Steampunk: should we be worried?

For those of you who don’t know what Steampunk is, here is Urban Dictionary’s definition:

Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.

Essentially, anything that looks like it has cogs and airships added for no reason. The entry goes on to list Steampunk films including Wild Wild West and Van Helsing (though, strangely, it misses League of Extraordinary Gentlemen).

Let’s be clear here, steampunk is counter-factual history par excellence. It’s what would happen if you took the past, cherry picked the bits that appealed to you, and left the rest behind. Take, for example, Phillip Pullman’s best selling ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. The only film that came out of it managed to massively miss its estimated target audience, explaining why the next two books didn’t follow (and you just know that third one would have been split into *at least* two more films).

Golden Compass's take on London

The still above is from that film, ‘The Golden Compass’. It is modern-day London (yes, there is a brass zeppelin and a steam train – you’re beginning to get the point). The whole story was so in love with the idea of steampunk that it invented an alternate steampunk universe, and spent the entirety of the first book there. The second book went a step further and got a normal lad from Earth Prime and gives him a magical knife so that he can cut his way into steampunk universe any time he damn well pleases.

As someone whose friends include a guy who regularly wears a top hat just because it’s a Wednesday (I’m looking at you, Spindles!), I am wary of pissing off the steampunk community. So let’s not pick on the ones that are beyond our remit and set in the ‘modern’ world.

…just randomly spinning the roulette wheel of rage here…

…one moment…

Wild Wild West!

Wild Wild West Spider

What’s that? It’s too easy to be scornful of a film with a giant mechanical spider set in the American west? Well screw you. I’m not going to go easy on a subculture that emphasises visual aesthetics over… let’s be honest, it just straight raises two fingers to functionality. On Earth Prime, giant mechanical spiders wouldn’t exist, not because they were impossible to build, but because the logistics of refueling, or just coordinating the movement of eight limbs is not worth the effort.

So, is steampunk a threat to the portrayal of history?

No.

To a lesser extent, this is because steampunk has had its moment (for now at least). The late 90s and early 00s were the heyday of the trend, with Hellboy: The Golden Army being the last high water mark. And if that’s not a screaming indictment, I don’t know what is.

But more importantly, the steampunk community isn’t really interested in history for its own sake. Yes, they may be some of the most well-read people you’ve met, but that’s predominantly because they want to have cool historical things to Show and Tell.

Steampunk is a distraction, but a harmless one, and for that we can forgive it its willful ignorance of basic engineering.

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Copyright takes the Cake

Cooking for Copyright? Sounds awesome!

Historians are Past Caring

Copyright is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma to me – and yet I know I should try to understand it, because for any historian, access to sources – documents, pictures, other media generally – forms the basis of what we do.

I struggle constantly with the issue of copyright in my blog, since there is a question over any picture I pull from the web to put in a post. My personal compromise is to link the picture back to its original source on the web. That means – where I can – finding the library or art gallery it comes from, rather than just somebody else’s blog post. I’m not sure if this is an adequate safeguard, but since my blog only reaches a few hundred people, and makes no money, there’s probably no harm done. In a book, though, it’s not possible to salve…

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Why Blackbeard Was Never the Big Bad

Blackbeard

Blackbeard is kind-of a big name in the world of piracy these days. He was the main villain of the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and he looks set to be the main villain of the upcoming Peter Pan flick; ‘Pan‘.

Ray Stevenson as Blackbeard in Starz’ TV series Black Sails

He’s a popular character in history, in part because of sheer theatricality. We all know how he wore six pistols (actually less fearsome if you realise they are one-shot weapons) and tucked six flaming tapers into his hat before battle. And yes, we know about the big black beard (although Warner Brothers seem to have missed the boat on that one).

But here’s the thing, Blackbeard wasn’t actually the most successful/dastardly pirate of his day. Not by a long way. The best contender for that title is a man whose name is now mainly used to sell rum.

Captain Morgan as he appears in the rum advert
Captain Morgan as he appears in the rum advert

Henry Morgan, by contrast, was much more successful; achieving a degree of legitimacy by working for the British. He was knighted for his efforts to rob the Spanish blind, and was promoted to Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica. By the end of his career, Morgan was a sodding Admiral, which throws some serious shade at Jack Sparrow and his whole ‘Captain’ deal.

While Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach was busy taking on one or two ships, and promoted himself to the rank of commodore, Morgan was capturing entire cities. There’s not really any contest.

The other major contender for that title was another Welshman; Bart Roberts (you begin to see why Davy Jones was so popular; the Welsh were kings among pirates). Forbes puts him at #5 of their list of the richest pirates ever. Roberts is particularly famous for his code, which was significantly more progressive than the codes of chivalry.

While he crops up in many pirate video game series, he is yet to make a big impact in TV and Video. Nonetheless, it’s nice to note that, in the Pirates of the Caribbean At World’s End video game, Black Bart was voiced by Cary Elwes, effectively reprising his role as the Dread Pirate Roberts from the Princess Bride 30 years previously! Have to respect the fan service.

Dread Pirate Roberts

Pirates are always going to have one foot firmly in the land of fantasy. Pirates of the Caribbean, The Princess Bride, Assassin’s Creed, Peter Pan and Monkey Island have all stretched reality in one way or another. With this in mind, it would make sense that one of the most theatrical of pirates would inspire (or simply be dragged into) these fantasy stories. Nevertheless, Blackbeard needs to move over and make room for the real lords of the sea.

Twisting historical realities: more harm than good?

Troy Hector Achilles duel

I  read an interesting blog the other day about Thomas More. You know, that guy in the woodcut:

This, in turn, got me thinking about the various different angles people have approached him from; particularly Wolf Hall. Many people criticised Hilary Mantell’s story as an adaptation of history, rather than the real thing. And it is, in that it only tells one story, rather than EVERYTHING. But was it a corruption of the facts? By leaving out details like Thomas Cromwell’s use of torture, was her story fundamentally flawed?

Well, if you think that’s bad, you’re really not going to like alternate histories. Assassin’s Creed is a classic example of a story that takes history and draws together threads to weave a new tapestry (if you’ll excuse the extended metaphor).

Assassin's Creed I's AltairMany would argue that the storyline is so warped from the actual course of history that it is completely useless as a source of information. But is it? Do we consume media for information or entertainment? In many cases, particularly with alternate histories, it feels like the latter. No matter how much I told myself that watching the DVD box set of ROME *was* useful exam revision, the guilt was still there. It certainly felt more like entertainment. For those of you who are interested, ROME technically was alternate history. Pullo and Vorenus were real people, mentioned only once by Caesar, but in his account they are both Centurions.

And yet, there is plenty to be learned from modern media. It can fill many gaps that academic textbooks cannot. Atmosphere is undoubtedly top of this list. And it is the world of gaming that is best at this. I’ve given games a hard time recently, but the fact remains that games are immersive. As Dara O’Briain pointed out “You cannot be bad at watching a movie. You cannot be bad at listening to an album. But you can be bad at playing a video game, and the video game will punish you, and deny you access to the rest of the video game.” Films and TV you can sit down and relax to. Games you can actually explore your universe.

I feel like I’ve strayed off the topic a bit here. My point is, yes, you will never learn the gospel truth about a topic. Actually, the gospels were not the whole factual history of how things went down either – particularly as only a handful of them even made it into the bible. Regardless of how factually accurate something pretends to be, you *have* to treat it with caution. But there’s no harm in enjoying it for its own sake.

Disney Princesses: The Good, The Bad, The Wrong

Historically accurate Jasmine

It’s time. I’m going there: Disney Princesses. Let’s be blunt here, they’re not historically accurate. They’re so not historically accurate, that it has become fashionable to recreate them as historically-accurate figures. For example, check out Claire Hummel’s depictions of historically-accurate Disney princess costumes, as featured in this blog post. Someone recently contrasted Game of Thrones with Disney, arguing that the fantasy TV series was a more accurate depiction of the day-to-day lives of women than the films, which are frequently based on *actual history*.

So, yes; the reality was more grim, if less overwhelmingly terrifying (I’m looking at you, Maleficent). However, these are children’s films. They can’t be too heavy-handed about things, can they? If that’s your argument, then maybe princesses are just a bad source of subject material overall. The happily-ever-after ideal seems to have been invented by Disney, rather than the Grimm’s, whose stories they adapted. For most women who married into royalty, your future was as a glorified baby-making-factory, with all the risks involved.

Pocahontas Wind Hair
Buzzfeed has a whole list of what Disney princesses would look like with accurate hair

The real issue here, for historians at least, is that Disney is one of the main ways that children first get to grips with history. And it’s setting them up for a fall. Kids aren’t great at telling the difference between the real world and fairytales (which is why that whole ‘If you believe in fairies clap your hands’ ploy always seemed like the most sadistic trick to me). As they get older, the whole notion of a Disneyfied fantasy becomes a kind of escape; an Elysian daydream. It becomes even harder to remind them that there was history behind all this.

I’ve unfairly picked on the girls here, possibly because they are more iconic. However, a similar situation exists for the men, too. The flipside of this coin is the whole idea of knights in shining armour; of chivalry and courtly love. And that is just as bad.