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.

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Review: Railsea by China Mieville (2012)

Railsea by China Mieville
Del Rey, 2012

Rating: D

In a strange, steampunky-world connected entirely by a convoluted railway system, a young man named Sham Yes ap Soorap works with a group of hunters whose job is to take out giant skinless mole-like creatures called moldywarpes. They burrow under the ground and jump out at passersby, leading Soorap and the crew to harpoon them from the relative safety of their trains. Apparently the creatures terrorize the locals, and are useful for their meat and various other typical parts that would be used by hunters.

China Mieville’s greatest weakness and greatest strength is that each one of his novels is completely different from the last, not just in general story but in narrative voice and overall feel. It seems like Mieville painstakingly goes out of his way to reinvent himself every time he puts pen to paper, and in the case of Railsea the reinvention comes across as cluttered, to say the least. Instead of the word “and”, Mieville uses an ampersand throughout the novel, which is explained at some point as being symbolic of the idea of the Railsea as a thing in his world, but instead the strange grammatical decision comes across as extraordinarily amateurish and blatantly pretentious. To compound the agony of the style, Mieville takes a handful of chapters to break the fourth wall as the narrator and pat himself on the back as the writer, as if to say “See how wonderful I am?”

Railsea is a frustratingly bad novel that oozes with pretension and borderline awful prose. Originality is generally a good thing, but there are times to remember that sometimes something has never been done before because it is not a very good idea. The characters in Railsea are completely uninspired and what little plot that is here is barely more than a convenient vessel to push the world the author has created. Although the world is strong, it is the only redeemable quality of an otherwise completely unreadable book. With unlikable characters and a plot that is both meandering and completely tedious, it is hard to see why anyone would enjoy this novel in the least.