Jan 30, 2010

Sherlock Holmes (2009) Dir. Guy Ritchie

From the odd review or Facebook comment I'd seen about the film, I was prepared to enjoy two hours of a sort of recursive fantasy, a film about the icon Sherlock Holmes rather than the character from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novels and short stories. I have no axe to grind when it comes to film adaptations involving characters who have hundreds of adaptations ranging from slavishly devotion to the original texts, to invocations in name only. Sherlock Holmes is like Dracula - we all know who they are (or more accurately, have become), even if we haven't read the original books. So while I remain a stolid canvasser for an accurate Nemo, I'm more than willing to let both the world's most famous detective and most famous vampire undergo artistic liberties. They've both had great adaptions of the original works that gave them birth.

While I was prepared for some wild departures from the original Holmes, I wasn't prepared for the presence of some steampunk elements. There's always the chance when dealing with Victorian adventure for something approximating steampunk to make an appearances, but Blackwood as the dastardly villain with an Infernal Device was straight-up steampunk. That isn't to say I'm arguing for the film as a steampunk movie. Remember - I don't really see steampunk as a genre, but rather an aesthetic applied to genres. In this case, Holmes has received a slight steampunking - the costumes alone would lend credibility to my argument, (SPOILERS AHEAD) but I'll let it stand at the chemical weapon revealed at the end of the film. There are other arguments for including the film as part of my research, but I'm most interested in the standard adventure plot with an evil villain seeking to take over the world with his advanced technological terror. While this is commonly recognized as one of the supposedly inherent plot devices in steampunk, I'd argue it's inherent to James Bond films, and Guy Ritchie has made a neo-Victorian James Bond film, replacing the huge laser beam from Goldfinger with a chemical weapon designed by Jake von Slatt.

On a more personal note, I thoroughly enjoyed the film, all the more because I've been thinking a lot about Sherlock Holmes while reading Mark Frost's The List of 7, which chronicles the adventures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the mysterious agent of the Crown Jack Sparks as psuedo-historical Watson and Holmes. Frost's snappy dialogue between Doyle and Sparks is echoed by Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr.'s performances. I'd be interested to know if The List of 7 was any inspiration for the screenplay, and if not, to suggest someone capitalize on the current popularity of Sherlock Holmes by making a film of it. 

I should also mention how satisfying it was to see the theater packed, over a month after the film's release. It made me wonder if, given the rapid proliferation of steampunk conventions across North America as well as the UK; the appearance of steampunk fashion in everything from the New York Times to recent Victoria's Secret runway shows; and the popularity of this Holmes film, if we aren't just around the corner from steampunk's "tipping point". It seems like we're on the cusp of steampunk going mainstream. Time will tell. While I know there are a lot of you who hopes this stays a subculture, I'm kind of hoping it means we'll finally see a decent steampunk movie. If Sherlock Holmes is any indication, it seems rather elementary.

Jan 26, 2010

Æther Shanties review in Exhibition Hall

Check out my review of Abney Park's Æther Shanties in Exhibition Hall #5. Here's a taste:

From Lost Horizons to New Ones: Abney Park’s Æther Shanties continues to tread new ground without giving any in the process
By Mike Perschon
In a music scene when costume and pageantry seem to be the sole purview of multi-million-dollar lip-syncing solo acts with their armies of professional dancers and personal orchestras, Abney Park remains an anomaly: independent musicians in costume, who take pageantry in performance to a level reminiscent of Bowie in the 70s or Bush (Kate, not George) in the 80s. For my money, they’re one of the most entertaining live shows currently on the planet. Both times I’ve seen them have been fantastic, and given how both those shows featured some of the worst stage lighting I’ve ever seen, that’s saying something. Abney Park doesn’t need a light show: they are the light show. That said, I’ll be making a trip to see them at a proper venue one of these days, or praying to the steampunk gods that they’ll tour Canada and play the Starlight Room in Edmonton.
            While Abney Park excels at the live show, it can no longer be said that one must see Abney Park to properly experience their music. Unlike earlier albums when the band was transitioning from a Goth industrial sound into their current steampunk incarnation, with Abney Park’s latest release Æther Shanties, I’m not skipping through songs to get to my favorites. After several listens, I have favorites, but there isn’t a throwaway track on this disc. I’ll concede there are songs that might be construed as formulaic or derivative in their underlying melodic structure. But what sets Abney Park apart from being just another pop group is how they use disparate elements to deliver their hooks. What sets them apart from other steampunk acts are those hooks – at their core, Abney Park is a band who wants you to tap your foot or sing along with their music.
            At the risk of drawing a parallel that many steampunks won’t relate to, I’d call Æther Shanties the Abney Park equivalent of Dixie Chicks’ Home, which utilized acoustic bluegrass in a way very few mainstream country acts were doing. On Æther Shanties, Abney Park has completely embraced vintage instrumentation without sacrificing pop-accessibility, which would be my complaint for more esoteric steampunk acts.

Jan 20, 2010

The Ice Line by Stephen Baxter

I know what some of you are thinking: isn't it Anti-Ice by Stephen Baxter? Or perhaps its sequel, "The Ice War", which appeared in the September 2008 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction? No, I'm speaking about "The Ice Line", the novella currently featured as the cover story of the February 2010 issue of Asimov's. I thought my readers would like to know, so they can go grab their own. It'll be like our "book of the month" club or something. When I've read it and am ready to report on it, I'll update this entry.

If you're dubious about purchasing it without having read any Baxter previously, you can check out this lengthy preview at the Asimov site.

Jan 19, 2010

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

While it's not steampunk, I'm including here at the blog because it was hands down the best piece of speculative fiction I read in 2010. There were others that were more entertaining, but for sheer quality and relevance, Paolo Bacigalupi wins.My memory fails me for how this became one of my research reads, but I seem to recall a recommendation from Gail Carriger. While the cover includes airships, they are not a key feature of the narrative--the technology of interest in The Windup Girl is genetically enhancement of both people and food.

Since I don't know enough about nineteenth century Asia to state this definitively, I remain guarded about judging The Windup Girl as utilizing the steampunk aesthetic. My suspicion is that it does, and because most North American readers have no idea what nineteenth century Asia was like, will not make the connection to steampunk. I'm hoping I'm right about this, because if I am, it's the answer to fellow steampunk scholar Jha Goh's search for steampunk that doesn't privilege WASP protagonists. It takes place in a future that seems to echo an Asia right before the Boxer rebellion, right down to the White Shirts, a group of militant police lead by the charismatic Jaidee, the "Tiger of Bangkok", once a famous muay thai fighter. The world has regressed in some areas of technology: you need a special license to use gasoline, air travel is limited to airships, and people generate electricity through kinetic energy, either self-made by pedaling, through the harnessed megadonts (genetically altered elephants), or held in high-tension crank-generators. In other ways, it has advanced: food is genetically altered to withstand the environmental plagues of the future, and artificial animals and humans can be manufactured. One of the more interesting ideas Bacigalupi explores is how in a future of nutritional scarcity, Calories become currency: one scene involving blood draining into the sewers is reflected upon as lost calories.

Even if I'm wrong about the setting having a steampunk aesthetic to it, the nature of the eponymous heroine, Emiko the Windup Girl echoes a number of other steampunk narratives concerned with artificial life. The automatons and golems of steampunk are simply retroactive versions of twentieth century SF's robots, androids, cyborgs, replicants and cylons. I don't necessarily think steampunk brings anything new to speculative fiction in terms of themes, but I do think that it deals with those themes in a fresh way, by clothing them in new/old skins. Emiko looks exactly like a human, like the replicants of Blade Runner and Cylons of the reimagined Galactica, but betrays her artificial genesis in her stutter-stop motion like other clockwork girls from Kleist's The Sandman to Finn von Claret's dance performance during Abney Park's "Herr Drosselmeyer's Doll", a built-in flaw that keeps Windups from becoming superior (and ultimately replacing) humans. Her journey of identity and self-actualization mirrors that of the clockwork girl Mattie in Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone, addressing the familiar SF ground of what constitutes "human". Consider the following conversation between Jaidee and one of his men concerning genetically altered Cheshire cats, which have effectively replaced regular cats due to their artificially enhanced camouflaging ability. The Cheshires are so successful as a species that they literally cannot be eliminated, despite the White Shirts' attempts to do so:

"I sometimes wonder if my family's cibiscosis was karmic retribution for all those cheshires."
"It couldn't be. They're not natural."
Somchai shrugs. "They breed. They eat. They live. They breathe." He smiles slightly. "If you pet them, they will purr."
Jaidee makes a face of disgust.
"It's true. I have touched them. They are real. As much as you or I."
"They're just empty vessels. No soul fills them."
Somchai shrugs. "Maybe even the worst monstrosities of the Japanese live in some way. I worry that Noi and Chart and Malee and Prem have been reborn in windup bodies. Not all of us are good enough to become Contraction phii. Maybe some of us become windups, in Japanese factories, working working working,you know? We're so few in comparison to the past, where did all the sould go? Maybe to the Japanese? Maybe into windups." (173-74)
As I've said, the artificial human is a trope of SF, not steampunk per se. But in reading The Windup Girl, Ted Chiang's "72 Letters" and Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone, I'm suspicious that steampunk deals with the artificial human in a way that is somewhat different from other types of SF. Not a conclusive statement by any stretch, and I welcome any thoughts on the matter.

Emiko, like all of Bacigalupi's characters, is a round and dynamic--while The Windup Girl contains an engaging plot, it is a novel of characters and ideas, and succeeds on both those levels beyond expectation. Maybe that's one of the reasons I want it to have steampunk elements, so that I can include it in my research. After reading numerous high adventures without much to say about the human condition, the environment, or the ethics of genetic science, it was a pleasure to read a work that not only addresses the issues, but does so in a satisfying manner. While Bacigalupi's future is a dystopia, he never abandons hope in the way many dystopic writers do. This future may not be so bright you have to wear shades (or goggles), but it's not the darkness of despair either.

Highly recommended.

Jan 18, 2010

The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition - Press Release

The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition Brings Alternate History Back to the Bay Area –
Bigger, Bolder and Brassier Than Ever!

BERKELEY, January 11, 2010--The 2008 California Steampunk Convention was just the beginning. Renewed as The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition, this unique event is returning to the San Francisco Bay Area March 12-14, 2010, presenting a world where steam power, airships and clockwork mechanicals are the cutting edge of technology; a neo-Victorian setting, spanning from the 1830s to the early 1900s and from cultivated London to the rugged coast of San Francisco.

The 2008 event was the first dedicated Steampunk convention in the United States and possibly in the world. It was attended by upwards of 550 guests, 30 vendors and 19 programs in two different tracks, including presentations by luminaries such as “Maker” Jake Von Slatt and WETA Workshops’ Greg Broadmore.

The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition has moved to the Hilton Garden Inn in Emeryville, CA for 2010, preparing to host an estimated 1000+ attendees and over 40 vendors. Over 25 programs are being offered in three tracks including academic presentations, panel discussions and hands-on “Maker” workshops. Confirmed appearances include Guests of Honor Phil and Kaja Foglio (www.girlgeniusonline.com), “Steampunk Scholar” Mike Perschon, acclaimed Steampunk author Gail Carriger (Soulless, Orbit Books) and Chris Garcia, Assistant Curator at the Computer History Museum.

Also new for 2010 are the Card Room gaming club, Miss Kalendar’s Social Salon, the wondrous Museum of Curiosities and an amazing outdoor Exploratory Steam and Kinetics Enclosure, featuring The Golden Mean snail art car and entries from the Crew of the Neverwas Haul.

For evening entertainment, Exhibition guests can trip the light fantastic at the Steampunk Ball, don their Steamy best to compete in the Girl Genius Costume Competition and gather for the illustrious Party-at the Center of the Earth. Special $99 room rates are available at the hotel Nova Albion guests on a first-come, first-served basis and can be booked at: www.steampunkexhibition.com/hotel-reservations/.

The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition is a celebration of all things Steampunk and a chance for fans, authors, makers and the general public to experience the excitement and the possibilities of an alternate History That Might Have Been. $60 Early Bird tickets are on sale now at: http://www.steampunkexhibition.com/tickets - prices will increase to $75 at the door.

For media information, please contact: Mark Anderson at (415) 683-0404 or mark@steampunkexhibition.com.
1562 Solano Ave. #308, Berkeley CA 94707 S (510) 473-7382 S WWW.STEAMPUNKEXHIBITION.COM

Jan 15, 2010

The League of Heroes by Xavier Mauméjean

Last year, I was contacted by a steampunk enthusiast from France who recommended a number of French steampunk works to me. The only one in English translation was Xavier Mauméjean's La Ligue des héros, or The League of Heroes as translator Manuella Chevalier renders it. With no context for Mauméjean's reputation as a writer (is he taken seriously? has he won awards?), I was uncertain of what to expect from Heroes. The cover by French comic artist Patrick Dumas didn't help any, wonderful as it is, showing Sherlock Holmes, protagonist Lord Kraven, Tarzan, and English Bob (who is clearly an homage to Captain America's Bucky), standing in a line, ready to save the world. Those familiar with European comic styles through Heavy Metal or other avenues might appreciate Dumas' spartan line art, but most North Americans might dismiss the cover as amateurish, or wonder if the book is a graphic novel. The jacket text sheds further light, but only on the certain sections of the book.

Divided into four distinct parts, it is difficult to talk about what The League of Heroes is about without delivering spoilers. In the hope of intriguing readers, I will deliver information about the first two parts, since they deliver a good deal of what Mauméjean contributes to the steampunk aesthetic. About the second two, I will only say that I'm very glad I had no idea about where the book would go, as it made for an exceedingly enjoyable read. I'm highly recommending this one.

Part One reads like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen if Alan Moore had faith in the human race and a sense of humor. It follows the incredibly preposterous adventures of The League of Heroes, formed the grossly obese Phileas Fogg to protect the Empire of Albion. The heroes and villains arrayed against each other is a who's who of pulp adventure: the aforementioned heroes, along with Kid Colt, the Steel Comrade, Auguste de Grandin, Baron Stromboli, and Captain Hook, versus Peter Pan (in a wonderful reversal of rolls), the Jade Mask, Doctor Fatal, and Prince Sinbad (who stands in for Nemo as the mysterious submarine terrorist).

Stylistically, the first part vascilates between deftly sketched vignettes of the League's adventures and excerpts from the daily news, press releases, and political speeches. Like Pynchon, Mauméjean's prose spans events in a few lines that take other writers pages. It is, in many ways, what Jonathan Green's Unnatural History should have been, striking the proper mix of deadpan delivery on the surface, with ironic tone beneath. Lord Kraven's opening killshot sets this tone immediately:
"Half a moustache suited Lord Kraven perfectly. It had, nevertheless, been a close-shave--Prince Spada's blade having nearly run him through the throat.
The foremost hero of Albion fixed his tie, looked at himself in the mirror one last time and proceeded to shoot his attacker in the head. The bullet...continued through the wall, ricocheted against the Tower's metal frame and went on to kill Ambrosio Terracota, the Prince's henchman, splattering his brains across the floor." (9)
This was one of my Christmas holiday reads, and the rollicking pace of the first part kept a smile on my face as Kraven and his companions effortlessly engaged in hyperbolic exploits: "Lord Greystoke had just returned from a difficult mission in which he had made contact with a giant gorilla on an island near Sumatra. His body was covered in bandages" (17). But while the book maintains a gleefully ironic tone, it isn't meant to be taken lightly. Before long, the heroes begin to question the ease with which they always win, but must also continue the battle. Unlike Green, Mauméjean's heroes are more self-aware, and wonder at the simplicity of their steampunk world:
"Yes, of course, I always forget that we are the good guys," he said with irony. "Always ready to defeat a new threat, to foil a new convoluted plot, to stop a new would-be world conqueror. But it all sounds very hollow right now. Consider our foes...They always tell us their plans in great details after they capture us, they always make a last minute mistake which enables us to escape and defeat them... Yes, we win, but only until the next time, for they always return..." (65)
Like Boilerplate, the League makes commentary on past social injustices, such as Bloody Friday in May of 1919 (which takes place in May of 1916 in the League's alternate history), the event catalyzing English Bob's departure from the League of Heroes. Finally, the only one left is Lord Kraven, and when he initiates a more global iteration of the League, is killed in an airship explosion.

Part Two opens with a drastic shift in content and tone: from the fantastic world of the League to the pedestrian existence of a man the reader knows only as George, who has recently had his "unremarkable house, in an unremarkable suburb" invaded by his wife's estranged and amnesia-stricken father. One suspects immediately that this man might be Lord Kraven. But as he begins regaining his "memory" by reading comic books as history, the reader begins to wonder if he isn't just delusional. I won't spoil the surprise of which is the truth, despite the presence of a really great quotation on page 251 that says a great deal about some people's perception of steampunk.

Instead, I'll talk about recursive fantasy, which The League of Heroes is a wonderful example of. In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (EF) by Clute and Grant, recursive fantasy is described as "exploit[ing] existing fnatasy settings or characters as its subject matter." Recursive fantasy can be parody, pastiche, or revisionist re-examinations of earlier works such as fairy tales, pulp adventures, or extraordinary voyages. After reading The League of Heroes, it almost seems as though Mauméjean read this entry, and then wrote the book. Not only does League fulfill all of those requirements, being both tribute and indictment of simple comic-book heroism, the text also plays with what the EF calls "the flavor of true [recursive fantasy]", whereby "'real' protagonists [encounter intersecting] worlds and characters which are as 'fictional' to them as to us" (805). It is this intersection between the "real" and the "fictional" that sets The League of Heroes apart from other steampunk works. Pynchon plays with these ideas in Against the Day, but League presents them in a more accessible fashion. Mauméjean's prose is less dense than Pynchon's.

Steampunk often engages in the first aspect of recursive fantasy, utilizing existing fictional characters from nineteenth century adventure tales: Jeter's Morlock Night; Kim Newman's Anno Dracula; Mark Frost's The List of Seven, and The Six Messiahs; Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neil with the mother-of-all-recursive fantasies, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And while it is deeply satisfying to see old characters reworked to suit new sensibilities and styles, I found it deeply satisfying to be forced by Mauméjean's text, to wrestle through both the fantasy of the Empire of Albion, as well as the mundane reality of 1960s England, wondering how it all fits together. I found the ending perfectly appropriate, but others might be disappointed. I'll be interested to see what the readers here at Steampunk Scholar think about it. I highly recommend it for those who love the world Moore and O'Neill introduced us to, but are looking for something a little less cynical, and a little more complex.
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