The Politics of Captain Nemo

On this day celebration of the United States’ independence from Britain, I wanted to further explore the themes of resistance and rebellion that I insist are central to Steampunk.

My post two days ago about cosplay and the politics of Steampunk got me thinking about where I get some of my crazy ideas about Punk and its importance to Steampunk as a subculture. Some of the people who don’t support a political aspect to Steampunk point out that the word “Steampunk” was coined on a whim by K.W. Jeter as a publishing term for Victorian fantasy in 1987. Cosplay Steampunks point to the origin of the word and claim that there is little backing for a political aspect of Steampunk because of the nature in which the word came into being. What proof or backing to do I have claim that Steampunk is inherently political, or what those politics should be?

Turns out, I didn’t have to look very far to find a great example of Steampunk politics as I view them in what is one of the most famous proto-Steampunk works, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne. Captain Nemo is perhaps the progenitor of Steampunk political thought before Steampunk itself was ever a unified concept.

If there’s a single Steampunk character the embodies my idea of the Steampunk mindset, its invariably Captain Nemo. My encounter with the good Captain came in middle school when I was busy reading the classic Victorian literature rather than the teen focused works in which my classmates were absorbed. The character of Nemo as a lone individualist standing against oppression resounded with me and led in part to my eventual plunge into Steampunk.

Captain Nemo despises imperialism and oppression, and will go out of his way to aid the weak or tyrannized, be it Cretans rising against the Turks ruling them, poor Ceylonese pearl-divers, or grey whales being attacked by sperm whales. Captain Nemo is ardently anti-establishment and also quite the do-it-yourselfer: he designed and built the Nautilus on his own and is the sole inventor of her incredible technological advances. Nemo is also entirely independent of dry land, producing everything he and his crew could need from the sea itself.

Nemo’s escape from the world above the surface of the ocean is to me, rather symbolic of the lifestyler’s choice to fully involve him or herself into the Steampunk subculture. Here, where conventions are meant to be broken and the establishment subverted, we can be free. Perhaps the good Captain sums it up best:

“On the surface, they can still exercise their iniquitous laws, fight, devour each other, and indulge in all their earthly horrors. But thirty feet below the (sea’s) surface, their power ceases, their influence fades, and their dominion vanishes. Ah, monsieur, to live in the bosom of the sea! …. There I recognize no master! There I am free!” -Captain Nemo

Steampunk is to me the world under the surface (or the radar, for all you Abney Park fans).

3 comments on “The Politics of Captain Nemo

  1. Larry Amyett says:

    This is an excellent analysis. I strongly agree with you. I see Steampunk as a postmodern sub-culture that’s much more than just “Ooh shiny.”

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