The Strange Case of Mr. Falksen
GD Falksen: historian, steampunk, author, and all around great guy. If you haven't heard of GD, you've certainly seen him around. Whether it be on MTV, or at DragonCon, SalonCon, the Time Travel Picnic or dozens of other events, GD is the unofficial spokesperson for all things steampunk.
This gifted writer can normally be seen at Tor, but today, GD is spending a little time with Dieselpunks to share his views on how we've grown as a subculture and where Steampunk will be in the future.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did your family and mentors affect your current interest in alternative history? Did you always key in on mystery and drama, or did you have other dreams while growing up?
When I was growing up my favorite TV channel was the local PBS station. As a result, I saw a lot of historical programs and a lot of British television that had been imported, including mysteries like "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
" and "Agatha Christie's Poirot
." I think seeing programs like that really helped establish my fascination with history in general. It demonstrated to me early on that history could be fun and exciting, and it helped me get into reading period fiction. My parents encouraged me to read early on and they introduced me to a wide range of genres. They also indulged my childhood love of writing. During high school I was prone to engaging in historical speculation, which probably informs a lot of my interest in alternate history. In college especially I developed a fascination with the history of science and technology (my earlier interest in history had often been focused on literature, politics and military events).
My writing has always covered a fairly wide range of genres. When I was younger, I did a lot of traditional sci-fi and fantasy, but I also tried my hand at noir, detective fiction, Victorian Gothic and even some historical work. Granted, most of it was pretty terrible and I'd be ashamed to show it today, but I think those cross-genre experiments were very important to how my writing has developed.
You've certainly been leading the charge when it comes to steampunk. When did you jump into the community with both feet, and how has that community evolved since you first picked up the brass-colored flag?
The first time I encountered the term "steampunk" was in a review of "The Difference Engine" I read in a magazine some time in the late '90s, but my first exposure to the genre was probably in the form of the television program "Legend," which aired in 1995 (and which was canceled far too early, much to my disappointment). I have no doubt that my tastes were greatly influenced the show's blending of history, sci-fi, plausibility and over the top adventure (most of the time it feels like you're reading one of the main character's dime novels).
As for the steampunk community, I got involved in a sort of sideways manner. Because one of my fields of study is the history of technology, there's obviously an immediate overlap between my academic work and steampunk. I recall that I was on the steamfashion community
early on, though that was before it had much activity (I think I may have been something like the 12th person to join). My steampunk adventure serial An Unfortunate Engagement
began in the first issue of Steampunk Magazine
a few years ago (2007 I believe). I co-founded the Annual Time Travel Picnic
in the summer of 2007, which we've continued to hold every year since and which was the first annual steampunk meetup ever. I started my semi-regular posts on history and technology on Steamfashion in the Spring of 2008 (I was taking a break from a paper on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and one thing led to another). I also gave the first lecture on steampunk, at Saloncon.
The steampunk community has certainly changed as it has expanded, but for the most part I think a lot of it has stayed close to its roots. It had its origins in a mixture of the literature and the Victorian fashion aesthetic (fashion was really what started the community in the 2000s), and I think most new fans getting into it still respond well to that. From time to time you'll try to get a new person arguing that steampunk "isn't Victorian" or that it's "post-apocalyptic" or something out of left field like that, but I think most people are comfortable with the realization that steampunk is Victorian sci-fi and it just takes a little time for them to find a part of the 19th century that resonates with them. I do think there is a growing understanding that steampunk doesn't have to be Euro-centric, which I am very happy about as I've been working to make people conscious of multi-cultural steampunk for several years. But in spite of various small changes, I think the steampunk community is still the same bunch of history-loving fans of the 19th century that it's always been, albeit much larger.
For some of the pillars of steampunk art, such as Datamancer and Jake Von Slatt, I see the future as being just another day. Whether their art is called steampunk, retro, or "purple monkey dishwasher" by the popular world, it will still speak for itself and will still be awesome five, ten, and fifty years from today.
However, I am starting to see the glut happening, when "steampunk" is no longer a genre, but a marketing term; a time when people are striving for the bare-minimum and hoping that the steampunk label in itself will keep their work afloat.
Will the diversity of the genre help it survive regardless of the community (sidestepping its current definition as a "trend"), or will the diversity dilute the core concepts that brought the community together in the first place?
Well, at this stage I think it's inevitable that steampunk will eventually become the new buzzword to sell things (in a subculture sense it already is: lots of people are adding steampunk to various products and events to get more attention for them). There's already a big push toward vintage fashion in mainstream stores, which I think is definitely related to the work of steampunk artists and clothing designers. But I think it's important to remember that while a subculture going mainstream is unfortunate, it's not the end of the world (or the subculture).
Steampunk has the fairly unique advantage of having a small set of core components (the time period, the Victorian aesthetic, the relationship to 19th century technology, etc.) which establishes its identity, and then the freedom to explore the massive number of possibilities presented by the intersection of these core components. So when steampunk as a term goes mainstream, there will still be some core aesthetic qualities that steampunk fans can use to gauge whether something really is part of the genre and subculture or whether it's just an attempt to tack the name on to something else. I think having those core components will allow the community to remain stable enough for newcomers to identify what is "real" versus what is "market," which will allow the steampunk community to grow, expand and avoid stagnation without losing its sense of identity. Certainly, some people will insist that "steampunk is dead" and leave because it's "gone mainstream," but I'm willing to guess that most people with that mindset are interested in steampunk because it's a subculture trend, not because it's steampunk. Meanwhile, people who like steampunk for steampunk's sake will keep enjoying it, even if they get frustrated at times with "Walmart steampunk" popping up from time to time.
Where do you see yourself and the rest of the steampunk community going in the future?
Given that steampunk is only one of the genres that I write in, I certainly expect to be doing other things as well in the future (I predict that Mod spy-fi is going to be the next big trend, which is great because I love "The Avengers"), but I also expect to continue writing and working with steampunk for as long as there are people interested in my steampunk work.
I think it's probably inevitable that people will start trying to find ways to sub-divide steampunk just like previous subcultures have been divided up. We'll probably see more or less recognizable groups of High Victorians, Edwardians, Dickensians, Doughboys, Wild Westers, etc. We may very well see a growth in interest about the Great Game and all manner of steampunk spies. A sub-community will probably form around people who enjoy mixing various fashions and fabrics from different 19th century cultures. I still believe that the community as a whole will retain its cohesion, but as it gets larger and people become more aware of the incredible depth and breadth of the steampunk genre we will probably see more people grouping together with other enthusiasts who share their more specific interests.
And so long as everyone still gets along and talks to one another, I don't have a problem with that. As steampunk is in many ways an artist trend, I do hope that the various steampunk artists, designers, tailors and craftspeople will be able to support themselves by their art, which they will naturally need the steampunk community's support to do.
I've been following the works in your "Cities of Ether" setting, including your work at Tor.com (especially "The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday"). What are your plans for expanding the Cities of Ether, and is it connected in any way to the upcoming AIR (Aerial Steampunk RPG) project?
The Cities of Ether is my main steampunk setting, though I do have a couple of others as well (namely the retro-futurist adventure setting in "An Unfortunate Engagement
" and "The Mask of Tezcatlipoca
," but also another one I'm working on based on the history of the Great Game).
I think Cities of Ether is best described as a sort of Edwardian X-Files, especially the Salmagundi stories like "The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday
." The basic premise is a sort of deep space sci-fi environment, except that it is built on the concept of space as ether, so it has an atmosphere and the cities and ether ships are open rather than pressurized environments. The aesthetic of the Cities of Ether is roughly that of the 1890s through the 1910s and it explores the lives of the people living in this environment. The Salmagundi stories especially have a very strong noir and vintage weird fiction feel, sort of in the manner of Sherlock Holmes meets Algernon Blackwood or H. P. Lovecraft.
The Cities of Ether is completely unrelated to the AIR video game, although I do expect that fans of the one will enjoy the other as well. They're two very different and unique approaches to steampunk in both tone and world structure, and I think each is going to help expand the general understanding of just how much you can do within the steampunk genre.
At the moment my agent (who works with Dystel and Goderich Literary Management) is shopping around a full-length Cities of Ether novel, so I hope to have that available in the next year or two. In addition, I'm continuing to write short fiction in the setting. While the novel and some of the short fiction will continue to explore the lives of the Salmagundi characters found in "Salad Monday," I also plan to put out some fiction dealing with the other cities. I'm very pleased to say that Salmagundi is part of a much larger world, and I'd like to make other parts of that world available to my readers.
Speaking of the future, let's focus on your jet setting. You're certainly a writer with many prestigious credits notched on your pen, but you're also desired throughout the States as a voice for steampunk.
With your appearances at Dragon-Con, Wicked Faire, and the upcoming Steampunk World's Fair in NJ, what else is in store for GD Falksen in the coming months?
I'll also be appearing at as Guest of Honor at the World Steam Expo
in Michigan this spring.
I am a blogger for Tor.com
, though I write about more than just steampunk for them.
I have a non-fiction piece on steampunk appearing in the program of the Steampunk Exhibition
"The Strange Case of Mr. Salad Monday
" is being reprinted in the "Steampunk Reloaded
" anthology, coming out this Fall.
And there are a number of other events I may be appearing at as the year progresses.
Besides your own work, where else should we be looking to see the next wave of steampunk art and writing? Can you recommend any other artists or websites that should be demanding our attention?
I'd like to give a nod to the steampunk role-playing game "Unhallowed Metropolis
" (which, on a side note, is actually responsible for bringing steampunk to the Seattle area). It's an extremely well-composed game with an incredible and well thought-out setting. The writers and artists they have working with them are extremely talented.
Richard Nagy (aka Datamancer
) should need no introduction, but he definitely deserves another plug as one of the top steampunk craftsmen.
I hear rumors that Kit Stølen (better known as Anachronaut
) may be coming out with a steampunk clothing line next year.
and Retroscope Fashions
are still two of the top places to get steampunk clothing and accessories from.
Hopefully everyone is aware of Jay Lake's steampunk novels
in the Mainspring trilogy, but if not he should definitely be looked into.
And of course, keep an eye open for AIR
as more information on it is released. I'm extremely proud of my writing team, and our artists are very talented. I hope the project jumpstarts them to do more steampunk work themselves.
There's a lot of artist potential out there, and I think we'll see the next generation of steampunk writers and artists come into the light in the next couple of years.
At Dieselpunks, our goal is to unite the 'punk communities so that we can be inspired and supported by our international brothers and sisters. What can we do to help promote you and your work?
If you like my work, please let other people know about it, especially online. I love seeing reviews of my work because it means my story was worth the time the reader spent not only reading my story but writing about it. There's this strange phenomenon I encounter where people will tell me in person that they love my work, but they don't tell other people to read it. And unfortunately, word of mouth is extremely important to the spread of a writer's work.
You can learn more about GD Falksen at Tor.com
Portrait of GD by Tarilyn Quinn