I recently had the pleasure of talking with Mike Perschon, aka the Steam Scholar. We discussed his thoughts on the field of Steampunk scholarship, and got his expert opinion on what Captain Nemo should have on his bedside table.
Doctor Fantastique’s: A few weeks back, you defended your dissertation and were awarded a Doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of Alberta. First off, congratulations! And how about a three word answer to the question “How do you feel?”
Mike Perschon: Seriously? I just wrote nearly 300 pages on Steampunk, and you want me to give you a three-word answer to something? I’m an academic. We’re terrible at this sort of thing. I’ll quote my students, I guess: “Like a boss.” It was spectacularly anti-climactic. I got up the next day and taught like I do any other Tuesday.
DF’s: Your view of Steampunk is that it is a tripartite aesthetic. Did you face any challenges in your research as you sought to locate examples from the literature within your definition of Steampunk as technofantastic neo-Victorian Retrofuturism?
MP: The challenge was trying to define Steampunk without the tripartite aesthetic. Every time I used an existing definition, a book would come along that crawled outside that definition. The tripartite aesthetic allows for greater inclusivity without going so far as to say “Steampunk can be anything.”
DF’s: Captain Nemo and Phileas Fogg are looking for a new title for their reading group. What’s the first book that comes to mind?
MP: I’d say The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. If those two are in a room together, there’s sure to be disagreement. Nemo really needs to be reading a book on anger management, and Fogg needs a book on the habits of highly ineffective people. They both need to chill out, so maybe I’d recommend something by Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama.
DF’s: What does the future of Steampunk scholarship look like for you now? That is, are you at the head of the charge, a lone wolf, something else/more?
MP: I wouldn’t say I’m at the head of the charge. I think Jess Nevins, John Clute, and Steffen Hantke headed the charge. I’m certainly not a lone wolf, given the other great articles I’ve read in both The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies and the hot-off-the-presses Steaming into a Victorian Future. I feel like I’m in very good company. What’s been lovely about Steampunk scholarship since I started working in it is how congenial and generous everyone has been. I haven’t experienced much territoriality in my networking with other scholars. As to the future, I’m working on really engaging the nostalgia inherent in Steampunk, and looking at the spectrum of nostalgic expressions in Steampunk art and writing.
DF’s: How has your work been received by colleagues in the Comp Lit discipline? Have you met with interest, curiosity from anyone in particular?
MP: People are interested, but in more of a fan way. People’s interest spiked after the Steampunk episode of Castle. My colleagues in English at MacEwan have been exceedingly supportive. A few have expressed a novel pride in having a “Steampunk expert” on staff, which is fun.
DF’s: Fun question here. Favorite course you’ve ever given? And…given all the resources imaginable, all the funding, all the interested students necessary, what would be your fantasy course to teach?
MP: I had the opportunity to teach an introduction to Science Fiction at the University of Alberta, and that was easily my favorite course to teach. I will be teaching a version of that course as an interdisciplinary study at Grant MacEwan in Winter of 2013, so I’m excited about that. As for my dream course, I think it would be deliriously fun to teach a course in Steampunk with unlimited resources. I’d do it as a seminar with a cap of twelve students: we’d travel to Nantes to see the Verne museum there, go to Steamcon in Seattle in the fall, study Steampunk novels, watch Steampunk films, and analyze Steampunk music. It would have to be an interdisciplinary course, because I’d want the option to assign students a final project instead of paper. That way, music students could create Steampunk music, the English students could write literary analyses of Steampunk fiction, and the sociology students could study fan cultures. It would be a blast. And since we’re dreaming, I’d have guest lecturers like James Blaylock, Gail Carriger, and Captain Robert Brown.
DF’s: Sign me up. Money is no object. At least it’s not an object in my wallet. Okay, back to the interview…If any undergraduates out there were interested in pursuing a similar course of study as yours, you’ve presented a wealth of resources on your website. What else can you offer as advice to would-be Steam Scholars?
MP: Listen to the fans, but don’t treat what they say as gospel truth. The goal of the university is ultimately a sort of objective truth, so unless you’re doing a culture study or anthropological take on things, you can’t trust a fan. It’s like trusting a believer to tell you what their religion believes. And I say that as a fan who has to bracket his own opinions about what I wish Steampunk was or wasn’t.
DF’s: You attended Seminary training earlier in life. Were you able to draw on what you learned there as you set out to complete your Ph.D?
MP: Yes, in the way I just alluded to. I repeatedly saw discussions about Steampunk stray into the same sorts of denominational and ideological pissing matches I saw in Seminary and in my work as a minister. The battles over what a “true” Steampunk is aren’t that far removed from what a “true” Christian is.
DF’s: Last question, another fun one. Finish this joke.
A Steampunk walks into a college classroom, looks at her pocket watch, gasps, and runs out the door. A minute later she returns looking completely composed. When asked what that was all about, she tells the professor…?
MP: She realized she hadn’t done the assignment, so she used her time-machine pocket watch to travel into the past far enough to get her homework done on time, at which point the prof makes a note to include barring time machine use in future syllabi.
DF’s: Thank you again, Dr. Perschon, for taking time out for our interview. Here’s hoping you don’t have to worry about any chronological malfeasance in your courses.