Tag Archives: steampunk

419. Airship Flamel

As I mentioned previously, I found To Rule the Skies: An Airship Flamel Adventure when its author, Michael Tierney, liked one of my posts and I went to visit his website. I bought it as an eBook, which is an adventure in itself. I read eBooks on my desktop Mac. Things that come through iBooks work fine, but the Kindle download is a piece of crap. As you read, it jumps to a new page every few seconds without any input from the user. The only way to successfully read is with your finger lightly on the mouse, and that only works part of the time. This is particularly irritating since the old Kindle download worked fine.

Let me say at the outset that I loved this book. It was a hoot. However, I’m not sure how many of you will feel the same. It probably depends on your vision of what steampunk should be.

To Rule the Skies reminded me of the books I read when I was a kid back in the fifties. Then books were straightforward, violence was muted, and nobody had any literary pretensions. Irony was unknown.

You couldn’t write a book like that if it were set in today’s world, or in the past as seen from today. You can do it in steampunk. As Perschon said of Oppel’s Airborne, it was a time “before the cynicism and doubt the Great War produced. This is the Gilded Age; this is the time of Victorian Optimism.”

That attitude may not be realistic, but it is a breath of fresh air.

The plot resembled an episode of The Wild Wild West, but the crew of the airship Flamel was pure Victorian British. Stiff, long winded, formal, but that was its charm. The tone was somewhere between innocent naiveté and tongue in cheek.

After all, True Grit isn’t Louis L’Amour, and that is its charm. The same thing works here.

I think its time for an example.

Sparks flew at every connection and disconnection. Montgomery was worried that the chamber was imbalanced and he made ready to pull the switch that would break the connection to the umbilical.  “She canna take it any more!” he cried, and just as he did, the shaking stopped suddenly, and the plasma inside the chamber settled down to a slowly pulsing orange glow.  He spun in his chair and checked the gauges.  “All normal, Mr. MacIver!  The luminous matter reaction has started!”  Montgomery slumped in his chair relieved.

MacIver? Say that one out loud. And engineer Montgomery shouting, “She canna take it any more!” as he performs a miraculous repair on a dying piece of high tech machinery. The pop culture references come thick and fast.

I hope Michael Tierney isn’t insulted if I say it isn’t literature, but, man, is it fun.

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418. India by Dirigible

Today the British dirigible Henry V, nicknamed Harry, reached western India, then traveled south from Goa — still in Portuguese hands in 1887 in our world and theirs — to Mangalore (now called Mangaluru) where they will follow the Netravathi River in their crossing of the Western Ghats.

God, I love writing novels

This morning, so far (I’m writing this on Sept. 29), I have four views of various posts. Three are from the USA and one is from India. That is no surprise. As I reported in a previous post, India is the third most common country of origin for those who view my blog, after the USA and Canada. I don’t understand why, but I like it a lot. I have had a strong connection with India since 1967.

(This is in textual parentheses because it is a parenthetical event. I took a brief break to watch Well Read on my local PBS and found a rerun of an interview by Indian author Anuradha Roy. It was both another connection, and a caution that what I know about India is small compared to a writer who is a native.)

During my first year in college, I switched to Anthropology because Biology was going through a phase where, if a study didn’t require an electron microscope, it wasn’t worth doing. I was there to study ecology, and couldn’t see spending my life wearing a white coat in an air conditioned lab. Anthropology seemed a better bet, and I soon became enthralled with India. I even ended up taking a year of Hindi, but a language you don’t speak, goes away. I could still tell you how to get to the Ajmiri hotel, and that’s about it.

When I  was about to graduate from college, my wife and I volunteered for the Peace Corps and were assigned to a project in Mysore, the Indian state which is now called Karnataka. Between my draft number and Nixon’s cancellation of the Peace Corps deferment, we never got to go. Instead, I spent the next four years in the Navy, and then returned to college for an MA where my thesis was on Indian village economics.

Then I became a writer, and I never got to India.

India, however, always remained a part of my writing. In A Fond Farewell to Dying, a young scientist from post-apocalyptic America goes to India which, two hundred years from now, is the only refuge of civilization. In the steamunk novel I am now writing (still in search of a good title) Lieutenant Commander James of the dirigible Henry V is caught up in a conflict between Britain at her peak and her Indian possessions which are beginning their long fight for freedom.

Incidentally, at the other end of the Netravathi River which was mentioned in the first paragraph, is Mysore, the region I was assigned to almost fifty years ago. I never made it in the flesh, but I’m looking forward to going there by dirigible.

God, I love writing novels

417. Sturgeon and Steampunk

If I’ve learned anything in my ongoing study of steampunk, it is that Sturgeon’s Law does not apply. [Sturgeon’s Law: Ninety percent of everything is shit.]

Sturgeon’s rule applies to science fiction, fantasy, literature approved for the college curriculum, and the work of prominent philosophers. It applies to fields where there is some objective means of determining quality.

Steampunk, on the other hand, is so wide ranging that it would be hard to find any two fans who agree on precisely what it is, far less what constitutes good steampunk.

After I read and reviewed Steampunk by the Vandermeers (see 411. Steampunk I II III), I checked out how it fared in Goodreads. The reviews were all over the map. More notably, when reviewers told what stories they liked or hated, no one liked or hated the same stories.

So if Sturgeon is not useful, let’s try this: [Logsdon’s addendum: I don’t like ninety percent of what I try to read.] That is why I’ve read so many first-twenty-pages-of-novels, without finishing them. I’m referring to all novels, not just steampunk.

The Addendum is not just a matter of putting my name beside Sturgeon’s. You could call it Wilkes Addendum, if your name were Wilkes, or Jones Addendum if your name were Jones. I suspect it would still hold. Quality and liking are not the same thing. I frequently read works that are marvelously written, but I simply can’t find any interest in them. That often happens when I dip into the Classics. It happened in some of the stories in the Vandermeer anthology.

On the flip side, some stories are pure fun, even though I can’t claim that they are intrinsically good.

This like/dislike issue comes up all the time when people “like” one of my posts. I always visit their websites. A lot of them are very young or deeply wounded, and are baring their souls. Occasionally I say hello, but mostly I withdraw silently, just happy that the internet is there for them.

Frequently I find a writer who is displaying his work. I always read, but rarely comment, because, “Who am I to judge?” It was under those circumstances that I recently read the first chapter of Echo by Kent Wayne (very much not steampunk). It is a fine piece of fiction, powerfully written, and it will clearly have much to say in coming chapters. It is also quite violent, and the character at the center is not someone I could like — yet, although there are hints of coming change. I short, I rank it high for quality, but I won’t read it further because it takes me places I don’t want to go. My shortest honest response would be, fine work, but not for me.

On the other hand, I also found Michael Tierney through a “like”, bought his purely steampunk ebook To Rule the Skies, and am presently 77% of the way through it. That’s an ebook workaround for the lack of pagination. The novel reads like Tom Swift, the Steampunk Professor and I love it for that very reason. I’ll devote a post to it shortly.

Another thing I have tentatively concluded is that lots of steampunk fans must also love Downton Abbey and Fear of Flying. I’ve lost track of how many heroes and heroines are members of the Victorian upper crust, the heroines also being spunky and liberated.

Oh well, it’s a big tent, with room for everybody. Most of the people inside seem to be wearing top hats with gears on them, but it isn’t required.

416. Steampunk I II III

If you go to Amazon, select books, and type in Steampunk, you will get a supposed 100 pages of 16 entries each. No, I didn’t tap through all of them.

In the novel I am presently working on, I had cause to quote Samuel Johnson’s A man who is tired of London, is tired of life. I think I could paraphrase that as a man who is tired of steampunk is tired of reading. Steampunk seems to encompass everything, which makes it a little hard to throw a rope around.

I have been reading proto-steampunk all my life, but the genre (if it is a genre) has only been identified as such since about 1980. What is it, other than everything? I feel a little like a wild kid in a permissive household; how can I be a rebel if I can’t find any boundaries?

Following that train of thought, I recently got hold of the 2008 anthology Steampunk by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. There are also a Steampunk II and a Steampunk III, hence the post title, but I haven’t seen them. Let me start by quoting from their preface:

In this anthology, we’ve tried to provide a blend of the traditional and idiosyncratic, the new and the old, while remaining true to the idea of steampunk as dark pseudo-Victorian fun. You’ll find stories about mechanistic golems, infernal machines, the characters of Jules Verne, and, of course, airships

The anthology Steampunk consist of thirteen excerpts and short stories, and three essays tackling history and definition of steampunk. I read only bits and pieces of the thirteen, and that needs explaining. I generally don’t like short fiction. I read tons of it when I was growing up and some of it was superb, but generally it is long on the clever and short on humanity.

Perhaps if someone had held my feet to the fire and required that I finish them, I would have found more to like in these short stories. Probably not. I skipped Moorcock because I had read the novel from which the excerpt was taken. I skipped Blaylock because I am reading one of his novels now. Both authors are excellent.

Many of the other stories left me cold. They were strings of events happening to people I could not care about. Also, the stories seemed universally dark. That is a valid anthologist’s choice, but I don’t care for horror and I outgrew dystopias thirty years ago. Life is a mixture of light and dark, and literature has to mirror that if it is going to hold my attention.

Mind you, most of what I sampled was reasonably well written. It didn’t fail for lack of skill, but there did seem to be a lot of throwing ideas around without linking them together. Short stories can sometimes get away with that. The steampunk novels I am presently reading all seem far better structured.

However, there was one shining light. Jess Nevins’ introduction: The 19th-Century Roots of Steampunk was a superb explanation of steampunk’s precursors. I learned a lot from Nevins.

413. Wherefore Art Thou Steampunk

As they teach us in high school, when Juliet says, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, she means why are you called Romeo, and then goes into a long bit about identity. This post will do the same thing.

I have been writing a steampunk novel since July, and it is going quite well. I am roughly half way through the first draft, and doing my world building as I write. I am also researching what it means to be steampunk.

My justification for writing in an unknown genre is that it really isn’t all that unknown. It is a first cousin to science fiction, to fantasy, to horror, to the novels of Verne, to alternate history when limited to the near-Victorian, to Edisonade (a new name to me for a sub-genre I’ve been reading all my life — think Tom Swift), and to the old west with neo-mechanical devices (a genre that existed long before the Wild Wild West). I’ve been reading all of these, all my life.

The name steampunk was proposed by K. W. Jeter in a letter to Locus. Jetter, James P. Blaylock, and Tim Powers are three big names in early steampunk, but the genre has come a long way since then.

You would be surprised how much research into obscure subjects lies untapped in college libraries in the form of Ph.D. dissertations. I have learned to use the internet to seek them out, since so many of the things I am interested in are quite obscure.

Mike Perschon’s 2012 dissertation The Steampunk Aesthetic can be accessed at https://era.library.ualberta.ca/files/m039k6078#.WbA9kcdllBw. On that page, click Download the full-sized PDF if you want to follow me down that rabbit hole. If not, you could just try Perschon’s website http://steampunkscholar.blogspot.com.

No? Neither? I don’t blame you. Not many people have that much itch, so hang on and I will quote a few of Perschon’s conclusions.

Accordingly, this is not a study of Victorians or Victorianism, but rather a study of steampunk’s hodge-podge appropriation of elements from the Victorian period.

Non-speculative neo-Victorian writing is characterized by an adherence to realism that steampunk rarely cleaves to.

Steampunk (is) not . . . historical fiction per se, but . . .  speculative fiction— science fiction, fantasy, and horror, all mixed into one—that uses history as its playground, not classroom.

The most useful thing Perschon said, from my perspective, is that steampunk is not a genre, but an aesthetic. I had largely come to the same conclusion. The question for me has become not, “is it steampunk,” but rather, “does it taste like steampunk”.

I found that the more carefully I researched the Victorian past, both historically and technologically, the more I was attempting to make my novel fit a set of limitations. I was approaching it the same way I approached Cyan, where I first created a world with certain characteristics, then worked my story around it.

Steampunk doesn’t seem to work that way. In steampunk, an author has an idea of what his world looks like, then comes up with some quasi-magical dingus to make it work. Do you want your airship to be able to lift more and go faster? Invent a gas that never existed. In science fiction terms, it’s more Star Wars than Heinlein. There is nothing wrong with that, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it.

In addition to academia. I am also half-way through a half-dozen recent steampunk novels. I would be further along, but I’ve been a bit busy writing my own. I’ll clue you in on those novels as I finish them.

409. Man Stuff

I wrote this last Thursday. The post, not the quotation.

          Marquart and Dael took a bench in a completed corner. “Tell me how you have things arranged,” he said.
          “None of the wardens will leave their houses until late in the morning. The first will arrive here about midday. We will have roast krytes ready by then . . .” Marquart waved away her recitation. He didn’t care about preparations for food and drink; he was satisfied that there would be plenty of both.
          “Who will sleep where? Who will arrive first, who will stay latest, who will want to get me alone to talk to, who will get drunk quickest, who is likely to pick a fight, and with whom?”
          “Oh, man stuff.”
                                          from Valley of the Menhir

Today, I was writing chapter eleven of my latest steampunk novel. So far my hero (I don’t do wimpy protagonists) has served aboard four dirigibles and has risen in rank from Sub Lieutenant to Lieutenant Commander, brevet, in the British air service. These craft are the result of an unscrupulous Brit who, through theft, intimidation, and assassination has crippled the German airship effort and stolen all their ideas.

Earlier this morning (as I wrote) Lieutenant Commander David James and I settled thirty passengers into their berths on the Henry V, a dirigible of war acting as a passenger vessel carrying diplomats the the Grand Durbar in Delhi. If you don’t know what a durbar is, you’ll find out in coming months. David hated every minute of it.

Then we got a break of several hours as he got to go back to his real job as the lowest member of the group of senior officers, seeing to details as the dirigible, nicknamed Harry in reference to Shakespeare, leaves London for Paris. We have been following David’s career for eleven chapters now, and he has done a little bit of everything as he worked his way up. He will do even more in the future, and we will (metaphorically) stand at his shoulder and give him our moral support.

Man stuff.

The year is 1887, Victoria is on the throne, and our Britain is even stronger than the real one was since they just won the German War, largely through a squad of spies and assassins that remains Britain’s guilty secret. David is one of the few Brits who knows this.

Now its time for me to take David by the shoulders and march him down to the lounge to preside, as a stand-in for the massively scarred Commander VanHoek, over the first evening meal of the cruise. He hates the idea. Actually, so do I. In writing, as in life, sometimes if you want to go to a certain place, the path to get there passes through places you would rather avoid.

I’ve been researching Victorian aristocratic gossip in order to build a world like yet unlike our own. It’s not my cup of Earl Grey, but it is the job I’ve taken on, and I will do it well. Well enough, in fact, to move my readers through the event without arousing their distaste. That’s the writer’s equivalent of “never let them see you sweat”.

Still, I’ll be glad when the dinner is over so David and I can get back down to the engineroom where we can try to get another horsepower out of those damned, recalcitrant McFarland engines.

Man stuff.

403. Steampunk Dirigibles

Warning: this post gets nerdy.

If it has dirigibles, it’s steampunk. No, that doesn’t quite work.

If it doesn’t have dirigibles, it isn’t steampunk. No, that doesn’t work, either.

If it is steampunk, then chances are, there’s a dirigible in it somewhere. OK, now there’s a pronouncement I feel comfortable with. Even Brisco County, Jr. had a dirigible eventually.

The variety of airships (a more generic term) in steampunk is huge, especially if you look at the vast number of illustrations on line. The Aurora in Oppel’s Ariborn is entirely realistic. The Predator in Butcher’s Aeronaut’s Windlass if essentially an air-floating wooden sailing ship. Some are essentially floating cities. Some run on diesels. Some run on magic, or crystal power.

Back here on Earth, everybody knows at least one dirigible, the Hindenburg, just like everybody knows at least one steam ship, the Titanic, and for essentially the same reasons. Beyond that, real knowledge of actual airships is spotty.

It might be helpful, before embracing the infinite variety of steampunk airships, to have a go at definitions for those which actually existed.

First up, why dirigible instead of Zeppelin? Answer: for the same reason that we use the word automobile instead of calling all automobiles, Fords. Ferdinand von Zeppelin meant more to the development of dirigibles than Henry Ford did to the development of autos, so if you want to say Zeppelin instead of dirigible, I won’t argue with you. After all, I used to say, “Gimme a Coke,” when I really wanted a Pepsi.

However, in the world of my upcoming steampunk novel, you wouldn’t dare say Zeppelin. It would be unpatriotic. A Brit with more ambition than morals stole Zeppelin’s plans, sabotaged his work, and built a British fleet of airships before the German war, while Zeppelin’s war efforts came to nothing. The result was a sweeping British victory, an overwhelmingly powerful Britain, and a very interesting world to write about. But no one calls dirigibles Zeppelins.

In our (real) world, airships are often divided into three classes, blimps, semi-rigids, and dirigibles. Blimps are bags of lifting gas which hold their shape entirely due to internal pressure. Pull the plug, and they collapse. Semi-rigids have a keel structure which helps to keep them from distorting due to localized weights, such as engines, but they still don’t have a solid skin. Dirigibles have a skeleton and a skin, and individual gas bags for the lifting gas. Dirigibles are sometimes called rigids; that is the most accurate term, but it is rarely used.

You will find this three part division in dozens of books on airships, and it fits pretty well. But the word dirigible was used far earlier, and at that time it meant “capable of self-movement and control”. There were dirigible torpedoes in the water, long before Zeppelin put dirigible airships into the air.

Which drags us back to another recycling of an old word — torpedo. During the American Civil War there were two types of torpedoes, stationary and spar. A stationary torpedo was a mine. When Admiral Farragut sailed into Mobile Bay, shouting, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” that would translate into modern English as, “Damn the mines, full speed ahead.” A spar torpedo, on the other hand, was an explosive device attached to a long wooden pole and rammed into an enemy ship by a steam boat, often sinking both. Neither kind of torpedo had self propulsion or self steering.

Torpedoes with that capability were initially called dirigible torpedoes. The adjective dirigible was later dropped. E. E. Smith, in Triplanetary, recycled that old term for use in galactic warfare:

In furious haste the Secret Service men had been altering the controls of the radio-dirigible torpedoes, so that they would respond to ultra-wave control; and, few in number though they were, each was highly effective.

The original hot air balloons were (and still are) unable to steer or move on their own. The quest for dirigibilty (controlled self- movement) led to blimps, semi-rigids, and “dirigibles”.

So, there is plenty of confusion even before we get to the use of airships in steampunk. Call them dirigibles, if you want. Call them Zeppelins, if you want. I don’t see how anyone has a right to complain about your choice.