Archive | October 2015

Should we stay or should we go?

eCOV_Horizon_C2D2Today I’ve the great pleasure of hosting Keith Stevenson on my blog. Though I predominantly write fantasy and urban fantasy, I love to read science fiction and have recently finished Keith’s debut novel, Horizon. It’s a wonderful piece of work I recommend to anybody, a novel of large scope set in an intimate environment with a tightly contained cast of characters.

let’s hear what Keith as to say . . .



The highly enjoyable movie The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s novel, seems to have everyone taking about the possibility of traveling to and colonising another planet. NASA is already leveraging this interest with its Journey to Mars program. It feels like it’s ‘all systems go’. Of course there are a few obstacles in the way…

Firstly there’s the need to ‘science the sh*t’ out of a lot of technical issues. Andy Weir spoke about some of these on a recent, entertaining Geeks Guide to the Galaxy podcast []. Currently it takes us a long time to get anywhere, although our spaceflight tech is slowly improving. Then there’s the radiation we’ll be exposed to over the prolonged period on board the spaceship and to a lesser extent on the planet, which will greatly increase our cancer risk. And, of course, there’s the problem of taking EVERYTHING with us, including the air we breathe. Let’s not kid ourselves, the cost will be huge and the need for mission redundancy will be vital, particularly when the nearest help will be at least a couple of years away. And no matter how well we test our devices for extracting water from the lunar regolith or catalysing oxygen from the Martian tundra, there’s no guarantee they’ll work on-site. Mistakes like that can be deadly.

But there’s also the damage we could wreak on another planet when we start living there. The jury is still out on whether there is life on Mars, at least on the microscopic level. That’s why the Mars rover robots are scrupulously disinfected before launch to make sure we don’t corrupt the pristine Martian environment with Earthly biota. We can’t disinfect people, so there will be inevitable contamination, with potentially devastating effects on indigenous life. That was certainly a concern for the stellarnauts in my SF novel Horizon; sent to research another solar system, most of them were horrified by new orders to scout the worlds they found there for potential colonisation. Beyond purely scientific concerns, there are moral and ethical questions about changing the natural life cycle of another world, which my stellarnauts wrestled with. But something tells me that when it comes down to it, we’ll lament the damage done by our colonisation, but it won’t stop us going.

Of course some planetary biota, particularly those that evolved in other solar systems, may be deadly to us in return. Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel Aurora shows just such a world and in a recent interview with Radio National Books and Arts Daily [], he suggested that perhaps our place is not among the stars and that the life that evolves in other star systems may be so inimical to Earth life, that we’d be better off staying in our own planetary back yard. It’s true that the planets and asteroids of our solar system are there for the taking. As for the stars, I’m not quite ready to give up on them yet. Extra-solar life may be dangerous as Kim Stanley Robinson says, but let’s not discount the possibility that in the future we may engineer ourselves to thrive in those alien environments: an idea already explored in James Blish’s Pantropy Series and books like Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus.

In any event for the simple survival of the species, staying put on Earth is not a viable alternative. We need to diversify to viable colonies on numerous moons and worlds just so one meteorite doesn’t wipe us out. Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves shows to devastating effect just how badly the ‘all-our-eggs-in-one-basket’ scenario can turn out for humanity.

As usual our imagination outpaces our ‘real-life’ ability to do the stuff we want to do. It’s been forty-three years since a human walked on the moon. But as Buzz Aldrin said recently [] we’ve already reaped huge technological rewards from the space program and continue to do so, and once we set up a colony on Mars, the mineral wealth of the asteroid belt will be within our reach. After a long period of robot probes and deep-space satellite missions, we’re finally getting ready to send people out of Earth orbit again. The dangers will be huge. The setbacks may be many. But the rewards will be incalculable.


keith_stevenson_colour_hi_resKeith Stevenson is the author of Horizon an SF Thriller out now in ebook from HarperCollins Voyager Impulse. He blogs about the ideas behind Horizon at and you can find out more about Keith at, on Facebook at and on Twitter at

Steampunk Adventures

A guest post by Richard Ellis Preston Jr.

Today I’m joined by the talented Richard Ellis Preston Jr. Richard and I have been friends for a couple of years, the first of his Romulus Buckle books and my Garden of Stones being released around the same time. Richard is an experienced author and an all round lovely guy. I hope Steampunk fans enjoy what he has to say, and perhaps a few of you on the fringe decide to take a dip after reading this.


First of all, I’d like to thank you for having me as a guest on your blog, Mark. You and I seem to share similar sensibilities so I think readers who are interested in what you have to say might find some similar perspectives on the world from my camp. We’ll see. The main question you posed to me was Why did you choose steampunk? Good question. Let’s get to it.

Mysteampunk adventure series, The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin, has currently the first two books, Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders and Romulus Buckle and the Engines of War published, while the third book, Romulus Buckle and the Luminiferous Aether, is coming out soon, in early November, 2015.

Romulus Buckle 1 Final Book Cover AD RBEW_CvrImg ADRomulus Buckle III Final Luminiferous Aether rev1_LeagueOfSphinxFINAL_1000

Beginnings and Misfires: I was having trouble finding an environment for my story when I was first trying to develop Romulus Buckle as a series. I knew I wanted to do a big, sweeping, epic adventure story in the tradition of Indiana Jones and Star Wars and I knew that I wanted it to center on the intimate relationships and trials of the crew of a ship at war. But I also wanted prominent female characters (officers) and a zebra-striped alien (I can only refer to some weird cubby in my subconscious as to where that idea came from).

I couldn’t make a pure sci-fi spaceship scenario work to my satisfaction, nor a contemporary submarine (lack of female sailors) and I found myself coming around again and again to the 17th-19th century seafaring eras, landing somewhere in the swashbuckling neighborhoods of Horatio Hornblower and Richard Aubrey. The only way one can wedge females into command positions in these periods is to make them pirates and a pirate story, while attractive, didn’t provide the opportunities I wanted in a way I could make them work. Things kind of stalled at that point.

Finding Steampunk: One day at work a friend handed me the novel Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. When I started reading the story I realized I had found the sandbox where my ideas could sink in and take hold. Steampunk. Although I was aware of retro-Victorian stories and certain elements of it in costuming and art I hadn’t realized it was a young but well-established subgenre of science fiction with a healthy following and a great bookshelf of literature to its name. Once I knew what steampunk was (and its definition is difficult to pin down, to be discussed below) I recognized it in some mainstream films such as Sucker Punch and TV series like Castle. Now I could mix all of my desired ingredients together in the steampunk stewpot and place them in an environment which felt new and unexplored to me. My story world arrived as a frozen, post-apocalyptic California where only fragments of the human race have survived an alien invasion and are left with nothing but steam power. Resurrected human society, re-engineered by a handful of scientists, has been designed to imitate the Victorian era and its mannerisms. Now I had my war vessel—a zeppelin—and I packed it with a swashbuckling Captain, swashbuckling female officers and a zebra striped alien among the crew.

SteampunkUsersManual-850What the hell is the definition of ‘Steampunk?’:  steampunk is a sprawling playground which encourages personal deviation so it tends to defy specific definition.  I like to call it the “brave, new, dystopian old world.” My own steampunk definition follows as: “a subgenre of science fiction which tends to involve stories set in Victorian England or its empire where steam power and fantastic machines have become the norm.” The Victorian/Edwardian period (1840-1900) anchors the steampunk timeline but is often extended back to encompass the late 18th century and forward to include the span of the Great War. My Romulus Buckle steampunk series is set hundreds of years into the future though its thematic heart is late 18th century-early 19th century Victorian. Steampunk tends to be militaristic and dark (dystopian) but it has such a broad imaginative scope it can head in almost any direction its creator chooses.

A true definition of steampunk?  Looking to the experts, I like Jeff VanderMeer’s fun steampunk ‘equation’ which he includes in The Steampunk Bible:

“STEAMPUNK = Mad Scientist Inventor [(steam x airship or metal man/baroque stylings) x (pseudo) Victorian setting] + progressive or reactionary politics x adventure plot.”

Wonderbook-coverVanderMeer states that his equation “… does sum up the allure of steampunk,” which is “…simultaneously retro and forward looking in nature … evokes a sense of adventure and discovery …(and) … embraces divergent and extinct technologies as a way of talking about the future.”  Bruce Sterling, co-author of the first-generation steampunk novel The Difference Engine with William Gibson, plumbs a darker vein in his User’s Guide to Steampunk: “Steampunk’s key lessons are not about the past.  They are about the instability and obsolescence of our own times … we are secretly preparing ourselves for the death of our own tech.”

(Just to mention, Jeff VanderMeer is now experiencing huge success with his Southern Reach novel trilogy. He was the story editor on my first two Romulus Buckle novels and helped me publish my Romulus Buckle universe-related short story, An Officer and a Gentleman along with featuring my work in his The Steampunk User’s Manual: An Illustrated Practical and Whimsical Guide to Creating Retro-Futurist Dreams. Jeff is a wonderful guy, a great writer and a tireless supporter of other writers and I wish him all the success in the world. I would also highly recommend his brilliant Wonderbook: the Illustrated Guide to Crafting Imaginative Fiction to any writer in any stage of his/her career and to any creative person in any field of the arts. I’d also like to make a shout out illustrator Jeremy Zerfoss, who provides art for much of Jeff’s manuals and is a blast of a guy as well).

An Officer & A Gentleman PrestonHow Do You Do Steampunk? For me, plunging into the steampunk world meant researching everything I could: hydrogen, zeppelins, aerial navigation, steam engines, locomotives, muzzle-loading cannons and muskets, Victorian clothing and culture, ballroom dances, and so on. I like the sense of being as spot on and as authoritative with the real science as I can so I know exactly when I cross the line—leaving the realm of reality for the realm of fantasy—and I can carry that authority in my voice so the reader feels comfortable suspending their disbelief and coming along.

One of the great things about steampunk is that it carries with the baggage of its history. The Victorian era is now considered highly racist with its flag-bearer Rudyard Kipling and his “white man’s burden” and the brutalities of colonialism and empire. But it was also a time of great energy, a period which saw the beginning of the industrial revolution and the intellectual and nation-state struggles which still afflict the modern world. This era provides the author with a smorgasbord of conflicts and contradictions: exploration vs. colonialism; the traditional hero vs. the fallible everyman; industrialization (the clock tower) vs. subsistence agriculture (the cycles of the sun and moon); idealized romantic love vs. debauchery; female suffrage vs. sexual repression; extreme wealth vs. extreme poverty; Darwin vs. the creationists; man vs. machine, and on and on.

Well Garbed Steampunks with Book SDCC 2013Out of Disaster Comes Hope: Lastly, and this is important to my Romulus Buckle series, the Victorian period is infused with an immense optimism, an optimism fueled by rapid advances in technology, science and medicine. Many Victorians hoped mankind was embarking on a new, utopian age. But that hope was crushed by the First World War and the resulting great disillusionment is still part of who we are today.

Steampunk exults in dystopian adventure, in zeppelin air battles and sentient, steam-powered machines, but it is also driven along by the Victorian torch of hope, expectation and a belief in the ultimate triumph of human potential.  This torch is fallen and battered, near extinguished, but it still flickers in the shadows of our terrible failures along the way.

A Steampunk Journey to Publication: I had been a screenwriter in Los Angeles for about 20 years, working my way through a couple of agents and penning medium-budget action, sci-fi and family movies and TV shows for HBO, USA, TNT, Animal Planet and foreign theatrical release. Television wore me out and I turned to writing novels. The first novel I finished was Romulus Buckle and the City of the Founders. I set up my long agent query letter lists but I had a friend on the inside, author Julie Kenner. Julie had quit the law business and became a successful NYT Bestselling writer. She ran the manuscript past some agents for me and Adrienne Lombardo at Trident Media Group in New York read the book and offered me a contract with the agency. I ended up with a two book deal signed with 47North, Amazon’s new sci-fi publishing imprint in March, 2012. 47North did not choose to continue publishing the series, however, and I am self-publishing the third installment, Romulus Buckle and the Luminiferous Aether.

Always onward and forward! I’d like to thank Mark T. Barnes for having me by today. It’s been a blast!


New author photo Jan 2015Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. grew up in the United States and Canada but he prefers to think of himself as British. He attended the University of Waterloo where he earned an Honors B.A. in English with a Minor in Anthropology.  He has lived on Prince Edward Island, met the sheep on Hadrian’s Wall, eaten at the first McDonalds in Moscow, excavated a 400 year old Huron Indian skeleton and attended a sperm whale autopsy. The Purple Scarab is the first book in his new League of the Sphinx YA adventure series which he writes as R.E. Preston. Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders, Romulus Buckle & the Engines of War and Romulus Buckle & the Luminiferous Aether are the first three installments in his steampunk series, The Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin. His short story, “An Officer and a Gentleman,” is a prequel set in the same steampunk universe. He currently resides in California.

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