This is my pick for the best place on my entire Steam Tour to take your littlest Steampunks. There are fun, hands-on exhibits about the water cycle and great info about the history of harnessing the Thames and combatting the Cholera outbreaks through London’s history. But the most exciting parts of the museum complex is room after room of real, working steam engines. They don’t run every engine every day, but I was lucky enough to visit on a bank holiday when they did run every engine for at least 15 minutes at some point during their open hours.
In the courtyard there are some smaller engines as well as a station to make giant bubbles in the afternoon, so that is another plus for kids. There is also a replica of a Victorian-era workshop where all the machines run on the same belt system (the original workshop was destroyed during the Blitz) and they offer tours.
You should have been there. The buzz in the ballroom was happy and excited as the DIY models assembled to strut their stuff for a very appreciative audience. I had hoped to get a seat at the end of the runway, but even 10 minutes before the show started it was difficult to find any empty floor space at all, so I had to settle for sitting on the floor seat near the stage. I hope you enjoy the gallery of photos as much as I enjoyed being there, and I also got a chance to shoot a quick video of the models’ final procession right before the judges made their decision.
To help me get ready for the H.G. Wells Sourcebook I am going to write for Steam Tour: An American Steampunk in London, I decided to read several of his scientific romances. I read the Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau several months ago, but it is always interesting to read an author’s whole canon in quick succession. My goal is to read War of the Worlds, First Men in the Moon, Tales of Space and Time and The Door in the Wall at minimum before the ezine comes out, but if you think I am missing something even better than what is on that list let me know!
My experience with War of the Worlds was a bit backwards, because I read League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 2, and the events of that book are closely related to Wells classic tale, and very faithfully adapted it turns out.
Like many of Wells books, this story started as a serial in magazines rather than as a novel from the beginning. The serial ran during 1897 and it was later compiled into a book in 1898. It is divided into two parts, The Coming of the Martians and Earth Under the Martians. The name of the Surrey-based narrator is never revealed, and he tells the harrowing adventure through his eyes as well as through his brother’s account of what happens to London itself when Martians descend and start an invasion.
One thing that I love about Wells stories is how much of the scientific knowledge of the times he includes in his tales. For instance, the arrival of the Martians is preceded by strange explosions visible on the surface of the red planet, and it takes the Martian pods several weeks to arrive to the outskirts of London. It then takes over a day for the metal to cool down enough for the pods to open. In the meantime, people have started to gather and even sell refreshments around the first pit where they crash-landed. I love that detail, and I absolutely believe it would happen that way. Soon, the festival atmosphere turns to terror when the Martians assemble their deadly heat ray, our narrator only escaping because he had been sent on an errand and was not in the pit with the scientists who first try to make contact. Through a series of near-misses and some quick thinking, the narrator survives the first wave of attacks by the be-tentacled Martians and their huge fighting machines, and tells the story of (in his view) the apex of society falling to pieces in the face of a cold and calculating enemy. He is surprisingly pragmatic about the whole affair, often likening the human race to insects or rodents who are disturbed by the machinations of people. This is not true of most of the people he meets on his way though, and there are several different kinds of madness worked into the narrative.
This is a tale of invasion, but also of devotion between a husband and wife, which took me by surprise. I have only just started to look at Wells personal life, but he carried on a number of affairs during his second marriage after divorcing his first wife, so the commitment shown by the narrator seems inconsistent with what I know of the author.
The first time I ever heard of War of the Worlds it was the story of its broadcast on Halloween 1938. The accounts vary, but in the days following several newspapers reported a wave of fearful folks who believed a real invasion was taking place. They opted to present 40 minutes of the hour-long tale as a series of simulated news bulletins, and this coupled with a lack of commercial breaks added to the realism. There was a disclaimer at the beginning of the show, but anyone who tuned in late could have gotten the impression that they were hearing something that was going on in real time. Most likely, the newspaper accounts of a panicked populace were blown out of proportion because of the competition between traditional print media and the new radio technology. (What?! The news was sensationalized? Never!)
I can definitely see why this book has been adapted and re-adapted several times and in different media. The aliens and their technology remains alien and stands the test of time better than say, First Men in the Moon. It is definitely worth a read, not just because it is a classic but because it is a genuinely interesting social commentary that transcends the time in which it was written.
Have you read it or seen a movie version? What did you think?
For die hard fans, His Dark Materials (known as the Golden Compass trilogy in the US), wouldn’t technically fit into the definition of Steampunk.
The series is set in the present/near future so steam power is a thing of the past and the story has nothing to do with Victorian England or an alternate history, but the parallel universe Lyra Belacqua inhabits has some decidedly Steampunk elements to it. The images in this post are all from the 2007 film release of The Golden Compass.
First, England gets “punked.” Lyra lives at Jordan College within Oxford University, which doesn’t exist in our universe. She later travels to an alternative London with dirigibles floating over head and horseless hansom cabs, apparently their answer to the automobile.
The spaces that she inhabits in while in the power of the evil Mrs. Coulter remind me a lot of the work of Alfonse Mucha (1860-1939).
There are also so some fun alternative technologies, for instance, a projector (which they call a spirit projector) that uses glassy orbs to create 3D, moving images of of the mysterious Dust (which is basically powdered sentience). The bad guys also employ “spy flies” which are clockwork insects “with a bad spirit pinned to it” and sent to locate Lyra and her band.
Fun Facts and Context
- The Golden Compass was originally released under the name Northern Lights.
- The trilogy explores contemporary concepts in science such as quantum entanglement (lodestone resonator), dark matter (dust is invisible without the amber spyglass even though in the Golden Compass film they depict it clearly as visible by the naked eye) and human evolution (how did we become “more” than animals? Where did sentience come from?)
- The Golden Compass film stops short of the plot of the first book. The real ending of the Golden Compass is darker and sadder, but I think they stopped where they did in hopes of continuing the trilogy and that needed a more hopeful note.
- Unfortunately, the films of The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass were never made. Many people, including actors in the film, blamed the Catholic church for killing the series. I admit that I watched the movie before I read the books and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t continue and why the church would protest so much. Then I read the books and I totally get it. (Spoiler alert) Even if the story wasn’t overtly about killing god (or at least the one posing as god), there are multiple scenes of a violence against children, like in Citegazze (a city in another alternative universe), that would have been hard to stomach on the silver screen.