Di Filippo’s Aura
If you read steampunk, you’ve read Paul Di Filippo, whose Steampunk Trilogy is one of the cornerstones of the genre as we understand it today. I set out to write this blog entry because I have lots to say about the Steampunk Trilogy, but in the process of doing my research I fell in love with a writer I know only from his words and a large collection of art he has crafted that I will probably never see in its original form. Basking in the aura (the unreproducible essence) of the original art work, is important because Di Filippo is a steampunk man, even when he’s writing erotic sci-fi like A Mouthful of Tongues. What I would give to be the recipient of a small package from Di Filippo, which come decorated with some or all of the following poetic elements:
“silly, subtle, crass, sublime, banal and bizarre visual non-sequiteurs.
Dance-step diagrams juxtaposed with salacious 'sixties-era Playboy comic captions.
Well-oiled vixens pasted into position, leering out of potbelly stoves
advertised in yellowing,
105-year-old fin de siecle catalogues
of cast-iron medical devices.
Farm animals debating pharmaceutical inserts
warning of curious side effects.
Ludicrous labor-saving inventions,
coupled with comic-book word bubbles carefully excised
from casually pornographic German public health advisories.
Max Fleischer's manic sensibilities
invested onto miniature television screens advertising
A Whole New Ewe.”
Since it seems unlikely that Di Filippo will ever send me one of his wondrous packages, I’ll have to settle for becoming the proud owner of one of his limited-edition collectors books like Spondulix or most recently, Cosmocopia, a short novel about a man who finds that his rejuvenation serum moves him into an alternate universe. These books are produced in limited editions – 300, 500 – about as many as a monk working alone or with just one assistant could produce in a monastery with manual or mechanical tools. It’s the essence of steampunk: the emphasis on craft, on beauty as well as function, on rareness if not complete uniqueness. Cosmocopia comes packaged with a puzzle. Form follows function; at its heart the novel is about the differences between representational and non-representational art.
Irreverent Reverence: Walt and Emily
Di Filippo’s writing is whimsical, philosophical, erotic and humorous by turns. For the funny look no further than his blog reflections on the state of sci-fi events, usually published on April first.
Whenever I need a good laugh I re-read Audrey Niffenegger Subject of Congressional Hearings,
And wish that the scenario in which Google goes back in time to scan the lost library of Alexandria was real. Time travel has been a preoccupation of Di Filippo’s, for example in his novel Creature from the Black lagoon (2006), in which the hero travels back in time in order to solve the mystery of the creature’s origins.
One of Di Filippo’s most paradoxical qualities is the way he combines reverence with irreverence. One of his favorite tropes is to combine an homage of the work of other writers with a complete re-imagining of those writers’ lives – Phillip K. Dick as a hardware store salesman married to Linda Ronstadt; Henry Miller as a messenger for Western Union
Or, in the third novella of the Steampunk Trilogy, Walt and Emily, Walt Whitman’s howling body electric collides with The Belle of Amherst’s reserve and leads to Dickinson giving birth to Allan Ginsberg – or rather, an alien, doppleganger of Alan Ginsberg in an alternate reality that is only reachable in a ship fuelled by the aetheric milk from the breasts of a fake medium. The story is much more rewarding if the reader is at least passingly familiar with the work of all three writers. Here is a taste of it:
In this scene, Dickinson's "Universe Entire" is disrupted by a naked Whitman bathing in her rain barrel and singing his body electric:
All belathered, the giant paused now. He lifted his frothed arms up toward the new sun, as if in welcome to a brother. Then, shattering the matitutinal stillness (and whatever remained of Emily’s composure!) he loudly declaimed, “Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of every man hearty and clean! Not an inch or a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest!.” (p. 241)
The second novella in the trilogy, Hottentots, deconstructs the mindset of of the Age of Darwin while giving us a glimpse inside the mind of a scientist who could have written the textbook on creationism. Louis Agassiz, Swiss naturalist and white supremacist, has been invited to America to potentially lead a department of natural history at Harvard. However his world is slowly unraveled by a Frenchman and his Hottentot wife who make it clear, to us, if not to Agassiz, that the world runs on passion as well as pontification, its foundations are built on rumor as well as on the provable, on revelation as well as what can be empirically determined. Di Filippo describes Agassiz in a way that treats us to the assumptions of manifest destiny and phrenology combined:
The tide of his still dark hair, now ebbing slightly, revealed a highly philosophical brow. (Samuel George Morton, distinguished Philadelphia colleague of Agassiz had estimated his peer’s cranial capacity at 115 cubic inches, plainly above average for a specimen of the white race ((and hence for all races, white representing the pinnacle of creation)), and Morton, although he had refrained from revealing his desire, had already made plans to secure Agassiz’ skull for his immense collection, should he, Agassiz, chance to perish before Morton himself…) (P. 86)
It’s a short leap from Agassiz, the short-sighted scientist who sacrifices all he holds most dear on the altar of his own arrogance, to Cowperthwait, the naturalist and biologist who creates a new life form by combining the growth hormones from a newt with human cadaver parts and ends up with a creature that looks remarkably like the young Queen Victoria, though it is hard to tell which has the stronger sex drive. The story begins with a description of the hero's, Cosmo Cowperthwait’s, overly mechanized desk:
Beneath the nib at the end of its long arm of rods was a canted pallet. The pallet rode on an intricate system of toothed tracks mounted atop the desk, and was advanced by a handcrank on the left. A roll of paper protruded from cast-iron brackets at the head of the pallet. The paper, coming down over the writing surface, was taken up by a roller at the bottom of the pallet. This roller was also activated by the hand-crank, in synchrony with the movment of the pallet across the desk.
In the knee well of the large desk was a multi-gallon glass jug full of ink, resting on the floor. From the top of the stoppered jug rose an India-rubber hose, which traveled upward into the brass tubing and thence to the nib. A foot-activated pump forced the ink out of the bottle and into the system at an appropriate rate.
Fitted into the center of this elaborate writing mechanism was the ingenious and eccentric engine that drove it.
Cosmo Cowperthwait. (p.7-8)
Each one of these stories is a seminal work of steampunk in its own right. It would take a blog of immense proportions to describe every way in which this book has set the standard for what came after. For now I’ll focus on one: Di Filippo’s take on the half-human, half-manufactured variant of the automata. The newt-Victoria is the role model for many such characters, from Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, whose eponymous character is a sex toy for the rich that turns out to have a real mind of her own, to the monstrous products of the villain combining parts of human victims and machines at that appear at the end of Nathalie Gray’s Mechanical Rose, to Blaylock’s eternal Homunculus circling the world in his flying machine. All of these automata owe a debt of inspiration to Marcel Duchamp’s artwork The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even an artwork Duchamp began in 1913, at the tail end of the era of Steam. What characterizes Duchamp’s work is that the “bride” is more machine than human, agonizingly desired by the nine bachelors yearning for her from the lower panel as she floats or hangs crucified (depending on your interpretation) above their heads. The piece is usually interpreted as being about how male and female desire are complicated by each other. But no one has ever asked the obvious question: why does the female have to be half machine? This is not about the desire of males for real females, but of males for fantasy females; extensions of their libidinous fantasies and incarnations of the limits to their states of mind.
The Tropes of Steampunk
When listing the elements that make steampunk steampunk, brass goggles and dirigibles are always mentioned, but few examine steampunk as a state of mind. And yet it is precisely the limitations of our mindsets that seminal steampunk authors like Di Filippo explore so masterfully. I like Katharine Mills take on it:
Welcome to steampunk. You probably don't remember, but the 19th century was much like the 20th -- a period of faster-than-the-naked-eye change, and galloping technological advances. Forget nostalgia; Di Filippo has caught the spirit of an age that looked forward, a cutting-edge wrapped in corsets and bustle. …don't think this is mere history. This is better.
This is the heart of it. The Victorians feared that their (usually repressed) inner passions would take them over. They believed that just beneath every human’s skin is a beast chafing at the bit to get out. Darwin’s theory of evolution fanned this nagging flame of fear into a roaring fire and gave us Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein and many male heroes who were overcome by their lust. (Gail Carriger takes on this Victorian viewpoint in her trilogy that starts with Soulless, but that is the subject for another article).
In the twentieth century we feared turning into machines. We feared that our souls – that thing we have that proves that Darwin’s theories don’t apply to us – could be removed from us by evildoers or our own doings and be imprisoned in some kind of container – the ghost in the machine – the animate doll – or that post-modern horcrux – the computer.
The automata of steampunk combine both these sets of fears. We are all as bionic as the dirigible whale of Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan: our functionality improved through the application of modern science, better parts grown for us in a test tube or remade for us out of aritificial materials. We now embrace the enhanced libido that comes with combining the humans with the animal, as well as the increased strength and lifespan.
Di Filippo’s novella Victoria is probably the best known of this trilogy and perhaps of all his work precisely because it set the standard for steampunk automata as well as articulating the parameters in which steampunk automata operate. His newt Victoria looks so much like the Queen that she is able to take her place, freeing up the monarch to explore her social environment and sexuality from the privacy of a bordello.
Some critics of Bacigalupi’s Nebula-award winning The Windup Girl have complained about the heroine being an artificially created sex toy, especially since she is Japanese. But the Windup Girl is in many ways an hommage and extension of The Steampunk Trilogy: it consists of three rather separate stories which Bacigalupi has interwoven into one with gossamer thin connections; there are three lead characters of nearly equal weight, and experimentation with DNA, both plant and animal, is the order of the day.
Di Filippo himself has said that
“Steampunk comes in two forms: humorous fantasies and hardcore technological extrapolations. I’ve only written the former kind, and need to have a go at the latter.”
In addition to the Steampunk Trilogy, Di Filippo has written some steampunk short stories, two of which can be found here: A Partial and Conjectural History of Dr. Mueller's Panoptical Cartoon Engine and a story about a character who sleeps his way through the animated world of Little Nemo.