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Steampunk’d: Trying to grasp fiction’s hottest subgenre

June 24, 2013

While eating breakfast Saturday morning with my sweetheart Martha’s son, Nate, a senior at University of California-Santa Cruz, I askedsteampunk-266x400 a simple question: “What’s the fascination with steampunk? That’s all I heard about from the genre novelists at the Greater LA Writers Conference when I was up there. And Rush’s new album Clockwork Angels … was Clockwork Orange steampunk?”

“Well, the term wasn’t around then, but yeah.”

Things took off from there. He spelled it out for me. That night, while watching my friends play in their excellent classic rock cover band, Projekt X, I encountered a person that … well, spelled it out again.

That’s when the creative writer engaged. I got up Sunday and wrote a short-short fiction story about my two brushes with steampunk, twist ending and all. I haven’t written a short story in awhile, but it goes to show what happens when a great idea comes through and the imagination stretches out both actions and some dialogue from the actual events. I had a lot of fun writing it. Enjoy – and let me know what you think.


 By Robert Yehling

“Think of the early part of the Industrial Age. Gears, clocks, robots … steam-powered everything. People both fascinated and pissed by the new technology.” His eyes light up. “Then fast-forward into a speculative world, powered by steam and robots again, and anything goes.”

He scratches day-old growth and pushes dark-framed glasses onto his nose, eyes aglow with new knowledge, shoveled in, ignited. Less images-1than a decade removed from being a boy.  “Out of a Dickens orphanage, with noisy machinery, overcoats and top hats, boil up a retro sci-fi, throw in some gears and machines, send them into the future. That’s where you start.”

I shake my egg-filled fork into the morning, trying to grasp his remarks with whatever imagination I have left. A scene or two from A Clockwork Orange slides in like nightmare hovercraft. “I don’t know how much Victorian history you’ve read, Dickens or whatever, but that was not an exciting time,” I say.

“That’s why you can create whatever story and setting you want. That’s what makes it fun. You can turn the Brontes into sky pilots.”

He takes a deep breath and wolfs down a veggie omelet. He smiles, eyes closed, as the through line of the latest steampunk novel chugs inside his forehead, steam-powered time capsule and all.

We’re four blocks from the beach. Four blocks from waves, mist, sand, bikinis, fire pits, the pier, and old surfers. The best storytellers in the world. My scene. The Supermoon, full moon on summer solstice, at its closest point to earth, tugs on brains and tides like an airborne Gepetto. A half-dozen girls walk into Swami’s, shorts hugging their thighs, hip bones protruding beneath half-shirts, navel rings flickering, talk of old clothes and new sex prattling from their mouths. Not so Victorian.

We leave the café, walk to the beach. “It’s not surf music,” he says, aloft in his reverie, voice rising and accelerating. Supermoon yanks the ocean onto the street. “More like head-banging – with soot and steam burns. Hard writing, turn the page, put the machines to work, wipe the grime off your face. Scheme to save the world. Or take it over. Throw some love in there if you want. Spice it up.”

I’m supposed to know this stuff. I’m the teacher, the professor, the one people turn to when they need help fixing a story, brushing up their books for publishers. I read Dickens, for Chrissake. Mary Shelley. Verne. Wells. I even know about Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. And William Gibson. But then again, it took me three years to buy an iPad. A college student telling me I was “antiquated” before caving in and getting a Kindle Fire. And an encounter with a twenty-eight year old to realize that fist bumps were in, and high fives were relics from the era of Magic and MTV. At least Martha Quinn is still smoking hot.

imagesLater that night … nearly midnight. A classic rock band pumps out “Sin City” and “Hard to Handle”, guitars and drums blazing. Forty- and fifty-somethings play twenty again, long hair and lithe bodies on the dance floor, yesterday’s visit with the grandkids set aside. Not your grandparents’ front porch.

Then he walks in, paints his own scene: Trench coat, black t-shirt, dirty boots, crew cut, eyes trained to kill, the scowl collapsing his cheeks his most distinctive feature. That is, except for a set of muttonchops, curly and bushy, dark as the dream from which you thank your alarm clock for rescuing you. He slinks and slunks across the dance floor, a time traveler dropped at the wrong station, all boilers, gears and chimney soot, bumping into people, looking for the bar, for a shot. For a reason to go off.

He glances at a tall brunette as she throws her hair from side to side, squats on toned and tanned legs beneath her mini-dress, and then rises up, arms flying into the night, majestic as a honeycombing wave. She wraps herself around a hefty, don’t-screw-with-me Hawaiian. Her pole.

“What you lookin’ at?” As he growls, the Hawaiian’s face looks like Pele just stepped in.

Muttonchops does not pass, does not collect a drink. He glares directly into the Hawaiian’s cage. “I’m admiring beauty. The lady. Something wrong with that?”

“Yeah … don’t look, bruddah. You done looking. Look no mo’.”

Muttonchops snickers, and trains his death beams on the Hawaiian. “I’ll kill you where you stand, fat ass, talk to me like that again.”

The Hawaiian braces for action, and then notices the widening, withering eyes. They peer from a different place and time, a different take on resolution. A one-way ride into a tunnel he won’t emerge from.

Time to back off.

Muttonchops lumbers to the bar, pounds his fist on the shiny maple top. “A LeBron James.”

“A what?” the bartender asks.

“A LeBron James. A double double. Points, rebounds. Two shots Jack, two shots Jim. Straight up. Watch more basketball, dude.” He points to the wall. “You do show basketball on that flat screen, right?”


LeBron James in hand, he walks over to a nearby table. My table. Shit. His eyes growl like cornered wolverines. His eyebrows point toward the pit of my gut.

He extends his bear paw of a hand, suddenly friendly as the local paperboy. When they existed. “Hey, I’m Ansel.”

“Good to meet you.” Just don’t consume me.

His face widens into a lasting grin. “Good to be here. Got out of Darfur six months ago. Bagged me a few Taliban.” Off he goes. “Just slapped on the night goggles, locked in with my laser scope … thud. Video games.” He smacks the table like he smacked the bar, rattling every glass and bottle on it. “They can’t appreciate a woman, a girl going to school, they don’t deserve to breathe.”

A point man. That explains it. I shake his hand. “Thanks for serving, Ansel.”

“Call me Steampunk.”

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