Thursday, November 22, 2012

Steampunk Within The Boundaries Of Reason Alone

The title of this post derives from a 1793 book by Immanual Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Reason Alone. Kant was one of the framers of the Age of Reason.

I recently saw a Kickstarter project called Steam Patriots that looks really cool. This project is seeking $100k to develop a series of steampunk novellas wherein George Washington and Benjamin Franklin fight the American Revolutionary War with airships and lightning-bolt rifles. The pictures create stunning visual impressions. I love it.

BUT since I am working on a steampunk project myself, it got me thinking about the constraints I've put upon my own writing.

My work-in-progress, Steamship to Kashmir, is set in the Victorian era. Mycroft Holmes is pursuing a murderer around the world in a nuclear-powered-steam airship. A fission reactor can be used for heat to flash water into steam and one can build a lighter-than-air craft that uses steam instead of hot-air, helium or hydrogen as a lifting gas.

Though Holmes' era had Jules Vern's SF, with a presumably nuclear submarine 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, small details like Madam Curie's discovery of radium had not yet occurred. Nor had X-rays, neutrons, alpha-, beta-, and gamma-radiation been discovered. How can I plausibly depict the girl shown on the right controlling a critical fission reaction? I suppose by the same rationale we use to suppose Captain Nemo powering the Nautilus with nuclear power.

Another problem for me is that the German fellow named Zeppelin who did so much work in rigid-framed airships. He is not yet accomplished or famous by the time my story takes place. Hard to tell the reader that the steamship to Kashmir is a Zeppelin when the term hasn't been invented in Mycroft Holmes's time.

And I have a problem with computers. Mycroft Holmes as a mathematician would have intimate knowledge of Charles Babbage's proposed Difference Engine and Analytical Engine. He can reasonably be expected to exploit such machines to the fullest. Yet the capabilities of these machines are dramatically constrained when compared with our own computers or even those of Alan Turing's time in WW2. Babbage machines could do things like ballistic trajectories, or compute math tables. These are not particularly glamorous applications to put into a story.

So, I'm carrying around all these constraints on what technology that I can deploy in Steamship to Kashmir and then I see the Steam Patriots project.

Really? Can you call 18th century American Revolution steampunk? Isn't that 100 years early? Can you get away with that?

Push 50 years after the Victorian era and you're in World War 2. Stories wherein advanced technology deployed in the 1940s is termed Dieselpunk to distinguish its look and feel from the earlier era of Queen Victoria.

Shouldn't the pre-steam American Revolution be termed something besides Steampunk? Something evocative of Kant or Voltaire? The age of steam was decades away. They were barely 100 years after Isaac Newton got hit by an apple and reinvented Calculus. The zeitgeist of 1776 was pre-steam, but I can't think of a suitable replacement term for steampunk.

Or maybe not. James Watt's patent on the steam engine was 1769 so it might work. Barely.

In the meantime, I'm totally jazzed by the George Washington and Benjamin Franklin images I've embedded in this post. The Steam Patriots project looks to be a lot of fun. I wish I had an extra $500 jingling around to spend on getting a fancy print of that Benjamin Franklin lightning bolt picture. (I'm a sucker for that style of pictures.)

You should check out Steam Patriots for yourself.

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