Technological Change in Steampunk Worldbuilding (Parasol Protectorate Special Extras)

Mr Frankum asked me a very interesting question via private missive recently. I thought it was so worth of discussion that he would not mind if I infringed on a matter of nettiquette and postulated it here.

If Daimler and Benz invented the internal combustion engine c.1885, does that necessitate an automatic “stop” in the timeline for steampunk fiction, or, given that steam was on the table for powering automobiles until the Lucas strike at Spindletop in 1901 made petroleum a viable option, would that allow steam to be a logical and plausible power supply available to fiction writers ’til the latter date? (Which would also tie in, conveniently, with the death of Victoria and hence the Victorian age…)

(Also, I suppose the argument could be made that we’re still using steam power, given that’s what’s actually operating the turbines at the dams where our electricity is produced…)

Wait…Did I answer my own question, or is this still a viable discussion?

The Dos-a-Dos (Back-to-Back) Steam Runabout was built in 1884 by George Bouton and Charles-Armand Trepardoux
for French entrepreneur Count de Dion, who named it ‘La Marquise’ after his mother.

I love this kind of question. I nearly did my PhD on technological change in an archaeological context. In line with that, the abandonment, replacement, and retirement of technology is a subject of particular interest to me.

Through archaeological and historical reports we know, for example, that old technology does not always give way to something newer and better. Progress is a concept adored by politicians, not academics. For example, a single catastrophic event, like the Hindenburg, can cause a wide scale rejection of an otherwise sound, efficient, and useful technology.

When writing steampunk it is often easiest to chose or invent just such and event in order to explain away the changes between a steampunk universe and the real Victorian one. In my world, for example, the telegraph is a failure so other forms of communication are invented instead. (Although it fails for scientific reasons internal to my universe, see the paragraph after next.)

If, for example, you had a Hindenburg-like explosion of the early combustion engine, killing thousands, combined with the wide scale production of the smaller steam motor suited to personal use, the second might outshine the first. Of course, this doesn’t always work, the Titanic had little effect on the popularity of steamer travel. And there seems to be some (little) evidence to support the occasional synergy of discovery (see the oxygen molecule). Which is to say, sometimes a discovery (or invention) seems destined to occur.

However, because I’m an archaeologist and vested in the influence of culture on technological change (I have a very long paper on this subject I’m happy to pass along if anyone is interested) as well as serendipity, and the experimentation of the individual (two of the other mainstay explanations for technological change) I ended up altering the scientific nature of my entire Parasol Protectorate universe to accommodate a steampunk world. For me, it wasn’t enough to just pick one major invention failing or succeeding over others (much as the alt history writer will change the course of one major battle), I needed to change the universe behind the science of invention.

Which is why I researched Victorian science and theory, threw immortals into the mix, and formulated a world wherein aether spheres and vital humors actually existed. Nesting steampunk tech and allowing certain things, like the combustion engine, not to develop under the paradigms and theories of oddball Victorian science, became, not only easy, but logical under these constraints. So long, of course, as the reader doesn’t attempt to explain my world using modern scientific theory, because then it breaks down.

Sorry for the academic speak, I slide back into it so easily.

I guess what I am saying is that if I, as a steampunk writer, have developed a complex enough world, were steam power dominates for reasons inherent in my universe, the combustion engine shouldn’t be a problem because, well, it can’t be. Ah circular logic.


Your Infusion of Cute . . .
I have found the source for the hatbox toolkit at last!
Tiffany’s Tools

Your Tisane of Smart . . .
Tried: Todd & Holland’s Queen Victoria’s 1876 Tea Blend. A mix of Keemun (probably 80% or more by visual estimation) and Yunnan black teas. A stunning dark whole leaf tea with leaves of gold scattered throughout (the Yunnan flower leaf). It brewed to a golden reddish color, which made me instantly wary, generally I take gold tones as a warning. I like my teas strong and brisk but mild in flavor, brewing to a nice dark brown, like Assam. (I know, I’m such a peasant.) Sure enough, there was a herby almost Darjeeling flavor to the blend making too perfumey for my taste, with burnt tannic and pine overtures. I would have preferred to taste each leaf on its own to render judgement, as I think the Keemun dominated the blend. Someone, someday, will open a black tea + milk tasting room and I will be a happy girl.

Your Writerly Tinctures . . .
Another ebook kerfuffle in the making. The mail online reports that “a formal investigation to discover whether international publishers Harper Collins, Penguin, Hachette Livre, Simon & Schuster, and Germany’s Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holzbrinck have ‘engaged in anti-competitive practices’.”

Book News:

  • Paul reviews Heartless.
  • Travels Through lest says, “Heartless is exactly what readers have come to expect from the Parasol Protectorate with all sorts of steampunk madness from Alexia and Co.”
  • Cate’s Bookshelves reviews Heartless. “That’s the problem, if there is one, with Carriger’s plots — you can’t talk about them without spoiling them and the delight really is in the discovery.”

Quote of the Day:
“TV. If kids are entertained by two letters, imagine the fun they’ll have with twenty-six. Open your child’s imagination. Open a book.”
~ Author Unknown

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