EBook on Sale!

As part of Smashwords’s “Read an EBook Week”, I’m reducing the price of “The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday to half-price ($1.74 in the US).

This story is the first installment in the Steampunk-themed Airship Flamel Adventures Series and follows our hero, Nicodemus Boffin, from the ash heaps of the East End of London to the pinnacle of British science.

It’s a ripping yarn of airships, alchemy, and airpirates, set against the frontiers of Science!

Available at Smashwords for most ebook formats.

And if you enjoy this book, the next books in the series are “Mr. Darwin’s Dragon” and “To Rule the Skies.

Enjoy!

Gamble House Virtual Tour

The Gamble House in Pasadena, California demonstrates the epitome of the Arts and Crafts style. Designed by the noted architects Greene and Greene for David Gamble, the son of one of the founders of the Proctor and Gamble Company.

The Arts and Crafts, or Craftsman, style encompasses natural forms and materials. The Gamble House uses several different species of woods, rocks from the nearby riverbed, and patterns of stained glass reflecting flowers and trees. The architects also designed custom furniture for the house.

Built in 1908, the house remained in the family until 1966. There had been interest from potential buyers–one wanted to paint the intricate woodwork interior white. In order to ensure the preservation of the craftsmanship and artistry of the house, it was donated to the City of Pasadena.

The Gamble House is normally open for tours, but in these Days of Covid, a virtual tour has been devised describing the architecture and history of the house.

So, how does the Gamble House connect with Steampunk? It made its screen debut as Doc Brown’s house in Back to the Future.

Verisimilitude

Like many authors, I have an inordinate fondness for interesting words. One of my favorites is “verisimilitude”, both because its etymology is straightforward—veri = truth plus “similis”=like—and because it is a crucially important concept to put into practice in one’s writing.

Much fiction writing includes inventing a world in which the story takes place—science fiction and fantasy writing for sure, and straight fiction to some extent as well. The characters live in this fictional world, interacting with each other as well as with the world. 

Now part of the magic of the process of reading is that the reader will happily follow the writer through the story but only as long as the components seem plausible. Do they possess ‘verisimilitude’? If so, the reader is happy to continue on through the story.  If not, the reader will be jolted out of the story as they question what they just read, and look it over again to make sure they didn’t get it wrong.  The reader usually has a pretty generous latitude in what they’ll believe.  After all, they want to believe the overall story. If the offense is too great, however, they will only grumpily proceed, annoyed that this or that piece of the story seems wrong.

For example: 

Your story’s world seems to be fairly similar to ours, but somewhere in Chapter 2, with no prior warning, your main character kills a dragon with a magic sword. If you hadn’t dropped in subtly somewhere previously that magic swords exist (let alone dragons!) in your world, your reader is going to be very confused, and not a little irked because they’re going to stop reading and flip through Chapter 1 seeing if they’ve missed something important. Not an optimal reading experience.

However, if you had shown early on that your main character lived in a castle and her mother was training her in witchcraft by casually including a scene where she is reading through a book of spells and waving her wand around, the sudden appearance of the dragon in the next chapter wouldn’t be so startling.  A little foreshadowing goes a long way.

There are some examples that seem to contradict this:  Gregor Samsa finds himself metamorphosed into a giant insect in the very first sentence of Kafka’s famous short story. The events that occur afterwards are completely believable, however, and serve to buffer the unexpected initial event.

Even very small inconsistent details can jerk readers out of their reverie if they’re noticed.  For example, if in your novel’s world Britain and the US never quite make up after the Revolutionary War (as they don’t in my Airship Flamel Adventures series), it would seem unlikely that Americans drink tea out of Wedgwood porcelain teacups.

Similarly, in describing futuristic technology, it’s not important that your airship operate using actual true-to-life technology.  But it is important to allow your reader to believe in your technology by sprinkling around a sufficient amount of reasonable-sounding details.  No one who watches Star Trek doubts the ability of the warp drive to propel the Enterprise to trans-light speeds after hearing about nacelles, Jeffries tubes, and plasma conduits.  (I am reserving my position on mushroom-powered drives, however.)

As a writer, your job is to create entertaining and interesting stories, and that means leading your reader along by the hand through your carefully constructed world, free of jarring inconsistencies and implausible events. Verisimilitude is the answer. 

Scientific Steampunk

Weston Voltmeter, ca. 1901

Of all the items I own, none embodies the Steampunk Aesthetic more than a Weston Voltmeter that I bought on ebay several years ago.

Take a look at it. Compared with later analog meters, it’s massive The voltmeter measures 10 inches in diameter and weighs about 12 pounds. The face of the device is painted black with what appear to be nickel-plated text and decoration. The earliest patent number on the central plaque is July 16, 1901, meaning that it was built no earlier than that. Its maker, the Weston Electrical Instrument Company, was well-known at the time for the high quality of its electrical measuring devices. Indeed the device seems to accurately measure electrical voltage still.

It is in the same condition as when I bought it. I’ve considered trying to clean it up a bit, but I kind of like the used appearance.

This device evokes the Steampunk Aesthetic by combining both its functionality with its completely unneeded decoration. The filigree and fancy script on its face contribute not a bit to the device’s ability to measure voltage. Yet they are as intrinsic to the device as its function.

Voltmeter detail 1
Voltmeter detail 2

An interesting factoid: Edward Weston, the American chemist, who started the company making, amongst other instrumentation, the Weston Cell, a very precise electrochemical cell (i.e, battery), which was recognized as the international voltage standard until 1990. He named his son Edward Faraday Weston, obviously after the great British chemist, Michael Faraday. And there’s no scientist more steampunk than Faraday!

Time’s up for “curfew”

As I write, I’ve got 40 minutes to get inside before I could potentially be arrested. San Jose, California has a covid-related curfew that makes it unlawful to be out between the hours of 10pm and 5am. I’m not sure how strictly the curfew is being obeyed, not to mention enforced. It was the latest increasingly strict measure required by people not obeying the previous measure.

When I was growing up in Somerville, Massachusetts, it was well-understood by all us kids that the time to come in the house for the evening was when the streetlights turned on. The lights were controlled by a photocell, so we all got longer after-dinner play times during the summer. It was a simple system based on an indirect measure of the tilt of the Earth’s axis and it worked. Pleas for longer time were rarely granted.

Being a writer, I ponder the origins of interesting words that I encounter. Recently, I came across a picture of a brass fireplace implement called a “curfew” and wondered how it related to the modern meaning.

The curfew was a metal or terra cotta dome that was placed over the remains of the coals in the hearth or stove to prevent the fire from spreading while also preventing the coals from being extinguished. (“Curfew” stems from the French “couvre-feu”, to cover the fire.) It was a fine line between the disaster of a house fire and the hassle of re-kindling a cold fire in the morning. A bell would toll announcing the curfew—-the time to cover up the hearth fire for the night. The practice is ancient and predates the Norman Invasion in England.

Examples of Curfews

Of course, now the curfew is meant to get everyone out of the bars and in their home to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Let’s hope that don’t need either type of curfew for very much longer in the future.

Steampunk Architecture – Redux

Transept of the Crystal Palace, 1851, the center of the Steampunk Architecture Universe.

Six years or so ago, I wrote a blog post titled “Steampunk Architecture” in which I gave a short description of several examples of real-life architecture that reflect the Steampunk Aesthetic. Since then it has been one of the most popular posts on my blog. I’ve also presented it as ta talk at the Bay Area’s steampunk con, Clockwork Alchemy.

As luck would have it, I had updated my presentation significantly in preparation for Clockwork Alchemy 2020 which subsequently caught the coronavirus and was postponed until 2021 (we hope). However, I want to present some of my talk here.

Full disclosure, I’m not an architect or a historian, but I am interested in how architecture reflects its society and vice versa, how society affects the architecture it builds. The Victorian Age was such a transformative time with huge changes in social, economic, and technological arenas. The architecture that was built in that time artifacts of that era.

So, what is Steampunk Architecture?

Yes, what is it indeed? Given that the many steampunk universes that exist are all fictional, how can there be real-life Steampunk Architecture?

Well, we know what the standard Steampunk Aesthetic is–vaguely Victorian with an overlay of superfluous detail and quasi-functional mechanisms. While there are many variations of this aesthetic (and I’m not going to get bogged down in the arguments about what is and isn’t steampunk), the big tent that is Steampunk contains all manner of variations on these design features.

So let’s take this Steampunk Aesthetic and see how it might have existed in the Real World –the mundane one that we live in, or at least in which our 19th century ancestors did. At the beginning of the 19th century, building materials were stone, brick, plaster, and wood. Any decoration was applied by hand by painting or carving. By the 1830s or so, the steam engine was being refined and soon it was applied to the fabrication of building materials. Steam powered saws, lathes, drills, etc. reduced the cost of building materials and put non-functional building decorations into the hands of the middle class, and on otherwise utilitarian and industrial buildings.

Similarly, the introduction of new building materials enabled bigger, more elaborate and just more impressive buildings. Cast iron, and eventually, steel support beams provided the skeletons of 19th century buildings instead of bricks and stone. Improvements in the production of window glass created larger panes, allowing more light into buildings. Inexpensive ass-produced ornamentation fed the Victorians’ desire for endless design details.

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