melannen: Commander Valentine of Alpha Squad Seven, a red-haired female Nick Fury in space, smoking contemplatively (Default)
melannen ([personal profile] melannen) wrote2015-10-13 10:37 pm

It's Ada Lovelace Day!

...or at least it still was when I started writing this.

Last December we did a meme where we wrote about topics suggested by readers (you all remember that, right?), and [personal profile] redsnake05 asked me to talk about The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, which I am now doing.

...almost a year late, but we're in a small pocket universe where time sometimes folds back on itself, right?

Actually the delay was due to a couple of things, first that I wanted to get my hands on the book, which I sadly didn't manage to do until this month. Second that I don't really have anything deep to say about Lovelace and Babbage except OMG, it's the BESTTTT, you all HAVE TO READ IT ok, look I now understand about quaternions! this comic is magical.

And third that if I wanted to write anything more coherent about Lovelace and Babbage, I would have to talk about my feelings on steampunk in general, but I can't really do that, because my feelings on steampunk in general is "gosh, it's all so insipid compared to Lovelace and Babbage, why bother", and thus I don't have enough background in it to make a fair comparison.

But I shall make a valiant effort anyway! After all, not knowing what he was on about never stopped Babbage.

So here are my Three Things I Want In Steampunk, broken down into ridiculous layers:

  1. The Victorians Were Goddamned Off-The-Wall, Turned Up To Eleven, there is basically nothing you can write in speculative fiction about them that can't be outshone by something from real history that was more amazing, spectacular, horrible, terrible, cruel, ridiculous, awesome, etc.
    • This Also Applies To Their RL Tech vs. Invented Tech, i.e., the real stuff is always going to be way weirder and more interesting that the made-up stuff, and if they didn't quite get there in real tech, there's probably some related tech in actual Victorian spec fic that's more interesting than the tech in 21st century cod-Victorian spec fic.
      • Which Is Not To Say That The Victorians Were Any More Off The Wall Than Any Other Group Of Humans, but they were courteous enough to also exist at the first point in history at which they were able to leave us copious and detailed documentation of all the weirder-than-fiction things they did

  2. New Technology Catches On When Society Is Ready For It, not as a result of some lone genius working on his own, no matter how dramatically compelling it is
    • And When Society Is Ready For It means that the materials, tools, and skill needed to make it exist and make it go are reasonably available, the transportation/communication/trade networks needed to transport those things around are in place and secure enough to be usable, and a real demand exists for the technology that makes putting all the above together worthwhile.
      • When It Does Catch On, It Changes Everything, and especially things nobody would have expected it to change.
        • Human technology is always changing at an accelerated rate, faster than we can keep up, it always has, and thirty years later we've always forgotten it was ever any different.

  3. The Victorians Lived At The Inflection Point Between When It Was No Longer Possible For One Person To Know Nearly Everything, And When It Newly Possibly For Nearly Everyone To Know Many Things
    • The Last of the "Polymaths" - the upper class, classically educated gentlemen who could make major contributions in all the sciences -- were dying out and being slowly replaced by modern hyperspecialization, as the amount of known information rapidly outpaced what one person could know
      • At The Same Time, Everybody Could Do Groundbreaking Science In Their Shed - mass literacy, relatively cheap printed materials, and urbanization which gave access to public lectures created a class of non-wealthy people who could follow science fairly closely as a hobby, but at the same time most sciences and technologies were still at a point where a relatively intelligent person could replicate groundbreaking experiments cheaply at home, and have a pretty intuitive understanding of the results.
        • The whole point of steampunk is that if anybody stuck gears on something, they would do something. Probably something that nobody had ever figured out how to make gears do before. Make your gears do something real.


If you know anything about Lovelace and Babbage - and if you don't, you need to scroll back up and follow that link and read it all, I'll wait, there's not that much - you'll probably start to understand why I love it so, because Syndey Padua quite apparently shares my views on at least the first of those things: that nothing she could make up could ever outdo the actual history, and thus her best function is to make the primary sources as accessible and compelling as possible - partly through fictionalizing in an (excellently put together and hilarious) AU, but at least as much through copious footnotes and quotations, because yes. Footnotes.

But anyway rather than talk about that to illustrate my completely unfounded by wide reading issues with steampunk as a genre, I'm going to talk about some other books I've been reading lately, which include:

Raising Steam, by Terry Pratchett
Rockets, Missiles, and Men In Space, by Willy Ley
The Knight and the Umbrella, by Ian Anstruther
Passages from the Life of a Philosopher by Charles Babbage

You'll note that only one of these is fiction.

Raising Steam is the last Discworld book. I was hoping to like it because I like Moist, and I like Ankh-Morpork stories, generally, but instead I found it disappointing for several reasons, only one of which is really relevant here: It's meant to be the story of the steam railroad coming to the Discworld, and while I wouldn't begrudge an old man playing with his model trains, he's trying to suddenly paste Victorian Britain onto his vaguely-late-medieval setting and technology, and the transplant just doesn't take. It's too Victorian Britain and not Discworld enough. If they have the infrastructure set up to make enough high-quality steel for thousands of miles of rails, why hasn't everything else technology-related also changed to take advantage of this? Where are all the other steam engines? And where the heck were they getting all the coal - last I heard, most of the fossil fuels mined on the disc involved treacle. His genius-out-of-nowhere locomotive inventor says variations on 'it's an idea whose time has come' over and over again, but the story makes to attempt to sell us on why its time has come, now in particular.

And some of that I could have glossed over - Discworld has always been a bit of a hodgepodge, technologically, and it's not the first time he's tried to stick a modern conceit in out of nowhere, but then he doesn't even bother to do anything interesting with it. It's just a perfectly normal steam train that happens to be travelling across the Discworld. woohoo.

And maybe I wouldn't even be annoyed with that, but it's something I've seen too often in a lot of even the little steampunk I've read: take some Victorian-ish technology and milieu, screw with it just enough that the deep worldbuilding starts to fall apart under you, skip over the details of the sciency parts because who can follow the maths amirite, and then somehow manage to make all the characters way more boring than the actual history was.

(Like. No objections to Pratchett's cannily innocent boy in the flat cap. But why would you ever go with him when you could've had ISAMBARD KINGDOM BRUNEL??)

Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space may seem like the odd man out, since the history of 20th century space technology isn't particularly Victorian, but that book is a very detailed, interesting, and first-person account of the development of a revolution in human technology that defined an age, written by a person who was there and taking part in it from the very beginnings until right before the moon landing. And one thing the book demonstrates very clearly is how very much any technology's development and adoption depends on everything else happening in the society around it. So reading this parallel with the Pratchett was probably a very bad idea.

But here's just one tiny example: did you know that the first piece of human technology to go to space was powered by a steam engine? It was.

V-2 rockets, the WWII-era liquid-fuel rockets that were the first to go beyond the atmosphere, pressurized their fuel with a pump that was powered by steam. I'm not going to go into the engineering details with the precision they deserve, because it's late and I don't feel like finding the reference rn, but the basics go like this:

Everybody knew that to get enough power to get a rocket that high, you would have to use liquid fuel, because none of the solid fuels had enough energy density. (Later, they would develop some that did, but the chemistry wasn't there yet in the early '40s.) To burn liquid fuel in a rocket, though, you also needed to bring oxygen with you, because there wasn't enough oxygen available to burn it otherwise, and to do that, you needed to keep the oxygen and the liquid fuel at a steady pressure while they fed into the burner. Early liquid fuel rockets had been limited in size because the methods they used to pressurize didn't scale. To get to the size of a V-2, you needed a better way to do that step.

Nobody had really looked into it yet because there hadn't been any real need for rockets that big. But then WWII happened, and suddenly the demand was there. And they found a pump that would work perfectly - much to their surprise - because another industry was already using it. But they needed a self-contained way to power it that would be steady and reliable and cheap and small. Small steam engines to run pumps were well-known tech at that point. And everybody knew that there was a great way to produce an extremely reliable supply of steam at a steady pressure: by decomposing H2O2 into hot water. This had been known for ages, but nobody had tried it in rocketry, because you couldn't get pure enough H2O2; the methods of producing it and transporting it were too expensive. Except that somebody else had recently invented a safer way to make nearly pure H2O2, so what had been unworkable suddenly became perfect.

If you'd dropped any of those things out - the pre-existing years of rocketry research establishing a baseline; the pump technology being in place already; a World War producing urgent demand and will; and the new way of making H2O2; none of it would have happened. Drop Werner Von Braun fifty years in the past and none of it would have been possible - any more than it was possible for the people fifty years before writing the speculative theoretical papers he was building on. But it was all there then, and thus: mass-produced steam-powered rockets capable of reaching space.

And that's why you can't just drop a genius with an invention into a setting and press go: it's all about a network of other things and other people and other social trends being in the right place as well. And those things being in place will have already been involved in creating massive social change before your grand new invention even hits - it can't be separated out.

And then: everything's changing, all at once, and in ways nobody thinks about until they happen. I picked up The Knight With The Umbrella after hearing it cited at an academic conference and thinking that 1840s medieval re-enactment was exactly the sort of thing I ought to read about, and I was right, speaking of the glorious ridiculousness of the 19th century: Anstruther wants to tell a tale of a far-too-rich aristocrat who gets annoyed about the lack of pomp in Victoria's coronation so gets talked into running his own tournament with as much pomp as possible, and the miserable, mockworthy failure of his attempt.

What I didn't expect is the reason the tournament failed: railroads. The railroad. The first railroad connecting London to the site of the tournament opened, IIRC, literally the same week the tournament was scheduled. And as a result, the audience he'd expected of a few thousand local, maybe, with a few hundred more aristocrats who had their own transportation, turned into tens of thousands of people taking the train up from London on a day trip for the first time. And nobody involved - the people running the tournament, the people in the nearest town, the local authorities, the press, and least of all the people coming up from London on the train - understood what that would mean, understood the difference between an old-fashioned country amusement and all of London coming to town for a party. It was a mess in every imaginable way, not least that a thunderstorm - expected in that part of the world - couldn't rain out the tournament, because those tens of thousands of people literally couldn't go home: there weren't any more trains until evening. So it had to go on in the pouring rain, with no facilities for the crowds, no crowd control, no places to sleep or food to eat or any way to get to shelter, with the only one-lane road back to town totally jammed with carriages stuck in the mud: people ended up sleeping in haystacks and pigpens in their hand-sewn medieval garb. Now that's something that could have happened on the Disc.

Two days later, after all the crowds from London had gone home, the original group of friends re-did the tournament with just a few locals and relatives watching and it all came off perfectly.

If it had been scheduled five years earlier - when there was no train - it probably would have come off perfectly. If it had been scheduled five years later - when the country had already started figuring out what it meant, to be an easy day trip from London on the train - it probably would have come off fine.

Because the train didn't just make it easier to travel places, it didn't just make trade easier and expand minds a bit, it changed literally everything about how society organized itself.

And the steam-powered rockets didn't just make it possible to go to space; they were, after all, weapons of war first of all. And they made it obvious that it was, quite suddenly, completely impossible to defend a national border where it had always been possible before, given enough resources. And that changed literally everything about how war, and geopolitics, work: and we still haven't figured out how to live in that world, almost seventy years later.

And Babbage's difference engine, if it had caught on, wouldn't have just made it possible to calculate large tables of numbers extremely quickly and accurately: it would have changed everything about how information was processed and distributed. Just like everything changed after it did start to catch on, in the Allies' codebreaking centers the same time Von Braun was building his V2s. That massive fundamental change is the premise of the original sf book The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling, which I read just a couple years after it came out, and which is widely regarded as one of the main founders of steampunk as a genre.

It's something that most steampunk I've read recently doesn't seem very good at: after all, if you change society at a super-deep level, you don't end up with the same old Victorian trappings to play with...

I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out why the Difference Engine never made it in Babbage's lifetime. Babbage will help you figure it out: large sections of Passages from the Life of a Philosopher are him going into Great and Excruciating Detail about all the reasons nobody would give him funding for his Engines and what utter injustice and incompetence that signified.

Sydney Padua recommends reading Babbage's autobiography immediately after finishing her book, so I did, and I agree. Babbage is absolutely one of those characters who cannot be improved upon by fiction (Padua comes close, but only by sticking very close to her sources.) Any attempt to parody him would inevitably end up making him look less parodic than his own autobiography does.

You know how people make fun of the traditional 18th/19th century autobiographical novel because it starts with the main character being born? Tristram Shandy deliberately takes it a step further into parody by starting with his conception.

Babbage starts his autobiography with his ancestors inventing stone tools. Beat that.

Which is all just to say, read Lovelace and Babbage. It doesn't get any better than Lovelace and Babbage.

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