Friday, 18 October 2013

Guest Post | "Taverns Measureless to Man" by Tim Powers

To mark the paperback publication of his newest book, Hide Me Among the Graves — a sequel of sorts to his classic 1989 novel The Stress of Her Regard which has been described as "Dickens as directed by David Lynch" — in addition to the re-release last week of Last Call as one of Gollancz's new-fangled Fantasy Masterworks, it's my pleasure to welcome the one and only Tim Powers to The Speculative Scotsman, to talk about nothing less momentous than how steampunk started.

***

If you ever find yourself thirsty in Orange, California, you could do worse than to stop in at a place near the Orange Circle called O'Hara's Pub and order a pitcher of beer. Sit at one of the booths right across from the bar, and you're right where Steampunk started in about 1976.

Of course lots of books that we now recognize as Steampunk were published before that — Harry Harrison's A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! and Michael Moorcock's Warlord of the Air, and Keith Laumer's Worlds of the Imperium, to name just three — but it was K. W. Jeter who coined the term that made the subgenre distinct, and Jeter was sitting in that booth in '76, along with James Blaylock and me.

The three of us were, or had recently been, English majors at a local college, and all three of us wanted to write science fiction and fantasy books. Jeter and I had in fact recently sold novels to a very low-paying publisher called Laser Books, and my own plan had been to go on writing books for Laser and live on two-thousand dollars a year... but Laser folded, and the three of us were left to while away the afternoons over endless pitchers of beer at O'Hara's.

Mornings too — I remember standing with Blaylock outside of O'Hara's before the place opened, and quoting Omar Khayyam:

And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted - "Open then the Door!
"You know how little while we have to stay,
"And, once departed, may return no more."

And I'm sure I quoted Coleridge about passing "through taverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea."

But luckily Laser had not been the only light that failed — the editor at Laser had told us that a British publisher wanted a series of novels based on the idea of King Arthur being reincarnated over the centuries to save the West from various catastrophes, and we had got busy writing them — but eventually the British publisher had become disenchanted with the notion, and all three of us were left with books about reincarnated King Arthur and no publisher.

Jeter, fortunately for us all, had chosen Victorian England as the setting for one of his — Morlock Night, which was eventually published in 1979 — and he found, and told Blaylock and I about, Henry Mayhew. Mayhew was a journalist who wrote in painstaking detail about the lives of all sorts of poor people in Victorian London, honest and crooked, and two collections of his work, Mayhew's London and London's Underworld, were in print. Presented with such a near-infinite source of research details, all three of us proceeded to write science fiction and/or fantasy novels set in 19th century London. And we managed to sell them.

I believe Blaylock had actually seen London, if briefly; Jeter and I had not. And all three of us were writing about a London that existed more in our heads than it ever had in reality, largely derived from Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle. The books we wrote about it are now three decades old, and I must admit I look back at them, and the times in which we wrote them, with fondness. And when Jeter, Blaylock and I are sometimes credited with having started Steampunk, I politely don't argue.

***

Thank you a thousand times for the insight into steampunk's early years, Tim, and for taking the time to stop off at The Speculative Scotsman.

If you're looking for more from the man, then to begin with there are his books — every one of which I've read I'd recommend — but be aware, as well, that "Taverns Measureless to Man" is just the latest in a line of great guest posts he's put together for a few of my favourite blogs, including Fantasy Book Critic, Falcata Times, A Fantastical Librarian, SF Signal, Civilian Reader and Fantasy Book Review.

Plus he'll be propping up Pornokitsch all of next week, I believe.

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