Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Did Harper Goff invent Steampunk?

So, at the tail end of my little stint of reading up on Verne (including his biography, one of his lesser-known works,* and one of his most famous**), which wrapped up about a month ago, Janice and I decided to watch the famous James Mason-Kirk Douglas-Peter Lorre film of TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, which neither of us had seen for many years. Long story short: it has not aged well -- you know you're in trouble when Peter Lorre comes across as the voice of common sense, the everyman of the story. At least the late great James Mason makes a fine mad scientist, though Kurt Douglas's harpoonist is just a bully and The Professor, who ought to be the point-of-view character, a mere nonentity.

Luckily, the extras that came on the disk had a little more going for them, even if the relentless laudatory tone of Disney's documentarians praising themselves did wear thin -- e.g. when they described at length how one fake-looking crew-vs-giant-squid fight was replaced by a quite different (but also fake-looking) crew-vs-giant-squid scene. The most interesting thing was a bit featuring an frail-looking old man named Harper Goff, whom neither of us had heard of before: he'd been art director on the project decades before. The more we found out about him, the more it seems likely that Harper Goff invented Steampunk, decades before it had a name. Or, to be more precise, he created its aesthetic.

Case in point: Goff's design for the Nautilus. Verne, who knew something about aerodynamics (or 'hydronamics' in this case), described Nemo's vessel as a cylinder -- i.e., more or less torpedo-shaped. Goff was having none of that: he added all kinds of interesting bits to the sub's exterior -- decorative prow with some interesting windows/lights, elaborate coning tower, finlike tail -- creating not an authentic mid-Victorian look but a mid-twentieth century projection backwards. And that's a key element of Steampunk: the idea is not to recreate the real nineteenth century but to present a skewed, somewhat more interesting version thereof.

Turns out that the idea that Harper Goff was the fore-father of Steampunk has been around for a long time: no less a figure than Greg Bear put it forward, and once I knew to look for it I found a nice discussion of Goff's contribution.


I haven't read that much Steampunk myself, enjoying the look and feel more than the stories associated with it. Most of what little Steampunk I've read I thought pretty bad (always excepting Jonathan Howard's Johannes Cabal books --assuming those are Steampunk, which I rather doubt).
Rather than novels I've been much more impressed by its adoption into other media, like the rpg setting Castle Falkenstein or the online comic/ongoing graphic novel GIRL GENIUS or comic book series THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN or the Brian Kisinger WALKING YOUR OCTOPUS/TRAVELING WITH YOUR OCTOPUS picture books. Maybe it works better in visual mediums than as a subgenre of fiction.

--John R.
current project: editing the festschrift
current reading: re-reading the entire Peter Grant/Rivers of London series after having read Aaronovitch's latest book in the series

*THE GOLD VOLCANO (my advice: don't bother, unless you're a completist)

** TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (reread for the first time in many years, and reading the unabridged text for the first time ever. I conclude that (a) Verne was what we wd call today a Young Adult author, (2) Verne was a diligent author rather than one who only wrote when inspired, and (3) Verne's 'science fiction' bonafides rely less on his purported extrapolation and more on his off-the-grid episodes, such as Nemo's visit to Atlantis).

Can it really be Young Adult when there's no young point-of-view character?

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