OPERATION BACKLOG SLOG (BLOG): Episode 9 – The Steampunk Edition

Steampunk can be a difficult subgenre to wrap one’s head around. But since the mainstream world seems to be embracing it with movies like Sherlock Holmes and video games like Epic Mickey, I figured I would take a look at the things in my collection that might be representative of the genre. We’ve got Steampunk books, movies, music, video games, anime and comics to get through, so it’s time to fire up the boilers! Full steam ahead!

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BOOKS:


The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – Being that it’s the most famous work within the subgenre that I’ll be reviewing today, I thought it wise to start with Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine.  This collaborative work is a collection of three tales of varying length, each following a string of events from the perspective of a different character.  Their respective paths cross when they come into contact with the story’s McGuffin, a box of punch-cards used to run a very powerful and experimental program on the world’s most powerful (and largest) analog computer.  Yes, that’s right, analog computer.  You see, the linchpin to the fantastic world of The Difference Engine, the point at which its 19th century diverged from our own, is that in this world Charles Babbage actually did manage to invent the analytical engine successfully, pushing computer technology in a very different direction.  The computers are giant and still run on punch-cards, but are capable of vastly different sorts of calculations because their code isn’t limited to 1s and 0s.  This ushered in a change in the structure of the British Empire, turning it into a meritocracy under the leadership of Babbage and Lord Byron.  Crazy, right?  You’ll see a lot of that sort of thing in Steampunk novels, I daresay.  Anyway, the stories are highly uneven in length and in quality.  The opening short tale (following streetwalker-turned-heroine Sybil Gerard) ends just as it starts to get interesting, and the final tale (of journalist and Black Ops agent Laurence Oliphant) quickly degenerates into a series of loosely-connected snippets that partially wrap up many loose ends.  It’s a good thing the central story (that of action archaeologist Edward Mallory) is so gripping, or the book would be a complete failure.  Mallory is the most likeable character, and reminds me a great deal of Dr. Alan Grant from Jurassic Park (which is surprising, given the fact that many of his characteristics could be seen as a rip-off of Indiana Jones.)  While he is able to find his way out of some very action-packed situations, he always seems to be a fish out of water, longing for the chance to delve into more scientific study, away from the murder mysteries and gunfights.

The romantic, Steampunk charm of The Difference Engine is definitely far closer to Dickensian literature than Final Fantasy, with technology only being slightly more advanced and still seeming somewhat plausible.  Gibson and Sterling do an excellent job of making their London come alive, and even manage to make their descriptions of smells vivid and important to the story.  As an entry point into the subgenre of steampunk, it does a nice job of introducing you to the amusing anachronisms and romantic, adventurous atmosphere seen in so many steampunk works.


Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology edited by Nick Gevers – One of the things I found most interesting about this collection of steampunk short stories is that no two of them are set in the same universe.  Each one is quite obviously steampunk, but with its own unique twist and personality.  There’s an underdog story about a gigantic steam-powered robot boxing champion, an updated fairy tale about a murder investigation in a world where static electricity is so concentrated it causes near-constant lightning storms, a “heist” story about a transatlantic telegraph line laid by time-travelers from the future, and even a cautionary (to men, at least) tale about a ladies’ country club that houses a dark and sinister secret.  After that last one, I don’t think I’ll ever look at croquet the same way again (YIKES!). Many of the stories are exciting and engaging, but a few others fall flat. The great thing about anthologies, though, is that they’re still worth the money even if one or two short stories miss the mark.  If you’d like to experience a broad range of takes on the steampunk concept without slogging through a stack of novels, Extraordinary Engines is a fantastic and entertaining resource.

The His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman –  I can’t even begin to summarize all that is wonderful about Phillip Pullman’s steampunk fantasy novel trilogy.  But I must, so I’ll begin with an analogy.  If The Chronicles of Narnia use a fantasy setting to show kids how great Christianity can be, His Dark Materials use the same tactic to show how badly Christian principles can be corrupted.  But don’t let that scare you away, dear readers, for it’s also a touching story about the trials and tribulations of growing up and learning how to survive in the world around you.  Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious in its symbolism (as with the Specters of Indifference not attacking children) but more often than not it’s cleverly couched in a delicious layer of exciting storybook fantasy.  Pullman’s world is thoroughly-realized and packed with coherent, consistent details, the kind of world that “won’t fall apart two days later.”  There are intelligent bears, mysterious witches, unsettling revenants, majestic-yet-terrifying angels, and lovable animal companions called daemons (that are physical manifestations of part of each person’s soul.)  Steampunk elements of His Dark Materials include the use of hydrogen-fueled airships, the study of a mysterious substance (called Dust here, but not so different from the aether of other books) and a world frozen in aesthetic and technological progress somewhere around the late 19th century.  Read the books starting with The Golden Compass, but steer FAR clear of the movie if you possibly can.  The studios asked the director to take out the anti-theist elements, leaving very little to keep the story coherent.

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MOVIES:


Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie – While everyone else was donning 3-D glasses to see Avatar, I decided to stick with the “dream team” of Guy Ritchie, Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, and (of course) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  It may not have been as pretty, but the story’s got it beat.  Ritchie and RDJ’s Holmes bears some crucial similarities to Doyle’s (such as the impossibly magnificent intellect, the restlessness when not on the hunt, and the awkwardness with women) but takes more than a few liberties to spice up the story.  This Holmes is an expert fighter (both barehanded and in the art of Bartitsu) and far more reckless than his literary counterpart.  Purists might be offended by these changes, but anyone who can handle multiple interpretations of the character will find quite a lot to like here.  The plot is fairly action-movie standard, and lacks a mystery that one could’ve seen coming (discouraging the viewer from playing armchair detective), but the twist at the end is exciting and leads me to believe that the inevitable sequel will be far superior.  The steampunk influence is largely aesthetic in Holmes, combining 19th century period setting with modern performance and cinematography techniques.  It’s very much Lock, Stock, and 3 Smoking Corpses, to connect back to Ritchie’s earlier work.  As for actual steampunk elements, the anachronistic invention of things like the Tesla coil, the silencer, and the wireless signal transmitter (as well as the sliding pistol-mount most people know from Taxi Driver) all do an excellent job of establishing the fact that this is not our universe’s London Town.  If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, Guy Ritchie, RDJ, or steampunk, you’ll find plenty to like here.

Doctor Who: The Next Doctor

Doctor Who: The Next Doctor directed by Russell T. Davies – Even the good Doctor gets in on the steampunk action once in a while.  While certain episodes have borrowed conventions from steampunk works (such as Season Two’s finale, which tore entire sections out of Pullman’s trilogy finale The Amber Spyglass,) the steampunkiness is at its most evident in the first of “Season 5″‘s holiday specials.  In “The Next Doctor,” The Doctor travels to London on Christmas Eve in the mid-19th century. Almost immediately he runs into a strange cyberman/animal hybrid, who in turn is being chased by a man that seems to be another incarnation of The Doctor.  Both Doctors are very confused, but eventually manage to sort out exactly what is going on.  I won’t spoil too many of the details for you, but I will say that the Cybermen’s technology is far more steampunk than cyberpunk this time around, and the fact that orphaned children are being forced to work the factories makes it feel all the more Dickensian.  Oh, and 19th-century Doctor’s TARDIS is a hot-air balloon.  It’s full of adventure and excitement of the romantic order (though without a love plot) and the action scenes at the end may be the most spectacular of the revived series up to this point. While I don’t think that it’s equal to 1/5th of a full season (sadly) it’s certainly a fun time.  It also benefits from being somewhat continuity-light, so casual viewers can follow along without feeling completely lost. All you need to know is that The Doctor is a time-travelling alien who saves the world like it’s his freakin’ job, and that cybermen are bad news.

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MUSIC:


Aether Shanties by Abney Park –  Who knew that a literary subgenre would spawn a musical genre?  Yes, steampunk rock exists, and no band is more famous for embracing their love of airships and aether than Abney Park.  While I wasn’t sure how steampunk rock would sound when I first heard mention of it, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by their music.  Aether Shanties is an appropriate name, as many of these songs seem like they’d be sung by air-shipmen on the decks of a flying zeppelin.  They manage to incorporate some great elements (such as accordions, various horns, and old-time-sounding backup vocals) without sounding too cheesy or gimmicky.  “Victoria” is a particularly haunting tune, one that works perfectly without leveraging its steampunk relevance.  There’s a lightheartedness to many of their songs that I did not expect, but it is certainly welcome.  After all, steampunk is supposed to be a fun and exciting subgenre!  Since this music should be heard (and seen) to be believed, here’s a video of Abney Park in the recording studio:


Behold, The Machine by Vernian Process – Taking a substantially darker turn, Vernian Process’s Behold the Machine transports your imagination to a world that feels like a cross between traditional steampunk and the works of H.P. Lovecraft: Mysterious, anachronistic and exciting, but also deeply foreboding.  I found this album to be excellent background music when playing games on the Xbox, as it lends an air of otherworldliness and ill omen to pretty much anything.  A notable exception to this, however, is “The Maple Leaf Rag,” which is a ragtime instrumental that impressively replicates the sound of old ragtime songs.  I do sort of wish that more of the tracks had been instrumental, though, as often the lyrics get in the way of the music’s beauty.  Still, it’s a small complaint, especially since the album is currently FREE.  You can download it here, and I’ll try to include a video preview below:

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ANIME:


Steamboy directed by Katsuhiro Otomo – I don’t normally watch much anime, but Steamboy is definitely an exception to the rule in a number of ways.  First of all, it’s a big-budget anime feature film, which means that the production quality is through the roof.  It’s not quite as jaw-droppingly beautiful as Akira, but it actually manages to give Ozamu Tezuka’s Metropolis a run for its money.  The use of CGI instead of hand-drawn cells allows for greater detail on the ever-present steam machinery, as well as for incredible action sequences that would seem almost real if it weren’t for the one-man ornithopters and the zeppelins with capture-claws.  The story is a bit stock (boy must keep a McGuffin safe, stop two warring military-industrial factions from destroying the world, and make his father & grandfather listen to the voice of reason) but it manages to hold my interest.  Whatever the theme is, though, it’s completely lost on me (as most anime themes are.  What can I say, I just don’t get them.)  Steamboy excels at being a visual work of art, though, and is worth renting for its spectacular aesthetics alone.  The steampunk elements are almost too many to list, but chief among them are an advanced 19th century society that runs on efficient, inexpensive steam power, all manner of steam-powered vehicles from powered armor to a super-fast wheel cycle (not unlike the one General Grievous used in Star Wars Episode III), one-man ornithopters, and a tower controlled by organ keys that can fly into the upper atmosphere (Wait a second!  Didn’t they use that exact same structure in Read or Die: The OVA? I wonder who ripped off whom…)

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VIDEO GAMES:


Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness by Hothead Games – Some of you might have heard of Penny Arcade, one of the most (if not the most) popular webcomics in the English-speaking world.  PA creators Mike “John Gabriel” Krahulik and Jerry “Tycho Brahe” Holkins manage to hold more sway in the video game world than nearly every “professional game journalist” in the business, and I certainly value their opinions more than I do those of the mainstream game media.  After years of focusing solely on hilarious criticism of video games, Mike and Jerry decided to try life on the other side and, with the help of studio Hothead Games, created their very own episodic single-player donwloadable RPG for PC and XBox 360.  Critical reaction was mixed, but I can tell you that I’ve never had more fun playing an Xbox game than I did when playing the first two episodes of Precipice.  It’s really amazing what a difference writing can make in a game, not just in the overall plotting of the story, but in the joys of every last meticulous detail.  The entire game is a love-letter/send-up to traditional Japanese-style RPGs of the 8-bit and 16-bit era, complete with turn-based battle system and text-only dialogue.  The dialogue and descriptive text (all written by Jerry himself) had me quite literally laughing out loud throughout most of the game, and there were so many that the game manages to even keep things interesting when doing such mundane RPG tasks as exploring every crate, box and dark corner on the map.  The battle system improves upon the traditional JRPG formula (most notably used in the first 9 Final Fantasy games) in a few key ways: The addition of a blocking mechanic keeps you involved in the action when it’s the enemy’s turn, the fixed number of enemy encounters prevents the game from becoming a farm/grind-fest, and the quick-time-event super attacks (a la Mega Man X: Command Mission) are each different enough to provide some spicy variety to combat.  “But what does any of this have to do with Steampunk,” you ask?  Well, the setting is one of the most determinedly steampunk of any video game I’ve played.  The game takes place in a rather anachronistic suburb called New Arcadia in the early 20th century, and all of the Penny Arcade characters have been appropriately reimagined to fit the times.  Taking pages out of the playbooks of H.G. Wells and H.P. Lovecraft, Precipice is a tale of fantastic sci-fi and dark eldritch horror.  The big bad of Episode 2 (spoilers on!) is a gigantic steam-powered … erm, juicer … who should be instantly familiar to fans of the comic.  There are evil chimney sweeps, twisted Dickensian factory owners, and a foul-mouthed talking phonograph.  Short of Epic Mickey, this is likely the most steampunk atmosphere you’ll find in any game.  Highly recommended if you’re a fan of the series (and what gamer isn’t?), and still worth a free trial if you’re just a steampunk fan.


Honorable mentions: Final Fantasy VI and Nostalgia are both Japanese-style RPGs set in steampunk worlds.  I’ve not played either game, but FFVI is one of the most popular steampunk works (of any medium) and Nostalgia seems to be explicitly targeted to the steampunk fanbase.  You can check out a video review of Nostalgia at Gametrailers and various videos of FFVI on Youtube.

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COMICS:


The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill – League is a fantastic comic series that inspired one of the most awful movies ever.  It’s sad, really, because you would be hard pressed to find two versions of a story that were more different in execution than League Vol. 1 and its film counterpart.  Sure, the core plot details are the same – A cast of heroic 19th century literary characters battle unusual threats, including evil 19th century literary characters – but whereas the movie is by-the-numbers FX-driven schlock, the comic is a fantastic foray into a richly-crafted atmosphere that simultaneously replicates and pokes fun at the time period.  Alan Moore fills the pages with all manner of authentic 19-century flavor, from classic-style advertisements to distinct dialogue to humorous narration, and Kevin O’Neill brings this alternative 19th century to life in fantastic detail.  Serious issues such as racism, feminism (and sexual assault), and drug abuse are touched upon in measured, appropriate ways, reminding us just how far we’ve come in society since those days (and why we shouldn’t wax nostalgic about them quite so often.)  The fantastic elements evoke the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne not only through the obvious references (such as the appearance of Captain Nemo and The Invisible Man,) but in their overall tone and aesthetic.  League is very true to its influences, as any good steampunk work should be.  It’s really a shame that it was tied to such a dreadful film (so bad that even Sean Connery couldn’t save it!)


Girl Genius Omnibus Vol. 1 by Phil & Kaja Foglio – Girl Genius, the long-running webcomic (collected into several print volumes for those of us who dislike screen-reading) by Phil and Kaja Foglio is, as the back of Vol. 1 so eloquently puts it, “a steampunk cinderella story.”  But don’t let that scare you away, fellas!  There’s plenty of action, excitement, intrigue and amazing steampunk flavor to be had here, and heroine Agatha Clay (nee Heterodyne) has far more in common with the Ellen Ripleys and Sarah Connors of the female-protagonist world than with traditional Disney princesses.  You see, Agatha is an incredibly gifted engineer in a world where steam-powered technology has enabled all manner of fantastic marvels, from gigantic robot doormen to airship castles.  Such a gift is in high demand, and Agatha must fend off a wide array of people who seek to exploit her in various ways – A corrupt Baron who seeks to dissect her brain, the Baron’s son who wishes to marry her, a former hero compelled to kill all gifted engineers, and an evil professor who aims to resurrect an ancient evil.  Oh, did I mention that Girl Genius is a comedy? It’s quite an ambitious book/webcomic, and does a great job of not only advancing a fantastic story, but showing that you can have a kick-ass intelligent female protagonist and not lose the support of male readers.   The only thing it loses points for in the feminist category is its tendency to have Agatha frantically running about in her underwear (she often builds things in her sleep, y’see)  which just feels like a throwback to ’90s comics, but even that is mitigated by the fact that her underwear is not totally cheesecake bikini model fare and that her proportions are far less Barbie-esque than most comic characters.  I highly recommend checking out Girl Genius, especially since the entire series is free to read online at girlgenius.net.


Freakangels by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield –  OH. MY. GAWD.  This book is gorgeous.  If I could paper my walls with pages from any one comic book, it would be Paul Duffield’s magnificent splash pages from the third volume of Freakangels. I honestly don’t know how the man does it, but somehow his renditions of a post-apocalyptic Whitechapel are breathtakingly beautiful, even when they’re showing explosively violent action scenes.  Freakangels is special like that, though: It’s the only post-apocalyptic story I’ve ever read that actually exuded a sense of calmness and serenity. If I had to choose a devastated world to live in, I’d choose this one.  Warren Ellis deserves just as much credit for this effect, though, as it’s his meticulously crafted world and clever inversions of post-apocalyptic tropes that keep the story moving along.  He’s really managing to keep a slow-but-steady pace that is perfect for the series’ delivery model (6 pages released on Freakangels.com every Friday, free for all to view) but I’ll continue to buy the series (in hardcover, no less) because Duffield’s art is truly a sight to behold.   With regard to steampunk, Freakangels is unique in that it takes place in the 21st century, and what little steam-powered technology there is has been cobbled together out of the ashes of post-apocalyptic England.  The most visually iconic of these is lead Freakangel KK’s steam-powered motorcycle-turned-helicopter.

Aetheric Mechanics by Warren Ellis and Gianluca Pagliarani (Avatar) – [Reposted from an earlier entry] I think it would not be a stretch to call this Ellis’s foray into the world of steampunk, and it’s certainly an interesting story on its own merits.  Ellis presents a version of Britain amidst a world war with a Russian-allegory nation, where technology has advanced along very different lines.  Not only are there flying machines such as airplanes, but there are also small hovercraft and gigantic airships powered by aetheric means that I still don’t really understand (all rendered with spectacularly intricate black-and-white detail by Gianluca Pagliarani, who I believe also illustrated Ellis’s Crecy.)  All of this is just background, though, for an amusingly intriguing murder mystery in the style of Sherlock Holmes.  The book takes a very interesting turn during its final act, one that I won’t spoil for you by revealing the details (suffice to say that it gets a bit “meta”, with entertaining results).  If you like Warren Ellis and/or steampunk sci-fi and/or period crime comics, you could certainly do a lot worse for $6.99.

The Five Fists of Science by Matt Fraction and Steven Sanders (Image) – [Reposted from an earlier entry] Now this is how you do Steampunk! (Well, not technically, as the awesome alternate-technology is electrically powered in this book, but you get the idea.) Hot-shot Marvel writer Matt Fraction and artist Steven Sanders have come together to bring us the superhero team-up we never would’ve thought of ourselves, but now can’t bear to live without: Legendary wordsmith Mark Twain and genius inventor Nikola Tesla. AMAZING! Together with Tesla’s one-armed assistant, these Five Fists of Science endeavor to save the world and end war forever by building giant robots with incredibly powerful weapons. YES! GIANT STEAMPUNK ROBOTS! DYNAMO-POWERED WMDS! HOORAY FOR SCIENCE! Sorry for the outburst, it’s just such an exciting book. Fraction is able to handle both action and comedy with ease, making this a worthy rival to Clevinger and Wegener’s Atomic Robo for best use of Nikola Tesla’s life and works in a comic book. The story and aesthetic are less Atomic Robo and more League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, though, with a far greater literary feel and a cast featuring many historical figures (including JP Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, and Guglielmo Marconi.) Sanders does a fantastic job bringing these historical figures to life, giving them enough personality to jump off the page without becoming inhuman caricatures. His technical drawing is so skilled that every construct seems to be fully realized and theoretically functional (a few minor suspensions of disbelief notwithstanding.) It may not feature any real steam-powered machinery, but The Five Fists of Science can steampunk with the best of ’em.

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Whew! That’s quite a primer, eh? I’d wager you now know a great deal more about Steampunk than you did before. But there’s still so much more

out there! Let me know if you want me to delve into this topic further, as I do still have a few Steampunk works in my archives that I’ve yet to go through. Until next time, may your boiler never backfire and your hot-air balloon never rupture…

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  1. […] OPERATION BACKLOG SLOG (BLOG): Episode 9 – The Steampunk Edition […]

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