Feb 8, 2010

Finding Nemo - the Verniana Version

Today is Jules Verne's birthday. You'd think, given the way Google will tailor their logo for the anniversary of Sesame Street or the birth of just about every other famous writer or historical figure, there would be a Nautilus or something up there today. It seems it remains up to the Verne fans to keep the flame alive.

To that end, I'm posting a link to my first published academic article on steampunk, which I first wrote as a term paper for my PhD coursework in 2008, then presented at the Eaton Science Fiction Conference in 2009. Verniana, the online, open-source journal of the North American Jules Verne Society, requested what they deemed the best papers from that conference. I was fortunate enough to be considered one of those papers, and worked on revising and editing the paper over the past nine months to be ready for its final iteration at Verniana. This has been a major achievement for me - my goal had been to be among the first articles in academic scholarship published on steampunk, post-Stefan Hantke's 1999 article in Extrapolation.

Verne is definitely one of the precedent writers for the steampunk aesthetic, and this article suggests Nemo as a proto-steam-punk, using the term as a noun, to refer to a type of neo-Victorian hero. Here's the abstract, and a link to the page where you can read the article (and many others - I recommend perusing Howard Hendrix's article - it's fantastic!).

In the foreword to his annotated translation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Walter James Miller suggests that Verne’s image was in need of rehabilitation due to the plethora of poor English translations his works have suffered. With the emergence of better translations, the same need for rehabilitation has emerged for Captain Nemo, the anti-hero of Verne’s underwater adventure tale. In the updated, post-colonial English translations of The Mysterious Island, Nemo is revealed to be the antithesis of the Caucasian pop-culture iteration made famous by James Mason and most recently continued by Patrick Stewart and Michael Caine: an Indian prince whose real name is Dakkar, a leader of the Sepoy rebellion against colonial rule in 1857. It is this Nemo, Verne’s original character, who embodies the essence of the Steampunk aesthetic of the instability of identity through his repeated death-and-rebirth cycle in both novels. Mixing one part recursive fantasy, one part historical criticism, and one part textual analysis, this paper will demonstrate how Captain Nemo is representative of one of the core elements of the Steampunk aesthetic, namely the redefining of identity.


  1. I read it... and I have got to say, I think it was brilliant. While parts did seem a bit more difficult to follow because they refer to concepts with which I am not familiar (such as oppositional politics, although if I understood what you have written correctly oppositional politics pertains to opposing the way things are by creating a subculture to subert the norm - such as the various "punk" cultures), I did find the work as a whole quite interesting, and even challenging.

    I found the manner in which you outlined the life of Nemo most interesting (It definitely makes me want to revisit/finish 20,000 leagues. I got about halfway through in College, but stopped for some reason, though I am not sure why...). But what I really appreciated about the discussion of Nemo was how you highlighted how rich and multidimension the character is, which was made all the clearer with an understanding of Nemo's background.

    Also, I appreciated the challenge that your article had at the end, challenging steam punk to do more than just be an asthetic that covers up what we dislike about the world in which we find ourselves placed, or that lets us hide from this problematic world much like Nemo did in his submarine. Actually, I thought the way you tied that together at the end by making Nemo's hiding under the ocean analogous to many peoples hiding in their "punk" aesthetic was quite ingenious indeed. However, I am curious how you think your final sentence, particularly the part about compassion being a greater force of resistance against oppression than retaliation, would look within the realm of steampunk (both as an Aesthetic and as a Genre). I would imagine it calling for more creative solutions to problems faced by characters in literature (solutions that are more creative than the typical shoot to kill and other such fun action sequences that comprise much of todays fiction, at least in film) as you seem to have suggested (if I recall).

    Actually - and this is a complete side note - the way in which you ended your paper kind of struck me as the way someone would end a sermon. One does not merely study scripture and expound on it for the sake of studying and expounding. Instead, it needs to have application, and up to a point that is what your paper seemed to do: take what you had learned about steam-punk through the study of Vernes's character, Nemo, and apply it to steampunk today (as well as challenge others to try to apply it). I just thought it was kind of neat, since you used to serve as a pastor, that your paper would end this way. Maybe I am reading into it a bit... maybe this is typical of this sort of paper, I do not know... But I digress.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed reading your paper, and I do look forward to more. Hopefully I have not completely missed the point of what you wrote (and hopefully my response makes sense... and does not drive you around the bend with its less than scholarly lingo, but it is 12:30 in the morning right now, so...).

    Anyway, have a good day, Mike.

  2. 友情像一棵樹木,要慢慢的栽培,才能成長真的友誼,要經過困難考驗,才可友誼永固..............................

  3. Thanks for that in-depth response Calvin. I indeed did end it like a sermon - because I think that writing, when it can, should have a "so what?" element--Even academic pieces on literature! That said, I think it might also have been because it was written while I was transitioning careers!

  4. Excellent paper! I can see some definite connections between your conclusion and what I noted about the fundamental hypocrisy of Nemo as a man who claims to reject society and be retailiating against it but is, in fact, only enacting it with himself at the head. Despite claims of rejecting this and that in the name of a Punk ethos, Steampunk isn't actually doing anything. That even comes out in the latest thing to stick in my craw, being the modern sterility of Steampunk aesthetics vs. the richness of actual history.

    Something that I may have to reconsider in the wake of your paper is my own upcoming series on Disney's "domestication" of Nemo. Not the character from the film itself... To the contrary, I think he does maintain his ferocity - if not his invulnerability - accented by the fact that he has become such a conventional man motivated by violent revenge without any redeeming pretenses of charity or politics. Rather, how Disney has worked to turn him into a heroic figure in subsequent pieces of the franchise. In Tokyo Disneysea's Mysterious Island, set some 3 or so years after the events of the film, Nemo is entirely devoted to scientific research (into which he invites you, the guest). This progression may not be so artificial, if your theory holds ^_^

  5. I would agree that Steampunk isn't doing anything...I think. I never know if we're saying the same thing on that subject or not...you're more vociferous about it, and I think I'm just suggesting Nemo as a type for steampunk writers to consider when trying to write against where steampunk is at. Thanks for the kudos Cory - anything that makes you rethink a Fantastic Voyage reference is a huge accomplishment!

  6. Is that some of the residual Mennonite influence you've referred to? :) Seriously, this is an excellent paper. I lack all knowledge to make any literary comments, but considering the peace angle, I wonder if there's an argument to be made for Verne, through Nemo, contesting for an eschatological priority of peace.

    Considering his comments on atheism you quote, Nemo doesn't seem to me to have evolved to a stereotypical pacifism, which we might characterize as the trust that "all will be well" if we just "give love a chance." Rather, Nemo seems there to suggest that the truncated horizon of the political liberalism of his "day" must continue to destroy true virtue and perpetuate injustice. If so, then his adoption of an ethic of compassion and egalitarianism is not predicated on a naive expectation of immediate effectiveness, but rather a deep confidence that, while the world continues to destroy itself, he will instead choose to work "with the grain of the universe."

    If my analysis is even close, then one possible explanation why there are so few steampunk heroes who finally arrive at "acts of charity and benevolence" is that they (and, perhaps, their creators) lack the eschatological reference to make such acts intelligible. Now, I'm not advocating any particular religious sensibility to fill that gap, just suggesting that violence will not often be convincingly outnarrated by a steampunk that reproduces the entirely this-worldly concern of the politics it ostensibly rejects.

  7. Your analysis is spot-on Michael, and it's definitely the Mennonite influence creating my bias here, I'm sure. Nevertheless, it's not a matter for conjecture - this is how Nemo spends his retirement years. And I think you've said it very nicely (and I'll quote you next week when I present on it), that Nemo seems to be working with the grain of the universe (who are you quoting there?).

    There probably needs to be some sort of eschatological (even if that's just simply a vision of hope) context for this sort of hero or heroine to work, but I think even a hopeful fool (writing against Voltaire's Candide?) would be powerful as well. Since I worked on the first draft of this, I've only come across a few possible examples of this: Jay Lake's Mainspring seems to have a suggestion of this kind of steampunk hero, as does Boilerplate, though in a very removed way - you'd quite like Boilerplate I think.

    On the whole though, the theme of redemptive violence is still the default for most steampunk fiction, even when it's shrouded in magic, or deflected from direct action by the hero to acts of God, or airships exploding (evil undoing itself).

  8. My quote is from the end of a rather dense article by 'neo-Anabaptist' Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, surprise surprise. :) You should be able to access it through the university at http://sce.sagepub.com/content/vol1/issue1/ , but here's the relevant paragraph:

    "The point that apocalyptic makes is not only that people who wear crowns and who claim to foster justice by the sword are not as strong as they think -- true as that is: we still sing, 'O where are the Kings and Empires now of old that went and came?' It is that people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe. One does not come to that belief by reducing social processes to mechanical and statistical models, nor by winning some of one's battles for the control of one's own corner of the fallen world. One comes to it by sharing the life of those who sing about the Resurrection of the slain Lamb."

    Yoder's words here were made "famous" by the contents and title of Stanley Hauerwas's book With the Grain of the Universe. Ironically, the rough edged Texan was my introduction to probably _the_ most important Mennonite theologian, at least measured by impact on non-Mennonites.

    Do you know anything about Verne's own religious inclinations? I know an author and their characters are not the same, but it seems to me that the dominance of redemptive violence in steampunk is easily explained as being the reflection of its dominance in our society, which makes me wonder how Verne's context differed.

    I'm looking forward to catching up on all your recommendations this summer!


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