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Podcast script 31: Steampunk for younger secondary students - World Shaker and Steamboy

 

mySF Project podcast, number 31

 

Download at: http://media.libsyn.com/media/pataphysics/mysf_031_2010_04_21.mp3

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Index:

Links to Steampunk music
Introduction
Steampunk and SF
World Shaker, by Richard Harland
Using World Shaker in the classroom
Otomo's Steamboy
Broadmore's Steampunk Victory
Mieville's Perdido Street Station
Resource list

 

Links to SlowAlan's Steampunk music

 

Between sections of Podcast 31 can be heard segments of SlowAlan's original Steampunk composition, 'I am stretched on your grave'. The musical interludes as well as the longer composition seen below are offered under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivative Works 2.5 Australian license. So, feel free to download and listen, copy, give it away and enjoy. Any comments or raves can be sent to MichaelS to be forwarded to SlowAlan.

Download SlowAlan's complete Steampunk composition, 'I am stretched on your grave'

Length 5.6m, size 5Mb, mp3 file.

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Introduction

Podcast 31 recommends the use of two 'Steampunk' texts for lower secondary classes: World Shaker by Richard Harland (2009) and Steamboy, directed by Otomo. There are also a few glances at associated Steampunk texts Dr Grordbort Presents Victory (2009), and China Mieville's Perdido Street Station (2000), though this association is more tenuous. The two main texts here, Steamboy (Otomo, 2004) and Harland's World Shaker (2009) fall into the muddled 'Visions of the Future' theme area of the mySF Project, due to their alternate history settings.   

Harland's World Shaker (2009) was given to me by the manager at Gaslight Books the wonderful Gail, who thought it might suit the younger high school audience, and she was quite right. Gail mentioned that it was 'Steampunk', mostly because she knew I followed the Cyberpunk authors and the most famous of these, William Gibson, wrote a defining Steampunk novel with Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine (Gibson & Sterling, 1990).  

I took World Shaker (Harland, 2009) into a class and a student sitting close by said he had read it, even though it was a very new release, and that it was tops. The Year Eight student did not mention that World Shaker (Harland, 2009) was a Steampunk novel. He was more interested in its heady effect. He did say that it was a longer novel but it ‘kept the reader going’.

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Steampunk and SF

Before looking at World Shaker (Harland, 2009) it is necessary to say why the novel is covered here in the mySF Project. It rests here because it is certainly designed as a Steampunk novel and Steampunk is seen as a subgenre of Science Fiction.

There is much written about Steampunk online with vast Wikis and databases of enthusiast material, but much less critical discussion of Steampunk within Science Fiction literature and film. You can find Steampunk jewellery, graphics, music, theatrical events and gatherings by the score, but literary criticism, even in Science Fiction Studies is harder to find.

The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says that 'Steampunk' is a direct bastardisation of 'Cyberpunk', a subgenre that boasts volumes of commentaries. It is a relatively modern subgenre that "places technological developments within an historical framework and attempts to assess their impact on the progress of past events". Moorcock's Oswald Bastable trilogy is seen as foundational to Steampunk while The Difference Engine (1990)  is "perhaps the most important Steampunk novel yet to be produced, and sees a nineteenth-century London pulled kicking and screaming into an industrial future when Charles Babbage's early mechanical computer is successfully built." (Mann, 2001, p513).   

Luckhurst, in Science Fiction (2005) calls Steampunk a curious pastiche Victorian SF and again cites The Difference Engine (1990) as a seminal, though later, text. Luckhurst bores down a little further with the, "predominant focus, though, is on Victorian London: its violent, polluted, laissez-faire anarchy works as a precursor of the post-industrial near-future ecological wastelands of cyberpunk" (Luckhurst, 2005, p213). 

Much more is made of Steampunk by the zealous enthusiasts of Wikipedia who add that the subgenre features elements of fantasy, that it came into prominence in the 1980s and 90s and the term denotes works set in an era or world where the main energy source is steam: usually the nineteenth century and often the world of Victorian England. Added to this world are the technological inventions of HG Wells and Jules Verne. The result can be men in frock coats steering vast machines driven by coking coal, or dirigibles powering through fog and steam, or analogue computers used to make primitive cannon into Smart Weapons using accurate trajectory computations.

Many Steampunk examples use alternate history stories - the path not taken - to run 'what if' scenarios where a steam-driven technology becomes a device upon which a narrative turns. This is the case with World Shaker (Harland, 2009).

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World Shaker by Richard Harland 

We learn from a lonely World Shaker scholar that history changed during the extended war between England and France under Napolean. We learn from Professor Twillip that one hundred and fifty years have passed from the first Queen Victoria after which came the 'Imperial era and the modern Paternalists.' (Harland, 2009, p39). The change was centred on the drilling of a tunnel by one of Napolean's engineers, Albert Mathieu-Favier, allowing French troops to invade England from underground, at Dover.

Many of the working class in England sided with Napolean, perhaps because the Napoleonic War was extended and brutal, leaving much of Europe a wasteland. The French promised freedom to Britain's working class and they were believed. The Duke Of Wellington put down rebellions amongst British workers first, placing thousands into concentration camps, then defeated the French, eventually (Harland, 2009, p206-9). The workers imprisoned in camps became the 'Filthies' and after the Peace of Brussels they were used as the labour force in the gigantic juggernauts, created as a sort of  steam-powered arms race after the Peace.

World Shaker the Juggernaut

We join our protagonist, Col, in the juggernaut World Shaker, an absolutely static society living in a vast steam-powered tank that can cross ocean and mountain range alike. The juggernaut is  still (one hundred and fifty years after the Peace of Brussels) the largest human construction in the world. It is two and a half miles long, three quarters of a mile wide, and its bridge is thirteen hundred feet above ground. It uses metal rollers to drive at the pace of a galloping horse across the landscape - any landscape - including villages, rivers, people, everything (Harland, 2009, p20 & 27). There are twelve thousand on board the World Shaker, ten thousand above the engines and two thousand amongst the fiery pits, the Filthies (Harland, 2009, p28). 

The world of the Upper Decks to which Col was born is a stultified Victorian world, caught in aspic since the first Queen Victoria. Col is a Porpentine, the ruling family on the World Shaker, and his grandfather is the commanding officer, Sir Mormus. His is a powerful, elite family and when Col is chosen to inherit his Grandfather's rule he is let into a secret.

"Sir Mormus lowered his voice to a resonant whisper. 'We don't say this in front of women and children. No need for them to know the world isn't all sugar and spice. It's about obeying or being obeyed. Power isn't a gift, my boy, it has to be earned." (Harland, 2009, p93).

Col's school bears the motto Loyalty, Integrity, Self-Discipline (Harland, 2009, p51) and there are many more reminders of Fascist regimes than this inscription in metal on the iron arch before Col's absurd school with its one intention to reinforce the class divisions and to keep this glass-bottle juggernaut unchanging.

In this claustrophobic, metal world there are constant reminders of hierarchies, power and division. The elite have menials who do all their work, slaves who cannot talk and cannot act independently. We learn later in the novel that these slaves have been engineered into servility through crude surgery. And below them all are the Filthies, the original rebellious workers who are now used to stoke the vast engines of the juggernaut.

But this is not an overtly political novel, even though the Menials are given names from the time of slavery in the American Deep South. From the glowing, steamy bowels of the World Shaker comes  Riff, a young Filthy who hides from capture in Col's cabin. This relationship develops predictably until World Shaker becomes almost a 'gaslight romance', with the brave Col eventually abandoning his class and privilege to join a very real and bloody revolution to topple Sir Mormus and Col's own family.

There is a good deal of comedy in World Shaker (2009) generated by the absurd hypocrisy of this bubble of Victoriana one hundred and fifty linen-and-starch years later. The characters have delightful names and are almost William Hogarth caricatures, more grotesque than sublime.

One character perhaps given a little too much bandwidth in the novel is Mr Gibber, Col's school teacher. Victorian prudery and snobbery fairly oozes out of his teaching.

From page ninety-seven of the Australian edition we learn that,

"Mr Gibber's geography was  as moral as all his other lessons. He divided the world into good coastlines and bad coastlines. Good coastlines like Florida and Cape York were firm and proud and pushed forward into the ocean. Bad coastlines like the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Australian Bight bent weakly inwards." (Harland, 2009, p97).

Numbers can be weak or pure, Gibber's geometry praises the right angle and condemns obtuse angles, and so on. The school and its teachers are a fine source of comic relief, even while we follow Col and see his world change before his eyes, due to the influence of the mercurial and fascinating Filthy, Riff.

Some characters remain shallow. The motives of Gillabeth, Col's sister, in betraying her brother are merely sketched in and Queen Victoria III, the Head of the Imperial Church, is a mere sketch, as are many of the more ridiculous elite and some of the brutish and short-lived Filthies.

World Shaker (Harland, 2009) is over three-hundred and fifty pages long. It has complexities seen when some few of the characters change through confronting the reality of their tin world. The constant danger to which Col is exposed because he has sheltered Riff keeps the narrative jogging along with only a few languid pauses (perhaps for cucumber sandwiches), leading up to a fight at Col's school and then the actual revolution of the Filthies.

Harland handles the action well with Col battling a gang of boys who accuse him of being a 'Filthy-lover'. The blows seem real and Col's victory is explained by improvements to both his fighting technique and his attitudes, wrought by Riff.

The revolution itself is surprisingly bloody and some students in lower years may be distressed briefly. An example of this taut and effective description occurs after one of the Filthies saves others by solving a problem with the rifles, and is then fatally wounded, 

"The lower half of her face was a gaping mess and blood pumped out from her neck. ... There was a guggling, bubbling sound in her throat. The red of the blood matched the red of her headband. ... The look in her eyes went out altogether. Something had departed, something had left." (Harland, 2009, p333).

The light tone created by comic characters and early interplay between Col and Riff is counter-poised by the brutality and reality of both the Filthy revolution and the procedure to create Menials through surgery, all occurring after the climactic fight at the school. The author reminds us that, though there are redeeming characters here and there amongst the Upper Decks, the World Shaker system is systemic and calculated evil.

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Using World Shaker in the classroom

There are many ways the novel World Shaker (Harland, 2009) could be used as a class set for Years Seven and Eight English classes studying Science Fiction. After all, the novel turns on the idea of a vast technological device that is a character in itself. Its place within Science Fiction could be argued and many readers will notice the similarities to stories depicting the Generation Starships created to travel for thousands of years between stars. The same social tensions, decadence and rebellious uprisings can be seen in many Space Opera texts, though in World Shaker (Harland, 2009) there are lashings of irony on the parfait in its crystal glass.  

Obvious approaches to the novel are seen in the development of the characters of Col and Riff as well as some subsidiary characters who learn more about or are forced to confront the truth of the World Shaker's sordid history. Many opportunities exist with this novel (priced at under twenty dollars in Australia) to draw narrative paths, brainstorm causes for the apparent stability of the World Shaker world, and to discuss what should have been done to make this sardine world more equitable.  

Leaving aside these uses of the Harland novel in the classroom, it is advised to pair this text with Steamboy, conceived and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. This anime film is rated PG in Australia and is widely available on DVD for showing to a class. It is a neat 120 minutes long so suits two classes admirably, with a worksheet of focus questions or pre-discussion and a follow-up discussion on its themes.

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Otomo's Steamboy

Steamboy (Otomo, 2004) is recommended to be viewed with the class before reading World Shaker (Harland, 2009) and it is also recommended that some discussion of modern history is included before viewing the DVD, perhaps for only one class of an hour, drawing out ideas on the Industrial Revolution and its impact on Western society, perhaps through the use of potent images and texts on an Interactive WhiteBoard (IWB), such as 'The Time Traveller's Guide to Victorian Britain' published by the Open University, with images from Flickr  for 'Victorian steam power' and 'Victorian child labour'.  

Steamboy (Otomo, 2004) includes references to actual characters and events from Victorian England, including the leading families of northern English steam engineers who changed their world so radically. But at the heart of Steamboy (Otomo, 2004) is a Science Fiction device - the discovery and harnessing of water so distilled that the steam produced by even a small amount can be compressed enough to create a Weapon of Mass Destruction.  

The protagonist of the story is a north English boy, Ray, whose father and grandfather are brilliant engineers, the Steam family. They have found and captured this extraordinary new energy, trapping this super-pressurised steam in little round canisters that are meant to remind older viewers of early Anarchist bombs, and of Fat Boy Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  

There is division between the Steam father, the grandfather and the youngest male, himself a brilliant inventor of strange and compelling steam-powered devices. The boy is required to take sides. Parallel with the division between father and grandfather are competing American and English companies all wanting to harness energy to create new weapons. These new weapons are to be showcased at the Crystal Palace with Queen Victoria opening the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.  

As with many anime films there is some complexity and ambiguity apparent. Anime grew from more sophisticated narratives than found in most Western animations. Characters seem to change sides during titanic battles and it is often difficult for the viewer to work out exactly who Ray should be supporting or opposing.  

Steamboy (Otomo, 2004) has many Steampunk tropes: the high Victorian fashions; marvellous steam-driven machines; hierachies of power and caste; and technological marvels straight from Jules Verne. It also shows in stark relief many of the elements students will need to consider: child labour; terrible living conditions under constant palls of smog; the dwarfing of man by the machine; and a lively discussion of the possible uses of science in society.  

The pace of Steamboy (Otomo, 2004) can run at the rate of a locomotive but occasionally stops to throw in some trite Victorian caricatures with some annoying dialogue. Students enjoy the movie and can relate to the themes readily. There is a lame romance between a spoilt American rich girl, Scarlett O'Hara and the very down-to-earth Ray Steam but this is sidelined enough that the extraordinary action always takes centre stage.  

Ray Steam is the only moral guardian of the steam ball. While initially he trusts his own family and other factional steam inventors siding with his family, he soon learns that all of them want the power for their own ends. 

As might be expected, Steamboy (Otomo, 2004) deals with the use and abuse of scientific knowledge as societal power, making a clear analogy of the rise of steam power with current nuclear power debates. There are several environmental themes that will be picked up by the age range as well as speculations on what might have happened, if great destructive power fell into the hands of competing Imperial powers - but perhaps we already know the answer to that scenario as the First World War.

Steampunk visual imagery and fashion 

For those teachers who wish to direct students further into Steampunk texts, attention should be drawn to the many images of cogs, wheels, pistons, polished brass and steel armour. Ray's father also uses a bronze mask covering a scarred head from a steam scald. The glass eye-pieces here and elsewhere in the movie demonstrate better than any description the strange allure of Steampunk fashion.  

The ending moment when the Steam Castle wrenches itself free from the banks of the Thames River and hovers over the Tower Bridge is a wonderful Steampunk image - frozen curlicues of steam below an iron castle floating in air: alterity and wonder in Victorian England. For this scene and many others an Interactive WhiteBoard and projector is suggested to highlight the visual richness of the Steampunk subgenre, perhaps jumping from these to clothing, jewellery, laptops and guitars in the Steampunk style, as found at the Steampunk Resource.

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Broadmore's Steampunk Victory

At the beginning of this podcast two other texts were noted for consideration by teachers. The first is a splendid looking picture book by Greg Broadmore, Dr Grordbort presents Victory: Scientific Adventure Violence (2009). This tome is designed to look like an Victorian boys' manual. It contains full colour comic panels of Lord Cockswain's murderous adventures on Venus and the Moon, as well as glorious images of Venusian Bestiary or highly polished brass weaponry for despatching harmless herbivores to make trophies for the Manor House.  

Needless to say, this is a Steampunk satire of Victorian expansionism, drawing on the same rich sources as seen in both Steamboy (Otomo, 2004) and World Shaker (Harland, 2009). The pages are thick and lustrous and the illustrations will be enjoyed by many students. There are only thirty-two pages in the book and it costs twenty-four dollars in Australia, so only one copy, for the Library, would be possible. If left in a classroom it will certainly be used and enjoyed but as the title suggests, the violence is ludicrous and graphic. Lord Cockswain decapitates Venusian temple lizards with a Ray Blunderbuss and no morsel of flesh is left uncoloured. Within the book is a little page to order full-sized or miniature copies of the Steampunk weapons from www.wetaNZ.com, including even the Goliathon 83 Infinity Beam Projector. For teachers interested in students creating Steampunk paraphenalia as part of their studies, the Weta site will be a useful aid.

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 Mieville's Perdido Street Station

While Steampunk texts have not attracted a great deal of critical attention, China Mieville's Perdido Street Station (2000) has been a focus for many studies. on a blurb for the novel cover prominent Science Fiction critic John Clute called Perdido Street Station (2000)  "the best steampunk novel since Gibson and Sterling's [The Difference Engine]". As was noted in Podcast 30 when discussing The Science Fiction Handbook (Booker & Thomas, 2009), Mieville's Perdido Street Station (2000) creates a cityscape with links to Steampunk. Handbook authors Booker and Thomas argue that while this novel "shares much with the subgenre of steampunk" (Booker and Thomas, 2009, p311), the technology of the city goes well beyond the Industrial Revolution, involving 'thaumaturgy', a branch of magic concerned with producing practical effects in the material world. This novel has visual elements found in the Steampunk texts discussed here, but it can not really be called either Steampunk or perhaps even Science Fiction. It is an exciting, genre-blurring novel with a polemic bent viewed through nightmare visions.

Perdido Street Station (2000) is not suited to a younger secondary school audience but has been taught successfully in many tertiary SF studies, including by Booker and Thomas. For teachers who find Steampunk successful with younger secondary students, Mieville's novel is worth consideration for the more adventurous of the upper secondary students, again after some preliminary discussion of Steampunk, and warnings about the fever-dream world of Perdido Street Station (Mieville, 2000).

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Resource List

Blanco, J. (Director). (2009). Planet 51. Ilion Animation Studios. Sony, Tristar DVD Version.

Booker, MK & Thomas A-M. (2009). >The Science Fiction Handbook. . West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bowers, D. (Director). (2009). >Astro Boy. . Sony. Summit Entertainment DVD.

Bradmore, G. (2009) Dr ordbort Presents Victory: Scientific adventure violence.  MiMilwaukie, USA: Dark Horse Books.

Gibson, W. & Sterling, B. (1990). >The Difference Engine. . Victor Gollancz: London.

Harland, R. (2009). >World Shaker. . Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Letterman, R. & Vernon, C. (Directors). (2009). >Monsters vs Aliens. . Dreamworks Home Entertainment, DVD Version.

Luckhurst, R. (2005). Science Fiction. >CamCambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Mann, G. (Editor). (2001). The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. NewNew York: Carroll & Graf Publishers.

Mieville, C. (2000). Perdido Street Station. New York: Ballantine Books.

Otomo, K. (Director). (1988). Akira>. D. DVD Version, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Otomo, K. (Director). (2004). Steamboy. Screenplay by Sadayuki Murai. DVD Version, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Wood, G.  (2002). Edison's Eve: a magical history of the quest for mechanical life. New York: Alfred A Knopf.

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Michael Sisley

 

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