I actually had to look up steampunk before writing this post because while I know what it is aesthetically, I’ve never really been sure what it was about other than cogs and goggles and dressing like Victorian nobility who have fallen on hard times. So I can now say with certainty (thanks, Wikipedia) that steampunk is alternate history – usually of the 19th century – with anachronistic technologies but still with Victorian sensibilities.
That said, I just finished reading A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison today. I originally bought it because I read somewhere that it was the origin of steampunk. I am pretty sure that is not accurate now – because it came out in 1972 and is occurs in (an alternate) 1973 and is way more alternate history than steam-anything although there is some interesting technology involved.
The alternate timeline that the book occurs in is super interesting. It’s a world in which America lost its war for independence from the British, and George Washington was put to death as a traitor, and so in 1973 America is still a colony of the British Empire and they decide to build a super fast train line between America and England that goes along the ocean floor. The science of which is discussed at length, although I can’t attest to its accuracy it definitely seemed legit.
The alternate timeline even gets a little self referential with the inclusion of a hypnotist and a medium who think that there are various time streams that exist and who are trying to get in contact with the alternate time stream that is our reality outside of this book. Definitely my favorite part was this even though it’s kind of a bummer and I edited out a bunch of “urghh”s and “arrrgggh”s:
“She spoke, first rambling words, out of context perhaps, nonsense syllables, then clearly she described what never had been.[…]
‘penicillin, petrochemicals, purchase tax…income tax, sales tax, anthrax…Woolworth’s, Marks & Sparks…great ships in the air, great cities on the ground, people everywhere. […] I see strange things. I see armies, warfare, killing, tons, tons, tons of bombs from the air on cities and people below, hate him, kill him, poison gas, germ warfare, napalm […]'”
“We can hear no more, Madame will not approach this area, she cannot stand it, as we can see why instantly. Such terrible nightmare forces. Hearing of it, we are forced to some reluctant conclusions. Perhaps this world does not exist after all, for it sounds terrible and we cannot possibly imagine how it could have become like that, so perhaps it is just the weird imaginings of a medium’s subconscious mind.”
As is almost always the case with sci-fi and especially old sci-fi, I must add UHG THE LADIES. There are technically two named female characters, only one of whom actually says things. And she’s the daughter/stay at home care taker of the story’s patriarch, she is on-again-off-again engaged to the main character based entirely on her father’s wishes. It’s infuriating. But not even a little surprising.
The ending of this book is not my favorite. In an effort to tie up every possible loose end the last 30 pages are so are just really rushed and pretty forced. The patriarch, on his deathbed, changes his personality entirely to resolve unobsolvable obstacles, etc.
That said, I’ll probably read more Harry Harrison soon. Both because he seems to have written some steampunk novels (there’s a whole series about a stainless steel rat?) and I’m still curious about that and also because his name is hilarious.