1. Steampunk and Science Fiction

BEFORE considering the two steampunk films I have selected for this project, it will be useful to outline the criteria by which I will be analyzing them. For the purpose of this project, I will be focusing on the ways in which steampunk functions as a subgenre of science fiction. Indeed, steampunk has a great deal in common with its root genre – like science fiction, which is “best read like much satire, as an estranged or distorted version of the world we know”, steampunk fiction is also known for its ability to provide a distanced platform upon which to project and analyze issues of “immediate social and ethical relevance” (Ketterer 247, Zigo 86). In particular, steampunk shares science fiction’s emphasis on the anxieties surrounding technology, and like its root genre, “invites readers to peel apart layers of meaning and interrogate subjective positions within our current techno-global existence, prodding us to ask who develops technology, who has access to technology, who benefits from technology, and who is oppressed by technology” (Zigo 86).

Small, compact Apple products.

However, steampunk is considered a subgenre of science fiction for a reason – its fusion with the Victorian era means that although it functions in much the same way as science fiction, it also branches out in a distinctly different direction from it. Steampunk, in its blending of two seemingly incompatible eras, takes its root genre a step further by “defamiliariz[ing]” not only “the globalizing present” but also “the Victorian past… isolating facets of both eras to make them more susceptible to analysis” (Jagoda 48). In “jumbling the markers from different time periods” in this way, steampunk is also able to “[expose] history’s overlapping layers” and ultimately “illuminate [the] compatibility” of the two eras despite their apparent mismatch for each other (Bowser and Croxall, 3-5).

Indeed, one of the major compatibilities between the present and the Victorian era which is highlighted by the steampunk genre is their mutual anxiety about technology. Rachel A. Bowser and  Brian Croxall point out in their introduction to the steampunk issue of the Neo Victorian Studies online journal that “the emphasis on technology within steampunk suggests that the genre’s popularity says something about our experiences of, unease with, and desires for technology in the present” (Bowser and Croxall 16, quoting Parker). According to Bowser and Croxall, the emphasis upon “large, dirty, heavy and mechanized” technologies in steampunk works is something of a nostalgic comment upon the comparatively “sealed”, “invisible” and “inaccessible” technologies of the present (Bowser and Croxall 17). Current technological advancements are becoming increasingly tiny and more concealed, and it is no longer possible “to modify the tools that we depend on, because we cannot get at the inner workings of the hardware” (Bowser and Croxall 16). In the present era we now rely upon “a guild of highly trained workers” to create and repair our tools, and in this way are slowly but surely losing control of our own technologies (Bowser and Croxall 16). Steampunk offers us something different, and hearkens to a time when technologies were “open to modification” or invention, and people were “masters of their tools” (Bowser and Croxall 21).

Factory chimneys in Manchester, England, 1840.

But steampunk is not all nostalgia for the Victorian era: the danger and environmental catastrophe in steampunk works echoes the uneasy Victorian preoccupation with technology. The Victorian era was a time of great industrial revolution for England – “the natural world was disappearing, replaced by technology”, and people were migrating to cities for work (Gilman). While this meant great economic growth for England and the rise of a working class to rival those born into the upper class, there was also a great deal of anxiety surrounding the surge in technological advancement as overcrowded slums formed in cities, harmful waste leaked into the water, air and soil, disease spread, poor working conditions worsened, child labour became a prevalent concern, and many manual and agricultural jobs became redundant and were replaced by factories and machines. These anxieties are especially evident in live action steampunk films, which tend to be atmospherically dark, crowded and wrought with “mechanized danger”, hence the motif of protective “goggles – more than any other object – appear[ing] so frequently” within these works (Bowser and Croxall 18). While animated steampunk films tend to be visually less claustrophobic, they do not lack danger, and often place more emphasis upon the environmental concerns of both the present and Victorian era.

For this project I have selected two films which are consistently filed under the steampunk genre: Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky’ and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s French live-action film ‘The City of Lost Children’. I selected these particular films for their great emphasis on technology, and also because I feel that it is important to consider both animated and live action mediums, as they bring different things to the steampunk genre.

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