Oct 12 2009 5:40pm

A Few of My Favorite Things: Top Steampunk Media

In keeping with the spirit of Steampunk Month, I’d like to ask you all what your favorite Steampunk Book, Movie, Television Show, Video Game, and (or) Music is. Feel free to answer any or all of the above in the comments. I’ll go ahead and start with my top picks from each of those categories since this is my post.

Book: A Nomad of the Time Streams Trilogy (The Warlord of the Air, The Land Leviathan, The Steel Tsar) (1971)

Michael Moorcock’s account of the adventure’s of one Cpt. Oswald Bastable was not only the first Steampunk-related book I read as a young man, but it is also my favorite. It by far had the biggest impact on my tastes as a teenager. It also inspired me to write a lot of my own Steampunk fiction in the early 90s.

In the story Oswald Bastable (one of Moorcock’s future Eternal Champions), is whisked from his own time of 1903 (where he is tormented with guilt over an event he had a hand in, in his past) to an alternate 1973, where the Great War of 1914 never happened, and subsequently caused the future to remain peaceful... or at least that’s how it seems. What in fact happened is much more sinister, and a great allegory regarding the nature of imperialist oppression.

The subsequent stories that follow all share a common thread of Oswald waking up back in his own time of 1903, and at different points being transported back and forth through the time streams to help the likes of a Zulu warlord liberate his enslaved people from a tyranical American empire where the confederacy won the Civil War, and finally in the last novel Cpt. Bastable comes face to face with the Steel Tsar, a Russian rebel airship captain, but to say any more would spoil the fun of reading the novels yourself.

The most interesting thing I find about this trilogy is that each novel deals with very heavy socio-political issues that were very relevant to the late 19th-century world. Imperialism, racism, and socialism/anarchism are all dissected throughout the course of these stories.

Movie: The Assassination Bureau (1969)

This was probably the hardest choice for me, as I’m a big film aficionado, and I love the majority of steampunk-themed films I’ve seen. I was going to go with Hayao Miyazaki’s love letter to the 19th Century Romantic Sci-Fi era; Laputa: Castle in the Sky but instead I am going to focus on a much more obscure gem from the 1960s called The Assassination Bureau.

The film was based on an unfinished work by Jack London, and is set in the early 1900s during the Edwardian era. In it Oliver Reed plays “Ivan Dragomiloff,” the chairman of a league of Assassins (known as The Assassination Bureau, Ltd.), who comes into contact with a journalist played by Diana Rigg. Rigg’s character “Sonia Winter” hires the league to assassinate their own chairman. Dragomiloff, intrigued by the request, challenges his own members to attempt to assassinate him, or he will do the same to them. His motivation comes because he has noticed an increase in contracts being assigned by financial motivation, as opposed to the bureau’s roots as assassins of tyrants and despots. So it is the perfect opportunity for him to “clean house“ so to say. Telly Savalas also makes a memorable appearance as another major character in the story.

The rest of the film unwinds in a very tongue-in-cheek Blake Edwards-style romp that crisscrosses the continent of Europe, culminating in a duel aboard a zeppelin over the Prussian countryside. Fans of films such as The Great Race, and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines will be right at home with this yarn.

TV Show: The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993)

Perhaps more than any other steampunk work, Brisco County remains my biggest obsession. While the show only lasted a little over a season (much like the later Firefly which shared a lot of the same sense of humor and writing style), those 27 episodes are some of the fondest memories of my teenage years. Bruce Campbell plays the titular hero of the series Brisco County Jr., in his quest to find the killers of his father Brisco County Sr. (the West’s most notorious bounty hunter). Brisco, however, is not your typical invincible lone gunman out for revenge as seen in most spaghetti westerns. In fact, he is a Harvard graduate with a degree in law, who more often than not solves his problems using his wits rather than his irons. Part Clint Eastwood, part MacGyver, and part Sherlock Holmes.

Brisco is joined on his adventures by a motley crew of colorful characters that come and go from episode to episode. Lord Bowler is his chief rival (and eventual ally and close friend). A fellow bounty hunter that is always trying to collect before Brisco can apprehend the bad guys. Dixie Cousins is Brisco’s on-again off-again love interest, who is just as clever and resourceful as our hero. Socrates Poole is Brisco’s attorney, a city slicker from New York who has a hard time adapting to the rough-and-tumble nature of the Old West. And finally Professor Wickwire (played by the legendary John Astin) is where most of the series steampunk trappings come into play, as he is constantly asking Brisco to try out his latest gadgets in his pursuit of Science.

The show is a spiritual successor to the grand-daddy of steampunk television, The Wild Wild West. It is constantly entertaining with a great self-referential sense of humor.

Video Game: Skies of Arcadia (2000)

Skies of Arcadia came out on the heels of the monstrous success of Final Fantasy VII, and while it shares a lot of the same style as Square’s masterpiece, it introduces some truly unique innovations. The biggest being the games airship combat system. Not only does the player engage in airship combat on a regular basis, throughout the adventure your airship keeps getting more and more advanced until finally you control a massive battleship.

The story is a classic “quest to find the sacred objects that will save the world” yarn, and there are so many water cooler moments scattered throughout, it really stands on its own. The world the game takes place in is an ancient one. Over thousands of years the continents of the world broke up and sunk into a sea of clouds, leaving behind floating islands where most of the games action takes place.

Each of the games main continents is based on a real world culture. Be it the South American inspired jungles of Ixa’taka, the serene Asian islands of Yafutoma, the vaguely Middle Eastern desert land Nasrad, or the Imperial wasteland of the empire of Valua (to name a few). There is atmosphere in spades, and a constant 19th-century aesthetic throughout.

One of the more intriguing moments in the game comes when the protagonist finds himself shipwrecked and separated from the rest of his party on a small barren island. The game actually makes the player feel like they are really all alone and helpless. There is no hints to guide the player, the game requires you to really think and use logic to find a way off the island. It’s a beautiful moment in the game, and one of the most shining examples of innovative game design I have ever experienced.

Unfortunately the game came out for SEGA’s ill-fated Dreamcast, and was all but ignored by the public on its release. There was a remake with some added bonus features released in 2002 for the Gamecube, but both are rare and hard to find. If however you have the means, I highly recommend you hunt it down and live the adventures of the Blue Rogues for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

Music: In the Nursery

Sheffield’s “In the Nursery” was one of the first Neo-Classical bands that spawned from the early electronic and industrial scene in England. In 1984 they released the album Twins, a very experimental and somewhat challenging album. However over the next 20-odd years, Nigel and Klive Humberstone would record some of the most moving, exciting, and inspiring music of the 20th century. Some may argue their “steampunk” merits, but seeing as they were my biggest inspiration in creating my own music, I would have to disagree.

Their music (especially in the mid and late 80s) is like the soundtrack to an unreleased Victorian Adventure film. At times it is militant and driving, epic and bombastic, but at the drop of a hat it can be utterly breathtaking and serenly beautiful. In the early 90s they started incorporating more beats, and went in a more trip-hop direction. One of their most recent projects has been the Optical Music Series, A collection of original scores for various classic silent films, such as The Passion of Joan of Arc, Man With a Movie Camera, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and many others. I had the great fortune to watch them perform their score for The Passion of Joan of Arc live in the Grace Cathedral here in San Francisco. It was amazing, and one of the most unique concert experiences I’ve ever had.

So those are a few of my favorite steampunk things. What are yours?

Joshua Pfeiffer is the founder of the Steampunk band Vernian Process, and co-founder of the steampunk-centric record label/collective Gilded Age Records. When he isn’t working on music, he is probably working as middle management in the video game industry.

This article is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Jason Henninger
1. jasonhenninger
The old Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Ok, sure it's nothing like the book, but it's what got me into Steampunk long before that word even existed.

I also loved Young Sherlock Holmes. I'm a huge Holmes fan in general, and I liked that they said upfront, "ok, we know this isn't what Doyle wrote, but here's something fun anyway."

Also Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. Most steampunk opera I know of, anyhow.
TW Grace
2. TWGrace
those 27 episodes are some of my fondest memories of childhood.

Ouch, that makes me feel old...
Joshua Pfeiffer
3. VernianProcess
LOL @ TWGrace... well technically I was not a child, but around 15.
4. DemetriosX
An interesting challenge, and frankly without some of your comments about predecessors, I'd have been hard put to come up with anything.

Book: For me this has to be something by James P. Blaylock, who had a lot to do with the birth of the modern steampunk movement. Probably Homunculus, which I find better than Lord Kelvin's Machine.

Movie: I'll have to go with The Great Race, though this is one of the categories where your comments helped me think of anything at all.

TV: Definitely Wild Wild West, but see movie comment.

Game: I'm going to toss Space: 1889 out there, mostly because it was based on a pen-and-paper RPG, which gives you a lot more room for your imagination.

Music: I haven't a clue.
Jason Henninger
5. jasonhenninger
I'd like to add the Baron Munchausen game as, if not steampunk, at least having great potential as such.
René Walling
6. cybernetic_nomad
Book: It's not fiction, but it got me into steampunk something close to three decades ago: Victorian Inventions by Leonard De Vries.

Movie: For movies, I'll go with an old Czech film called The Fabulous World of Jules Verne

TV Show: Nadia: the Secret of Blue Water an anime series inspired by the works of Jules Verne

Game: no idea.

Music: I've got nothing,
7. marcamante
I'd have to say the webcomic Girl Genius ( my favorite steampunk offering out there, though you don't have an internet media option up there. Nothing says steampunk like an airship castle/city
8. Cory Gross
Good lord, I'm only allowed to pick one each?!?

Book: Going back to the good ol' days, THE LOST WORLD by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For something more modern, the DINOTOPIA series written and painted by James Gurney. If I can throw a comic in there as well, then LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN vol. 1 and 2 (which, surprisingly, lacks dinosaurs).

Movie: Dare I say THE LOST WORLD from 1925? For the sound era, I would have to say THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE by Karel Zeman. Of course, that one isn't much different from a silent film anyways. Shot in black and white, it's like an original Verne engraving come to life.

Television Show: THE VISION OF ESCAFLOWNE, easily. Swords and sorcery and giant steam-powered robots, all wrapped up in anime form by the creator of MACROSS.

Video Game: By virtue of the whole franchise thrown up around it, SAKURA TAISEN (aka: SAKURA WARS). Between the original Sega game, the OVA and the manga it's an explosion of otaku fetishism spanning Japanese history, mythology, geography and pop-culture.

Music: Well, excusing old time radio, Edison cylinders and gramophone records (which would then mean Ferde Grofe takes the lead), I'll go with LA LUNA by Sarah Brightman. It's not explicitly Scientific Romantic, but I feel the same way when listening to her paean to the moon as I do watching Georges Melies films, looking at paper moon photos or gazing through my telescope.
9. Tanaudel
Is Moorcock's Oswald Bastable the same as E Nesbit's Oswald Bastable? As in CS Lewis' "the Bastables were digging for treasure in Lewisham Road"?
Joshua Pfeiffer
10. VernianProcess
Yes indeed I do believe that he is supposed to be named after him at least:

Quote fom wikipedia concerning Nesbit's character:

"British writer Michael Moorcock would later use the character, or his name, of Oswald Bastable for the hero and first-person narrator of Moorcock's trilogy A Nomad of the Time Streams which, published from 1971 until 1981, greatly influenced the nascent genre of steampunk."
Peter Nein
11. gimpols1908
Book...The Golden Compass et all. Love the mix of tech/migick/academia

Show... I never actually caught reruns of the WWW and Brisco happens while i was in college with no TV.

Movie... Seen quite a few, but most recently I loved Stardust, especially the air pirate scenes.

Video Game - Myst series has a good touch of the steampunk

Music: Stiffs, Inc., "Nix, Naught, Nothing" Really more nihilist but still they sing about Holmes and have some interesting takes on fashion. Or at least they used to, darned if i can even find the album cover online.
Dennis O'Brien
12. TheAuldGrump
Hmmm, it may, perhaps, be worth mentioning the fairly elderly (2001) computer game Arcanum: of Steamworks and Magick Obscura - a steampunk game in the style of the original Fallout games. Well worth wasting more time than you planned playing it. I keep telling myself that this time I will play a magic using character, only to be distracted by the first set of blueprints that my character stumbles across. Eight years later it is still on my hard drive, though the hard drive, and the computer itself, have been changed twice in the interrum.

The Decemberists - A Cautionary Song, The Mariner's Revenge Song, and Eli, the Barrow Boy - none are very cheerful, and all are rather rough. You can find most, if not all, on Youtube. For something a trifle smoother Dirty Old Town and The Auld Triangle by the Dubliners. (Yeah, more than one, but so many people were skipping their turns....)

The Man Who Would be King - while not strong in the steam aspect of things, the two protagonists are strong in the punk department - adventurers who attempt to set themselves up as kings in a middle eastern area. I had somehow never heard of The Assassination Bureau Ltd. before, and unfortunately it looks to be fairly hard to come by these days.

Blaylock has already been mentioned, so... William Gibson - The Difference Engine, and Bob Shaw's The Ragged Astronauts. King David's Spaceship by Jerry Pournelle and the Lord Darcy series by Randall Garret are also very good, if slightly off the main line, steam books.

Wild, Wild, West (but for God's sake! Stay away from the movie!) and in a similar vein Legend. (Like Brisco County Jr. it lasted for far too brief a time.)

The Auld Grump
Tudza White
13. tudzax1
Well, the Moorcock books were certainly good, and the Bureau was entertaining.

After trying to like Brisco County Jr though, I just can't see why anyone likes it. I think I rented the series from Netflix on the strength of one episode I remembered when it originally aired and gave it many episodes worth of chances. Fail.
Ian Gazzotti
14. Atrus
Books - Jules Verne, steampunk ante-litteram; if I have to choose one, I'd say Mysterious island.

Game - PMOG, the Passive multiplayer online game: it had a wonderful steampunk artwork and feel which everyone loved. Unfortunately they decided to give it a 'mass appeal' make over that butchered and killed it.

Comic - Girl Genius, of course!

TV series - I'm tempted to say Brisco County too, but I'm going to go with Secret of Blue Water/Fushigi no Umi no Nadia: it starts with an ingenious French inventor, introduces a multipurpose tank/submarine/balloon, moves on to the Nautilus, features the occasional giant zeppelin, and ends with a spaceship battle over Paris. You just can't beat that.
15. DrOccult
Books - I agree with TheAuldGrump on William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine. I picked this up off the rack at a used book store, not because Gibson's name was on it, but because the chapters were labeled "Iterations," and since the book's chief MacGuffin is a series of punch cards reported to give any of Babbage's difference engines sentience, I'd say iteration is a good a word as any.

Game - While not steampunk per say, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is a dark look at a steampunk world to be. Full of fast paced action and horrors galore, what made me think of this, mostly sneak style game, as a candidate was the alien lighting gun you get as you near the end.
16. Polaris
As for game I would have to go with BioShock. It's a beautiful game set in a very stereotypical Steampunk world. A true gem.
Gary Schaper
17. Garyfury
My interest in steampunk stems from Girl Genius. I've been reading it since waaaay back when it was originally being released as single comic issues that came out at wildly erratic intervals -- at first, because it was what the Foglios happened to be doing, but I've been impressed by the depth of the story and the world they've been building.

Jagers and war clanks and fey geisterdamen
Trilobite lockets and Othar Tryggvasen
Madgirls and dingbots and falling machines
These are a few of my favorite things.
Michael Grosberg
18. Michael_GR
In general I don't like steampunk - I know too much about engineering and my mind refuses to buy into the premise that you can use steam power and cogs to create working flying machines, robots, giant mechanical spiders etc. My favorite steampunk is therefore one that uses steam relatively realistically: Paul McCauley's Pasquale's Angel. PA has a unique premise: Instead of taking modern inventions into the Victorian era, it takes victorian technology back to the Renaissance: it's an alternate history in which Da vinci invented steam power.

My favorite steampunk movie is Jen Piere Jeunet's City of Lost Children. It's thoroughly bizarre and honestly, not very coherent - but the visual design is amazing.
April Vrugtman
19. dwndrgn
I'm surprised that The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne tv series hasn't been mentioned yet. I was sad to see it go.

Loved Wild Wild West - in fact it was a daily staple after school. Man I'm old.

As for books, there are too many to count but one that comes to mind immediately is Teresa Edgerton's Goblin Moon. Good stuff! Hmm, it may be time for a re-read of this.
April Vrugtman
20. dwndrgn
Oh, forgot to add Sean McMullen's Voyage of the Shadowmoon. Good stuff.
Jaymee Goh
21. Jha
Dammit, Cory! I was gonna go with Escaflowne as my pick for TV!

Book-wise, Herland. It's a utopia wrapped in scifi/fantasy by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and I still go back to it every so often.

Movie - well, Wild Wild West was beautiful to look at. It was. Still think it's rubbish, but it's definitely delicious eye-candy.

I also want to say Girl Genius, but Prof Kaja has qualified it as gaslamp fantasy, so I have to go with 2D Goggles!!!
22. janeite42
All my choices have already been mentioned, but I can't help that.

TV - Wild Wild West (a weekly staple for me, back when it was first run, since we're pointing out how old we are)

Movie - The Great Race, also movies made from Jules Verne's books

Book - Jules Verne's books

Game - null set

Music - I still haven't figured out what makes up this category for steampunk.
Joshua Pfeiffer
23. VernianProcess
As far as music goes, it's whatever makes you think of the aesthetic. Others may completely disagree, but this is about "your" tastes.
24. sunryse
I agree with gimpols1908 above, I love Stardust and the pirates are the hit of the movie.

Television I'd say Doctor Who and the new Syfy series Warehouse 13 which I love just because of the steampunk elements...and Claudia in googles was the coolest thing I've seen on television in ages.
25. Ay-leen
For TV show, a staple for me is Fullmetal Alchemist -- both the original and the reboot. Mixes the alchemy with the tech (yay automail!), but what I love about it is alternative history (which, in the first series, was revealed to be a parallel world to ours) that explored the conflicts in a multicultural society. Escaflowne also gets a nod, especially since it was one of the first animes I ever watched.

As for music, Sweeney Todd gets my nod for Sondheim's blend of dark Victorian pulp with steamy bits -- c'mon, who thinks that barber chair *wasn't* an awesome contraption?
26. Therru
Movies: Jeunet & Caro's Delicatessen and even more The City of Lost Children. Miyazaki's film versions of Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle and Castle in the Air are rather steampunky, too.

The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne was a rather bad TV series in many respects (I mean, seriously, Jules Verne a young American dude?), but it had some absolutely gorgeous settings and props and overall *flavour*. And it had it's moments as a fun steampunk romp. :)
Kristin Franseen
27. musichistorygeek
Book: Hmmm...The Difference Engine definitely got me interested in the genre, as did Paul Di Filippo's Steampunk Trilogy. However, I'd have to say my favorite--while neither a book nor strict steampunk--is Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald." It has just the right amount of something horrid bubbling under the shiny surface...and, well Sherlock Holmes, of course!

TV Show: Miyazaki's Sherlock Hound had quite a few steampunkish gadgets. (And was an inordinate amount of fun!) As for stuff out now, Warehouse 13 and Murdoch Mysteries. (Okay, I know MM isn't steampunk per se, but it does have social commentary and--in one episode--Nikola Tesla!)

Movie: There was a documentary on Tesla I saw not so long ago that seemed to capture the essence of Victorian science. Wish I could remember where I saw it...And Young Sherlock Holmes.

Video Game: None.

Music: Although I love the podcast Clockwork Cabaret, which has introduced me to a lot of strictly steampunk bands out there, I still turn to music from Sweeney Todd and Jekyll and Hyde most of the time.
28. shibadev
I can't believe no one has mentioned Neal Stephenson's "Diamond Age".
Really interesting and well written, like all his books. with a wonderful set-up of his steampunk world.
29. Nocturnusrex
I just added "The Assassination Bureau" to my netflix queue and I'm looking forward to watching it. The plot points you mentioned sound an awful lot like the more recent movie "Wanted" and I wonder if the latter was "inspired" by the former. I'm a relatively new fan of the steampunk genre and I'm looking forward to checking out all the books/movies/music mentioned above. Thanks!
John Dyer
30. LBRapid
Kind of a very late comment to add here, but thanks for the recommendation on The Assassination Bureau. I would have probably never have heard of it because it's not from my generation.

Really enjoyed it though :)

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