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.
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.