It took two class sessions, but we finally watched all of Howl’s Moving Castle. What a great movie.
Lots of discussion regarding whether or not the steampunk setting–with the mechanical/magical castle and the old planes and the pre-WWI uniforms–was really necessary for the plot or just nice window dressing.
Spent a bit of time talking about how steampunk lends itself to anime style. As Scott McLoud’s Understanding Comics points out, anime style tends to have iconic, “cartoony” characters but hyper-realistic, detailed backgrounds. Steampunk is all about tiny details that cue us into the industrial, intricate setting. Anime and steampunk are a natural fit.
Also, the student presentations on films have been excellent. They know more movies that borrow steampunk iconography than I do, particularly things they watched as kids like Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Continent and the Series of Unfortunate Events film.
This morning, I received an acceptance letter from the editors at Perihelion Science Fiction accepting my short story, “Eyesores,” for publication.
Perihelion is a great fiction site with an emphasis on hard SF. Definitely worth checking out if you haven’t read their stuff. I will post updates as the story gets closer to publication.
I just made 13 first-year university students watch the 1999 film version of Wild, Wild West, starring Will Smith and Salma Hayek, and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. I feel sort of guilty.
It’s a bad film. Even Roland Barthes would be challenged to find something meaningful to say about it.
It does, however, have some of the most overt, willful steampunk imagery of any film in the last two decades. Having watched it again, most of the groaningly bad parts seem like they’re trying to be playful, but failing. Steampunk’s a playful genre. That approach ought to work, but doesn’t.
I’ll post my student responses here later in the week.
So, when contemporary writers appropriate 19th-century fictional characters, what can we learn? Here’s how we tackled that question in my UC Davis first-year seminar class on steampunk…
Last week, students read Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. That novella is almost the perfect length for introducing fantastic Victoriana to students in a shortened quarter once-a-week class.
This week, we covered Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s first volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. While we were productively distracted looking up references on the LOEG collaborative annotation project led by Jess Nevins, we used Hyde as our first example of a character we’d encountered in original and appropriated form.
Sample discussion highlights:
- Characters flourish when put in direct contrast with other characters. Put Hyde on the same page as the Invisible Man or Captain Nemo and suddenly his decadence and violence seems tamer. Again, that’s an idea more akin to TV’s SuperFriends or Marvel’s Avengers than in 19th-Century lit (and one only enabled by lapses in copyright).
- Steampunk’s appropriation is nearly always critically engaged. Other characters, however, are completely inverted. For example, “heroic” Alan Quartermain is a deviant Imperialist flunky from a contemporary perspective. Hyde, in contrast, is atypical: he was a commentary on Victorian repression when Stevenson wrote him, and he is in Moore’s text, but…
- Steampunk appropriation can lapse into presentist back-patting if we aren’t careful. Modern readers can see Hyde’s essence as purely a commentary on Victorian culture. He couldn’t exist in our modern, enlightened, permissive society, right? Right?? (I wish we could have pushed this one further. Very “We ‘Other Victorians‘” no?)
- One line can be enough to make readers believe your changes. When LOEG’s Jekyll states that he “used to be taller” than Hyde, it’s a direct reference to the idea mentioned in Stevenson’s text. As Hyde’s power grows, he gets bigger.
- Because it’s a comic book, it’s referential to other comics. Hyde and Hulk both have four letters and start with “H.” Moore’s choice to make Hyde enormous, and Jekyll subject to transformation when he’s nervous are tips of the hat to 1960s comics, not 19th-century literature.
These concepts have all been noted elsewhere, but they’re good examples of where a 2 hours of class discussion on steampunk reading can lead.
My First-Year Seminar on steampunk at UC Davis began last week. I thought I’d share the syllabus for starters:
Required Texts and Materials
- VanderMeer, Ann and Jeff, eds. Steampunk, San Francisco: Tachyon, 2008
- Moore, Alan and Kevin O’Neill. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1, 2000
- (other material online or covered in class)
Oct. 9: Read Nevins, Di Filippo, Pollock
Oct. 16: Read:Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (free online)
Oct. 23: Read Moore and O’Neill, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Oct. 30: Read Ellis, The Huge Hunter; or, The Steam Man of the Prairies (free online)
Nov. 6: Watch Wild, Wild West (in class)
Nov. 13: Read Lansdale, Brown
Nov. 20: Watch Howl’s Moving Castle (in class)
Nov. 27: Read Gentle, Lake
Dec. 4: Read Blaylock, Stephenson
James Gunn’s new novel Transcendental came out from Tor Books a few weeks ago. If you haven’t read it, go get it. It’s a page-turner, full of SF goodness–particularly when it comes to cool alien species.
I first heard Jim read from the book during the summer I took his Intensive Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction at KU. Along the way, I sketched some of the aliens in my notebook for the class.
Above are Flower Child 4107, Tordor, and Kom the Sirian. These were first impressions based on hearing the first chapter and “Kom’s Story” read aloud to the class.
In between the time I drew these and the release of the novel last month, Jim’s become a Damon Knight Grand Master in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and been Guest of Honor at Worldcon , and served on my dissertation defense committee. (Okay, that last one’s less of an achievement.) I’m honored to call him a mentor. I sent him the ones below, from another page of the same notebook.
More sketches may be posted. I drew a lot in that class. And in every other class…
I found this chart (see below) in an old notebook. It’s my first attempt to graphically explain how science fiction and rock music are connected in my nostalgia.
I’ve said that I blame pretty much every cool thing that happened to be prior to the age of 15 to either Bruce Springsteen or Star Wars. I forgot, however, that I’d attempted to actually visualize it prior to starting You Sell Wonderment.
So here’s the chart–tracing all my musical tastes back to Star Wars (which got me to watch Lucas’s American Graffiti at an impressionable age) and Springsteen. If you’ve got one, share it with me. I know I’m not the only one who does this stuff…
(Some of it’s hard to read, esp. Graham Parker and John Hiatt’s names on the right. The illegible note after the Ramones in the center is about Phil Spector producing their 5th album. )