May 31, 2009

Mainspring by Jay Lake

Although Jay Lake's Mainspring takes place in an alternate history of Edwardian earth, the moment of the "break" which Karen Hellekson notes is necessary for alternate history to be different from ours, happens much earlier. Unlike other alternate histories which might suppose a break in a verifiable historical event, Lake's fictional conceit in Mainspring is far more cosmic, occurring at the moment of creation. The entire planet of Mainspring is bisected by a massive wall, separating it into the industrialized Northern hemisphere, and the bucolic, pre-industrial Southern hemisphere.

The hero of the tale is Hethor Jacques, a clock maker's apprentice who receives a visit from a suitably steampunk angel Gabriel, "bright as any brasswork automaton" (11). Hethor is entrusted with a quest to find the legendary "Key Perilous," one of seven sacred artifacts given to humanity by the Brass Christ following his "horofixion" on a "wheel-and-gear" instead of cross (12). Hethor's journey ultimately takes him from his comfortable, predictable life in New Haven, Connecticut, to the court of the viceroy of Boston, before bording an airship in the Royal Navy which is headed towards the Equatorial Wall. Hethor is told by Gabriel at the outset of his quest that the Key Perilous lies in the Southern Earth, and so it is of course, where he finally finds himself.

The book is as divided as the world it describes. The action in the Northern Earth has a sort of standard "hero's journey" feel to it, and Lake does an admirable job of making this early twentieth century United States strange enough to feel otherworldly, while maintaining the verisimilitude of period necessary for successful historical (even alternate historical) fiction to work. However, while the action of the first half keeps feeling as though it should be more enjoyable, I personally never found that it did. Or perhaps it's more what reviewer Lord Brandoch Daha observed, that each segment is good, but lacks overall cohesion:
On the downside, his novel Mainspring works out to be a bit less worthy than the sum of its parts. Each chapter is good. Each stage of the adventure is interesting, even exciting. Lake's alternate Earth is an intriguing place. His protagonist, a 16 year old boy named Hethor, sets out on a quest, follows it through while touring the world, and succeeds all is well. But as a whole, the parts don't quite fit together.
The second half is so different from the first in setting and pacing that it feels like one is reading an entirely different book. And whereas in the first half, the reader is suspicious that Hethor is getting bailed out of every perilous situation by a higher power, in the second, the reader is convinced. While many books beg you to skip to the end to see how it comes out, by the middle of Mainspring, I was pretty sure I knew already.

I blame Hethor Jacques.

Lake's lead character is one of the most bland and unappealing characters I have read in some time. His lack of appeal is not due to any vice or ugliness, but to the entire absence thereof. Sadly, Hethor is lacking as much in any real virtue as he is vice, lacking beauty as much as ugliness. He is the epitome of the flat character, given just enough nuance to seem lifelike, but in many ways as clockwork and predictable as the universe he inhabits. Things seem to happen around Hethor, not to him. He initiates nothing, and hardly even reacts to that which is initiated upon him.

Despite having no real sense of agency, Hethor does ultimately complete his quest. This would be a spoiler, but for the fact that a spoiler implies suspense, that one may be in question of whether or not the hero will succeed. But in Lake's Mainspring, by the time Hethor has reached the Southern Earth, the reader is no longer questioning whether or not Hethor will find the Key Perilous and reset the earth's mainspring, but only how. The when is clear - a few pages before the end of the book.

The idea of the deus ex machina is an authorial taboo which Lake uses as the premise of Mainspring. If the God of a clockwork universe sent you on a mission, you're going to complete that mission. You have been effectively wound up on a divine scale, and sent to do your job. Other people can die along the way, and many do--but you will not. You will complete your quest. You can fall off the miles-high Equatorial wall, but God's "angels" will catch you. This in itself is a fascinating idea, and the way in which Lake ties the idea of clockwork into Hethor's ability to hear the machinery of the earth coming off its track develops into the equally interesting idea that one who can hear the clockwork will ultimately understand the clockwork, and be able to assert their will upon it, i.e., perform magic. Hethor becomes a sort of cybernaut in real space, like characters from cyberpunk who can manipulate virtual reality. Hethor asserts his will upon the clockwork universe, at one point producing a field of grass and flowers in the midst of an arctic waste. This is a cool idea, but it makes for terrible story telling.

Story needs crisis. And Mainspring never really gets into crisis mode.

Sure, we're told the world is winding down and will soon end, but the sense of apocalyptic doom is missing. While it is a bit cliché, it would have helped heighten a sense of tension if the world falling apart might have actually had an effect on Hethor's adventures. He witnesses the earthquakes and tidal waves from the safety of an airship, which reduces the level of threat.
Further, Hethor never really gets into crisis. He gets beat up, wounded, and nearly killed on several occasions, but he's pulled out of the frying pan and/or fire before the reader can really begin to worry about him. We know he has to make it to the end of his quest, and by the end of the book, we're not really even all that worried when he dies. We're pretty sure, given the thematic content of the book, that he'll be resurrected shortly. After all, he is doing the same work the Brass Christ did centuries earlier.

There may be a deeper, ironic idea here, related to the "god-in-the-box" approach of religious fiction where God makes all things right at the very end, but if there is, I missed it entirely. I applaud Lake for carrying his conceit through to its logical conclusion, by not pulling the rug out from under the reader with a "man behind the curtain" in the place of God. A cursory reading of period fiction from the era steampunk emulates and plays within reveals that while God might have been dead, people were still talking about him, or at the very least still playing by his rules. However, there is a way to have a higher power involved in the working out of the main action in a way which leaves the reader in suspense. Tolkien did it. Lewis did. Stephen King has pulled it off in books like The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Desperation.

Sadly, it isn't done here. And while I love the universe Lake has created for his characters to live in, I can't say the same of those characters, or of the action they embody in Mainspring. I have hope though, given the glimmers of hope I had in the first half, and the buzz that Mainspring's sequel, Escapement, has gotten Lake's world back on track.

I must give a final kudo to Lake for effectively steampunking Christianity. It's no mean feat to give a major world religion a retro-futurist overhaul. In this respect, Lake is successful, as evidenced not only by the myth of the Brass Christ and the Horofix, but by the inclusion of what I can only describe as a steampunked version of the Lord's Prayer:

“Our Father, who art in Heaven

“Craftsman be thy name

“Thy Kingdom come

“Thy plan be done

“On Earth as it is in Heaven

“Forgive us this day our errors

“As we forgive those who err against us

“Lead us not into imperfection

“And deliver us from chaos

“For thine is the power, and the precision

“For ever and ever, amen. (102-03)

NOTE: I have heard the word "clockpunk" bandied about as a descriptor of Mainspring. A new subgenre of a subgenre is not needed here. If we allow Verne and Wells as the grandfathers of steampunk, then clockwork has always been part of what steampunk has been. Consider Phileas Fogg, who lives his life with clockwork precision (thanks Howard Hendrix!), or the nature of Wells' time machine. Clockwork is steampunk. No need for another term, people.

The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

While he was signing my copy of The Anubis Gates at the 2009 Eaton Science Fiction Conference, I explained my PhD research project to SF giant Tim Powers. Returning my copy of Anubis Gates, he asked with honesty, "So do you think it's steampunk?"

As was the case with Rudy Rucker, Powers seemed a bit bemused about the term, although he's not dismissive of being included within the steampunk umbrella, or parasol. If steampunk is supposed to be a subgenre of science fiction, then Powers' contributions don't really belong, as they contain less science than space opera does. It's involves time-travel, so it ostensibly relates to Wells, but the time-travel of Anubis Gates is affected through a scientific manipulation of holes created by magic, so it's some unholy hybrid of fantasy with unexplained science, not a work of physical science. But as Powers stated during a panel at the Eaton conference, his books are more fantasy than they are science fiction, unless one allows for spiritualism as a form of science as it was in the late nineteenth century. Since The Anubis Gates takes place in the early nineteenth century, it found itself lumped in with the Victorian fantastic tales K.W. Jeter and James P. Blaylock were also writing in the '80s. And as such, it was included in Jeter's offhand remark in Locus which birthed the term steampunk. As such, it forms part of an original canon, a word I would hesitate to use, save for the fact that steampunk resists canonicity, and so to determine an aesthetic, one must posit some limiting boundaries. I posit that to determine what constitutes a steampunk work, the original texts must be used as measurements. I would include Moorcock's Nomad of the Time Streams in addition to the original trinity, and extend the same inclusion to Gibson and Sterling's Difference Engine. And, as will be established later, Powers' Anubis Gates does contribute to the aesthetic of current steampunk, whether the author knows it or not.

At its core, The Anubis Gates is an adventure story. Powers is not writing a novel of ideas here. This is not postmodern, Pynchonesque steampunk ala Against the Day. It is not even Moorcock's politically-charged steampunk as in Nomad of the Time Streams. It is pure adventure story, filled with whimsy, page-turning cliffhangers, and contrived coincidences which permit the hero to make it through his adventures alive, though certainly not unscathed. The protagonist of The Anumbis Gates, Professor Brendan Doyle, joins a host of pulp characters who can take a severe beating and keep on going--how he does so was one of the most enjoyable moments of the book for me. All this said, it is not garbage. Powers is a superior writer; he just happens to have no higher agenda, exemplified best by his comment at the Eaton conference regarding Dracula. He related how people often tell him Bram Stoker's novel is about the situation of women in the nineteenth century, to which he replies: "Really? I thought it was about a creature who stays immortal by drinking blood!"

The Anubis Gates follows this philosophy, stubbornly resisting any reading deeper than "the good guy is now trying to escape from the bad guy," or "the heroine is now trapped by the evil sorcerous clown." One might be able to draw pop culture influences, such as aforesaid sorcerous clown as a steampunk Joker, but Powers' originality resists these sorts of comparisons as well. Explaining The Anubis Gates is like explaining Stephenson's Snowcrash or Whedon's Firefly. One always ends up invoking comparisons, and then qualifying those comparisons, and then making a contrast instead, before giving up in frustration, thrusting the book or DVD out, and exclaiming, "Trust me--you'll just have to read/watch it!" Ultimately, one might say explaining The Anubis Gates is like explaining what steampunk is, which is always the challenge of defining any pastiche in a quick and dirty fashion. And perhaps that is the best reason for keeping The Anubis Gates as an example of what steampunk is.

This is related to why I haven't made any comments on the plot, which contains too many twists and turns to summarize without spoiling the fun of the novel (unlike my earlier review of Mainspring, The Anubis Gates contains a number of surprises for even the well-read and jaded connoisseur of the fantastic). The book jacket reads that "Only the dazzling imagination of Tim Powers could have assembled such an insane cast of characters: an ancient Egyptian sorcerer, a modern millionaire, a body-switching werewolf, a hideously deformed clown, a young woman disguised as a boy, a brainwashed Lord Byron, and finally, our hero, Professor Brendan Doyle," which is no summary whatsoever. It is merely a cataloguing of the motley cast of The Anubis Gates, which might very well be the only way to tantalize a potential reader without giving away the novel's surprises.

What it clearly reveals is that The Anubis Gates is unconcerned with industrial technology, but is focused rather on thaumaturgic technology: magic. While I can't cite the precise instances or conversations, there has been buzz amongst steampunk adherents in the past year or so that steampunk is beginning to appropriate more gothic elements, or a sort of Lovecraftian aesthetic. What The Anubis Gates reveals is that magic has always been part of the pastiche of steampunk--Doyle wonders at one point "how much of this Lovecraftian fantasy could be true" (120). Without belaboring the point, it must be remembered that magic is historically the precursor to science in Western culture. It is, if you will, proto-science, or even the science of its day. Accordingly, magic was a sort of technology in the Romantic, Victorian, and Edwardian period. Serious thinkers such as William Butler Yeats and Evelyn Underhill were joining groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The magic of these groups is precision ritual - a form of technology. The working magic of The Anubis Gates plays upon this real world analogy, but is as anachronistic as steam, aether, clockwork, or difference engine imaginings in steampunk texts.

I'm not arguing that all magic is steampunk then, but only certain types of magic, within a certain context. The Anubis Gates plays with Egyptian magic particularly, utilizing the nineteenth century's generation and then subsequent fascination with the mummy's curse, as evidenced in the research of Dominic Montserrat and Roger Lockhurst. Accordingly, it is "contemporary magic" for the nineteenth century, going so far as to behave within the boundaries of a nineteenth century worldview, since the binding of the ancient Egyptian gods seems to have had something to do with the rise of Christianity: "They reside now in the the Tuaut, the underworld, the gates of which have been held shut for eighteen centuries by some pressure I do not understand but which I am sure is linked with Christianity" (11). Again, I must qualify: I am not stating that steampunk magic must apply but such rules, but there is a verisimilitude gained in paying even only lip service to the vestiges of Christendom, if one wishes to write fiction taking place in the British Empire, or Colonial Europe in the nineteenth century. China Mievelle's Bas-Lag can be as godless as its author wishes it to be, since it is a secondary world which echoes, not emulates a Dickensian London. The setting of The Anubis Gates is London, and accordingly, despite potential differences accorded an alternate history, should reflect the reality of that historical setting.

All academic musings aside, The Anubis Gates is a humourous, light-hearted adventure with turns dark and dreary, whose plot centers around the heart of counter-factual questions, which is, what if? What if things had been different? What if, asks Doyle, my life had turned out differently? He asks this question of his own academic inquiry, the enigmatic poet William Ashbless: "And how was it in your day, William? Were the cigars and scotch and women any better?" Potentially, this is the question at the heart of steampunk: how was it in another day? Powers never really answers this question, but instead chronicles the fantastic pursuit of such an answer, which may be, aside from the artistic quality of the text, The Anubis Gates' secret to literary longevity. In only asking the question, it opens up the sense of possibility, which is ultimately what good speculative fiction does--it speculates, on the possibilities, and leaves the reader to ruminate on their own conclusions, be they high-minded and pedantic, or simply, "damn, that was a good book." My brother-in-law had the latter reaction. So much so, he wanted to pick it up and read it again immediately.

In writing this review, I'm feeling much the same way.

May 15, 2009

Finding Nemo: Verne's Antihero as Original Steampunk - Eaton SF Conference, 2009

I'm still working on the next of my reports from the Eaton conference. I'm working furiously to do final revisions on my Steam Wars paper (which looks at the Steampunk Star Wars art at CGSociety) for submission to the Journal of Neo-Victorian studies, so updating the blog, as always, is what suffers. Rather than leave the site without content this May long weekend, I'm posting my images and text from the paper presentation I gave at the Eaton conference. Feel free to use the images, so long as you provide me with a link. Thanks again to Art Donovan for the use of his Shiva Mandala images, which provide a visual link to the three identities of Nemo I explore in this paper, and to Greg Medley, who is the visual Nemo of my research. I like him better than Mason and Shaw.

Despite the scholarly rehabilitation of the author and his works, the image of one of Verne’s most famous characters remains misunderstood, and with rare exception, misrepresented. The irony of the Latin meaning of Nemo as “no one” (Miller footnote 4 67), is that the ubiquity of the character in Western culture and to a degree, beyond, has made the name self-referential. It can no longer stand in for the idea of namelessness, but rather has become synonymous with that which the Captain most revered, the ocean. Consider the intertextual nature of the title of this article, which references Disney, the company responsible for what is arguably the most famous portrayal of Nemo by James Mason in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), as well as the 2003 computer-animated family film Finding Nemo, about a young clownfish named Nemo, produced by Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures. No longer, “no one”, it seems Nemo has become everyone and anyone. In Kevin Anderson’s Captain Nemo: The Fantastic History of a Dark Genius (2007), he is even imagined as the boyhood friend and romantic rival of Jules Verne himself!

It is lamentable, given the increased interest in steampunk, both as fashion sub-culture and science fiction subgenre, that this seminal submariner remains obscured by Orientalist overexposure, doomed to be played most often with the accent of the Empire he hated most of all. It is all the more lamentable when one understands Nemo not only as “Verne’s greatest creation, indeed one of the stars of world literature, and a prototype of a major science fiction personality” (Miller xvii), but as a potential model for oppositional politics”, which may be posited as the possible “punk” in steampunk (Pagliasotti). Nemo further embodies of the essence of a steampunk hero through the repetitive cycle of death and rebirth he engages in: a subaltern member of an oppressed nation and freedom fighter against imperial tyranny; the self-made inventor of the spectacular Nautilus, an artistic romantic resisting Empire through monstrous violence; and finally, an ecumenical and egalitarian humanist seeking redemption.

First Identity: Prince Dakkar – Nemo as Subaltern
Nemo’s ethnicity is essential to his existence as original Steam-Punk. Steampunk heroes exist at the margins of Empire—they are underdogs, the oppressed. Nemo’s origins have always been as a member of society oppressed by Empire:
“[Verne’s] first draft was influenced by the 1863 Polish uprising against Tsarist Russia. Poland was quashed with a bestial savagery that appalled not just Verne but all Europe. As first conceived, the novel’s protagonist, Captain Nemo, was a Polish aristocrat whose parents, wife, and children were brutally slaughtered by Russian troops.” (Miller xvi)

It has been well documented how Hetzel refused this Nemo, given political ties France had recently secured with Russia, to which Verne acquiesced by leaving “the identity of Nemo and of his great oppressor as something of a mystery, at least in Twenty Thousand Leagues” (xvi). It did not remain a mystery forever, as Verne revealed in The Mysterious Island, that Nemo was Prince Dakkar, “an Indian deeply opposed to the British Raj” (Pagliasotti), “Indian in his heart, Indian in his longing for revenge, Indian in his dreams of reclaiming his native land, driving out the invaders, and inaugurating a new era of independence” (Island 584-85).

While this revelation was never a mystery to French readers after 1874, it remained so to English readers up until the late twentieth century. Since Allen Holubar played the Captain in the silent film of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916), more than sixteen actors have played Nemo in film and television versions of Verne’s novels. It is significant to note that of these many actors, only one has been an Indian: Naseeruddin Shah in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), an adaptation not of a Verne novel, but of a graphic novel featuring the Captain as one of the protagonists. The fact of Nemo’s little known Indian heritage, and even less known revolutionary involvement as revealed in The Mysterious Island amounts to the literary equivalent of a political conspiracy. It might be assumed that Walt Disney pictures is to blame for the accidental Occidentalizing of Nemo, but the blame for the cover-up cannot be laid at the feet of Disney, who has already been over abused by the academic community. Instead, Miller and Walter identify the culprit of this misrepresentation of Nemo as “British boys’ author,” W.H.G. Kingston, who “rewrites, cuts, and just plain fabricates, all in an effort to bring this crucial passage into line with the official British propaganda of his day” (389).

A cross-examination of Kingston’s translations with post-colonial (and arguably superior) translations of The Mysterious Island such as Jordan Stump’s, demonstrates the extent to which Kingston’s revisions muddied the waters Nemo traveled in. Even though Kingston translates Nemo’s heritage correctly, he co-opts the Captain’s affections to coincide with those of India’s oppressors, the British Empire. An entire paragraph detailing Dakkar’s all-consuming “implacable resentment” towards “the one country where he had never consented to set foot, the one nation whose advances he continually spurned” (584-85) is entirely omitted in Kingston, replaced by “an unquenchable thirst for knowledge,” ostensibly to enable Dakkar to become ruler of a people in need of colonial enlightenment. Kingston also reduces Dakkar’s active leadership of the Sepoy rebellion of 1857, stating that the Prince’s involvement was “[i]nstigated by princes equally ambitious and less sagacious and more unscrupulous than he was” while the revolutionary Indians are diminished as well, “facile tools of their designing chiefs” (354). Stump’s translation reveals Dakkar as the “soul” of the revolt, “he who had organized the entire uprising” (585). The difference is monumental—in Kingston, Dakkar is a dupe, in Stump he is the author of his own fate. Brian Taves effectively argues that to downplay the intensity of Dakkar’s love for India and hatred for Britain, as was the case in the 1916 silent version of Leagues, makes for a characterization “hardly the rebel leader Dakkar that Verne imagined” (209).

Further, Verne’s choice of the “then-independent territory of Bundelkund” (Island 584) as the Prince’s homeland speaks against a pliant, ideologically feeble Dakkar, given the region’s history of insurgence, and the geographical advantage Bundelkhand would have presented a revolutionary force. Particular to the Sepoy revolt, Hibbert notes that, “[n]either the fighting in Malwa nor in Bengal was as fierce or costly…as the battles in Bundelkhand” (377), while Jain argues forcefully that the rebellion in Bundelkhand was a concerted, orchestrated political effort, “gathering different strands of protest into one single concerted defiance” (226 italics mine).
Further, it is evidence that Bundelkhand is an appropriate birthplace for Prince Dakkar, raised with “an upbringing that inculcated undying dreams of revenge and redress” (Island 585), and supports the idea that in an alternate history, Dakkar might indeed have “organized the entire uprising” (585), or at the very least, have played a major role as historical figures Tantia Topi or Lakshmi Bai did. It firmly underscores the idea that Dakkar was not a pawn of others, but was the agent of his own destiny, who embraced his identity as Indian wholeheartedly.

Second Identity: Captain Nemo, Master of a Terrible Reality
However, in the immediate wake of the Sepoy revolt’s failure and the personal tragedy of his family’s murder, Prince Dakkar effectively dies and is replaced by Nemo. As Verne writes, “[t]he valiant soldier now made way for the scientist” (Island 586). Nemo has used Dakkar’s wealth, resources, and education to construct machinery more powerful than anything produced by the enemies who destroyed his family” (Maertens 213), machinery he intends as an instrument of violence against the British Empire. Revenge upon a political entity is necessary for a proper depth of motive for Nemo, for if Nemo’s “political purpose in seeking warships” becomes a personal quest for reprisal, then there is “no rationale as to why Nemo went to all the trouble of building a submarine in order to seek revenge” (209). The abandonment of this political motivation results in Nemo becoming a caricature of mad scientist, as in the case of the silent version of The Mysterious Island, “with an island fortress full of modern science, from television to … death rays, ready to destroy the world at his vengeful whim” (212).

There have been attempts as well to eliminate this aspect of Nemo’s character entirely, as in the case of the made-for-television film, The Return of Captain Nemo (1978). Portrayals of Nemo lacking intensity or ferocity emasculate the character, as Maertens accuses James Mason’s portrayal of doing. Maerten contests that a Nemo entirely-on-the-defensive is a false interpretation of Verne’s character, and, as with Kingston’s butchery of Prince Dakkar’s history, strips Nemo’s power of agency yet again. Maertens states that “[i]n the novel, Nemo always has the advantage over his human opponents” (214), while the Disney version repeatedly portrays Nemo as vulnerable, whose suicide “can only be read as the final failure of the heroic scientist, the culmination of accidents and incapacity, and the defeat of intellect by brute force” (223).

In addition to the reductionism of science as power, the Disney film omits the secret language of the Nautilus’ crew, which Maertens states is a loss of “the sense that Nemo has achieved a discursive superiority over the whole institution of Western science, by, as it were, containing it inside his own language (217). Maertens does Nemo a slight disservice in this statement—the creation of a language implies more than the mastery of a single discipline—the construction of a language is to be able to control a perception of reality. By having his crew speak a language of his own invention, Nemo has done more than simply barred Arronax and his companions from comprehending conversation. He has imbued his crew with his perception of reality through the vehicle of the secret language. In Twenty Thousand Leagues, Nemo’s reality is focused through the obsessive lens of retreat from and revenge upon the civilized world, whose actions could be easily construed as a form of nineteenth century terrorism.
While it may be oversimplification to label Nemo a terrorist, aimless, randomly “venting his anger in useless destruction … [a] symbol of the alienation of vengeance, the bitterness that eats away and isolates a man’s soul from human compassion and justice” (Nickel 52), it is arguable that the monstrous identity of the Nemo must be discarded in order for the Captain to repent and “regain his identity as a human being” (160). The Captain obviously possesses the conviction that by the end of Twenty Thousand Leagues, he has been involved in a dishonorable endeavor, evidenced by his final words heard by Professor Arronax—“O Almighty God! Enough! Enough!”—prove to be neither final words nor vain entreaties to an abandoned deity, but rather a genuine desire for inner transformation (384): time for the inhuman Nemo to die, and something new to emerge.

Third Identity: The Mystery of the Island, Benevolent Humanist
At the close of Twenty Thousand Leagues Nemo’s fate is uncertain; Arronax wonders at the fate of the Nautilus and its Captain, with the hope that if “Captain Nemo inhabits the ocean…I hope the dispenser of justice will die, and that the man of science will … continue his peaceful studies of the seas” (388). Unbeknownst to Arronax and Verne’s contemporary readers alike, the dispenser of justice had died, while the man of science survived. Walter James Miller applauds Verne’s use of the “real Maelstrom off Norway as a magnificent symbol [of] classic death-and-rebirth” calling it a “moral maelstrom” (xvii), a reference to an inner downward spiral, or perhaps even the wheel of Dharma, from which Nemo emerges into a new life. Maertens refers to the entire narrative of Twenty Thousand Leagues as symbolic, with the action building is a “careful, contrapuntal structure to Nemo’s ultimate crisis of soul” (214).

Nemo and the Nautilus survive the maelstrom, and disappear from the world, hidden on Lincoln Island. Here, he is “no longer…a man unreconciled to God and man” (Mickels 496). His benevolence toward Cyrus Smith and his castaway companions is evidence of a “man at peace with himself, one who has overcome the inner hatred which consumed him” (496). Nemo seeks atonement for his actions as dispenser of justice, calling upon Cyrus Smith and his companions to grant him absolution.

Smith pronounces Nemo as ultimately mistaken, not evil, and gives the premature eulogy that “your name has nothing to fear from the judgement of history” (590). Nemo supposedly goes to his grave with a clear conscience, confident as he is of an afterlife whereupon he may be watching the endeavors of Smith and company “from above” (593). Perhaps Nemo believes he has achieved samsara, “a clean escape from the…wheel of birth, death, and rebirth” (Fisher 87), into moksha, “the cessation of birth and death” (Moreman 105).

Ultimately though, Nemo’s second death is as uncertain as his first: can a man who survived so many revolutions, external and internal, really be finished? While Timothy Unwin assumes Nemo’s death to be certain in his analysis that Nemo is “an anti-Christ figure in his final descent into the depths of the ocean as he dies alone in the Nautilus” (2000 144), while Alan Moore, reading between the lines, assumes that this is yet another death-and-rebirth moment for the ever elusive Nemo. Moore’s playful manipulation of Verne’s text is far more satisfying than Unwin’s obituary. After all, Nemo has already died twice; once as Prince Dakkar, revolutionary, and again as Nemo, the man-of-war. It stands to reason then, that this death might also be staged. Having emancipated himself from his notorious reputation, Nemo is poised to become whatever he wishes to be. Like the cybernauts of steampunk’s ostensible precursor cyberpunk, Nemo has the ability to transform himself and his surroundings; unlike those cybernauts, Nemo’s surroundings are tangible, not virtual.

Beyond Verne: Steampunk Hero
It is clear that whatever it jettisons of the historical conventions of Victorian society, steampunk retains the hope of the modern, Enlightenment worldview that the individual always has agency to make changes for the better. Alternate histories like those of steampunk provide insight to a mindset where “horizons are infinite and nothing is fixed in stone…In other words, a world larger and better suited to the classic adventure story than ours” (Stirling 151). Alternate histories such as Nemo’s provide a social-psychological foundation which underscores the importance of the individual in history. Readers of alternate histories “come away with their own lives sharpened and enriched by the realization that history is something possible for an individual to shape” (Hellekson 255) The retrotopic alternate history, like the secret language of Nemo, changes the perspective of the reader:
The psychological effects of reading the alternate history are important; it could have happened otherwise, save for a personal choice. The personal thus becomes the universal, and individuals find themselves making a difference in the context of historical movement. (255)
This is the attraction of the Steampunk culture movement; it not only rejects dystopic elements of the “real world”, but also suggests more hopeful alternatives.

Unfortunately, the alternatives it suggests are currently whimsical, aesthetic alterations to existing technologies, “building a blazing-fast, modern computer into antique fine cabinetry” (Datamancer). The descent into the maelstrom and the subsequent rebirth is producing changes of identity, but the question needs to be asked, are these significant changes, or just another fan culture interested in costume and performance? If Verne’s writings are, as many Steampunk adherents claim, source-texts for Steampunk, then Nemo presents a possibility of real-world change to this subculture, and subgenre. Jeff Vandermeer has noted that the literary manifestation of Steampunk is moving away from homages to adventure tales, turning towards social criticism and commentary, as evidenced by the anti-Empire, anti-pax Americana subtext of Theodore Judson’s Fitzpatrick’s War. Steampunk culture attracts and embraces a diversity of ethnicities, genders, and personalities. It has the potential to be subversively counter-cultural through its playful performativity and light-hearted romanticism. If it is to be anything more than another fan culture however, it will need to engage in a more serious transformation of identity, taking the same journey its literature has begun to. It must seek a steampunk modification to the world beyond subculture and subgenre, the world beyond fantasy, sci-fi, and comic book conventions. What does the steampunk aesthetic look like when it is applied to the world at large? This was the question that drove Captain Nemo’s quest, and it is not an ancillary point to recollect how that the quest began in revolution against oppressive Imperialism, was fueled by a monstrous sense of political agency, and concluded, in anonymous philanthropy toward complete strangers, leading Cyrus Smith to conclude that “However posterity might judge the course of what could be called his extrahuman existence, Prince Dakkar would forever remain engraved in the minds of men, a unique and unparalleled figure in human history” (Island 595).

Works Cited (selected - I'll include the whole list when I have more time)

Branwyn, Gareth. “Steam-Driven Dreams: The Wondrously Whimsical World of Steampunk.” June 18, 2007. December 10, 2008. .

Miller, Walter James. The Annotated Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea: The Only Completely Restored and Annotated Version. New York: Crowell, 1976.

Miller, Walter James. Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea The Definitive, Unabridged Edition Based on the Original French Texts. Trans. Walter James Miller and Frederick Paul Walter. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1993.

Stoker, Bram. The New Annotated Dracula. Ed. Foreword, Notes. Leslie S. Klinger. Additional Research Janet Byrne. Introduction. Neil Gaiman. New York: Norton, 2008.

Cohen, Lon S. “Didactic Chat: Bruce Sterling.” May 22, 2008. The Matrix. Issue 188 July 2008. December 10, 2008. <>.

Weller, Mark. “The Undersea Adventures of Captain Nemo.” Sept. 23, 2006. December 9, 2008. .

“Finding Nemo at a Game Studio’s Steampunk Office Suite.” June 13, 2007. December 10, 2008. .


“Steampunk character”

May 9, 2009

Eaton Science Fiction Conference 2009 - Day 1

I don't know if it's just California, or if it's some sort of cosmic steampunk disruption of time and space, but I have rotten luck with airport shuttles when I'm in California on steampunk business. Last October at Steam Powered, my driver couldn't find the Domain Hotel with a GPS. My experience getting to my hotel for the Eaton conference was a comedy of errors, which ended me up at the wrong Marriot just before midnight. Having completed my semester of full time teaching and full time coursework only 36 hours earlier, I had some last-minute adjustments to make to the paper I was scheduled to present at the Eaton conference, which kept me up well into the wee hours. Accordingly, I arrived late at the conference, and missed the Welcoming Remarks and much of the opening panel session, titled "The Emergence of Modern SF."
Thankfully, I was in time to catch the last bit of Roger Lockhurst's presentation on how the museum features largely in French science fiction. He mentioned the mummy's curse and called fiction utilizing this legend as "Egyptian gothic," which although it doesn't contain mummies proper, reminded me immediately of Tim Powers' Anubis Gates, which I read the week prior to the conference (review and reflections to follow the Eaton report). Paul Alkon followed with a reflection on the quality and aesthetics of what supercilious academics denounce as "junk fiction", asking us to reflect upon our reading as well as the conference with the question, "As a story, how did you like it?" This question impressed me, since so often the academic literary discourse denigrates into reductive approaches, forgetting perhaps that stories were the reason we got into this work in the first place.

Paul Alkon presenting at the first panel

With this framing the discussion, the panelists sat down to answer questions and debate among themselves, largely contending the term "proto-SF" vs. "early" or "pre-pulp" science fiction. Arthur Evans argued that the trouble with the term proto is that it suggests the idea of coming "before the true thing." Given that Arthur Evans is one of the foremost Verne scholars in North America, it's unsurprising he would want to hear of Verne as not being the "true thing" in regards to science, or scientific fiction. He suggested the possibility of terms such as "early science fiction" as other options. The discussion then moved about the panel as to the dating of the beginning of science fiction, with some stating Verne, and others going as far back as Mary Shelley. Paul Alkon replied to this with a comment with broad application, and relevance to the ongoing discussion here at this blog concerning the issues of nomenclature and the clarifying of terms. He reminded the group that SF, like any critical term, is rather arbitrary, and ended those thoughts with a statement on the retrospectively self-reflexive nature of SF: "Frankenstein only became SF when we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima."

Members of the first panel, with the esteemed Arthur B. Evans looking contemplative

The second panel was titled "The Two Jules Vernes," the first Verne being the literary, academic perception of Verne as author, playwright, and visionary thinker. This is the Verne who is the most read nineteenth century author, the most translated writer in the world, with translations in 81 languages by the count of Jean-Michel Margot's, president of the North American Jules Verne Society. The second Verne is the pop culture icon, whose name is invoked in commerical advertisements about new technology, or attached to news articles about travel, innovation, or submarine technology. During this panel, Terry Harpold, an associate professor of the University of Florida, announced that the Jules Verne Museum in Nantes, France, has released digital images of Verne's original manuscripts. This is a huge boon to Verne scholarship, since it means that Verne scholars no longer have to travel to Nantes to study the original manuscripts. He also mentioned that the manuscripts will be submitted to multi-spectrum analysis, which will reveal even more about the process of Verne's writing.

On a personal note, I was inspired by Terry's presentation about how he teaches Verne to students. This, in tandem with Terry's reading of Walter Miller's presentation, has made me disposed towards trying to get Walter Miller's annotated 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea approved for my introductory English courses.

Presenting my paper - thanks to Dennis Kytasaari for the photo

I presented my paper in one of the first paper sessions on Friday--throughout the weekend, paper sessions were held simultaneously in two rooms. My paper session was titled "Steampunk Verne." I followed up Robert O'Connor of North Dakota State University, whose "Captain Nemo's Nautilus as Instrumented Will" aptly addressed the monstrous nature of Captain Nemo in Leagues. This dovetailed into my presentation nicely, and allowed me to excise most of my treatment of the Leagues identity of Nemo, who is a likely candidate for the prototypical mad scientist and technological genius of steampunk. I'll be posting my presentation paper here as the fourth installment of my report on Eaton 2009, so I won't say much about that now, save that I was incredibly nervous. Presenting Verne/steampunk research to people whose specializations and expertise are Verne/steampunk is intimidating on a sublime level. My stomach was so tense, I felt like I'd been on an ab-master for 20 minutes when I sat down. I was followed by SF writer and instructor at California State University, Fresno, Howard Hendrix. Howard's presentation was excellent, and provided a counter argument to my suggestion that Nemo is the true proto-steampunk, Howard arguing that it is Phileas Fogg of Around the World in 80 Days. Hendrix's argument was strong, and very convincing, based on the idea of Fogg as a clockwork Victorian, with clockwork as a recurring thematic element in steampunk. I found myself revising my own paper in my head as I listened to Howard, thinking towards how Verne's heroes present a number of originals for steampunk types to be based on.

The second paper session I attended was also on steampunk: "Steampunk After Verne." Stanley Orr's "Cyberpunk, Steampunk, and the Extraordinary Voyages of James S. Lee" offered Lee's memoir, Underworld of the East as a "missing link" between steampunk and cyberpunk. While I found Orr's argument convincing as to the link between Lee and cyberpunk, I found myself somewhat unconvinced overall. Orr did mention several scholarly articles which accused cyberpunk of doing nothing more than reviving nineteenth century adventure stories in a virtual landscape rather than a geographic one. I'll have to revisit those articles, several of which I came across when researching cyberpunk a few years ago, to see if Orr's thesis actually holds water. Establishing an aesthetic link between cyberpunk and steampunk would be interesting, although I currently tend to agree with Chris Garcia's estimation that there isn't one.

Next came Andrew M. Butler of Canterbury Christ Chuch University, who spoke mainly about Michael Moorcock and Christopher Priest and their contributions to steampunk. I've only begun my reading of Moorcock's Nomad of the Time Streams and I have yet to read anything by Priest (although I did see The Prestige), so I can't comment on his content, save to say that I agree once again with Chris Garcia (and this not simply because I was sitting behind him several times during the weekend) in that Butler did seem to focus on two trees to the exclusion of the forest, failing to situate Moorcock and Priest in the greater steampunk context. It should be noted though, that Butler did not present his entire paper given time constraints, so there is the possibility that such contextualization was lost there.

Rob Latham of Eaton host campus, University of California, Riverside, was what I'd been waiting for and anticipating. His paper, "Our Jaded Tomorrows: Steampunk Retrofuturism in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day" is likely the first piece of scholarship on Pychon's epic. Latham confirmed what I have only conjectured (having read only the tip of this literary iceberg last spring, having to abandon it when I began my PhD coursework), namely that Against the Day is indeed, a steampunk text. After a length introduction glossing the history of retrofuturism which included such evocative terms as "Dutch atompunk" and "Raygun gothic" (the latter exemplified by Greg Broadmoor's raygun series), Latham called Against the Day a "Tom Swift adventure crossed with a Heisenberg thought experiment."

Discussing Pynchon's Against the Day with Rob Latham

Latham's contextualizing of Against the Day within the tradition of retrofuturism was very satisfying to me. In reflecting on it since, I think Latham's article (which will be printed in the Science Fiction Studies Review in July of 2009) presents steampunk as part of the retrofuturist nostalgia found in films such as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Serenity, which is why both are mentioned in discussions asking for definitions of steampunk. While neither are steampunk proper, the retrofuturist label applies to both works and subgenre. We might say that steampunk, deiselpunk, etc., all belong to this category of retrofuturism, whereby "the past is the present of a future yet to come." It is perhaps the aesthetic of retrofuturism which I am engaged in the investigation of, although perhaps nineteenth century retrofuturism as opposed to other kinds.

More on the Eaton conference to come!

May 8, 2009

Drink Tank 213 - The Eaton Issue!

I'm still working on my reports from the Eaton conference, but in the meantime, you can get Chris Garcia's take on the weekend. I met Chris last fall at Steam Powered, where we shared a panel on Victorian Technology. He's a great guy, and one of the best repositories of geeklopedic knowledge I know, since his knowledge is largely experiential, in a sort of Schopenhaueresque way. Where most geeks only dream of meeting someone like Tim Powers, Chris has the distinction of being the guy who Tim Powers walked up to at Eaton and shouted in easy recognition, "Chris!" You can check out issue 213 of Drink Tank in PDF format here.
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