A talk with Author Scott E. Tarbet
Part 5: My lady, the Queen’s Engineer
I must admit that Author Scott E. Tarbet is full of surprises. To rewrite Shakespeare’s comedy as steampunk is clever, but apparently not clever enough. In this, my final interview with Mr. Tarbet, I am treated to a discussion of a personal favorite in his book. Dr. Malieux. No, this is not the sadistic Dr. Oberon Malieux that darkens the path of Pauline Spiegel. Instead, meet the beautiful wife of Oberon, the Godmother of our heroic Pauline, and her mother’s best friend. Genius physician and engineer, Dr. Lakshmi Malieux.
Steampunk has some advantages over more conventional tales from the early 20th Century. In a steampunk world, any woman can be an inventor or, as Mr. Tarbet puts it, an “artificer.” In A Midsummer Night’s Steampunk, it seems that engineering among women is more of a rule than an exception, as the discipline is the common thread linking all of his female characters. Pauline is not just the daughter of an engineer, but the daughter of two engineers. Her best friend, Clementine, is also an artificer, and by the time the reader has finished the first chapter, it’s difficult to think of a world where this is not commonplace.
That’s what Mr. Tarbet seems to want, but still it is not enough. The Eurocentric concept of Anglo superiority explodes in a puff of dragonflies as Dr. Lakshmi Malieux bursts on the scene, carried by a cloud of micro-mech insects. Not only is she the master (er . . . mistress?) engineer in this novel, she is an Indian Mistress Engineer. And again, by the time the reader has finished meeting her, this seems quite logical. Yes, Indian women struggle for equality even in the 21st Century, but in the mind of Mr. Tarbet, they are equal to all men, everywhere.
To say that this is groundbreaking is an understatement. Lakshmi is the kind of character that takes on a life of her own. She has certainly gained Scott E. Tarbet and Xchyler Publishing a riot of international attention. Personally, as a woman working in a STEM field, I am in awe of this character. I do not know if I have ever met her in person, but “when I grow up,” I sure do want to be like her.
Why use a woman in such a pivotal role, and even more pertinent, why make her an Indian woman? Scott E. Tarbet was kind enough to indulge me in one more talk this week: a discussion of Dr. Lakshmi, the engineer.
Ginger: You have defined Pauline so well in this revision, and she really pops out of the pages. However, the fairy queen is such a memorable character in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. She is incredibly seductive in all ways that matter — but I mean that in an innocent voice. As a writer, I can imagine how tempting it is to explore her story.
In your book, I see Tatania in the character Lakshmi. Like the fairy queen, she is an incredibly strong female in a supporting role. She echoes Pauline beautifully as a Godmother and mentor of engineering. She also serves as a perfect foil to your villain, Dr. Oberon Malieux. I already love this woman. But you are “steampunking” a Shakespeare play, filled with British and Northern European people. Lakshmi is neither of those, she is Indian royalty. Tell me, Scott, why make your fairy queen an Indian?
Scott: The short answer: Because it’s who she is. I didn’t decide to make her Indian; the character just revealed herself to me that way. And you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. I know an awful lot about Lakshmi that hasn’t made it into print. There is AMNS, and the novelettes Ganesh and Sindisiwe, where she plays strong, similar roles. But those three are just the tip of the iceberg. Not only does she figure strongly in the subsequent stories of Pauline’s continuing adventures, but the prequel to AMNS is itching to be written as well.
The long answer: In the Shakespeare play, the object of Oberon and Titania’s feud is a “little Indian boy”, the child of one of Titania’s acolytes. This being a Steampunk retelling, I have replaced all the magic with engineering, so the little Indian boy became the automaton Jubal, with an Indian provenance. So it was only natural that his chief engineer and creator be Indian. And of course she would be royalty, because that’s just who Titania is. She is from Golkonda because that principality did in reality produce some of the largest diamonds ever discovered.
As I alluded to above, there is a lot more of her story to be told, and India plays a large role in the history of the Victorian era of the British Empire. “The Raj”—England’s name for its conquest holdings on the Indian Subcontinent—was formative in the flowering of the Empire and a watershed in its subsequent dissolution. It is a largely unexplored facet of the collection of Steampunk tropes that I intend to indulge in for several works to come.
Ginger: What a lush blend of technology and fantasy! It’s classic dream shorthand, compressing the image of the Indian boy into his mother. But when you did that, you created a character that few of us have ever seen in Steampunk: a powerful Indian woman.
Did you imagine at the time what kind of impact Lakshmi might have on women today, especially those of us who work in STEM fields?
Scott: Absolutely. It is a dream of mine that Lakshmi and Pauline’s example inspires one little girl into the STEM fields. If nothing else comes out of it, that would make it all very well worth the effort.
In the AMNS Steampunk universe, the silly prejudice against women in STEM evaporated a lot earlier and more thoroughly than it has in real life. Pauline and Clementine are both university-trained engineers, as are Lakshmi and her best friend, Pauline’s mother Hermione. No one thinks it at all unusual that preeminence in the field is not gender limited. The anti-STEM acculturation of little girls that is such a repugnant feature of our society (what a heartbreaking waste of brains and talent!) is entirely absent.
It is a feature of my writing that my social concerns creep in. I try hard not to take too much advantage of the “bully pulpit”, but the concerns are always there, just under the surface—sometimes right out on top. Women in STEM is certainly one of them. It is also great fun to imagine a world in transition in other respects, such as the rights of the disabled, particularly veterans.
Ginger: What was the reaction from women in countries like India and the Middle East? How did they receive Lakshmi?
Scott: I’m told my Lakshmi character has a small cult following in India. Human rights crusaders in particular, of whom there seem to be a good many in India, as befits the legacy of Gandhi, have received it warmly. I’ve received invitations to come tour the book there, and have signed a development contract for a Hindi-language film. I’m interested to see what comes of it.
Ginger: I cannot let you go without begging for a teaser. Can you give us a few words from Lakshmi to tide us over until her next appearance?
Scott: The adventures continue as Pauline travels to the Phoenix community in South Africa to meet Lakshmi, to seek her help with badly needed new advances in prosthetics. But instead of finding peace to pursue science and healing, she has walked into the British colonial maelstrom that is South Africa at the beginning of the 20th Century. Soon she will find herself enmeshed in the deadly struggle for equality, lead by Lakshmi and her young friends, Kasturba and Mohandas Gandhi.
Want to continue the conversation?
Meet Scott E. Tarbet at Marissa’s Gifts and Books on Friday, October 9th
Have you been dying to meet a rising star in steampunk? Utah fans, here’s your chance.
Marissa’s Gifts & Books, a charming local independent bookstore, is hosting a signing of the new second edition of A Midsummer Night’s Steampunk, featuring the heroic Pauline on a gorgeous new cover, Friday, October 9th, from 6:00 to 8:00 pm. Author Scott Tarbet will sign tonight.
Located at 5664 S 900 E, Ste 8, Murray, UT 84121, Marissa’s is your home for hard to find vintage and collectable books, as well as new titles from local authors.
Already own a first edition copy of AMNS?
Bring it by, and get the second edition, autographed, for only $10. That goes for Kindle copies of the first edition, too.
Come in Steampunk costume, and get $2 off your copy of the second edition.