Posts Tagged ‘Jules Verne’

Adam Savage Hitches Rickshaw to Four-Legged Spot Robot

June 21, 2020

This is another video which has absolutely nothing to do with politics, but I’m putting it up simply because it’s fun. In it, Adam Savage, the engineer and Science Fiction fan behind Mythbusters, builds a joint for Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot so he can hitch a rickshaw he built for himself to it. Boston Dynamics have developed a series of robots, some of which are humanoid and bipedal. They produced another quadrupedal robot, Big Dog, as a carrier for the American army. However, the programme was cancelled because the robot’s electric motors produced too much noise for it to be used in combat, as this would have alerted the enemy to the soldiers’ approach.

Savage says of the rickshaw he built, that it was originally going to be very brightly coloured after the Indian vehicles. When he came to build it, it became darker, and much more European so that it had a Steampunk look. Steampunk is the type of Science Fiction that imagines what would have happened if the Victorians had really developed the kind of technology in the early SF of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and had space and time travel and computers. One of the founding books of this genre was William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which is set in a Britain where Lord Byron has led a revolution and is now the head of government and Charles Babbage’s pioneering early mechanical computer, the Difference Engine of the title, has been built.

The Spot robot itself is semi-autonomous. As Savage has shown in previous videos, it can be operated by remote control. However, it recognises and avoids obstacles, and so it’s impossible to steer it into a brick wall. It will just stop, or try to go round it. When Savage and two other engineers and technicians are testing how it performs with the rickshaw attached, the robot comes to a halt on a slope. This is because it doesn’t realise that it needs to put in more power to pull the rickshaw up it, and so the two technicians work on its software so that it can correctly assess the force it needs and perform accordingly.

The robot and rickshaw together really do look like something out of Steampunk SF, or the 19th century SF art of the French author, Jacques Robida. Or even a scene from the Star Wars’ galaxy, which similarly mixes high technology – spaceships, robots and landspeeders with very low-tech forms of transport like animals. The fact that this is reality in 2020 shows that we are living in an age of SF.

Radio 4 Adaptation on Saturday of Verne’s ‘The Mysterious Island’

March 25, 2020

According to next week’s Radio Times, Radio 4 next Saturday, 28th March 2020, is broadcasting an adaptation of Jules Verne’s ‘The Mysterious Island’ at 3.00 pm. The blurb for it runs

‘Drama: To the Ends of the Earth: the Mysterious Island

Three very different people escape the American Civil War by stealing a balloon – which crashes near a deserted island. But perhaps it is not quite as deserted as they think. Gregory Evan’s dramatisation of Jules Verne’s sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.’

What struck me about this is that Captain Nemo is played by an Asian actor, Sagar Arya. There’s a bitter controversy at the moment over ‘forced diversity’, the term used for writers, directors and producers altering the gender and race of established characters in order to make traditional, or long-established stories, plays, films or TV series more multicultural, feminist or otherwise inclusive. It might be thought that this is another example, but it would be wrong.

In an interview with Alan Moore I found on YouTube a few months ago, the comics legend behind Watchmen, V for Vendetta and a series of other strips and graphic novels, explained why he made Nemo an Indian prince in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. The comic, which was made into a film a little while ago starring Sean Connery, imagines a kind of late 19th – early 20th century superhero group formed by Alan Quartermain, the Invisible Man, Dorian Grey, Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego, Mr Hyde, and Captain Nemo. The group travels on their adventures in Nemo’s ship, the Nautilus. The strip was drawn by 2000 AD art robot, Kevin O’Neill, whose art back in the 1980s for an edition of the Green Lantern Corps was judged too horrific for children by the late, unlamented Comics Code. So far, however, I have heard of no-one being left psychologically scarred by his art on The League. Moore stated that he made Nemo Indian, with O’Neill’s art consequently showing the Nautilus’ interior decorated with Indian art and architectural motifs, because that is exactly how Verne described him in The Mysterious Island. He wasn’t at all like James Mason in the Disney movie.

Now I dare say that the Beeb may very well have chosen to adapt The Mysterious Island for radio in order to give this favourite Science Fiction character a new, multicultural twist. But it is faithful to Verne’s original conception of the character. It’ll be interesting to hear what it’s like.

Here’s the video from the AlanMooreVids channel on YouTube, in which Moore talks about the strip. It’s a segment from the BBC 4 series on comics, Comics Britannia. The video shows O’Neill’s art, and the artist himself working. Moore praises his collaborator on the strip, saying that he take the most disturbing of his ideas and make them two or three times more upsetting. But he admires his skill for the grotesque, which in Moore’s view places him up there with the caricaturists Gilray and Hogarth. It’s high praise, but I think Moore’s actually right. If O’Neill had become a caricaturist instead of a comics artist, I think he would be admired as the equal of such greats as Gerald Scarfe and Ralph Steadman.

A Tale of Piracy, Murder and Revenge in the Far Future

March 15, 2020

Alastair Reynolds, Revenger (London: Orion 2016).

And now for a bit of good Science Fiction. Julian, one of the great commenters on this blog, asked me to write a review of Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger a couple of months ago. Well, it’s taken me a little bit of time to get round to it, but here it is.

Reynolds has a doctorate in astronomer and was a scientist for the European Space Agency before becoming a full-time writer. He specialises in hard SF, the type of Science Fiction written by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. This is based, more or less, in known science, although obviously this can be stretched to a greater or lesser degree. Hard SF tends of avoid Faster Than Light Travel and concentrates on creating worlds and futures that are scientifically plausible, given the present state of knowledge.

Revenger, however, is set in the very far future when the Earth and the other planets have long been broken up to create a plethora of habitable, artificial space environments like the space colonies advocated by the late Dr. Gerald O’Neill’s L5 Society and other space colonisation groups. There are about 20,000 such worlds, collectively referred to as ‘the congregation’. The Earth is no longer even a memory, and the Solar System has been subject to successive waves of colonisation, known as occupations. The present period in which the book is set is the twelfth. These occupations have spanned lasted thousands of years, with vast periods in between, so that the Solar System is very ancient indeed. And not all the colonising civilisations that have risen and fallen have been human.

Some of these lost civilisations were extremely advanced, far more so than the present state of humanity. They have vanished, but stashed pieces of their technology in the baubles, tiny artificial worlds sealed off from the rest of the universe. Although tiny, these have their own artificial gravity provided by swallowers located in their centres. Chemical rockets and ion engines are known and used, but the chief method of flight between the worlds of the congregation is the Solar Sail. This is limited to sublight speed and the inhabitants of the Solar System are themselves unable to reach the other cultures of the ‘Swirly’, as the Galaxy is called. Nevertheless, there is evidence that some of the ancient ships with which the Congregation was settled came from outside the Solar System, and there are a number of alien species from outside doing business there. Chief among these are the Clackers, who act as humanity’s bankers, and who have a mysterious, intense interest in the ancient discs used as currency. There is also a trade in the lost technologies contained in the baubles with ships, whose crews specialise in raiding them for their wonders.

The book’s the story of Arafura ‘Fura’ Ness, a rich young woman, and her quest to rescue her sister, Adrana, and avenge her murdered crewmates after the ship she and her sister join is attacked by the pirate queen, Bosa Sennen. The sisters come from a rich family that has fallen on hard times. Determined to restore the fortunes of their widowed father, they sign on as bone readers with one such ship plundering the baubles, Monetta’s Mourn under Captain Rackamore. The bones are a strange communication device, ancient alien skulls containing mysterious circuitry, or fragments of them, into which an especially sensitive human can jack to send and pick up messages from other vessels. There are also more conventional forms of communication like 20th century radio and television. After their ship has successfully plundered one bauble, it is attacked by Sennen. Ness is hidden from Sennen by the previous bone reader, a young woman driven mad by the bones. This woman and Adrana are taken by Sennen, who needs new bonereaders. She ruthlessly tortures and kills the other crewmembers, before departing the wrecked ship.

Ness and another woman, Prozor, manage to survive and make their way back to civilisation. Ness is ambushed by an agent for her father in a bar, and taken back to her home on Mazarile, where she is drugged and kept as a virtual prisoner. With the aid of her robot, Paladin, she escapes, rejoins Prozor, and the two make plans to join a suitable ship they can use to rescue Adrana and destroy Sennen and her evil crew.

Although set in the far future, the congregation and its worlds are nevertheless based on real scientific speculation. They’re a Dyson cloud/ swarm – I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the precise term. It’s a form of Dyson sphere. The physicist Freeman Dyson suggested that advanced, space-travelling civilisations would break up the planets of their solar systems and use the material to build solid spheres around their suns in order to harness all the stars’ light and energy, with the civilisations then living on the inside of the spheres. However, there are problems with such a concept. For example, the gravity generated by centrifugal force would be stronger at the Sphere’s equator, and disappear at the poles, making these areas difficult for civilisations to occupy. Larry Niven dealt with this problem by suggesting that they would only build an inhabited ring around the star, hence his masterpiece, Ringworld. Dyson, however, believed that such spheres would not be solid, and would in fact be composed of a cloud of tiny worldlets arranged in suitable orbits. This is the idea that Reynolds has used as the basis for this book.

As advanced as technology is in Revenger – limbs can be removed, replaced and traded quickly and painlessly in shops like items in a pawnbrokers – the society of the congregation is very much like that of 19th century Europe. Their doesn’t appear to be any system of public, state education, so that many people are unable to read, and the sisters are initially somewhat resented because of their moneyed background. The sexes are equal in this future, with women and men performing the same jobs. But the Ness sisters’ father is a recognisable Victorian patriarch determined to do whatever he can to hold on to his daughters. The technology has changed so that the ships are driven by the light from the Sun rather than the terrestrial wind, but they’re still sailing ships. And the baubles with their treasures locked away are the interplanetary equivalents of desert islands and their buried treasure. The book therefore reads almost like something Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, would have written after an evening drinking with Jules Verne and the two knew about quantum physics, solar sails and Dyson Spheres. Reynolds is good at creating credible future worlds, and the Congregation and its worldlets are very convincingly depicted as places where people live and work. 

While not everyone likes or reads SF, and this may not be to every SF fan’s taste, it is a good, rattling yarn which successfully marries far future Science Fiction with 19th century pirate fiction. So avast, ye planet-lubbers, and hoist the mainsail to catch the wind from the Sun!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

France Recruits SF Writers as Military Strategists

July 22, 2019

I’m afraid I’ve lost the cutting for this, so I can’t really give you the details. But it was reported in last week’s I that the French have recruited five science fiction writers for one of their defence organisations. I realise that some people will consider it so far-fetched that SF writers can have anything sensible to say on the subject of present day warfare or possible terror attacks, that it’ll sound like a joke to them. There may well be muttered sneers about these peeps protecting la patrie from the Daleks, Klingons or some other threat from beyond the stars. But there’s some very sound sense in it. SF writers have written about terrible threats to global security, wars and terror attacks almost from the very beginnings of the modern genre in the 19th century. Jules Verne described an anarchist waging war against the rest of the world in his story, Robur le Conquerant. H.G. Wells predicted something like modern tank warfare in his The Land Ironclads, although these massive vehicles were more like ships and moved on dozens of mechanical legs like centipedes. Another short story, The Stolen Bacillus, dealt with the attempted use of germ warfare by terrorists. In this story, an anarchist works his way into the confidence and laboratory of a biologist working on a new type of infectious germ. The anarchist seizes a vial of the cultures, and escapes, running across London with the scientist in hot pursuit. When it appears that he will be cornered and caught, the anarchist drinks the vial, deliberating infecting himself with the disease organism, and then runs on, taking care deliberately to bump into people. All is well, however, as rather than being a lethal pathogen, the disease is actually quite harmless. All it does is to make those infected with it turn a different colour. Which is either yellow or blue. The story may have had a happy ending, but for its late Victorian audience it raised a real, terrifying possibility.

With warfare moving into areas previously considered the realm of SF, like Trump’s call for a space force, the US navy testing laser weapons, war robots being developed by Boston Dynamics and the very real threat of cyber attack, it makes sense for the French to recruit suitable SF writers. After all, back in the 1980s before 9/11, one of the major thriller writers published a novel about a group of terrorists flying a plane into the Twin Towers. It’s possible that their recruitment by the military may also be a gesture to show how hip and modern Macron’s presidency is. Alongside old, trusted methods and guides, he’s turning to imaginative popular culture. But it also shows that we really are increasingly living in an age of Science Fiction.

Steampunk Car – and the Real Victorian Vehicle that Inspired It?

May 28, 2017

On Friday I put up a post about the Science Fiction sub-genre of Steampunk, and some of the real Victorian inventions that have inspired it, and which even today seem like things from the imagination of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Steampunk takes its imagination from 19th century Science Fiction writers like Wells and Verne, and pioneering scientists, such as Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first mechanical computer, the Difference Engine. It imagines what might have happened, if the Victorians had developed space travel, time machines and a true information age. William Gibson and Bruce Sterling depicted a Victorian Britain, which had indeed entered a steam-driven, mechanical computer age following the construction of Babbage’s machine in their 1990 book, The Difference Engine.

This week, one of the topical issues programmes on Radio 4 is going to be discussing Britain’s serious lack of engineers, and ask how more young people can be persuaded to take up the subject.

It’s a complex issue, but I suggested in my piece that one way might be to harness the interest in Victorian-style SF hardware that exists amongst the fans of the genre. I also noted that you could possibly combine this with an appeal to the petrolheads, whose hobbies are restoring and working on cars and motorbikes, by getting people interested in the real, steam-driven motor vehicles that were developed during the 19th century on the way to the invention of the modern car.

There are steampunk conventions in Britain, America and other parts of the world. The other year, Phil Jupitus presented a programme on it on Radio 4. The members of the genre wear Victorian-style clothes, weapons, and pseudo-scientific devices inspired by the esoteric technology of this age that never was. And some of them have made their own, steampunk road vehicles. This is a very brief clip of one such car I found on YouTube, which had been lovingly made by a fan of the genre.

The blurb about it on YouTube merely describes Steampunk as a genre, but doesn’t say anything about the car itself. But the metal semicircle arcing over the vehicle suggests that it was partly inspired by a real Victorian invention, the velocipede designed by Richard Hemmings of Connecticutt, in 1869 (below). Hemmings said that his five year old son could propel a similar machine of about 5 feet ‘at a good pace’.

From Jeremy Sumner, ‘How Pedal, Steam and Petrol Put Horse Power Off the Roads’, in John Mortimer, ed., The Engineer: Highlights of 120 Years (London: Morgan-Grampian Ltd 1976) 124.

Looking through this book, which is a glossy, commemorative edition of the magazine, is fascinating for anyone with an interest in the history of technology, and carries a treasure-trove of inspiring ideas for enthusiasts of the genre. There are real life steam carriages and buses, a mid-Victorian mechanical traffic signals, an amphibious paddle steamer, a Zeppelin, and a petrol-driven tractor from 1916, which ran on caterpillar tracks. There are also designs for great towers in London to rival France’s Eiffel Tower, including one which would have been 1,240 feet tall. And instead of the Chunnel, Britain and France would have been linked by a truly colossal bridge.

I intend to post a piece about the book and its astounding and inspiring inventions later. I’ve no doubt that many of the people building vehicles and other gadgets based on their own interest in this particular genre, probably have an interest in science and engineering anyway. But the fact that people are trying to recreate and create science fictional Victorian cars and other machines shows that the steam punk genre does possess the power to inspire people with an interest in science and invention. Just as, no doubts, early generations were drawn to space and astronomy through the adventures of Dan Dare.

Victorian Solar Power for Moon Explorers

October 1, 2016

I’ve put up a number of pieces on this blog about the history of science. It never ceases to amaze me how inventive humans have been throughout history, and how peoples as far back as the ancient and medieval worlds nevertheless produced scientific ideas that even now seem stunningly modern. Solar power is another example of scientific ingenuity. It was demonstrated by a French engineer, Pifre, at a scientific expo in the Tuileries in Paris in the 1880s. Monsieur Pifre rigged up a parabolic mirror so that it powered a printing press, which produced his own newspaper for the exhibition.

I found the illustration below in David Kyle’s The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas and Dreams (London: Hamlyn 1977). This is an illustrated history of SF and its concepts from Jules Verne in the 19th century to the late 20th. The caption for the illo reads

‘This is a solar-heat condenser’, says the young astronomer in The Conquest of the Moon (1890) by A. Laurie. This one hundred-year-old SF ide, as illustrated by J. Roux, looks like something being tested today. The novel is filled with scientific facts and explanations, much in the manner of Verne. (p. 28).

victorian-moon-power

With the exception of the dress of the Victorian visitors, it looks like something from the pen of a modern illustrator for either a popular science journal like New Scientist, or a work of SF. it is amazingly modern. I was reminded of it by Hasan Piker’s piece for The Young Turks, discussing how Germany is well on its way to replacing fossil fuels with Green energy, including solar power, by 2050. I’ve blogged about that in my last piece. The Victorians were discussing the use of such power sources and the colonisation of space over a hundred years ago. Now it seems, we’re just catching up with their visions.

Steampunk Airplanes from the 19th Century

November 18, 2015

A few days ago I put up a post about 19th century attempts to produce steam-driven carriages and cars, which were very much like the kind of vehicles imagined by 20th century Cyberpunk writers. Cyberpunk is the type of science fiction, which takes as its starting point the fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and imagines what the world would have been like, if the Victorians had had spacecraft, flying machines, cars and so on.

As well as inventing steam cars, carriages and buses, the century also saw a series of inventors put their minds towards flight. Balloons had been known about and used since they were invented in the 18th century. While some scientists and engineers, like Cugnot in France, attempted to create dirigible balloons – the ancestors of the Zeppelins and other airships of the 20th century, others tried to create heavier-than-air craft using wings, partly based on observing the way birds fly. These were the precursors and ancestors of the Wright brothers’ plane flown at Kittyhawk.

Such flying machines appear in the Science Fiction of the period. There are flying ships in Bulwer-Lytton’s early SF novel, The Coming Race. These frequently had fantastic designs, that would have been completely impossible to fly, such as the flying machine invented by one Mr Broughton in the short story, The Fate of the Firefly, by the Rev. J.M. Bacon. This is described as like

the skeleton of some antediluvian monster bird or flying fish. There were huge lateral wings, in texture like a bat’s, there was a pointed beak and a neck whose vertebrae were jointed pully blocks, but the body was too complex for comprehension, though it clearly contained an engine of some sort, with a tank which also did duty as a table. The story was accompanied by the following illustration of the ‘plane’.

Steampunk Aircraft 6

See Hilary and Dik Evans, Beyond the Gaslight: Science in Popular Fiction 1895-1905 (London: Frederick Muller Ltd 1976) 81-5 (pp. 81, 82).

Other, more serious attempts to create a flying machine, can be seen in the book Images of Aviation: A Century of Flight, by John W.R. Taylor (Brimscombe Port: Tempus 1999). This includes Leonardo da Vinci’s attempts to produce the airplane, as well as various early balloons. It also has a photo of a model of the glider invented by George Cayley in 1849, which successfully lifted a ten year old boy off the ground. This was succeeded in 1853 by a vehicle, which successfully carried one of Cayley’s servants. The vehicle crash landed, however, and although the man mercifully survived, he and Cayley were so shocked by the crash that Cayley turned his back on flight. He is, however, now recognised as one of the founders of the airplane and the science of aeronautics.

Steampunk Aircraft 1

Another British inventor, William Henson, produced a design in 1842 for an ‘aerial steam carriage’. Henson built the machine, but it failed to fly when it was tested in 1847. The steam carriage was launched from a ramp, but the small steam engine driving its two propellers lacked the power to keep it in the air. It is, nevertheless, a very good piece of engineering, as all the components are exactly where they should be in a working aircraft.

Steampunk Aircraft 2

After experimenting with clockwork models in the 1850s, the French naval officer, Felix du Temple, successfully launched a monoplane carrying a sailor in 1874. The device was powered by a steam engine, and took off from a ramp. It wasn’t very successful, staying aloft only for a few moments. Still, this was another important milestone on the way to powered flight.

Steampunk Aircraft 3

Twenty years later, the pioneering Russian aviator, Golubov, managed a flight of between 65 to 100 feet in monoplane – a plane with only one set of wings – designed by Alexander Fedorovich Mozhaisky. like du Temple’s plane, this was also launched from a ramp.

Steampunk Aircraft 4

Another French inventor, Clement Ader, made what French historians still claim was the first recognised flight in a powered airplane in the Eole. Powered by a 20 hp steam engine, this flew eight inches off the ground for 165 feet at Armainvilliers in October 1890. The flight was uncontrolled, however, and the design of the machine itself was basically impractical with its bizarre bat wings.

Sir Hiram Maxim also tried his hand at flight, creating an immense steam-powered biplane, which he attempted to fly at Baldwyn’s Park in Kent in 1894. This briefly cleared its guide rails before it hit a guard rail and crashed, after which Maxim called an end to his experiments in flight.

Steampunk Aircraft 5

The end of the 19th century saw further developments in flight from Otto Lilienthal in Germany, who constructed a series of man-carrying gliders, as well as other aviators in the very first years of the 20th century, such as Richard Pearse in New Zealand and Gustave Whitehead of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Their machines are much more like those of the Wright brothers, which came after them.

I find the Victorian machines interesting, however, as they show not only the immense imagination and invention of the engineers and scientists of the period, but they are so much like some of the machines of Cyberpunk SF that you really do wonder what they world would have been like, if they had been more successful and flight had been successfully invented fifty years or so before the Wright brothers.

Steampunk Visions: 19th Century Designs for Steam-Driven Carriages and Cars

November 15, 2015

One of the most fascinating SF subgenres is Steampunk. Based on the massive expansion of science and technology in the 19th century, and the early, pioneering works of Science Fiction that was inspired by these, and in particular the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, Steampunk is based on what might have been, if the Victorians had developed aircraft, cars, tanks and spacecraft. One of the genre’s classic, founding works is Bruce Sterling’s and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine. Gibson and Sterling were two of the inventors of Cyberpunk, the type of SF centred around Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and computer hacking. The Difference Engine was set in an alternative 19th century, where Charles Babbage’s early computer, the Difference Engine of the title, had been built.

Today’s cars are powered by the internal combustion engine, fuelled by petrol and diesel. They were developed in the late 19th century, and really became the dominant form of road transport in the 20th. But as far back as the late 18th century European inventors were trying to develop road vehicles driven by steam engines. In 1771 the French inventor, Nicholas Cugnot, created a steam carriage intended to pull heavy cannon. It was unsuccessful, but during the 19th century a series of engineers and inventors continued to try and develop one that worked.

There’s a chapter on this part of the history of the age of steam in the book, 250 Years of Steam, by Allan Bloom (Tadworth: World’s Work Lt 1981), complete with contemporary illustrations of what they were intended to look like.

These include Richard Trevithick’s steam carriage of 1803.

Steam Carriage 1

This was unsuccessful. The frame became twisted during trials. The carriage section was sold off, and the engine re-used in a rolling-mill for hoop iron.

W.H. James’ design, which would travel at speeds of 8 to 12 miles an hour, have 15-20 horsepower, and carry 18 passengers, six inside and twelve outside.

Steam Carriage 2

The machine developed by Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, demonstrated on 12th August 1829, carrying the Duke of Wellington.

Steam Carriage

Walter Hancock’s machines, who built his first steam carriage in 1824. He wanted to use them to provide a passenger service in London. These had a crew of three – the driver on the steering wheel at the front, and engineer at the back, and a boy to stoke the engine.

Steam Carriage 3

There was also Rickett’s experimental steam carriage, which had its boiler behind the driver and passengers. It was so successful that the Earl of Caithness order a similar vehicle.

Steam Carriage 5

These first attempts to create steam-driven cars were unsuccessful. They couldn’t compete against the stage coaches and railways. The experimental nature of many of these machines made them dangerous. For example, the Glasgow Court of Session ruled that the steam carriages used by James Naismyth and John Scott Russell to run a passenger service between Glasgow and Paisley were unsafe and could not be used on the roads after the vehicle overturned crossing a covering of loose stones deliberately put there to block the route by the town’s Road Trustees. Bloom considers that what really made them uneconomical was the high costs of the tolls charged on the turnpike roads.

There was considerable public opposition to the vehicles as well, as Bloom’s book has a contemporary satirical drawing of what one 19th century cartoonist feared the roads would be like, if the new machine was taken up. Looked at now, it seems very much like Albert Robida’s ideas of what the 20th century would be like from his point of view in the 19th. Here’s the satirical depiction of steam-driven automobile mayhem.

Steam Carriage 4

In the 1880s, Amadee Bollee Senior, le Compte de Dion, constructed a series of successful steam cars in France. These look very much like the early cars of the period, using the internal combustion engine, and eventually de Dion switched over to using petrol and paraffin as fuels, rather than coke, before finally abandoning steam altogether and concentrating on the internal combustion engine.

Steam Car

Above: De Dion’s single-seater 1887 steam tricycle.

The book also covers the early 20th century steam cars, like the Stanley Steamer. These look very much like the motor cars of the period, as indeed does de Dion’s 1887 steam tricycle. The technology is obsolete, though Bloom suggests it may yet make a come-back. The invention and development of these engines in the 19th century, and the drawing made of them, do make you wonder what the world would have been like, had they taken off.

And they also show just how close to reality some parts of Steampunk are. It’s a pity they never actually got around to inventing space and time travel, however. That’s very much confined to fictions of Wells, Verne and their fellows.

And finally, here’s this footage from Youtube of a recreation of Cugnot’s steam carriage, displayed at the 2011 car exhibition in Dearborn, Michigan. Enjoy!

Robin Ince and Alan Moore Explore the Hollow Earth

April 7, 2015

Next Saturday on Radio 4 at 10.30 am, the cult comics writer, Alan Moore will be one of the guests on Robin Ince’s show, Hollow Earth: A Travel Guide. The blurb for the programme states

Robin Ince explores the Hollow Earth theory, which suggests that a substantial interior space inhabited by all manner of creatures exists beneath the Earth’s crust. This idea has been around since ancient times. With the help of a classicist, a biblical scholar, a literary critic and graphic-novelist Alan Moore, Robin sets out to investigate this imagined world.

The Hollow Earth and subterranean worlds and civilisations have been a feature of SF for well over a century. Examples include Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, Jules Verne’s At the Earth’s Core, the subterranean civilisation of the Great Race in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar books. I remember these last from the Marvel adaptation that used to run as backing strip in Star Wars comic when I was at junior school. More recently, Stephen Baxter, the quantum physicist and SF novelist, wrote a series of novels about an underground people that reproduced asexually evolved from a lost Roman legion.

This won’t be the first time Moore has appeared on one of Ince’s programmes. He appeared with him on one of the other radio programmes hosted by Ince, discussing the nature of science. Moore is one of Britain’s best known comics creators, the author of V for Vendetta and Watchmen, so this should be quite interesting.

Steampunk Film ‘1884’

March 30, 2015

I’ve been putting up some serious political videos from Youtube today, including the satirical song about Esther McVie. It’s a bit of comedy, but it has a deadly serious intent. Now I thought it’s time for something lighter.

This is a very short steampunk animated film, Terry Gilliam Presents ‘1884’. It was a concept test for a projected film by Steam Driven Films in Britain and 2d3D Animations across la Manche in France. It shows the kind of past we would have had, if only the Victorians had properly taken to flying airships and tried to colonise the Moon. Not that some members of Her Majesty’s Government didn’t have the ambition. One British prime minister remarked sarcastically that the army ‘would annex the Moon, in order to protect us from invasion from Mars’.

You can see in the short a number of nods and homages to other classic SF works. ‘1884’ is reminiscent of Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984. The use of fireworks to show that the astronauts have landed on the Moon is similar to Jules Verne’s idea that they would use a magnesium flare in his tale, From the Earth to the Moon. The compere’s introduction recalls that of the opening speech to Universal’s 1930s Frankenstein. And the design of the airborne traffic, including cars and buses, is very much like that envisioned by the pioneering 19th century French SF novelist and illustrator, Albert Robida, in his massive The War of the 20th Century.

Robida Airships

Albert Robida’s 19th century vision of 20th century air traffic.

Robida’s idea of the future seems to me to a one of the major influences, along with other, more obvious works, on contemporary steampunk generally. It was even hailed as ‘Zarjaz’ by the mighty Tharg, and cited as an influence on the Nemesis the Warlock strip, Nemesis in the Gothic Empire in 2000 AD.

And the film also has the advantage of having the voice of the mighty Phil Jupitus, he of Never Mind the Buzzcocks fame.

Enjoy!