Put on goggles or turn away.

I have watched a LOT of movies and tv (and tv movies) in my life. I once tried to count all the movies I've ever seen, but I stopped somewhere after 930. I was thinking recently about a certain genre of movie and tv show that I watched a lot of in my childhood. Maybe this will give you a clue:

I loved this movie and would watch it every time it came on tv.
I've seen three remakes of it; the one with Brandon Fraser was
okay (mostly because I like Brandon Fraser), but the other two
were deplorable things and full of woe.

Not really the mightiest motion picture of them all,
but a pretty good movie (except for the singing).

I've seen two film versions of this story.

And I've seen three versions of this story. I like this one a lot,
but the 1989 tv miniseries comes in a close second.

Fun stuff! The moon may not be made of cheese, but this film is.

One of my all-time favorite films. I love it so.

Watching this tv show was a weekly ritual during my childhood.

I've also almost always been interested in life and literature during the mid to late 1800s (I was going to say during the Victorian era, but that seems kind of exclusive), some of my favorite books being from that era, such as works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Trollope, Emily Brontë, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, and Bram Stoker. Some of those authors lived on and wrote in the 1900s (Kipling and Doyle, for instance), so they are not strictly Victorian, and there are writers from outside Victoria's realm whose works I enjoy, like Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain, who I guess aren't strictly Victorian, either. So what's a good alternate word for "Victorian"?

Anyhow, all that information and experience was stored haphazardly in my memory along with many other interests, literary and non, over the intervening decades, but a couple of months ago I saw something that brought all those quietly simmering science fictional and Victorian (for lack of a more inclusive word) loves to my immediate attention and mashed them together into a new - but not really - interest: steampunk.

I'm trying to remember exactly what that something was. I kind of think it was goggles.

Or perhaps it was this video. Or a combination of the video and the goggles. Whatever it was, it served as a catalyst, and I am converted.

Sort of.

There are a few elements of steampunk that make me unhappy. One of them is that one of the principle visual representations of females in steampunk culture is the prostitute. I think I understand where that comes from (the romantic but misguided notion that prostitutes, since they live and work "outside" the mainstream, are somehow freer than other women to plot their own course in life without societal constraints), but it makes me unhappy nevertheless. And it influences my choices when it comes to how I interact with steampunk.

Here's an example: Once I could put a name to this area of interest, I started looking for steampunk literature, a wide category inclusive of everything from way back to the works of Jules Verne and H G Wells up to the most recently published stuff like The Affinity Bridge and The Kingdom beyond the Waves and Boneshaker (about which more anon). In my research, I learned that there are certain authors from the 1970s and 1980s, like Michael Moorcock and James P Blaylock and Tim Powers and K W Jeter (credited with coining the term "steampunk" in 1987), who were writing steampunk stories before the genre had been given its name. I'm still looking for some of those books. Skipping over the intervening years, where you find things like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Perdido Street Station and the Baroque Cycle, we come to the current day and a slew of newly published material by Stephen Hunt, Scott Westerfield, Kage Baker, Cherie Priest, and others.

So, as I was checking out the current stuff, I read this description of Baker's book, The Women of Nell Gwynne's, on the Subterranean Press website:

Lady Beatrice was the proper British daughter of a proper British soldier, until tragedy struck and sent her home to walk the streets of early-Victorian London. But Lady Beatrice is no ordinary whore, and is soon recruited to join an underground establishment known as Nell Gwynne's. Nell Gwynne's is far more than simply the finest and most exclusive brothel in Whitehall; it is in fact the sister organization to the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, that 19th-century predecessor to a certain Company...and when a member of the Society goes missing on a peculiar assignment, it's up to Lady Beatrice and her sister harlots to investigate.

Am I bothered? Definitely. Okay, tragedy sent Lady Beatrice home to walk the streets? Really? Like she had no other choice. Yes, I know that occupational choices for women were limited, and that if you didn't get married, and unless you were blessed with a bit of luck or initiative, practically your only other options were to work as a governess (which, I grant, could be pretty miserable) or in service (which possibly ditto) or as a prostitute (which come on now).

I haven't read Baker's book (and from the description of it, I don't plan to), but honestly - Lady Beatrice chose prostitution over being a governess? Over housekeeping? What is wrong with that woman? My great-great-grandmother got kicked out of the house by her mother for joining the Mormons and she didn't go whining half-dressed to lean provocatively against the nearest lamppost. She became a cook. It wasn't the greatest job, but she kept her dignity. And her virtue. And, incidentally, her own pay.

The other thing that annoys me (by implication) is that the men in these stories (in the case of the Nell Gwynne's book, the so-called Gentlemen's Speculative Society - and what were they speculating about? How to use the harlots next door for fun and profit, instead of helping them improve their lives?) - I say the men in these stories get to hang out at the club or the pub and they wear trousers and waistcoats with many pockets and hats and goggles and they get to use cool gadgets, while the women in these kinds of stories get to hang out at a brothel and they wear corsets and fishnet stockings and little else and they must have sex for pay. Which they have to turn over to the madam.

All right, silly harlots aside, the other thing that kind of bugs me about steampunk novels - but probably not enough to make me stop reading them, because they don't show up in every book - is that they frequently include huge doses of monsters: werewolves, vampires, zombies. I don't mind werewolves and vampires so much. Dracula is one of my favorite books ever. (And yay for the original Mina Harker. Only don't get me started on the idiotic film representations of her.) But I don't get zombies. No, I don't.

Zombies, as you know, are dead. Yes, dead. But for some reason (and the reason can vary from book to book) these dead folk become reanimated and start shuffling (or running) after perfectly innocent people who are truly alive, and these reanimated corpses are always very, very hungry. Why are they hungry? Why? Most of them are half-decayed anyhow and no longer have significant and important parts of their alimentary canals. And yet they wish to eat. For what purpose? I understand a vampire needing blood. I understand a werewolf munching on its victims. But zombies? No. Zombies make no sense. Zombies are pointless.

Nevertheless, after looking around at the options, especially those that presented themselves immediately, I finally decided to read Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest, not least because it has an awesome cover featuring goggles.

Not only does it feature goggles (yay!), it has airships (another staple of steampunk) and a strong female protagonist. Those things attracted me to the book. I knew going in that Boneshaker also featured zombies, but they turned out to be mostly a convenient (unless they were after you) device to propel certain actions on the part of certain characters. It could just as easily have been aliens or werewolves or rabid squirrels.

Boneshaker was a pretty good adventure: nothing spectacular, kind of fun, a few interesting characters, a few interesting gadgets, an annoying teenaged boy, and a bit of a twisty ending, which I kind of half-suspected, or at least which didn't surprise me at all. As my first (modern) steampunk novel, it was a pretty good place to start, but I'm hoping for more: more adventure, more gadgets, more character development. Oh, and fewer zombies.

Aside from building up a collection of steampunk literature, I'm also seriously thinking about getting some gear. Goggles are first on the list.

P.S. I also am not a big fan of the current trend in mash-up stories, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or The War of the Worlds Plus Blood, Guts, and Zombies, or The Undead World of Oz, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim. I'm not kidding; those are real titles.


Shannon said...

wow. people make my laugh, and then they make me cry, all for the same reason. ummm.... forgot what else I was going to say. hm.
is van helsing steam punk?
but sky captain isn't?
also, in my greek lit class we had to read a story by...somebody...and it was set in space! it was weird. I wish I could remember who it was by. but even the ancient greeks were thinking of the future, isn't that funny? somewhat unrelated, but oh well. that wouldn't be steam punk, it'd be like...stone punk... or something.

Jared and Megan said...

Shannon - mom may have already enlightened you, but steampunk is an extremely wide and varied genre... so I'd say that sky captain possibly falls under it, and maybe even certain portrayals of Van Helsing. Like that one movie... but I can't remember it very well. Did he have any technology that helped him do something he wouldn't have been able to do in our actual history? overly-mechanical guns, for instance?

Mom - I like the goggles, too. Would recommend boneshaker to me?

Janeite42 said...

@Shannon: Van Helsing is considered steampunk. I don't remember the film extremely well, so I guess I'll have to watch it again. (It's in my collection.) Sky Captain would be dieselpunk, which is for stuff that falls between the 1920s and oh, say, the 1950s.

I think a good name for that story by the Greek guy might be lithopunk. Or, since the Greeks were around in the Bronze and Iron Ages, maybe something like ferropunk would be better. Or, since that’s derived from Latin, perhaps we should go with a Greek sound and call it sideropunk. Or how about cypropunk? Which almost sounds like cyberpunk.

@Megan: I do recommend Boneshaker. It's not bad, not great. Oh, one thing the author does that kind of bugged me was occasionally use anachronistic terms. Like she described (on p 162) the teenaged boy as thinking there was nothing wrong with being 'proactive' about reaching his goal. That really jarred. And there was another one, that I think was actually in the dialogue, that was even worse, but I can't remember what it was and unfortunately I no longer have a copy so I can't look it up. But yeah. In the words of Mary Richards, it's really not awful.