Steampunk Education, part 1

So, with Steamcon coming soon, and me sitting on a couple panels, I’ve got to bone up on a genre that I’ve hereto only been passingly familiar with. This involves an extensive reading list, which I’m honestly not going to have time for. Fortunately, I’m not giving a talk on writing in the genre, I’m merely sitting on a couple of panel discussions. One of them is about Victorian science and tech, which I’ve loved for years. The other is about Steampunk film and multimedia production. The “Multimedia Production” part of this I’m well versed in. The “Steampunk” part, not quite as much.

So, this week, in between evaluating the Trinity Indamixx (initial impressions – favorable but with caveats), which I’m blogging on right now using an external keyboard (I could seriously get addicted to this thing), I learn all about Steampunk Films!

But back to the steampunkiness. I really enjoyed Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Yeah, I know, I know. It’s preachy and shallow and far too didactic for anyone’s own good. You know what? So was Narnia, but most of the people that go around slagging Pullman off are Christians who are blind to how preachy and simplistic Narnia is, while they find Pullman’s universe frightening and subversive.

The fact is that the books were preachy, but they were hardly shallow. They were gloriously imaginative, and they were appropriately geared for preteens (which, if you don’t remember from the books you read as a kid, means heavy-handedness is important. This is a demographic that’s exploring big ideas in a big way, for the first time). Like the Narnia books, these stories deal with big ideas in a bold, almost tacky way. Unlike Narnia, Pullman waited to write his saga until he was a mature author, so his stories are better, his metaphors more sophisticated, and his style more consistent. The other thing that bears mentioning is that Materials is actually a fully developed fantasy, while Narnia is, by Lewis’ own admission, a hybrid of allegory and beast fable. Because of this, the worst of Materials compares well with the best of Narnia, from an adult perspective. From a child’s perspective, both are packed with wonder and terror and the glory of life in the finest coming-of-age tradition.

But I digress…

For the movie, they sanitized the idealogical content for mass audiences, but they did not neuter it. There’s still a goodly amount here to engender a lot of discussion. Visually, the film’s a stunner. Given the production team I should have expected that, but honestly I’m surprised. Steampunk in all the right ways, the world is gloriously visualized. The depth of the grandeur in the world really comes through. The adaptation is well-penned, the acting above par, and – best of all for my purposes – it’s deeply immersive. The particle physics, the alethiometer, the daemons, the bears, the dirigibles, the brass machinery, mostly plausibly rendered with just a touch of the fantastic. Also, for my purposes, it was a good place to start. It’s shot through with the steampunk ethos of individualism, distrust for authority, ubermenschen, and situational ethics.

It’s a damn shame that small minded bigoted activists like the ones at the American Family Association managed to propagandize this film out of business. It would have been great to see the rest of these films – now I daresay they will never be produced. More than that, watching these films next to the Narnia films would have given a lot of opportunity for children to explore the big questions both series raise in unique ways. And, where Materials is concerned, since the entire conceit of the story relies upon particle physics and string theory, it could be a great conversation starter for other big ideas full of wonder.

So, there we are. Steampunk education part 1 complete. Part two coming soon!

2 Responses to “Steampunk Education, part 1”


  1. Jonathan

    This post comes at a fantastic time. I’ve been struck by a sudden desire to dive into a steampunk world, but I have very little experience with it. (Damn you, inspiration, and you’re lack of concern for my well-being!) I’m looking forward to your posts. Will you be posting the reading list?

  2. admin

    Yes indeed, I will be posting a reading list as it builds up. Thanks for following this little adventure!