Feb 18, 2010

Boilerplate by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett

Boilerplate is not steampunk.

At least, not if you consider steampunk a genre, which I don't. I know I mention this a lot, but since people can drop in and not have a context of the discussion here at Steampunk Scholar to date, I want to continue making it perfectly clear that I don't consider steampunk a genre. I've probably lapsed at times into making statements that it is, early on in the research, but I'm doing my best to avoid those statements now. Steampunk is an aesthetic, applied to art forms, narrative structures, clothing, decor, and apparently, coffee table books. At best, I can say that Boilerplate is a historical coffee-table book with a very light dose of the steampunk aesthetic.

Boilerplate is a coffee table book about "the world's first robot soldier," a sort of fin de siècle Forrest Gump. Upon first glance, the combination of Anina Bennett's documentary-style prose and Paul Guinan's nearly flawless Photoshop-fakery may cause the casual reader to wonder, "Is this for real?" As such, it's a brilliant, albeit completely unintentional hoax. If you're foolish enough to buy Boilerplate as historical reality, then you'd be stupid enough to think that all the war-time bombast and "boy's adventure story" homages were jingoistic, in praise of some dark moments in American history. The key to reading Boilerplate is found on page 115, where Bennett quotes Lawrence of Arabia under the header, "Documents are Liars":

"Remember that the manner is greater than the matter, so far as modern history is concerned. One of the ominous signs of the time is that the public can no longer read history. The historian...learns to attach insensate importance to documents. The documents are liars. No man ever yet tried to write down the entire truth of any action in which he has been engaged. All narrative is partis pris...We know too much, and use too little knowledge."
Bennett told me that the finding of this quote was cause for excitement: it is clearly a self-reflexive moment, a slight "winking at the camera" to make the reader stop and consider the document(lie) they're holding in their hands. The difference between Boilerplate and other historical coffee table books is that Boilerplate knows it's a lie, admits it's a lie with the preposterous nature of its hero, and then goes on engaging in a balancing act between narratives of its fictional robot, creator, and creator's sister, and narratives of American history: there is enough reality in both the text and the images that the reader is constantly wondering where history leaves off and fiction begins. Wikipedia, dubious historical source that it is, suddenly becomes the companion to Boilerplate, as you enter name after name, or event after event, trying to know "what really happened."

I'll save you some of the trouble. It all happened, it just happened without a Mechanical Marvel created by Archibald Campion. All references to Campion, his sister Lily, Edward Fullerton, and Boilerplate are pure fiction, creations of Guinan and Bennett, while others, such as Frank Reade Jr., "creator of the Electric Man" are bits of recursive fantasy: Reade Jr. was the son of the hero of the Steam Man of the Prairie Eddisonades (his father is involved in building a steam-powered body for Buffalo Bill Cody's pickled head-in-a-jar in Joe Lansdale's weird-west steampunk adventure, Zeppelins West). These fictional characters are thrown into the histories of Nikola Tesla, Theodore Roosevelt, and Pancho Villa, to name a few. But like Forrest Gump, Boilerplate is merely present at pivotal events in U.S. history. His presence changes nothing. Unlike alternate histories where counter or contra-factual possibilities are explored, Boilerplate posits no point-of-change. The premise of the book is that Boilerplate himself is a somehow forgotten piece of history, the mechanical marvel you never heard of: at Boilerplate's unveiling at the World's Columbian Exposition, "simultaneously the best and the worst place to introduce an invention as innovative as Boilerplate", the robot is obscured by wonders such as hamburgers, picture postcards, and the Ferris Wheel.

My hat is off to Guinan and Bennett. They're very good at subversive subtext. If it seemed rather preposterous that the world would forget a robot meant to replace human soldiers in war over chewing gum, you need only to consider what makes front page news these days. Consider how in the early 90s we were more concerned with Milli Vanilli lip-synching than we were with the Siege of Sarajevo. By saying that Boilerplate got lost in the entertainment morass of the Columbian Exposition, Bennett might be saying we're missing something too.

Or consider this image of Boilerplate fighting at "The War in the Soudan" on pages 46 and 47: Boilerplate is show, gun in hand, charging side-by-side with British troops into ranks of Sudanese soldiers. The caption beside the image reveals that "Boilerplate never participated in infantry charges such as the one in this poster. Rather, the robot helped build the rail line depicted at the top of the illustration, in the background" (47). Given that the poster is a mix of fact (an actual poster celebrating the 1896-98 Sudan campaign of Gen. Horatio Herbert Kitchener) and fiction (the Boilerplate figure), we need to ask why Guinan bothered to go to the trouble of digitally compositing Boilerplate into the image. Further, why has Guinan and Bennett created a book that is simultaneously so historically accurate (Guinan worked with primary historical sources for his research of the 1871 "First Korean War") and yet so clearly fictional?

The answer is nowhere as clear as page 65, where Boilerplate is pictured standing with young coal miners, opposite a page titled "Childhood's End", detailing the "harsh life of child workers" in industrial America. While the image without Boilerplate, coupled with the historical facts are powerful enough, most of us would readily admit we're unlikely to purchase a coffee table book about child labor. Of course, Boilerplate is about more than just child labor. It's about the Panama Canal, and how 27,500 workers at the Canal died of malaria and yellow fever. It's about The Boxer Rebellion, and the situation of women in America at the turn-of-the-century. But it's about these things, told from the perspective of Archie and Lily Campion, along with their mute mechanical marvel. Lily Campion acts as the voice of moral outrage towards child labor while Boilerplate stands dumbly behind the children, looking out at us, impotent to do anything about this undeniable historical reality:
"Seldom have I seen true fury burning in my brother's eyes...Though we do not speak of it, I know that he and I feel a kinship with this children, having been orphaned ourselves. We are fortunate that we were never reduced to such piteous desperation as these waifs who spill their blood that we may have fine gloves and warm parlors." (65)
Boilerplate's presence in these images is a powerless one within the narrative of the text. Archie Campion's dream of replacing human soldiers with an army of Boilerplates is never realized. And yet, the robot is potentially very powerful, should the reader have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Paul Guinan was the Artist Guest-of-Honor at Steamcon 2009. There was no small irony to Guinan's presence at a Con which had the phrase "Steampunk needs historical accuracy like a dirigible needs a goldfish." I make no bones about steampunk costuming - combine Le Chateau fashions with 19th century bracers, and stick a ray gun on top for good measure. I have no issue with these things. But as the cliche goes, if we ignore history, we are doomed to repeat it. Boilerplate not only acts as a commentary on the past, it also acts as commentary on the present: the issues dealt with in its pages are still dealt with today. And while the average steampunk fan isn't likely to shell out $30 for a book on the Pullman labor strikes, he will shell out $30 for a well-packaged hardback about a Victorian-era metal-man. And in doing so, may learn something about history, as well as the present.

NOTE: I am no longer convinced that alternate history is a requisite for the steampunk aesthetic. Alternate history posits a moment of change, which steampunk doesn't always do. I think Diana Vick's statement about historical accuracy is correct, to a point. Steampunk largely ignores historical accuracy. That doesn't mean that steampunk should ignore historical accuracy, even in cases where it is the history of a secondary world, as in Stephen Hunt's The Court of the Air, Emilie P. Bush's Chenda and the Airship Brofman, or Ekaterina Sedia's The Alchemy of Stone. Tolkien was a student of history, and was rigorous in establishing the history of Middle-earth. Steampunk authors need to be as rigorous, or they run the risk of writing weak adventure novels which forget the sorts of historical shadows Guinan and Bennett explore obliquely in Boilerplate's adventures.

I'll also add that I've written a teacher's guide for Boilerplate, which is available at the Abrams' Boilerplate website. I'll be posting further on how I think Boilerplate is a useful text in upcoming posts on "Teaching Steampunk".

Feb 17, 2010

My Program Schedule for the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition

Okay, I promise--a real post tomorrow!

Here's the current schedule for my sessions at SteamX:

Saturday 10:00-11:15
Howard Hendrix (Moderator), Mike Perschon, Alexander Logan, Jean Martin, Liz Gorinsky
The origin and history of steampunk.
I'm excited to sit in a panel moderated by Howard. He's exceedingly opinionated and witty, which are things I admire in a panel moderator. It will also be very cool to sit with Liz Gorinsky, as she was consistently incisive and articulate at Steamcon. 

Saturday 3:00-4:15
J. Daniel Sawyer, Mike Perschon (Moderator), Liz Gorinsky, GOH James Blaylock
Is there a philosophy behind steampunk? If so, what is it? If not, what should it be?
I'm stoked about this, mainly because I have a pretty strong opinion about whether or not steampunk has a philosophy. I'm also excited because as I've already stated, Liz is well-spoken and intelligent, and J. Daniel Sawyer made for some of the best dialogue I had while at Steam Powered. Do I really need to comment on the fact that James Blaylock is on this panel? This makes up for Chris Garcia scooping the interview with him.

Saturday 4:30-5:45
STEAM WARS Presentation
Mike Perschon
While steampunk continues to defy attempts at definition, it is Steampunk Scholar Mike Perschon’s contention that it is a visual aesthetic. This aesthetic can be seen clearly in a comparison between the well-known cultural icons of Star Wars and their steampunk counterparts, through an examination of images by a handful of digital artists who took part in CGSociety’s challenge to apply a steampunk approach to the Star Wars universe.
(It'll be nice to get a chance to deliver this panel now that I've thought out the material even further with the submission for Neo-Victorian Studies.)

Sunday 11:30-12:45
Chris Garcia, Mike Perschon, J. Daniel Sawyer (M), Jean Martin, Liz Gorinsky
Steampunk zines, podcasts, websites, blogs, and more. For those who are involved and those who want to be.
I love these panels where you talk about doing what you love. (and speaking of which...)

Sunday 2:00-3:45
Mike Perschon
What happens when a Game Master mixes J.R.R. Tolkien and Jules Verne into one gaming world? Come find out how to apply the brass goggles, airships, and clockwork automatons to your roleplaying campaign, through a discussion of online resources, a brief review of some of the steampunk RPGs, and a look at the best miniatures for steampunk campaigns.
Again, it will be nice to revisit this session, especially now that the campaign is winding down. 

I hope to see some of you at the Con - make sure to come and introduce yourself!

Feb 16, 2010

Steampunk Scholar on Twitter

So I finally caved, and have joined Twitter.

Let me be clear about why it's taken so long: authors like Jeff Vandermeer and Gail Carriger use Twitter to get the word out about their upcoming books, and then keep contact with their fanbase. It makes sense to me, and if I had a book, I'd have done the same thing. I don't like the idea of Twitter for the common man, as Facebook ostensibly does the same thing. Simply put, I think of Facebook for the private world, Twitter for the public. Recently, I had a few things happen in terms of numbers and request for articles that tell me what I'm doing here is approaching some sort of critical mass: in other words, I realized people were fans of the blog. I found myself thinking about my responsibility to my readers, to keep the word coming - what am I reading, what do I think about it, etc., especially since I often think things about the books or films or steampunk in general which never make it to a post, because they're too short, or they detract from the focus of my blog posts. Unlike a personal blog, this is supposed to be the first draft of my research, so I can't just punch out random thoughts. That's what...right, I realized. That's what Twitter is for.

So I signed up today. Already tweeted a few times. If you're into that, you can follow it here, or just check the posts in the Twitter sidebar below. It's how I'll update regular thoughts, with the big ones still getting posted here.

Feb 12, 2010

Dungeons and Dickens: How I steampunked Middle-earth - Part 1

When I first sent my two academic panel proposals to Steamcon 2009, Alisa Green requested a third: she anticipated that Steamcon attendees would likely be interested in hearing more about Steam Lords, the blog for my gaming group. Specifically, she wanted me to speak on how to steampunk an RPG. The following series of blog posts are the result of that presentation at Steamcon 2009. Sadly, while I was able to transcribe the the first portion of the session nearly word-for-word, my digital recorder literally went into the drink, performing a double-somersault off the top shelf of my desk before landing in my coffee to die a liquid death. Along with my Dungeons and Dickens presentation, I lost the entire Tim Powers session, which I know many of you were looking forward to. My apologies - I hope to redeem myself at the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition. 

I've been a long-time geek, but having grown up going to church with Baptists, I had to keep my geek largely in the closet. I played Dungeons and Dragons back in the 1980s, when it was still the geek version of bad-ass to do so. That was back in the days of Patricia Pulling and Rona Jaffe's Mazes and Monsters, when admitting you played Dungeons and Dragons was tantamount to saying you had not only conjured up some infernal denizen of the abyss, but that you brought him to school regularly in your backpack. In the conservative church environment I grew up in, D&D was evil. But I played. I played at church game nights in Sunday School rooms in the dark recesses of the church basement, I played with youth leaders, and when I became a youth leader, I played with youth. I nearly lost my first job as a minister because of it. So I went deep-underground with my playing, and didn't really come out of the geek closet until a few years ago. As an academic, I'm free to be proud to play D&D. And if this sounds strangely like some other coming out of the closet stories, that's because in the 1980s, playing D&D was considered as bad as being gay.

At any rate, I spent a lot of my time gaming in my spare time, and going to church-oriented conventions. I have a lot of geek-convention attendance to make up for! And to be asked to speak on this very topic, which is exceedingly dear to my heart (I can wax eloquent on the benefits of pen-and-paper tabletop roleplaying) put me into a state of geek ecstasy.

So I started out gaming in the 80s, when D&D was evil. I played with the original red basic set, back when elves were a class, not a race. But because I was living in the time of the 80s' evangelical witch-hunts, I ended up getting rid of my D&D books. All of them. I relate these anecdotes, only to situate why I ended up playing I.C.E.'s Middle-earth Roleplaying. It wasn't because it was a superior rules system. It was because I knew Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and that meant that I'd be able to defend gaming in his world. It was effectively "safer" in the eyes of the church.

Middle-Earth Roleplaying (MERP) is to ICE what Basic Dungeons and Dragons was to TSR in the '80s. ICE's answer to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons remains Rolemaster. To use another analogy, Dungeons and Dragons is Windows: they have the monopoly on the gaming world, and through their OGL, have more user-friendly software. Rolemaster is Linux: a massive toolbox of rules and charts, simulating nearly every contigency a campaign could demand. Everything from the Stone Age to the Space Age is covered under Rolemaster's rulebooks and companion supplements. I say this, not to sell anyone on the Rolemaster gaming system, but to suggest that steampunking a campaign requires these sorts of resources--if you have no means of determining the outcome of introducing black powder into your campaign, that's going to be a problem.
Further, I'm not interested in advocating for a particular steampunk rule system, like Castle Falkenstein or one of the many OGL supplements available in PDF form at RPGNow.com. To me, that's the gaming equivalent of buying your entire steampunk outfit from Gentlemen's Emporium. Steampunk is about transformation. I effectively "modded" my current system with brass and gears. My goal with the presentation at Steamcon became one of inspiring the attendees to do the same with their own systems and campaigns. While the  expectation might be for me to lay out the best steampunk roleplaying games, sourcebooks, or miniatures, I thought it best to start out the way many steampunk sessions do. When you attend a panel on "How to Steampunk a Nerf Gun," the presenter will tell you "how they did it." Rather than tell you how to do it, I'm going to tell you how I did it, and hope you are in some way inspired to do likewise.
My own inspiration for steampunking our game began with Castle Falkenstein's Victorian randomizing element: instead of dice, Falkenstein uses a deck of standard playing cards. I personally have an attachment to my dice approaching something of a religious fervor, so rather than replace dice entirely, I incorporated a deck of Victorian Tarot cards to help determine Rolemaster's infamous 66 result, which demands a random event, something exceedingly left field. When my mind goes blank, I use the Tarot deck to fill in the gap, and provide some inspiration. Touches like these are among the first that brought a steampunk flavor to the campaign.   

But the steampunking of my long-running Middle-Earth campaign was about more than just flavor. The cardinal sin for a Tolkien fan is to bring steam and industry to Middle-Earth. Consider this image of Gandalf, walking through a verdant landscape filled with lush green fauna - Tolkien loved trees - the Elves lived in trees, the Ents were sentient trees - and industry threatens the health of this landscape. That's what Saruman did during the War of the Ring; it's what I did when I steampunked Middle-Earth. I realized however, that I had loved Verne before I discovered Tolkien: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in Grade Two, The Hobbit in Grade Four. By running a steampunk Middle-Earth campaign, I would effectively be bringing two of my favorite worlds together, with both authors likely rolling over in their graves.

The conceit of my steampunk MERP campaign was that if Saruman had made an alliance with the Witch King approximately 1000 years before the War of the Ring, then he might have succeeded. There are a number of reasons for this, but I was essentially playing off of Treebeard's concession that he wondered if Saruman had not already been "turning to evil ways" when the White Council was formed. Along with the statement that Saruman "has a mind of metal and wheels," I had found my perfect point of departure from the history of Middle-Earth as penned by Tolkien in the Appendices to Return of the King. Suddenly, there is no canon. I don't have to wait for the War of the Ring for a Really Big Thing to happen in Middle Earth. I don't have to consult the timelines anymore. I don't even need Sauron or the One Ring. Industry in Middle-Earth is a nightmare all on its own. It is the "Second Darkness" Gandalf spoke of to Frodo.

I decided right away I would have to kill off all the Elves. They live in the trees, after all, and tree dwellers have no place in a steampunk world - they would both be opposed to the changes industry would bring to their world, and would also be the only race capable of doing anything to stop it. So I bombed them immediately, with flights of Dragons from the Grey Mountains carrying explosives. After all, if Saruman had stepped up his plans for industrialization, he'd have utilized the explosive element used at Helm's Deep sooner as well. So the Grey Havens and Lothlorien were razed to the ground in surprise attacks, and the power of the Elves rapidly diminished.

Here's the original post I made at my gaming blog about this campaign:

Imagine Saruman making the decision to abdicate his responsibilities as one of the Istari 1000 years earlier than the War of the Ring, when the Witch King of Angmar was finishing off the kingdom of Arnor. Imagine an alliance, not between Sauron and Saruman, but between the Witch King and Saruman. Imagine that it succeeds, not because of superior magic, but because of two technological innovations; the discovery of the steam engine, and the invention of gunpowder.

Arnor falls, and in its wake, so does Gondor. The men of Westernesse are scattered to the wind. The elves of Lothlorien, Rivendell and the Grey Havens prepare to leave Middle-earth, but as the Swan ships prepare to depart, they are engulfed in a firestorm. A flight of dragons, awakened from the Grey Mountains, descend on the Havens with teams of Uruk-Hai bombadiers and "pilots" (taking a page from Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon where dragons are literally like B-52 bombers, with full crews). The elves of Thranduil's kingdom are the last safe haven for elves in Middle Earth. Mirkwood, not yet the abode of darkness it will become with the growth of the "Necromancer's" power, becomes a place for free peoples to hide. The Dwarves make their peace with the new world order, becoming unwilling servants of the Shadow who retain their customs, traditions, and even methods of warfare fiercely, believing their radical traditionalism to be a form of resistance.

The famed underground citadel of Khazad-dum is the last bastion of Dwarves to become servile. While they were able to hold out against exterior assault, there is nothing that can save the Dwarves of Khazad-dum when they delve deeply, uncovering the Balrog of Moria in T.A. 1981. The underground kingdom falls, and the victory Sauron would seek in 1000 years at the War of the Ring is won.

But beneath the surface of occupied obedience, a desire for resistance begins to grow in the hearts of the oppressed people of Middle-earth. And in T.A. 2008, nearly 400 years after Saruman and the Witch-King first made their alliance, the opportunity to strike back has finally come.
Here's the entry point for my adventurous heroes: they are the resistance. Like Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, the premise isn't to stop the evil megalomaniacs from taking over the world, because they've already done it. This isn't necessarily a new concept, but it seems to be fairly common in steampunk literature: consider S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods, or Kim Newman's Anno Dracula, or the dystopic worlds of Mieville's Bas-Lag, or Stirling and Gibson's Difference-Engine-London. The world has gone to hell, and it's the adventurer's job to set things right, to oppose the might of an evil Empire. A familiar tale, made somewhat new with a steampunk aesthetic. I chose Moria as the starting point because of the dwarves: many supplements recommending how to steampunk your RPG comment on how the dwarves are already halfway there -- they have a love for technology, and Making. The following images are some Photoshop work I did for inspiration, placing an oncoming freight train in an Edge of Twilight wallpaper that reminded me of Moria. It had the immediate result of my concluding that a central rail had been built along the main artery that runs from East to West, underground through Moria.

Part Two of Dungeons and Dickens

Feb 11, 2010

Mission Update - January

Obviously this comes a bit late, but it's something I've been thinking about for a while: I often want to post an update about how the work is going, but don't want to interrupt the integrity of the site with personal tidbits too often. So I'll post once a month to let you all know about new developments in my research, both in the real world and here on the site. I'll also be looking for feedback from my readers occasionally, as evidenced by the inclusion of the "What Should I Blog About Next?" widget in the sidebar. And for those who are wondering, I'll be posting on how to steampunk an RPG starting this Friday. It'll be a bit of a series, as the information I have on it would result in a monstrous single post. The Verne posts are because it was the great writer's birthday this month. I like to pay tribute to one of the reasons I got into steampunk when I can.

Speaking of interaction, if anyone can come up with a concise way of conveying what that sidebar is for so I don't have to spell out the whole question, I'd appreciate it.

January turned out to be an exceedingly eventful month for me:

I'll give my reading update first: I read Greg Broadmore's Victory! over the Christmas holidays, and it was laugh-out-loud funny for those who like a dry wit mixed with their satire of colonialism and gun culture. Brilliant work, and highly recommended. I also finished The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia, which was as good as I had hoped it would be from the preview chapter I read in Weird Tales over a year ago. I picked up a copy of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and will be including it, among others, as reviews of steampunk precedents (I still need to put together that precedent reading list). I have also been updating the original reading list of primary sources with links to the annotated posts, and the audiobook list as I listen to the audiobooks, giving brief reviews of the quality thereof. I took a break from steampunk to read Joe Hill's Heart Shaped Box (which was like reading early Stephen King in many ways), and S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire, which is the worst piece of garbage I've read this year. Pure crap, unless he was writing an ironic satire of Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series, only substituting Ren-Faire pagans for Christians. If that's the case, then it's really funny. I listened to the audio-version of James Blaylock's Lord Kelvin's Machine, which is my second "read" of the short story (not to be confused with the novella released later, and now collected in The Advntures of Langdon St. Ives). Pining to see Sherlock Holmes in the theater, I read Mark Frost's excellent page-turner, The List of 7, which imagines Sir Arthur Conan Doyle adventuring with Jack Sparks, the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. It's a good bit of fun, with some excellent passages providing commentary on neo-Victorian fiction. I've started reading Emilie P. Bush's self-published Chenda and the Airship Brofman, as well as listening to the audiobook of Philip Reeve's Larklight, then comparing the story to the beautiful illustrations by David Wyatt in the hardcopy. I'll likely be finishing my read of Kenneth Oppel's Airborn after I finish Chenda. As you can tell from the list of possible choices for the "what to blog next" poll, I'm a bit behind on my annotations versus my reading.

The Steam Wars (Steampunk Star Wars) article came back again for further revision. Nothing too onerous, mostly detail work, but I still need to secure the permission from a few of the artists. Hopefully that doesn't tie things up.

I was asked to submit a chapter to an academic book on Fantasy and Fairy Tales. They had wanted a chapter on steampunk and had no submissions (I didn't even know there was a call for papers!). They found me via the blog, and asked if I'd write a chapter on steampunk. I've lead a charmed academic life so far - this is the second time I've had a request in a total of three publications since starting this project. The book will be released later this year, providing everyone involved meets their deadlines. The title of my chapter is "Steampunk: Technofantasies in a neo-Victorian retrofuture." I'll be focusing on how I think the combination of Technofantasy neo-Victorianism lies at the core of the steampunk aesthetic.

And finally, I applied for a full-time teaching position at Grant MacEwan University here in Edmonton. A few days after an epic three-hour interview, I was offered the position, and pending paperwork being signed, have taken it. I'll be starting July 1, 2010. I'll be teaching introductory English courses: 5 courses in the fall and winter semesters, with the spring and summer effectively off. So I'll be working hard on the dissertation from May to August, while focusing on my teaching the rest of the year. It's a permanent position, which is a real boon to my family, and ultimately my research, given how much time I'll have to devote to writing in the summer months.

I'll be presenting twice at the upcoming Greater Edmonton Teaching Convention on Thursday, February 25 at 1:00 on my Nemo research, and at 2:30 with "Steampunk 101" which should be fun - I'll be trying to work out some ideas on teaching steampunk in various curricula for that. I attended the panel on teaching steampunk at Steamcon 2009, and got the distinct impression that some of the attendees had wanted something a little more concrete. I'll be posting some ideas for teaching steampunk here as well. Feedback appreciated.

Until next month, a huge thank-you to my readers! January had the biggest numbers I've seen at the site yet, and February is already at half that amount, with more than half the month to go - an it's a short month! Thanks for making Steampunk Scholar the place to come for literary steampunk musings.

I have been tentatively offered the opportunity to teach a night class in Science Fiction at the University of Alberta in the fall. No guarantees on this, but I thought I should make my readers aware of it, in case any Edmontonians are interested in taking the course with me. I'll have further details later in the year.
I'm excited about the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition next month, which I am definitely attending and presenting at. It's still up in the air for me as to whether or not I'll be able to make it to the Victoria Steam Exposition in Victoria, BC, May 22 & 23, which pains me, as it's the first big Canadian steampunk event. It's a purely financial thing...which is why I wish I could sojourn in the States while working on my research - lots of exciting events happening down there!

Feb 9, 2010

Casting Call for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Last semester I taught 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in my Intro English course at the King's University College. On the final exam, as a means of assessing how well the students understood the four main characters, I asked them to cast a hypothetical film version of the novel. Given that it's Verne's birthday this month, and that Disney has abandoned their Nemo prequel (blessing or curse?)and there's talk of Sam Raimi taking things over, here are the results. I've only included actors who received more than one vote, with some one-vote honorable mentions for what I consider laudable choices:

Captain Nemo:
Faran Tahir: 8 votes
Sean Connery: 5 votes
Oded Fehr: 4 votes
Naveen Andrews: 4 votes
Robert Downey Jr. 3 votes

Comments: Since Tahir is my choice as well, I applaud the students who chose him, knowing full well this choice was predicated by my saying as much in the lectures. I love Oded Fehr's look, but I'm not sure he has the acting chops to pull off the complex nuances of Nemo's character, being both villain and hero. Sean Connery might possibly be the worst choice, based on my reasons for wanting an Indian or Pakistani actor to play the Captain. The choice of Connery was made worse by the reason most often given: he'd already played a submarine captain in The Hunt for Red October. Connery is the king of casting-call cop-outs, which occurs when a person can't think of the right person for the role, so they just pick their favorite or the most famous, which is likely how both Naveen Andrews and Robert Downey Jr. made this list as well. While Andrews has the right look, he doesn't strike me as old enough or a powerful enough onscreen presence. Thankfully, not a one of them suggested Will Smith.
Honorable Mentions: Erick Avari (a probable choice if it was being made for television) and Alexander Siddig.

Professor Aronnax
Liam Neeson 5 votes
Cary Elwes 4 votes
Jim Broadbent
Nicolas Cage 3 votes
Johnny Depp 3 votes
Ralph Fiennes 3 votes
Jean Reno 3 votes
David Thewlis 3 votes
Ioan Gruffud 2 votes

Comments: I like Neeson, but he's too strong a presence, and Aronnax's adoration of Nemo would be a difficult sell with Neeson in the role. Elwes is too pretty, Broadbent is too old, Depp is overexposed right now, Reno has too much baggage playing dangerous characters, and Cage is in the list for the same reason Connery was for Nemo: he played a professor type in National Treasure, so he could do it again...blahblahblah. Nic Cage is one of my least favorite actors, so he won't be in my version. I like the suggestions of Fiennes, and Gryffud, but personally settled on David Thewlis, because he's a capable actor, the right age, and can likely handle a French accent. I refuse to have Aronnax speak in anything else. If anyone could suggest a French actor who fits the bill, I'd love to hear the suggestion.
Honorable Mentions: Anthony Stewart Head, who was the quintessential geek-culture academic as Niles on Buffy, and Colme Feore, who could handle the French accent (but is sadly too old - Aronnax is 40).

Ned Land:
Hugh Jackman 10 votes
Gerard Butler 3 votes
Brendan Fraser 3 votes
Brad Pitt 3 votes
Ryan Reynolds 3 votes
Comments: I love the casting of Hugh Jackman, and if he can handle a French-Canadian accent, he's in. The other suggestions are standard action-hero actors, and I don't think any but Butler could really pull off the seething cauldron of rage Ned eventually becomes. No one chose my pick, which is Jean-Claude Van Damme. After seeing him sporting a beard, and really acting (to the point of tears!) in JCVD, he's my first choice. I think Van Damme could do something really awesome with the right script, and Leagues could definitely be that script.
Honorable Mentions: Bruce Campbell - if I was doing a campy send-up of the Disney version, Bruce would be my Ned Land. I can just imagine him singing "Whale of a Tale". 

Sean Astin 6 votes
Michael Caine 6 votes
Rob Schneider 6 votes
Comments: Conseil is clearly the most difficult character to cast, as there was nearly no consensus outside these three. Students admitted this in their answers, stating that his phlegmatic personality plus providing the comic relief made him a very difficult persona to cast. I agree completely. Sean Astin got picked for his Conseil-like performance as Sam in Lord of the Rings, while Michael Caine, although far too old (Conseil is only 30!) is a shoo-in for his performance as Alfred in the revamped Batman films. While I have a perverse interest in seeing if Rob Schneider could actually pull off a dramatic role, Conseil isn't just comedy. Many students chose comedians or comic actors for the role, mistaking Conseil's subtle humor for Jack Black's over-the-top shtick. Ultimately, I agree with the student who chose Orlando Bloom, who is the right age, and can play a low-key background character. While he's been typecast as the action hero, films like Elizabethtown have displayed the subtle side of his abilities. I have no idea if he could do a French accent, but here's hoping.

Got any suggestions?

Feb 8, 2010

Finding Nemo - the Verniana Version

Today is Jules Verne's birthday. You'd think, given the way Google will tailor their logo for the anniversary of Sesame Street or the birth of just about every other famous writer or historical figure, there would be a Nautilus or something up there today. It seems it remains up to the Verne fans to keep the flame alive.

To that end, I'm posting a link to my first published academic article on steampunk, which I first wrote as a term paper for my PhD coursework in 2008, then presented at the Eaton Science Fiction Conference in 2009. Verniana, the online, open-source journal of the North American Jules Verne Society, requested what they deemed the best papers from that conference. I was fortunate enough to be considered one of those papers, and worked on revising and editing the paper over the past nine months to be ready for its final iteration at Verniana. This has been a major achievement for me - my goal had been to be among the first articles in academic scholarship published on steampunk, post-Stefan Hantke's 1999 article in Extrapolation.

Verne is definitely one of the precedent writers for the steampunk aesthetic, and this article suggests Nemo as a proto-steam-punk, using the term as a noun, to refer to a type of neo-Victorian hero. Here's the abstract, and a link to the page where you can read the article (and many others - I recommend perusing Howard Hendrix's article - it's fantastic!).

In the foreword to his annotated translation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Walter James Miller suggests that Verne’s image was in need of rehabilitation due to the plethora of poor English translations his works have suffered. With the emergence of better translations, the same need for rehabilitation has emerged for Captain Nemo, the anti-hero of Verne’s underwater adventure tale. In the updated, post-colonial English translations of The Mysterious Island, Nemo is revealed to be the antithesis of the Caucasian pop-culture iteration made famous by James Mason and most recently continued by Patrick Stewart and Michael Caine: an Indian prince whose real name is Dakkar, a leader of the Sepoy rebellion against colonial rule in 1857. It is this Nemo, Verne’s original character, who embodies the essence of the Steampunk aesthetic of the instability of identity through his repeated death-and-rebirth cycle in both novels. Mixing one part recursive fantasy, one part historical criticism, and one part textual analysis, this paper will demonstrate how Captain Nemo is representative of one of the core elements of the Steampunk aesthetic, namely the redefining of identity.

Feb 3, 2010

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan was one of my favorite steampunk reads of 2009. This book is an immense pleasure in both hardback and audiobook. The hardback is a gorgeous addition to the collection of any bibliophile: the North American cover features a foil-embossed steampunk Habsburg family crest amidst other steampunk wings and floral patterns, with an organic red background, evocative of the inside of the Darwinist (British) airships. Upon opening the cover, Keith Thompson's map of Westerfeld's alternate-history Europe demarcates the opposing forces in Leviathan's struggle: On one side, the Darwinist nations of Britain, France, and, Russia, allied against the "Clanker" nations of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. The images he uses to convey these allegiances, are stunningly beautiful and somewhat horrifying all at the same time, grotesque in their arrangement, as well as their underlying threat of war and destruction. For someone familiar with the history of the Great War, the map provides a stunningly concise summary foundation for the opening chapter of Leviathan. Keith Thompson's numerous in-text and full-page illustrations enrich Leviathan's reading experience throughout the book.

The looming war between the Darwinists and Clankers is repeated in the opening lines of the first chapter, as  Alek, son of Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria-Hungary, is engaged in a war of miniature toys representing the two powers. This wargame is interrupted by the arrival of Otto Klopp, his piloting teacher, and Count Volger, his fencing instructor, who tell him to get dressed for a night lesson in piloting a Clanker walker. Alek is suspicious of this lesson in the middle of the night, with his parents away in Sarajevo. For even an amateur historian of the Great War, the reason for this intrigue is immediately evident, though not Klopp and Volger's intentions. Alek is further amazed to find that he is to pilot a Cyklop Stormwalker, "a real engine of war" standing "taller than the stable's roof, its' two metal feet sunk deep into the soil of the riding paddock" with a "cannon mounted in its belly, and the stubby noses of two Spandau machine guns [sprouting] from it head, which was as big as a smokehouse" (8). Westerfeld's use of real historical devices, such as the Spandau machine guns and the engines of the Stormwalker, developed by the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (who later developed the Mercedes-Benz), gives the novel a strong sense of verisimilitude, despite the ostensible YA audience, and the alternate history.

It's necessary for Westerfeld to create a believable secondary world, for while the Clanker devices are somewhat fantastic, the fabricated beasts of the Darwinists make the novel undeniably technofantasy. Nevertheless, the reader buys into the idea, since Westerfeld makes a slow reveal of these fabricated beasts, genetically altered animals, the result of nations in a history where Darwin's scientific discoveries of natural selection were unimpeded by conservative ideology. In Leviathan, it is the conservative groups who are derided as "Monkey Luddites":
"A few people--Monkey Luddites, they were called--were afraid of Darwinist beasties on principle. They thought that crossbreeding natural creatures was more blasphemy than science, even if fabs had been the backbone of the British Empire for the last fifty years." (31)
Westerfeld's "what if?" question seems to be, "what if Darwin had been branded saint instead of heretic?" The answer comes in stages, through the adventures of Deryn, a teenage girl masquerading as a boy in order to join the British Air Service: first, "lupine tigeresques," massive crossbreeds of tiger and wolf which are powerful enough to pull an "all-terrain carriage" (28); then, the Huxley ascender, a hyrdogen breathing organism that serves the same purpose as a hot-air-balloon, "made from the life chains of medusae--jellyfish and other venomous sea creatures" (32); before finally revealing the Leviathan itself:
"The thing was gigantic--larger than St. Paul's Cathedral, longer then the oceangoing dreadnought Orion she'd seen in the Thames the week before. The shining cylinder was shaped like a zeppelin, but the flanks pulsed with the motion of its cilia, and the air around it swarmed with symbiotic bats and birds...
The Leviathan had been the first of the great hydrogen breathers fabricated to rival the kaiser's zeppelins...The Leviathan's body was made from the life-threads of a whale, but a hundred other species were tangled into its design, countless creatures fitting together like the gears of a stopwatch. Flocks of fabricated birds swarmed around it--scouts, fighters, and predators to gather food...According to her aerology manual, the big hydrogen breathers were modeled on the tiny South American islands where Darwin had made his famous discoveries. The Leviathan wasn't one beastie, but a vast web of life in ever shifting balance." (69-71)
Aside from being a wonderful device of organic technofantasy, a brilliant contrast to the machines of the Clanker nations, the Leviathan also serves as an allusion to Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, at least insofar as Hobbes' Leviathan speaks to the idea of the commonwealth. While the idea of Alek as a benevolent sovereign is hinted at, Westerfeld does not seem to be moving toward the idea that one sovereign ruler over a commonwealth is the ideal. Rather, through the analogy of a hydrogen-breathing airship which is both a living organism and ecosystem, Westerfeld's text suggests that the commonwealth is found, as Hobbes said, when people restrain themselves from the action of war out of the "foresight of their own preservation." One might even say that this new Leviathan is a postmodern riff on the former. The airship is a visual representation of social contract theory, wherein the lives of everyone and everything on board are connected. A balance must be maintained in order for the ship to remain in working order - this could be read both environmentally, as well as social-politically.

Westerfeld foreshadows this idea of the Leviathan as a "vast web of life" in the opening chapters: Alek makes the mental comparison of the Cyklops Stormwalker with "one of the Darwinist monsters skulking in the darkness" (8), while the non-organic metaphor "fitting together like the gears of a stopwatch" hides in the middle of the Leviathan's description when Deryn first sees it. Already, Westerfeld is subtly telling the reader that, although they seem to be at war, we cannot forget that they are all ultimately human, and that furthermore, he intends on getting at least some of the Clankers and Darwinists together to forge an alliance.
This is no spoiler: by the time this reality is reached, the text has made several references to the necessity of interaction and cooperation, of living in the "vast web of life". 
Dr. Barlow, the granddaughter of Darwin, explains this web of connections to Deryn while touring the ship:
"You see, my grandfather's true realization was this: if you remove one element--the cats, the mice, the bees, the flowers--the entire web is disrupted. An archduke and his wife are murdered, and all of Europe goes to war. A missing piece can be very bad for the puzzle, whether in the natural world, or politics, or her in the belly of an airship." (195) 
Dr. Barlow's use of the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife as a real-world example is contrasted by the dramatic irony of Deryn's statement to Alek later in the book, "Your family's no business of ours" (329). The message is clear - it wouldn't matter if Alek wasn't Franz Ferdinand's son - his family would still be her business at some level: we are all each other's business.
When the Leviathan is forced to crash-land in the Swiss Alps, near where Alek and his companions have retreated to, Count Volger laments: "the highest mountains in Europe, and the war reaches us so quickly...What an age we live in." He concludes tjat the Leviathan's crew won't last long, due to the scarcity of food, shelter, or fuel on the glacier. Alek's response is immediate, once again underscoring Westerfeld's message of interconnection: "But we can't leave shipwrecked men to die!" Count Volger's cold reply reminds us of a lesson the world has yet to learn in terms of webs of connection, common humanity, and trust: "May I remind you that they're the enemy, Alek?" (227)

Thankfully, Westerfeld is masterful enough to weave this discourse concerning the web of connections through a rip-roaring adventure story, which is how the book is marketed to its YA audience. It can be enjoyed as such, and has much to offer fans of steampunk and alternate history. I found it far more satisfying than my painful attempts at reading Twilight. Sadly, while Leviathan's pace and content strike me as, at the very least, on a par with the writing of Rowling or Funke, the book hasn't received the success I think it deserves. This is likely due to its lack of trendy vampires or zombies. My encouragement to fans of steampunk is to give Leviathan a try. There are a number of other steampunk novels far less deserving of steampunk afficianados' attention: Westerfeld deserves some steampunk attention, and you deserve to read a great adventure story with an intelligent subtext.

Post-script: Alan Cumming's narration for the audiobook of Leviathan is as top notch as the hardback. Do yourself a favor and get both, so you can read the book while you're on your commute.
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