matrix: the news and media magazine of the british science fiction association
Issue 188
July 2008
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ARCHIVE
- Matrix 187 - Mar 2008

 

 

FEATURES: Steaming Celluloid
Historical steampunk tends to be more science fictional, combining alternate history with real locations, famous historical figures and different technology.
Fantasy-world steampunk places steampunk in an imaginary fantasy realm, often populated by legendary creatures, and focuses on steam-era or anachronistic technologies.

by Martin McGrath

Van Helsing

There are, I suppose, cases to be made for Hollywood seriously molesting every outcropping of science fiction at one time or another. But few of the branches on the sf tree can have been so comprehensively battered as steampunk. Think, for a moment, of the vast swathes of cash and human endeavour thrown at the screen in films like Wild Wild West, The League of Gentlemen, Van Helsing and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and recall, if you dare, how little pleasure there was to be had from any of them.

wild wild westNone of these films fail because of a lack of ambition in capturing steampunk’s aesthetic. There is, in every case, a meticulous and in some instances almost fanatical eye for cleverly crafted props. But, for once, God is not in the detail and in the end these movies are all second-rate edging towards the downright disastrous because they ignore those basic elements of good storytelling – smart characters and exciting plotting.

That’s not to say that there have not been good movies with steampunk influences – and great movies that have fundamentally influenced steampunk – but finding them will not be easy.

That’s especially true because I intend to take a relatively narrow view of what I define as steampunk.

Steampunk takes its aesthetic cues from the Victorian era, but a Victorian setting alone is not enough to make any work part of the subgenre. Steampunk’s appropriation of the exuberant inventiveness of the Victorian era's gentlemen amateur scientists is not just about the aesthetic – although that is plainly important. Good steampunk recasts technology using pneumatics, pistons and brass to make obvious that which is often hidden behind the slick designs of the twenty-first century.

The editorial of the first issue of Steampunk Magazine (www.steampunkmagazine.com) put it like this:

Steampunk machines are real, breathing, coughing, struggling and rumbling parts of the world. They are not the airy intellectual fairies of algorithmic mathematics but the hulking manifestations of muscle and mind, the progeny of sweat, blood, tears and delusions. The technology of steampunk is natural; it moves, lives, ages and even dies.

This is not Luddism, if one casts that movement as a putting aside of technologies, for steampunk rather loves its machines. But there is something of a shared longing for a simpler time – times when how a machine worked could be visibly understood and the scale of technology easily encompassed. Steampunk longs for a time when a hefty thwack with a lump-hammer achieved more than scattering shards of plastic and silicon across the floor. A time when technology could be touched, prodded, poked, reconstructed and repurposed.

steam punk

This, surely, is where the “punk” element in “steampunk” becomes more than just a hang-over from the literary genre's appearance around the same time as cyberpunk. This tendency to take the detritus of Victorian society, the left over threads and scraps of thought discarded by geniuses and madmen and the predictions of half-forgotten prophets of the steam age and reconstruct them as grand theory is essential and is what defines steampunk as something more than just science fiction in a Victorian suit of clothes. Like the three-chord rockers of the late seventies, steampunks takes elements of the cosy and the safe – what could be more genteel and secure than the world of the Victorian gentleman – and kicks them firmly in the bollocks, upsetting our expectations, making utterly free with the impossible and outlandish and regurgitating the trash, bile and sewage of an era that was, after all, built on slavery, exploitation and the raw force of arms.
This is the area where steampunk and its silicon-enhanced sister cyberpunk intersect. Dealing with moments of enormous technical transformation, both punkish subgenres find themselves in the gutter while transformative events take place around them or, perhaps, dragging the momentous down to the level of the trash even if it is just for a moment.
war of the worlds
So an essential thread in what makes a genuine steampunk story is that it is concerned not just with how it looks but what that technology does, how people interact with it and why it matters. In much steampunk, technology becomes an extended metaphor for the mechanisms of the exercise of power within society. Victorian science fiction could contain characters that were only too aware of the iniquities of their era – Verne’s implacably anti-imperialist Nemo, Wells’s narrator of the end of empire in The War of the Worlds and Haggard’s later, world-weary, Quatermain – but steampunk highlights the seamier side – the addictions, perversions and corruptions that these respectable Victorian gentlemen (both authors and the characters) wouldn’t (or couldn’t) discuss openly.

As such, the works of Wells, Verne and their contemporaries – and the more or less faithful adaptations of their work that have made it into the cinema cannot, for our purposes, be classed as steampunk.

The Time MachineIt may well be that Rod Taylor’s time machine, with its pointlessly spinning wheel and beautifully crafted brass and crystal-topped control rod, is a thing of beauty that cannot fail to appeal to those who love Victorian style, but, as a film, George Pal’s The Time Machine is too conservative, too nostalgic and too respectable to qualify as steampunk. And the same can be said for the familiar adaptations of Verne’s work – such as William Witney’s Master of the World (1961) with a script adapted by Richard Matheson – a personal favourite – or the Disney-produced, Fleischer directed 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

These films and many others made throughout the 1950s and 1960s clearly belong amongst the influences that contributed to the foundations of steampunk – but to include them within the genre would, surely, be to extend it beyond meaning.

Also strictly outside the genre, it is possible to find steampunkish motifs in a spate of recent films – the air-pirates in Stardust, Tesla’s fantastical workshop in The Prestige, Eisenheim’s “magical” contraptions in Neil Burger’s under-rated The Illusionist, Ichabod Crane’s investigative devices in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and the Wild West contraptions of Back to the Future III. Is the dissemination of steampunk's unique aesthetic into an ever widening scope of material indicative of anything more than the fact that a group of art directors are enamoured of a certain style? I think not, no more than the sight of the vast turbines of the Titanic in Cameron's berg-infested venture – a flashing shot, beautifully realised, meticulously researched and instantly dismissed – qualify that movie as steampunk.

So, having cast aside tonnes of chaff, are we left with anything that might reasonably be called stampunk cinema which is worth watching?. I think so, although my choices are few and some might even be regarded as perverse.






Brazil

Brazil is, of course, not a steampunk movie and yet it is also the archetype for what every great steampunk movie should be. The story of a powerless minion trapped in a bureaucratic dystopia struggling for even fleeting moments of freedom is prototypically punkish. And, while the technological milieu owes more to the 1930s and 1940s than to the Victorian era, Gilliam’s agenda in imagining a stylized technology that is at once familiar and terrifying – to highlight the alienating effect of vast machines – is one that is fundamental steampunk.







The City of Lost Children

From the distinctly Dickensian environs of the city to the freakish brass contraptions created by mad scientist Krank, The City of Lost Children is the most convincing and frightening realisation of a steampunk society committed to celluloid. Caro and Jeunet’s nightmarish story of kidnapped children, circus strongmen and stolen dreams once again pits the impoverished against the powerful but it is the style and depth of the world building that makes this a truly memorable film.





Steamboy/Castle in the Sky/Howl's Moving Castle

Steamboy, Kutsuhiro Otomo’s long-long-awaited follow-up to the seminal Akira seemed too bright, too glossy and too simple to many when it was first released. It is only with later viewings that this synthesis of Japanese love for Victoriana (all that rigid social hierarchy and tea ceremonies presumably feeling familiar) and their ambivalence towards technology (embracing it but only too aware of the great suffering it can bring) reveals its greater depth. The same steamy aesthetic and technological ambivalence can be found in many of the films of Hiyao Miyizaki, although Miyizaki tends to place his technology in opposition to mystical, natural forces to highlight their alienating effect.







Vidocq

Under normal circumstances there is nothing that could persuade me to recommend Vidocq, which wastes talented actors and talented artists on a story that is flattered by being called inane. But so much of steampunk is inseparable from appreciation of the way things look and if Vidocq has only one thing going for it, it is the beautiful visuals created by former special effects supremo turned director, Pitof. It’s a film that all fans of steampunk will want to look at if not, necessarily, watch.







Time After Time

I hesitate to include this because I’m not entirely convinced it counts as steampunk – though the setting and the counterpointing of Victorian values for smart social commentary – genre essentials are both present and correct. It’s not a wholly successful film – the actual plot of Wells as hero hunting Jack the Ripper through time is, frankly, ludicrous. But it does have value.

Newcon 4 Pantechnicon Science Fiction Foundation