I just finished reading the first two volumes of Bryan Talbot’s Grandville series, Grandville and Grandville Mon Amour. Both are visually and narratively thrilling, not to mention intellectually titillating, reads. Imagine Sherlock Holmes style detective fiction delivered through the visual aesthetic of human-animal caricaturist J.J. Grandville, amped to the speed of a Pierre Morel thriller, and wrapped in an overall steampunk aesthetic. The story takes place in a dystopic alternate version of the present in which England, having lost to France in the Napoleonic wars, cultivates quasi-communist resistance groups opposed to the decadent late-capitalist French empire. The first volume partially and cynically allegorizes the various mobilizations of political rhetoric surrounding the 9/11 attacks. The second volume, on similar lines, moves towards revealing an extremely disturbing instance of high-level government corruption. Both volumes use the narrative form of the detective story, structurally geared towards the revelation of (usually dark) truths, to reveal cynical contemporary political realities, which are only barely veiled by the fiction of an alternative history and by the use of anthropomorphized animals as protagonists. I should mention, purely incidentally, that the non-anthropomorphized animals that do appear (called “doughfaces”) are all loving references to classic Franco-Belgian bande dessinée (Bécassine, Spirou, Gaston). Talbot’s francophilia would be an interesting line of inquiry. All of the important questions Qiana Whitted asked in her recent PPP post on anthropomorphized animals, I believe, apply in spades to Grandville as well. There would be a lot to say about Talbot’s strategic choice of animals for each character. (For example the “Sherlock” type protagonist, Lebrock, is a badger who naturally “badgers” his interlocutors in order to arrive at the truth). This is an important line of inquiry. But I can’t get past one, perhaps overly broad, question. What is the steampunk aesthetic all about and why has it arisen at this particular moment in history? If I learned anything in graduate school, it is that aesthetic sensibilities can’t ever be separated from the material (political, economic, social, etc.) realities that produced them. It’s fair to ask, then, what material social reality does the steampunk aesthetic respond to?
I admit that I don’t have a huge amount of experience with steampunk. There’s a “steampunk” restaurant in my hometown, which I find unbearably pretentious, and which bothers me more than anything because it celebrates an aesthetic sensibility without understanding the critical edge that motivates it. To be blunt, the dystopic neo-Victorian universes that we find in works by authors such as China Miéville or Guillermo del Toro, don’t seem like ones I’d want to emulate uncritically. Steampunk writing is full of monstrous assemblages, human-animal hybrids, human-machine hybrids, and massive disgusting social inequalities. Steampunk seems to be there to remind us that our present reality is not different enough from the one depicted critically by Charles Dickens and Upton Sinclair. In short, I’d like to suggest that writers like Bryan Talbot deploy a steampunk aesthetic in their work because they find the Victorian era, with its gross social inequalities and naive technological optimism, to be suggestively close to our present historical moment. Bryan Talbot’s Grandville series is an example of steampunk in its most politically consequential mode. Highly recommended. Still, I would like to know, why steampunk, and why now?