April and the Extraordinary World

A few weeks ago, my friend William J. Jackson posted a review of the movie April and the Extraordinary World on his blog. William is the author such novels as An Unsubstantiated Chamber and Cerulean Rust. Be sure to check out his blog and his books at the links above. When a steampunk writer of William’s caliber recommends a steampunk movie I haven’t heard of, I take note.

April and the Extraordinary World is a Belgian-Canadian-French co-production based on the visual style of Jacques Tardi, who is probably best known for the early steampunk graphic novel series The Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, which was adapted into a live action movie in 2010. April and the Extraordinary World came out in 2015 and starts by imagining a scientist named Gustave Franklin who has been creating super soldiers for Napoleon III. When the emperor comes to visit, there’s an accident and the two most promising super soldiers escape—a pair of hyper-intelligent Komodo dragons named Rodrigue and Chimène. If that last sentence alone doesn’t make you want to watch this film, I’m not sure what will!

We then jump ahead many years to a future where Napoleon IV rules France. Many scientists such as Einstein and Fermi have just vanished and the governments of the world are secreting away what scientists they can. Gustave’s son and grandson are working on a formula to regenerate the cells of animals to heal any injury and possibly extend life indefinitely. They come to the attention of those who are making scientists disappear and pass the formula on to their daughter, the April of the title, just before they disappear.

We now skip ahead a few more years to a point where April is a young adult and a scientist in her own right. The police are trying to round up any scientists they can get their hands on to work for the government. Meanwhile other mysterious forces have discovered that April has continued work on her parents’ formula. She finds she must get to the bottom of this conspiracy of vanishing scientists in order to learn the fate of her parents.

Even though we’re now in the world of the 1940s, everything is still steam powered. The streets are clogged with smoke and dirty. Gas masks are the province of the elite. This alternate 1941 Paris is a beautifully rendered, if frightening steampunk world. The artwork not only takes inspiration from Jacques Tardi, but from Japanese filmmaker Hiyao Miyazaki.

One minor issue I had with the film was that early on, it makes a point of telling the audience “this is alternate history” and “this is how we’ve changed the world from the one you know.” The best speculative fiction works by just introducing you to the world and showing it to you in such a way that you suspend your disbelief. That said, this straightforward approach may make this a good film for introducing those who don’t understand steampunk to steampunk.

My one other minor issue is that for a plot so embroiled in the work of scientists, some of the technology seemed almost magical in its amazing abilities. This magical element is part of what reminds me of Miyazaki and its beautifully rendered, but I might have enjoyed the film just a little more if some of the inventions we saw seemed just a little more plausible.

Those minor nitpicks aside, I highly recommend the film. It’s one of those I rented on Netflix, then immediately decided I needed a copy and was delighted to find one at my local Barnes and Noble. It was in the anime section, appropriately next to Miyazaki’s films!

I liked the fact that this was very much alternate history that asked what if the level of science and technology had changed. I liked that April was a strong woman—and not necessarily in the butt-kicking way. She was smart and solved problems with her brain, yet was a well-rounded character who had believable feelings about the people around her. In tone, it accomplished much of what I also shoot for in my Clockwork Legion novels. You can learn more about them at http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

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Road Trip to Tokyo

This is my third stop on the Airship Ambassador’s Steampunk Hands Around the World road trip exploring different places in the world of steampunk. One of the things I’ve enjoyed doing when writing my Clockwork Legion books is visiting places around the world and imagining them with a steampunk twist. Because of that, I’m visiting some of the places that appear in the novels and share my connection to them. Today’s stop is a place I’m sorry to say I haven’t actually visited, but dearly want to. Tokyo features prominently in book three of my Clockwork Legion series, The Brazen Shark.

Because my imagination and the requirements of plot and character development don’t always feel constrained by my travel budget, I’m grateful that there are resources which allow me to travel not only across the ocean but back in time. Here’s a public domain photograph of Yokohama in the 1880s that I shared in a blog post back at the end of 2014:

What I like about this photo is how much the scene looks like many U.S. cities of the same period. There are wooden buildings, a gas lamp, and dirt streets. Of course, there are elements of this photo that seem very unique to Japan, such as the rickshaws and the banners hanging over the doors. I love how people are just going about their business, like the two guys on the right just chatting about some long forgotten subject. Some people are striding with purpose. Others are just hanging out.

Here’s another photo I like. This photo shows Kyobashi. According to Wikipedia, the photographer died in 1898 and this is supposed to be a nineteenth century street scene.

One of the themes in The Brazen Shark is an exploration of the way in which Emperor Meiji’s “Restoration” was a transition from old feudal Japan to a new, modern vision of Japan. I introduce scientists and inventors who want to bring this about, but I also showed that they’re working in a city where this is all new and exciting. One new element I introduce are automata, used as servants to escort visitors around the city. I also introduce Japanese airships.

In these photos, I see people walking and taking rickshaws through the streets. I see horse-drawn streetcars. I see someone carrying baskets. I see horses and masonry buildings. As long as I keep in mind what would and wouldn’t be in this scene in the time period of my novel, the photos serve as a tool to help me describe nineteenth century Tokyo. One possible anachronism in the second photo is the guy in the straw hat in the lower left. That suit just says 1901 to me more than 1880!

I didn’t just use old photos to visit Meiji era Japan, I also used books written at the time. Books, of course, are one of the most tried and true means of traveling to new places and new times! One of the most important books I used was Gleanings in Buddha Fields by Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn was a reporter born in Ireland who immigrated to the United States. He lived for many years in New Orleans before moving to Japan and raising a family. His writings provided a wonderful insight into daily life of people in Meiji Era Japan. Hearn also provided something of a literary bridge and a fictionalized version of the author appears in Owl Riders during his New Orleans days as the chronicler of Ramon and Fatemeh’s adventures up to the events of Owl Riders.

I’ll wrap up this road trip to Tokyo with one other observation. I often seem to encounter the notion that no one has made a truly great steampunk film. I don’t feel that’s true. I’d argue that Japanese filmmakers have done a great job. For example, Hiyao Miyazaki has made several great steampunk films including Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke. Also, Katsuhiro Otomo, creator of the cyberpunk masterpiece Akira, made the strong steampunk film Steamboy. Anime played a part in my research for The Brazen Shark as well. In this case, I turned to the anime of Rurouni Kenshin. I gather the anime worked hard to get the historical background of Meiji Era Tokyo right. I didn’t necessarily use the show as a primary resource, but as a way of better visualizing the look and feel of the time and place.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this steampunk road trip stop. If you would like to explore The Brazen Shark and all the places visited in the novel, you visit http://www.davidleesummers.com/brazen_shark.html to get more information and find all the places the novel is available.