In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Genevieve Valentine to tell us a bit about the background of her story for Lightspeed, “The Zeppelin Conductors’ Society Annual Gentlemen’s Ball.”
Zeppelins are often associated with the Steampunk genre, and your story certainly has a Steampunk feel to it. What do you think Steampunk’s relationship is to science fiction? Is it a subgenre, or a close cousin? Do you think science fiction in general—both the canon and the community—is inclusive of things like Steampunk, or does it need to broaden further?
I think steampunk tends to live in the space between science fiction and fantasy, depending on how it’s utilized in each particular piece. I think that both the science fiction canon and the science fiction community have accepted steampunk elements for a long time; I think that as steampunk earns its permanent place in the canon, it will do so via the examination of some of the tropes on which previous steampunk has been built, which will both broaden and strengthen the collective canon.
In “Zeppelin Conductors’ Society” you structure your story and even tell parts of it through the use of ephemera—advertisements, promotional posters, and news clippings. Do you have a fascination with ephemera in general? What went into your decision to use that technique to tell this story?
I love ephemera, and always have; I think that introducing outside artifacts, from ads to half-finished letters to propaganda radio ads, is a fantastic way to enhance a traditional narrative and introduce the reader to a wider world, allowing them to reframe the narrative in a different context.
“Zeppelin Conductor’s Society” is a story about how societal structures and technological demands can trap the individual (often with the individual’s consent). The ephemera help to present a society to the reader that the narrator is unable to present himself, because for a large portion of the story he is unaware of the forces marshaled against him, and even after he is made aware, he can’t quite face what he now knows he’s up against.
What can you tell us about the science in your story? Did you do much research? Is Heliosis strictly the product of your imagination, or is there science behind it?
Heliosis is largely a metaphor for any other ailment that would have plagued a laborer struggling to produce a small element of the aristocratic lifestyle the Victorian rich enjoyed. Working in cotton mills you caught byssinosis, steel mills deafened you, coal mining gave you black lung; it stands to reason that, had zeppelins been available to the Victorians, they wouldn’t have hesitated to put working-class men into the dangerous positions, and then start a class-stratification propaganda campaign when things went sideways on them.
That said, I did do some research into the general effects of exposure to helium gas, which has several of the physicoligcal effects mentioned in the story, and contributes in a general way to the sort of physical ailments that would come of exerting oneself in a low-oxygen environment with less-than-perfect filtration.
Do you find yourself revisiting certain themes in your work? What other works—of your own or others—would you recommend to readers who enjoyed this story?
I’m not sure this is a question the author can ever objectively answer (unless it’s something really handy like, “Cake has appeared in all my works”), but I would say that the struggle of the individual against an immovable and intangible force of some kind or another is a theme to which I return.
This story is also one of the stories in which I try to examine a base trope that’s often applied without examination. In this case, every time a heroic steampunk-airship captain takes to the skies, there is a culture of invisible workers and a particular celebrity culture that are working in his favor, but neither one is designed to turn him into a particularly nice guy; and, as often happens, others will suffer from it far more than he ever will.
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