Film Review: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Castle in the Sky
Written & directed by Hayao Miyazaki

Rating: B-

Hayao Miyazaki is by far the most successful Japanese director in the United States that is still active in film. Every time one of his movies gets translated to English and released in the States, there are hordes of people who make seeing it their first priority, much in the same way that fans of directors like Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, and Wes Anderson will see anything they put out because of the style that makes their films so unique. In the case of Miyazaki, it is a sort of environmentalist-tinged whimsy that feels distinctly Japanese and yet entirely accessible to just about anyone who has even the vaguest interest in anime.

Castle in the Sky (called such in the United States because the original title almost contained a derogatory word in Spanish) is a steampunk film featuring airships, goggles, flying cities, and just about everything else that people look for in the genre. It is one of Miyazaki’s earlier works (by comparison to recent efforts like Ponyo) and tells the story of a young girl being chased by the government who falls from the sky and is caught by a young boy. Her fall is slowed by the power of a strange glowing stone. The two become fast friends and decide to go out in search for her identity while simultaneously being concerned for the fate of Laputa, the last of the cities in the sky.

It is a pretty straight-forward adventure, which has its fun moments and strong voice acting (based on the most recent English language version featuring Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Mark Hamill, and Cloris Leachman) but doesn’t really go beyond that. Although it is far from a masterpiece, it is easy to enjoy for someone who is interested in anime and likes the steampunk aesthetic. It doesn’t have the same charm of Ponyo or the same impact of films like Princess Mononoke  or others, but it is worthwhile as a look at Miyazaki before he became the semi-household name he is now.

How Practical is Steampunk?

The term steampunk means a lot of things. The first aspects of the genre that generally come to mind involve mostly Victorian era fashion mixed with unnecessary smithing goggles as a fashion accessory coupled with clockwork backdrops and cleverly bronze-looking re-imaginings of modern technology. Steampunk as a genre in fiction doesn’t generally have a lot of steam-powered computers, but the name does imply steam and there are definitely things that are steam-powered, despite the clockwork aesthetic being more prevalent than the actual steam usage.

One of the long-standing symbols of steampunk has been dirigibles (or zeppelins), which show up in everything from Homunculus to Boneshaker to Leviathan and everything in between. Whether or not these flying machines are actually supposed to be steam-powered or they are just a cool ship that feels very Victorian is unclear, but it is worth examining the idea of a zeppelin completely powered by steam and what would actually have to go into making such a thing a reality.

The basic premise of using steam as an energy source is that the steam is hot and capable of creating pressure and thus is creating energy much in the way a combustion engine creates pressure that move pistons. The problem is that to generate the steam to begin with there needs to be some kind of external power source to create the reaction that actually generates steam. If you want to steam hot dogs, you don’t just throw hot dogs on the steamer– you have to either turn it on with electricity or put it on a stove-top and heat the water to generate the steam. This makes problem one basically that without an external energy source, the steam couldn’t work, so therefore it would only be steam-powered in the way that a steam engine is. Nothing is just steam, there is always something else.

Steam still accounts for an astounding majority of our power generation. It is well known how important the use of steam as a power source was to modernization and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, with things like steam locomotives and otherwise giving an energy source that was easy to get as long as you had coal to burn to start the reaction. It seems that for a zeppelin to work it would require a calculation of the amount of weight the machine has to lift (including passengers, contents, and the weight of the ship itself) and make an engine large enough to generate that amount of pressure (note: this is a lot) and somehow both fit it on the ship and make sure to account for the weight of the engine itself in calculating how much energy it needs to generate. It is possible, but so entirely impractical that it would be just about impossible without using a whole lot of modern technology and thus defeating the purpose.

Is any of this important? No. There really is no such thing as a hard science fiction steampunk, unless it were little more than people in Victorian England making clocks and doing nothing at all extravagant, which leaves you with Victorian literature, not steampunk at all. Space travel in the future can be written about with some degree of realism, but you will have a hard time finding steampunk that is anything more then fantasy, and that is just fine.

Review: Clementine by Cherie Priest (2010)

Clementine by Cherie Priest
Subterranean Press, 2010

Rating: C

Following the explosion of popularity that Cherie Priest’s steampunk zombie adventure novel Boneshaker gave her, it was only natural that it wouldn’t be long to see more from Priest and her universe. Clementine is the second release of the Clockwork Century, and the only of the four to date to be released by a company other than Tor Books. It is also only about half as long as the other three entries in the series, making it seem kind of like an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Boneshaker as quick as humanly possible.

The Clockwork Century is only conntected in as far as that they are set in the same world, in the same country, at the same time. All of the books are set during an alternate history steampunk version of the Civil War that has lasted much longer than it did in reality. Beyond the shared universe, there are only vague references to events and people from previous parts of the series, so they essentially stand alone. This is no different in Clementine, which follows an escaped-slave-turned-airship-captain Croggon Hainey as he tracks down his airship the Free Crow in a chase across America. He apparently stole the ship himself but doesn’t see the irony in being upset about the fact that his stolen airship has been stolen from him. The second (and less interesting) plot follows Maria Boyd, an ex-Confederate spy who is hired by the Union Army to stop Hainey from catching up to the airship that has been rebadged Clementine.

Taken on the simplest of terms, Clementine is a perfectly enjoyable steampunk romp of absolutely no substance. It is written capably, is short enough to keep even the most attention deficited readers from getting bored, and is so full of action that it would actually probably serve as a solid introduction to what steampunk is for someone who doesn’t generally read because they find it boring. Reading beyond just explosions and gunfights, however, there are some issues that cause irritation.

Having an escaped slave as the main character is a good opportunity to provide an African-Ameriacn sci-fi/fantasy hero when we have so few in print. Unfortunately, Priest plays to the unfortunate stereotype of Hainey being essentially a crook and a pirate, who is not really that smart and is prone to angry outbursts and violence. Complimenting his less than sterling personality, he is essentially completely apolitical; despite being a freed slave who escaped the south, he has no loyalty to the Union and is happy to pull jobs for either side. The easiest comparison for the character is if you were to take Nathan Fillion’s character Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly, take away his Browncoat loyalty, make him a bit dumber, and essentially squash any sense of honor. What you are left with is more or less a collection of racial stereotypes with a gun and a ship.

Fans who are able to read a simple adventure without being irritated by the probably unintentional racial undertones will find an enjoyable steampunk adventure of absolutely no substance. This is a perfectly acceptable way to enjoy a book, but it is a hollow enjoyment. Priest is a good writer, and continues to churn out books in this universe that get strong reviews from the majority of the reviewer community, but this one leaves a bad taste in the mouth despite being entertaining on a superficial level. Clementine hasn’t ruined the series, but it certainly hasn’t helped.