I had great fun with this book and I learned a lot. I hope you find it interesting as well.
The Real World of Victorian Steampunk: Steam Planes and Radiophones by Simon Webb
In the last few decades, steampunk has blossomed from being a rather obscure and little-known subgenre of science fiction into a striking and distinctive style of fashion, art, design and even music. It is in the written word however that steampunk has its roots and in this book Simon Webb explores and examines the real inventions which underpin the fantasy. In doing so, he reveals a world unknown to most people today.
The Real World of Victorian Steampunk shows the Victorian era to have been a surprising place; one of steam-powered airplanes, fax machines linking Moscow and St Petersburg, steam cars traveling at over 100 mph, electric taxis and wireless telephones. It is, in short, the nineteenth century as you have never before seen it; a steampunk extravaganza of anachronistic technology and unfamiliar gadgets. Imagine Europe spanned by a mechanical internet; a telecommunication system of clattering semaphore towers capable of transmitting information across the continent in a matter of minutes. Consider too, the fact that a steam plane the size of a modern airliner took off in England in 1894.
Drawing entirely on contemporary sources, we see how little-known developments in technology have been used as the basis for so many steampunk narratives. From seminal novels such as The Difference Engine, through to the steampunk fantasy of Terry Pratchett’s later works, this book shows that steampunk is at least as much solid fact as it is whimsical fiction.
About the author:
Simon grew up in Croydon, Surrey and now lives near Durham, England. He works as a librarian and writes in his spare time.
His books include works of historical fiction, biography, true crime, Shakespearian pastiche, and local and religious history. He has also published books of poetry.
Simon has collaborated with Patricia Brown, Miranda Brown and William Duggan on recent volumes.
He has produced a popular modern English version of Robert Hegge’s classic ‘The Legend of St Cuthbert’ and an edition of ‘The Captivity of Elizabeth Hanson’ by Samuel Bownas. Simon’s verse translation of Chaucer’s ‘Parliament of Fowls’, and his editions of the Brief Lives of John Aubrey are also available.
He has recently edited editions of ‘The Bishopric of Durham’ (part of ‘Brittania’ by William Camden), ‘Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert’, ‘The History of King Richard II’I by Sir Thomas More, a life of the Quaker James Nayler by his contemporary George Whitehead (‘James Nayler: The Quaker Jesus’) and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s poetry book, ‘Love Sonnets of Dante and His Circle’.
Simon’s publisher, the Langley Press, has also published books by Heather Cawte (‘Poems in No Particular Order’) and Martyn Kelly (‘The Theology of Small Things’).
As a writer, Simon has been influenced by Shakespeare and Chaucer, among others, and by less well-known writers of non-fiction, such as C.J. Stranks, Robert Hegge, Philip Sugden and Andrew Chaikin.
His books are sold in the US, UK, Canada and elsewhere and have found their way into libraries in various parts of the world. Articles about, and reviews of, Simon’s books have appeared in local and national newspapers and magazines.
Simon has contributed reviews, pictures, poems and articles to magazines in the UK and US.
To contact the author, and for free downloads, exclusive extracts and more detailed information, please visit the Langley Press website at: http://tinyurl.com/lpdirect
Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me a paperback review copy of this book, which I loved and freely chose to review.
I cannot claim to be an expert on the history of the Victorian period, and I did not discover steampunk as a literary genre until a few years back, although it has captured my imagination. I follow some blogs whose stories are set in the period, I am fascinated by the artwork and clothing inspired by the genre (there is a steampunk yearly convention not far from where I live now in Barcelona, and it’s a joy to see people walking on the streets dressed in steampunk fashion), and although I haven’t read many novels in the genre, I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve read. Because of all that, I was immediately grabbed by the title and the cover of this book. And I enjoyed it immensely.
The book is a joy to read. The author is an authority both, in steampunk fiction (although he mostly talks about early offerings and classic titles, but not exclusively), and in Victorian history, at least when it comes to little-known (at least to the general public) inventions and projects. His style of writing is easy to follow, not excessively technical when it comes to descriptions of machines and engineering feats, and he has a knack for bringing to life the material, including anecdotes that make us see the events in our mind’s eye (and wonder why many of those have not been made into movies).
Webb divides the book into nine chapter, plus a list of plates (there are 20 of those and they are a delight), an introduction (where the author talks about steampunk, shares a working definition, and explains the characteristics of the genre and its different visions and versions of the future or alternative history), and endword, a bibliography (not too long, consisting mostly of fiction books in the steampunk genre, some of the original books they got their inspiration from, and some research titles), and an index. As the author explains, there are many topics that could be covered in such a book, but he chooses some of the more habitual and the ones that give steampunk its flavour. I marked many passages in the book, so many that it is impossible to fit them all into a review, and, in any case, I’d rather you read it, but I’ll briefly mention what each chapter is about so prospective readers can decide if they’d like to find out more (Yes, you would).
Chapter 1, titled ‘Dreams of the Future, Visions of the Past’, elaborates on the introduction, talking about several of the early titles in steampunk (and proto-steampunk), and their visions of the future. As he notes, there usually is some point where some historical event changed (or some invention happened or didn’t) and that results in a fairly different future (or present). What we might not know is that some of the inventions and the alternatives these books offer are not as far-fetched or fantastic as we might think.
Chapter 2, ‘Of Steam Buses and Atmospheric Railways’ describes the existence of steam buses and other forms of steam transport that might sound strange when we read about them in this genre of novels and also of real railways built to work by the application of air pressure (similar to the system used to send messages via tubes in some old supermarkets and offices). And they were very fast!
Chapter 3, ‘The Mechanical Internet’ fascinated me. The fact that there were semaphore-towers across Europe in the XIX century that would allow messages to travel at incredible speed even from our perspective (the author mentions Terry Pratchett’s Dreamworld series) is mindboggling.
Chapter 4, ‘Steam Planes Take Off’ was an eye-opener for me. I knew about balloons and dirigibles, although not about balloons going into the stratosphere, and the explanation for why the Wright Brothers have been granted the fame and reputation they have now in the world of flying when there were many others who’d gone quite far (if not farther) before, makes one stop and think. History has always been unfair and not everybody who deserves to be remembered is. (Hiram Maxim is a captivating character and one I hope to learn more about in the future).
Chapter 5, ‘Steam-Powered Computers and Mechanical Calculators’ is another sobering chapter, a reminder of how different things could have been, and although I knew about some of the people involved (like Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter), I didn’t know that the word ‘computers’ was first used to refer to human beings whose job it was to make lengthy calculations (for example to compile logarithm tables).
Chapter 6, ‘Radiophones, Fax Machines and Hard Drives’ offers a great introduction to the topics. I learned new information about telephones, discovered that there had been fax machines even before the telegraph was widely in use, and found out that the technology behind televisions is much older than I realised.
Chapter 7, ‘The Quest for Renewable Energy’. This chapter is particularly applicable to this day and age, but the Victorians were already worried and thinking about such matters. Much of what appears now as new is nothing but, and the chapter goes a long way to explain how and why our society came to rely on petrol as much as it does.
Chapter 8, ‘The Resistible Rise of the Internal Combustion Engine’. Anybody who loves cars and/or is puzzled by our reliance on petrol engines will find this chapter a must-read. I knew that there were electric cars well before the first reliable petrol cars existed, but have now fallen in love with steam cars as well (I’d love to have one of the Doble Brothers’ inventions), and I found the explanation of why the internal combustion engine took over convincing and understandable (although quite sad. Oh, taxes and cheap oil… You have much to answer for).
Chapter 9, ‘The 11-Mile-Long Shopping Mall that Never Was’ describes a fabulous plan to build what would have an enclosed section of London, like a bubble of glass, where people would not have been at the mercy of the weather and traffic would have been fast and easy. It sounds wonderful but, once again, money was a problem (and I agree that a new sewage system was a priority).
Webb advises readers of the genre to do some research and concludes:
Steampunk, although generally described as a genre of science fiction, has in fact more in common with science fact than most aficionados ever realize.
This book is probably not for history buffs and experts on the matter, but for people interested in the topic and who are not specialists, it is full of gems.
In sum, this is a great book, a joy to read, informative, and inspiring. It will delight equally lovers of history, steampunk novels, and researchers interested in the topic. Readers and writers will find much to ponder upon (I’ve finished the book with a long list of other books to read), and it occurred to me as I read it, that writers of post-apocalyptic fiction would find it a good source of inspiration, as it has all kind of suggestions for contraptions and inventions that could have taken over the world if things had been different. Highly recommended.
I couldn’t leave you without sharing a video of one of the Doble Brothers’ cars. It seems that I have something in common with Jay Leno!
Thanks to Rosie and the author for this wonderful book, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always be smiling!