Vintage Reads #2 – The Coming Race

6362200-MVariously published as ‘The Coming Race’, ‘Vril’ and ‘Vril, the Power of the Coming Race’, this short 1871 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton rode in on the coattails of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth with a very similar premise; that of an exploration deep beneath the earth’s surface where mysterious wonders are found. It relies much less on science than Verne’s better known novel and more on anthropology and politics.

It’s the story of a wealthy young man who visits a mining operation in an undisclosed part of the United States. He and an engineer take a trip down into the deep parts of the mine and, after his guide is killed by a falling rock and a nasty encounter with a giant reptile, our narrator finds himself in the company of angel-like beings with vast powers. These are the ‘Vril-ya’ so called because of their mastery of ‘Vril’; an electromagnetic force that gives life, powers machines, controls minds and also has the ability to utterly destroy fellow beings.orig_thors-hammer-01_109 With such power at the fingertips of each and every member of their society, the Vril-ya have learned to live in a state of total peace. It was either that or blast themselves into oblivion. Rather than a tale of high adventure, The Coming Race is almost wholly taken up by a lengthy analysis of this underground society as if it were the real deal. Gender roles are reversed with the females more or less running the show. And the Vril-ya see democracy as a primitive experiment entirely eclipsed by totalitarianism; the only form of government through which order and unity can be achieved.

thule-societyAll this talk of anti democratic super-races may sound suspiciously familiar and any Google search of Vril or The Coming Race will turn up a plethora of astonishing sites referring to secret Nazi societies and paranormal hokum so muddled that it can be hard to figure out where the facts end and the fiction begins. The popular rumor is that in pre-war Berlin there existed a secret society who believed Bulwer-Lytton’s novel to have more than a ring of truth about it and indeed spent much of their time searching for the mysterious Vril, convinced that it really existed and could help them conquer the world and realize their idea of a master race. Or something. Nobody’s really too sure. This idea seems to have originated in an article by the German writer Willy Ley who fled to the USA in 1937, disgusted by the rise of Nazism in his homeland. He claimed that the superstitious and paranormal-obsessed minds of his countrymen were fertile ground for many lunatic theories (not least those of the Nazis). Further credence was given to this rumor by a book published in 1960 by Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels who claimed that the Vril Society was an inner circle of the elsewhere attested ‘Thule Society’ (Thule being a Greek mythological land in the extreme north and the alleged home of the ‘Aryan’ race). Alas for fans of conspiracy theories and occult societies, there is little other evidence to support these claims and, while the Nazis were indeed interested in mysticism, the activities and mere existence of the ‘Vril Society’ may have been exaggerated.

Another interesting note is that The Coming Race made the term ‘Vril’ a byword for any kind of special elixir in the nineteenth century, not least of which was the beef extract ‘Bovril’ which literally means ‘bovine vril’.

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Steampunk Wednesdays #2 – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)

league_of_extraordinary_gentlemenBased on the comic book series written by Alan Moore, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a superhero film of sorts, albeit a 19th century set one with famous literary characters of the period teaming up to form a ‘Victorian Justice League’ to combat evil doings and to protect the British Empire. Sean Connery heads the team as Allan Quatermain of H. Rider Haggard’s adventure novels. There’s an invisible man called Rodney Skinner (as the rights to the original invisible man from H. G. Wells’ novel apparently couldn’t be obtained). There’s Mina Harker who did indeed become a vampire in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, although she was cured of that particular ailment once the Count was destroyed. Here she’s still a vampire because, y’know, that’s cooler. Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is an immortala grown up Tom Sawyer is now a crack marksman for the U.S: Secret Service, and Dr. Jekyll, whose addiction to the drug he created means that he will inevitably turn into the monstrous Mr. Hyde, keeps everybody else on their toes. And they all travel about in the Nautilus from Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea under Captain Nemo who has also built an automobile now. The basic plot is that a shady, masked character called the ‘Fantom’ is causing trouble between Britain and Germany by dressing his followers up as one side and attacking the other. He also plans to destroy the whole of Venice where a meeting is to be held between the world leaders, thus causing a ‘world war’ and profiting from the inevitable arms race. This Bond-esque adventure was Sean Connery’s swansong before he retired and, despite its notorious deviations from the source material, stands as one of the more well-known attempts to bring steampunk to the screen.

Inventions and Discoveries of the 19th Century #1 – Airships

lz1There is often confusion surrounding the terminology of airships in particular the differences between dirigibles, blimps and zeppelins. All of these are airships and all are dirigibles. Dirigible stems from the French verb ‘diriger’ meaning ‘to steer’ so any steerable airship is thus a dirigible. Blimps are non-rigid airships with the shape of their balloon maintained by the pressure of the gas within. Rigid airships have a framework surrounding gas cells. There are semi-rigid airships too, which usually have a keel that supports the inflatable balloon. The word ‘Zeppelin’ only applies to airships manufactured by the Zeppelin company (more about them later).

800px-GiffardAirshipThere were several pre-19th century innovations in air travel, beginning with the Mongolfier brothers who pioneered the hot air balloon and most notably the 1785 crossing of the channel by Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American Dr. John Jeffries. In 1793 Blanchard surpassed this with a balloon trip from America to England. But these were essentially one-way trips with little to no steering involved. They were not ‘dirigibles’. The first person to make a flight in an engine powered dirigible was Henri Giffard in 1852. He traveled 27 km in a steam-powered, hydrogen-filled airship. The highly dangerous combination of a hydrogen-filled balloon with a furnace beneath naturally caused concern and other means of propulsion and lift were investigated throughout the century including a manual propeller that took eight men to power during the Franco-Prussian war and a balloon filled with coal gas from an internal combustion engine in 1872. Electrically powered dirigibles were also constructed most notable of which was the French army airship La France which made the first fully controlled (returning to its starting point) flight in 1884.

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The most famous of all airships were the Zeppelins, so named after Count von Zeppelin who was inspired by the possibilities he saw during his time as an observer in the American Civil War. The Union was experimenting with hydrogen gas generators that used tanks filled with iron filings and sulfuric acid. The Union Army Balloon Corps was founded in 1861 and played a valuable role in scouting out Confederate movements in the Peninsular Campaign. There was even a patent for an unmanned ‘bomb-dropping’ balloon in 1863. Further inspired by the success of La France, Count von Zeppelin began work on an aluminium frame covered with fabric and filled with rubberized cotton gas cells that could be inflated independently. The Zeppelin LZ1 made its first flight in 1900 and, although it remained airborne for twenty minutes, it was forced to make an emergency landing and potential investors were not impressed. Support from the King of Wurttemburg and the German public meant that Count von Zeppelin could continue experimenting with400px-It_is_far_better_to_face_the_bullets airships eventually resulting in the Luftschiffbau-Zeppelin (Zeppelin Construction Company) in 1908. Zeppelins and other dirigibles were used in the First World War by the Germans to bomb London and Paris but they proved vulnerable to fire from anti-aircraft batteries and planes. Hydrogen was still the gas of choice due to the scarcity of Helium and the dangers of this were highlighted by the Hindenburg Disaster of 1937. This along with improvements in ‘heavier than air aircraft’ (planes) meant that the airship/dirigible was more or less obsolete by the Second World War. Nowadays airships are mostly used for advertising (like the Goodyear Blimp) and as TV camera platforms.

cherie-priest-clementineThe age of the airship is over but the gargantuan vehicles of the sky have left an indelible mark on our imaginations. Steampunk is a genre eternally linked with the airship and various high-tech dirigibles appear against blighted landscapes of alternate futures on the covers of many novels like Cherie Priest’s Clementine. My own contribution to the genre (the upcoming novel Golden Heart and short story On Rails of Gold) presents an alternate version of American history where the Civil War has dragged on for two decades and has seen many technological innovations including the field of airships.

 

Vintage Reads #1 – Journey to the Center of the Earth

A_Journey_to_the_Centre_of_the_Earth-1874This 1864 novel by Jules Verne is perhaps the first major work in what is now known as the ‘Lost World Genre’. This type of thing was a product of the imperialism of the nineteenth century and the global explorations that marked that period. Lost worlds were nothing new; Plato dreamed sunken Atlantis back in 360 BC and the Conquistadors were so fervently hopeful of a golden empire in North America to rival the riches of the Aztecs and the Incas that they readily believed any folktale given to them by the natives resulting in the legends of Cibola and Eldorado. But the excavations of Troy by Schliemann in 1871 and the explorations of Africa by David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley along with further discoveries in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings fired public imagination in the late nineteenth century and made interest in fictional escapades into the dark corners of the world a given.

Verne’s Journey is pure science fiction using the ‘hollow earth theory’ which hearkens back to an idea present in innumerable ancient mythologies of a cavernous ‘underworld’ beneath us. Various astronomers and scientists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries explored this idea, some even suggesting that there was an internal sun and possibly habitation in the hollow center of the earth. The next real proponent of the idea was John Cleves Symmes, Jr, who, in 1818, suggested that the earth had a shell less than 2000 km thick with openings at the north and south poles. There was even a rumor that President John Quincy Adams supported the approval of an expedition to a hole in the north pole but left office before it could be realized. Even in the nineteenth century the idea was ridiculed and as with many of Verne’s works, the novel is a little tongue in cheek. Verne didn’t actually believe the earth was hollow. He just knew it would make a great story.

The novel opens in Hamburg at the residence of Professor Lidenbrock – an eccentric mineralogist who has purchased a rare copy of Heimskringla (a history of the Norwegian kings who ruled Iceland) by the famed chronicler Snorri Sturluson. Found within this tome is an ancient runic document which the professor and his nephew, Axel (the protagonist), struggle to decipher.

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It turns out to be by the hand of Icelandic alchemist Arne Saknussemm and claims that ‘in the crater of the jökull of Snæfell’ one can descend into the center of the earth as Arne himself claims to have done. The excited professor leaps at the chance and, with his reluctant nephew in tow, prepares an expedition to Snæfellsjökull. With their ever calm guide, Hans, they descend mile after mile and enter a strange subterranean world lit by electrically charged gas, much like the Aurora Borealis. There they find a great ocean, a forest of gigantic mushrooms, dinosaurs and weird magnetic phenomena.

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Steampunk Wednesdays #1 – Definitions

SteampunkA relatively new genre, Steampunk has gained a large following in recent years. Anyone who has heard of it will no doubt conjure up images of men and women in Victorian dress with the additions of lots of brass and clockwork gadgets and of course, tinted goggles. They may think of submarines like the Nautilus from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and of airships and the walking machines of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. In fact the works of nineteenth century writers like Verne and Wells pretty much have it covered. But is Steampunk more than just Victorian science fiction? Where does punk come into it?

The term is usually atributed to K. W. Jeter (author of Infernal Devices) who tried to come up with a name that encompassed the genre he and Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates) and James Blaylock (The Digging Leviathan) were writing in. In a 1987 letter to sci-fi magazine Locus, Jeter said;

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks’, perhaps.”

infernal-devices-by-kw-jeterSo at face value Steampunk is stuff set in the age of steam, when railways were springing up all over the world, connecting empires in an age before the internal combustion engine, a more refined age, marked by the manners and speech patterns of the late Victorians. But there has been an increasing debate over the real definition of Steampunk. Where does it differ from what Verne and Wells were writing back in the age of steam itself?

The Urban Dictionary has it as; “a subgenre of speculative fiction, usually set in an anachronistic Victorian or quasi-Victorian alternate history setting. It could be described by the slogan “What the past would look like if the future had happened sooner.” It includes fiction with science fiction, fantasy or horror themes.

boneshaker-by-cherie-priestMost Steampunk stories take place in an alternate history where things turned out differently like in the Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling which suggests a Victorian age in which Charles Babbage succeeded in building an advanced thinking machine resulting in great technological leaps and bounds ahead of time. Sometimes it’s a post-apocalyptic set up like in Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker in which a steam-powered drilling machine goes awry in the Klondike, releasing a vein of ‘blight gas’ turning anyone who breathes it into the living dead.

When K. W. Jeter coined the term he was clearly referencing another genre of science fiction called ‘Cyberpunk’ where stories like William Gibson’s Neuromancer and the Matrix films present a post industrial age where the protagonists are often hackers or other subversive types keen on changing the social order. So this is the ‘punk’ part and it reveals itself in Steampunk where the artificial intelligence and mega-corporations of Cyberpunk are replaced by the steam powered technology of nineteenth century empires and the hackers or ‘punks’ are the subversives fighting a revolution against either the technology or the imperialism that defined the age.

So while the works of Wells and Verne clearly had an influence on the genre, I wouldn’t really call them Steampunk in themselves. They are Victorian science fiction. Steampunk is a new and different genre all about change and revolution that merely draws from the works of the great writers of nineteenth century science fiction.

steampunk_ladies4Steampunk is as much an aesthetic medium as a literary one evident by the increasing interest in ‘cosplay’ (costume play). Tinkerers, tailors and other creative individuals express their love for the genre at conventions and Steampunk-themed weddings where brass, cogs and rivets abound as do goggles, corsets, top hats and dusters. Gadgets are as important as costumes and in many cases complement the former with pocket watches and weapons modified or created from scratch to reflect the style. Gadgets are custom made by and for those merely wishing to add a little Steampunk into their lives like brass iPhone covers, PC keyboards and lighter cases. It’s also a common thing to see Steampunk riffs on pop culture franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, Transformers and Doctor Who not just in costumes but in concept art and models like this Steampunk AT-AT by ‘Mark’ (AKA Captain Bailey)Steampunk-ATAT-and-ATST-Walkers-1

Being a genre limited only by peoples imaginations, Steampunk is notoriously hard to define and will no doubt continue to evolve.