Title: April and the Extraordinary World (Avril et le Monde truqué)
Release Date: November 4, 2015
Director: Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci
Production Company: Arte France (and numerous others)
This imaginative animated film created by a team of French, Belgian, and Canadian filmmakers presents an alternative history of the world with a steampunk vibe. The prologue of the film shows scientist Gustave Franklin working on a serum to create invulnerable soldiers for Emperor Napoleon III in 1870. Angered that Franklin has only been able to create talking monitor lizards, the Emperor has a fit that inadvertently causes an explosion killing them both. In this alternate history, the young Napoleon IV signs a peace treaty to avoid the Franco-Prussian War thus maintaining the French empire in Europe.
A montage zips the story forward to 1931, during the interim the world’s great scientists are kidnapped retarding technological development. Relying on steam technology, the French Empire uses up all the coal in the world and then denudes Europe of trees for the wood. This alternate past depicts a gray world devoid of vegetation and full of polluted air, but filled with fantastical steam-powered vehicles and devices. In 1931, Franklin’s son Prosper “Pops” Franklin, grandson Paul, granddaughter-in-law Annette and great-granddaughter April continue to work in secret on the serum, achieving success, but interrupted by both the French Imperial police and then a mysterious black cloud shooting lightning bolts. Pops is separated, and Paul and Annette appear dead, leaving April alone with their talking cat Darwin (by far, my favorite character) and the serum hidden in a snow globe.
Whew, that’s a lot of setup in basically the first 15 minutes of the movie, because now the film zips forward again to 1941 for the main story. April, now a young adult, continues to work in secret on the serum. Disgraced inspector Gaspar Pizoni – a kind of bumbling version of Javert – continues to try to track down the Franklins, and blackmails young petty criminal Julius to work for him. Julius saves and then befriends April and Darwin, ultimately having mixed feelings about helping Pizoni. They are reunited with Pops kicking off an adventure that reveals the secret plans of the French Empire and the mysterious forces that have kidnapped the world’s scientists.
This is imaginative story which also works as an environmental fable. It’s also interesting that this alternate history depicts 1941 as a time when Europe is dominated by a French totalitarian government where in reality France was under the thumb of Nazi Germany at the time. It’s imaginatively animated and a clever story. The one flaw is that the voice acting feels stilted. If I watch this again, I’d like to find the original French cast instead of the dubbed version, because I think that would work better.
Title: Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Release Date: June 15, 2001
Director: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
One of the most under-the-radar animated film releases in recent Walt Disney Pictures memory, Atlantis: The Lost Empire pretty much stands alone as a Jules Verne + steampunk + Indiana Jones action-adventure story with science fiction and fantasy elements. Milo Thatch (perfectly voiced by Michael J. Fox), a scholarly cartographer and linguist, is recruited to join basically a military expedition to find the lost continent of Atlantis in 1914. Their inevitable discovery of a surviving civilization puts the noble and idealistic Milo at odds with the exploitative mission of the rest of the task force. He also befriends Kida, the princess of Atlantis (portrayed by Cree Summer), who is a criminally underdeveloped character who is drawn in ways that seem designed to appeal to the male gaze.
It’s stunning that this movie was released just a year after The Emperor’s New Groove which was saturated in the ironically-detatched pop culture of its era. Atlantis, by contrast, is disarmingly straightforward and sincere in its storytelling in a refreshingly old-fashioned way. Unfortunately, old fashioned means that Atlantis is derivative and predictable in all of its plot beats. I can’t put finger on it exactly, but this movie comes so close to being great, and again and again fails to do so. Everything looks good and all the pieces are there, but it just lacks the Disney magic that brings it all together. I wish this movie had succeeded because there’s an opening for a solid animated adventure classic in the Disney canon.
Author: Andrea Cremer
Title: The Inventor’s Secret
Narrator: Leslie Bellair
Publication Info: Listening Library (2014)
This is the first in a series of an alternate universe dystopia in which Great Britain suppressed the revolution in the American colonies and have created a deeply stratified industrial tyranny. I actually thought it was supposed to be set sometime in the far future, but since its in the steampunk genre, it’s supposed to be in the 19th century despite the advanced technology. The protagonist is Charlotte, a 16-year-old member of the resistance living with other children in camp hidden away from the empire. When a mysterious newcomer arrives, it moves forward a plot for Charlotte, her brother and other companions to infiltrate the imperial society in New York. It’s an interesting concept, but the story didn’t engage me . I could see it’s appeal for younger readers interested in a mix of fantasy, alternate history, and romance.
Author: Andrew Mayne
Title: The Monster in the Mist
Publication Info: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
I got this eBook as a special deal for Kindle on Amazon, not knowing much about it other than it was a mystery set in Boston in 1890 with a steampunk vibe. April Malone is a young woman whose mysterious job is to tend an office where no one works and take lessons on various esoteric topics. All of this is preparation for the arrival of the also mysterious man who just goes by the name Smith who emerges from behind a steel door one day and sets the pair on investigating several disappearances of people in Boston. Smith is reminiscent of The Doctor from Doctor Who (who also sometimes goes by the name Smith) and the relationship of April Malone and Smith owes a debt to Holmes & Watson, but it’s not entirely derivative. I was won over by the first part of this book, but less enamored with the latter half. This is because Smith goes off on his own adventure and while ultimately aided by April, I think the book lacks something when not seen from her perspective as well as the interesting chemistry between the two characters. This book is the first in a series of Chronological Man Adventures, and I hope that in future installments that two leads stay together.
Recommended books: The Technologists by Matthew Pearl, The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch.
Author: Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
Title: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Publication Info: America’s Best Comics (1999)
This novel brings together several fictional characters – Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Allan Quatermain, Dr. Jekyl, and the Invisible Man – to solve mysteries in an alternate universe London. The tone of the book is dark and the characters are highly-flawed and untrustworthy. Moore unsettling writes in style that reflects the racist and jingoistic attitudes of the time. On the other hand Mina is a strong female lead, and although the other characters grumble about her, they still follow her lead. I’ll definitely read more in this series.
Recommended books: Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel by Paul Guinan, The Remarkable Worlds of Professor Phineas B. Fuddle by Erez Yakin, and Five Fists Of Science by Matt Fraction
Author: Paul Guinan and Anina Bennet
Title: Boilerplate : history’s mechanical marvel
Publication Info: New York : Abrams Image, 2009.
Boilerplate reads like a textbook or maybe one of those Time-Life history books from the 1980’s covering the period 1893-1918 when Professor Archie Campion’s Mechanical Marvel walked the Earth. In hopes of eliminating the loss of life in war, Campion invented the automaton Boilerplate to be a robot soldier. This book covers the life and times of Professor Campion, his remarkable sister Lily, and the mechanical marvel itself, Boilerplate. A noble automaton, Boilerplate served in the Spanish-American War in Cuba and the Phillipines, is on hand for the Boxer Rebellion and the Russo-Japanese War, and finally serves as a doughboy in The Great War where he vanishes while searching for the Lost Battalion. Along thew way he becomes acquainted with Theodore Roosevelt, Nikola Tesla, Jack London, Mark Twain, Frank Reade, Alice Roosevelt, Jack Johnson, Lewis Hine, T.E. Lawrence, Jeanette Rankin, Pancho Villa, and Black Jack Pershing. It shouldn’t be too big a spoiler to reveal that this robot never existed. The beauty of this book is in its historical detail. Sidebars cover historical events in accurate detail without mentioning the fictional centerpiece of this book. I could see this could be an interesting teaching tool for children, because there’s so much history here as long as you keep in mind that the robot is fake. This is a unique and entertaining take on alternate history.
Recommended books: The Remarkable Worlds of Professor Phineas B. Fuddle by Erez Yakin and Five Fists Of Science by Matt Fraction.
I’ve begun reading The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson. In quote I found on Wikipedia, Stephenson describes the Baroque Cycle thusly:
“Why Baroque? Because it is set in the Baroque, and it is baroque. Why Cycle? Because I am trying to avoid the T-word (“trilogy”). In my mind this work is something like 7 or 8 connected novels. These have been lumped together into three volumes because it is more convenient from a publishing standpoint, but they could just as well have been put all together in a single immense volume or separated into 7 or 8 separate volumes. So to slap the word “trilogy” on it would be to saddle it with a designation that is essentially bogus. Having said that, I know everyone’s going to call it a trilogy anyway. “
I figure with the author’s intentions so clear that it will be okay for me to read and review each book individually rather than laboring through the entire volume at once. Not that there’s much labor involved in Quicksilver (2003) which is a joy to read. Ostensibly a science fiction novel, the first book of the first volume (which share the same name) is more of literary journey through the scientific and political thought of early modern Europe. The protagonist of novel is the somewhat Forrest Gump-like character Daniel Waterhouse who seems to interact with all the great thinkers of the time (and at one point he even is responsible for naming the city of New York). The son of the charismatic Dissenter Drake Waterhouse, Daniel grows conflicted as he’s drawn to natural philosophy especially due to his friendship with Isaac Newton at Cambridge University.
The book begins with the arrival of the mysterious alchemist Enoch Root (the one clear sci-fi/fantasy element) in Boston in 1713. Enoch is there to convince Daniel to return to England to help resolve a controversy. The chapters then alternate between Daniel’s voyage and flashbacks to his coming of age. The trip home is rough as Daniel’s ship encounters Edward Teach and numerous pirate ships, and the captain of Daniel’s ship tries increasingly comical ways of evading them (such as disguising Daniel as the captain).
Daniel’s life growing up is tougher still. From his studies at Cambridge where he meets the strange genius Isaac Newton and becomes his assistant. Daniel survives the plague of 1665 and the London fire of 1666 (which kills the obstinate Drake). He joins the Royal Society and rubs shoulders with the likes of Robert Hooke, Gottfried Leibniz, Henry Oldenburg and Samuel Pepys and participates in many scientific experiments. As Daniel is increasingly drawn into the intrigue of English society constantly at war and ready to turn against itself. He discovers that his heritage from a Dissenting family and his experience in natural philosophy put him in a unique position and as the book ends he is beginning to play that part.
That’s a short summary that does injustice to a lengthy book in a longer volume. Quicksilver isn’t about the plot though as it deviates into the joy of discovery, political intrigue (gossip?), satire, and stories of historical events from a new perspective. It’s a great book, and I look forward to reading the other 7.
A parody of Star Trek as it may have looked in the silent film era (via MetaFilter).
More information at The Making of Steam Trek: The Moving Picture blog.
I decided to take a break from my usual reading patterns and explore two intriguing phenomena. The first is graphic novels which my public library now has an entire section devoted to and I’ve heard a lot of buzz about their art and creativity. The second is steampunk, a genre of science fiction based on possible but not probable technology from the 19th century. With this twin interests in mind I checked out the following books:
The Remarkable Worlds of Professor Phineas B. Fuddle by Boaz Yakin, Erez Yakin and Angus McKie.
Two English scientists Angus and McKee learn that strange climactic changes and invasions of even stranger creatures are caused by the time travel exploits of the eponymous Prof. Fuddle. Apparently Fuddle decided to travel through time to share technology with earlier cultures in order to prevent violence and warfare. Instead he creates a time paradox of multiple, overlapping universes.
Angus and McKee follow Fuddle through time in an attempt to reverse Fuddle’s interventions. Most of the plot is nonsensical but fun as the two English scientists visit pharaoh’s Egypt, ancient India, and medieval England. They get in and out of scrapes, and eventually find Fuddle and return him home. Or do they?
The best part of this book is the illustration with colorful, chaotic scenes of ancient cultures adapting to modern technology that come out as cross between Where’s Waldo? and William Hogarth.
The 4thRail Review
The Five Fists of Science by Matt Fraction and Steven Sanders
This graphic novels sets off a battle of Mark Twain, Nikola Tesla, Baroness Bertha Von Suttner vs. JP Morgan, Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, and Andrew Carnegie. Tesla and his assistant invent a giant robot which Twain and the Baroness see as a means of creating world peace on the theory that no one would want to face the annihilation of this massive weapon. Meanwhile Morgan and Edison construct a giant tower to tap into the dark arts and gain power for themselves through human sacrifices. Inevitably the two sides go into battle with good triumphing over evil. Or does it?
I liked the quirky use of historical characters in this book although I feel it could use more text and dialog to fill out the narrative.
This is something I’d like to read more of so if anyone has any good graphic novel or steampunk recommendations, let me know in the comments.