Monday, May 23, 2011

Those Wonderful Toys

When I think of Steampunk, I often remember Jack Nicholson (as the Joker) in the original Batman. I don't suggest the film was Steampunk, of course, but when Nicholson looks at Batman and says, "Where does he get those wonderful toys?" he is asking the same question I always find myself wondering in the face of good Steampunk.

Where do they get those wonderful toys?

I know, Steampunk is more than just that. Steampunk addresses the conflict inherent between progress and safety. It lets us explore how technology and society bump up against each other by looking at technologies that never were and societies which maybe shouldn't have taken that right turn at Albuquerque. It is also about why hope is superior to despair, and resistance superior to surrender.

But if it doesn't have wonderful toys, it just doesn't work.

Yesterday I pointed you toward Alan Patrick’s webpage, who has some wonderful toys from the Space: 1889 universe. Today I've got an even bigger treat. Alan did his ships for a big Cloudships game put on by the South London Warlords at Salute in the United Kingdom. Here is the web page with all of the ships used in the game, as well as pictures from the event. It's so well done I'm adding it as a permanent link. The Hullcutter screw galley at the top of this page is one example, and a damned fine one, too -- exactly the sort of sinister menace I always imagined.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sky Galleons and Flying Gunboats

I await Highlander Studio's upcoming 15mm figures with an unseemly anticipation. In the mean time, the above picture is of a beautifully executed Space: 1889 armored flying gunboat in 25mm from Alan Patrick’s Victorian & Pulp Science Fiction gaming page. One of the reasons I look forward to 15mm figures is the increased ease of construction (and use in games) of exactly this sort of vessel. I kit-bashed about a half-dozen vessels in 25mm myself, and was fortunate to be able to use a beautiful 25mm-scale HMS Aphid built by Tom Harris, an HMS Reliant-class cruiser built, armed, and manned by Rich Houston himself (of Lizard's Grin and Houston's Ships), as well as a Hull Cutter and another screw galley converted from a hand-built Roman galley, and several cloudships converted from pirate ships of various provenance. Great, great stuff, and we had tons of fun at game conventions putting on games. I admit, though, it was tough to transport. 15mm scale vessels and vehicles will be easier.

Check out the link to Alan's page above. It has other photos of some very nice Martian cloudships.

Untreed Reads Series Go For Launch

As I said earlier, e-publisher Untreed Reads is assembling a series of ebook to be released over the next eighteen or so months, entitled Space 1889 and Beyond. The title does not mean it will go beyond the Space: 1889 universe -- it is firmly grounded in that rich and wonderful place. It simply means the continuing adventures will ultimately extend beyoind the year 1889.

The first story (hopefully) will be released in late summer. Friend of the blog Andy Frankham is the editor for the series, and will be writing at least one of the stories. Many of you will remember Andy from his work on the great Noise Monster Space: 1889 audio series.

We'll have a more complete release before long, but in the mean time here is a link to the new Facebook page for the series.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cool Steampunk Stuff

A short column today, but some cool stuff to look at. Here is a link to the Ten Coolest Steampunk Gadgets Ever. The item I've shown above, one of my personal favorites, is actually number 6 on the list -- a Steampunk USB thumb drive. The list has a couple computers as well, some action figures -- you name it. It's a great illustration of how Victoriana is a wonderful springboard for imagination. I've written about Tesla several time, but for a good reason. He remains emblematic of the spirit of this period. Anything was possible, and they didn't mean in a hundred years -- they meant as soon as they could bolt it together in the workshop and iron out a few kinks.

Check out the link and have fun.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tesla's Greatest Contribution to Steampunk

Were we to seize and to eliminate the results of Mr. Tesla's work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric cars and trains would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would be dead and idle.
            -B.A. Behrend, quoted in Liberty, February, 1937

I’ve been involved in a move from Florida to Illinois for the past week, and will go on dealing with it for a while to come, so forgive me if the postings become a bit less regular here for a while. But I left you hanging with my last column about Nikola Tesla and wanted to follow up. While recognizing Tesla’s enormous contributions to the modern world in the field of electrical engineering, as well as the thought-provoking personality quirks which made him something of an outcast in his later years, I said that his greatest gift to Steampunk story-tellers rested elsewhere. That gift lies in his unrealized visions.

Tesla was not the first person to dream big about the future, but he was the first one with such remarkable credentials to also advance such audacious technological predictions. Tesla envisioned electro propulsive flying machines “devoid of sustaining wings, propellers or gas bags.” He predicted, and tried to build, towers which would transmit electrical energy through the aether, or through the earth itself. He tried to interest the U.S. Army in a “teleforce” beam weapon shortly before and during World War II – essentially a particle accelerator weapon system – and conspiracy theorists delight in the fact that the Army seized his papers upon his death and classified them as top secret. (They were later released to his estate.)

That capacity to see enormous technological change, and envision a world profoundly altered by it, is in many respects the essence of Steampunk.

But personally, I think his greatest gift to Steampunk is his Dynamic Theory of Gravity.

First, let me say that gravity is very weird stuff. Einstein’s famous critique of quantum physics as requiring “spooky action at a distance,” applied to quantum entangled particles. Two entangled particles known to be “balanced” with respect to a characteristic, such as angle or rotation, must include one particle which rotates one way and one which rotates the other, but neither particle collapses into that state until actually measured. Measuring one particle not only forces it to collapse into one state, it also forces its entangled twin to collapse into the opposite state, no matter how much distance separates them, and does so instantaneously. This, Einstein observed, requires an exchange of information at greater than light speed, which he suspected was impossible, hence his expression “spooky action at a distance.”

In fact, experiments within the last decade have confirmed the behavior of quantum-entangled particles, but you didn’t need to ever go as far as quantum mechanics to observe spooky action at a distance – gravity provides a much more concrete and observable example.

The Earth is, on average, about 93 million miles from the sun, and it takes light an average of about 8 minutes and a few seconds to travel that distance. That means that when you look up at the sun, you aren’t seeing it where it is; you are seeing it where it was eight minutes ago. However, the earth responds gravitationally to where the sun is this instant, not where it appears to be based on the light speed delay. That means that whatever mechanism is at work with respect to gravity, its information exchange over distance takes place instantaneously, not at light speed.

Explaining gravity remains one of the unsolved riddles of the universe. We have big hopes that the Large Hadron Collider will answer some of these questions, but we’ll see. In the mean time, though, Tesla explained it over a century ago, in the 1890s, with his Dynamic Theory of Gravity, a theory which accounted for gravity’s interaction with electromagnetic fields as well as all the fundamental forces working on mater. It encompassed the aether, addressed issues such as “free energy,” (tapping the energy of the dynamic aether around us), explained electro-powered flight, and much, much more. Why was this such a boon to Steampunk story-tellers?

Because he never actually published the theory.

Tesla talked about the theory, explained what it would explain, what devices it would enable mankind to enjoy, but he never actually explained the theory itself, never articulated it in full detail. Late in his life he expressed his intention to do so, but died soon afterwards.

In other words, he never gave the world a theory concrete enough to refute.

Now that is a gift beyond any measure of value. What we have is the suggestion, from one of the most brilliant and visionary scientific minds of modern times, that such an explanation of the physical world exists.

And who are we to say that it is not at least possible?

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Bad Day For Zeppelins

This day in history, 1937, witnessed the explosion and crash of the German zeppelin Hindenburg. The incident is associated with the end of the first era of commercial airships, although they keep threatening to come back as inexpensive means of carrying bulk cargo. I'd love to see it, myself. There are some very imaginative designs for rigid and semi-rigid airships out there these days, and helium is a lot safer than hydrogen (assuming we do not just piss away the world's entire supply of helium into colored balloons).

But for now, all we're left with is the memory of these amazing, majestic vessels.

Here's a link to the original New York Times article.

Happy Birthday Sir Harry Flashman

I am greatly remiss! A good friend pointed out that yesterday was the birth anniversary of the late Sir Harry Paget Flashman, VC, KCB, KCIE; Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur; U.S. Medal of Honor; San Serafino Order of Purity and Truth, 4th Class.

Sir Harry was born on May 5, 1822, and his storied career included encounteres with the "White Rajah" of Sarawak, Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar,  the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, and Otto von Bismark, among many others. His service in armies other than that of Great Britain included a hitch as a major in the Union Army and one as a colonel in the Confederate Army, both during the American Civil War. His literary works included Dawns and Departures of a Soldier, Twixt Cannon and Cossack, and the ever-popular The Case Against Military Reform. If literature has ever provided a more remarkable rogue, I'd like to meet him.

Happy belated birthday, Sir Harry!

Historical Steampunkers: Nikola Tesla

I’ve written a couple entries about historical characters to insert in steampunk adventures or stories, but I have not yet mentioned the 500-pound gorilla in the steam room: Nikola Tesla. His scientific achievements are extraordinary and well-known. A very long column would still not cover his accomplishments, but the list would include alternating current, radio, robotics, and the wireless transmission of power. But his real claim to membership in a cast of characters lies in his personality.

Tesla was what the folks in my extended family call “a strange agent.” He was probably the archetype for the modern mad scientist. He apparently suffered from synesthesia, a neurological condition in which sensory or cognitive stimulation produces involuntary  experiences (hallucinations) in other senses. In Tesla’s case, particularly difficult problems sometimes produced blinding flashes of light accompanied by visions which provided solutions to the problem at hand. He also experienced vivid hallucinatory flashbacks to events earlier in his life,

He had a photographic memory, which allowed him to memorize complete texts. He also had the ability to visualize devices in extraordinary detail and precision, so he often dispensed with blueprints and technical drawings, working entirely from his mental image of the finished device.

He remained celibate throughout his adult life. He claimed it helped keep his mind focused (which always reminds me of Sterling Hayden as Colonel Ripper in Dr. Strangelove). He was reticent and retiring in private, but prefered elaborate and dramatic demonstrations of his inventions. When he spoke at conventions, he insisted on a large Tesla coil shooting electricity throughout the room, to the general discomfort of his audience.

As he grew older, he became increasingly paranoid, developed hypersensitivity to light and noise, and escalating symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder. He became obsessed with pigeons and was fascinated by the number three, eventually finding it impossible to stay in a hotel room whose number was not evenly divisible by three. For the last years of his life he lived in a two-room suite on the thirty-third floor of the Hotel New York – suite 3327

So . . . one really strange guy, with lots of quirky behaviors to keep your readers or adventurers amused and uncertain as to what happens next. But Tesla has an even greater gift to offer steampunk storytellers, and I’ll cover that next time.