Once again I’m finding it necessary to reiterate the fact that yes, I actually still am alive. I may even still be a writer—I guess we’ll see soon enough.

That’s it—24 weeks of 35 hours-per-week-plus-homework craziness. It’s hard to believe that the first half of my engineering technology program is done. I don’t even remember what I did with the extravagant amounts of time I must have had before this. Kind of a sobering thought, really.

If anyone reading this has/is considering one of these programs and is on the fence, I’d say just do it. When you look at all the cool stuff you get into versus the cost and time, it’s totally worth it. Now, on r/engineering, most of the guys will say otherwise and that you should just get a big engineering degree. Sure, if that’s what you’ve set out to do, by all means it’s obviously the best way. But I don’t think everyone interested in engineering necessarily wants or needs to get to that level. For myself, when I read the conversations about students fretting over turning town awesome jobs with huge companies because they want to “do research” or get a phd, my eyes glaze over and I start thinking about more interesting things like gear ratios or cats. Some of us just want a cool job and the scope of a technologist still has plenty of room to go pretty far. Not only that, but if you find you want to become a P.Eng after the fact, it’s easy to continue on with university.

The reason I mention this is because I wish I had done it a decade ago. When I was that young, I still believed the crap people had taught us about how everyone is meant to do this or that and that precious snowflakes should just follow their passion—as if 19-year-olds actually have a clue what that really is. And I think people still believe that, because in the few job interviews I’ve had, a sticking point seems to be the drastic shift in my career goals. If I had been pushed a little harder to look at programs like this, I would have realized that I liked it a lot and wouldn’t have to deal with that issue. It certainly was not at all on the radar back then. I didn’t even know it existed.

Ah yes, the co-op issue. So I didn’t end up with one. I’m on my own until January of next year—whether I find something I can count as a work term or just continue slaving away in the health racket, it’s a bit of a blow.

I used to get job interviews for fun in the health industry. I knew what I was doing, have a reputation here built around it, and had no problem taking control during an interview the way you’re supposed to. In career change land, not so much. Like I said, it looks like being an author is actually hurting me here. These are two worlds that definitely do not get along. I understand why, but the stereotyping is frustrating and something I don’t know how to navigate quite yet. A major reason I didn’t end up with a co-op position is that I can’t really move to where most of the work is. In that regard, not successfully competing in a tiny job market isn’t that big of a deal. But this is why I would plead that anyone thinking of doing this just stop hesitating and do it now—it’s so much harder to do when you have an adult life and can’t pack up and go to a camp for 8 months. I’d love to do it, but it’s just not feasible right now.

Anyway, yes, I’m still a writer. Already I’m starting to look past the current projects I have on the go—mainly a sequel and my serial. I’m thinking about diverging from dieselpunk after I finish those. Two things are getting me going these days when it comes to fiction:

 

  • The way Canadian literary fiction makes me thankful I have a calculus textbook now, because calculus a hell of a lot more interesting
  • Hard SF is full of really great writers, but seems stuck in the 90s.

 

Don’t get me wrong—being stuck in the 90s is awesome. But it’s those little gaps that make me want to write. It’s why I wrote dieselpunk before it was even a thing.

Dieselpunk is on its way to better things. I think it reaches a point where the rate of reproduction outgrows the artistic values that made me write it, and that even when I continue to write in the genre, it won’t necessarily be recognized as such. My vision of it isn’t going to change, but collectively it will.

 

Canadian literary fiction drives me up the wall. How did we go from Leonard Cohen to this? I’m seriously considering trying my hand at it again. It’s like being in a room with all the picture frames placed cockeyed and such. A lot of people would agree—this idea is nothing new. But I don’t get why a lot of writers trash literary fiction, focus on their own little corner, and don’t try to add anything to it. This is something that has constantly bothered me about the genre writing scene. I guess it’s fine to like what you like and stick to that, but I’ve never been able to limit my writing to one area.

Hard SF doesn’t bother me the way the above does, but there are definitely gaps to be filled. I have no idea if I’m capable of addressing either of these things, but hopefully I’ll get to try.

 

That is, after I wrap up some diesel projects of course!

I haven’t done a lot of interviews, but when I have done them, or had to prepare talking points about writing, one of the things I mull over beforehand is science fiction. For some reason, the topic always gets derailed and I’m left with a lot of things to say about it, even though I’m strictly a fantasy author with no real intent to challenge the hard SF guys. I mean the Aurora Award might as well just be named “National Robert Sawyer Appreciation Day.”

The weird thing is, sometimes I have way more to say about science fiction than I do fantasy. Why? It’s hard to say. Without wanting to sound like an elitist douchebag, I think some of my motivation to write fantasy is the fact that so much of it makes me want to jump out of my skin and throw the book into a vat of molten steel. But like the Skynet chip or whatever the hell it was they were trying to destroy at the end of whichever Terminator movie I’m thinking of, it would likely just keep coming back in different, more upsetting incarnations. I like a challenge, especially when I know it is within my grasp.

This post isn’t about things that drive me nuts about fantasy, but about why science fiction is so cool. And difficult.

Before I wrote Blightcross I wrote a lot of crappier novels. One of them was hard science fiction. It was doomed from the beginning, and part of me actually knew this as I wrote the first draft. But I also knew that abandoning projects in your first few attempts at writing is a good way to fail. So I pretended nothing was wrong and finished it, revised, revised again, and tried to sell. I describe it as “hard” science fiction but it probably wasn’t even close. It might have scraped by as hard SF in the 80s, but having been written in an entirely different millennium kind of made even that ridiculous.

So, let’s try to summarize the problem without getting into detail about the embarrassing story. See, one of the sins I had committed was writing from a place of opinion or protest. My opinions at the time meant nothing and weren’t based in much, and because I was young, were naturally pretty strong. The story was about some stupid trans-humanist fearmongering (on my part), and the objective of this novel was to tell people interested in transhumanism and the idea of the “singularity” that it was “bad” and should be stopped before it starts. Well, recently I read an article that outlined exactly why the “singularity” idea wouldn’t happen anyway. My understanding of the whole thing was embarrassingly outdated because I had been involved more in writing and music than I had been with computers and technology at the time, and had fallen way behind.

Anyway, I think the “singularity” idea came out in the 1970s, so it wasn’t exactly cutting-edge subject matter to begin with. I’m not entirely sure why I had become freaked out about the idea at the time.

Here’s the thing: you can make even an outdated premise work . . . with enough skill. Actually, you don’t even need that. You just need enough skill to barely make the material interesting PROVIDED THAT YOU HAVE EXPERTISE IN THE FIELD WITH WHICH YOU’RE TRYING TO BULLSHIT THE AUDIENCE.

To clarify: I knew nothing whatsoever about the topic. Well, except that for some reason it freaked me out.

Even John Ringo (if that is a real person, and I’m too lazy to research this but the one novel I read of his was so ridiculous I figured it had to be a joke . . . a really awesome, ironic joke) demonstrates some credible expertise that shockingly legitimizes the story’s bad taste. At that point in my life, I was offended that this guy was making money writing science fiction. Now I admire the guy’s chops. The books sell. They are definitely entertaining. I don’t care about his politics—not that you can tell from a writer’s fiction what those truly are.

A lot of hard SF drives me insane because it’s so boring, but at the same time really, really interesting because the author knows their stuff. I mean, the magnitude of boring some of these hard sf novels have is mind-blowing. The fact that they end up being good novels in spite of just how boring they are is a testament to the major chops these guys have. So when literary snobs trash genre fiction, they might have a point when it comes to hacks selling more stories about Jizznar the Elf Warrior, but they really need to examine just how amazing the hard sf writers are.

Flash forward to the present. I’m in a position that I never, ever would have dreamed could be possible: I have a good short haircut, lift weights, and . . . am in an engineering program. Suddenly the issue about expertise doesn’t seem like such foreign territory. And now, even with the most basic applied science education—barely scratching the surface—I’m seeing a clearer picture of what goes into good science fiction. Like I mentioned in the previous post, the amount of control and perception we actually have of the world is like magic. But it’s magic most people can learn, if they apply themselves.

When us fantasy writers debate the differences, we get all pissy and claim that oh yes, we had to make detailed worlds too! They had to be convincing and internally consistent. Yeah, that’s a tough thing to do. But not as hard as building a story around real technical knowledge. And a lot of fantasy writers still have that—there are a bunch who know every detail about medieval life and it’s equally impressive. But it’s not necessarily required. Fantasy authors, if they’re good at it, can fake it if they have enough intelligence and attention to detail. There’s rarely a hard sf author who can fake it. That was basically the approach I took in my attempt, and it was just awful.

At school, stuff that’s boring is still interesting. Instantly my imagination is triggered by dry technical material. It’s hard-wired to find a way to make this stuff into a story, and an awesome one at that. There was a thread on r/engineeringstudents about what job we all wanted. Of course I put the absolute ideal, which for me would be on Mars. I mean, of course, right? Doing even the most mundane geotechnical work would be fucking awesome on Mars. It’s not that far-fetched, since private companies are already trying to throw together a Mars colony. I wanted to do it, but being old and tied down now, I can’t sign up. Hell, I even debated with my fiancée the morality of steering one of our future children into going to Mars. Sadly, the consensus is that being concerned about having one of your children get to Mars is “not normal” and probably not something to talk about in everyday conversation. Anyway, I might not be able to do civil gruntwork on Mars, but I can damn well write a good, convincing story about it someday. That would be impossible if I had thought of the story idea and knew nothing.

Some pros can pick a storyline that needs fleshing out, then immerse themselves in the technical details it needs for a month and pull it off. I don’t know if that works with hard sf. Stephen King does well spending a week or whatever with a police department to do research, but hard sf needs something more. It needs to pick up on the drive the author has to pursue the technical knowledge in the first place. It does come through in the writing—but don’t mistake this for “passion.” On the list of things that ruin a story, an author who is merely writing about pet interests is close to the top.

Will I end up writing science fiction in the future? Hard to say. Archon has some sf elements in it but is still going to be fantasy, which actually might bother people. My fantasy writing is evolving with the technical knowledge, but I wonder what it would be like to try my hand at a good, classic hard sf story someday.

 

At the time, I didn’t quite put it together and just chose the name for my fictitious subdivision CAD drawing because Geddy Lee is awesome, but then I realized that hell, one of Rush’s best songs is literally the thing I had just drawn.

wpid-IMAG0162.jpg

 

Anyway, this is probably one of the more enjoyable things I’m doing right now. Actually, I’ve always been fascinated by drafting and technical drawings. To me it was like magic. As a kid I remember reading through my brother’s auto mechanics textbook and being more interested in how the hell someone drew an engine and transmission to scale than how to take it apart and fix it. My only experience with drawing–as someone encouraged to be an “artistic” person–had been just drawing artsy things, and I was really terrible at that. I think in the fifth grade, a teacher had felt the need to tell my parents that I had zero artistic ability. At the time I don’t think I consciously thought much of it. Even then, I knew that assessing someone’s abilities at such an age was a dumb idea. Nobody would have guessed that I would pick up a guitar at 17 and work hard enough at it to be able to shred, play classical guitar, teach myself jazz theory, and all sorts of things usually reserved for people deemed to be meant for it at an early age.

That’s not to say I didn’t pick up any weird subconscious hangups from the experience, though. I think that must be why technical drawings seem like such a godly feat to me. The programming in my head, without me knowing, was that it was something that will always be way beyond my understanding. Magic.

Never mind that I had always liked to draw and continued to draw really shitty things for my own amusement and nothing more. Fast-forward to high school, when little technical schools try to recruit students near graduation. I spoke with someone from DeVry, and when they mentioned drafting, it piqued my interest . . . to the point where the sales rep took my name and continued to call my freakin’ house a few times, trying to get me into the school. I found excuses to blow it off.

Thirteen years later, I’m drawing subdivisions and naming them after Geddy Lee. The above drawing hasn’t been marked yet, but I think it’s not bad for a first subdivision, having had little time to really digest the material due to having to deal with a calculus exam at the same time.

 

So although sometimes I think I envy kids who had more push in any given direction, I also know the downside of making absolute statements to a kid about what you think their abilities are. Those opinions are completely worthless.

It’s kind of hard to believe that I’ve avoided writing about the one thing I know how to do pretty well that normal people actually like.

Cooking.

I took cooking for granted before getting into college. Going back even further, my days as a single person pretty much involved little more than lots of running during the day and cooking interesting things while drinking alone and listening to jazz in the evening.

Of course nothing close to that is possible anymore, and I’ve mostly lost my taste for drinking alone. But there’s something special about drinking while cooking. The point here is that I didn’t realize what a luxury it was to be able to just cook for the hell of it.

The other day I nailed a curry. Not just any curry, but my absolute favourite one from an Indian restaurant in town. It was completely off the cuff and improvised, cobbled together from three different recipes that all sounded wrong but somehow managed to mimic almost exactly the thing from the restaurant.

What is it? Hard to say, really. When I stumble over the Indian name for it at the restaurant, the waiter always brushes it off and tells me it’s “butter chicken.” I don’t think it is, to be honest. I used hardly any butter and it tasted almost the same. The name on the menu is murgh malai masala, if I remember correctly. Here’s how I did it:

1 can of coconut millk
1 tsp each of turmeric, dried ginger, cumin powder, dry-toasted cumin seeds, mustard, chili powder
1 tbsp dried coriander
1 lemon
2 tbsp brown sugar
Salt
100ml (approximately) tomato paste
1 onion
800g chicken
Tsp black pepper
Cayenne pepper

As with any curry, you have to start off by frying all those spices listed above in oil. I use a mix of  grapeseed oil and butter, both to keep the calorires in control and to make the butter more resistant to burning. Of course if you’re using ghee like you should, the burning probably isn’t an issue. I don’t have an exact quantity, because I basically just kept adding bits of oil to the spices until it became a paste. After about 5 minutes of medium-heat frying, just add the onion and chicken, fry it for a couple minutes, and add coconut milk and 4 big tablespoons of tomato paste. Let it simmer for 10 mins or so.

I know real recipes are just a set of instructions, but at this point I think you have to use your own palate to get the balance of sugar, salt, and lemon right. The acidity of the tomato needs to be dealt with delicately–if you’ve ever been disappointed by tomato-based jar sauces it’s likely because they seem to universally suffer from this problem. Definitely let the tomato paste settle down for the 10 minutes (or more if you have time, but this isn’t some 70′s slow-cooker deal, remember), then start playing with the right amount of brown sugar and salt. After you balance that, I think the lemon is easy to make work. I just squeezed two halves into it. Once that’s done, just let it simmer for 5 minutes and serve it with rice and naan. Adding a swirl of cream on top at the end can be nice, but I don’t find it necessary. Tossing in some fresh coriander leaves is also a good idea.

The acidity of the tomato, to me, seems quite different to the sour acidity of the lemon. In a tomato-ish curry the former really needs to be contained properly without beating it completely into submission. The success of the spices–which need to pop properly in these dishes–depends on getting that tomato raunch into its proper place. Brightening it up with the lemon is the thing that  makes these flavours  work.

That’s probably a lot of writing for a recipe, but then I don’t write anything if it’s something everyone else has already done . . . Even if it’s a recipe.

My fiancee insists that I mention that tzatziki on the side pushes this dish to the next level. I’ll take her word for it. I’m not into yogurt and the like, except when absolutely necessary, like it is when you make other types of curry.

Another thing: I mentioned above about cutting some of the calories, or at least making some of them unsaturated fats, and I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Cutting back the grease is sometimes a necessary evil, especially when you’re cooking for other people as well. If you can handle a shitload of butter, do it!

I’ll add some photos when I’m less lazy.

My first daily driver was a 1979 Honda Accord. I phrase it that way because for a short time I had a ’71 Cutlass Supreme, but a kid generally has a hard time running a beast like that and I ditched it in favour of something I could afford fairly quickly. Anyway, I think something lost on us now is the appreciation of basic engineering in our vehicles—we’re obsessed with supercars and how expensive they are and hold a narrow view of what makes a good car. Not that I mean to downplay fast cars . . . of course they’re cool and have their own set of engineering landmarks, but those shouldn’t come at the expense of some of the more mundane aspects that are actually pretty neat.

One thing that confuses me is what we consider good fuel economy right now. Why? Well, a first-generation Honda Civic with a CVCC motor and special Weber side-draught carbs could achieve economy nearly on par with the collection of random junk we call “hybrid” cars. There would be no extra cost and environmental concerns associated with batteries and so on, no extra moving parts, and the car would cost practically nothing to make nowadays. How does it make sense that today’s compact car struggles to reach 30mpg? And even stranger, why do we now consider that to be pretty good, even for a 4-cylinder economy car?

But let’s get back to less abstract things, like Honda’s CVCC engine. CVCC means “Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion.” The cool part about it is that this and other stratified charge engines is that it separates the fuel into a lean mixture, which goes into the cylinder, and a rich mixture at the spark plug. And if the reader is wondering what this could possibly have to do with dieselpunk, the idea of a stratified charge came from Rudolph Diesel. In fact, the direct-inject direction most engines are taking now seems to refer back to the diesel engine.

What was the result? Meeting emissions standards without using a catalytic converter. Sounds boring right? Well, it’s not that easy to do. I don’t think anyone even tries to anymore, possibly due to a massive conspiracy perpetrated by Big Catalytic Converter, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Big Lithium Ion Battery.

 

My Honda CVCC was in rough shape, but still worked pretty well. The whole thing seemed like a mess of vacuum lines, and perhaps this mechanically-derived route to emissions control was part of what killed this type of motor. Mine had a manual choke, which I found hilarious and still do. It was slow as hell, no thanks to the 2-speed Hondamatic transmission—although this was itself a fascinating piece of machinery. If I remember correctly, the Hondamatic wasn’t just a powerglide knockoff, but an automatic transmission that used gears more like the ones you’d find in a manual. I once drove this car for a week with the oil light on, and the thing didn’t give me any more trouble than it did before that erm . . . minor oversight.

Strangely enough, CBC News is on as I type this and I just caught a bit about an epidemic of catalytic converter thefts . . . see, people? That entire rash of minor inconveniences could have been avoided simply by driving a 200-dollar car from 1979.

Okay. So fuel injection comes along and is supposed to be more efficient. But . . . but it’s not? Why do these carbureted dinosaurs offer better economy?

I have no idea. The cars now, compact ones, are a lot heavier, perhaps. New safety standards and such. I don’t think anyone would ever accept a car with 80 horsepower these days, even if they just wanted a basic grocery-getter. But I think in Japan they might have turbocharged a later version of the CVCC and gotten decent performance out of it.

The importance of this isn’t lost on absolutely everyone though, since it has been designated as part of the Mechanical Engineering Heritage of Japan. I’m not entirely sure what that really means, but I assume it’s like a monument in Civilization XXX (I’m too old to know what version of Sid Meier’s Civilization we’re on . . . I ran out of time for that game around Civ 3 . . .) and when you look at the other, erm, “things,” on the list, it seems like quite a big deal.

As to why our expectations have changed, I can’t quite get it. Maybe the phrase “fuel economy” needs to be taken more literally—that is, to mean the optimum amount of consumption given the market, not necessarily some absolute race to the bottom. I know to a conspiracy theorist that sounds like stating the obvious, but I do think there’s a difference between “oil companies want you to use all the oil that is humanly possible so they can make tons of money right now” and “our perception and expectations of how we use resources changes depending actual conditions.”

 

It’s hard to believe but the final marks are in and it’s already time to start thinking about next semester. The days since the end of final exams crawl by in comparison to during classes—if this is old news to everyone else, bear with me. I never, ever, EVER had planned to be doing this and the post-secondary school world is way outside my zone.

That’s the funny thing about this turn in my career plans. For the last decade, I had plenty of plans. Plans are important, they always said. They never really explained how to gauge the quality of those plans, nope . . . all they said was that there were plans and you had to make them to get anywhere.

It’s funny because getting into engineering was totally unplanned and outside the box; yet it was the best decision I’ve made to date . . . well, besides the decision to get engaged, but that’s another area of grown-up life beyond the scope of this post. Heh.

I think one of the lost posts on here might have addressed this in a meandering way—the precious idea that everyone is supposed to be “passionate” about one or two things and only pursue those for their entire lives. Going even deeper but probably too deep for the purposes of this blog, this idea ultimately arrives at the myth of the “true self” and candy-coated way people pigeonhole themselves because they’ve been told that whatever little box or category is most readily available to the outside actually defines “who you are.” It’s a dumb idea, and one so far entrenched in our culture that it isn’t recognized as the social oppressor it can be. Excuse the dramatic language.

Not that there’s something inherently wrong with picking something you like and sticking with it for life. Not everyone is restless and feels the need to question everything, and when that questioning becomes far too reflexive, it can manifest as self-doubt, which is one of the most crippling character flaws imaginable.

So there’s that meandering again, rearing its head. Reel it in, Petropunk.

Basically I surprised myself. I was sure that I’d failed a couple classes, but that was nowhere even close to happening. And while I’m very surprised and happy with what I did grade-wise, now that I know what school is like again and have a good benchmark for what kind of marks you get for the amount of effort put in, I can shoot for better marks next time. You’ll never get me to go along with all the new no-pressure strategies they are trying to introduce into high school grading now, but it’s a little unfortunate that the actual process of learning isn’t taken into account. A crappy student who makes big improvements still gets a crappy average, while a world-weary veteran of the school game can blow through, learn almost nothing new about themselves and earn endless praise despite the fact that he didn’t even show up most of the time. Ah well. Nothing is perfect. Attempts to reinvent the system haven’t produced anything that isn’t laughable yet, as far as I know. Anyone into “new math?” Didn’t think so.

Writing stuff:

I’m doing an interview/google hangout on Jan.11 with my publisher. You know, the one that was supposed to happen months ago but I had to bail due to other obligations. I’ll get a link up here for it soon, but if you’re curious about other authors on a similar wavelength, Tyche Books has their other authors’ interviews on the youtube. They’re worth a look.

Also, I’ve started work on another episode for Archon. After reading an article about how it has become acceptable these days to expect authors to work for free, I’m not into doing that whatsoever. Writers write stories. I respect guys who can give away their writing for free and make money off their appearances/other vague products, but that doesn’t mean every author should be expected to work for free and hope to make money from ad revenue or speaking engagements. My auto mechanic wouldn’t rebuild my transmission for free in the hope that I’d watch his weekly podcast and click on ads, and I think as writers we get backed into this corner of thinking that for some reason we need to live like that.

So I’m going to get a few episodes done and try to sell it. It may not see the light of day now, or it might just take a while.

 

That is all.

 

Well no, not quite. Ian Thornley rules.

 

That is all.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Concrete and the Pacific Northwest–I haven’t seen much of either in steampunk, so let’s take a look at both at the same time. Just for fun. Concrete isn’t something we normally associate with steampunk. It kind of gets lost in all the brass and  . . . collars. But it became quite important in the later half of that era.

 

The Kaleden Hotel: 1910

Lots of other things were going on in the steam era. Yes, Balloon Captain Baron Britishperson is interesting to read about and we all can’t get enough of things made of gears that don’t really need to be made of gears; however, while Balloon Captain Baron Britishperson was doing his thing in Europe, his compatriots were also doing stuff way the heck out here in British Columbia. A few of them decided to build a bunch of orchards in the Okanagan Valley, and those who didn’t feel like making the trip invested in some of these communities. One such place was Kaleden.

Unlike a lot of the small towns around where I grew up, this wasn’t a staging point for miners and railway workers. It was a project undertaken by English bourgeois to irrigate the area and produce a lot of fruit. Elites back home funded much of the operation, which was mostly a success—it’s still a beautiful, dignified little place consisting mostly of orchards and, more recently, vineyards. It has remained bourgeois for most of the last 100 years.

The above photo is of the ill-fated Kaleden Hotel. No, it didn’t burn down. There are no ghosts or tragic stories. The skeleton you see there is a dramatic example of how ambition and lack of expertise turned a nice hotel into an abandoned shell.

The reason I mention this is that in an age where pioneer buildings were built of wood, someone decided to build a hotel out of concrete. Now, there was hardly anything around at the time as far as industry goes. I have no idea how or where they got their aggregate and what the logistics of that were. More on that later. But back to the story—the project fell on some financial trouble, and in that case the guy did what we all do when we need some cash: tear out the floors and sell it all! Right . . . .

When things got better, the guy wasn’t allowed to put it back together. Thankfully there must have been an engineer around—it was deemed unsafe because they hadn’t even reinforced the concrete.

Apparently the concrete was poured by hand. That means carrying it up a ladder and dumping it into the forms. That’s what the few historical accounts say—I’m not sure why nobody would have thought to use a rope and pulley, but I digress.

“But its concrete, how interesting is that?” you ask.

Concrete has been around forever, but actually wasn’t used very much between the ancient Romans’ time and the 1800s. The thing that revived it was the invention of Portland Cement (no relation to Portland Oregon or Maine), which made concrete a whole lot more consistent. To use concrete you need the right kind of rocks and the right mix of sizes of these rocks, and they need to be in a certain condition for it to work with the cement paste. Those gravel pits everyone doesn’t want in their back yard and writes letters to the editor about? Well, they’re actually very important to building a city and having them closer probably cuts down on pollution from trucking it around everywhere, but that’s another post entirely. The point is that the people who built this hotel had hardly anything available. There are tons of wood structures around from the same era, so I’m not sure why the builder chose to use concrete in this case. This is mostly conjecture, but to me the hotel was a ballsy move—a deviation, perhaps, from the overly practical “pioneer” temperament. Or is that kind of bravado a trait of pioneers? I’m not sure.

So while in mainstream steampunk land we have man portrayed as having such mastery over technology that he creates mechanically grotesque indulgences, here we have a case of that same bourgeois confidence falling flat in the face of ineptitude, the environment, circumstances, or some combination thereof.

Here’s a closer photo of the concrete. I chose this one because it shows just how random the aggregate in this concrete is. The big, long, flat, sharp rock is an example of everything you don’t want in concrete. Perhaps the reason they didn’t use rebar was because the size of this aggregate wouldn’t be able to pass around it and the concrete would separate. More likely is that they just used whatever they could find in the area. Also from the look of the rock, it’s dachite or something equally as unsuited for concrete use. When you look at geological maps of the area, most of the minerals they’d find are potentially bad.

In small towns that’s how concrete was done, though. And based on accounts I’ve heard personally from old guys around here, they still knew what worked and what didn’t, though in a broad sense. Of course now we know that mixing it in terms of “x-bags of cement with y-shovels-full of gravel” still isn’t good enough, but they made it work for house foundations and so on.

To the left you can see more of the same evidence of random rocks thrown into this concrete, and the pop-outs resulting from that choice.

Some might be disappointed that there isn’t some big dramatic fire behind this concrete skeleton, but to me the story of technical failure and financial blundering offers a lot more to think about. I guess readers don’t always see the underpinnings of a story, but for myself, and I imagine a lot of steam/dieselpunk writers, often the coolest stories full of action and drama stem from studying everyday situations like the one I’ve been writing about. And sometimes that starts with something as mundane as thinking about building materials, or electricity, or how a city is designed.

Balloon Captain Baron Britishperson is a fun character to play with—the aim of this post and my dieselpunk leanings isn’t at all an attack per se on those types of characters. But what I love about dieselpunk, and writing about “new world”—ish settings as opposed to opulent old empires is that Balloon Captain Baron Britishperson’s sense of entitlement and theoretical knowledge mean less when you change the rules of society. Industrial and entrepreneurial skills rule dieselpunk. Entitlement gets you nowhere—assuming that throwing money or status at a construction project will hemorrhage that old English money in an instant. Now, I don’t have a clue about what the person’s attitude was when they tried to build this thing, but it’s something that happens even today and is mitigated by the fact that we aren’t in the middle of the woods with no expertise or proper materials available.

The main point is that . . . well, sometimes things that aren’t interesting actually are. And that steampunk ought to exploit gold-rush type settings a bit more.

(Okay, so I have been doing blog posts straight from MS Word and it’s pretty neat . . . only apparently sometimes the formatting gets messed up in the process. Derrrrr.)


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 150 other followers