Saturday, April 30, 2011

Welcome Aboard Highlander Studios

Here’s the news on the miniatures line I promised you earlier.

I’ve just closed the deal for a new line of Space: 1889 miniatures from Highlander Studios. The line will include 15mm scale adventurers, soldiers, and resin-cast accessories, as well as an additional line of 1:1200 scale aerial vessels.

Highlander Studios is a fairly new outfit, but the lead guy on the Space: 1889 line is Rodrick Campbell. He’ll be art director, and at least at first will be doing all the sculpts. He’s done a lot of historical and fantasy stuff in the past, and I think it’s helpful to have both under your belt when tackling Space: 1889.

Rod’s 15mm historical work includes WW II Winter War for Legions East, German Falschirmjaegers for Resistance Roosters, Dark Ages and 1066 lines for Splintered Light, and Tang Chinese for Khurasan. His non-historical 15mm work includes zombies and zombie hunters for Rebel Miniatures, various fantasy figures and the Spacer Crew for Splintered Light, and both Gideon’s Dust (Post-Apocalypse) and Zap-Zap science fiction for his own Highlander Studios.

As we have samples of up-coming miniatures releases, I’ll post some of them here. We expect the first releases to come late summer or early fall.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Other Visions of Space: 1889

Bloodrunner Cloudship

I've added links to two excellent Space: 1889 fan pages.

Dan Thompson's page features some award-winning models of Space: 1889 vessels (including the Bloodrunner model illustrated above), as well as a wonderful Nautilus model and a diorama of the desperate battle between HMS Thunderchild and two Martian tripods in H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Really great stuff! Mateen Greenway's page abounds with beautiful 3D renderings of Space: 1889 vessels in orbit or deep space. Both sites have a wealth of additional historical and scientific background.

In both cases, they have taken small liberties with the Space: 1889 background or science. Maybe I shouldn't say this, but I'm pretty okay with that. In fact, I can't think of a better use for the game than as a springboard for your own imagination. It's my job to provide a solid and consistent background for the various stories and adventures set in the world, but where you go from there is up to you.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Historical Steampunkers: Huxley's X Club

Thomas Henry Huxley

Suppose you are writing a Steampunk story or drafting an adventure set in Victorian London, and you need an organization of famous and influential scientists, a limited and selective group of men dedicated to using science to advance the frontiers of knowledge and serve the common good. Your group will be small enough to keep secrets, but drawn from all branches of science, and even philosophy, so their combined knowledge and wisdom will make them a formidable force, able to divine the significance of even fragmentary clues or incomplete reports from distant stations.

Maybe you want them to monitor dangerous and nefarious activities, or support scientific missions, or even advise the crown. Whatever the purpose it serves in your story, you don’t need to invent the group. It existed. It even had exactly the name you would give it, were you writing this as an adventure story back in, say, the 1960s or 70s. It was called The X Club.

The club was a gentleman’s dining club, launched in November of 1864 by the eminent biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (pictured above). It consisted of himself and seven of his most trusted friends and colleagues, to which was added an additional member (Spottiswode) the following month, after which the club voted to close its membership at nine. Huxley originally proposed the club be named the Blastodermic Club, after the group of cells in a bird which determines the development of the entire organism. The X Club was eventually chosen as a name, perhaps (as Spencer later claimed) because it committed the members to nothing.

Huxley always claimed the club was purely social and existed only to keep close friends from drifting apart. Thomas Hirst, however, claimed that from the first what drew the group together was, “a devotion to science, pure and free, untrammeled by religious dogma.” It was probably no coincidence that the group met to dine at 6:00 PM on the first Thursday of each month, and then adjourned to attend the monthly meeting of the Royal Society at 8:00 or 8:30 that same evening. The group invariably presented a unified and deliberate front in the Royal Society meetings, which (in addition to their mounting scientific accomplishments) eventually made them its most influential members. Between 1873 and 1885, Hooker, Spottiswode, and Huxley alternated as presidents of the Royal Society

The nine members were:

Edward Frankland: The foremost chemist of his day. Originated the concept of valence in chemistry.

George Busk: Surgeon, zoologist, and paleontologist, Busk had formerly been the ship’s surgeon on HMS Dreadnought (the old wooden ship-of-the-line which fought at Trafaklgar, still in service decades later).

Thomas Hirst: Mathematician, specializing in geometery.

Joseph Dalton Hooker: Famous botanist and explorer, Charles Darwin’s closest friend, and Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew for twenty years.

Thomas Henry Huxley: Biologist, champion of the Theory of Evolution, and energetic advocate for scientific schooling in Great Britain. Huxley rose to prominence at a time when clergymen and wealthy amateurs dominated the scientific establishment. He was instrumental in redirecting it in more professional and scholarly directions.

John Lubbock: Biologist and archaeologist, in addition to his other pursuits as a banker and Liberal politician (a Member of Parliament from about 1870 on).

Herbert Spencer: Towering philosopher, writer, and political theorist, not to mention biologist and sociologist. Spencer wrote about evolution before Darwin’s work on the subject and coined the term, “survival of the fittest.” He was the only member of the X Club who was not a member of the Royal Society.

William Spottiswoode: Mathematician and physicist. He never finished his education at Oxford, withdrawing on the death of his father to take his place in the family printing business. He combined his interest in science and mathematics with his printing business to issue a series of pamphlets and books which gained him wide renown and opened the door to the scientific and scholarly community as a whole – an early self-publishing success story!

John Tyndall: Physicist known for his study of diamagnetism, thermal radiation, and atmospheric processes. From 1853 to 1887 he was professor of physics at the Royal Institution, taking the position previously held by Faraday.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Preserving The Reader’s Trance

Mike Resnick, one of the most prolific and award-winning authors in science fiction today, talks about preserving the “reader’s trance.” I’m not sure whether he coined that expression (although I think he did), but whoever did, it’s a very evocative description of what happens to us when we are reading and everything goes right. At it’s very best, reading is a wild ride, and when the language is right, we are in the ride, not watching from the outside. We stop noticing the words on the page and see only the world as the author imagines it. That’s the reader’s trance.

What breaks it? Almost anything. It is extraordinarily delicate. Use the same word in two sentences back to back and the reader will blink, for a moment think about your word usage (instead of the world), and in that moment leave the trace and go back to just reading words on the page.

Speed bumps -- that’s another way to look at the problem. Every time you put something that makes people stop and read a passage a second time to see if they understand what you’re getting at, or  take a mental step back and consider whether they buy what you’re selling, it's as if the ride hits a speed bump, and the reader’s trance is broken.

This came to mind the other day as I was reading Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series. For those of you who haven’t read them (Leviathan and Behemoth are the two books out so far), there’s a lot to like: a couple spunky and admirable protagonists, a detailed world, lots of action, battles, and pretty interesting turn-of-the-century-style bio-engineering, and mechanical walkers – lots of mechanical walkers. Maybe too many. That was my problem.

Westerfeld’s story is set in 1914 at the start of the Great War, but the European alliances of the Triple Entente and the Central Powers are instead the Darwinists (who use bioengineering as their core technology) and the Clankers, who use iron and steam. I found the elaborate bio-engineered “beasties” used by the Darwinists not only imaginative, but very carefully thought-out, even plausible within the scientific assumptions of the author’s universe – everything you could want. Ironically, it is the Clankers, whose technology is less of a stretch, which gave me problems.

I’ll pretty much always allow an author the scientific “gimme’s” of his universe, so I don’t have a problem accepting the Clankers being able to build bunches of combat walkers. What I had consistent problems with throughout the book was the fact that mechanical walkers have apparently supplanted all wheeled vehicles for everything. Walking food carts. Walking beds. I understand this was probably done to increase the exotic sense of the world, but every time I ran into it, I kept wondering why?

Why did the Clankers get rid of every wheeled vehicle in the probably fifty to a hundred years of their industrial revolution? They had to use wheels before that, or they never would have had an industrial revolution. Every time I wondered where all the wheels went, I wasn’t in Westerfeld’s world any more; I was outside of it looking at it as an artificial construct.

It’s not as if Westerfeld is a poor writer or an inexperienced one. He’s got a number of successful books under his belt, including Leviathan itself, which was a New York Times bestseller. And as I said earlier, Leviathan is a popular book for lots of good reasons. So my purpose here is not to beat up on Westerfeld; it is to show that if he can inadvertently break the reader’s trance, anyone can.

But that doesn’t make it okay. We need to do everything we can to grind those speed bumps down flat to the pavement.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Historical Steampunkers -- Jane Dieulafoy

One of the joys of writing Steampunk is the cast of genuinely intriguing historical folks you run across. Jane (Jeanne) Dieulafoy is certainly one of those. Born Henrietta Jeanne Magre to a wealthy French mercantile family in 1851, she met, fell in love with, and married Marcel-Auguste Dieulafoy, a French officer of engineers, shortly before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war. When war came, Jane refused to be parted from her husband and so, dressed as a man, she accompanied his unit throughout the entire war. This got to be a habit.

Ten years later, husband and wife conducted an expedition to Susa in Persia which would gain fame for both of them. It was actually my abiding interest in Achaemenid Persia which brought the Dieylafoys to my attention, not my interest in Victoriana. Marcel-August was the archaeologist of the pair, while Jane was a gifted illustrator and photographer, and became an archaeologist in her own right over time. A number of artifacts, including the famous Frieze of the Immortals, were discovered by the Dieulafoys, and some were transported back to France where they were (and many still are) on display in the Dieulafoy wing of the Louvre. Almost as importantly, Jane made brilliant, clear photographs of their finds. Many of the artifacts have since disappeared and the architectural sites have degraded greatly. In many cases our sole resource for their study remains the portfolio of Jane's photographs.

Very cool if you're an Achaemenid Persian nut like me, but not exactly the stuff of adventure. But there was plenty of adventure along the way. For one thing, Jane insisted on dressing as a man for the ride through Persia, and cut her hair very short to make the effect complete. Hard to believe today, but it was actually illegal under French law at the time for a woman to dress as a man, but she requested from the government, and received, “permission de travestissement” -- exemption from the law. 

The country they traversed was wild and nearly lawless, and bandits were a constant threat. At one point, while most of the group was absent at the dig, a party of eight Persian bandits approached the camp -- guarded only by Jane -- and threatened to make off with the supplies. Jane had two revolvers -- apparently seven-shooters, which were not unheard off at that time, although I've been unable to find out the manufacturer.  Brandishing the revolvers, she was able to face the bandits down and send them on their way. The incident inspired a popular lithograph, captioned with her remark to the eight bandits: "I have fourteen balls at your disposal. Come back with six more friends."

After her return to France she wrote archaeological, travel, and historical pieces, and later an acclaimed novel, Parysatis, upon which Camille Saint-Saens based the opera of the same name. She became a chevalier of the Legion d'Honeur, was well-known in the Paris salons, a member of the French intelligencia when few women were. She continued to dress as a man for the rest of her life and she and her husband shared every "adventure" together until 1916 when, at the age of sixty-five, she contracted a fever in Rabat, Morocco and died shortly afterwards.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Space: 1889 -- auf Deutsch, bitte.

What you see above is the final version of the cover for the upcoming Space: 1889 from Germany. Patric Goetz of Ulisses Spiele (Ulysses Games) is managing the project, but it will be released under his own label Uhrwerk Verlag (Clockwork Publishing). What a great name for a Steampunk publisher. This is a very exciting project, in the works for about two years now, and you heard it here first! It is not a simple translation of the original game, but rather a new design with more modern game mechanics -- if "modern" is the right word for a Steampunk game -- while faithful to the Space: 1889 world background and mood. The manuscript is in good shape and they are working on art (some very nice art!) as we speak. The likely release date is October of this year. 

Of course, this edition will be in German, so English speakers will have to content themselves with the classic edition, available from Heliograph, Ltd, and the Red Sands of Mars/Savage Worlds version. If the German edition is a big hit, however, I've promised to consider a licensed translation of the German edition into English. The idea of an English translation of a German edition of an American game is a little weird, I know, but I'm okay with weird.


While we're on the subject of Germany, here's the new version of the German background. It is largely unchanged, and in some respects is closer to the historical Germany than that in the original Space: 1889.

Bismarck’s guidance of Prussia and then Germany has resulted in unification of the North German states under Hohenzollern rule and an alliance with Great Britain which guarantees German security on the continent. Faced by a common enemy in Communard France, the Anglo-German alliance proved profitable to both parties until 1885, when the Tournai Incident brought France and Germany to war over a French border dispute with Belgium. Great Britain intervened on the side of its allies, Germany and Belgium, but the British were willing only to reestablish the status quo. The elderly Helmut von Moltke, the German Chief of Staff, favored using the Belgian War as a pretext to march on Paris and crush the Commune, but Bismarck and the Kaiser followed the British lead, a move highly unpopular with the Army. Von Moltke resigned soon afterwards.

Early in 1888 Wilhelm I died and was succeeded by Wilhelm II, a headstrong ruler whose sentiments were more  in tune with the Army's. He immediately created the Luft-Kabinett, a senior bureau responsible for greatly increasing air power, and appointed the Graf von Zeppelin its first head. The new Kaiser grows impatient with the British alliance, as British support is limited and, even on continental matters, subject to British policy interest first. On areas outside the continent, however, the British expect unconditional German support. The Kaiser believes Germany must look to its own security and its own future, and is charting a course separate from Britain’s. Bismarck resists this at every opportunity, but knows he has lost favor and his days of power are drawing to a close.

The Luft-Kabinett operates its own intelligence branch which works increasingly in rivalry with the British. The Imperial German Army's own intelligence branch still nominally respects the alliance, but many young and politically active officers feel otherwise, and loyalties are divided between the official policy of the government -- Bismarck and the "old school" -- versus the new policy of the young Kaiser.

Bavaria occupies a unique position within the German empire. It is a kingdom, but it is also part of the empire. As a practical matter, this means it has considerable internal autonomy, and its own security and military forces, but follows Berlin's dictates with respect to foreign policy. Anti-Prussian sentiment runs high, however, and there is considerable sympathy for neutral Austria, which was humbled by Prussia in 1866.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

More on Steampunk World Building

Here's the second major installment in the more elaborate Space: 1889 background.

North America has seen some major changes in the new history of Space: 1889, most of them stemming from the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1862 from typhoid fever. Although Vice-President Hamlin assumed the reins of government and prosecuted the war vigorously, he proved less adept at assembling a broad-based coalition of support. The North floundered in the face of continued battlefield defeats in the east and in 1864 McClellan, running on a peace platform, won the presidency and recognized the Confederacy. The two countries continue in a state of semi-belligerency, with abolition groups in the North financing raids into the South to free slaves, and Southern “hot pursuit” posses often murdering and looting in return. Much of the southwest is still disputed, particularly Arizona territory.

The Confederacy is politically divided between the land-holding gentry and the new commercial middle class. The former sees the future as an alliance with Great Britain against its growing commercial rival in the North. The latter sees the future in increased industrialization and self-sufficiency, a course which would bring back the hated tariffs to protect native industries, or at the very least increasingly reduce the South’s reliance on British goods. The increasing competition from Egyptian cotton on the world market has undercut the position of the traditional plantation owners, and the South has made some progress in industrializing and extending its rail net, but the progress has been uneven. The fact that the skilled industrial workers, particularly in the railroad industry, often have federal/reunificationist sympathies, and are sometimes seen as a Northern fifth column, makes the political dialogue more poisonous.

Maximilian’s imperial reign in Mexico was rendered unsustainable by the North’s victory in the Civil War – in our world. With the South’s independence, Maximilian instead gained a valuable ally. Although Maximilian perished by an assassin’s bomb in 1879, his adopted son Augustin II rules in his place, still fighting a smoldering rebellion kept alive, particularly in the northwest by US assistance.


This business of the Space: 1889 world raises the broader question of world-building in a Steampunk universe. To my mind, Steampunk worlds differ from our own in two important dimensions: geo-political and scientific. Socially, they are very similar, if not identical, to our own Victorian or Edwardian periods, which of course is the largest part of the Steampunk mythos.

Space: 1889 is a close match to the historic late-Victorian period, abounding with historical characters and with clearly recognizable political movements and governmental entities. I've recently been reading Scott Westerfield's Leviathan books, and they have the geo-political difference-o-meter set at about the same setting, although his story opens in August of 1914. At the other end of the scale are worlds which share no recognizable common history with our own, do not even purport to be set on our Earth. While many of these are more fantasy-oriented steampunk worlds, that is not universally the case.

Space: 1889 is also a fairly close match to actual historical technology, although by introducing lift-wood, and the changes necessary to the physical laws of the universe that device entails, it goes beyond some more conservative environments, such as Gibson's world in The Difference Engine (although Gibson's more conservative scientific changes have had more profound effects on society). The afore-mentioned Leviathan series by Westerfeld goes much further in its technological changes, postulating an early discovery of DNA by Darwin and subsequent manipulation of it for bio-engineering which, by 1914, has dramatically changed the face of Europe and the nature of technology. Other worlds go farther still.

The delight of Steampunk, of course, is that there is no "right" way. There are wrong ways, of course -- changes which are not internally consistent, or which have ramifications on society which the author hasn't considered. But within the limits which apply to any science fiction or fantasy world-building, the issue is less what is permissible and more what is wanted. What purpose does the world serve? What sorts of experiences and situations do you want it to produce?

For myself, I enjoy weaving historical characters into the story, and playing off of some of their known interests, strengths, and of course weaknesses. That requires a world broadly similar to our own for those same people to be in approximately the same situations as their historical counterparts. Likewise, a broad similarity in geo-political issues gives the reader or gamer a comfortable starting point, and makes the departures from the actual timeline more noticeable.

The rules of story-telling, however, suggest that what departures are made be made with a purpose, and one which advances the story or enhances the atmosphere. Differences for the sake of difference -- the British Army looking just like it does in our world, except their tunics are purple instead of red -- aren't much more than annoying distractions.

At least that's the way I see it.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Andy's Vampire Opus

Andy Frankham-Allen, friend of the blog, is also the lead writer/editor on the upcoming Space: 1889 and Beyond eBook series from Untreed Reads, and will be writing at least the lead story. He was also a major contributor to the Noise Monster series of Space: 1889 audio stories on CD from a few years back, which many of you remember with great pleasure. I sure do. Those really were well-done.

Andy's promised to give you a full update of the Space:1889 and Beyond series when we're closer to release. In the mean time, take a look at some of his non-steampunk work. His new vampire novel, Seeker, which is the first in a series, is out from Hirst in the UK. You can get it directly from the publisher at and it should be in the brick-and-mortar stores ("stockists" for the UK folks) and their online sites soon. It's available in eBook format as well from most online stores, although I would be remiss not to nudge you in the direction of

As I mentioned before, getting a vampire novel published these days may be up there with getting a camel through the eye of a needle -- it takes something special. If you're into the vampire mystique, this is definitely worth a look.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

France in Space: 1889

The world of Space: 1889 has changed a bit in recent years and those changes are reflected in upcoming Space: 1889 works currently in preparation. I promised you a look at those changes and France is a fun place to start.

The Paris Commune of 1871, instead of falling within two months, prevailed and replaced the provisional government with “La Republique Democratique et Social.” The government is still colloquially refered to as The Commune, and its most ideological adherents are called Communards. The National Guard, whose ranks provided the original armed resistance to the provisional government, became La Garde Rouge, the elite shock troops of the Commune in the fighting which followed. La Garde Rouge remains the armed bulwark of the government, controlling the best-equipped units of the army and fleet as well as the intelligence services. They fly a distinctive blood-red ensign in addition toi the tricolor of the republic.

France’s progressive policies bring it into constant conflict with the more traditional and autocratic regimes of Europe, particularly the German and Russian Empires. Traditional Franco-German rivalry is aggravated by unrest among German workers as well as ties between industrial labor organizers and the Commune. Germany and France went to war briefly in 1885 over a border dispute between France and Belgium. British intervention forced France to give up its territorial gains and accept the pre-war boundaries. Tensions remain high between France on one hand and the Anglo-German alliance on the other. France also opposes growing Russian influence in the Balkans, and intelligence agent play an elaborate and sometimes deadly game in the cities of Europe as well as the colonies and native kingdoms of Mars. The Commune supports reform movements throughout Europe and maintains covert contacts with labor unionists, so loyalties increasing break along political and class lines instead of simply national ones.