I met Van at Seton Hill where we instantly clicked and became intellectual lovers, which is like real lovers, but without the sex. Or the knowing each other very well. Okay, mostly we just get excited by the same things. Which is basically the same as being in love.
Van Essler is a yoga junkie with a tarot collection who makes friends with her dreams, whether they are sweet reveries or nightmares. She won the Founder’s Award from the Professional Writers of Prescott for fiction and has publications in Story Emporium Magazine, Zimbell house anthologies, and Z-composition.
Her story “Chasing the Eleusinian” is a play on the girl pretending to be a cabin boy trope only it happens on an airship with some steampunked Greek mythology flair.
According to Van:
Jess Nevins once said “Steampunk is what happens when goths discover brown” and I am that goth.
I have always been fascinated by the Victorian era. The period’s corsets and etiquette in a sharp contrast to harsh realities of the Industrial Revolution had an irresistible allure. I discovered Bram Stoker’s Dracula at thirteen, and immediately dove into research of anything Victorian and dark, from Jack the Ripper to arsenic green dye.
About ten years ago, I read my first steampunk in the way of short fiction in an online zine. I was instantly sucked in by the Victorian aesthetic, but even more entranced with how the authors used the steam technology in the stories. Inspiration struck, and I just had to write the Steampunk stories that flooded my head. It was kismet.
My top five Steampunk influences are:
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest – a mesmerizing steampunk novel featuring a strong female protagonists and zombies in early Seattle.
Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeves – Seriously, cities eating cities. What else can I say but I love the whole concept of this novel.
Lady of Devices by Shelley Adina – An amazing tale with a smart and strong female protagonist utilizing her inventive skills in the mean streets of London.
The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – An exploration into an alternative Victorian world where the computer has been invented, complete with mystery/thriller fast paced plot.
Howls Moving Castle directed by Hayao Miyazaki – A brilliant film that mixes a Steampunk Edwardian aesthetic with witches and sorcerers. If you have kids, this is a great one to cuddle up on the couch and watch with them.
[Behind the scenes, L.J. says: Damn it, that counts? I want Howl’s on my list too. That’s a great film.
Van: It should be on your list! I love that movie on so many levels. It really shows how versatile the genre can be.
L.J.: But I published my list last week…
Van: But isn’t this like three weeks in advance.
L.J.: Anyways, what the Hell is Steampunk?]
As a formal definition, I would say that Steampunk is speculative fiction set in Victorian or Edwardian periods, often alternative versions on those times, that reflect the values and challenges of those eras. Typically, the steam technology of the time period is changed to retro-futuristic imaginings or there are variations to the recorded timeline with alternative historical events. Steampunk has also morphed into an aesthetic—a sort of vibe or style that can apply to any story. If it has brass goggles and airships, more than likely it will be considered steampunk.
I feel that so much of the Victorian time period mirrors today’s society; both eras had rapid jumps in technology that drastically alter their culture. Steampunk speaks to me as a writer as a way to explore our current world by pulling from that rich history. Also, the amount of delightful world-building and researching I get to embark on is a perk.
[L.J.: Perk for you, torture for me, lady. You can keep it.
Van: C’mon, you know you can’t resist the research rabbit hole.
L.J.: I can and I will.
Van: Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought it back.
L.J.: *Mutters and growls with incoherent annoyance, then returns to research Prussian wigs.*]
Steampunk resonates with audiences on a nostalgic level as well as feeling aligned with our current world. There’s something so appealing about a past we feel a part of and yet have never seen. I also think that much of the steam-powered technology of Steampunk feels more human in a sense. Cogs and gears assembled to run a device seem far more accessible to us than motherboards and microchips. We can create and put together the parts of Steampunk, while the overly sleek and perfect technology of today is beyond the capabilities of our own hands.
The conflicts of the Victorian era are ripe to twist and bend into bleak societies. Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines has cities literally eating each other for survival, which feels ten shades of dystopic from the first line. Of course, I probably notice the more dystopian works within the subgenre due to my preference of darker themed fiction.
I’ve never been the utopic type of storyteller. I’m always far more interested in characters that face obstacles not only on a personal level, but must overcome the hand dealt to them by the world they live in. I’m sure others would argue they prefer to focus on an individual’s struggle in a society that runs pretty much like clockwork (pun intended), and they should. The more variation we can creatively explore, the better. As for me, I’ll keep to the shadows.
Which is why my most recent Steampunk story “Chasing the Eleusinian” is a little dark. It’s a short story mixing airships with a bit of Greek Mythology. Sam, a girl disguised as a cabin boy aboard The Dire Crimson, sails the skies in search of the legendary Eleusinian ship run with automations. But if she can’t keep her gender concealed from the misogynist first mate, her sky faring days will abruptly end.
You can find Van’s story here.
The Fantasist is a quarterly online magazine that publishes three original Fantasy novellas on the third Thursday of every third month.
And this month, while they celebrate Steampunk, one of them is mine!