Jun 24, 2009

Steamnocchio

"Steamnocchio," by Fabrio Morales, was the winner of Image (Individual) Master Award in CGSociety's Annual challenge this past year. The goal of the challenge was to apply a steampunk aesthetic to a myth or legend.

I'm likely going to get booed for being overly anal about semantics, but the story of "Pinnochio" is neither a myth, nor a legend. It's a nineteenth century children's tale by Carlo Collodi. That said, "Steamnocchio" is a remarkable piece of digital art, and far be it from to suggest Morales be disqualified for not using a legend or myth, since he wasn't the only entry into the challenge to choose something outside either of those terms' definitions. Besides, if you take a look at the full size image, you'll understand immediately why Morales deserved to win. The level of detail is staggering, and the use of light and texture blows me away.

While it might not be myth or legend, "Steamnocchio" is certainly steampunk. I love Geppetto's goggles, which strike me as the sort a steampunk scholar would need - something with multiple lenses for seeing elements in orginal texts, like a multi-spectral analysis. Obviously, the construct-boy adheres to the popular concepts of what constitutes steampunk: brass, valves, steam itself, electricital light, and the likelihood of clockwork innards, where Collodi's Geppetto made Pinnochio out of wood. Yet given my reading in steampunk texts, what strikes me as most significant is that Morales has made "Steamnocchio" into an automaton. Pinocchio is a marionette made of talking wood (in Collodi's version, Geppetto builds the boy out of a sentient table-leg). Of course, in the more well-known Disney version, the marionette is granted life by a good fairy. Morales' Geppetto hasn't stumbled upon talking ore, nor has he waited around for some fairy to give his boy life, wistfully wishing upon a star. He has given the "boy" life. He has done it himself, in the tradition of steampunk mad scientists whose origins lie in Victor Frankenstein and find their real-world culmination in Makers like Jake von Slatt and Datamancer.

As I mentioned in a recent post, one of the recurring elements I'm noticing in steampunk is the automaton. I suppose this might seem obvious, given the cover of Jess Nevins' Fanastic Victoriana, with its giant robot (sporting a top hat!) menacing London, but it's the manner of automata which is of interest to me (of interest, Nevins' entry about Pinocchio begins with an assessment of how creepy the idea is). The automaton of Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters" is effectively a kabbalistic golem. The robot pugilist of James Lovegrove's "Steampunch" seems to have become self-aware. Lea Hernandez's Clockwork Angels are all so real that they are mistaken for people. The protagonist of The Alchemy of Stone is clearly self-aware...these automata are, like the mad scientist Geppetto, also related to Frankenstein, to the monstrous creation who is given artificial life, but gains a sense of soul in the bargain. In steampunk, it would seem, there is clearly a ghost in the machine.

Given the ties steampunk has to cyberpunk, this comes as no shock. Cyberpunk was constantly playing with self-aware artificial intelligences, from William Gibson's supercomputer Wintermute in Necromancer and its sequels, to the Puppet Master of Ghost in the Shell. Science Fiction in general has always been fascinated by the idea of the man-machine becoming something more than a anthropod difference engine.

It makes me want to take Victoria Nelson's Secret Life of Puppets down off the shelf and give it another read. Nelson's book is, quite literally, responsible for why I got out of religious studies and started working in comparative literature. The premise of the book acted as a bridge from religious studies to comp lit. Put simply, it is that Western culture has sublimated the elements of spirituality into its genre fictions: horror, SF, fantasy and the like: "Because the religious impulse is profoundly unacceptable to the dominant Western intellectual cutlure, it has been obliged to sneak in this back door, where our guard is down" (18).

"Steamnocchio" is a sort of visual representation of The Secret Life of Puppets, since Nelson explores the automata of twentieth century speculative fictions by way of the medieval golem and the marionette or puppet. Morales' image encapsulates all of these ideas: automata, the puppet-boy, and also the idea of artificial life, of a soul within the brasswork. While I wasn't expecting it, this brief blog on "Steamnocchio" has given some strong direction to my dissertation work. Nelson's book will have to be read, in earnest!

I'll close with a passage from Nelson's book, where she quotes Heinrich Von Kleist's "On the Marionette Theater":
We see that in the organic world, as reflection grows darker and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and commandingly. But just as the section drawn through two lines suddenly appears on the other side of a point after passing through infinity, or just as the image in a concave mirror turns up before us again after having moved off into the endless distance, so too grace itself returns when knowledge has gone through an infinity. Grace appears purest in that human form which has either no consciousness or an infinite one, that is, in a puppet or in a god. (64)


NOTE: Someone will have to explain to me why, in this time of rising steampunk appeal, there has been no second printing of Nevin's Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana. I just can't justify shelling out over $200 for a book, no matter how great and grand it is.

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