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: Homunculus by James P. Blaylock (1986)

Homunculus by James P. Blaylock
Ace Books, 1986

Rating: F

In the realtively short history of the steampunk movement, a handful of novels are seen by scholars of the genre to be at the forefront of its emergence into the contemporary science fiction and fantasy literary scene. At the very earliest, books like H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days are seen to be the inspiration for steampunk, but novels like K.W. Jeter’s Morlock Night and James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus are seen to be the actual manisfestation of the genre as we know it today. Morlock Night is an exciting steampunk sequel to Wells’ The Time Machine that is even more fun than the original. Homunculus is arguably the most dryly written science fiction novel ever, and is roughly the literally equivalent of going to the dentist.

A zeppelin whose pilot has been dead for some years has been orbiting London for a while, and is slowly falling towards a crash. Naturally, this is the cause of some interest from the people living in the city, as scientist and explorer Langdon St. Ives wants to know more, while sometimes counterfeiter and always evangelist Shiloh is convinced that his space alien father is on the falling dirigible. If one were to peruse websites like Wikipedia and otherwise for information on the general plot outline of the novel, you would be hard pressed to find more than that, because it is hard to recall if anything ever actually happens in the book.

Although there is certainly a steampunk veneer, Homunculus reads more like a poorly written Victorian novel; it completely lacks the sense of adventure implied by the term “steampunk”, and instead feels more like a bunch of stuffy and completely unlikable Englishmen sitting around and talking inanely. They essentially spend the majority of the novel gossiping about the locals in such a boring way that by the time the characters actually manage to get up and do something, it is just about impossible to care about what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. By about the 30% mark of the novel, it is clear that Homunculus is an absolutely overrated and completely boring novel that should serve only as a cautionary tale, and not as an inspiration.

Review: The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar (2010)

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar
Angry Robot, 2010

Rating: B+

In an alternate Victorian England where anthropomorphic lizard aliens from outer space are in control of the British monarchy, a young man named Orphan loses the love of his life in the crossfire between an anti-government revolutionary called the Bookman and Les Lizards, the name given to these strange lizard kings. The mystery deepens when, shortly after the death of his beloved, a blind beggar named Gilgamesh who Orphan often confided in disappears as well. The Bookman is essentially the story of this young man’s struggle to track down the Bookman and find a way to get his love back.

Angry Robot always seems to manage to put out books that generate significant interest on the strength of their book covers alone; novels like Beukes’ Zoo City and Dan Abnett’s Triumff would likely have never caught my eye if it weren’t for the absolute quality of the graphic design. Luckily, the strength of their literary output measures up to the perfection of their presentation. Lavie Tidhar is an extraordinarily talented writer, in terms not just of quality of storytelling but in pure prose; the writing in The Bookman is bordering on perfection. Even in the slower parts around the novel’s middle, the prose is consistently flawless and engaging.

It is easy to say that the first ten percent or so of the novel (leading up to the death of Lucy as detailed in the blurb) would be one of the strongest pieces of any science fiction or fantasy novel ever. The build-up of the story is picture perfect, with every word used to its absolute greatest possible output. If you are fortunate enough to have not read the blurb before hand (or in the case of this reviewer, not having read the blurb in long enough that I had no memory of it), the death of Lucy is an absolutely heart-breaking kick in the chest. Although perfection of the level achieved in the early chapters of The Bookman is hard to keep up, the novel as a whole turns out to be a wonderful steampunk adventure.

Victorian London has the tendency to be a bit of a dry setting; it has been done and done before by writers of all stripes since the era was actually current. It seems to be some kind of literary cultural obsession to remember fondly back to days that no one currently around was alive for, but Tidhar does it better than anyone in The Bookman. His lizard-led steampunk re-imagining of Victorian England is the perfect setting for adventure, and luckily a world he revisits in future novels.

There is a lot to say about the strengths of the book that would spoil too much, so to summarize: brilliantly written, strong characters, wonderful world, and an engaging story make for a novel that is absolutely a must-read despite a middle third that could have used a bit more excitement. Although the book uses borrows some other characters from fiction a la The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Bookman is far superior to that graphic novel series in execution. Here, the characters from Moby Dick, the various Sherlock Holmes tales, and otherwise, are used with much more restraint, but it makes the world of The Bookman feel much more its own. Absolutely a classic of the steampunk and alternate history genres.