Bullspec interview (from Summer 2010)

For those who haven’t seen this, here’s an interview I did by e-mail with Sam Montgomery-Blinn for the Summer 2010 issue of Bullspec. It’s mostly about The Dream of Perpetual Motion, but other subjects show up, too.

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Interview by Samuel Montgomery-Blinn

How long have you been working on the story behind The Dream of Perpetual Motion, and what made this the right time and the right story for you to tell in your first novel?

I started working on the novel in 1996. I got the idea for the setting when doing research for a paper I was writing in grad school on H. G. Wells—when I was searching through the library stacks for secondary material, I came across a book called Futuredays: A Nineteenth-Century Vision of the Year 2000. It’s basically what it’s advertised to be: reproductions of a collection of French cigarette cards, illustrated by artist Jean Marc Côté in 1899 and depicting his whimsical idea of what life would be like a hundred years later. Some of his predictions are dead-on: for instance, an image of a man who receives up-to-date news reports via audio recording. But some are hilariously inaccurate, like an illustration of a family warming itself at a fireplace that has not wood in it, but a hunk of radium sitting on a pedestal.

I thought it would be fun to set a novel in that world—essentially, an alternate version of history in which the science is sometimes egregiously incorrect. But I also thought that writing a story there would somehow dovetail neatly with ideas I was thinking of that would turn out to be part of my dissertation research—basically, questions of whether a given text has a single best meaning that’s intended to be ferreted out by the reader, or whether a text is an inert, meaningless object that doesn’t have any sense to it at all until a reader interprets it, or whether the truth is somewhere in between. More importantly: is it in the power of mass communication technologies to change the answers to those questions? Consider how many texts we see these days are mass-produced: even the most intimate sentiments can be professed (or signified) by the purchase of a greeting card in a drugstore. If that’s the case, how does that change the nature and the status of our affections? Does such a culture make it impossible to express genuine emotions, or is that just an unjustified Luddite’s fear? Or is the truth somewhere in between?

Are you happy with your book being labeled as being “steampunk”? What does that word mean to you?

When I started writing this novel, fourteen years ago, steampunk wasn’t the big thing it is now: not only was it far less well-known, with far fewer works to its name, but its meaning was far more restricted. I doubt that in the ‘90s, people would have looked at a book like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s excellent novel The Difference Engine and a book like The Dream of Perpetual Motion (had it been complete) and said that they were in the same subgenre; I also doubt that anyone would have called Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea “steampunk” back then, though it’s regularly referred to as that now.

I would say that in the intervening years between when I started the book and when it was published, steampunk has undergone an expansion of meaning, much like the expansion of meaning that the term “cyberpunk” underwent in the 80s and 90s as it grew in popularity. At the height of the public’s interest in cyberpunk, scholars, critics, and fans were constantly tagging a variety of disparate works of literature as such in order to bolster claims of the subgenre’s vitality, popularity, and cultural legitimacy. (For instance, I remember critics asserting that Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow is cyberpunk, just as some critics now claim that Pynchon’s Against the Day is steampunk, even though those two books have much more to do with each other, and with Pynchon’s habitual concerns throughout his career, than either of those books has to do with what cyberpunk and steampunk were originally thought of as.)

So to ask whether I’m “happy” with The Dream of Perpetual Motion being labeled as steampunk is perhaps the wrong question—I don’t really feel one way or the other about it, since at this point the term is so inclusive that it’s hard to say what it means, or what it’ll end up meaning. I’m aware that for some people there’s a stigma attached to the term—the feeling among those detractors seems to be that it’s derivative and played out—but concerns about stigma, labeling, and status anxiety are nothing new to SF. You shrug at those and move on.

What ultimately matters are the works themselves, more than the labels that are placed upon them—when steampunk is no longer trendy and fades into obscurity, the works of art that were once considered part of that trend but that are also worthwhile on their own merits will still, I hope, find their readers.

In her review in The Washington Post, Elizabeth Hand called The Dream of Perpetual Motion “an elegy for our own century and the passing of the power of the word, written and spoken.” Do you read your book as an elegy, as a call to arms, or as something else?

I don’t want to get into questions of what my personal interpretation of the work is, since that runs the risk of giving the impression that a certain way of reading the book is “correct.” That said, it’s possible that an elegy can also serve as a call to arms—a requiem for the dead can also represent a future we can work to avoid.

Your background includes “staging the first academic conference ever held at an Ivy League university on the subject of video games.” How do video games and fiction borrow from each other, or is it a mistake to so strictly separate the two?

I see video games borrowing more from narrative fiction than the other way around at this point (with the exception of some summer movies—CGI spectacles can seem to me like watching someone else play a video game on a really nice setup). Video games as a medium are still (I believe) in their infancy, and so their narrative beats are still a lot like the narrative beats of books and movies—in most cases, we still have to pause in the middle of what we’re doing to read several blocks of text, or watch a cutscene. There are a few games I’ve played that almost completely integrate narrative and gameplay into a successful hybrid, though—Ico and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne among them. But I’m coming to think the drive to include narrative makes games suffer more often than not.

You’ve revealed through your Twitter feed your continued interest in gaming, from “enjoying” Nintendo’s DSi XL, to complaining about the reticence of “video game final final bosses [to] ever reveal their super-powerful ‘true form’” and characterizing the Hades area of God of War as “actually malicious.” How did your passion for games start, and what makes a game hold your interest?

How did my passion for games start? With the original Bard’s Tale game from Interplay, which I played on the Commodore 64. I spent much of a summer between school years making maps of its dungeons and towers on quadrille paper.

What makes a game hold my interest? Any of a number of things. I like fully realized game worlds, for one, but those are so prohibitively expensive to create that they’re few are far between (and so time-consuming for me that I have to restrict myself to one of those games every year or so). I spent a lot of time with Fallout 3 last year—I wasn’t interested in the plot, really, but I liked wandering around the landscape with my character, doing occasional sidequests and looking at things. I’m looking forward to getting into Red Dead Redemption, but haven’t had time yet.

I’m also a sucker for almost anything that involves leveling up characters and tweaking statistics. (Like many, I’ve lost hundreds of hours to Diablo II.) I also like games that have elaborate menus; I like character screens with lots and lots of numbers. I’ve played several of the Nippon Ichi games (Disgaea; Phantom Brave; Makai Kingdom; etc.). They’re basically like playing spreadsheets—their mechanics are like parodies of the mechanics of other RPGs—but if that’s the sort of thing you like, they can be ridiculously engaging.

Games of world conquest like Civilization and Europa Universalis also scratch that same itch for me, if I’m in the mood for something more intellectually challenging.

And I like games without any pretense to narrative, games that tend toward abstraction. The choice to abandon narrative entirely can free a game to do things it couldn’t achieve otherwise. I really enjoyed Demon’s Souls last year, which has almost no narrative at all. No cutscenes to get in the way; no interruptions to gameplay so the boss can explain his motivation for evil. But it’s genuinely terrifying at points, in a way that I didn’t think a video game could be to an adult. The near-total absence of narrative works to make the game completely immersive.

You’ve been blogging your way through the La Fura Dels Baus staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle for Tor.com. Giant robots and cranes? Is this steampunk on stage or something much more strange?

I just finished watching the final act of the final opera in that cycle, and… I’m not sure what it is! But I liked the experience of viewing it, and I can see myself watching it again. It was sort of a re-imagining of Wagner’s series of operas (which are themselves based on German myths and folktales) as science fiction, and it was notable for its use of iconography lifted from science fiction movies—Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, of course, but also Star Wars and (I’m pretty sure) Battlefield Earth. It didn’t always work well for me as a staging (though the performances were excellent). But when I was annoyed by it, I was annoyed in interesting ways, and I appreciate that. Many SF and fantasy movies borrow from Wagner liberally in their scores, so an SF version of the Ring can be seen as returning the favor, in a way.

What’s next, after 14 years of “Perpetual Motion”?

I’m working on another novel, slowly but surely. I don’t want to say much about it now, except that it’s not going to be much like The Dream of Perpetual Motion—the setting’s different, and it’s turning out to pose a different set of challenges for me. It’s taking me in new directions, and after having spent an awfully long time with my first novel, it’s nice to stretch a bit and change things up. ■

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