SHERLOCK HOLMES AND STEAMPUNK
GUEST BLOG BY ALISON MCMAHAN
I’ve been a Steampunk fan for years, ever since I first read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea as a kid. A few months ago I decided to write a steampunk novella and found that it wasn’t enough to be a fan, I had to give some thought to the nature of the genre itself.
What is Steampunk? It’s generally defined as http://www.tor.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=blog&id=58009
as “Victorian science fiction,” that is, science fiction in an industrialized 19th century setting. I’ve also seen it defined as “a sub-genre of fantasy and speculative fiction set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used.”
There’s a whole list of serious and tongue-in-cheek definitions here. http://www.steampunk.republika.pl/defin02.html
Steampunk is a genre set a world that is still in a nearly artisanal/barely industrial and completely analog age, as compared to a digitally enabled industrial military complex. Its heroes, though good at action when action is required, focus on strategy and using their intellectual resources; trickster and detective figures abound. Like the 19th century, it’s a very misogynistic world. As a result the few women characters tend to be superwomen, women who can hold their own in spite of the extra obstacles in their paths.
Steampunk is a hybrid form; there is steampunk with an emphasis on sci-fi elements, in the shape of alternative history and alternative technological developments. There is also steampunk with an emphasis on fantasy elements, and variants such as steamgoth. The tone can be comic or dramatic or romantic.
There hasn’t been much steampunk romance written yet, but it’s a genre that’s in demand http://ciaralira.wordpress.com/2009/02/11/its-coming-steampunk-romance/#comment-2460
and clearly on its way.
And watch for Katie MacAlister’s Steamed: A Steampunk Romance, due out February 2, 2010.
Where did steampunk come from? Victorian authors who imagined the future from a 19th century perspective, like H.G.Wells and Jules Verne, are considered proto-steampunkers. Authors like Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley are precursors who showed the way to put fantasy and the paranormal into the genre, and Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle gave us some of the quintessential steampunk character archetypes, commonly used props (from brass goggles to gears to dirigibles of all kinds) and events. Proto-steampunk novels include Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Time Machine, and Sherlock Holmes stories.
By the early 1960s works that are now considered steampunk were being published as novels and comic books. Steampunk movies, TV Shows and games also appeared; see a complete chronology here. http://www.steampunk.republika.pl/chrono02pl.html
When asked where the term Steampunk came from, Cherie Priest, the author of Boneshaker, responded as follows:
It is generally-agreed-upon that “steampunk” first appeared in a letter written to Locus magazine in 1987. Author K. W. Jeter was looking for a general term to describe his material (as well as the material of some of his contemporaries [Tim Powers and James Blaylock]) set in the 19th century or 19th-century-like worlds, with strange tech and wondrous marvels.
He said: “Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ’steampunks’, perhaps…”
His usage here was a riff on the label “cyberpunks,” a then-newish and very popular genre that was very science-fiction-forward, loaded with bad-ass hackers, virtual reality tech, and (frequently) predictions of a dystopian future.
Many steampunk fans credit William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's novel "The Difference Engine, " originally published in 1990, with popularizing the genre. “The Difference Engine” or “analytical engine” was, of course, the computer. They were followed by the likes of Michael Moorcock, Phillip Pullman, and China Miéville, then Cherie Priest, Jonathan Barnes, and K.J. Parker.
Steampunk has always existed cross-media, from the novels already listed to comic book series like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Gotham by Gaslight, and the web comic Girl Genius, http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php. Films got started early by adapting the seminal works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and television hopped on board with shows in the 1960s like Wild Wild West, later resurrected as a Steampunk movie. The steampunk aesthetic is present in video games like Syberia and Arcanum.
Because I am a filmmaker I have been approaching my research from a filmic angle first. I've assembled my own list of films I’ve classified as steampunk: (http://www.alisonmcmahan.com/blog/2010/jan/steampunk-media-list)
Some of these, like
But it seems to be a trend to have
[It's steampunk] to an extent. I wouldn't go that far. It's not Wild Wild West, where there's lots of [crazy gadgets]. It really is 1891, but it is as if we shot it then. There's no real artifice, it feels like it's shot in 1891, but with incredible camera work and dollies. And yes, there is a part of the industrial revolution that's happening then, but it's not so much what's going on. The details aren't that deliberate.
But does genre live by props alone? Yes, Wild Wild West had some “crazy gadgets” but it also had a plot that brought an industrial mogul who was interested in producing weapons in a primitive environment. That’s a cross between alternative history and sci-fi. In Sherlock Holmes they might have gone short on the steampunk style props, but they started with a steampunk plot, just like Wild Wild West: a self-styled cult leader is using propaganda and mass hysteria to propel himself into power and, he hopes, into a position as dictator of not just
But who can look at the scenes of
What Joel Silver and other deniers forget is that Sherlock Holmes is a quintessentially steampunk character, derived from a quintessentially steampunk proto-text. He might not need magnifying goggles or a quick rescue from a dirigible when a steam-powered ferry will do, but he embodies the trickster nature, strategic mind and archival memory of many steampunk heroes; and like them he is both light and dark, his keen intelligence keeping his emotional disarray from completely undoing him.
Like Wild Wild West, Sherlock Holmes is a “bromance,” a romance between two men. When the women love interests do appear, their screen time is limited, their opportunities for action severely restricted. This is probably the source of failure for both films. Steampunk, especially sci-fi steampunk, screams for believable romance, like the love story in Hellboy. Otherwise that grimy industrial world is just too dark, and the dark night of the hero’s soul even darker. Hybridizing the action/detective tropes with romance genre elements better would have saved the movie. Making Rachel MacAdam’s character a real match for
The challenge to such a hybridization lies in the detective genre itself. Whenever the filmmakers showed Holmes looking at something it was usually an open point of view sequence – we see that Holmes is looking at something and we see his reaction to it, but not what he sees. At the end of the film, the missing point of view shots are replayed, and the mysteries explained. But Holmes rarely looks at the woman he is supposed to be so in love with, and in the few brief moments that he does the editors have cut the moments so short that many viewers will miss them altogether.
There has been much internet chatter about a sequel to this movie, with hopes for a new love interest for Holmes and an enlarged part for Mary (Kelly Reilly), the woman Watson wants to marry. Let’s hope the filmmakers take it in that direction. Holmes's head might be full of gears, but what we want to hear is the whirring of his heart.