Mark Twain’s Town Discovers Steampunk

I recently returned from a Mark Twain conference in Hannibal, MO, and I noticed a change in Twain’s hometown since the last time I was there in 2011.

There’s a lot more steampunk stuff.

The town is already a tourist destination, with several blocks restored to their 1840s-era look. Twain’s home, his father’s law office, the homes of citizens who inspired characters like Huckleberry Finn and Becky Thatcher are all standing.

With all the original architecture, it’s a logical place for steampunk gatherings.  Twain’s home in Connecticut, for example, already hosts steampunk-themed events.

In just four years, however, it seems Hannibal has embraced steampunk in a big way.  The store at the Mark Twain Museum Shop features a steampunk window display, including a poster for an annual Labor Day weekend convention: the Big River Steampunk Convention. Check out the Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher armed with clockwork ray-guns in the image on the right!

museumstore  festivalsmall

The Boyhood Home Museum has steampunk paper dolls and jewelry, with the sign below for explanation to literary tourists unfamiliar with the genre.


The photo below is from Mrs. Clemens Antique Shop.  They have an entire area of Victorian-era clothing and steampunk gadgets.


So what do I make of this?  It’s probably just another example of how mainstream steampunk has become.

But it’s also a great example of an existing 1800s-era historical site connecting with existing fandom in a logical, synergistic way.

The conference itself was excellent. The online PDF schedule on the conference site lists all the presentations and presenters, a fine collection of Mark Twain scholars from academia and beyond.

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Tor’s “David Bowie is Sci-Fi and Fantasy”

I’m providing a link to this awesome article by Bridget McGovern about David Bowie’s influence on F&SF.

It does a great job of nailing latter-day Bowie references in The Venture Bros. and Neil Gaiman’s work.  The list of his supporting roles alone makes it worth the read: Tesla, Pontius Pilate, Andy Warhol… does any actor have a better list?

And, yes, the article also features links to Flight of the Conchords’ “Bowie’s in Space” video.

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Mystery Science Theater and the Replacements

I just read a great post on the Replacements/Paul Westerberg facebook page with a connection between my favorite band and science fiction.

Filmmaker Hansi Oppenheimer spoke to Joel Hodgson, creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Apparently, Hodgeson told her he followed the Replacements’ “business model.”

Both the band and the TV show came out of Minneapolis.  There were at least two references to Replacements members in the banter between robots Crow and Tom Servo during the show’s run.

If we look at the ‘Mats and MST3K, it’s clear there are similarities.  Shoestring budgets.  Seemingly seat-of-the-pants decision making.  An ability to blend really dumb humor with smart, insightful humor.  The Replacements business model isn’t about mainstream success as much as redefining the definition of “successful.”

Oppenheimer co-wrote and produced the excellent Replacements documentary “Color Me Obsessed.” Her new film is going to be about women in fandom entitled “SQUEE!”  Sounds cool based on this interview.  She really understands fan culture, so I’m sure it’ll be great.

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Mark Twain “Travel and Technocracy” Class at UC Davis

The course announcement for my UC Davis “Studies in an Individual Author” class on Mark Twain went live a few weeks ago.  I’m posting the link and a screen clip here.

We’re focusing on travel and technocracy, especially stories where travelers assume superiority over their hosts because their real/perceived advantages in technology.  We’ll cover Huck Finn (travel and the promise of freedom), move to A Connecticut Yankee (travel and the use of technology as coercive force), and Tom Sawyer Abroad (Twain’s subversive take on technocratic dime novels), and read Twain’s non-fiction for context.

The course will be during Summer Session II through the Department of English at UC Davis.  We’ll cover three novels and one travel book (with lots of short stories and essay interspersed) in just six weeks!

Twain Travel

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The Book Project

Just a quick update on my book about Edisonades and other proto-SF in American literature.

I’ve taken the last few weeks to revise my revisions before I send out query letters to academic presses. Folks who are familiar with academic publishing know what this entails. Lots of double-checking references to be sure I’m correctly portraying someone else’s arguments, though most of that’s been moved to footnotes. Lots of micro-editing at this stage.

In addition to the manuscript itself, there’s the prospectus, which includes summaries, explanation of the book’s originality and contribution to the field, analysis of competing books on similar topics, and basically a “pitch.” There are a number of helpful sites for writing these things, including Tonya Golash-Boza’s wonderfully titled “Get a Life, Ph.D.”

Back to work.

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Steampunk Links from UC Davis Course

We just finished up this quarter’s Steampunk first-year seminar.  I thought I’d share a screenshot of the class’s SmartSite folder of external links and pictures to give a taste of what the students examined.

Steampunk SmartSite


As you can see, we read articles from the New York Times and Beyond Victoriana, along with essays on real-life figures such as Verne’s hero Nadar and morality cop Anthony Comstock (who was to 1890s sci-fi dime novels what Fred Wertham was to 1950s comic books).

More fun were the video links.

The clip from Fu Manchu contextualizes “The Doctor” from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  There’s only a shortened version of it on YouTube now, with steampunk laboratory.  The original clip went on to show him brag to his captives about his multiple doctorates from various Western universities (hence, he preferred to be called “Doctor”).

Similarly, the clips of Dr. Jekyll’s transformations to Hyde by John Barrymore (c. 1920) and Fredric March (c. 1931) were fun, esp. since the only transformation in Stevenson’s original is the reverse–Hyde turns back to Jekyll.

The clips from Portlandia and Sir Reginald Pikedevant are good for a laugh.  And we also watched a bit of the first episode of Wild Wild West from the 1960s before watching the 1999’s dismal film adaptation.

These weren’t the only online sources we consulted.  In fact, students brought in their own frequently.  There’s just a ton of steampunk stuff out there.



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Joe Ely and the Question of “Sci-Fi” Country Music

There’s a great article by Dave Heaton of PopMatters about Joe Ely, one of the great Texas songwriters.  Entitled “Do iPhones Dream of Boxcars”, it covers the recently re-released digital recordings Ely did in the 1980s (long after the Flatlanders split and after Ely toured with the Clash) and uses it to ask some questions about SF and country music.  The conclusion is great:

“Change is something country music doesn’t excel at. Change flows slowly, like rivers, like tumbleweeds blowing in slow-motion across the plains. Simply put, is country too reactionary and stand-still a genre for science-fiction, which is by its nature analytical, self-critical and forward-looking? Is that why the country musics that seem most ‘sci-fi’ to me are those most interested in getting more ‘contemporary’ in sound, and moving out of the past?”

Great questions.  It’s definitely an uneasy mix.  For me, SF and country music can work well, but it’s usually best when its not done too literally.  As with rock and roll in general, I’m less interested in someone trying to tell a “sci-fi” narrative, and more interested in someone trying to play with imagery/sounds that evoke a certain feel.  Maybe that’s why surf rock seems more SF to me than Blue Oyster Cult.

Is there sci-fi country music?  Heaton mentions The Highwaymen’s single, which works.  I’d add the Mekons work from the 1980s: “Fear and Whiskey” has that odd blend of compressed drums and guitar distortion with classic country (all sung with a British accent, so much the better).

And SF author Sanford Allen, member of San Antonio band Hogbitch, turned me on to this guy–The Legendary Stardust Cowboy–who (at least in part) inspired rock’s most famous SF persona:

And the totally bizarre story of his influence…

I’ve seen Joe Ely a few times.  The first time was an acoustic tour with John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark.  The last time was in Clear Lake, IA at the Surf Ballroom’s “50 Winters Later” show.

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