Friday, June 22, 2012

Steamy Port Townsend Tales II: The People Behind the Steam

What made the recent Brass Confederacy Steampunk Convention at Port Townsend special was that it was truly a community event, not just another weird geekfest ignored or at best tolerated by the locals.  The volunteers I spoke to over the weekend included members of the Jefferson County Historical Society and other groups that were co-sponsors of the Convention, and the Festival felt like it had the whole town supporting it.

For Teresa Verraes, Executive Director of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, the first challenge to getting the community behind the Festival was explaining what Steampunk was. “When I was talking to the downtown merchants, I said it was like the Victorian Heritage Days and the Kinetic Sculpture Race had a love child and it grew up to be a mad scientist,” she says, referring to two well-established Port Townsend Festivals that run at other times in the year. The result of her outreach was over a dozen original window displays featuring Steampunk throughout the downtown area, including in book stores, jewelers, antique dealers and cafes.

The couple acknowledged as the driving force behind the Brass Screw Confederacy are Cindy and Nathan Barnett, two recent Seattle transplants who took over The Old Consulate Inn, a Victorian B&B, just under a year ago. 

The splendidly atmospheric Old Consulate Inn. Old Consulate not included.

Before I left PT they invited me over for coffee and a chat. I was a little surprised when Cindy met me at the door dressed in a long black skirt and a white blouse that went up to a prim buttoned neck, but I shouldn’t have been; the couple are comfortable in neo-Victorian clothing and Nathan (who sported a natty vest and comfortably rumpled formal shirt and trousers) admitted that it’s pretty much their daily wear.

While both were worn out from the weekend’s festivities, they were also delighted that The Brass Screw Confederacy had been a hit in its “blueprint year.” They had assisted with the Victorian Festival back in the Spring, and their energy and innovations had helped revitalize that event and garnered them enthusiastic cooperation for their own Festival. “The Victorian revival in Port Townsend started in the late ’70s when people were working to revive the town,” explains Nathan. “The trouble is, those original participants are now all older, and they haven’t kept the younger people involved, so it’s become something that they’ve started to avoid. When we got involved I brought in things that were more oriented to general interest, like an exhibition bout of bare-knuckle boxing and period fencing. We even brought down a Gatling gun. Afterwards a lot of younger people told me “you know, I grew up hating Victorian days, but this is actually cool.’”

Yet the couple are both curiously ambivalent about the phrase ‘Steampunk.’ “I hate the word,” admits Nathan. “I don’t do punk. There are parts of the ‘punk’ aesthetic I like, the look of a film like Blade Runner for example, but to me that post-apocalyptic aesthetic isn’t a necessary part of Steampunk. Punk is also an attitude. It’s in your face. I don’t think that the sort of Steampunk that I enjoy is about that. It’s more refined and polite.”

“In that way it’s like this town,” adds Cindy. “Port Townsend has its rough edges and rough people, but any of them will hold the door for you. It’s the most polite town to that I’ve ever known.”

“Though one positive thing about the ‘punk’ in Steampunk is that it lowers the bar for entry,” says Nathan. “Not everyone is going to have formal trousers and vests or corsets and bustles. But I can go shred an old leather jacket and buy a cheap pair of goggles, and there’s my Steampunk costume. So while it’s not my style, I think it’s got validity.”

We discuss neo-Victorianism and living a Steampunk lifestyle. Though both are comfortable in every-day Victorian dress, they don’t describe themselves as neo-Victorian. “We have friends in town who truly live a Victorian lifestyle,” explains Cindy. “She lives corseted, even while she’s biking. They use gas lights and oil lamps, and while their house has electricity, they don’t really use it. In contrast we’re both tech-savvy and appreciate modern conveniences. But at the same time we love the aesthetic.”

They talk about their future plans for the Bed and Breakfast, which thanks to their renovations is already a gorgeous testament to their knowledge and appreciation for all things Victorian, even down to the loving stuffiness of bric-a-brac in the parlor. They explain that eventually it will have a Steampunk den downstairs, and while they’ve been reluctant to cross-promote the Festival and their B&B, they feel grateful that the business and the event inform each other.

While other people may don a bustle or a frock coat for a weekend event like Steamcon, Nathan and Cindy get a chance to live Steampunk in a daily fashion, and it encourages them to look more deeply at the movement than simply costume or reading fiction. “A friend of ours is developing a flying machine, not from a blueprint or a model, but by trying to work out things like gear ratios and speed needed for lift-off,” says Cindy. “I think this is great. Just focusing on your costume sometimes feels very self-involved to me. What we want is not just people walking looking cool, but actively thinking about issues of technology and society.”

Looking back at their own journey into Steampunk, Nathan says he’s surprised at just how much you can live your daily life as fantasy. “There was a time when I was in very much into the Renaissance. My Monday, Thursday and Fridays were fencing long sword, and my Tuesday and Saturday were singing Renaissance drinking songs. Now that we’ve embraced this new form, I teach Victorian combat once a week and get to explore this whole new world. That’s what’s so wonderful to me about all of this. Contrary to what you’re told, you can live your fantasy life. Maybe you won’t be chased by zombies or fall in love once a week, but you can still live the life you dream about in books if you dedicate yourself to it.”

As I left their magnificently Victorian home to return to the bus stop and a trip back to the real world, I realized that for me, this is the beauty of Steampunk: it's a fantasy that’s almost actually accessible, not in faraway lands but just down a street we've not gone down before. Perhaps it's something we’re living today anyway, if we adopt the right perspective. Through the wide eyes of a Victorian inventor, we are living in an astonishing future, where fantasies of flight, instantaneous communication, mechanized labor and even interstellar travel come true. Steampunk wakes us up to the miraculous nature of the time that we are actually living in.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Steamy Port Townsend Tales part 1

So: I spent last weekend over in Port Townsend, a town that has long been a favorite of mine but I now like even more after seeing it through the brass-colored goggles of Steampunk. The event that lured me to town was the inaugural year of the Brass Screw Confederacy, a brand-new Steampunk Convention. And I have to say, Port Townsend has never looked finer.

The brainchild of new PT arrivals Nathan Barnett and Cindy Madsen (now proud proprietors of The Old Consulate Inn Bed and Breakfast, of which more later), the Brass Screw Confederacy was pulled together in a series of months by the newly formed Olympia Peninsula Steam, which is passing along some of the profits to local arts and culture organizations. Though there were only a few events on the calendar, they were well chosen, at least from my perspective: at the Friday evening absinthe tastings I had a wonderful time mingling with other guests in assorted finery, enjoyed the fire dancers, and ended the evening by following the Green Faery with unsteady steps back to my tasteful hotel room at the always-elegant Water Street Hotel.
 Oh yeah. My room. This is how I roll, out of town anyway.

Then on Saturday I dropped by the Bazaar of the Bizarre, which featured tables full of Steampunk merchandise (in some cases somewhat loosely defined--Steampunk preserves, anyone?).

That's STEAMPUNK Dandelion Nectar!
Picked up a new gray cravat for the ensemble, because--well, it's harder to find cravats than you might think. Watched some blacksmithing and daguerreotype processing, and enjoyed the sight of little kids running around wearing top hats and faux brass goggles. Then I headed over to the Key City Cabaret (a fetching little black box theatre) for the scheduled seminars and events. 

The first guest was the major reason I'd come over for the weekend, one of my favorite science fiction writers, Neal Stephenson, reading from one of my favorite of his novels, The Diamond Age. The sartorially elegant Mr. Stephenson read from the novel and engaged in a generous Q&A about some of the themes of that astonishing book and how it relates to Steampunk as fiction and as a movement. It was heartening to hear someone who's done such a superb job of avoiding genre labels in his own career apparently untroubled at his work being taken up by the Steampunk movement. (Even if you think all this Steampunk stuff is some sort of middle-aged derangement on my part, read The Diamond Age. It's a neo-Victorian hearty idea soup about nanotechnology, virtual realities and the revolutionary power of pedagogy, and it's a corker.)

Steamcon founder Diana Vick delivered a great and compact feature on what the well-dressed Steampunk lady is wearing these days. The elegant Ms. Vick is a great ambassador for Steamcon and peppered her presentation with a whole series of amusing anecdotes.

The acts that followed, Professor Payne's Flea Circus and The Shadow Sprites, were both quintessentially delightful. Payne completely reconstructs the old vaudeville Flea Circus act and it's an hilarious and exquisite hour, the sort of entertainment that was once described as "fun for the whole family" before that honorable term was copyrighted by Disney (your check is in the mail, Mouse lawyers). And the Shadow Sprites? All I can tell you is if you ever get a chance to see them, do. Like everyone in the audience I thought that the old fashioned 3D red/blue glasses I was given when I came in to confront a white screen were a joke. But then the music came on, and the shadows behind the screen became three-dimensional creatures before our eyes. Absolutely astonishing, and in our sensation-saturated age an honest-to-god novelty. I hope to steal this wonderful idea some day and make millions.

The evening ended with a Steampunk Hootenany at the American Legion Hall, where the assembled throng was an elegant answer to the question "What's Steampunk, anyway?" (Almost every person I talked to admitted that they hadn't even known what Steampunk was until a week or two before, but thanks to some internet research they'd figured what to buy, what to pull from the closet, and here they were!)

I also got wonderful answers to my eternal question: "what do you think of Steampunk?" My favorite answer came from a young guy working Security who'd grown up in Port Townsend. He admitted that he'd gotten pretty bored with the annual Victorian days celebration, and said that this was one of the first times he'd seen an event where both the young and the old in town had come together and shared interests. (In fact he said "partied like it was Saturday night," which it was and they were.)

More on the Brass Screw Confederacy soon--including zombies vs. steampunks, beautiful books, and my visits with several of the folks who dreamed it all up and made it happen.

I am a visitor to your adorable Victorian town. Kindly direct me towards the absinthe.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Boyproof Watch: Conclusion

(hey friends: and here's where it all wraps up. It's been a fun experiment writing a serial, and while I'd do some things differently next time, I've been enjoying seeing where the story has gone--including a few places that I hadn't expected! Thanks to those of you who've written with comments and suggestions. Keep them coming!)


When Maskelyne woke the next day it was late morning so he sent an order to his kitchen for brunch, an order he had to eventually give to his clock in diagram form. Nevertheless the kitchen staff succeeded in the unorthodox task admirably, and as he polished off the last bit of smoked salmon frittata and crisp bacon he momentarily considered making brunch a regular feature.

On leaving his house he considered not activating his garden sentinels, but decided that it was best to do so. His enemy must not suspect the trap, so as near as he could he would stick to his routine.

It was Monday and his absence had created piles of work but he could scarcely concentrate on any of it. Invoices, playbill design, construction and repair orders were all scanned then pushed aside. He left his office and sought out Mirch, demanding his assistant give him a complete tour of the backstage and a progress report from all the mechanics. His staff was flustered and unprepared but though he scowled he really had little interest in their mistakes, so while his questions were pointed he gave no reprimands. At 4:40 when he held the daily meeting with his staff his distraction was obvious, and it was the gossip of the company after his departure.

As he approached his front door he could hear the sound of his hallway alarm bell insistently ringing, but he entered at a steady pace. He didn’t even bother to open up the cabinet and see where the security had been breached. He merely doffed his coat and hat, took his gin and tonic from the coat rack, and walked upstairs, his excitement growing with each step.

The first thing he noticed was that again the Aetheric Navigator had been moved on the workbench, and now the lights on its console were blinking erratically. His visitor had begun here, further meddling with the mechanism. He moved it aside impatiently.

The box with the Boyproof Watch was gone. He brought his hands together in a satisfactory clasp. He hadn’t dared hope that his unseen nemesis would act so quickly, but now that he had, he felt like a celebration. He practically danced down the stairs to his study, drained off his drink, and instructed the coat rack to fetch him another. He went on to enjoy a particularly fine Bordeaux that night from his cellars.

That night Maskelyne lay in bed smiling and imagining his enemy’s fascination and frustration with his “gift.” Given the skill that the boy had already demonstrated in eluding his sentinels and breaking into his home multiple times, he was certain that he’d be doing more than dropping the watch down some stairs or prying at it with a jackknife. He thought back on his own childhood exercises in destruction, how he’d studied levers, pry bars, screws and joints in his attempt to crack open any number of items. He had to hand it to the boy: he suspected him of an even greater talent for mischief than he had had as a child.

But talent enough to open the watch? He doubted it. Even Maskelyne himself with his workshop, with forge, presses, weights and drills, would find opening the casing a daunting task. And he had enough faith in his own skill as a watchmaker to know that nothing short of this, not fire, water nor lightning, could otherwise disturb its mechanism.

He fell to sleep to the reassuring tick of his bedside clock.

The weeks passed without event. The silver bell in the hall was silent and his work went undisturbed, with no further disturbances at his house nor any items in the newspaper regarding children and explosions. Soon Maskelyne had returned to his work and his routine.

By December the events of the autumn were a vague memory. The Egyptian Fortuneteller was back at his post, gears and workings replaced, and more popular than ever, thanks to certain adjustments that his creator had made which allowed it to stroke its crepe beard meditatively. In fact Maskelyne’s creative mind had been rejuvenated by the contest, and he had constructed a new act for the Theatre, a trapeze troupe of mechanicals who executed aerial somersaults and pirouettes of such exquisite flawlessness that he had been threatened with legal action from two local circuses claiming unfair competition.

His sole mechanical frustration was the Aetheric Navigator, which ever since its last visit from his adversary had taken to flashing its lights in a steady yet meaningless sequence not corresponding at all to the code he had developed for calculating astral longitude and latitude. Until he could determine how to fix it he banished the mechanism to the basement.

Then one late afternoon the week before Christmas he came up the snowy path to his front door and saw by the porch light a small box covered in silver paper. Leading to, and away, from the box were small shoe prints in the snow.

He left the package where it was, and switching on his electric torch followed the trail. It weaved through the grounds until it intersected with the sculpture of a winsome badger. Beneath the badger was a small pool of blood, and its razor-sharp teeth were red and still wet. From here the footsteps were shadowed by a separate trail of drops of red. He followed these to a section of the perimeter gate. Bending close, he saw that that there was a curve in the metal ornamental juncture just large enough for a small body to wiggle in and out of.

Despite his expectations, Maskelyne felt no exhilaration. Instead an anxious nausea roiled his stomach. For the first time he considered his small enemy as a human being, and it was a deeply uncomfortable feeling.

He returned to the porch and took the box inside. He placed it on a small table in his study and opened it with his fingertips gingerly, fearing a trap. Inside was a small blue pot containing a single flower. It was of a form and color he had never seen before, the folds of a rose re-imagined as flame, with bright red petals at its fringe turning orange and yellow towards its center, and in the deepest part of the blossom was just the thinnest tinge of blue.

Alongside the flower was a folded letter. “Dear Professor Maskelyne,” it began, in a child’s careful cursive. Maskelyne read through the note, of apology and explanation. Then he read it again. And then he turned and walked at a brisk pace out of his house.

When the maid at the Del La Roches opened the door she was clearly agitated and distracted. She explained that Grace, the older of the two daughters, had been injured in a sledding accident while playing and her father had rushed her to the hospital. Maskelyne received the name of the hospital and left immediately.

That evening the De La Roches, father and daughter, received a visit from Maskelyne at their hospital room. Young Grace was asleep and her skin was even paler than her straw-blonde hair.  The wound to her arm had nicked an artery and bled much, but the surgery was successful and her doctor predicted a full recovery.

Mr. De La Roche blamed himself. Ever since his wife’s death several months ago he had failed to give his daughters proper supervision, he said. Maskelyne had no words of comfort, but when the father expressed anxiety about his other daughter back at home, he suggested the man go fetch her while he himself remained watching over Grace.

Two hours later when De La Roche returned with his other daughter, Grace was awake and chatting with Maskelyne. “Your daughter is quick-witted and charming,” he told De La Roche. “And I believe that we have an affinity. I would like to offer her a position as an apprentice in my workshop.” Grace, though still pale, gave her father such a heartbreakingly hopeful smile that he agreed at once.

Within a week Grace had begun her after-school apprenticeship with her neighbor, working until dinner each evening. As a first order of business Maskelyne gave her a copy of the key to his front gate.

In years to come their relationship was not always easy, for they were both strong-willed, devious and imaginative. But on one thing they both agreed: Maskelyne was the greatest inventor of his age. And among his many successes he could count the invention of the world’s first Boyproof Watch.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Boyproof Watch VI


The next morning Maskelyne sent a note via his patented Mechanical Courier to his staff saying to not to expect him in the office for the remainder of the week. They would assume he was repairing the Egyptian Fortuneteller, but he didn’t so much as uncrate that venerable automaton. Instead, he skipped breakfast, told his bedside clock to inform the kitchen he wanted a full carafe of black coffee, and walked to the upper workshop as his clock scampered downstairs to deliver his message. Once in his workshop he pulled out a large bottle of superior brandy, poured just a bit more than was required to wet the sides of his glass, and sat at his drafting table.

This was his favorite method of creation, to alternate the stimulant of the coffee with the depressive qualities of the alcohol, enough to keep him awake yet not jittery, relaxed but not clumsy, setting his talent like a precision tool. His head and hands floated slightly above sober through the day, aided by the alertness of an empty stomach.

Maskelyne designed through free association, with the lines on the paper begun before he himself knew what their form might be. A curve would become a spring, a line a pin, a doodle a gear. He worked quickly and fluidly and with no regard to the time or amount of paper he used.

He had long had a Boyproof Watch in his imagination. The greatest reason that Maskelyne hated children was their uncanny ability to destroy delicate machinery with their tiny hands and cunning if underdeveloped minds. More than once, tallying up the number of repairs required due to their sabotage, he had consulted his ledger to see if his Theatre could operate with no children in the audience, but no matter how he fiddled the numbers, it couldn’t. It wasn’t simply the income to be gained from the tykes but the high percentage of parents, yoked by custom and necessity to their offspring, who attended his programs. To remain profitable he had to continue to allow the brats in.

That didn’t mean he had to like it. A prerequisite of all of his staff was that they were both childless and discouraged from showing affection for children. While it would not have been in his nature to tolerate discourtesy, he had let go certain employees who were too sentimental towards the younger patrons. And since the day twenty years ago that he had opened the Theatre he had never offered any special ticket price to children—though he was both generous and courtesy to the elderly, and gave many complimentary tickets to deserving charities throughout the City.

Lunch sat prepared but ignored on a side tray and before he looked up from his drawings it had been joined by a dinner tray also grown cold. Inspiration had sat next to him all day, and having decided on this project it was one that eagerly awaited his discovery. He had not only years of salvage work to draw from, clocks and machines and automatons and devices all returned to him after being crippled or killed by boys, but his own memories of inspired destruction.

The challenge was devising a casing strong enough, a mechanism sturdy enough and a form captivating enough to catch the eye of any boy, and then resist every stratagem, every tool that his tiny hands and malevolent mind might try on it. Faced with such a challenge even the greatest of Maskelyne’s creations had proved to be but a Goliath facing David’s sling. But now he would find the solution.

Dawn found him working on his final draft. The bell in the hallway cabinet had stayed silent all night.

 After a few hours sleep he ordered another full carafe of coffee and began again, now gathering the plates, pins, screws, wheels, pinions, and springs he would need. He laid out the miniscule inventory in meticulous order, for there is no “approximate” in watchmaking. Then he began assembling the gear trains, the escapement and eventually the balance and hairspring, not only reinforcing each element but building in secondary fail-safe mechanisms. By the time he finally fell into bed eighteen hours later, he had given the tiny mechanical engine a single key wind and heard it tick with an even amplitude.

While he had worked and while he slept the bell in the hallway cabinet remained silent.

When he rose at noon he took breakfast to settle his stomach then descended to the basement. He had instructed his workshop mechanicals to heat the forge days before as he planned to make the casing from the new wolfram alloy he’d been sent by a colleague in Schaffhausen, and while he was unsure at what temperature it was workable, he knew it must be very hot indeed.

The next few hours were frustrating and so infernal in temperature as to reduce the eternally sanguine Maskelyne to curses and his undershirt. Much of the alloy was wasted and several tools were rendered useless. But by that evening he had finally completed the case, and by midnight he was again at his aerie workbench, delicately setting the mechanism into its grayish-white casing.

Then he reached under the workbench and with a deft movement undid a tiny latch. Out of a hidden drawer he retrieved a small silver tinderbox. On it was written I have myself passed through the fire, I have smelt the smell of fire. He reached inside and pulled out a tiny bright red seed and placed it on the workbench before him.

This was the seed of a Salamander Blossom, gained by Maskelyne through a complex series of trades with various antiquarians. It was the subject of study by scholars throughout Europe and one in America, who noted that whatever was the eventual product of the seed (for no one had every claimed to see so much as a root tip or a shoot emerge from the tiny scarlet casing) it had certain remarkable physical properties. When exposed to a spark, it would explode into a flame of astonishing heat. Maskelyne had discovered in his own experiments that when encased in ectoplasm the flame would burn even hotter, at greater radius and with greater duration. He pulled out his silver flask and extracted a small amount of that near-intangible substance with silver tweezers that he then used to wind it round the seed. Using the same tweezers he inserted it deep into the mechanical heart of the watch.

He then took a miniscule brush and with precise care painted around this gauzy substance with phosphorus paint, highly reactive and flammable. As it dried he took two pieces of flint each no larger than an infant’s fingernail and inserted them resting next to each other in the watch’s frame.

Now was the most delicate part of the operation. Carrying both halves down to basement, he heated a tiny amount of solder on his forge, and then drew it around in a thin line around the interior edge of the watch’s casing. Working quickly but with infinite care he brought the casing to set against the watch’s back, holding his breath. To his relief there was no combustion.

But there would be if the case was ever opened. Indeed, he calculated that the resulting explosion would injure or even cripple any person foolish enough to try.

While the case cooled, he pulled out a blank watch box. In his florid yet supremely legible handwriting he wrote:

The Boyproof Watch

When it had cooled, he would place the watch in the box, and the box on his workbench. And then he would wait.