Road Trip to Tokyo

This is my third stop on the Airship Ambassador’s Steampunk Hands Around the World road trip exploring different places in the world of steampunk. One of the things I’ve enjoyed doing when writing my Clockwork Legion books is visiting places around the world and imagining them with a steampunk twist. Because of that, I’m visiting some of the places that appear in the novels and share my connection to them. Today’s stop is a place I’m sorry to say I haven’t actually visited, but dearly want to. Tokyo features prominently in book three of my Clockwork Legion series, The Brazen Shark.

Because my imagination and the requirements of plot and character development don’t always feel constrained by my travel budget, I’m grateful that there are resources which allow me to travel not only across the ocean but back in time. Here’s a public domain photograph of Yokohama in the 1880s that I shared in a blog post back at the end of 2014:

What I like about this photo is how much the scene looks like many U.S. cities of the same period. There are wooden buildings, a gas lamp, and dirt streets. Of course, there are elements of this photo that seem very unique to Japan, such as the rickshaws and the banners hanging over the doors. I love how people are just going about their business, like the two guys on the right just chatting about some long forgotten subject. Some people are striding with purpose. Others are just hanging out.

Here’s another photo I like. This photo shows Kyobashi. According to Wikipedia, the photographer died in 1898 and this is supposed to be a nineteenth century street scene.

One of the themes in The Brazen Shark is an exploration of the way in which Emperor Meiji’s “Restoration” was a transition from old feudal Japan to a new, modern vision of Japan. I introduce scientists and inventors who want to bring this about, but I also showed that they’re working in a city where this is all new and exciting. One new element I introduce are automata, used as servants to escort visitors around the city. I also introduce Japanese airships.

In these photos, I see people walking and taking rickshaws through the streets. I see horse-drawn streetcars. I see someone carrying baskets. I see horses and masonry buildings. As long as I keep in mind what would and wouldn’t be in this scene in the time period of my novel, the photos serve as a tool to help me describe nineteenth century Tokyo. One possible anachronism in the second photo is the guy in the straw hat in the lower left. That suit just says 1901 to me more than 1880!

I didn’t just use old photos to visit Meiji era Japan, I also used books written at the time. Books, of course, are one of the most tried and true means of traveling to new places and new times! One of the most important books I used was Gleanings in Buddha Fields by Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn was a reporter born in Ireland who immigrated to the United States. He lived for many years in New Orleans before moving to Japan and raising a family. His writings provided a wonderful insight into daily life of people in Meiji Era Japan. Hearn also provided something of a literary bridge and a fictionalized version of the author appears in Owl Riders during his New Orleans days as the chronicler of Ramon and Fatemeh’s adventures up to the events of Owl Riders.

I’ll wrap up this road trip to Tokyo with one other observation. I often seem to encounter the notion that no one has made a truly great steampunk film. I don’t feel that’s true. I’d argue that Japanese filmmakers have done a great job. For example, Hiyao Miyazaki has made several great steampunk films including Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke. Also, Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of the cyberpunk masterpiece Akira, made the strong steampunk film Steamboy. Anime played a part in my research for The Brazen Shark as well. In this case, I turned to the anime of Rurouni Kenshin. I gather the anime worked hard to get the historical background of Meiji Era Tokyo right. I didn’t necessarily use the show as a primary resource, but as a way of better visualizing the look and feel of the time and place.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this steampunk road trip stop. If you would like to explore The Brazen Shark and all the places visited in the novel, you visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/brazen_shark.html to get more information and find all the places the novel is available.

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Making Life Better Through Astronomy #SHaW

The first stirrings of what would become my interest in steampunk happened the year K.W. Jeter coined the word in a letter to Locus Magazine. During the summer of 1987, I worked at Maria Mitchell Observatory on Nantucket, observing pulsating variable stars with an early twentieth-century telescope driven by a wind-up clock drive.

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I would go on to publish those results and present them at Harvard College Observatory. The idea that I could explore the universe with equipment built in the Victorian era stuck with me through the years and eventually blossomed when I started writing steampunk and weird western stories.

When I started attending steampunk events about five years ago, the maker culture reminded me of my introduction to astronomy. A few years before I worked at Maria Mitchell Observatory, I joined an amateur astronomy club and was encouraged to build a Dobsonian telescopes. Designed by amateur astronomer John Dobson, these inexpensive, easy-to-build telescopes allow anyone with an interest to look at planets, stars, and beyond. This history combined with some extra motivation from one of my daughter’s science projects, led us to build a little steampunk Dobsonian telescope.

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The telescope’s tube is, in fact, cardboard, but I gave it a coat of brass paint as a tribute to the Alvan Clarke and Sons telescopes I worked with on Nantucket and which drove so much science through the Victorian era. Having built this telescope, we have since taken it to steampunk and science fiction conventions where we’ve viewed planets and nebulae. Here’s my daughter setting up the telescope on the deck of the Queen Mary at Her Royal Majesty’s Steampunk Symposium in 2015.

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I’ve also conducted workshops, using the steampunk telescope as an example of how easy and satisfying it is to build your own small telescope.

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It’s exciting when people look through a telescope like this and realize they can peer into moon craters, see the rings of Saturn, or the ghostly Orion Nebula. For them, science has left the textbook and become something they can access. There’s even more magic when people realize they can get those kinds of views with something they built themselves. If you’re interested in building a telescope like this for your own enjoyment, I wrote two posts that should help you get started and include links to more detailed information.

This post is part of Steampunk Hands Around the World. Visit the Airship Ambassador for more information and to visit more great posts on the topic!

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