Podcast: Funderingar kring ång- och dieselpunk

Summary in English: A Swedish podcast about what is steam- and dieselpunk. My debut in podcasting.

Den gångna helgen var min dotter Elin och jag på Silwersteam, en steampunkkongress i Eskilstuna. Där blev vi ombedda att delta i Fandompodden #49 som tar en titt på företeelserna ångpunk och dieselpunk. Bland annat använder jag Miyazaki-filmerna Howl’s Moving Castle och Laputa som exempel på vad de två genrerna kan erbjuda, och förklarar varför jag gillar att författa dieseläventyr. Länk till podcasten >>>

Artist: Ian McQue

X-Files 200 Years Ago?

An UFO observation in the early 19th century?

Could this be an UFO observation in the early 19th century? (Click on the picture for a larger version.)

Strange phenomena in the sky? People have reported such matters for a long time, even though the “flying saucer” fad only dates back to the 1940s. In the late 19th century people instead spoke of encounters with human-piloted airships with amazing capabilities, and in earlier times chroniclers mentioned observations of dragons or scary omens among the clouds.

Every now and then old art unbiddingly kick-starts my creativity. When I recently saw this painting by Caspar David Friederich, a Romantic artist active in the first decades of the 19th century, I read it as a depiction of a UFO encounter by two Germans during the Napoleonic Wars. X-Files in a historical setting, so to speak.

Such an interpretation could serve as the starting-point for an adventure in Götterdämmerung (a Swedish 18th-century horror RPG); as a clue indicating that something nefarious travels through time in Skuggornas Mästare (a Swedish modern-day conspiracy-themed RPG); or as the inspiration for an “X-File-ish” campaign that mixes GURPS Age of Napoleon with GURPS Atomic Horror.

It is also possible to realign the steampunk Space 1889 to a tarpunk Space 1809 by letting UFOs take a group of Regency-era adventurers to Mars (that world remains the same, just remove Victorian colonialism). Martian muskets and steam engines use technologies that are familiar to Westerners of that era, and serious speculations about alien populated worlds were introduced in European academia already in the 16th century, by for example Giordano Bruno.

A replica of first steam-car

French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built the first functioning steam wagons around 1770 (link >>> ). In 2010, a group of students at the Arts et Métiers ParisTech engineering university built a replica of one of Cugnot’s designs and put it to work with a reasonable success.

A horseless wagon must have been an impressive device in the late 18th century, but I guess that the poor quality of roads in those days prevented the widespread use of such a heavy vehicle. However, in a tarpunk or early-steampunk alternate history, improved versions of this wagon could possible become useful provided that the inventors developed broad low-pressure wheels for contemporary gravel roads.

A Clocktech Automaton

This programmable mechanical marvel would fit perfectly into Vidonia, the main geographical region of my renaissance fantasy role-playing game Gondica and my novel Spiran och staven. The Mechanurgist magician-artificers in that culture construct devices like this, though often even more fantastic.

I also think that it could be appropriate technology in the Swedish 18th-century horror RPG Götterdämmerung.

Pre-Steampunk Star Trek

Commander Ryker in a Napoleonic parallel world, i.e. in the era of wooden ships and iron men.

This subgenre of science fiction, with pre-steampunk societies and technology, should probably be called Tarpunk (explanatory link >>>).

And below you see the Enterprise on which this officer serves.

The sky frigate Enterprise, on a multi-year mission to explore the world and seek out new civilizations.

Review: Napoleon and … Indiana Jones?

Napoleon’s Pyramids — a weird title for an action-adventure. But so is Raiders of the Lost Ark, isn’t it? Anyhow, author William Dietrich is not shy about his main source of inspiration for his swashbuckling protagonist Ethan Gage. This book contains Indy-style scenes from chapter one to its end and both Napoleon and Cheops‘s Great Pyramid play starring roles.

The plot is straight-forward: Ethan Gage, an American sharpshooter and disciple of Benjamin Franklin, enjoys a rowdy life in Paris during the 1790s. He wins a mysterious medallion at a gambling table and immediately gets entangled in dangerous plots with Biblical connotations. He is chased by the French police and has to flee to the Mediterranean coast, where he gets recruited as a civilian adviser in Napoleon’s army sailing for Egypt. I will not proceed further into the plot, because that would entail spoilers.

Napoleon at the Sphinx (by Jean-Léon Gêrome)

The story is told in first person and thereby gives the impression of being Gage’s boastful and not fully reliable retelling of youthful adventures in exotic lands. For example, Gage’s account for his amazing ability as a sniper does not hold water considering the quality of 18th-century rifled muskets.

William Dietrich knows the era, though I spotted a few errors (e.g. in period terminology), and delivers occasional info dumps on Paris, shipboard life, naval battles, and the French conquest of the Nile valley. It often gets too much of a good thing — tighter editing, please. The story’s few supernatural events are connected to the era’s preoccupation with Egyptian mysteries and Freemasonry. Orientalist tropes appear in almost every chapter: gypsies, harem ladies, labyrinthine cities, sneaky adversaries, deserts, etc. However, after a while Dietrich carries everything too far and starts to utilize clichéd twists that I spot well in advance.

Since my youth I have had an interest in the turmoils of the 1790s, when the French revolution transformed Europe. The main reason I bought this book was because it was a period adventure outside the usual British-centered perspective (i.e. Hornblower, Aubrey, Bolitho, Sharpe, Scarlet Pimpernel, Laurence). However, despite Dietrich’s hard work in the reference library, the story does not deliver sufficient punch. Its last third was simply too predictable. So I will not buy the sequel. A pity, because I like the author’s basic idea.

Ergo, my verdict: three pyramids out of five.

Review: “Retribution Falls”

Living in the outskirts of a major city, I spend about one hour a day commuting by subway and bus. So I read a lot and I have decided to share my opinions of some of these “travel books”.

A few days ago, I finished Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding, book #1 in a series about captain Frey, his airship the Ketty Jay and her crew. I picked up this book at the Science Fiction Bookshop because it claims to be a dieselpunk adventure. Well, the label is partially correct. The Ketty Jay’s world is eclectic: dieselpunk airships, swashbuckling pirates, scheming renaissance-ish nobles, dirty wild-west-style towns, foul sorcery, et cetera. I see clear influences from Josh Whedon’s Firefly and the ultra-tough lawmen look like something out of Warhammer 40K. On the other hand, the story’s pirates and aristocrats seem to be inspired by pop-culture versions of the 18th century, i.e. tarpunk rather than dieselpunk.

The Ketty Jay is crewed by a motley bunch of scoundrels and drunkards, brought to the ship by the whims of a nasty Fate. Most are on the run from misfortunes or crimes. Few are likable. Their main job seems to be to survive in a crapsack world. Yes, this is a place where people generally are selfish, arrogant and/or ruthless. Living here is not for the squeamish.

The main plot of Retribution Falls has two strands. The obvious one: Captain Frey and crew become scapegoats for someone else’s assassination scheme. They spend the story trying to uncover the real culprit and thereby escaping the hangman’s noose. The less obvious one: The transformation of this ragtag bunch into a true crew with a team spirit. It does not come easy because several have good reasons to mistrust or loathe each other.

The arid world is colorful, the tech is great, some of the story twists are good, but the book still fails to enthuse me. My main objections:

1. I have a hard time feeling sympathy for the scoundrels in the crew, particularly captain Frey. I’d rather wish that his arch-nemesis captain Dracken nails him to the wall. Two crew members are somewhat likable, however: Jez the navigator, suffering unjustly from a “curse”, and Silo the engineer, an escaped slave with no known history of misdeeds.

2. Predictability. I have seen this kind of story too many times before. Too often I know what is about to happen.

3. Poor plotting. The crew members had Lady Luck helping them out too many times during their adventures. Also, when the badguys know about the existence of “gadget sorcery”, they should be smart enough to protect themselves better.

When I watch Firefly, I care for the Serenity‘s crew. I get no similar feeling when reading Retribution Falls. Which is sad, because I like the basic concept and the airships a lot.