Steampunk Sourcebook: City of Ember (2008)

THE-CITY-OF-EMBER-deluxe-cover

Like The Golden Compass, City of Ember skirts the edge of “true” Steampunk, but I have seen it on several Steampunk movie countdowns (though interestingly not on book lists.)

Streets of Ember
Streets of Ember

The story centers on two teenagers, Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) and Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway). We meet them on their Assignment Day when their entire future careers get determined by the luck of the draw. Doon is supposed to become a messenger, but he trades that choice job away to Lina in return for a chance to work under the city and gain access to the generator that supplies the lifeblood of Ember: electricity. Because Ember lies deep below the ground, safe from the terror that took place 241 years ago. Without the generator the entire population would be plunged into total darkness and the electric lights mounted all over the city is there only refuge from the abyss beyond.

But lately, the lights have begun to flicker.

Lina is delighted to become a messenger and dives into her duties with gusto. She is the grownup in her tiny family, which consists of a little sister named Poppy with a propensity for putting things in her mouth and a dear (though slightly crazy) grandmother who spends her days taking thread out of clothing and spooling it for reuse (no on has had new clothes for over a century). In the depths of a closet, Poppy uncovers a mysterious metal box that had belonged to a former mayor and proceeds to gnaw on the contents.

Lina and Doon
Lina and Doon

Lina recognizes the writing on the pages as coming from the revered and little understood “builders” who created Ember and, with the help of Doon, attempts to recreate the documents from the chewed mess. To their shock and amazement, they seem to be telling of a way out of Ember, and out of the danger of starvation and perpetual darkness. Can Lina and Doon overcome the rampant corruption in their government to discover the truth and lead the citizens of Ember to salvation?


Some fun facts and context:

۞ The movie is based on a novel called The City of Ember that was released in 2003. You can read an interview with the author here about the novel’s tenth anniversary this year.
۞ DuPrau wrote 2 sequels, The People of Sparks (2004) and The Diamond of Darkwood (2008), as well as a prequel called the Prophet of Yonwood (2006) that tells of the cause of the apocalypse that led to the building of Ember.
۞ The City of Ember was made into a graphic novel in 2012 by Niklas Asker.
۞ Harry Treadaway (Doon), most recently appeared in the 2013 Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp. Saoirse Ronan (Lina) has lent her voice as well as her face to several films and is best known for her roles in Atonement and The Lovely Bones.
۞ The film includes a few major changes from the book. First off, giant mutated animals. In the book, Doon keeps a caterpillar to observe it and is utterly fascinated by insects because the people of Ember never see things from above ground. In the film he finds a moth is easily 2 feet across, upping the visual ante but not staying true to the novel. There is also a completely terrifying star nosed mole as large as a hippopotamus that delivers the come-uppence to Ember’s corrupt mayor (played by Bill Murray), which never appeared in the book. Likely this is a reference to the nuclear cause of the apocalypse in the Prophet of Yonwood and mutations that could follow. Personally, I did not like the change, I thought the book was already great without the novelty.
۞ The other big change, which is probably the reason the movie ends up in Steampunk lists and the book does not, is the amount of gadgetry. In the movie, Doon’s father (Tim Robbins) is an inventor and Rube Goldberg type machines cook their breakfast, while in the book he runs a shop populated by old shoe heels and rusty nails. There are also scenes that take place in the huge industrial center under the city, but the tech is all there to create electricity so it is not very Steampunk in the end. But the gritty, dark ambiance and added mechanical gizmos definitely make you feel like you are in the past rather than the distant future.
۞ The set was built in the same shipyard the Titanic was, and many of the interiors that were built were never used in a single shot but add to the depth of the visual story. Check out the clips below the gallery for more windows into the underground city.

Click on the thumbnails for larger images.

A Little Steam With My Comics This Weekend

I am traveling this month to such exotic locales as Michigan and Washington DC, and while I was reading the Washington Post this weekend I ran into two comics that I wanted to post. This first one gave me a nice little chuckle and is from the strip WuMo.

Before Electric Eels
Before Electric Eels

The second had a little Steampunk thrown in. Check out the decked out doggie in the third panel of this Prickly City strip by Scott Stantis.

Prickly City
Prickly City

Steampunk Sourcebook: Captain Nemo

The enigmatic Captain Nemo made his first appearance in Jules Verne’s science fiction classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870), which takes place in the late 1860s. Little is revealed about the mysterious figure besides his hunger for scientific knowledge and his rejection of imperialism and by extension, most of the world above the ocean. He and his dedicated crew exist “below the law” by rarely stepping foot on dry land and aiding those oppressed by imperialism. In the second novel featuring Nemo, The Mysterious Island (1874), he tells a group of castaways that he is the son of a raja named Prince Dakkar and that he lost his family in the First Indian War for Independence against the British (1857). After the death of his loved ones he goes into hiding and embarks on secret scientific research, culminating in an electric submarine called the Nautilus.

Fun Facts and Context:

۞ Nemo means “Nobody” in Latin
۞”20,000 Leagues under the sea” is often interpreted as the vertical distance down into the depth of the ocean, but it is a slight mistranslation of the french title “Vingt mille lieues sous les mers” where mers (meanings seas, plural) was translated as “sea.” It is meant to indicate the horizontal distance traveled under the water, not the depth of the water. 20,000 leagues is 6 times bigger than the diameter of the planet (each league is 4 kilometers).
۞ In the original manuscript, Nemo was a Polish noble whose family was killed in the January Uprising (1863-1865) by Russian oppressors. Fearing a blow to sales (as well as insulting France’s ally), Verne’s editor asked him to change the character and keep the details shadowy.
۞ Though he is an Indian prince in the final iteration of the novel, Nemo spent most of his formative years in Europe so he speaks with a British accent (he admits to speaking French, Latin and Gerrman as well).
۞ And though he hates the imperialist nature of European nations, the Nautilus is full of treasures from around Europe including an organ which Nemo plays masterfully. There is also a substantial library on board to feed his scientific pursuits.
۞ Nemo has a brief appearance in one more of Verne’s works, a play called Journey Through the Impossible. The play was not published until 1981 after a handwritten copy was discovered in 1978. The first English translation was completed in 2003.
۞ There was a real submarine called the Nautilus, which was designed by an American inventor living in France named Richard Fulton. It was developed in the late 1700s and was powered by a hand crank.

Captain Nemo has appeared in various adaptations of Verne’s novels, but few of these belong in the Steampunk canon. For instance, the 1954 film adaptation is heavily influenced by the style and politics of the era, and some important details are changed (for instance, the Nautilus runs on nuclear power rather than electricity). You can find a full list of Captain Nemo’s appearances here, but for the sake of this post I am focusing on the versions of Nemo that fit firmly into Steampunk.

For instance, Alan Moore’s graphic novels (and the film adaptation) featuring The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In this series, Nemo is much more callous, even bloodthirsty, than the original character. Verne’s Nemo saved whales, Moore’s Nemo mows down people with machine guns (Volume 1).

Captain Nemo also appears in The Other Log of Phileas Fogg, a 1973 novel by Philip Jose Farmer. If you haven’t guessed it, this is a crossover novel that takes place in the world of Around the World in 80 Days but incorporates (or rather co-opts) characters from other novels like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. In Farmer’s account, Captain Nemo is better known in some circles at Professor Moriarty.

Kevin J. Anderson rewrites Captain Nemo’s history (and brings a childhood spent with Jules Verne into the mix) in his novel, Captain Nemo: The Fantastic History of a Dark Genius (2002).

Check out my gallery below for various versions of this Victorian antihero and other steamy sea captains.

Steampunk Book Review: Clockwork Angel (Infernal Devices 1)

clockworkangle-265x400When I decided to start this blog one of the first things I did was head to my local library. The more I learned about Steampunk, the more I realized I had a lot of reading to do! I picked up a mix of classic sci-fi like H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. but I had also heard good things about Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices trilogy so in I decided to read a mix of the old and the new at the same time.

I’ve only gotten as far as the first book in the series, Clockwork Angel, but I will definitely be reading the trilogy to the end. The Infernal Devices series takes place before Clare’s earlier trilogy (Mortal Instruments) about an angelically infused group of warriors fighting the forces of darkness to keep us “mundanes” out of the crossfire, but it is not meant as a prequel. (Clare stresses on her website that the books can be read in any order.) The story takes place in dreary streets of Victorian London and follows the misadventure of sixteen-year-old Tessa Gray.

The story starts with her imprisonment in the hands of the strange Dark Sisters, who help her unlock her previously unknown supernatural talent. With the help of a deliciously malicious (not to mention handsome) rising Shadowhunter Will, Tessa escapes and finds herself sucked into a race against time to stop a clockwork army in the hands of the mysterious and powerful Magister. You can read and excerpt here. Next on my reading list? The Strange Affair of Spring-heeled Jack (a Burton and Swiborne novel).

Steampunk Sourcebook- The Golden Compass

the_golden_compass_1

For die hard fans, His Dark Materials (known as the Golden Compass trilogy in the US), wouldn’t technically fit into the definition of Steampunk.

The series is set in the present/near future so steam power is a thing of the past and the story has nothing to do with Victorian England or an alternate history, but the parallel universe Lyra Belacqua inhabits has some decidedly Steampunk elements to it. The images in this post are all from the 2007 film release of The Golden Compass.

GC carriage

First, England gets “punked.” Lyra lives at Jordan College within Oxford University, which doesn’t exist in our universe. She later travels to an alternative London with dirigibles floating over head and horseless hansom cabs, apparently their answer to the automobile.

The spaces that she inhabits in while in the power of the evil Mrs. Coulter remind me a lot of the work of Alfonse Mucha (1860-1939).

GC Mucha golden-compass-railing

There are also so some fun alternative technologies, for instance, a projector (which they call a spirit projector) that uses glassy orbs to create 3D, moving images of of the mysterious Dust (which is basically powdered sentience). The bad guys also employ “spy flies” which are clockwork insects “with a bad spirit pinned to it” and sent to locate Lyra and her band.

GC projector

spy-fly

Fun Facts and Context

  • The Golden Compass was originally released under the name Northern Lights.
  • The trilogy explores contemporary concepts in science such as quantum entanglement (lodestone resonator), dark matter (dust is invisible without the amber spyglass even though in the Golden Compass film they depict it clearly as visible by the naked eye) and human evolution (how did we become “more” than animals? Where did sentience come from?)
  • The Golden Compass film stops short of the plot of the first book. The real ending of the Golden Compass is darker and sadder, but I think they stopped where they did in hopes of continuing the trilogy and that needed a more hopeful note.
  • Unfortunately, the films of The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass were never made. Many people, including actors in the film, blamed the Catholic church for killing the series. I admit that I watched the movie before I read the books and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t continue and why the church would protest so much. Then I read the books and I totally get it. (Spoiler alert) Even if the story wasn’t overtly about killing god (or at least the one posing as god), there are multiple scenes of a violence against children, like in Citegazze (a city in another alternative universe), that would have been hard to stomach on the silver screen.