Monday, May 9, 2011

Steam Erotica and Other Things I've Been Reading For Work

If you're a steampunk enthusiast, maybe you've jokingly looked at clothes someone else is wearing and you hyperbolically announce, "I am drooling over that accessory." You want to own it and wear it, which to some degree means you want to consume it. Maybe if you're being silly you might even say "Oh my god,  I totally want to have sex with those clothes." You're not serious about wanting to actually literally have intercourse with the items. But in "lusting" after some garment or accessory, there is a desire to in some way own and therefore use the item for one's own liking, whether to wear or to decorate.  Steampunk lends itself to playful genre-specific fetishization. People get really into the clothes, the accessories, the gadgets, the gears. So it makes sense that within the steampunk fiction genre there's erotica. Bionics, opticals, a heart made of a time piece, machine arms in place of real arms -- all of these things are various levels of robotics or cyborg-like devices that in costume or real-life, create a steampunk-identified identity which is created by consuming of fetishizing.

On a symbolic level, in customizing the accessories and machine parts to one's costume, it's as if devoted steampunk enthusiasts want to "consume" the gear, the clothes, all that - in a way, to "customize" the old to create something new. The term for the process food undergoes after you consume it, when it becomes part of your body, is called assimilation. This seems like a symbolically effective term to label what happens when you customize something steampunk-esque to work into your own appearance. Maybe there's a welded piece of jewelry. Maybe there's multiple jewelers lenses screwed onto frames. Maybe there's multiple broken timepieces dangling. These are all modified objects that are customized, consumed, assimilated. These are all activities that can to some degree also describe "consumption" in ways that are sexual. Think about the word "consume" in any way you want. And also consider that when one reads something, they can also "devour." 

And so that brings us to this anthology of short, sexy steampunk stories.

In Carnal Machines: Steampunk Erotica, a woman visits a doctor about sexually based ailment. There is a Doctor Watson. There might have been at least one monocle. There are varieties of sexual preferences. Some stories in Carnal Machines are more compelling then others. "Human Powered" by Teresa Noelle Roberts is the most compelling in terms of narrative, which is probably why the anthology starts with this story about male and a female scientists working on a lust powered machine, which brings together two scientists, one being a widow who needs some tender loving (and also, sex). Some of the stories subvert cultural traditions, such as "Mutiny On the Danika Blue" by Poe Von Page. In this story, a woman on deck of the ship has no rights. But in the bedroom quarters below, she is the captain, a bossy domm who demands the ship's captain call her "sir."

There are a few moments where some of the stories feel like McDonald's Drive Through Steampunk Porn. That is to say, some of the pieces have a tang of erotica with steampunk machines and images name-checked in it. Make a list of steampunk things: goggles, a dirigible, gears, experiments, British accents and so on. Now open this book to any random page. You will probably find something on that list mentioned. So on one hand, genre pieces belong to that genre because they each share certain characteristics. On the other hand, if a story is merely name-checking conventions or motifs of the genre, they become less compelling. How do you write something genre-specific without sounding like you're using a genre cookie cutter?

Let's say that you wished to perform improvisational sex steampunk comedy (you know, in the unlikely event that you happen to be in that very specific situation with those exact details). In some ways you could use this book; open to any page and you will probably find images that are totally steampunk genre-specific. For example (and for laughs), I just opened to page 170 and my finger landed on this: 

"Of course, the amount of electricity harvested depended on each boy's stamina and level of sexual voracity. Some subjects produced almost twice the amount of electrical energy as others."

I kind of want to take these random quotes and act them for an audience. Has anybody done steampunk comedy yet? I have seen elements of humor incorporated into steampunk genre stuff like music, literature, music videos etc. Would that type of performance get old quickly though? Do you run out of references? Is it a one trick pony that's better in making reference to than watching a full show of? Does it have to be backed up by good writing? Should genre-specific stuff regarding certain details of physical objects and conventions of literature be incidental? Should the story exist first or the conventions of the genre exist first? Do the references to goggles and dirigibles get tired fast? Is that why some of these stories feel like someone wrote a sexy story but then their work was solicited by the editors who were like "Here's what steampunk is! Now go write one of your sexy stories with steampunk as being part of it!"?

When I was done with the book, I noticed in the back of the book is a an ad for a book coming out called Steamlust, but that it's not coming out until October. The subtitle on it was "Erotic Romance," whereas Carnal Machines is "Steampunk Erotica." Is there a difference? Or was it just that there's a lot of steampunky material out there and not all of it would fit in one book? I noticed the books each have different editors.  I'm curious to know, how did both books come to be? Or maybe both of the editors were both really knowledgeable and know lots of people who write these types of stories and the publisher (Cleis) was like, "We cannot fit all this in one book?! Let not all of this go to waste! Let's just do more than one book!" Or perhaps Cleis was like, "Steampunk is super big right now! And sex is always big! Sex and machines! Like a David Cronenberg movie but without shitty special effects and way more optical devices! And with much better behaved characters who also happen to be better dressed!" Perhaps I should interview the editors of both books?

But most importantly, my priority above all else, was doing a Google search to see if somebody got to the clever before I did. That is, had anybody coined steampunk porny stuff as being "SPUNK?" Because really, all anybody really wants is to get credit for making up a clever turn of phrase, myself included. So I found some stuff. Sort of. There was one reference to "steamspunk" but it wasn't quite regarding sex, on on their "This is NOT steampunk" section, but what was particularly funny is that they found all this hilarious stuff where the crafters mistyped it (I assume) because sometimes they label stuff as "streampunk" or "stempunk" and so on, which I found hilarious. Streampunk? (Like it's fish! Is that like steamed fish? To eat?). Also there was at least one spelling "staempunk." In case you're curious, it was a vender selling a "Staempunk (sic) accessory Greek Sheild Tassle" which I thought was hilarious. Anyway, there are a lot of sexy steampunk toys that come up when you google "Steampunk sex SPUNK." My sexy computer is getting a virus as we speak. Also what comes up with a google search of that nature are all manner of steampunk sex toys like a death ray vibrator or a "steamvibe" (which, I noticed when looking at the picture of it, an ad solicited me for a "Spyware Remover Download," which I thought was humorously poetic on a variety of levels.) But! So! Considering that the google search for "Steampunk sex SPUNK" pulled up 160,000 hits and I don't want to spend a whole day looking to see if someone was more clever than me, I abandoned the investigation. If someone hasn't used the term "spunk" in reference to porny steampunk then they can use it now. I found lots of hits that were just people calling steampunk "spunk" but not any in my immediate search that used "spunk" as being sexy steampunk.

Also, I just finished reading Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books by Francesca Lia Block (Harper Collins). It's not necessarily something I would normally read but my next door neighbor lent it to me one day when we were suggesting books for each other. I gave her my copy of Drew Barrymore's autobiography and she gave me this book. It's actually an anthology of five different books in a series. And they're young adult novels, which I'd heard about when I was taking a class about teaching young adult novels when I was getting my teaching certificate. (I didn't read it because we got to read whatever we wanted and present it to the class.) That class was one of my faves when I was in school, because the books were so much fun. And it turned me on to Orson Scott Card's Enders Game books which are pretty awesome (and lately it has been made into comics. I bet a movie is probably in the works). So the Weetzie books are about kids who are kind of hippie-ish, sometimes arty, bla bla. It's kind of magic realism-y. And they're about falling in and out of love and has a very "life is beautiful carpe diem"-ish run-on sentence feel, with lots of fireflies and drum circles. Some of it bordered on the edge of cheesy. It was a quick entertaining read, even though I think drum circles are sort of intolerable. Images that stick out in my mind from it: A Jayne Mansfield Appreciation Club, crafting angel wings (I know, I know, don't even start), tearing photographs, dressing up in goat pants. For some reason that last one about the goat pants makes me think of the Red Hot Chili Peppers because didn't Flea wear pants with stuffed animals on them? That's ridiculous that THAT's the first thing I think of and not something mythologically huge like Pan the Goat God. What is that saying about me? Nothing really, because I don't really like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Anyway, I'm not sure that I'd say the Weetzie anthology was actually good, but I will say that I had a hard time putting it down. Maybe that does mean it was good. Maybe "compelling" and "good" have more overlap than I think? Does it even matter? After all, my retention rate is so low these days that I could reread this book again tomorrow and it's almost like it's a new book. Maybe I'm consuming too much media in general and not thinking about what I've consumed enough. If I see too many movies in too close of a proximity of time, my retention rate in all of them drops. In fact, I did see 2 movies yesterday. The new version of Jane Eyre that I saw at The Century and then later, I watched a Netflixed disc "The Second Coming," written by Russell T. Davies, and starring Christopher Eccleston. The former movie because I enjoy movie versions of Jane Eyre (as far as I can tell, I think I've seen 3 now), and also, I love a good movie cry. I picked up a slab of napkins at the concession stand before the movie and had them ready to go before the lights were even dimmed. I used all of them. Yay! And then I watched the second movie because of the Doctor Who connection of Davies and Eccleston. It was super good and I can see why they cast Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor. Anyway, in "The Second Coming" he plays a guy that finds out he is the son of god, and everybody believes him. Periodically he downloads messages from God in his head. (Should John Denver be in that with George Burns?) Strangely, minutes before I watched that last movie I actually ran across an "interview with god" piece in an issue of Vice that Bob Odenkirk wrote. I know, Vice is a sorta douche-y mag, but I still read it.

Also, I am trying to make my way through the winter 2011 Lapham's Quarterly the theme being Celebrity, which is slow going. It's very juicy with quotes and short blurbs and full on articles about the topic, from stuff going back to Cicero in 54 BC Rome type of stuff. Some of it is good I guess…I thought I would really like it. I want to like it. I want to say I'm the type of person who reads Lapham's Quarterly and Harper's and Monocle. Am I? I am a fairweather reader that skips a lot of it but finds little gems in it. Sometimes. Sort of. It's rare that I ever actually buy magazines because my reading list is always very long. Plus, I get the previous issues free when the new ones come in, so I am perpetually an issue behind. (Like that really matters.) And because I didn't invest any money in buying them I don't feel like I have to read anything in it I don't want to read. Furthermore, it would do me some good in not guilting myself about not wanting to read certain things. But I should read more. I should set a specific minimum or average for how many hours of reading I should get in during a week but I don't live the type of luxury where there isn't something immediately pressing that I have to do a lot of the time. Sadly, reading seems like a luxury compared to my To Do list, especially ironic because I work in a bookstore. And I also feel like I need to have some time to process all the media I've consumed. There should be a minimum of time per week that I spend processing all that media I've consumed. "Processing" can mean any number of things: maybe it's writing about it, maybe it's talking about it, maybe it's journaling about it,-- but I feel it's important to do something. Otherwise I am a mindless consumer. Even if it's consumption of high quality media. And I do feel that it's OK to consume lowbrow culture media too. But the trick is that I have to process it in some way so that I'm not just reading/eating/consuming trash without chewing on it. It's OK to watch a million hours of TV a day, as long as you spend time processing it. It's OK to read Star and US Weekly and People, if you're creatively processing it in some way. But what is the right way? ANd the right ratio of consumption to processing?

I'll have to chew on that.

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