A goblin with a stone axe and two humans driving a steam train

Raising Steam

A goblin with a stone axe and two humans driving a steam train

I used to think of Perdido Street Station as Steampunk version of Terry Pratchet’s universe, but along the Diskworld® novels, the world has undergone its own industrial revolution. After a light based telegraph system (the clacks) Raising Steam tells the story of the appearance of trains.

It is easy to make parallels with the Going Postal which got its own movie: same main character (Moist von Lipwig) and same background theme (a new technology emerging), the problem is, Going Postal had original ideas: the clacks are not just a simple telegraph, the community associated with them was inspired by programmers, not Victorian telegraph operators, and most of the involved characters were new.

Raising Steam

Doubleday
ISBN : 978-0-857-52227-6

There is no such originality in Raising Steam, the central character is again Most von Lipwig, but nearly every Discworld® characters pops up in the story. The engineer behind the steam engine, Simnel, is a very straight engineer, except when he could be trapped, then he reveals himself to be smart about the world. The steam engine is just that, a regular steam engine, no variation, same thing about the people in the railway: they come out straight of the Victorian book of clichés.

The book could be divided into two parts, the first one is just a description of the building up of the railway, it is well written and pleasing to read, but there is no real suspense because there is basically no antagonist. The second part is basically some simple conspiracy plot which seems to have been bolted on the previous dissertation to make it look like there is an actual story. This part could also be called the Parade of Mary Sues, all of Pratchet’s main characters are on a train a beating the shit of the weak opposition, even the crook reveals himself to be a tough fighter. Of course, there is not much tension as the opposition seems to be, at best, an afterthought.

The second part also contains a set of sudden reveals, but they concern secondary characters and feel very artificial, so does the final deus machina moment. In general I felt that by pushing all the interesting characters from previous books into this story, it watered them down or changed them in contradictory fashion.

One annoying pattern in science fiction and fantasy books is that as the authors get older, they often try to make all the bits and pieces of their work fit together, this seems to be motivated more by a will to make their life’s work a coherent piece, not to write a good story. Raising Steam clearly falls into that category of books.

Terry Pratchet often had trouble with his book’s endings, but this is the first time I really though come-on while reading the last part. So while the writing style is still as enjoyable, and I really liked the first part, I can’t really recommend this book, which is basically a pale shadow of Going Postal.

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Steam locomotive modernised by Dampflokomotiv- und Maschinenfabrik DLM of Winterthur,

Modern Steam

Steam locomotive modernised by Dampflokomotiv- und Maschinenfabrik DLM of Winterthur

While looking around for references for my dieselpunk roleplaying idea, I ended-up reading a bit about steam locomotives. While steam-engines are considered low-tech enough to be part of the romantic landscape of steampunk, they are quite complicated systems, they got constantly improved between the first prototype built by Richard Trevithick in 1804, and the demise of that technology, 150 years later.

Steam locomotive were supplanted by either electric or diesel-electric engines, with lower maintenance costs, and in the case of diesel-electric locomotives, better energy efficiency. Diesel locomotives typically have a 35% thermal efficiency, that is for each unit of energy it consumes, about a third translates into actual work (pulling trains). Steam locomotives typically had a thermal efficiency of 7%, although late prototypes reached 12%. Steam engines have the added drawback that they need water besides fuel. Unsurprisingly, steam technology appeared in a region where both water and coal were abundant.

Are steam locomotive really a thing of the past? Maybe not. There have been numerous technological advances in the last seventy years that would benefit a steam engine: better mechanical part, stronger and lighter materials, including improved insulation, computer based controls; so it seems conceivable to build locomotives with a thermal efficiency of 20%.

While this is still below the efficiency of a diesel locomotive, or even a car with a combustion engine (25%), steam locomotives have the advantage that they can run on a variety of fuels: coal, which is currently cheaper per energy unit than diesel, but also wood pellets, or even oil. It is also possible to build fireless steam locomotives that can run off some local source of steam, say the heat exhaust of a factory.

One interesting experiment is locomotive DLM 52 8055, a Kriegslok, i.e. a wartime locomotive built in occupied France, that ended up in Eastern Germany. In 1999 it was refitted in a modern way by Dampflokomotiv & Maschinenfabrik (DLM) in Winterthur, a spin off of the old Schweizerische Lokomotiv- & Maschinenfabrik (SLM). I could not get numbers about the efficiency of the new locomotive, but the conversion nearly doubled the locomotive’s power from 1176KW to 2205KW and its maximum speed was raised from 70 km/h to 100 km/h.

Currently the focus seems to be on repairing and upgrading the stock on exotic train lines (narrow gauge, cogwheels) only time will tell if the technology will do a more general come-back…

Modern Steam Dampflokomotive DLM 52 8055 © Walter Pöder – Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

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Pennsylvania Railroad Steam 1 Locomotive designed by Raymond Loewy

Dieselpunk Board

 Pennsylvania Railroad Steam 1 Locomotive designed by Raymond Loewy

I have been using Pinterest for some time to collect various pretty picture, but as I’m collecting ideas for a dieselpunk game, I created a dieselpunk board with various images and drawings I found on the web.

While there is a huge amount of Steampunk material on the web, Dieselpunk stuff is much more scarce, which in a way is strange because there are way more photographic documents available.

While Steampunk is a Uchronia, its structure is pretty straightforward, take victorian society, add some gear based technology, a bit of punk, voilà. Dieselpunk takes the same idea, but includes all the failed stuff of early industrial age: zeppelins, propeller driven trains, armoured trains and crazy planes, stuff that was built for real.

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la Cybernétique

La cybernétique

Que sais-je?&#13la Cybernétique
Louis Couffignal
Le point des connaissances actuelles
Presses Universitaires de France

Alors que je bricolais sur mon Commodore 64, quelqu’un m’a offert le livre La Cybernétique, un livre de la collection que sais-je, écrit par . À l’époque je l’avais trouvé complètement illisible et sans rapport avec l’informatique. Le livre a fini dans une étagère, oublié, puis dans un carton, et une nouvelle étagère. Je suis retombé dessus par hasard un samedi pluvieux.

Ce livre est la cinquième édition d’un livre écrit en 1963 pour les Presses Universitaires de France, il présente le domaine de la cybernétique, largement basé sur les travaux de Norbert Wiener, définit comme la science des analogies maîtrisées entre organismes et machines. On peut difficilement dire que cette branche soit très influente, j’ai réussi à faire un doctorat en informatique sans jamais en entendre parler. J’ai donc entrepris de lire ce texte, partant de l’idée naïve que je serais plus à même de comprendre ce texte, et sachant qu’exactement un demi-siècle me sépare de la première édition.

La Cybernétique

Que sais-je n°638, 128 pages
Presses Universitaires de France
Dépot Légal : 1963
5e édition, 1er trimestre 1978

Après avoir terminé la lecture, je dirais que la cybernétique devait être une des ces théories pour en finir avec les théories, avec congrès international et symposiums. La branche qui explique comment sont structurées les choses qui marchent et comment les faire marcher mieux, depuis les créatures vivantes jusqu’aux sociétés complètes, un peu l’idée sous-jacente de Treize à la douzaine, en moins amusant.

Dire que ce livre a mal vieilli est un doux euphémisme : beaucoup de mots, de définitions, quelques exemples des sciences phagocytées par la cybernétique, mais en fin de compte, tout semble se réduire à l’idée de rétroaction, l’exemple du régulateur à boules est cité plusieurs fois dans le livre, même l’enseignement peut-être optimisé en ayant un professeur qui glose et des machines à enseigner.

Si le livre parle beaucoup d’information, aucune mention n’est faite du théorème d’échantillonnage de Nyquist-Shannon, pourtant publié en 1949 et de la théorie de l’information en général. D’une manière générale, pour un ouvrage traitant de technologie, il est plutôt à la traine, la majorité des exemples sont mécaniques, les machines à compter sont celle de Pascal, décimales, bien sûr – ce qui n’est pas réellement surprenant, l’auteur était le directeur du Laboratoire de Calcul Mécanique de l’Institut Blaise Pascal. L’amplificateur ultime est le tube, alors que les transistors MOS existent depuis 1960.

En termes d’outils mentaux, le livre est aussi très pauvre: il est truffé d’analogies avec des systèmes mécaniques ou animaux d’échelles différentes, mais il n’y a aucune mise en abime, aucune définition claire de niveau, de récursion, de modules, de composants. De même le chapitre sur l’encodage de l’information définit assez maladroitement l’encodage en porteuse et jeux de symboles, sans penser un instant à des encodages plus complexes, récursifs. La partie la plus intéressante est la présentation des systèmes de classification, qui semblent être les ancêtres des systèmes de programmation objet d’aujourd’hui, y compris les mauvaises idées qui ont contribué à tant d’abus.

La branche de la cybernétique semble avoir largement disparu, ce qui est probablement une bonne chose. Si elle a peut-être contribué à avancer l’idée qu’une cellule, un humain, une machine et la société sont tous des mécaniques d’un certain type, la majorité des idées présentées sont non seulement obsolètes, mais clairement fausses à la lumière des progrès en psychologie, en informatique et en biologie.

La seule vertu de ce livre est de donner une idée de la vision de la technologie de l’époque, et même s’il a été écrit à mi-chemin entre la mort de la reine victoria et le temps présent, c’est à mon avis un bon proxy pour une vision steampunk de l’univers.

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New-York City Overcast by the Moon and Zeppelins, with an explosion in the centre and the cast of Iron Sky in front

Iron Sky

New-York City Overcast by the Moon and Zeppelins, with an explosion in the centre and the cast of Iron Sky in front

Finish humor is one of those things you are hard to describe or even understand, yet if somebody could make a funny movie about Nazis from the Dark Side of the Moon, it was some finns. I had heard a pretty good review of this movie by Mark Kermode, the movie made quite some buzz on the internet, and had part of its financing done by crowd-funding, so I was quite curious to see what the result was like.

Iron Sky is a Science-Fiction comedy produced by Timo Vuorensola based on a story written by . The movie is set in 2018: unbeknownst to the rest of humanity, the nazi that fled in 1945 have been hiding on the dark side of the moon, where they plot their return.

While this movie is clearly a comedy, it features the two necessary elements for a good science-fiction movie: a plot centered around characters you can care about, and an interesting background. Iron skies pits on one hand a version of the United States where somebody like Sarah Palin became president, and whose PR team staged the landing of black model on the moon to get her re-elected, on the other hand a nazi colony hidden on the dark side of the moon, completely cut of from what happened on earth, which hopes to re-conquer the earth with World War 2 technology.

The plot centers on two characters, Renate Richter, played by Julia Dietze, a pretty nazi earhtologist that is supposed to marry the next Moon-Führer (Klaus Adler, played by Götz Otto) and James Washington, a model turned astronaut for a PR stunt, he is played by Christopher Kirby.

While Iron Sky is certainly not a masterpiece, it is a fun movie that works. Some of the special effects are cheap and most of the science in the movie does not make sense, but I believed and cared about the characters and chuckled at the jokes. I liked the steampunk look of the of moon-nazi base and engine, the fact that for the most, their technology, their mode of though and their fashion had stayed in the 40’s.

One of the key characters of the story is Vivian Wagner, the PR agent of the US president, played by Peta Sergeant, without giving to much of the plot away, she is the bridge between the two worlds, and I think, says a lot about the relationship between modern PR and propagada of yore, and I think her performance is one of the reasons the movie works. While the movie is quite short (93 minutes), it still manages to cram quite a few references and jokes, including of course Charlie Chaplin‘s The Great Dictator and a very good re-acting of the “Hitler reacts to…” sequence of the movie Der Untergang which saw so many spoofs and adaptations on the internet.

In summary, a fun movie with some good cynical undertones, a must see if you like Pulp or Steampunk style movies.

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Cover of an original Captain Future, showing Joan chained to a rocket.

Captain Future

Cover of an original Captain Future, showing Joan chained to a rocket.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite TV-shows was the japanese animation of Captain Future (キャプテン (Kyaputen)フューチャー (Fyūchā)), it was dubbed in French, and named . Little did I know that the character was way older, having been created in 1939 by Edmond Hamilton. Clearly I am not the only one remembering, as someone went to great lengths to create a quite good looking trailer for a fake movie.

Still with the emergence of the Steampunk genre, it would make much more sense to do a Steampunk themed movie of Captain Future: if you look at the years, those stories are closer to the victorian period than to today. The character was created 39 years after queen Victoria’s death, 73 years ago. The stories and the technology would, in my opinion, make way more sense in a victorian uchronia.

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Casshern

Casshern

Casshern

友達のブローグでキャシャーンの為を読んだから見たかったです。脚本の集中がちょっと弱いが視覚的素晴らしいです。初めてブルーレイディスクで見なかった残念と思いました。スチームパンクが好きの人は見なければなりません。

Since I read about Casshern on a friend’s blog, I wanted to see it. The scenario somehow lacks focus, but visually it is stunning. This was the first time I regretted not watching a movie in blue-ray. A must see for people who like the steampunk genre.

Depuis que j’avais lu le billet concernant Casshern sur le blog d’un ami, j’avais envie de le voir. Le scénario manque de focus, mais visuellement le film est époustouflant. C’était la première fois que j’ai regretté de ne pas avoir regardé le film sur un disque blue-ray. Un film à voir pour ceux qui aiment le steampunk.

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