I know I said I’d be doing another serial this week, but last Friday we went to an event which I thought was germane to what we are all interested in (namely SF/fantasy). It was a Steampunk Murder Mystery, and it was put on by a local fan group; one that has, in the past, done pirate stuff, Renaissance Faire stuff and who knows what else? Now they’ve branched off and gone to what the mainstream surely thinks as the “great new thing” in SF. (I refer, of course, to steampunk, which the rest of us have either been aware of or have been participating in for several years.)
Now, I’m sure none of you has been wobbling around with your head in an inaccessible, dark place, like some mainstream media have; but just in case, a brief description of what steampunk is—at least as I understand it. Steampunk takes place in an alternate universe, and most often during the Victorian Era (Queen Victoria ruled for 63 years; up till now the longest-reigning English monarch, though I understand our Queen Elizabeth II is about to—or possibly already has done so—break that record. Victoria died in 1901, so period steampunk often takes place in the latter part of the 19th century, though some take place in an alternate present, where it is assumed that the particular present under discussion is a result of steampunk happening in the 19th century); the supposition is that steam—mostly—and electricity arose as viable power sources much earlier than actually happened, and that alternative means of transportation, computation, lighting and what have you brought a more modern type of society into being during Victoria’s reign—but all infused with the particular sensibility of Victorian England. That is to say, morés, costumes, language, art and design would be very similar to what obtained in, say, 1880-1900, while the technology advanced by leaps and bounds; again, taking steam and coal power, rather than oil and petroleum products, as the main motive forces for society.
Some say that the William Gibson/Bruce Sterling novel The Difference Engine (1990) was one of the first actual steampunk novels; I won’t get into that particular argument, except to notate that Harry Harrison predated that book with A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! in 1973, and Harry’s book seems to me to be very steampunk. Then there was the 1970s TV series The Wild, Wild West which seems in retrospect to have been sort of steampunkish; at least James West and Artemus Gordon employed a lot of what now seems anachronistic technology adapted to suit the time. (If all you’ve seen is the somewhat disappointing Will Smith movie, you’ve missed a clever, fun TV series.)
Now, of course, steampunk novels are fairly commonplace; you might even say that my own first book, Tom Smith and His Electric Skyship, was steampunk, since it was set in the very early 1900s. The idea for Friday’s Murder Mystery was to set it in a steampunk era; someone at one point mentioned 1892, so I assume that’s the period it was set in. The avowed purpose of this was to raise money for the Renaissance Festival, but Lynne and I went in part because I was curious as to how well these people were going to carry off a roleplaying alternate-history murder mystery. (Try saying that three times fast!)
So, although I knew that it would be a murder mystery in a steampunk style, enacted by some people I knew (but not really well; I knew Chilam from the VCON Art Show, and have auctioned quite a few of his works and own a couple—and I knew Christina Carr from VCON). So they had at least a bit of “street cred” with me, and I was curious to see how they would perform. Lynne and I had gone to at least one other “murder mystery” play (in Edmonton, if memory serves) and enjoyed it—and as a sometime actor myself, I like supporting the local arts. (For example: my performance as Henry Higgins in the Lewiston, Idaho, Civic Theatre production of the musical My Fair Lady back in 1980 or so received, I believe, an “adequate” rating from the local paper. Philistines!) So even though it was a Friday night—and a foggy one at that—and we’d be braving the roads crammed with bad, drunk drivers, we girded our mental loins and set out for Coquitlam (usually a half-hour drive, although if you take the freeway it could easily end up being a lot longer), arriving at the Legion Hall about 1/2 hour earlier than it was scheduled to start. Oops. Oh, well… better early than late!
Since this was, I believe, a pilot project for “Times Past Entertainment” (the local group), we didn’t expect a polished performance. We had been told we could either come in period costume or wear our normal clothing; we opted for the latter, although I wore my MAD magazine hat, since the lettering was pseudo-1890s. I’m sure you’ve seen that logo. I told anyone who asked that I was an escapee from Bedlam (a well-known London institution for the mentally unwell from the period), and that seemed to be acceptable, garnering more than a few comments. Eventually, another 8 or so guests arrived; none really dressed up, although one carried a cane that seemed a bit period. Unfortunately, one of the guests became ill before it really got started and had to leave; that delayed it another half hour or so. Eventually, all were present and the evening’s festivities began.
We arrived at the Coquitlam Royal Legion Hall—the stated reason for holding it there was that Professor Fogg (see Figure 4) had contaminated his whole estate with harmonics or vibrations or something of the sort, which made it unfit for human habitation; we were forced to use this venue, which everyone pretended was somewhere in Victorian England. There were all sorts of interesting gewgaws on the sideboard, with stern notices saying not to touch (Figure 3); and an entire table full of beautiful food items, like cameo chocolates, mustache chocolates, period-decorated cupcakes—both wheat-based and gluten-free, and so on. Unfortunately, for health reasons, Lynne and I couldn’t partake in the “groaning board,” but I could at least look longingly on the cupcakes and so on. Lynne has so much willpower she didn’t even look.
We were greeted by a minion at the door and ushered to a table; then given a cup and saucer each and shown the table of goodies, then left to our own devices as the rest of the crew prepared for their roles (each one in costume, of course). There was a board set up near the entrance with a large poster of the dramatis personae; we were also given character cards with a space at the bottom to write our name when we finally decided who was the guilty party. The Mechanical Universal Tracker, or M.U.T. (Figure 2) also began wheeling around making his presence known by growling, barking, whining and so on.
Almost as soon as we sat down, Herbert Fenwick (Chilam), the gambler, was at our table importuning me to partake in a game of chance; he had a box with small cards, several dice and even a brass-and-wood game of noughts and crosses! (That’s tic-tac-toe for you modern Americans.) While that was going on, the rest of the (motley) crew—Nicodemus Fogg (Martin Hunger), the wealthy inventor; Lucifer Drake (Douglas William Haley), the Doctor; Alexander Twist (Jason Hubbard), the minion; and Catherine Baxter (Christina Carr), the “mysterious traveler” all milled around, interacting with each other and the guests as we trickled in. The minion, Twist, occasionally turned on the Perpetual Motion Machine (Figure 3) or interacted with the M.U.T. (Figure 2); all the while an Edison phonograph played some rather anachronistic Scott Joplin and other ragtime tunes.
After this had gone on a while, Herbert Fenwick began drinking heavily out of his bottle of absinthe; we had all heard various characters accuse him of owing them money, and he was finding it difficult to interest anyone in his games of chance. Finally, the Doctor had to point out to various members of the crew that Fenwick had done various nefarious things including stealing Fogg’s… uh, sonic screwdriver. At least that’s what it looked like to me. Finally, Fenwick keeled over, and the Doctor pronounced him dead. At that point, Inspector Quartermaine (Ed Appleby) came in to begin the investigation.
After checking that Fenwick was dead, Inspector Quartermaine gathered us all together in another part of the hall for an interrogation session; not only the Inspector, but all of the guests were allowed to quiz each of the suspects to his or her heart’s content. (After all, there was a prize at stake—the correct answer could win someone a basket of goodies!) The Inspector was aided by a little device he wore on his wrist; he used it to take samples of various items to determine whether they were poisoned—because it was determined that the unfortunate gambler had expired from a rather nasty neurotoxin called Tetrodotoxin, which is derived from fish of the blowfish family (a poison which the Doctor conveniently had in his medical kit). After inserting a sample of whatever substance he needed to test, the Inspector’s gadget buzzed a few times (sounding rather like an old-fashioned typewriter) and then either dinged to indicate there was poison present or buzzed to indicate the sample was clear. (Or maybe it was the other way around; I forget at this point.) A clever little device.
At this point, I must cease the description of what happened; in case they re-use this particular scenario, I wouldn’t want to give it away. (As it turns out, about 6 of us had the correct answer to “whodunnit,” and a random draw from those correct answers led to my wife, the Lovely and Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk, winning the basket!) All in all, it was a fun evening. And if your fan group, whatever it is—and wherever you are, dear reader—would like to do something of the sort, I’m sure there’s lots of fans in your area who would be willing to participate as either actors or guests. It’s another way we can grow closer in fandom, and keep fandom active. For Figure 4, the characters are, from left to right and from back to front. Top left: Inspector Quartermain, Minion/Handyman Twist, Doctor Drake and gambler Fenwick; bottom left: Fogg, M.U.T. (in front), Baxter and the dog handler, unobtrusively played by Robert French. For some reason, Queen Victoria never showed up.
Please comment on what I’ve written, either here on the Amazing Stories website—if you’re registered—or on Facebook, where I also post a link to this blog entry in several fan groups. My opinion is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories. For next week, I’ll get to another or more of the serials I promised you. Thanks for reading!