Saturday, October 31, 2009

SteamCon '09

Last weekend we attended a most amusing and enjoyable event, “SteamCon’09 at the SeaTac Marriott. I had been invited to give a presentation on Victorian-era firearms (the real ones) and was assigned to three other panels for the discussion of various aspects of the genre. It was quite the experience, and definitely worth the efforts we put out for it.

The focus was “Steam-Punk”, which is actually a literary genre developed some decades ago by authors such as Tim Powers (who was in attendance), James Blaylock and others who took science fiction ideas, mixed them with various fantastical elements, and placed the entire mess (usually) in a Victorian atmosphere. Sometimes off-shoots from Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, sometimes taking such period experimentations as Tesla’s ideas and expounding on them, and sometimes just taking modern technological concepts and putting a 19th Century spin on them, Steam-Punk contains a lot of vibrancy and imagination. This energy is felt at such events as SteamCon’09, as most of the participants are passionately interested in some aspect of the genre, and seem to hurl themselves into it with gusto. It’s cute.

We had arrived around noon on Friday at the hotel, as my talk was on Friday evening and I needed to ensure that all of my details were in order. I had brought some 35 antique firearms with me (all of them officially “non-firearms” according to Federal Law, just to be clear on that) to show off and discuss with the audience, so it was important to make sure things were properly arranged.. Lucky for me my good friend Eric Worth and his wife Sarah were some of the top-dogs within the security apparatus, and Graham Ainsley, the Chief of Security is an old acquaintance, so I was comforted by the knowledge that all would be done that could be done to ensure things proceeded smoothly. Which they did, of course..

My first panel discussion however, was “Building an Airship”, which I have to say was rather new to me. Enjoyable to be sure, but my idea of being above the ground usually entails having a horse under me, so I had to do some studying to figure this one out. We had a Physics guy on the panel to keep us firmly grounded in reality (though sometimes a bit too much, alas!), while Cheyenne Wright of “Girl Genius” was the moderator to keep things flowing and draw the ideas out on the white-board. Kaitlin Kitridge, an author, was there for some of the imaginative ideas we could promote, while I was there as the nominal “historian”. Well, I know SOMETHING about the history of heavier-than-air craft, but not enough, I’m afraid. But it was a lot of fun to do this, with all of the audience participation and all, and I think we did a creditable job in “building” Hermione’s Revenge. Might even work!

The firearms talk went very well indeed, though of course an hour is WAY to little time to go through 50 years-plus of firearms development in anything like any detail. I started with the standard British military firearm of the early 1840’s, the smooth-bore, flint-lock Brown Bess musket which was little changed from the muskets used at Concord, or at Blenheim for that matter. But change did come quickly after than, and I went through the development of the rifle-musket, the development of the self-contained cartridges and the the conversions of such rifle-muskets to cartridge, the repeater in the form of the Henry and Winchester rifles, etc. on to the Mauser bolt action of the 1890’s. For handguns, I started with the Colt Paterson “Texas Model”, through various Colt and Remington cap-and-ball revolvers to the early cartridge revolvers such as the Galand-Sommerville, the Colt Single Action Army and the Smith and Wesson break-tops. I ended with the Mauser C-96 “Broomhandle” and the Colt-Browning M1902 auto-loaders. Shotguns were simple: double-barrel percussion, double-barrel cartridge, and the Winchester 1897 pump-action. I think that everyone left the lecture somewhat enlightened and hopefully quite entertained by my antics, as I certainly enjoyed the experience.

Saturday was quite fun of course, my friend Steward Marshall was able to finally get there though unfortunately, as he couldn’t make it on Friday for my talk, without his Gatling Gun. Alas! Well, next year. My panel discussion on Uniforms went fairly well, though I must admit to being totally upstaged by my co-panelist Steve Criss, who wore his Zeppelin Officer’s uniform and (more importantly) brought two of his “crew” with him. The lovely Leutnant and Hauptmann were, shall we say, noteworthy? So whatever we gentlemen of the panel blabbered on about, I suspect that no one really paid much heed to, which is probably just as well.

My final panel, on Sunday was on “Victorian Whiskers”, in which my co-panelist from the day before, Steve Criss was again with me on the panel. It was perhaps the best of the lot, as we had by then worked out a fine banter, and could easily and effortlessly pass the baton back and forth for discussion, and both of us knew enough about the subject to keep the audience reasonably well educated, and I believe quite amused as well. As both of us have fine sets of whiskers, it was of course a subject near to our hearts, and thankfully there were no young beauties to take away our thunder this time. (It would be rather hard to imagine this of course, but one never knows these days!)

The entire convention was enjoyable in the extreme. I engaged in lots of talking to folks whom I either knew well, new a little, or had just met there and then. One gentleman in particular (from Virginia of all places) and I struck up a particular friendship, which was rather as though we had known one another for most of our lives, though we hadn’t ever set eyes upon one another before. Most interesting! Having drinks with the Guest of Honour Tim Powers and his lovely wife Serena was quite nice too. A most enjoyable evening was had by all, I do believe.

One of the things which struck me strongly about the event was that everyone tried very hard (or just about everyone, close enough to it that the very few who didn’t were completely hidden by the masses of people who cared) to capture the spirit of the Victorian age. Not that everyone actually achieved a good Victorian look, and I wouldn’t go about such an event being a thread-counter, but the spirit was definitely in place. Everyone was obviously having a grand time, and were doing their best to look at least ominally “Victorian.” A lot more so than at many of the reenactments I’ve attended, where you are pretty much required to make a good attempt at period clothing! So a tip of the topper to all of those who attended in “proper” Victorian clothing, whether it be in top hat and tails, or in khaki with a pith-helmet and goggles. It worked, and looked good.

Next year’s SteamCon is already in the works, and the good news is that its topic will be “Weird, Weird West”. I think I have a good handle on already. Even better is that I’ve already been invited to speak again, so I’m already very much looking forward to it!