Jun 27, 2012

Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett

I recently tweeted that Paul Guinan and Anina Bennet's Boilerplate and Frank Reade books were among the finest examples of what I call steampunk detournement, and by extension, social retrofuturism. Anina made a joke about me clearly writing a dissertation and using big words, so to make sure I'm making myself perfectly and pedantically clear, I'm going to eschew review of Frank Reade and use it to explain what I meant instead. If you're wondering if the book is worth getting or not, I'll say in brief that if you enjoyed Boilerplate, you'll enjoy Frank Reade as well.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines retrofuturism as “the use of a style or aesthetic considered futuristic in an earlier era,” and lists architectural references in the 1980s as early instances of the term’s use. The fictional architecture of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner has been called retrofuturistic, though Scott used the term “retro-fitted,” to describe the sets’ architectural ambiguity: …the movie’s most praised feature embodies similar ambiguity, a similar fusion of low and high, of primitive and advanced. Almost unanimously, critics have praised Blade Runner’s sets . . . the buildings inhabited by common people are old buildings with futuristic fittings applied to them. Scott called [this] aspect ‘retro-fitting,’ to achieve a ‘layered’ effect. Old buildings . . . were encrusted with futuristic devices, decoration, and debris. (Colwell 129)

In relation to steampunk, the term retrofuturism likely conjures up images of antiquated technology, dirigibles and ornithopters, Harper Goff’s Nautilus, or Datamancer’s brass-worked keyboards. Discussions concerning retrofuturism at conventions or online forums are often couched in a technological framework. A quick Google search for retrofuturism links to pages like the Web Urbanist’s “Steampunk Styling: Victorian Retrofuturism at Home” or Smashing Magazine’s “Retro Futurism at its Best: Designs and Tutorials.” In both cases, the art and photography reveal a myopic conflation of the term retrofuturism with technological objects, such as steampunk style motorcycles or interior decor.

The same thing could be said of Guinan and Bennett's Boilerplate and Frank Reade books. The first thing that catches the eye is the retrofuturistic technology: Boilerplate's automaton and Frank Reade's marvelous vehicular utopias, to borrow Arthur B. Evans's term for Verne's "19th century visions of transportational perfection" (100). A casual browsing of Frank Reade might lead one to assume the book is a sophisticated-looking coffee table book looking at the history of Frank Reade magazine, though a closer look reveals that it is a fictional history of Frank Reade Jr. himself: as the back cover explains, the book is the "lost legacy of American is interwoven with the 'real' Reade family--inventors and explorers who traveled the world with their helicopter airships, submarines, and robots." The scare quotes around real are the only indication the reader receives that this history is a false one, so thorough is Guinan and Bennett's falsehood.

That it is a falsehood is blatantly apparent, perhaps in ways Boilerplate was not, given the odd occasion when the fictional creation became unintentional hoax. And while I find it somewhat ludicrous to imagine how one would believe the nineteenth century produced a bipedal thinking machine, apparently other more gullible individuals do not (that said, I'd have believed it at the age of ten - or desperately wanted to believe it). If one were to think the history in the pages of Frank Reade were some suppressed historical documentation, I would despair. Frank Reade's inventions are utterly fantastic: the Centennial, the "world's first electrically powered watercraft, built by Frank Sr. and his son as a prototype coastal gunboat" (26); the Valiant, Reade's "first all-terrain land rover" and "the first practical electric land vehicle, predating the work of electric car pioneers Gustave Trouvé and Thomas Parker" (45); the proto-tank Thunderer and other land behemoths (53), helicopter airships Zephyr, Thunderbolt, and Aegis; and submarine vessels such as the Plunger and Sea Diver.

All of these vessels are perfect, both as war machines, which they are often primarily designed for, and as a space of comfort. Like Verne's machines, Frank Reade's vessels are "[s]nugly insulated from the outside [and] sumptuously equipped on the inside: plush Victorian furniture, artworks, dining room, a well-stocked library, not to mention de rigueur items such as devoted servants and a nearly inexhaustible supply of provisions to provide the utmost in physical, emotional, and intellectual bien étre" (101). Bennett describes the Thunderer in a fashion that echoes Evans's summary of Verne's vehicular utopias. After enumerating the armaments and defence systems of the "new electric terror," Bennett takes the reader on a tour of the forward area, which houses "delightful parlor, fitted up luxuriously with rich furniture, a small library, valuable charts, instruments and curios. Aft, or properly at the other end of the Thunderer, was the sleeping rooms and bunks. There was also a galley, and the dining area with the choicest silver and china" (53).

As a consequence of such fantastic gadgets and vehicles, steampunk’s backward gaze becomes uniformly associated with technology in the eyes of the casual or lazy reader. However, steampunk's backward gaze can be read on a more sophisticated level. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and the Italian futurists were unabashed technophiles of the machines they used and praised in their avant-garde art, but they were also interested in the social change such art would produce. Similarly, steampunk retrofuturism is arguably much more than just nostalgia for hands-on approaches to technology; it is not, as it is sometimes understood, how the past imagined the future. There is little about steampunk retrofuturism that realizes the historical aspirations of the nineteenth century. Rather, it is the way we imagine the past seeing the future. While these imaginings often take shape as technofantasy dirigibles and clockwork beings, they can also be used as detournement to reimagine the social spaces of the past.

The nostalgia and regret Rob Latham identifies as “typical retrofuturist emotions” (341) are likewise often associated with the retrofuturism of steampunk art and literature. It is arguably this nostalgia for a “perceived ‘lost’ mechanical world” Rebecca Onion references concerning steampunk Makers and artists (39). In his review of the special issue of Neo-Victorian Studies devoted to steampunk, Jess Nevins calls such interpretations of steampunk artworks “programmatic intent,” and suggests critical approaches need to move beyond materiality as an essential feature of steampunk (“Defining” 516). I agree: while technology is undeniably foundational to the steampunk aesthetic, discussions of steampunk retrofuturism should encompass more than technofantastic anachronisms, automatons, and airships; the ambitions of late Victorian progressives were more concerned with medical advancements and human rights than with sky dreadnoughts or steam powered automatons.

Steampunk does not seek to reconstruct the past in literature, art, or fashion, but rather constructs something new by choosing elements from the Victorian and Edwardian past to create something that evokes those periods. For purposes of concision, I identify this borrowing from Victorian, Edwardian, and the speculative tradition as bricolage. While that term has been used to denote serious work, I have appropriated the term to signify steampunk that lacks self-reflexivity about the ramifications of combining the disparate elements from a period of colonialism, ethnocentrism, and patriarchy. I distinguish bricolage from detournement, another term I have appropriated. In this use, detournement should be understood as the highly self-reflexive combination of these disparate elements in bricolage, which then seeks to invert the original meaning of those elements.

I would suggest that the impulse to invert the meaning of Victorian era features in steampunk stems from Latham's position of regret (341). The political stance of steampunk is often a reaction to colonial attitudes and the hegemony of Empire. While resistance to these ideas existed in the Victorian period, this is largely the product of hindsight, a backward glance on the part of a postmodern individual considering history. This is crucial in our understanding of steampunk: the direction of the gaze into the past, not the future per se. Yet even this glance can be ambivalent, since Latham balances retrofuturist regret against nostalgia, the romantic longing for an idealized past. Both these emotions are expressed in steampunk literature. The aesthetic does not demand one or the other, but permits the use of both, sometimes complexly in the same work, which speaks to the elasticity of the steampunk aesthetic. There is room for both the nostalgic whimsy of Blaylock, and the regret-filled ponderings of Moorcock. As Christine Ferguson noted, “the real and substantial commitments—political, historical, emotional, and aesthetic—of individual steampunks have not crystallised into collective subcultural tenets” (67). This ambivalence toward the supposed oppositional politics is only the beginning of the complexity surrounding limiting the boundaries for what constitutes steampunk.

Early in my study of steampunk, I suggested pastiche as a useful term for understanding the mash-up of many elements in steampunk. But not all steampunk attempts to imitate earlier styles; while a number of works do, many steampunk writers draw together elements from various story traditions, not any one story or author in particular. Accordingly, bricolage seems a stronger candidate, indicating a patch-work of diverse elements, which steampunk clearly is. Patrick Novotny, summarizing Jim Collins’ Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Postmodernism, uses bricolage to denote “the transgressive activity of individuals who are able to appropriate cultural styles and images for their own ends” (102). Perhaps more extensively than cyberpunk, steampunk exemplifies Novotny’s postmodern bricolage, as it “extracts ‘found’ materials out of their original context and juxtapositions them in other representational settings” (100), engaging in the postmodern novel’s “poaching” of multiple genres (McHale 25). Whether it is called poaching, pastiche, bricolage, or detournement, the constant is the act of appropriation. I am engaging in my own act of appropriation, using the terms bricolage and detournement to indicate how a steampunk artist’s act of appropriation is impelled by nostalgia or regret.

The casual reader of Frank Reade would likely grasp only the bricolage of excerpts and images from the original Frank Reade dime novels with real historical events and photographs. Such a read sees Guinan and Bennett as mere entertainers, having created something "cool" to place on one's coffee table. It is a conversation piece: "isn't that interesting," we remark at how clever Guinan's art is, seamlessly blending real historical images with models of Reade's invention. However, this bricolage sometimes moves on to what Novotny calls detournement, “the appropriation of existing cultural fragments in such a way as to alter and invert their meaning” (100). Building on Novotny’s argument, I suggest that steampunk always involves bricolage, the weaving together of dissociated elements to create something new, but only occasionally moves on to detournement, since it often lacks what Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. calls the “political-aesthetic motives of alienated subcultures” common to cyberpunk (267). When steampunk involves both bricolage and detournement, it has the potential to engage in a more sophisticated postcolonial commentary, as shown by Pablo Vasquez’s conflation of detournement with community as ideological weapons in “Steampunk: The Ethical Spectacle.” But it must be stressed that this is a potential, not inherent aspect of steampunk. 

Responding to Bruce Sterling’s accusation that current steampunk is “formalist masturbation” in the Atompunk mailing list, Michael Doyle claimed that “detournement is exactly what were [sic] in the business of here,” before speaking to the spectrum of steampunk collage: 
Bad steampunkers just randomly stick gears on shit, while really good steampunkers [like the folks behind the Sultan’s Elephant for example] arrive at something truly remarkable and new through the byzantine design process of understanding, problem defining, contextualizing, recontextualizing, narrative writing, re-recontextualizing, etc.
While Doyle is speaking of physical steampunk art, the idea clearly holds true for steampunk narratives as well, as evidenced by Jess Nevins’ estimation the need for political subtext in "true" steampunk. I am uninterested in entering the discussion for what constitutes the seemingly transcendent idea of "true" steampunk, a conversation that strikes me as far too reminiscent of arguments among evangelical Christians for what constitutes a "true" Christian. Instead, I am interested in delineating a spectrum of intent on the part of steampunk artists and writers using bricolage and detournement. The spectrum should not be read as valorising one of these positions over the other: I enjoy Blaylock’s whimsical bricolage as much as Moorcock’s political detournement. 

And this is precisely why I think Guinan and Bennett produce some of the best steampunk detournement in their art and writing. As I've already determined, Frank Reade has a "gee-whiz" sense of wonder about it with its fantastic machines and globe-spanning adventures. It is, in short, enjoyable to read. However, as with Boilerplate, Guinan and Bennett aren't simply interested in asking "what if we'd had really cool airships and submarines during the turn-of-the-century?", but rather using those elements, not as counterfactual, but one might say mega-factual. That is to say, once again, the inclusion of Frank Reade's amazing machines, like Archie Campion's automated soldier, do nothing to change history. History remains the same. The fantastic vehicles do not act to change history, but to draw our attention to some of the indignities and atrocities of history. 

Again, this echoes Evans's observations regarding Verne's vehicular utopias, when he notes that "[m]ost often, Verne's vehicular utopias are fully enclosed and solidly protected from the alien--and sometimes menacing--environment through which they travel" (100). These machines are the perfect way to travel in foreign lands because, with their ironclad defences and privileged amenities, they require no engagement with the foreign lands they travel through. Consequently, Frank Reade Jr.'s inventions become metonymic devices for European and American values throughout the book. Frank Reade and his companions travel in foreign climes, but more often than not, at the behest of the American government's military interests. And it is in these moments that Guinan and Bennett show their true intent, as in the description of "The American Holocaust": 
Millions of Native Americans were killed or forcibly relocated and reeducated during the nineteenth century. Many historians assert that their treatment fits the definition of genocide . . . The Battle of ADobe Walls and Apache campaigns were part of these cycles, as Indians were squeezed onto ever smaller reservations, mistreated by corrupt agents, and hunted when they fled. (76). 
 Two pages over, this historical sidebar is reinforced by an excerpt from the Frank Reade library #87, where Frank unleashes the fury of one of his war-machines on the hopelessly outgunned Apaches: 
At that moment the foe were distant over half a mile. But Frank's aim was true, and the projectile struck in their front rank. The effect was indescribable. Horses and riders were thrown high in the air. Others were hurled left and right like puppets. A mighty hole was blown in the ground. Again Frank trained the wonderful electric gun. Again a projectile burst in the midst of the terrified body of Indians. A score of them were killed. They broke and fled in wild confusion. They were unable to understand the nature of the terrific death balls hurled at them . . . Frank's face still wore the same grim smile. (78) 
On the next page, I found myself surprised to read Alchise, the leader of the Apaches prevailing upon Frank's conscience, so that the man who was only recently bombing the Apaches to hell, now reflects upon the tragedy of the Apaches' plight: 
It is a stain upon the honor of this country that the greed for gain of a few unscrupulous individuals should have led to the appropriation of those lands which were really the property of the Apache, and where he was happy and content. But we will indulge in no homily upon the government's Indian policy, or the injustice therefrom accruing.(79)
I can't help but wonder if this isn't an amendment by Bennett, given Jess Nevins' pronouncement of the Edisonade as "a racist, imperialist genre full of unexamined assumptions about the superiority of the White Man and the moral righteousness of acquisitiveness and expansionism," the Frank Reade adventures being no exception (Fantastic Victoriana). Nevertheless, regardless of who wrote this last passage, it is Guinan and Bennett's bricolage of the elements of the history of America, the fictional history of the Reade family, and their own appropriation of both to communicate something that seeks to shed light on the very "cheap jingoism" and "racist stereotyping" the Edisonades promulgated (Bleiler qtd. in Nevins, Fantastic Victoriana). This is the achievement of Frank Reade - it is not an academic work studying the Edisonades, but rather a counterfictional work that seeks to engage in writing that fits Heilmann and Llewellyn’s narrow conception of neo-Victorianism, wherein “texts (literary, filmic, audio/visual) [are] in some respect . . . self-consciously engaged with the act of (re)interpretation, (re)discovery, and (re)vision concerning the Victorians” (4). 

I imagine Latham’s nostalgia and regret as the ends of a spectrum parallel to the impulses of bricolage and detournement. Steampunk’s nostalgic impulse combines neo-Victorianism, the feel of the nineteenth century, with industrial technofantasy. Steampunk’s melancholic impulse, regret, is actively aware of how that combination implies certain things: if one evokes the period of the British Empire, then the dark side of colonialism is an inherent facet of that evocation. Regret/detournement in steampunk, being aware of these problems, can uncover them, and often makes them the focus of the story. However, even when attempts are made at reinterpretation or rediscovery, there are many instances where that attempt is thwarted by what might be called an insufficient response to regret. That is to say, it has the appearance of regret, but is still closer to nostalgia on the spectrum. 

Thankfully, works like Guinan and Bennet's Frank Reade are able to achieve a certain amount of both nostalgia and regret: the artist and writer have given us another adventure to embark on, on par with Boilerplate's globe-trotting exploits: and like its predecessor, this book also asks us to take an adventure into re-evaluating the dark moments of history, and hopefully applying the lessons we learn to the present.

Works Cited

Colwell, C. Carter. “Primitivism in the Movies of Ridley Scott.” Retrofitting Blade Runner. Ed. Judith B. Kerman. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. 124-131. Print.

Csicsery-Ronay Jr., Istvan. The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2008. Print. 

Doyle, Michael. “[Atompunk] Futurismic detournement, aka ‘formalist masturbation’.” Online posting. 16 December 2008. Atompunk Mailinglist. Web. 29 May 2012. 

Evans, Arthur B. "Vehicular Utopias of Jules Verne." Transformations of Utopia: Changing Views of the Perfect Society. Eds. George Slusser, et al. New York: AMS Press, 1999. 99-108. Print. 

Ferguson, Christine. “Surface Tensions: Steampunk, Subculture, and the Ideology of Style.” Neo-Victorian Studies. 4:2 (2011): 66-90. Web. 26 June 2012. 

Latham, Rob. “Our Jaded Tomorrows.” Science Fiction Studies 36.2 (2009): 339-349. Web. 

McHale, Brian. “Genre as History: Pynchon’s Genre-Poaching.” Pynchon’s Against the Day : A Corrupted Pilgrim’s Guide. Ed. Jeffrey Severs. Blue Ridge Summit: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011. 15-28. Print. 

Nevins, Jess. “Prescriptivists vs. Descriptivists: Defining Steampunk.” Science Fiction Studies 38:3. (2011): 513-518. Web. 29 May 29, 2012. 

Novotny, Patrick. “No Future! Cyberpunk, Industrial Music, and the Aesthetics of Postmodern Disintegration.” Political Science Fiction. Eds Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997. 99-123. Print. 

Onion, Rebecca. “Reclaiming the Machine: An Introductory Look at Steampunk in Everyday Practice.” Neo-Victorian Studies 1:1 (2008): 138-163. Web. 5 June 2012. 

Vasquez, Pablo. “Steampunk: The Ethical Spectacle.” Tor.com. 7 October 2011. Web. 26 June 2012.


  1. Two years ago I tried to suggest a resemblance between steampunk and bricolage. I'm glad to see that this idea wasn't a complete nonsense.

  2. I always thoughtful had great things to say about steampunk! And now I need to cite you AGAIN in the dissertation. Which is a good thing, btw.


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