The French Side of… Steampunk Literature

"The Nyctalope is watching over Paris"… La Brigade Chimérique. Image: Gess / Editions L'Atalante.

Les Moutons électriques (Electric Sheep, just like Philip K. Dick’s famous novel) is a French publisher that offers some wonderful collections for every geek. Its bibliothèque rouge (Red Library) proposes biographies of imaginary characters in a convincing academic style. One can read Les nombreuses vies de… (The many lives of…) Harry Potter, Jane Austen, Dracula or even Cthulhu! Its bibliothèque des miroirs (Library of Mirrors) includes essays about various aspects of pop/geek culture, such as zombies, vampires, space opera, Monty Python… and of course, steampunk!

In the more than 300 pages of Steampunk!, Etienne Barrillier tries to define steampunk (as Robin pointed in her primer, that’s not an easy job) and to cover most of its aspects. The book is historical, trying to depict steampunk’s evolution, as well as geographical (a special chapter is devoted to Japan and another to French steampunk, of course). It studies  not only steampunk literature and comics, but also cosplay, fashion, gadgets and music, in a section labeled “Being steampunk.” Like all books of this collection, it includes a lot of (beautiful) pictures. That’s clearly a must-have for any steampunk fan or steampunk scholar… at least if one reads French !

Barrillier’s opinion on French steampunk literature is especially interesting. He concludes that French authors came to use different sources than great Anglo-Saxon steampunk authors, to find their own kind of steampunk. For example, they often set their stories in Paris’ “Belle Epoque” rather than Victorian London. They try to use characters and events from French history (such as Jules Verne, of course, like Johan Héliot in his novel La lune seule le sait). They don’t hesitate to mix literary genres (fantasy, sci-fi, alternate history…), and often don’t stick to “classic” steampunk. Another example is Pierre Pevel, who sets his Ambremer as an alternative Belle Epoque Paris with a Faery Court and legalized wizards.

My own favorite French steampunk novel, though, is somehow “mainstream” steampunk, with automatons, aether, opium, romance and even Queen Victoria as a guest star (even if the plot is set in Paris). It’s called Confessions d’un automate mangeur d’opium, which could be translated as Confessions of an Opium-Eater Automaton (from famous Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater). It features a fine heroine, a young actress (and, incidentally, a lesbian), along with her psychiatrist brother. The authors are Fabrice Colin and Mathieu Gaborit, both quite famous in France, and both writers of other steampunk-like novels in various styles. Like many steampunk authors, they play well the game of intertextuality: to identify references and characters is part of steampunk’s fun. The novel isn’t translated into English. That’s a shame !

The same Fabrice Colin contributed to wonderful French steampunk comic series, recently adapted into a RPG, La Brigade Chimérique (by Colin, Serge Lehman and Gess). Wait… are they really steampunk ? That’s uncertain. As “clockpunk” is sometimes considered as different from steampunk, they forged the term “radiumpunk” to define La Brigade‘s universe. Romain d’Huissier, one of the authors of the RPG, explains :

We cannot talk about steampunk since the comics are set later: steam engines are far outmoded. Since Marie Curie’s discoveries, radium is the new center of attention, you only have to look at the ads of that time. La Brigade chimérique imagines that radium has become the new energy, the one you uses for everything, medicine, transportation, weapons… Even most importantly, that’s radium that gave their powers to the first “supermen” ! So, undoubtedly, that’s radiumpunk.

La Brigade Chimérique is built upon some wonderful ideas, as one of the co-writers, Serge Lehman, tells:

[I thought] that would be really great to write a comic about the end of European super-heroes. True comics in 12 episodes, set in the 30s, including hypnosis, quantum physics, psychoanalysis and featuring the great figures of European literature. Show what happened to them.

And this dream came true!

La Brigade Chimérique (6 books rather than 12, at end) explains why European superheroes seemed to disappear after WW II, and features many wonderful characters, historical (Marie Curie, surrealist writer André Breton…) or fictional (the Nyctalope who might be considered as the first superhero character in literature, Dr. Mabuse, or Harry Dickson). The press release gives a good idea of how cool the series are:

They’re born on the battlefields of WW I, in gas breath and ray-X guns blow. They took control of European capital cities. Serial authors changed them into icons. Scientists are fascinated by their powers. However, at the center of the Old Continent, a threat is growing that could erase the very memory of their existence…

I strongly recommend reading them!

La Brigade Chimérique : the comics and their official website

La Brigade Chimérique : the RPG, published by Sans-Détour

If you’d like further recommendations, the people of Steampunk-fr are compiling a list of steampunk books and comics, both French- and English-speaking, and discussing their readings on the forum.

The Unsinkable Starship Titanic

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Douglas Adams’ Starship Titanic

A few years ago, I inherited some of my dad’s book collection when my mum decided to have a clear out. Included in the books were all five volumes of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy “trilogy.” I couldn’t wait to read them.

As a child, I had been brought up watching the 1981 BBC television adaptation and as an adult, I had also seen the 2005 movie which I unfortunately couldn’t bring myself to like – although the yarn sequence brought me close. The books promised far more detail and depth so I read them almost immediately. Throughout experiencing the series in various forms, a few ideas have really leapt out at me and stuck in my head; the concept of Milliways: the Restaurant at The End of the Universe (although I have to admit that I’d rather eat at the Big Bang Burger Bar), the knack of learning to fly – you need to learn “how to throw yourself at the ground and miss” but one concept that really stuck with me was that of Starship Titanic.

The tragedy of the Titanic has fascinated people since the day of the disaster, almost one hundred years ago. Melissa Peltier, the producer of a 1994 documentary about the ship said during an interview,

“It’s almost like a Greek myth that really happened in our lifetime. It’s so unbelievable. It’s so mythic. The little human stories on board. All the morality plays that are happening, just the whole idea of the arrogance and the hubris of speeding through the ice field because (they thought) nothing could go wrong. It’s a huge moral lesson.”

Such an inimitable story would naturally find its way to be woven into science fiction, as with most other great tales, both fictional and real. In the Hitchhiker’s series, Starship Titanic is mentioned only briefly in 1982’s “Life, the Universe and Everything”.  We are told of its majesty and beauty, how it was built in the “great ship-building asteroid complexes of Artrifactovol” in the early days of Improbability Physics and how, seconds after its launch, it suffered “a sudden and gratuitous total existence failure.” The ship is not mentioned again within the Hitchhiker’s canon, but instead became the star of its own computer game, devised by Adams sixteen years later in 1998 along with Monty Python’s Terry Jones. In the computer game, the ship undergoes “Spontaneous Total Existence Failure” and crash lands on Earth, more precisely, on top of the player’s house. It then becomes the player’s task to restore the sabotaged computer, Titania and save the ship. The game is notoriously difficult, I myself have only ever managed to wander around aimlessly and feed some chicken to a parrot. Gaming site Destructoid ran a “Games that Time Forgot” article on it which stated:

Additionally, Starship Titanic remains one of the most absurdly difficult adventure games ever made: the puzzles often seem designed to be funny, rather than challenging, and as a result their solutions range anywhere from obscure to downright ridiculous. It literally got so bad that later versions of the game came with a 120 page walkthrough, packaged completely free of charge. If you ever plan on trying Starship Titanic out, then, for the love of God, use a strategy guide. That, or plan on ripping out half your hair because you didn’t know that a robotic parrot enjoys eating brazil nuts instead of walnuts.

A book entitled “Douglas Adams’s Starship Titanic” based on the game was written by Terry Jones who was also responsible for development of the game alongside Adams. Jones’ influence is strongly felt in the absurd and surreal humour found all the way through the game.

The year after the publication of the Starship Titanic game, Futurama got in on the act with its season one episode, “A Flight to Remember in which the crew of Planet Express got to sail aboard the maiden voyage of the new Titanic space cruise ship.  The plot of the Futurama episode was based almost completely on James Cameron’s Titanic, rather than the concept developed by Douglas Adams, and parodied it in several scenes including the famous dancing scene on the lower deck. As this was a short cartoon and the plot focused mainly on the characters, the ship was more of a convenient backdrop to the story than an integral part of the plot as it is in the material penned by Douglas Adams.  However the ship has been re-designed to fit into the visual style of the Futurama universe perfectly, even using the famous Tube Transportation System for the passengers to embark upon the ship. The episode ended with the ship being pulled into a black hole rather than sunk by an iceberg after the ship’s captain, Zapp Brannigan, pilots her into a swarm of comets, referred to in the show as “the icebergs of the sky”. In an interesting change to the original story, the Futurama Titanic appears to have had enough lifeboats to evacuate everyone on board.

The concept of Starship Titanic faded into obscurity for almost a decade until the BBC’s re-vitalised Dr Who franchise used it for the 2007 Christmas Special Voyage of The Damned. In this special the Titanic, an interstellar cruiser from the planet Sto, crashes not into a house but into the TARDIS which is in orbit over Earth whilst on a sightseeing tour to observe the traditions of primitive cultures – specifically Earth at Christmas. Naturally a catastrophe is imminent with the sabotaged ship due to hit London causing the Doctor to spend most of the episode saving the ship and its occupants (and falling for yet another attractive – and doomed – young lady.) The special received the highest viewing figures for a Dr Who episode since 1979’s City of Death when it aired on Christmas Day.

For now, Starship Titanic is again at peace but for how long? For almost three decades the concept of Starship Titanic has been revisited and re-written in a multitude of formats. Is it so unthinkable that the future may bring more games, books, perhaps even a movie? The story of the Titanic has always had the potential for almost infinite re-writes and by moving the bones of the story out of our past and into our future, the possibilities become even broader.

For now, the Starship Titanic game is still available for purchase second hand if you feel like taking a tour of the ship and becoming incredibly frustrated, The Dr Who Christmas special is available as part of the Season Four box set and the Futurama episode is available on the Volume Two box set.

Steampunk Philosophy

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© Dave Clifton 2011

A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure to host a steampunk discussion at Mythic Faire, a fantasy/myth/alt culture convention that features live music, masquerade balls and special guests. I had a stellar time, both as a guest and an attendee, with the steampunk panel discussion being the highlight of my weekend. I  type “panel discussion” with a bit of a smirk, because truth be told it was just me up there on the dais.  Every faire or convention has it’s little surprises and this wasn’t the first time I’ve found myself without panel partners. Thankfully I’m an experienced public speaker with a background in theater and improv, so crowds of people wearing expectant expressions don’t generally intimidate me. And hey, at least I know how to make an entrance.

The great thing about doing a panel discussion on your own is that you have the freedom to turn what would be an “us talking at all of you” experience into an “all of us talking to each other” experience. So that’s what we did. The result was a lively and informative discussion on the deep roots and underlying philosophy of steampunk. Beyond top hats and goggles, beyond modded keyboards and brassy rayguns, beyond cos-play, corsets, and Lord and Lady RPG – what exactly is at the heart of steampunk?

What we discovered as we explored this topic together is that to many of us (certainly to the people present in the room that day) steampunk is so much more then a simple aesthetic. It’s a philosophy for life. Steampunkian principles can be applied to any aspect of your life. A commitment to self sufficiency and the creativity of the individual, support of small and local business, respect of artisanship and traditional materials are core steampunk concepts. Hardcore steampunk enthusiasts tend towards a longing to downsize the material aspects of their lives, while simultaneously demanding more function, better design and romantic execution of the objects they choose to have around them.

In fact you might say that the steampunk philosophy could be summed up in this golden rule:

‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful‘

Guess who said that?

William Morris, the Victorian era designer and founder of the Arts and Crafts movement.

I firmly believe that steampunk as a philosophy has it’s deepest roots in the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1860s. This movement was largely a backlash to the Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s. Arts and Crafts philosophy favored the skilled work of human hands and master craftsman over mass-produced and commercially made items. It was this same debate that dominated the discussion at Mythic Faire. Is the value of an object inherent only on it’s surface? What about how, or where the piece was made? Is an object steampunk because you’ve glued cogs to it, or because of it’s purpose? It’s this very same discussion that spurred on the development of glorious movements of art and design that we so treasure today. 150 years later we are having the same debates over mass produced imported goods, versus locally made and artisanal items. It’s a good debate, with complex questions and few simple answers.

For my part I enjoyed the lively discussion that manifested and look forward to exploring the connection that steampunk philosophy has to current social and economic issues more in the future. What are your thoughts? Share them in the comments!

Editor’s Note: There’s still time to enter to win one of Brigid’s Steampunk figurines! Deadline for the giveaway is Sunday night.

STEAMPUNK WEEK: Have a Merry Steampunk Smartphone

The incredible Steampunk iRetrofone by Freeland Studios ! See below for details.

A few months ago, GeekMom Brigid listed some cool steampunk apps for your iPhone. But what if you want your smartphone itself look like some delightfully intricate steampunk device ?

Image : Colin Thompson /GelaSkins.

Rejoice, for you’re not alone! Actually, there’s an amazing amount of steampunk smartphone arts and crafts. So many that I began to wonder about that.

Is it only because steampunk geeks are often tech gadget geeks in the same time ?

Is it because even steampunk geeks need smartphones and  the plain, sober, quite cold look of our favorite high-tech device is frustrating for their/our tastes ?

Is it because smartphones (tablets, laptops, whatever) are such a great new field for art a creative person  cannot ignore them ?

Anyway, here are a few steampunk smartphones gadgets I found especially beautiful, or original, or useful.

Skins

The easiest and cheapest way to customize your smartphone/tablet/laptop/MP3 or whatever gadget you may possess is probably the wonderful and diverse GelaSkins. They offer, of course, a steampunk model.

Cases

Among the smartphone cases, I was most convinced by C Westbrook Designs (San Francisco) creations, available in eight colors (charcoal black, snowy white, rose pink, fiery red, rusty red, royal violet, forest green and denim blue). The rusty red version is probably the most canonic steampunk. You may visit their shop on Etsy.

Kadisbel’s cases on Zazzle are also quite cool. They’re built in hard plastic and covered with printed fabric. The shop claim that’s “pleasing to the touch, lightweight and durable” but I find difficult to imagine the actual aspect of it.

You might also like Steampunky’s designs on Cafe Press.

From left to right: Kadisbel's case, C Westbrook case (rusty red), Steampunky's case
Craft your own steampunk iPhone case… if you're as gifted as Catbones

Docks
Among the phone docks, you’ll certainly be impressed by the “hand-Sculpted (and hand painted) iRetrofone Base” by Scott Freeland. Of course, it’s really expensive. But amazing, too: at the same time a functional iPhone dock, an old phone’s look for nostalgia, and a steampunk design for style. You may visit their shop on Etsy and admire the beautiful Steampunk Black & Gold model shown at the beginning of this post.

Do-it-yourself

If you’re a crafty person, you may try to make your own, such as Catbones on DeviantArt, who simply explains:

I altered my old leather Belkin iPhone case. Brass and plastic clockwork parts, insulated wire, cardboard, plastic, wood glue, superglue, enamel and metal cream paint.

Wow! I’m not that gifted! Are you?

And if you don’t own a smartphone ?

You still can wear such cool designs on a t-shirt! They proudly claim that “artist Kevin Tong captures the invention of daVinci, the imagination of H.G. Wells, and the brilliance of Jonathan Ive in this Exploded Phone drawing,” which is probably a bit overstated, but the t-shirt is undoubtedly cool.

It has indeed a style close to Da Vinci's notebooks, isn't it? iSteamPhone t-shirt and poster design.

Steampunk Week Giveaway (Now Closed)

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“Incomplete” Steampunk Art & Figurine © Brigid Ashwood 2011

When I heard we were going to be having a steampunk week here at GeekMom.com I knew right away that I wanted to help celebrate the event with a giveaway. Just as I was deciding what, exactly, to give away, I received an email from a figurine company I work with.

Lo and behold, the new line of figurines they were producing based on my steampunk-inspired art were finished with production and on their way to me via UPS. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

All of the four figurines pictured here were based on drawings and paintings of my work. Since I can’t decided which of these to give away – I’ll let the winner choose. To enter simply comment in the thread below. The winner (chosen randomly) will receive a signed print and the matching signed figurine set of their choice!

This giveaway is open to everyone regardless of location. The deadline to enter is Sunday night. Lastly don’t fret if you don’t win. You can buy prints and figurines on my website. Good luck!

UPDATE MONDAY 3/28 9:06 AM – And the winner is ….. Jenny R. ! I’ll be contacting you via email Jenny R.