Steampunk Across The Curriculum

steampunk-classroomI was too young to see Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) in a theater. I saw it first in B&W on Disney’s hour-long TV show. I saw it in color only after I bought a VHS copy for my daughters in the 90s. I was pleased when they liked it as much as I did. They liked it more in fact, especially some of the lamer bits like Ned Land’s tipsy shenanigans with Esmeralda (a sea lion) and his song (“A Whale of a Tale”) that my DVD case claims is “memorable.”  One summer my daughters and niece regaled us with a well-rehearsed performance of that infernal shanty.

I loved the movie despite some weak scriptwriting. I can’t imagine Verne writing a line like “Vulcania? It sounds remote.” The book presented other problems. When I read it, or at least a translation of it, I was amused by some of Verne’s silly notions of animal behavior. I’m thinking of the battle between the sperm whales (macrocephalous cachalots) and the baleen whales (their inoffensive adversaries) in which the Nautilus rushes to intervene. I concluded Disney had managed to preserve the best parts of the novel. Perhaps the movie is not PC, but Nemo’s tale is anti-colonial so I forgive it.

What I liked most about the movie was James Mason’s tormented captain and the Nautilus. A number of film versions have been made over the years, but to my mind, Mason’s Nemo hasn’t been topped and neither has Harper Goff’s Nautilus. The Nautilus’s Victorian design and décor humanizes its technology. There’s nothing cozy about a real submarine, no Persian carpets, no velvet overstuffed chairs and couches, no pipe organ to play Bach on. A real sub is a machine. The Nautilus was a home. The time machine designed by George Pal and William Ferrari for the 1960 film version and the space ship in First Men in the Moon (1964) also based on a novel by H.G. Wells combined an ironclad exterior and warm inviting interior.

A mix of Victorian design and futuristic technology figured in The Wild Wild West and, with period variations, in a number of other movies (e.g. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and The Three Musketeers (2011) and novels. I once lumped the genre with science fiction, but my son corrected me. Steampunk, Dad. I don’t like sci-fi. It’s a fine distinction, but I’ve learned that if it hisses, I call it steampunk. You’ll also find fictional pigeonholes for cyberpunk, dieselpunk, windpunk, decopunk, biopunk, nanopunk, stonepunk (Flintstones), Teslapunk, and more punks.

Judging by the growing number of graphic novels, books for young adults, and conventions, (See: a list of 2013 Steampunk Conventions) steampunk’s appeal is widespread. My son is a reader but not necessarily genre adventurous. (See: Steampunk: What is It and Will It Get Teens to Read?) When I risked buying him Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld and he tore through it, I was pleased. Behemoth and Goliath followed. And then we searched for new books and authors. Steampunk was for a time an unfamiliar concept in our local bookstore. One bookseller, a former teacher, knew exactly what I was talking about and made some suggestions. Since then more titles have appeared. In preparing for this blog post, I found a good book list for students K-12 compiled by a former children’s and teen librarian: Steampunk: Full Steam Ahead. The list is two years old and more books are available now, but this is a good list and identifies many authors. Wikipedia lists contemporary books, graphic novels, and films as well as listing writers whose works have influenced Steampunk.

In addition to language arts, Steampunk offers opportunities in the arts. Off Book, a PBS arts web series describes some artistic activities in Steampunk. Claudio Garzón, a Los Angeles artist, collects plastic beach trash to make steampunk art. Garzón has taught workshops and after-school art programs that combine making art from trash and marine biology.

Sculpture, drawing, graphic arts, and theatre (especially costume and set design) all offer obvious opportunities, but steampunk can figure in cross-curricular projects in math and science and social studies. The Steampunk Project describes a proposal for using Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine as a lead into learning about technology and society and the history of computing. The author refers to a Barnard College program that inspired her proposal, Reacting to the Past in which students engage with the past through research writing, and role-play.

What would the world be if steam had remained the dominant source of power? Imagining alternate courses of history is a way for students to reimagine the future. One of those visions may become the future.

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