Steampunk is a Diabolical Czech Invention

This is a tale of dreams lost and dreams found again, a tale of wonder. But first, I will irk you, dear reader, with a discussion of definitions.

Damon Knight once famously defined ‘science fiction’ as “whatever I am pointing at when I say ‘science fiction’!” — this is a perfectly useful definition, if you happen to have Damon Knight on hand to come by your house and point at your science fiction bookshelf, so he can tell you whether a technothriller, lost race tale, magical realism tale, science fantasy, vampire romance, space opera or Cthulhu mythos tale or other sub-genre is really science fiction or not.

I have a simplistic one word definition. If it is extraterrestrial and futuristic, it is science fiction; if it is otherworldly and nostalgic, it is fantasy. I realize this is two words rather than one, but I am an SF writer, not a mathematician, dammit.

What do we do, then, now that science fiction is such an old genre that our earliest works of future speculation are themselves nostalgic? The era of the Extraordinary Voyages of Jules Verne is as lost and past to us as the Third Age of Middle Earth. How can my one word definition explain the futuristic nostalgia that is steampunk?

The answer is: it cannot, darn it. I have to call Damon Knight and have him come over to my house and point at my manuscripts, or otherwise I cannot make them science fiction. And Mr Knight is getting tired.

This lead us immediately to ask: who dared to invent this ‘steampunk’ genre, whose only point in life is to make it hard for me to make up a one-word definition? Is not steampunk a DIABOLICAL INVENTION? Is it not a Communist Plot from Czechoslovakia?

That answer is “Of Course”! For behold! Here is the film Vynález zkázy, the DIABOLICAL INVENTION, which, if it is not the steam-powered Holy Grail of Steampunkishness, it surely ought to be.

Czechoslovakian animator Karel Zeman is not a legend in the United States only because the United States is largely unaware of his work, thanks to the Iron Curtain. One more black mark against Communism.

Zeman made THE DIABOLICAL INVENTION in 1958, long before Michael Moorcock (the other candidate for the father of steampunk) wrote WARLORD OF THE AIR in 1971.

It was released with some material cut, and a mediocre dub job in America under the title: The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.

Here is the tale of dreams lost. I saw this film as a child on some late-night creature feature or some PBS foreign film festival. I neither knew the name nor the director, but the eerie or comical images of the Albatross and the Nautilus sailing across seascapes or skyscapes like the woodcuts of old books, or smaller submarines, powered by steam, with crooked fish-fin engines, stayed in my mind forever.   I still recalled the little bit of business when a giant crane handed a man a pencil, or the image of endless miles of telegraph wires sending messages across antique cities.

Later in life, I found that this most eerie and magical of films, this woodcut picture sprung to life, was unknown even to science fiction fans. No one in my circle of friends at school had ever heard of it, or of anything like it. Like a dream forgotten upon waking, I could not even trust if my memory were correct. Who ever heard of a movie with both live action and stop motion animation, with both steam ships and submarines and sea-divers on finned-bicycles fighting duels with swords, while overhead men petaled one-man dirigibles  against etched clouds and streaming sun-rays?

As an adult, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I found the dream again. Even not knowing the name or the director or the country of origin, the film was unique enough in its look that I was able, beyond all hope, to find it.

Vynález zkázy is an adaptation of Verne’s novel, Facing the Flag. If you have not read (or even heard of) this book, you have read its imitators. This is the first book ever to star an inventor who demands money from one government, then another, but does not produce any evidence to show his work is true. He is laughed at and driven insane, and ends up in a madhouse.

Yes, you heard me. This is the first book where a Mad Inventor appears, and the granddaddy of the hoariest trope in all science fiction.

The mad inventor is rescued by a aristocratic count beloved of high society, but who is in truth the chieftain of a gang of high-tech pirates, who uses an underwater tug to pull his innocent seeming ship along when the wind is becalmed. The high tech pirate chief has his own base in the cone of an inaccessible volcano, and only one underwater passage links the base with the outside world via the sea.

So, yes, the hoary old trope of the island-fortress in an extinct volcano cone comes from this book as well.

In the book, a loyal and patriotic French engineer goes in disguise to the madhouse, to undertake the tedious task of waiting on the madman, tending to his needs, in hopes one day of learning his secret for the French. The futuristic submersible-era pirates think he is just a manservant, and take him along when they kidnap the mad inventor, but, as an engineer, he can understand the fantastic inventions of the pirate, and of the engineer.

I regret that this is the one element missing from the movie adaptation. The inventor is highly respected, and, alas, the film lacks an essential plot point: the sane inventor is not seeking glory, and therefore has no reason to cooperate with the pirates. In the movie, the inventor is deceived into thinking the aristocrat is an philanthropists seeking to fund his research.

At one time, I had found the whole film online, but now there seem to be only scattered clips. Here is one:

There seems to have been a digital restoration, which looks simply stunning:

I cannot recommend the edited and dubbed version, released in America under the title The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. The voices sound slightly odd to my ear (the Czech voices fit the look of the characters better.) The opening, where the narrator says he is friends with Nemo and Barbicane and Robur has been cut, and an odd emphasis, not present in the original, makes the narrator a partisan of progress, rather than merely an admirer.

The Czech original, for example, says “Man has legs and should stick to walking on land!” but the Americanization of the same line says, “It is a divine judgment” — so apparently the Americans were more willing than the Reds behind the Iron Curtain to portray the Church as an enemy rather than an aid to progress. Whatever, comrades.

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