 2010

After the last few years of venturing far and abroad, I've committed myself to seeing more of my own country for the next little while. Thankfully, doing so is pretty easy on the eyes when you live in Canada. Hence my previously discussed visit to the Pacific Coast city of Victoria. This decision is made easier yet by a suite of anniversaries celebrating important events in our history. In particular, it is the 125th anniversary of both our National Parks, begun with Banff National Park, and the completion of our Transcontinental Railway.

In recognition of these dual, and intertwined, anniversaries, the Canadian Pacific Railway pulled out their 2816 Empress steam engine for a summer of events culminating in a run from Calgary, Alberta to Revelstoke, British Columbia and the site of the Last Spike. With my well-documented love for the era of steam trains and National Parks, it would be an understatement to say that this was not an opportunity I could pass up. I would have moved Heaven and Earth.

With tickets for the Calgary to Lake Louise leg of the trip in hand, we embarked at the CPR pavilion in downtown Calgary, adjacent to the Palliser Hotel. Finished in 1914, this hotel was one of elegant but humbler urban entries in Canadian Pacific's chain of Grand Railway Hotels. Ordinarily the pavilion serves as the embarkation point for the Royal Canadian Pacific luxury resort vacation, but this day it was our own station for a ride into the heart of the Rockies.

After a few delays - steam is not as easy as turning a key - we were off across the prairies to our rendezvous with the Rockies...

Approaching the Rockies.

Entering the Rocky Mountain front ranges.

Your dutiful weblogger in repose.

Through the Rockies, past the town of Banff.

Arrival at Lake Louise, shrouded in summer fog and rain.

The 2816 Empress.

And what of the Last Spike itself? There were actually three Last Spikes. Donald Smith, a former fur trader who went on to become one of the founders of the CPR and adopted into the Peerage as the first Baron Strathcona, was set to hammer the first Last Spike when age overtook him, he winged it and the spike bent. A second Last Spike was set, which he successfully hammered. This was removed to deter souvenir hunters, given to Smith, and a third Last Spike set in place. As part of the celebrations, Smith's Last Spike was on display in the train's museum car, on loan from the Canadian Museum of Civilization. It had been extensively carved up by Smith to create jewelled tie pins given to his closest associates.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Victoria 2010

His spirit grew restless and, selling all his effects, he brought his wife and two small daughters out to the new world. Round the Horn they came again, and up, up, up the west coast of America till they came to the most English-tasting bit of all Canada - Victoria on the south end of Vancouver Island, which was then a Crown Colony.

Father stood still, torn by his loyalty to the Old Land and his delight in the New. He saw that nearly all the people in Victoria were English and smiled at how they tried to be more English than the English themselves, just to prove to themselves and the world how loyal they were being to the Old Land.

These words penned by the immortal Canadian artist Emily Carr in her biographical work A Little Town and a Little Girl describe her hometown and one of Canada's most distinctive cities. Gaily bedecked in flowers, traversed by double-decker buses, lined with gingerbread houses and interrupted for afternoon tea, the city of Victoria is indeed British... Consciously, achingly, charmingly so. The overly sensitive soul might stop short of weeping for the cuteness of a city seemingly locked into a pastiche of its sibling era, birthed alike by their regal matron.

One of the great signs is the hotel named in honor of the Empress of India. The Empress Hotel is one of the stately Grand Railway Hotels that landmark the Canadian cultural experience. Originally developed by the various railways operating in and through the country, these luxurious edifices drew from English Gothic and French Chateau architecture to create a unique, national style dubbed "Railway Gothic". It is perhaps telling that, like two of the three founding peoples of this constitutional monarchy, it is a style steeped in Old World heritage. Like the Westminster Chimes of a fine-tuned clock, tea is served in the original lobby of the Empress every afternoon.

In front of The Empress is Victoria's picturesque Inner Harbour. Adjacent to its one side is Government Street with its stately British bank-style buildings. In August, the Victoria Symphony Orchestra holds their Symphony Splash event in which the whole company boards a stage floating in the harbour. One of the events of the year, it climaxes with Tchikovsky's 1812 Overture to full canonfire and fireworks from the nearby Canadian naval vessels and concludes with Amazing Grace performed by a regiment of pipers. Following the performance, these same pipers muster in front of The Empress and launch into Scotland the Brave. The tune carries them directly up the middle of Government Street and into the local Scottish pub.

The Dalton Hotel, where I stayed.

To The Empress' other side is the BC Legislature, affectionately though unofficially called the Parliament Buildings. Legally, the only Parliament Buildings in Canada are in Ottawa where the governing Parliament sits, yet the Victorians felt their provincial headquarters were so stately that they deserved the appellation. Across the street from the Legislature is one of Victoria's quaint attractions, the Royal London Wax Museum, importer of genuine Madame Tussaud waxwork figures. In the bowels of the building are the lane of fairy tale characters, movie stars and the chamber of horrors (featuring mediaeval torture devices and Adolf Hitler), but the grand hall is reserved for royalty. The current reigning monarch, Elizabeth the Second, and her family are present, as well as several Charleses, Henry the Eighth and his regiment of wives, and Victoria the one and only. Besides the wax figures, Royal London also has a full set of the Crown Jewels in polished brass and shimmering glass. Beneath The Empress is another charming attraction, Miniature World, with its scale recreations of the Canadian Pacific Railway, scenes from Dickens novels, and Olde London Towne.

He's not just Happy; he's freakin' ECSTATIC!

Returning to the coastal sunshine of the Inner Harbour, one passes pristine white carriages with equally white horses and lacquered tall ships to attend the Royal British Columbia Museum. Iconic of the museum is its lifesize woolly mammoth recreated from the hides of nine musk oxen, the other taxadermies recreating British Columbia ecosystems, and a stunning collection of Pacific Northwest First Nations arts and crafts. While the building is of modern vintage, they could not resist adding Old World touches like an "Ocean Station" in the style of Jules Verne.

Olde Victoria Towne

Further, past the museum and the birthplace of Emily Carr herself, one comes to Beacon Hill Park. Carr's writing describes the former wildness of Beacon Hill in its past as a lit marker for passing ships to save them from running aground. Now, however, it is as charming and sculpted an English pleasure ground as can be found anywhere outside of that other distant island. Sundial gardens, cricket pitches and putting green monuments to Robbie Burns are set between lily ponds and weeping sequoia. One half expects to see Mary Poppins cavorting over stone bridges on a jolly holiday.

Emily Carr House National Historic Site.

A fairly average neighbourhood home.

Yet this is not the British Isles. This is the farflung coast of the colony, as far West as one can go before they find themselves in the Far East. Wild spaces still erupt from Beacon Hill's green, manicured lawns. Local tradition is that the fields of wild Camus flower formerly nurtured by local First Peoples reminded the English settlers of their homeland, their Spring blossoms blooming in nostalgic, melancholy shades of blue. Into Autumn, these same fields have turned gold, dessicated by the harsh ocean wind blowing in from the Salish Sea. These grasses fringe bubbling bedrock and gnarled Gary Oaks. Within the park is a reminder of the people who came before: one of the world's largest totem poles. Beacon Hill itself stands over all, fields declining to a rocky shore, a windy sea and the Olympic Mountains beyond, so frequently masked by mist and fog.

The Pacific Northwest is a verdant, fecund region. James Douglas, the Hudson's Bay Company factor who chartered Fort Victoria , called it "a perfect Eden". Both land and sea are defined by their rich green forests... Kelp by sea, Cedar and Hemlock and Fir by land. Of this immense power of nature, everchanging in its moods yet unchanging since time immemorial, Carr the painter and wordsmith said: "There are no words, no paints to express all this, only a beautiful dumbness in the soul, life speaking to life."

One of Victoria's grand tourist attractions is a study in this intriguing contrast so emblematic of Canada. In 1904, Robert and Jennie Butchart moved from Ontario to Vancouver Island to develop a cement factory which, upon the quarry's exhaustion, became a grand ornamental garden. The Butchart Gardens are a floral fairyland, with various themed gardens, like the Mediterranean and Italian Gardens. Garden designer Isaburo Kishida was imported from Japan to create the Japanese Gardens which, while still impressive are not much like Japan. They also created gardens specifically for roses and a star pond for Mr. Butchart's collection of fancy ducks.

The Private Garden and former Butchart residence,
Italian Garden, Star Pond, and Japanese Garden.

The most iconic of the gardens is the Sunken Garden. It is not merely iconic because it is famous, adorning millions of Canada's tackiest souvenirs and even replicated in a fashion at EPCOT's Canada pavilion. It is iconic as a metaphor for Victoria, British Columbia and Canada. To reach it, one must pass through a grove of cedar, fir and fern, the constituents of the primeval forest. Yet pathways are paved through it, lined in the rough rocky walls that are so common to Canada's national architecture. Then one sees the Sunken Garden itself, sunken because it rests in what was once a limestone quarry. It is stunning in its colour and its attempt at carving order from chaos. Still, it is pressed in by ivy-covered limestone cliffs crowned with the forest. The Sunken Gardens are symbolic of the Canadian experience as an Old World nation eking itself out of the New World, with stunning beauty both natural and civilized.

My trip to Victoria would not have been even half of what it was without the following enterprises. One was Victorian Garden Tours, with whom I was able to leave the city confines on a fantastic Emily Carr art tour. Joan is a fount of knowledge and seems to know all the best spots and most interesting people in southern Vancouver Island. For a very reasonable price she is willing to invest a whole day tailoring a tour to your interests, be they English gardens, Canadian forests or Victorian heritage sites. The other was 3 Hour Sail, who built and operate the tall ship Thane. Bypass the packed, exhorbitant whale-watching tours (which are akin to using mopeds to chase down packs of wolves and calling it "wildlife viewing") and instead enjoy a cruise aboard a replica of the first ship to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe in 1895, Joshua Slocum's Spray. Len and Sue and their trio of cats are fantastic hosts and deliver one of the most entertaining safety spiels heard anywhere. If you chance to visit Victoria, I cannot vehemently enough recommend factoring Victorian Garden Tours and 3 Hour Sail into your plans.