Steampunk Digest - Dec. 14, 2018
Our weekly roundup of news and other happenings in the steampunk world
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More reviews are in for the film adaptation of Mortal Engines, and sadly for steampunk fans, they are best described as “mixed.” As of Dec. 13, the film had a 28 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which described the critical consensus as follows: “Mortal Engines has no shortage of eye-catching special effects, but lacks enough high-octane narrative fuel to give this futuristic fantasy sufficient cinematic combustion.”
A handful of top critics offered positive reviews, including Ben Kenigsberg of The New York Times (it “offers a fair amount of fun”) and Rafer Guzmán of Newsday (it’s “terrifically entertaining”). More typical was the following from David Lewis of the San Francisco Chronicle: “There is fine craftsmanship on the screen, and the acting is competent, but the movie never quite reaches magical heights.” Among his criticisms: “. . . too many battles, chases, subplots, and exposition. Key characters disappear for long stretches, and even the conceit of predator cities gets lost in all the traffic.”
Writing in IndieWire, David Ehrlich offered this backhanded compliment: “Mortal Engines might not be a particularly good movie, but it’s a BIG one, and sometimes that can be even more important. . . Even at its worst (which is where it often resides), Mortal Engines is still a rousing advertisement for the theatrical experience.” The flipside: It “. . . would be utterly worthless to watch at home” on a small screen.
The movie is based on Philip Reeve’s post-apocalyptic steampunk novel. But director Christian Rivers said last June that the film version would de-emphasize the book’s steampunk elements. For better or worse, this hasn’t kept critics from referring to steampunk in their reviews. “More steamclunk than steampunk,” is the headline in Financial Times. From CinemaExpress: “A visually stunning steampunk sci-fi let down by a mediocre story.” And from Ranjib Mazumder of The Quint: “Mortal Engines Is a Rehash of Star Wars in Steampunk Garb.”
It remains to be seen how well the movie performs at the box office. That, in turn, could determine the prospect for sequels. The film opened last weekend in the UK, and hits North American movie screens on Dec. 14.
Photo: Universal Pictures and MRC
Four of the talents behind the film recently sat for interviews with Stefan Kyriazis of Express Online in the UK. First up were producer/co-writer Peter Jackson and writing partner Philippa Boyens. Jackson observed that he doesn’t like dystopian or post-apocalyptic films where the world has descended to a feral state. In Mortal Engines, London is “just as functioning as our society, just as clever, with their own fashions, colour, pubs, theatre,” he says, but with “a very different set of rules.”
In a separate interview, Kyriazis spoke with actors Hugo Weaving and Stephen Lang. Weaving plays Thaddeus Valentine, the main villain of the story, whereas Lang portrays Shrike, an armored creature made from a re-animated corpse.
Photo: Universal Pictures and MRC
Writing on the eve of the film’s U.S. premiere, Maya Phillips of The Week recounts the troubled history of steampunk on the big screen. Her question: Can Mortal Engines break the long streak of steampunk-inspired films that have failed with critics and/or at the box office? “The most famous steampunk disaster was probably 1999’s Wild Wild West,” she writes, describing the film as “a gaudy, over-the-top circus of a production with more gadgets and hijinks than you could count.”
Other flops on her list include The Time Machine (2002), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Around the World in 80 Days (2004), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), Van Helsing (2004), The Golden Compass (2007), City of Ember (2008), and The Three Musketeers (2011). (Sky Captain, best described as dieselpunk, was a critical success but failed commercially.)
Martin Scorcese’s Hugo was another box office disappointment, she writes, though it was critically acclaimed and received 11 Oscar nominations.
The problem, she writes, may be that steampunk is “a postmodern hodgepodge of different elements and thus frequently ducks between multiple genres. . . That isn’t to say that all hybrid genre films are fated to fail. The problem is when the films engage in different individual elements to the hindrance of the cohesion of the final product.”
Our take: Maybe these were just poorly executed movies. And we should note that she failed to mention The Prestige, the 2006 Christopher Nolan film that was a critical and commercial success.
If you’re preparing to see Mortal Engines, Vanessa Armstrong of Slashfilm suggests “Five Books to Get You in the Mood.” Some may balk at reading Philip Reeve’s eponymous book because they want to see the film with fresh eyes. But by reading other books in the genre “you’ll get into the mood for the movie without spoiling the story itself,” she writes.
Her suggestions: Airborn by Kenneth Oppel; Arabella of Mars by David Levine; Flotsam by R.J. Theodore; Boneshaker by Cherie Priest; and An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock.
’Tis the season for holiday music, and Unwoman and Valentine Wolfe are both out with treats for your aural pleasure. From Unwoman: the Tiny Christmas EP, featuring four cover songs previously available only to her Patreon subscribers: “Last Christmas” (written by George Michael), “Santa Baby” (originally sung by Eartha Kitt), “Winter” (from Tori Amos' first album) and “Silent Night.” The latter was inspired by the Simon and Garfunkel recording, which includes a simulated newscast. It’s available on Bandcamp for just $3USD. As with other albums on Bandcamp, you can buy it for yourself and/or send it as a gift.
New from Valentine Wolfe is Winternight Whisperings, a haunting full-length album that includes “Ghost Stories of Christmases Past” plus the classics “We Three Kings” and “Silent Night.” The duo describes its music as “Victorian chamber metal.” The album is available for $7USD on their Bandcamp page.
We just posted a larger roundup that includes these recordings plus older holiday-themed albums from The Eternal Frontier, Abney Park and other steampunk bands.
Steampunks in Portsmouth, UK, and neighboring cities gathered Nov. 25 to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Head Case Curios, a shop that describes itself as a “purveyor and creator of the unique and unusual.” Its product line includes hats, pocket watches, taxidermy, and oddities such as a steampunk mannequin torso.
Co-owner Zoe Duke greeted visitors with an invitation to drinks and “nibbles on the coffin,” according to a story in the local newspaper. The celebrants also staged a steampunk re-enactment of The Beatles’ Abbey Road cover (the one where the group crosses the street). You can see more photos from the event on the shop’s Facebook page.
Portsmouth, a seaside city in South East England, also has quite a literary history. It was the birthplace of Charles Dickens, and the home where the author was born is now a museum. Rudyard Kipling spent part of his childhood in Portsmouth, Arthur Conan Doyle practiced medicine there, and H.G. Wells lived there in the 1880s. Fantasy author Neil Gaiman grew up in the area, and a street there is named after his novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. This inspired local author Matt Wingett to write Portsmouth, A Literary and Pictorial Tour, which also discusses the city’s connection to Beatrix Potter, PG Wodehouse, Lawrence of Arabia and Mahatma Gandhi.
One of his hopes is that the book will inspire other writers who live in the city. “It’s very easy, especially in a town like Portsmouth that on the surface can appear bleak and provincial to start thinking ‘No one from this town has really made it in writing,’” he observes. “To think so would be wrong, of course, but the psychological effect of such thinking is to hold you back. That’s why, sometimes you need to be reminded of the counter-examples.”
Elsewhere in the south of England, in the town of Battle, East Sussex, hat maker and make-up artist Emma Moreton has opened The Henna and Hat Lady, a hat shop geared toward steampunks, goths and the alternative community. It recently got an effusive write-up in Inspire, the UK’s “biggest reach Christian magazine.” Moreton is a lay member of the Church Mission Society, a Christian missionary organization founded in 1799.
She’s been making hats for steampunks since 2012, “building relationships and sparking conversations with people who are unlikely to be in a church,” the magazine reports.
Photo: Adobe Stock
Science fiction author Karen Haber is also an art critic, and in the latest issue of Locus, she reviews Hiroshi Unno’s The Art of Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Steampunk, which was published last June. She describes it as “a delightful book crammed full of beautiful images and surprising artistic connections that will take you on an art history journey through the precursors of fantasy, sci-fi, and steampunk art. It’s a pleasure to flip through, dip into, and use for inspiration.” However, at $49.95, she observes that it’s “a bit pricey” for a softcover book. (It’s currently available on Amazon for $29.63USD).
Steampunk author Laurel Anne Hill grew up without a television until age 11, but she did have access to a radio and library. “Needless to say, my mind learned early to create images from spoken and written words,” she tells C. Stene Duckworth, publisher of VertiKal Life Magazine. In the Q&A, she also discusses the genesis of her two novels, Heroes Arise and The Engine Woman’s Light, and the advice she’d give her younger writing self: “Don’t let the presence of characters talking inside of your head worry or embarrass you. Listen to them with care and keep a journal of their ramblings.”
Author and Victorian history maven Mimi Matthews recently released A Holiday By Gaslight, a “Victorian Christmas Novella” set in 1861 London. In a blog post this week, she discussed a scene involving holiday decorating practices of the era. In her story, “the guests at a country house party decorate for Christmas by gilding acorns and artificially frosting the tips of holly and ivy leaves with crystals,” she writes. “These Victorian decorating ideas didn’t originate in my fevered authorial brain. They were actual methods used to create glittering, gold-flaked, holiday cheer.”
One of her sources was a magazine article from 1900, which recommended coating Christmas tree branches with a solution of alum and boiled water. However, she advises “that you should definitely NOT try this at home. Many recipes the Victorians employed for decorating were highly toxic and not at all safe for use.” The information “is purely for your historical edification.”
A Holiday By Gaslight is a romance about “courtship struggles arising from societal castes,” according to Library Journal. See the author’s website for more info.
Scott P. Marler of the University of Memphis took a deep dive into steampunk in a recent feature story for Perspectives on History, the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association. Writing as a scholar, he focuses on the cultural, historical, and political ramifications of steampunk’s so-called “Second Wave,” beginning around 2006, when the genre’s “literary manifestations . . . became less important than the artisanal ethos that is the backbone of the movement today.”
In its DIY maker aspects, he sees steampunk “as a form of protest against the closed nature of dominant postindustrial technologies with cold, sterile designs that evade nonspecialist comprehension and that decidedly exclude tinkering.” In its political and historical aspects, steampunk has “increasingly accentuated its multicultural, postcolonial, and anticonsumerist dimensions,” he writes. “So although there are certainly some apolitical ‘fellow travelers,’ steampunks are not Victorian equivalents to Civil War reenactors.”
This might be lost on historians for whom steampunk’s “Victorian visual cues evoke the era’s imperialism, racism, and sexism, as well as an arguably naïve fascination with technology,” he writes. Such views overlook “the degree to which its most committed practitioners consider it a form of technological disruption and political protest.”
Steampunk might have crested, he concludes, but “historians should also take steampunk more seriously than they have thus far. If nothing else, it may help them evaluate the late Hayden White’s lament that, under postmodern conditions, ‘a virtual past is the best we can hope for.’”
This appears to be the season for academic perspectives on steampunk. A recent paper in Australian Literary Studies, a scholarly journal, examines “The Ends of Empire: Australian Steampunk and the Reimagining of Euro-Modernity.” Authors Catriona Mills and Geoffrey Hondroudakis draw on steampunk tales set in Australia to “explore the extent to which steampunk is able to grapple with coloniality, both in the Victorian period from which it draws and in the colonial present in which it is set. Is steampunk condemned to limit itself to a western-technocratic teleology or is it capable of critiquing or even circumventing colonial pasts?”
The paper focuses on works by three authors: D.M. Cornish, Meljean Brook, and Dave Freer. The authors’ conclusion: “Within its limits, steampunk can offer a narrative schema and aesthetic with which to address the complex conjunctures and problem-spaces of modernity. In drawing so heavily on the colonial imaginary of Euro-modernity, steampunk is open to the danger of recapitulating colonial ideas and may, as we have argued, be unable to avoid this tendency entirely. But this also positions the genre as a site from which modernity can be critiqued and re-imagined, both in light of and beyond its historical and present problems.”
All the action this weekend is in the UK.
Greg Chapman will continue his Steampunk Christmas show with dates in Emery Down, Lyndhurst (Dec. 14); Worleston, Cheshire (Dec. 19); Brighstone, Isle of Wight (Dec. 21); and Arreton, Isle of Wight (Dec. 22). The 90-minute theatrical performance involves a man who goes on a time-travel adventure after receiving a mysterious gift. It includes magic and comedy. See his website for more info.
The Steampunk Yule Ball in Exeter, UK will feature performances by Professor Elemental, Mr. B the Gentleman Rhymer, The Gaslight Troubadours, Fey Pink, Victor and the Bully, Dead Dolls Cabaret (comedy circus/side show), Hellrazer (fire performance), DJ Louie Louie, and DJ Perfect. Attendees are encouraged to appear in costume. It’s set for Dec. 15 at Exeter Phoenix. See the website for more info.
Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time, Dec. 20, is the first of three Christmas parties by Impossible Gears. Scheduled performers include Professor Elemental and Victor Sierra. It’s tentatively set for The Crescent in York, but you should check the website for confirmation.
This will be followed by “I Wish It Could Be Steampunk Every Day,” Dec.22, at Bannerman’s Bar, Edinburgh, featuring The Swinghoppers and Jessica Law and the Outlaws. And on Dec. 23: “Let It Steam! Let It Steam! Let It Steam!” is tentatively set for The Cluny in Newcastle. Featured acts here include The Swinghoppers and BB Blackdog. Again, check the website for venue confirmation and details.
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