Book Review: Steampunk

Steampunkby Timothy Lane9/22/15
by Geoffrey Mandragora  •  Steampunk is a type of alternate history dealing with (generally) the 19th Century in which technology is advanced over the actual technology of the time (and sometime ours as well). Perhaps the first example of this was the TV series The Wild, Wild West (and I was a member of a panel discussing this at an InConJunction a couple of years back). This article concerns a pair of books (I suspect a third will be out soon) by Geoffrey Mandragora, The Thunderbolt Affair and The Eidlerland Incident. The first is set in 1887, the latter shortly after the end of the first.

Ian Rollins is a Royal Navy officer, breveted a Commander to work on an experimental ship. That job ended disastrously when an engine accident (or sabotage) leads to a fire that destroys the ship. The captain blames Rollins, but the engineering survivors praise him. So the Royal Navy has decided to give him another command — Britain’s first submersible, the Holland Ram, which had been grabbed from the Fenians who originally bought the boat from his inventor. (This part is based on actual history; the first modern submarine was in fact built originally for the Fenians.)

Britain’s problems with the Irish may be the same as they were in our own timeline, but otherwise this is a very different world geopolitically. In particular, a lack of will has led Britain to give up on trying to control anything in Africa. The main beneficiary has been Germany, despite Bismarck’s declared lack of interest in a large colonial empire (which was also true in our world). Many are concerned about the danger of a possible German invasion (a fear that led to a number of dubious stories, such as The Riddle of the Sands, in our world). But the submersible — not only the Fenian Ram, but the much larger Thunderbolt under construction — may discourage Germany, given that the don’t (yet) possess any comparable boots. Of course, this requires that the boats work as advertised — and that German spies not get hold of the plans (or an actual boat).

Steampunk-GogglesMaking the situation even more difficult is that the submersibles use a number of new inventions developed by Nikola Tesla, who is assisted by his very attractive (and very interesting) cousin, Danjella. Ian and she develop a very friendly relationship (made even friendlier by her willingness to help him develop some superior prosthetics for some of the severe injuries he suffered in the engine-room fire), but also one fraught with difficulties even aside from his new job and its complications. (Both the Germans and Americans are interested, the latter in the person of one Theodore Roosevelt and an assistant named Greer who used to be with Pinkerton and helped liberate the Fenian Ram from the Fenians).

Rollins also learns much about the difficulties of operating this new technology, such as the difficulty of communicating with other ships or with shore facilities; radio hasn’t been invented yet. It’s a very difficult task, learning the ways of the submersible, fending off spies, showing off the new invention for foreign observers, and oh, yes, maintaining security. An interesting tid-bit from all this is that I learned why the Navy uses “Aye, aye, sir” as an acknowledgment. The first “aye” indicates that whatever the officer says has been heard and understood; the second indicates that orders will be obeyed (and is thus unnecessary if there are no such orders).

In the second book, Rollins has been deployed off southern Africa in Thunderbolt, and is involved in a war of nerves with the Germans (who have allied with the Boers who now dominate the region). This has consequences; when a couple of German merchants ships disappear (though one turns out only to be late), he’s denounced as a pirate — and they mean that literally. This does encourage them to push Graf von Zeppelin’s ideas of airships, since those might be useful against the new British craft. And thus the new airship general finds himself deployed to South Africa. Unfortunately, he’s not there to confront the Thunderbolt, but to assist an explorer named Eidler.

Eidler is basically a Nazi precursor, including the peculiar occultism, and he expects to find something unexpected in the islands off Antarctica. Graf von Zeppelin is most unappy that as an Army general, he’s merely there to assist Eidler. But orders are orders, and so they check out islands and name them after various Germans. As the book begins, they’ve reached one that Eidler finally (at their suggestion) names after himself — which proves to be apt, because their airship suddenly catches fire and crashes on the island.

This proves very embarrassing to the Germans. The island is surrounded by ice, so no surface ship can reach it, and they have no other airships available. So the only way to reach the island and rescue any survivors is to go under the ice — using Rollins’s Thunderbolt. Fortunately for the Germans, the British have a diplomat handy who apparently is one of John Kerry’s forebears, and he readily agrees to send Rollins to the rescue without bothering to find out if this is in fact feasible.

Fortunately, thanks to a convenient early development of sonar, Rollins can do the job. This is just as well, because there are indeed survivors — including a British agent who has some crucial information on South Africa which might encourage a British revival. But there’s also the problem of having to trust the Germans, who definitely don’t seem to deserve it. All this leads to a story with plenty of twists and turns as they rescue the explorers (who still have some exploring to do on the island). There will also be some more diplomatic idiocy, and the story definitely ends with a further sequel needed.

Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Steampunk

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    My brother’s friends are big-time into Steampunk. And as a cinemaform, I love it. I perhaps love it best in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. It’s also superbly done in the second (perhaps the first as well) Hellboy movie.

    Doing a bit of “best of” searching, these are some other favorites in the genre (in combination with the movie being fairly good…there’s little use in pointing out mere eye candy):

    + 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
    + Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
    + The Prestige
    + The Time Machine (Rod Taylor)
    + Time Bandits
    + Brazil
    + Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
    + Young Sherlock Holmes
    + 12 Monkeys
    + Robots

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Several of those are unfamiliar to me, and some (such as Brazil, Time Bandits, and The Time Bandits) don’t really seem to fit in the genre of steampunk. Steampunk involves 19th century alternative technology, though usually not too different. The Wild, Wild West is a good example of this (and I was on a panel at InConJunction a year or two back on that subject). But 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea does fit, even though the technology is not generally available.

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