Tag Archives: steampunk

Easy Steam

I don’t think I mentioned this before, but I’ve started a new blog in response to the level of interest shown in my entries on the subject of steampunk. Here it is.


It’s called Real Steampunk and, as the name sort-of implies, it’s dedicated to real life examples of strange machines worthy of steampunk. I’m hoping to update on a weekly basis, although entries will be much shorter than you may be used to here on London Particulars. There’s only so much you can say about machinery before people’s eyes start glazing over, in my experience.


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London Lit: The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein

Early nineteenth century literature revisited and reinterpreted is a popular theme with authors these days. Well, revisiting and reinterpreting Pride and Prejudice is a popular theme with authors these days. I heard Waterstones was considering introducing a new shelving category headed “Books In Which Modern Women Fantasise About Mr Darcy (N.B. You Know He Doesn’t Take His Shirt Off In The Book, Don’t You).” In a shocking display of defiance against convention, Peter Ackroyd’s reimagining focuses on an obscure 19th century work known as Frankenstein, written by Mary something.

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is a bit of an oddity. I suppose you could call it a parody of the original, in which Victor Frankenstein and his experiments are dropped into the real world of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his social circle. Frankenstein himself is a contemporary of Shelley, and conducts his experiments in darkest Limehouse (shades of Fu Manchu and The Picture of Dorian Gray). Fact and fiction intermingle as Victor’s attempts to defy death are overlaid on top of Shelley’s life and work. Indeed, there are several points at which things get dangerously metafictional – most notably, Frankenstein accompanies the Shelleys, Byron and Polidori on the trip to Geneva that would inspire Mary Shelley to write the original novel. The death of Bysshe’s first wife is here given a distinctly more gruesome motive. And, bizarrely, the body of a consumptive young man named “Jack Keat” is donated to Frankenstein’s experiments – though it’s not clear how far we’re meant to take this allusion, as few of the character’s biographical details match those of the real John Keats.

"I hope I didn't do anything stupid last night. Oh no, I've created a blasphemous parody of life. The wife's gonna kill me."

The novel as a whole appears to be a tribute of sorts to the Gothic genre – I’ve mentioned that there are echoes of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but Ackroyd also alludes to Dracula and The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde at various points. The ending and the final explanation of just what the hell has been going on all this time leaves a lot of questions unanswered, not to mention the fact that it doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. To be honest, I found it something of a disappointment as twist endings go, but perhaps Ackroyd is playing with the tendency of the Gothic novel to be ambiguous on supernatural matters.

A major theme, and one that particularly grabbed my interest, was Ackroyd’s exploration of early nineteenth century science. The classic image of Frankenstein is the wild-haired scientist surrounded by electrical coils, lightning flashing all around as he brings his monster to life. Although this owes more to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis than anything in the original novel (although at one point in the book, Frankenstein is inspired by the power of a lightning strike), Ackroyd runs with the idea that electricity is how things are done.

Screen cap from Metropolis in which C3PO is turned into a woman using electricity or something.

Indeed, in those days, electricity did have all sorts of strange supernatural abilities ascribed to it. One early electrocution victim reported a distinct whiff of brimstone. Luigi Galvani (from whom we get the word “galvanise”) had conducted experiments in 1786 in which, when touching the nerves of a dissected frog’s leg with metal during a thunderstorm, the muscles would contract. From this, he concluded that electricity was the source of all life. We now know this to be a lot of hooey, but it was taken very seriously at the time, and Ackroyd goes with the idea that Galvani’s assumption was correct. The Shelleys were themselves rather interested in the possibilities of this hypothesis, and had discussed the possibility that it might function as a means of resurrection.

The morality or lack thereof of science is, as per many adaptations of Frankenstein, discussed. Although Mary Shelley never really made it clear how Victor creates his monster, Ackroyd uses the time-honoured “bits of dead people” explanation. This allows him to bring in the Resurrection Men, one of the grottier trades of the era. Long story short, surgeons and doctors needed bodies to carry out their experiments, and the Resurrection Men supplied them. Although hanging victims were the most legit source (apparently it was not unknown for friends of the condemned to have to fight the Resurrection Men off following the execution), bodies might also be sourced from mortuaries, graveyards or even – as per the case of Burke and Hare in Edinburgh – by cutting out the middleman and killing people yourself. Older cemeteries often have a watch house as a reminder of the scale of the problem. But the sad reality was, bodies were needed – were it not for the horrible trade in corpses, many of the medical discoveries of the nineteenth century might never have been made. Frankenstein’s use of such men, and the dodginess of their methods, crops up repeatedly and comes to have an important bearing on the story.

The juxtaposition of the scientist Frankenstein and the poet Shelley raises another factor concerning science of the era. Namely, the fact that science, politics and art were closely intertwined. This was perhaps best illustrated by the friendship of political writer Thomas Paine and steam engine pioneer James Watt, or Benjamin Franklin’s dual role as scientist and politician. The new inventions and discoveries of the era seemed fantastical, and raised certain questions concerning society. What did it mean for the class system if we could have engines to do our work? Meanwhile, the Romantics saw their own restlessness and discontent mirrored in the march of technology, which seemed Faustian or even Promethean. Indeed, the sub-title of Frankenstein was The Modern Prometheus. In short, this was an age when everything seemed to be pushing forward, and all fields of endeavour seemed to mirror each other.

Overall, it seems that Ackroyd’s aim here is to use the basic structure of Shelley’s original novel to offer a commentary on the world of the Romantics, both in fact and fiction. If I’m going to be quite frank (har har), I don’t think it’s his best novel, but it’s fairly enjoyable if you have an interest in that world. Otherwise, you may prefer the Mel Brooks version, which has Marty Feldman in it.

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Go ahead, steampunk, make my day

Now, if you followed the link in yesterday’s entry, you will have come across Yr. Humble Chronicler’s philosophical opinion on the growing popularity of steampunk as a fashion statement in our fair city. One question I am often asked when discussing the subject is, “What the hell is steampunk?”
Good question, and damned if I can find a simple answer.
Perhaps the most basic answer I can give is that it’s science fiction or fantasy with a Victorian-styled setting, a sort of confluence of historic and futuristic tales. A typical steampunk story will be set in a world with the trappings of Victorian England, but far more technologically (and perhaps sociologically) advanced. It may be set in an alternative past, an alternative present or an entirely different world. Another popular scenario is a story set in the same world as an already-existing piece of Victorian fiction. Here are some examples of the different types.
Type 1: Alternative Past

Example: The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

 Scenario: In our world, Charles Babbage was working on the Analytical Engine at the time of his death. Put simply, this would have been the world’s first programmable computer had it been completed. In The Difference Engine, Charles Babbage lives to finish the Analytical Engine, ushering in the Information Age a hundred years early. As a result, 1850s London is a city of steam cars, Tube lines, mechanical cinematography and mass production. Unfortunately, this premature expansion comes at a social, political and environmental cost.

Type 2: Alternative Present

 Example: The Warlord of the Air by Michael Moorcock

Scenario: An Edwardian soldier finds himself mysteriously transported to 1973. But not our 1973. This is a version where the First World War never happened. Heavier-than-air flight and petrol engines remain largely experimental, the world is divided between oppressive European empires and society has barely evolved beyond the Victorian era. Meanwhile, technologically-advanced anarchists believe change is long overdue…

Type 3: Fantasy World

Example: Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

Scenario: A world where magic and technology are combined in weird ways. It’s a place where races of strange creatures co-exist with steam trains, analytical engines and airships. Steam-powered robots are commonplace, but sound recording won’t be discovered for another two decades. The weather can be controlled by magical technology, but medicine is at barely more than medieval levels. Anything goes. It’s fair to say, though, that most steampunk fantasy tends to be set in either medieval-type worlds with steam-powered technology or Victorian-type worlds with magic.

Type 4: Someone Else’s Setting

Example: Scarlet Traces by Ian Edginton and D’Israeli

Scenario: Ten years after the invasion of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Britain has adopted Martian technology and as a result has become an even bigger industrial powerhouse. Automated factories have put millions out of work, horses have been replaced by mechanical spider-things and the heat ray is the power source of choice. It almost goes without saying that the British Empire, unrestricted and unopposed, is incredibly evil.

Other notable works with steampunk themes and elements include Wild Wild West, His Dark Materials and Van Helsing. Actually, now I come to think of it, I’m not sure there’s ever been a good steampunk film. But you get the idea.

Some also count genuine works of Victorian science fiction such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Time Machine. I don’t. Steampunk, to my mind, is a stylistic thing. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were merely writing science fiction in what, to them, was a contemporary setting. I think that to call their work “steampunk” is a bit like saying that Jane Austen wrote historic fiction. However, pastiches of or sequels to their work written by contemporary authors would be steampunk, because the author would be combining science fiction with a setting that, to them, would be historic. Clear?

I don’t know how you’d class, say, the 1960s film adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I think I’ll just throw down a smoke bomb and escape in the ensuing chaos.

Now, steampunk in the sense of the article in the Evening Standard wot I contributed to is different again. It’s a dressing-up thing, a coming-together of several different trends and subcultures.

First, you’ve got your Gothic and your Industrial subcultures. The Gothic subculture has the Victorian thing going on, with the top hats and the corsets and what-have-you. The Industrial subculture heavily uses work and military clothes as well as accessories that allude to machinery and, of course, industry. There’s a certain amount of aesthetic overlap between the two subcultures already, although in my experience if you say that out loud you’re asking for some rivethead to hotly argue that no they’re not alike at all shut up.

Then you’ve got your Neo-Victorians and Young Fogies. These are people who seek to emulate the ways of an older generation, albeit usually with certain compromises to fit in with the modern era (for instance, allowing women the vote and not assuming the Chinese to be evil). Said emulation often involves wearing period costume and adopting period manners.

I include this purely for illustrative purposes.

And then you have steampunk cosplay. Cosplay, if you’re not familiar with the term, consists of dressing up as a fictional character – you know those people who dress up as Star Trek characters at conventions? That’s cosplay, in a manner of speaking. Steampunk cosplay is, like its inspiration, a mix of Victorian and anachronistic elements, with a strong technological theme. For the cosplayers, it often has a nostalgic or adventurous feel. Characters may be created. Zeppelins may be alluded to. The chances are that you won’t get any musings on imperialism or the impact of industrialisation.

So, what you see on the streets of Shoreditch dates back some way further than Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes (which I still haven’t seen, but I’m told it’s very good). All that’s happening now is that it’s intersecting with the mainstream.

Now, where are my brass goggles?



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Poop Poop

I’m not much of a Sunday morning person. As a matter of fact, I tend to view Sunday morning as a theoretical concept that exists largely to prevent the clocks from getting messed up and to give churchgoers a time when they can worship without disturbing awful heathens such as myself. So waking at six today was, as you might imagine, something of a wrench.


Hyde Park, this morning

Making things worse was the fact that I’d only got in at about 4. I’d been at a Halloween party hosted by Becky B, who is an excellent host and also – if you follow the link on the right – a fine purveyor of bloggery in her own right. As it was a literary-themed party, I went as Fantomas. Partly because, you know, any excuse for a top hat and tailcoat.

On the way back I made the mistake of falling asleep on the bus, and when I woke up my bag had been stolen. Fortunately I am incredibly paranoid about having my bag stolen, so there was nothing of great monetary value in there. However, the bag itself was a leaving present from my old job and it contained my sketchpad, my trusty A-Z and my favourite cravat, so they only got things of sentimental value. They could have taken my coat, hat or cane, any of which would have been worth a lot more in monetary terms. In conclusion, should I ever find the fucker who stole my bag, I will eat them and telephone their mother to let them know what is happening. I’m really quite upset.

IMG_2142That aside, today was the day of the annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. This is an event held on the first Sunday of every November, first run in 1896 to celebrate the end of the Locomotive Act. This had limited self-propelled vehicles to a walking pace (down to 2mph in built-up areas) and – prior to an 1878 amendment – demanded that all such vehicles be preceded by a man with a red flag. This was the origin of the Act’s popular nickname, the Red Flag Act. The London to Brighton Run was originally known as the Emancipation Run, and opened with the symbolic destruction of a red flag.

IMG_2144The event is now run by the Veteran Car Club (of which Yr. Humble Chronicler used to be a member) and sponsored by Tindle Newspapers. It starts from Hyde Park and ends on Madeira Drive in Brighton. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a race. For a start, I believe racing on public highways is illegal in this country, and doing so in vehicles this old would be downright suicidal. The rules also stipulate that no vehicle built after 1905 may partake, although it’s not unknown for petrolhead spectators to show up in later classics.

IMG_2147These days, the event serves as a sort of eccentric commemoration of the pioneering days of motoring. It’s commonly attended by celebrities of the motoring world – I think just about every Top Gear presenter ever has taken part, and racing drivers are common participants. Various organisations, such as King’s College, the VCC, the Royal Automobile Club and motoring manufacturers also tend to put their own vehicles in, although the bulk are privately owned vehicles that have either been passed down the generations or rescued and restored.IMG_2149 Period dress is not obligatory, but it’s certainly popular.

I’d say that it’s a typically British event, except it’s not. Vehicles and drivers come from literally all over the world. They encompass a wide range of backgrounds and age groups. Generally, it’s a splendidly cosmopolitan affair where people from right across the planet can get together and celebrate their mildly odd passion. I mean that in a good way, I’d love to take part myself.


Genevieve. It was too quick for me.

The event even has its own film, the 1953 comedy Genevieve, starring John Gregson and the ever-marvellous Kenneth More. I mention this largely because Genevieve, the title vehicle, still does the run, as you can see to the left.

One thing you realise from watching this event is how much things have changed since those early days. Cars, when you get down to it, are usually built to a fairly standard format. Four wheels, engine at the front, either two or four seats in the middle. No such standardisation back before 1905. Some of the cars look like little more than farm carts or gigs with engines strapped on. Some have passengers seated in front of the driver. Some have passengers sitting facing the driver, with the steering wheel mounted amidships (the “sociable” layout, as it was known). There was the dos-a-dos, with the passengers facing backwards. There were the buckboards, flimsy-looking two-seaters that look only a step up from a skateboard. Tiny little things for one and great stagecoach-looking things.IMG_2152 Manufacturers you’ve never heard of, home-built one-offs, kit cars and early examples from the great companies of today.

They weren’t even sure how these should be powered. Petrol won out (although in those days it had to be bought at the chemist), but steam and electricity were also popular modes of propulsion. Indeed, compared to the smoking, chuffing, rattling petrol vehicles of the day, the smooth and surprisingly clean-running steam car looks light years ahead.

The 1896 SalvesonMy favourite vehicle in the show would have to be the unique Salveson seen on the right. My comments about steam being clean and smooth don’t quite apply to this steam car, which is coal-fired and requires a fireman and a separate coal tender. It’s a magnificently steampunk-looking contraption that puts me in mind of the Arkansas Chuggabug from Wacky Races. Sometime participant, the 1875 Grenville steam carriage. Also pretty steampunk.

Although I think I have special admiration for the young chap who was riding alongside the vehicles in Victorian costume, pedalling a Penny Farthing. Now that, friends, is dedication.

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He’s a slippery one, that Captain Nemo.

So anyway, it turns out that Captain Nemo didn’t actually die on Lincoln Island in Jules Verne’s Île mystérieuse. The truth, it seems, is far more complicated. Behold my Kentish Town discovery!

"I am not what you call a civilised man!"

"I am not what you call a civilised man!"

Further reading:


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