Monday, 5 December 2011

Cory Gross on Steampunk Part One

Ah, Steampunk Christmas... Ash falling lightly like snow, the tree bedecked with gears hanging from each bough, striped stockings tacked on the mantle of a gas fireplace built entirely of brass plumbing fixtures from Home Depot... What a horrible idea!

I am a firm believer that nothing needs to be Steampunk'd that actually existed in the Victorian Era, and nobody perfected Christmas like the Victorians. Christmas became a symbolic victim of the centuries of sectarian squabbling between Puritans and Catholics in the United Kingdom, the latter for it and the former against it. By the beginning of the 19th Century this had finally calmed down and the Victorians began to rediscover the holiday, looking back nostalgically at the days of Merrie England. The poem popularly known as Twas the Night Before Christmas was composed in 1822. The tradition of Christmas carolling began here, with many songs composed or printed for the first time. Charles Dickens cast a long shadow with his 1843 tale of hearth, home and the redemptive power of human fraternity, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge, his ghosts, and their mid-19th Century winter frivolities have become as central a Yuletide fixture as Santa Claus, Rudolph and the Christ child. The first Christmas cards were printed that same year. As recreationists clamber over each other to lay primeval claims to the Christmas tree, we know for certain that it was Prince Albert who introduced the Tannenbaum to Buckingham Palace, and the rest of the kingdom followed suit. Though presently an act of consumerist gluttony, Boxing Day was originally invented in the Victorian Era as an act of charity to those caught under the grinding wheels of industrialization.

Over here in the colonies, my favourite winter activity is visiting the Banff Springs Hotel. Nestled into the Canadian Rocky Mountains, this Baronial castle completed in 1928 is truly resplendent in its Christmas outfit. Without, silent snow thickly blankets the fir trees and limestone peaks of Canada's first national park, created in 1885. Within, roaring fires in stone fireplaces warm eggnog sipping lovers. Mediaeval battlements constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway are jewelled with spruce and golden ornaments while beloved carols performed on bagpipes stir my 1/8th of Scottish blood. Such a beautiful experience could not happen without the unique intermingling of European heritage and North American landscape shaping Canada's cultural traditions.

Such a scene is all the better if I can curl up with some Dickens, or Verne, or Twain. The ethos that nothing Victorian need be Steampunk'd is more than a labour-saving convenience: it is a recognition that the very appeal of Scientific Romances hinge on their historicity. It is Science Fiction that is not artificially divorced from the aesthetics and traditions of our history, a tomorrow that does not forget yesterday. Within these pages and between these celluloid frames is the opulence of railway travel raised into the atmosphere, space ships made livable with Persian rugs and potted ferns, and exotic adventure without the loss of civilized comforts. Verne declared his objective to recount the scientific history of the universe with a decadent, French sense of style that can only come from a comprehensive grounding in aesthetic traditions as well as technological innovations. On Her Majesty's Aether-Ship Enterprise, you are guaranteed that the children of Earth have not forgotten to celebrate Yuletide.

It is also guaranteed that something genuinely Victorian looks better than something Steampunk'd. Sepia was the colour of 19th century film stock, not 19th century clothing! Victorians assiduously avoided the crudity of industrial equipment, preferring to adorn their steam engines with gilt rather than themselves with ornamental gears and rivets. One could certainly do worse than place some nice, large coffee table books about Gothic Revivalism, the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, Japonisme, Orientalism or Queen Anne style under the tree. What would I want beneath my tree, however? Or more to the point, what would I recommend for those of you with a Steampunk to buy presents for or a list to give to your non-Steampunk relatives?

My first recommendation is the indispensable gift of an e-reader. With such a marvellous tool, classics of Scientific Romances become easily accessible. The Steampunk in your family will have no excuse not to visit Project Gutenberg and download the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain, Garrett P. Serviss, Edward Everett Hale, Harry Collingwood, George Griffith, Rudyard Kipling, Sir H. Rider Haggard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Edward S. Ellis, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Jacob Astor, Edward Bellamy, and Edgar Allen Poe.

Flicker Alley has compiled two very fine collections of pioneering French film in Georges Mlis: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913) and Georges Mlis: Encore. Between the two, all 199 extant films by the auteur best known for A Trip to the Moon are preserved. The majority of these 15 hours of video are short trick films employing his techniques as a stage magician. However there are many astonishing long subjects drawing inspiration from such figures of French heritage as Joan of Arc, Charles Perrault and Jules Verne.

Speaking of France, the continental music group Dionysos released a tandem concept album and novel several years ago under the title La mécanique du cœur. The story tells of an infant named Jack, born in 1874 on the coldest night in history. To save his life, the midwife stimulates his heart with a clockwork mechanism. The unfortunate side-effect is that the frail boy can never fall in love or else his heart will break. The book by band mastermind Mathias Malzieu, translated into English as The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, tells the tale in a direct way while the album shines the poetic, musical facet. The enhanced CD also links to a site whereupon one can view the amazing video for the single Tais Toi Mon Cœur, done in the style of a Tim Burton stop-motion film.

I would be remiss not to mention volumes one and two of The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec. Recently republished by Fantagraphics, this French comic by Jacques Tardi is a love letter to Penny Dreadfuls, faithful in style and tone. Fantagraphics also republished Tardi's The Arctic Marauder which painstakingly replicates the effect of illustrated engravings and connects to the Adèle Blanc-Sec mythology.

To be continued...


Cory Gross is a museums and heritage professional from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. In addition to working at or volunteering for a number of science, nature and cultural history organizations in the city, he also runs the weblog Voyages Extraordinaires dedicated to Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances and Retro-Futurism. It can be visited at

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