Dieselpunk


. . . well, nothing happened to steam. It’s still pretty important.

It’s always nice when the post I actually have a few minutes to write somehow ends up following the last one I did from god knows how long ago. Picking up on the criticism of nostalgia in the previous post, I was just thinking more about the fetishization of particular technology in any ****punk genre.

Calling Victorian-inspired fiction “steampunk” kind of implies that the technology is stuck in that era. It’s as if only Victorians used it and as soon as people started driving Model Ts, nobody ever used it again, thus giving it some kind of cachet. This is ridiculous. Steam is still a crucial technology.

Okay, so maybe the defining factor is the steam engine. I can live with that. It makes sense. So maybe the idea is still legit and I’m just typing out of my ass. But while I’m here for like 30 more seconds, let’s appreciate how important steam still is . . . you know, just for shits and giggles.

The properties of steam are actually pretty neat. I don’t want to throw numbers around here, but due to its density, you can get huge flow rates from it when compared to plain hot water. This is more efficient. And unless you’re on a hippie commune in California, a lot of facilities/homes need a lot of hot-something to function properly. A pressure vessel–a boiler, preferably steam and not just hot water–is still how we do this. Boilers are everywhere, and I can’t see how we’d function without them no matter what kind of awesome technology makes us think we don’t need basic large-scale industrial solutions.

So what has changed? Well, thousands of people used to die in boiler accidents. That’s a neat steampunk theme, and I’m not being sarcastic for once. I’ve seen it in a couple books. To me, there’s an example of punkin’ it right. Anyway, now that we have mechanical engineers and boilers aren’t just something pieced together by Balloon Captain Englishman McBritishperson in his hobby workshop; they’re pretty safe and accidents are low. But they’re still there, and you wouldn’t be fretting about being too hot in the mall with your winter coat when Christmas shopping if it weren’t for boilers. So yeah . . . there isn’t a guy with coal on his face and a bunch of poor children at home tending it, so it’s harder to write a neat story about the power engineer watching the boilers nowadays. But it’s still pretty cool . . . at least to me. It’s also a decent paycheck.

Another tack to this is how people view energy, especially now. There’s so much talk about ditching things that work but take a big corporation to produce (like natural gas, which is pretty clean, but I digress) for downright silly ideas like “solar roadways.” What I’m getting at here is that the requirements of a huge facility, like a hospital or a factory (even one that makes solar panels) tend to demand a lot of power, especially for heating. It takes 60 percent more water to heat a surface using liquid than steam. I don’t think I’d want my hospital to rely on solar panels to output millions of BTUs to keep the place running. Just sayin’.

Even in the Nuclear Age (atomicpunk?) you still have steam doing the dirty work. Are we still in that age? I don’t even know–we use it, and it’s good, but we’re not supposed to acknowledge that anymore. Derp.

I guess in reality, you can’t just chop our technological state into different  . . . erm . . . things. It’s mutable, and some old things are repurposed because they are so basic and practical, other technology pivots around them and they fade into the backsplash where nobody looks because there’s not a lot to say about them politically or socially. I guess, then, that’s the true measure of a successful or important technology–when people stop talking about it but still rely on it.

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I often see these twitter/blog/social media whatever posts pop up on various feeds from kind of successful authors and other marketers who spend a lot of time writing shit online to keep relevant. The kind I’m thinking of are those “TEN THINGS YOU SHOULD NEVER DO ON SOCIAL MEDIA IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENTIRE WORLD TO WISH YOU’D NEVER BEEN BORN” sort of generic advice offerings.

I’m fairly certain I probably do all of them. I admit, I’m not that great about doing this kind of thing on demand, at least outside of professional life. If I don’t feel like talking, I won’t. And if I’m going to talk, it has to be something that actually interests me. The only things that interest me in this context are things other people haven’t done or talked about much.

Where dieselpunk is concerned, I can’t handle any conversations about home-made jetpack costumes. I just can’t. What I can talk about is the way this particular idiom fits into everyday cognitive life.

Today, that means writing a criticism of nostalgia.

The hell??? one might ask in this case. Well, being a dieselpunk author doesn’t give me a free pass for questionable thinking.

Midnight In Paris

A while ago my wife and I watched Midnight in Paris. Part of the reason was because it would be cool to see familiar places in a film, since we got married in Paris this May. In reality, this film was a fascinating study of what I think is a big factor in why people choose genres like steampunk or dieselpunk. This movie nailed in particular the way writers, intellectuals, and artists in general tend to look backward. The previous era has an intellectual and aesthetic halo-effect for thinkers. We get sucked into thinking the present is boring and crude. Maybe a psychotic version of this is responsible for end of the world prophecies. I mean what is an end of the world prophecy but “the present sucks, nothing of value exists beyond the golden age I’m stuck to” on bath salts?

By the way, normally Owen Wilson annoys me, but this movie made me respect him a whole lot more. And I totally got sucked into my modernist fetish when he went into Shakespeare’s bookstore and talked about Joyce . . . mostly because I did the exact same thing when I went into that place.

But fantasy authors don’t give a shit what Woody Allen thinks, right?

The Diesel Era (Not in Paris or New York though)

This line of thinking made me stop and look around my own environment. I saw no shortage of modernist wonders in Europe. Train stations and other banal things that had been built in my favourite era all had some kind of significance, and it reinforced the pedestal I had put this other era onto. However, in Western Canada, I noticed that the diesel era looked a lot different.

Western Canada functioned in three or four capacities at that time: mines, lumber, agriculture. Also training camps for soldiers during the wars. It was not a cultural centre. Engineering and technology might have piggybacked on the industrial things going on, but there was no Chrysler building or anything like it built anywhere East of Ontario. It was also pretty swell to build internment camps back then, and British Columbia had a few.

So my current town does have a palpable aftertaste of the era. I don’t know that it ever will shake that. It’s kind of cool, but the significance of this town lies in a wartime military camp (this is where my office is), and an internment camp.

The contribution of this training camp was huge. Not only did soldiers train here for both wars, but you can still see markings on the range to guide pilots practicing strafing runs. The lake and much of the undeveloped land is full of unexploded ordinance. There is a lot of history here.

It just looks nothing like what our ideal version of the era is. This goes for most historical buildings in the interior too. There’s very little steel, very little concrete, and nothing whatsoever that shows inspiring designs ripped from Howard Roark’s libidinal frustration. It’s all big wooden timbers–like seriously, you’ve never seen timbers this large. When you don’t know how to properly engineer a building, you just choose the biggest members you can find to be safe. Stuff was slapped together by cowboys, not heroically fashioned by an army of steel workers. You can go into a 600 year old palace in europe and it’s still just as fresh as it ever was. Here, you go into one of these structures and are instantly hit by a mouldy pong that refit after refit hasn’t been able to clear.

Now this doesn’t apply to all historical buildings or other issues. Victorian architecture is much stronger throughout, especially along the railway–see Banff Springs and several buildings in Winnipeg. Also there are quite a few impressive Victorian armouries across the country. It’s not like I’m accusing us of being behind or too poor, because that’s definitely not the case.

I just wonder: where were the architects, writers, surrealists, and petty-bourgeois adventurers? I have no idea, besides New York and Europe.

This leads me to ask myself: why spend so much mental energy in that era then? The look? Not really–as I frequently mention, I hate wearing costumes and don’t find myself wishing I could get away with wearing pants up to my goddamn nipples and putting axle grease in my hair. Maybe it’s the explosion of advances coupled with the traumatic shakeup of war–a kind of uncertainty that somehow warrants some optimism. But then again, you could say that about any time period. Everything is always moving towards nothing in particular. Unless, I guess, you’re one of those dudes who sell end of the world prophecies.

It would be interesting to ask people who are into *punk genres if they actually would like to live in the particular era they like to read about. You know, like Owen Wilson in that movie I was talking about.

Are these genres actual nostalgia in the pathological sense? Look, I realize that 99 percent of the people who read this and have read my book would just shrug and say “eh, they’re neat stories. I don’t think about it more than that.” Like I said though, I don’t like to do anything that isn’t interesting. If I wrote books just because they were neat and didn’t have some complicated structure of thoughts behind it, I’d have gotten bored with writing ten years ago.

In summary:

Nostalgia is a trap, but being human is full of such traps so it’s probably not something to worry about unless you’re thinking about ditching your wife for the 1920s. I guess. Well, thanks Woody Allen!

So what could make a post on a dead blog special? Well, the fact that I’m posting at all! Also, I’m writing this at a resort in Jamaica.

Seriously though, life as an actual person is more demanding than I had ever thought. With a popular wife, a new appreciation for the powerlifting end of the weight training spectrum, and a kickass 8 month construction management coop, free time is rare.

We’re at Sandals in Negril. It’s pretty awesome. I’m not a beach person, actually. But this isn’t like the beach in Canada. I learned this last year in Cuba, but it never ceases to amaze me: I still maintain my dislike of frittering away a summer weekend at a rocky gross Canadian beach teeming with stoned teenagers, but you can’t put that in the same category as the caribbean.

I think the main reason I’m enjoying this extraordinary resort is because of the aforementioned life as an actual person. As my indulgent author/musician self, I didn’t see the value of vacations because I was in complete control of 90 percent of my time. Not that being busy/responsible is a chore–it’s something I’ve craved and hadn’t found until getting into engineering and married life. I definitely understand the value of these seemingly vapid endeavpours now.

The beach in Negril is ideal, the service at sandals is absurdly good, and I’m super pumped to suspend the weight training for lying around, smoking Matterhorns (gasp!) and enjoying top shelf drinks for a week.

I’ve been somewhat more involved with some diesely things in my job lately. Things like old buildings, military history, and so on. It’s interesting to compare what the diesel era was like in real life where I am, versus the vision in my head that drives my fiction. Huh???? Am I still in fiction mode? Yes. I don’t get to write  at the moment, but it’s still there. Anyway, I want to do some posts about actual conditions in the diesel era as opposed to the idealized version that’s focused on pulp serials and high modernist architecture in big cities. The story is a bit different in western Canada to New York or Paris. The people here didn’t really give a shit about Gertrude Stein, Schoenberg, or the use of setbacks in the Chrysler building. It’s actually a really cool thing to delve into, and I can’t wait to write these “un-punking of dieselpunk” posts.

For now though, I have a lot of nothing to do!

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.)


Once again I feel the need to reiterate that I exist, despite having left this revamped blog thing hanging. It’s the end of the first semester and I’ve found some extra minutes of time to consider things other than math and concrete. Some of these things include:

  • Eating properly
  • Doing things
  • Picking up some, but not all of my guitars
  • Running
  • The gym
  • ARCHON Part I

Somewhere in this period the plan was to get my entire condo painted and replace the floors. And by “get my entire condo painted” I mean “make a huge mess everywhere myself and hope it ends up looking better than it did in 1976.” Is that still going to happen? Derr.

Make no mistake—I’ve only completed one of seven final exams. So am I trying to weasel out of painting by mentioning that? Who knows.

What’s been really been on my mind outside the realm of civil engineering is Archon. The one good thing about not having time to write is that I get to totally forget what I’d written. When I read over the latest draft of this project, it was so foreign to me . . . a lot more foreign than what I’d experienced when I was writing all the time. When writers give you advice to put away your work for a while, it’s not just something that sounds nice. I never fully grasped the concept. Sure, I gave a mandatory three-month cooling-off period before attacking first-drafts. But I admit I did it more because it was standard practice than anything. Going over those drafts felt nothing like the strange world of reading something you can barely recall writing.

What of it? Well, you tend to catch idiotic writing tics a lot faster than normal. They’re like glowing toxic waste spills in the middle of your manuscript. You can’t miss them. But you can definitely miss them if you’re still close to the draft. The actual editing seems faster this way. Before it would take three or four passes to catch a lot of these things. We’ll see where I’m at after the first round of revisions, but it looks like it should take less time to polish.

Of course the other angle here is the fact that the story itself appears new again. It’s actually a good read this way. Before, it was kind of painful to keep reading stuff I already knew word-for-word. Not so this time. Part of why I’m so excited about this project is the very fact that it passes this test—the test of holding my interest at a time when I have no attachment to it whatsoever and have a million other things I need to do besides worry about my fiction. This is a really cool serial, and that’s why I don’t mind stringing along potential readers like I have been. Once it finally appears, it’ll be worth the wait. The only other time I felt anything close to this was with Blightcross, and that was just one novel among eight others . . . and consequently the only one that made it to print.

So what’s the holdup? I can get this thing ready to go relatively soon. I’m just unsure about the idea of cover art. If I just release this for free on my own (which is probably what I’ll do), I don’t want it to just be some text file floating around on the internet. Trouble is, I can’t make it myself and don’t know how to solicit artists on my own, never mind pay for it. The other option is getting it in with a few of the epublishers out there who handle serials, but the problem there is that they’d want at least two episodes up front. That I can do, but then the wait would be extremely long since I’d have to wait for the second part to materialize . . . and that might take a while given the current circumstances. I’d rather gauge the time I spend on future installments on reader interest in the first one.

Is cover art a big deal?

Am I too concerned with window-dressing? Should I just quietly place it on my blog and hope people find it?

Right now, I need some feedback about how people are finding new stuff to read. This is especially important given the niche audience I have.

Who wants to read some out-there dieselpunk where epic fantasy collides with Memphis Belle?