Thursday, May 6, 2010

Conflict of Interests

by Ashley Lister

Just to go off at a tangent for a moment, today is the UK’s general election. Today is voting day. I urge everyone reading this in the UK (and I’m hoping that there are more than two of you) to go out and vote. Ideally, I’d like to tell you which way to vote, but I won’t do that.

The current UK election furore has been banging on for a long month. I have been keeping hold of all the pamphlets posted through my front door, either soliciting my vote or pissing on opposing parties. I intend to start a celebratory bonfire tomorrow. Trust me. It will be a big bonfire.

(NB – I know I’m supposed to be discussing steampunk here, as that is this week’s theme, and I will get round to that).

It’s difficult to make a sensible decision about who to vote for. Politicians can’t be trusted and the manifesto each lays out is filled with pledges rather than promises: note the linguistic difference. Newspapers can’t be trusted to give impartial information because each one is owned by someone with a vested interest. All other media suffers the same bias of being written by someone who wants their audience to vote a particular way.

Personally, I don’t care who you vote for. Ideally I wouldn’t encourage people to vote for bigots or thieves but we’re talking about politicians here so it’s often a choice between one or the other. All I would ask is: please take the time to go and vote. Even if it means spoiling your ballot paper with the words NO SUITABLE CANDIDATE. Whatever it takes, please go out and go through the process of putting a cross in the appropriate box.

Many good people have died protecting our right to vote. Admittedly, considering the governments that have been in place since those last wars, you have to wonder why they bothered. But I personally believe it’s the duty of every person registered to vote to go out to the ballot box once every four years and put an X in a box.

Right, now I’ve got that off my chest: this week’s theme is the genre of steampunk. Here are my thoughts:

Every story should contain conflict. It’s one of the most consistent rules of fiction. Conflict in fiction can be perceived as the struggle between the protagonist and the antagonist, or the obstacles that prevent a story’s two romantic leads from immediately attaining their HEA, or any of a million and one other ‘conflicts’ that prevent the immediate resolution of the text’s essential question. Regardless of how it is presented, every story should contain an element of conflict.
Which is why Steampunk is already proving itself such a popular genre.

The clash of antiquated technologies underpinning modern capabilities is an established conflict within the genre. How can the old blend with the new? Anyone who has tried to teach an elderly parent to use a computer will know that the old and the new don’t mesh with any ease or simplicity. The opportunity for conflict is a constant factor and seemingly irreconcilable.

I’ve written a single Steampunk story. It’s been submitted to one of my favourite editors and I’m waiting on her response to find out whether or not my take on the genre matches with the popular understanding of its constraints. It begins like this:


“Behold!” Anderson cried, flinging up his arm. “A glimpse of the future!”

The theatre curtain was drawn back on rusted pulleys that groaned with the effort. Verity, centre stage and nearly nude, turned her face from the shrill glare of the limelight as she was exposed. She knew that she looked deathly pale. Her breasts, modest and tipped with crimson nipples, should not have been on display in a converted Music Hall. The freshly coiffured hairs that concealed her sex should never have been shown to such a large audience of supposedly respectable scientists and gentlemen. Nevertheless, after Anderson’s sensational introduction she thought the bare stage – empty save for her own near-nude self – would be viewed as surprisingly anticlimactic.

Yet, if anything, the electric anticipation in the audience heightened.
A murmur of approval whispered through the densely packed auditorium. The chunnering of a hundred or more Oxbridge accents muttered, ‘Upon my word,’ and, ‘Well, I never did!’

Anderson flexed an affable grin: a showman’s grin.

Verity did not return his smile.

She stared defiantly out toward the audience, willing herself to be unmindful of her near-nudity. Hands on her hips, touching the leather straps of the harness, she glared out at the ghostly audience beyond the stage-lights.

“Gentlemen,” Anderson declared. “I present to you the contemporary woman.” He paused for a moment to allow his words to sink in. “She is pretty. She is desirable. But she is perceived to be weaker than her male counterpart.”

Verity chewed the insides of her cheeks. This was neither the time nor the place for her to address that remark. She knew well enough that Anderson would answer for that damning comment after they had finished the evening’s demonstration.

“And why is she weak?” Anderson asked his audience.

It was a rhetorical question. The formality of the demonstration didn’t permit the well-bred audience to respond. She watched Anderson wait, as though the resultant silence was proving his point, and then he marched to the centre of the stage.

“She is perceived as being weak,” Anderson explained, “because she doesn’t possess one of these!”

He held a brass phallus high in the air.


Regardless of whether or not this story makes it into the anthology, I’m looking forward to reading more of this fascinating new genre as it grows in popularity. And I might be slow to respond to comments today because I’m going to be out voting. Hopefully (if you’re reading this from the UK) you’ll be slow to comment for the same reasons.


  1. Ideally I wouldn’t encourage people to vote for bigots or thieves but we’re talking about politicians here so it’s often a choice between one or the other.

    Ha! Well said.

    Often, at least here in the colonies, choose one and you get the other in the bargain.

    I enjoyed the start of your steampunk offering. Good luck with the submission!

  2. Ashley, I have already voted, I consider it a *sacred* duty.
    I concur with your bigots and/or rogues opinion, perhaps more so now than at any time since the Rotten Boroughs Parliaments.
    What's so new about steam-punk, Lord Dunsany. Jules Verne and H G Wells wrote in this genre and many more I'm sure.

  3. Hey, Ashley!

    I agree with you about one's responsibility to vote. After all, if you don't vote, you have no right to complain about the results.

    As for your steampunk composition, I don't doubt that it will be accepted...I look forward to discovering how Verity punishes Anderson for his disrespect!


  4. Craig,

    I don't like the responsibility of having to vote - especially as it ivolves so much hard work trying to decide the difference betwen truth and opinion - but I do relish the opportunity to have a say in who gets to run the country.

    And I'll let you know how the Steampunk stuff goes.


  5. Paul,

    I couldn't agree more about voting.

    I'd argue that Jules Verne and HG Wells were writing more in the realm of (for then) contemporary science-fiction rather than steampunk, although I'm probably nit-picking. I know that those two authors, more than any others, are probably the greatest influences on this popular genre.


  6. Lisabet,

    I was quite pleased with Verity's empowerment throughout the development of the story. I think the thing that fascinates me about steampunk is not so much the technology but the way we can construct political relationships (such as patriarchal vs matriarchal hegemonies). And I'll stop there before Jude reads this and complains about my 'lecturing' vocabulary :-)


  7. Intriguing bit of story. Does the brass phallus come with a set of brass balls?

    And yes, vote!

  8. Kathleen,

    Funnily enough, the title of the story is: The Brass Ring :-)


  9. I for one would love to see your story accepted into the respective anthology because I found the introduction so compelling. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Hi Em,

    As soon as I hear from the editor I'll share the news with you.



  11. Hi Ashley!

    I'm very big on voting also. On other lists I sometimes get into food fights over politics so I'll keep it clean here.

    I thought your story was off to a good start. I'd like to know how it turns out. A steam powered phallus maybe? I was reading a little about the origins of steampunk and people were actually writing something like it back in the days of Jules Verne and HG Wells. In some of the old dime novels there was a story published around 1868 called "The Huge Hunter" which involved a steam powered robot. The robot and its inventor, and the man called "The Huge Hunter" all went out west to kill indians. They were the heroes. . . Times have changed since then.



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