Thursday, 30 December 2010

Year in Review 2010

Another year has come and gone for Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age. 2010 was our third full year of posting views and reviews on Victorian-Edwardian Scientific, Imperial and Planetary Romances, both original and their modern imitators, as well as Retro-Futurism, Gothic Horror, Scientifiction, early film and real world history. It was also a year of some controversy and a little value-added to the weblog. This year saw the creation of the VEx Facebook group and a series of giveaway contests that will definitely continue into through new year.

The year began, as every year has, with our running series on the original Doctor Who. At the current rate, there are still two Januaries to go!

So much material accumulated from last year's trip to Japan that it spilled over into February's "Land of the Rising Sun" month and March's 20,000 Leagues-themed "Davy Jones Locker" month. We took a visit to Kyoto to look at its railway heritage, took a ride on the Galaxy Express 999, and entered the fantasy world of the Studio Ghibli Museum. Tokyo Disneysea came after, including the Mysterious Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Fortress Explorations attractions.

The series kicked off, however, with one of the articles I'm most proud of: a history of Japanese Scientific Romances. I also managed to sneak a more general review of the four Studio Ghibli movies rereleased by Disney this past year and a commentary on Disney's controversial Mechanical Kingdom merchandise.

For April's Disney month, I got some mileage out of an old essay for one of my undergrad classes, analysing Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. The "Frontierland" theme continued with Walt Disney's trip to the Calgary Stampede, the would-be Vernian Discovery Bay and the partnership between Disney and the Sons of the Pioneers. We also took a look at Disney's indulgence of the Gay Nineties in story and song.

Where the Sons of the Pioneers are found, Roy Rogers can't be far behind. And when you're talking about Hollywood's singing cowboys, you can't neglect Gene Autry and his infamous serial The Phantom Empire. For a really provocative deconstruction of the myths of the Wild West promoted by those figures, one ought to turn to Canadian artist Kent Monkman. The romance of the North American frontier includes the national parks throughout Canada and the United States. Therefore I wrote my own paean to the Romance of the National Parks as well as the National Parks and the Romance of the Rails (and Disney's Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore). "National Parks Rustic" month segued into a month of Californiana, including the La Brea Tar Pits and Hollywood (in the 'toons). That in turn brought us to a month focusing on the 1920's, 30's and 40's vision of a gleaming, Art Deco future. One of the most popular of those articles was a recapitulation of the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, but I also enjoyed the 1921 Italian film The Mechanical Man.

A new habit for VEx was publishing reviews of more recent material. That happened with the aforementioned Ghibli films and Mechanical Kingdom. It also happened in my review of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack and my gushing over The Anachronism. I waded into the controversy over Philip Reeve's comments on Steampunk and apparently created some in my review of the Steampunk II anthology (controversy accented with Mike Perschon's republication of my old History of Steampunk essay). While people spent the summer kerffufling over things I said, I was off on vacation enjoying Victoria, British Columbia, and a steam train ride through the Rocky Mountains.

October passed with an examination of New Orleans and "Old Dark House" horror, leading into our third anniversary in November. The annual pep-talk essay was on History and Scientific Romances, which was conceptually followed up by another of the year's most popular articles on Jules Verne and the Science of Prophecy. The point of this November's "Voyages Extraordinaires" month was Verne's antecedents, including Cyrano de Bergerac and Voltaire.

The year concluded with December's "Fairy Tale" month, in which I took the opportunity to review two of my favorite genre works, discovered only this past summer during that trip to Victoria. They are Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack.

This coming year is shaping up to be another exciting one, if I say so myself. Karel Zeman returns, Segundo de Chomón will be introduced, and a whole month will be given over to Studio Ghibli. My home and native land of Canada will join Japan and France as feature nations. Scientifiction month will come back, dragging the Wild West with it. There will be more contests and the Facebook group will still be the place to not only receive the latest updates but also material pulled from across the worldwide telegraphic network.

Most of all, though, Voyages Extraordinaires could not be what it is without your support. Thank you one and all for your patronage. My best to all of you in the coming year!

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The Horns of Ruin (2010)

My emphasis, being as it is, on Scientific Romances and Voyages Extraordinaires, I admittedly have a limited association with the Fantasy genre. I had a brief flirtation with Dungeons and Dragons in my teens that was really more of a flirtation with the Ravenloft setting itself. Some of the franchises I like are fond holdovers from my childhood, like Legend of Zelda and Dragon Warrior. Some are classic mythologies with strong Victorian relations, such as the Arthurian legends and their resurrection courtesy of Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites. In ones like Castle in the Sky, The Vision of Escaflowne or Simoun, all of which are anime, my affection is tied to a beautiful aesthetic coupled with engaging philosophical content and a strong emotional centre.

To be fair, the same is true of Science Fiction for its own sake. My consumption of generic Sci-Fi isn't much better... All I can say is that I have particular reasons for why Scientific Romances best capture my imagination (though rich Gothic Horror is right up there, if not surpassing it). It is not merely the fantastic aesthetic and imaginative technologies, but also the historical, cultural, artistic and scientific reference points that turn them into opportunities for exploration. Without those things, a work has to be exceptional. Even putting the trappings of Scientific Romances on a Fantasy novel does not properly meet those criteria.

The point of this confession is to say that I wasn't exactly sure what to do when Pyr/Prometheus Books sent me a copy of Tim Akers' The Horns of Ruin. Being a Steampunk Fantasy novel, I'm not sure that I have the proper reference points to determine if it is any good. There were some interesting contentions in it, like a form of magic that constructs machinery, and some strict literary problems, like how it took a seeming eternity to move the plot along. Personally, however, I didn't find anything in it to make the reading more than an effort at writing an obligatory review.

Since I am at a loss to figure out if the following excerpt from the first chapter is good writing for the genre, I leave it to your discretion:
The pale-headed man locked the gate behind us, shuttered the cowl on the clockgeist, and escorted us into the library-prison of Amon the Scholar. We followed a long brick tunnel deep into the complex, the way lit by the Alexian's gently humming frictionlamp. There were no other guards, no other gates, but suddenly the tunnel opened up into the mitochondrial complexity of the Library's stacks. We were among the Amonites. I bristled, and the articulated sheath on my back twitched with insectile anticipation, like a spider testing its web.

If that is good, then I suppose The Horns of Ruin will be suited to your tastes.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Santa Claus (1898)

Behold... Just for Christmas, Santa Claus' very first cinematic appearance in a surprisingly accomplished 1898 British short...

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Rapunzel's Revenge (2008)

Rapunzel's Revenge, a graphic novel by the team of Shannon and Dean Hale and Nathan Hale (no relation), is an exciting and inventive reimagining of the classic fairy tale set into a Wild West straight out of Garrett P. Serviss or Edward S. Ellis.

Like the original story, Rapunzel is a girl living in a gorgeous pleasure garden ruled by her mother, Gothel, and attended by an army of 19th century-style soldiers. It is also surrounded by a tremendously huge wall. As little Rapunzel ages, things click less and less about her situation and there is a nagging dream that keeps haunting her. One day she manages to lasso herself over the wall and what she sees shocks and appals her. As far as the eye can see, the Western landscape is marred by mines and factories attended by legions of slaves. One of those slaves happens to be the woman from her dreams... Her real mother.

As punishment, Rapunzel is placed in a massive tree, grown artificially huge by Gothel's growth magic and possessing a convenient living chamber at the top. Thanks to the growth magic, Rapunzel's hair also started to grow incredibly long. Long enough, in fact, to act as a lariat that helps her to escape. A prince does show up, in the form of a duded-up cattle baron who thinks he can take the princess in the tower for a quickie. Newly self-liberated Rapunzel sends him on his way none the wiser. She does hook up with a companion though, being a Native American con-artist named Jack who is carrying a goose and a lucky bean around with him. Together they discover that Gothel has been using her growth magic to oppress the countryside and set out for some vengeance.

One of the features I enjoyed the most about Rapunzel's Revenge is its honest feminism. Rapunzel is strong but not so much so as to appear artificial and overcompensating. She is still naive and needs to learn a thing or two even though she's wise enough to reject a sequined prince and powerful enough to bronc ride a sea serpent. Having the less than princely, and definitely not blonde-and-blue-eyed, Jack along to help her adjust adds further sincerity. It may have been an incidental move, since this story takes place in the Old West and we need "Indians" in it somewhere. How it manifests is a statement unto itself: Jack is no noble savage, but very urban, very ignoble.

Between Rapunzel's Revenge and it's prequel/sequel Calamity Jack, the Hales give an impressive clinic in updating fairy tales. I would even argue that this Rapunzel is superior to another recently filmed version, which tried a bit too hard to add a contrived strength to its lead while still weighting her down with naive dreaminess. Being for children, Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack are not exactly complicated texts, but they are smart ones with more convincing characters than one finds in the fairy tale tropes and the fairy tale anti-tropes.

Shannon Hale's official website has a page for Rapunzel's Revenge, with maps, insights into the creative process, and paper cut-out dolls. Check it out.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Calamity Jack (2010)

Calamity Jack is a story about a boy named Jack, obviously, who is a bit of a shyster. He is always up to one scheme or another... Some kind of penny ante gig for small potatoes. At least he did until he ran afoul of real organized crime. The big power behind the turn-of-the-century metropolis of Shyport is a giant of a man named Blunderboar who frequently visits his mother's little cafe for loaves of bread made out of a special type of flour he imports. Like most customers, the finely dressed Blunderboar is stingy on the bill and literally walks through the restaurant door. For revenge, Jack conspires to break into Blunderboar's tower and liberate some of his wealth. However, that wealth is probably not kept in the tower so much as the floating mansion above it. Desperate for a way in, Jack invests in a mysterious huckster's handful of magical legumes. Riding the resulting gigantic beanstalk to the floating mansion, Jack is able to make off with a Canada Goose before having to hightail it back down. One of Blunderboar's equally huge lackeys is in hot pursuit but Jack manages to chop the beanstalk down and beat a hasty retreat from Shyport.

Sound familiar?

The second of two reimaginings of classic fairy tales, Calamity Jack is a graphic novel by the trio of Hale, Hale and Hale. The first two Hales, Shannon and Dean, are the husband and wife team of writers. The third, Nathan, who is of no relation, is the artist. The story is the half-prequel, half-sequel to their 2008 graphic novel Rapunzel's Revenge. After the first chapter summarized above, Jack runs off to the Wild West for the events of that previous story and returns to Shyport with Rapunzel for his final confrontation with both Blunderboar and his own duplicitous past.

Intended for younger readers but enjoyable to all, the world created by the Hales is a charming transcription of the Old World of the fairy tales onto the New World of the Edisonades with some modern sensibilities for measure. The premise, as explained by the Hales, is that the fairy tales are real and all those magical folk emmigrated alongside European colonization. As the tall ships and covered wagons moved West, so did the fairies, ogres and dragons.

But I digress. There is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed inventor, whose naive ideas work intermittently, however our hero is of Native American descent and his mother, aunt and kinsfolk are relegated to Shyport's tenements. The Vaudeville-performing Fairies who befriend Jack and co. are multi-ethnic, with skin every shade of green, purple and blue. Blunderboar defends his floating mansion (which later transforms into a Zeppelin) with Jabberwockies, Bandersnatches and screaming Brownies. The Goose Who Laid the Golden Eggs is herself a Canadian.

The artifacts of this transition are interesting and highly entertaining. Many approaches to rewriting fairy tales take a Shakespeare-like approach of doing the same thing, but with airships or something. The Hales have made a whole new scenario out of them so sufficiently innovative that it even turns recognizing the story into a bit of an intellectual game. Truthfully, I didn't even clue in that it was the story of Jack and the Beanstalk until the magic beans appeared.

Shannon Hale's official website has a page devoted to Calamity Jack with interesting glimpses into the world they created and the creative process that gave rise to it. Click here to visit.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Steampunk Star Wars

One of the favorite franchises for ardent fans to reimagine in pseudo-industrial fashion is Star Wars. Mike Perschon has gone so far as to dissect the argument that "[m]ore than any other science-fiction film, Star Wars feels like it was meant to take place in a steampunk universe", which is not something I would necessarily agree with.

Or, more accurately, I could agree with it under certain provisos. The first is that Star Wars is well suited to it because Star Wars is already a chameleon. Already, it is little more than a swords-and-sorcery Fantasy adventure in Sci-Fi drag. One can certainly switch out one man-sized sequined dress for another. The second is that it depends on one's definition of Steampunk. If Steampunk requires an element of "rebelliousness" - just against something regardless of what - and a questionable fetish for weaponry, then Star Wars would be the superior choice (though a Steampunk version of The Matrix would also suffice). A franchise like Star Trek, on the other hand, would lend itself better to a Retro-Victorian, Voyages Extraordinaires reimagining because it already features more expansive themes of exploration, science, technology, culture and encounter with The Other. It would not take much more to imagine the starships as ironclads or the United Federation of Planets as the United Kingdom of Planets.

Nevertheless, while no formal attempts have been made to Steampunk Star Wars, since George Lucas is content to allow the franchise to suffocate in an officially licenced "Expanded Universe" without confusing it with alternate versions, the years have seen many different renditions. Among the first was Eric Poulton with his pencil drawings. Below you see Lord Vader and his Death Star. More are available, including desktop wallpaper versions, at his weblog.

Dimensional artist Sillof created a whole army of custom action figures featuring his ideas. Unlike Mr. Poulton's, Sillof's draw a great deal of inspiration from the Middle Ages in its imagining of the Jedi and Sith. Below are smaller resolution photos of the Rebels and Empire, while you can find better photos for A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi at his website.

The CGSociety: Society of Digital Artists held a contest for computer generated characters. The result was a more thorough exploration of ideas attached to the concept. Two of the winning entries are presented here, gratuitous cleavage included, and the whole assemblage can be viewed on their forum.

Greg Peltz tried something a little more straightforwardly Victorian and Star Warsy with his portraits of the characters. C3P0 is below, the others can be found here and here.

Mattias Adolfsson went one step even further back from a Victorian version of Star Wars to a Baroque one. His whimsical, cartoony style is pitch-perfect nonetheless, and my favorite example of this aesthetic exercise. Visit his weblog for more.

None of this, of course, settles the issue of which is better: "Steam Trek" or "Steam Wars"?

Saturday, 4 December 2010

VEx November Contest - The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

This month, our contest giveaway is a copy of Mark Hodder's recent novel Burton and Swinburne in the Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. The past is not what it used to be as Sir Richard Burton and Charles Algernon Swinburne investigate sightings of a bizarre and violent entity in the wake of Queen Victoria's assassination.

To enter, just leave a comment to this post. The draw will happen at 12:00 am on Saturday, November 27. Good luck and thank you for continuing to visit Voyages Extraordinaires.

And the new winner is: Because our previous winner did not get in touch with me after the one-week deadline, I drew again and pulled Akula's name from the tophat! Akula, check your inbox for a message!

Thank you once more for joining in and for supporting Voyages Extraordinaires!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (2009)

Unfortunately I cannot say that I have been a true, lifelong fan of Victorian Scientific Romances. While writhing my way through childhood I had other priorities. Nintendo, for example. For the better part of the 1980's, Nintendo wasn't so much a video game platform as it was a lifestyle choice. Many days began with a bowl of cereal and the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, followed by pouring over issues of the subscriber-only Nintendo Power magazine, fitting stickers into my Nintendo album by Panini, and ended with a game rental from the local corner store. I can easily approve the comparison of Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto to Walt Disney, because while my much-vaunted love of Disney is an adult affectation, Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong, Link, Samus, Little Mac, Pit and that little grey box still sitting on my entertainment centre provide the fonder memories. I'm actually astonished that there is no "Nintendoland" somewhere in Japan.

If there were, its Fantasyland-like Hyrule section would have to be encircled by the train from The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. Hundreds of years ago, a vile Demon King unsuccessfully attempted to conquer the land. His failure was sealed with chains of iron that stretched across the world, linked to a giant tower. In the intervening decades, the elvish people of Hyrule adapted those chains into a fantastic railway system. Of course, dark powers do not lie dormant forever and it's up to Link and Zelda to destroy it once and for all. All this plays out across the Nintendo DS handheld.

Though my experience of gaming pretty much ended after Super Nintendo, Spirit Tracks does boast two features that charm me no end. The first is that it appeals to my love for Japanese video game and anime-style fantasy aesthetics. I could in no way articulate why I like the gilded look prevalent in The Legend of Zelda and Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest games (or Castle in the Sky and Vision of Escaflowne anime). Nevertheless, I do.

The second is my affection for when high technology is plunked into a swords and sorcery epic. The upper end were games like the original Final Fantasy and Secret of Mana, wherein the final levels involved modern subways and atomic robots. The Ganbare Goemon series of games for Super Famicom, the first of which was imported for Super Nintendo as Legend of the Mystical Ninja, had a uniquely Japanese version of this.

Legend of Zelda's fusion of these two features makes for an adorable-looking game. And you cannot go wrong with steam trains. For more, one would undoubtedly want to visit the official website.