Fidelio’s Automata is now in print!

To prove this site is not just about sedition, but sci-fi as well, I’m announcing the release of the print edition of my new book Fidelio’s Automata, To celebrate, I’m having a sale on Amazon. The e-book versions of Fidelio, as well as my previous book Centrifugal Force, will be available for $0.99, starting Sunday for four days only!

Many of the low-priced books on Amazon are not much more than pamphlets, for which 99 cents is an appropriate price. Less than a buck is a real bargain for a 300-page steampunk adventure. Escape to the America of 1901 – an exciting time when technology was transforming the world. It was the era of the innovators: Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright Brothers, and many others. As one would expect from the genre, in this alternate history things turn out a bit differently.

Fidelio Espinoza, a brilliant and idealistic young Cuban, arrives in the United States with the goal of perfecting his spider automaton, a machine that will free humans from the dangerous, backbreaking work of mines and factories. Here he meets Hank, a cowboy turned Quaker who has vowed to atone for his sinful past, in particular, his participation in the recent war with Spain.

Despite all the progress and social upheaval of the Gilded Age, this is a time when Fidelio, a gay man, must hide his true nature or risk ostracism or worse. For the devout Hank their friendship poses a dilemma: should he respond with judgment or acceptance?

After a prototype of Fidelio’s creation falls into the wrong hands, he and Hank join forces with eccentric genius Nikola Tesla to prevent this creation from being used in the service of oppression.

A Writer’s Nightmare

The rapid pace of current events is making it more difficult to be a writer, not just in science fiction but in other genres. For decades the Soviet Union was a staple enemy for spy thrillers. Now it’s gone, replaced by a new bad guy, the Islamic Terrorist. Yet these bearded fanatics hiding in caves and blowing themselves up are just not as menacing as a monolithic dictatorship with the power to nuke the planet. The Russian Federation is a force to be reckoned with, but its relationship to the West is now a lot fuzzier.

Another factor that renders stories obsolete is technology. William Gibson’s novels, at least the last ones I read a few years back, aren’t science fiction anymore. At best, they’re techno-thrillers, possibly even mainstream. Cyberpunk has become reality; maybe that’s why steampunk is now so big. In the latter case, we intentionally rewrite history, so we don’t need to worry about obsolescence.

I experienced a similar dilemma in writing Centrifugal Force. Originally one of the principal characters was the pilot of an Air Force spyplanes. As time passed, I realized that human pilots were on the way out, so I removed her story thread. Now that drones are in vogue, I’ve begun a new novella about drone pilots. I can’t dawdle, though, in case something changes.

Lately I’ve been wondering if the USA itself is going to be the novelist’s newest monkey wrench. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of countries such as Yugoslavia, it was fashionable for a time to write about a disunited America. When world affairs settled down, that theme went away. Though with our massive debt, the economy teetering on the brink (what recovery? I don’t see it) and a possible new war in Syria, the USA could meet its end for real. The more we hear mainstream media pundits opining about American power and dominance being glorious and eternal, the more likely we’ll face an ignominious bankruptcy. The United States might even break up into separate countries. Not that this would be a bad thing; my contrarian view of this issue was one of my inspirations for Centrifugal Force. If and when it happens, though, it’ll cause a lot of novels in progress to be hastily rewritten to reflect the new “facts on the ground.”


Sci-Fi Pros and Cons

Recently I attended the 39th Annual Leprecon in Mesa, Arizona. No, it wasn’t an Irish festival, but a science fiction convention, so named because it was originally held around March 17th. I have attended several of these events in the past, and this one was a good time as always. Unfortunately, Leprecon’s attendance seems to have fallen off in recent years, and 2013 was no exception.

As far as I can tell, these conventions haven’t changed much over the years. There are still lots of interesting people and activities. There are sci-fi and fantasy related panel discussions, signings by authors (including, this year, yours truly), a game room, dealer room and art show, and a theme dinner on Saturday night. The average age is increasing, though. Most attendees appear to be to be baby boomers or Gen X’ers. I’ve noticed a similar trend at Coppercon, which is the Phoenix area’s other annual sci-fi convention. Coppercon has been traditionally held in September, but for 2013 it will be August 8th through 11th.

It seems that these small, local gatherings are being upstaged by the mighty Phoenix Comicon (Phoenix Convention Center, Memorial Day Weekend), which has always been jam-packed with people of all ages whenever I’ve been there. Of course, it’s a fraction of size of the mother of all Comicon’s in San Diego. Contrary to its name, Comicon isn’t just about comic books; there are strong elements of science fiction, fantasy and horror in all media. In the past they’ve hosted talks by Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, the cast of Star Trek Next Generation, and Max Brooks, author of World War Z.

Perhaps this is just part of the overall trend of consolidation, in which small stores, organizations, and events are being supplanted by larger ones with a national or international scope. Happily, there’s another side to that story. Anime (Japanese animation) conventions are now quite popular. In the Phoenix area there are at least two – Saboten-con, which is held in September and Taiyou-con in January. Here, the attendees are overwhelmingly in their teens and twenties. Of course, anime is not the sole focus; they also focus on manga (comic books) and video games. It’s not completely Japanese, either. Recently they’ve been swarmed by legions of Homestuck fans. For the benefit of you older folks, this is a wildly popular web-comic created by an American, Andrew Hussie. At anime cons you will see hordes of teenagers dressed as the Homestuck “trolls,” which involves lots of gray skin paint, rainbow-striped “horns” glued to the forehead, and t-shirts bearing zodiac signs.

This brings me to another point – at anime conventions, cosplay (costume play) is huge, as much or more so than any stereotypical Trekkie convention. Homestuck is not the only series that fans flatter by imitation. Another extremely popular theme is the anime series Hetalia, in which characters represent the different countries of the world. Older folks (myself and girlfriend included) also enjoy dressing up, especially in the “steampunk” genre. The Dark Ones, a local sci-fi-related social group, made this the theme of their biennial Dark-Con in 2012. I have not yet made it to the steampunk-oriented Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, but I’ve been hearing great things about it. Yet another costuming craze is the “furry” scene, in which people don full-body animal costumes. (Yes, you may have heard tales – or should I say “tails” – of rampant kinkiness in this group but a friend assures me that those “creepy furries” are a small minority.) Phoenix will host a “Fur Con” this October. It sounds interesting but personally, I’m too claustrophobic to want to wear a cartoon animal head for any length of time.

Despite my initial worries, I don’t think the sci-fi/fantasy convention scene is going away any time soon. It’s just changing and adapting with the times. Since my convention experience is, at the moment, confined to Arizona and Southern California, I welcome comments from my readers about their own perspectives. Are the traditional sci-fi cons dying out? Are fan gatherings with a costume-related theme on the rise? I’m quite tired of seeing only spammer-generated comments for genuine cheap imitation designer handbags, so if you’re out there, please respond!

Next Big Thing Blog Hop

My previous entry was about my current work, but as you can see if you check out the other authors, I don’t follow directions very well. Here are the answers to the official questions in the new author blog hop. I don’t yet have anyone lined up for the next hop, but I’m working on it.

1: What is the working title of your book?

Fidelio’s Automata

2: Where did the idea come from for the book?

There were two characters in a previous work whom I had to delete because they didn’t fit the overall theme. I hated to give them up, so I transported them back in time.

3. What genre does your book come under?

Steampunk (Sci-fi alternate history.)

4: Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

I hadn’t thought about that much. The title character is Cuban, so I’ll have to research Latino actors. As for his sidekick Hank, maybe Nathan Fillion?

5: What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

In an alternate-history America of 1901, a gay Cuban engineer and a cowboy turned Quaker team up to oppose a disastrous war.

6: Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?

It is not published yet. I am considering the possibility of self-publishing it as a serial in several parts.

7: How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

So far, about six about months. I hope to finish the entire novel by October.

8: Is this your first novel?

No. I finished my first novel, Centrifugal Force,in October of 2012. It is political science fiction involving a group of computer hackers who plot to overthrow the government. Since I didn’t see much of a market for it in the traditional market, I self-published It’s currently available on Amazon.

9: Who or what inspired you to write this book?

A friend of mine was writing a steampunk novel and it looked like fun.

A Fascinating History

One of the things I found most intimidating about writing a steampunk novel was the prospect of historical research. I needn’t have been worried. It’s been the most fascinating aspect of the project. Most steampunk fiction is set in the Victorian era, in the mid to late 19th century. My book, Fidelio’s Automata, begins in 1901, at the tail end of this time. One of the things I needed to learn was what peoples’ daily lives were like in those times, around when my grandparents were born. In those days, indoor plumbing was a luxury and electric power was an innovation mostly found in larger cities.

Among the more important issues to resolve was how my characters should travel. In 1901, the horse-drawn carriage was still a major mode of transportation, albeit a slow one. The automobile was new on the scene, and transcontinental highways were not even begun. I was intrigued to learn that the first cross-country highways were privately-run projects, in some cases spearheaded by western businessmen as a way to promote tourism from the East. Another factor was the newly invented bicycle, which required a smooth surface for riding. Cycling groups formed the core of the “good roads” movement.

Although I wanted one of my characters to have a car, since the book is centered around emerging technologies of the time, the most efficient way for the characters to travel would be by rail. Another mandatory form of transportation would be the airship, especially since that’s a staple of the steampunk genre. Since this is fiction, I’ve advanced this technology by a few years. This seems plausible because the airship required less in the way of infrastructure than did land transportation.

One of my favorite things about writing about this era is that it takes me back to my childhood. No, I’m not nearly that old, but since I grew up in a rural and backward part of the country, I had experiences shared by few people my age. For example, I attended a one-room country schoolhouse through the third grade. By the way, this facility did not have plumbing; we had to use the traditional little wooden building with the crescent moon on the door. The farm where my family lived was connected to the electrical grid only a few years before my birth. The wind-turbine my parents and grandparents had used for power still stood at the top of a tower in the middle of the yard.

This is all the more amazing when I consider that my son, who was born hear the close of the 20th century, has never known a time without video games, computers, and the Internet. Speaking of the Internet, this has been my most valuable resource. It’s quite easy to find population statistics for various cities that appear in my book, such as Buffalo, New York, and Toledo, Ohio. I can even download street maps from that time so I can use correct names. Outside of the fictional aspects of the book, I try to stick to factual whenever possible, to preserve its historical feel. Years ago, when I first began writing, I had to make a trip to the library every time I needed this kind of information, which was quite time-consuming. Thus my book about the past is being made possible by the technology of the future. I hope that when it’s finished you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I did creating it.

Why Steampunk?

If anything has surprised me about the steampunk movement, it is its longevity. At first it seemed like a transitory fad, more about the fun of wearing “high tech” period costumes to conventions than the stories themselves. Perhaps that’s true, but the literary movement is going strong as well. This is one of the reasons I am currently writing in this genre- my own interest, coupled with its current popularity.

My first exposure to the genre was The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling. This sci-fi alternative history about the rise of mechanical computers was published before the “steampunk” term became popular. Alternate history, and the steam era were frequent themes in science fiction (such as Michael Moorcocks’ Warlord of the Air) but only recently did it become a true sub-genre. Since then we’ve seen talented young writers such as Cherie Priest and Scott Westerfield emerge to capitalize on this trend.

Conventionally, steampunk focuses on the Victorian era, which coincides roughly with the reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria, 1837-1901, in particular, the latter years of the 19th Century. In America, this was known as the Gilded Age. Then, steam power dominated the world. It was also a time of great optimism about humanity’s future and the advancement of technology. This is when writers like Jules Verne and HG Wells invented the science fiction genre – though admittedly not all their works were optimistic.

I’ve heard it said that nostalgia for the Victorian era is strong nowadays because in those times, the future looked bright, in contrast to today’s bleak economic and political outlook. Even the rigidity of western society in those bygone times seems refreshing compared to our modern decadence.

Still, there are those of us who can’t quite leave the Gilded Age as it was. This is where the “punk” element comes in. According to Wikipedia, sci-fi writer K.W. Jeter coined the term for the sub-genre containing his own works. The term was originally a pun on the term “cyberpunk,” a popular sci-fi subgenre of the 1980’s, which was in turn associated with the appropriately named “cypher-punk” political movement. At that time “punk” signified anarchy and/or decadence. Eventually the suffix the “punk” came to signify “alternate,” such as the modified histories of steampunk and other new genres such as “dieselpunk.”

Though I’ve always been fascinated by history and period novels, alternate history, such as the works of Harry Turtledove, are even more fun. This kind of writing provided the inspirations for my upcoming novel Fidelio’s Automata. What would have happened if McKinley had not died from the shooting in Buffalo, and Teddy Roosevelt had not become president? Because I grew up in North Dakota, TR (who lived there for a time) was part of the local mythology, and it would be fun to change his life story. Other fascinating characters from that time and place were the Marquis de Mores, an eccentric French nobleman and entrepreneur, and his “liberated” American wife, Medora. What if their business had not failed? The Marquis would not have returned to France, gotten involved in extremist politics, and died as the result of a political plot in North Africa. In Fidelio, I can change these events and speculate on what might have been.