Monday, August 27, 2012

The Steampunk Era

In a recent post remarking on the battleship era I noted briefly the naval period that came just before it - from 1860 to 1880, give or take. Twenty years are barely enough to qualify as an 'era.' Especially, when it comes to the world's navies, this particular twenty years, which saw the transition from wooden three-deckers to ships that are recognizable forebears of 20th century battleships.

So if you came expecting to read about steampunk in the literary sense you will be disappointed. On the other hand, this is the age of Jules Verne, when science fiction (then called Scientific Romance) was starting to emerge as a distinct genre. It is the era from which steampunk draws its inspiration.

And nothing was more steampunkish than the era's naval ships. HMS Inflexible (launched 1876), shown above, is as good an example as any. True, Admiral Popov's famous circular ships could run (or at any rate spin) weirdness circles around her. But the Popovkas were experimental oddballs even in their own day. Inflexible, by contrast, was a typical first class capital ship - or at any rate as close to such as existed at the time.

In this image she retains an auxiliary sailing rig - later reduced to pole masts for signaling and to support fighting-tops armed with light weapons. Her main armament is 4 x 16-inch muzzle-loading rifles. (Most navies had adopted breech-loaders, but the RN reverted to muzzle loading after a couple of nasty accidents.)

Her two turrets are offset to port and starboard - 'Murricans of sufficient geekitude may recognize the similar overall arrangement of USS Maine, of 1898 'remember the' fame. (Infamy, perhaps, from the Spanish perspective.) This turret arrangement was in considerable vogue at the time, in an effort to maximize all-around fire.The turrets could, in theory, fire directly ahead and astern, and even through gaps in the narrow flying deck. In practice, trying this caused considerable blast damage to the ship.

The underlying assumption was that - given the slow firing rate and doubtful accuracy of those enormous guns - a battle would likely devolve into a melee instead of an orderly line-astern engagement. This same speculation lay behind the most notorious feature of steampunk-era warships - the ram bow, which ultimately accounted for precisely two 'hostiles,' along with some half a dozen 'friendlies.'

Nevertheless the ram bow became such a defining feature of warships that it was retained into the early 20th century. Indeed, most early-generation dreadnoughts had ram-shaped bows, though no actual reinforced rams.

HMS Inflexible also carried another weapon intended for a close-range melee: a pair of underwater tubes for launching torpedoes. These, as it turned out, were to have a much bigger future than the ram bow. Even at the time they were recognized as having extraordinary implications. Inflexible's stubby 16-inch muzzle-loaders, or any comparable guns, could only be carried by a large and very costly ship. But even a fairly small boat could carry and launch a torpedo.

It soon occurred to some analysts (as we would call them now) that this weapon could revolutionize not only tactics but naval strategy. By the 1880s torpedo boats became the space fighters of the late-Victorian imagination, dashing in to strike at cumbersome death stars battleships. The British and French even experimented with torpedo-boat carriers.

Probably things would not have worked out quite so neatly as the torpedo prophets imagined, even if there had been a suitable war to test out their doctrine. The same technological progress that provided 16-inch guns and ironclads to carry them, as well as torpedoes and torpedo boats, soon produced so-called quick-firing guns, and these were mounted on the big ships. Torpedo boats could no longer attack with impunity.

Even before the heyday of torpedo boats, another creative idea for deploying torpedoes got a trial. HMS Polyphemus (launched in 1881) was a 'torpedo ram.' A fairly large ship resembling a surfaced submarine, she had an armored turtle deck for protection, the inevitable ram bow, and several torpedo tubes along with reload torpedoes.

Tech progress (specifically the quick-firing gun) rendered Polyphemus obsolescent by the time she entered service - a typical fate of steampunk-era warships. But she would end up being indirectly immortalized in science fiction.

By the time HG Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, in the late 1990s 1890s [Time Machine oops!], the torpedo-ram concept was already long obsolete. But HMS Thunder Child in the novel is described as a torpedo ram. The idea must have stuck in Wells' mind, some years earlier, as the epitome of advanced naval technology.


Unwelcome Commenting Administrivia: I hate Captcha. So do you. But I hate comment spam even more. And if you subscribe to this blog and get comments by email, you know that it has been inundated by comment spam for a month or two now. It shows no sign of subsiding, and the alternatives to Captcha (such as a registration requirement) are even worse.

So, reluctantly, I am going with it. Email me (see 'contact' on right of main page) if it is totally unworkable for you.

The image of HMS Inflexible, from this old-postcards website, was originally on a card from the (British) National Maritime Museum.

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Literature of the Possible?

What, exactly, is science fiction? This question has - no surprise - come up more than once in this blog, notably in the outrageously long 'Last Battleship' comment thread.

Needless to say, this is no claim that science fiction stories are possible. Even setting the trivial response that they are fiction, many if not most of them are not possible. And most of the ones that are possible are desperately unlikely. (Such as, say, Mars colonists blockading Earth in the next few hundred years.)

But, by and large, science fiction does honor the concept of possibility, if only in the breach. FTL is an exemplar. Instead of simply allowing our rocket ships to get from star to star at the speed of plot, we come up with elaborate lines of jive to get around the speed of light. We grasp at the most tenuous threads of theoretical physics to justify our jive - tachyons, wormholes, the Alcubierre metric, whatever.

This blog, for the most part, works similar ground. We naturally want our spaceships (and battles between them) to be cool, but we also want them to be, in some sense, realistic. Even if the broader context in which they happen strains realism to the max.

Even alternate history deals with events that 'might have been possible' if some historical event had played out a different way, or (straining 'possible' even further) a tourist from late-1930s Chicago were somehow transported to Italy on the eve of the war between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Goths.

Fantasy writers generally don't do this. If you want dragons, dragons you get. Great effort may go into internal worldbuilding, but rarely into its logical relationship to our real world. Here, Middle-Earth is the exemplar. It is a triumph of worldbuilding - indeed the benchmark standard, better constructed than any science fiction I know of.

But 'possibility' is no part of that careful construction. Tolkien asserts that Middle-Earth is, in fact, our own world's distant (in historical terms) past, but he puts no effort into connecting the two. He invented the expression 'the willing suspension of disbelief,' and he is very concerned with making Middle-Earth feel believable. He is not concerned with making it seem possible.

This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but I am persuaded that there is indeed a difference, even if it is hard to pin down. All fiction is fake: something we have to set aside to let ourselves be drawn into a story of any sort.

How fiction does this may be easier to see by looking at obsolete tropes, such as the discovered-manuscript framing device. In its day it gave readers an excuse, so to speak, to pretend to believe in the story contained therein.

As imaginative fiction developed in the past century, such wink & nod agreements between author and readers became unnecessary. A form of it remains in Lord of the Rings, easing us into the story world. A contemporary fantasy like Game of Thrones doesn't bother with such mechanisms. The reader's buy-in is (correctly) assumed.

Science fiction, broadly speaking, used possibility as its buy-in. Which is why possible, more or less marks the traditional dividing line between SF and F. This once took the form of those so-tell-me-Professor explanations of how rockets could work in a vacuum, or whatever.

As standard SF tropes took form, these mechanisms went the way of Lost (but conveniently rediscovered) Manuscripts in fantasy. Generally, these days, only hard SF bothers with any explanation of how spaceships work - and mainly, as on this blog, to push back against operatic tropes that have become standard baseline assumptions.

Indeed, a whole movement of 'Mundane SF' was proclaimed some years ago, intended to push back even harder. After all, by any purist standard I am a thorough hypocrite, writing about how to make your fundamentally operatic space battles look superficially Realistic.

But as standard SF tropes have taken hold, the link to the possible has also become a good deal more ambiguous. In the abstract, for example, a nice line can be drawn between Star Trek and Star Wars. One is set in what, at least in the 1960s, seemed like a plausible midfuture. The other is set 'a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away' - that is to say, effectively in the once upon a time of very traditional fantasy. And while you can criticize the corn content of Trek's money-less future, that is nothing compared to the overtly mystical Force.

The first thing to note in this comparison is that it is rooted in Hollywood. Back at the turn of the century, when I wrote the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy, I distinguished 'Hollywood scifi' from real SF. But sometime in the last decade or so, this distinction has pretty well faded. A generation (or more) has come up for which Hollywood looms as large in their formative experience as anything written by Asimov, Heinlein, or whoever.

Which is a way of saying that yes, Star Wars is basically high fantasy in SF drag ... but so what? You could pretty much say the same thing about Dune. And when you get past Asimov's deeply un-Tolkienesque writing style, what about Foundation Trilogy? If Coruscant is a fantasy world, what exactly is Trantor? And how does Darth Vader stack up to the Mule?

Science fiction and fantasy have not exactly converged - they are still (usually) easily distinguished, but more by stylistic features than actual substance.

And all of this takes place alongside the decline of the future as a place for 'nonfiction' speculation. No jetpacks, no monorails, just iGadgets. When your future can't get past the Dick Tracy level, it is time to pack it in.

Or just take your Romance in straight shots.


The visually unspectacular image above was more than enough to tell JPL engineers that the Curiosity rover was successfully landed on the surface of Mars.

Expect prettier images to follow ...