Tag Archives: history

What Were They Thinking?

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Having read all the 1819-1918 spec fi I could acquire, I have now fallen into a new reading habit: Popular Science Monthly magazine. It started by way of random research for 1934 and 1937 projects, especially once the first got rolled back to 1931.

Unlike, say, Popular Mechanix, PSM combine everything from articles on the early Rhine ESP studies to building ornate ship models. The covers represent everything from shipyards to air races, but the emphasis is on postulated vehicles — usually on the drawing boards, not often proven to work. But once they make PSM’s cover, they can live on in minds, just as the inventor envisaged them.

But what were they thinking to think of this?


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Is It History, Near History, or Alternate History?

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It used to be so simple to figure out “historical fiction”: the date of the setting began with an 18 or less.

But now, in 2016, how do we consider the century-old 1916? Things made then pass through customs now as genuine antiques. How about the approaching century mark for the 1920s, even WW2? And how in the world do we consider a steampunk secret history?

Let’s try to make the easiest cut first, which happens to be the biggest one: real history from alternative history.

It’s only sporting to let your readers know you’re doing alternative history somewhere in the cover blurb, an afterword, or a 50-word intro. Otherwise, there are enough junky writers out there that the reader may think you don’t know that Queen Victoria never remarried or that Napoleon was sent to exile in Elba first. With you sending him to St. Helena’s right away, why, the Hundred Days and Waterloo won’t happen! (And that was your point: France without the great Romantic binge of the Hundred Days.)

Also, there are enough people with poor history retention that they may believe your rendition is fact, and your story, so much more vivid than their high school history class, is going to stay in their head as the real deal. I’m thinking here of a reviewer of the film, The Silent Village, who thought it was a vital documentary, and we should never forget how horrible the Nazis were after they occupied Wales, and why that made our part in WW2 so necessary …
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Gaps in Time

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Phantom Time? New Chronology? Missing Dark Ages?

No, the problem to which many are prone in historical fiction writing, that what is around today was around in the past, just with brass ornaments. Many seem unwilling to say, “There wasn’t anything like this back before the digital revolution.”

This is a thought pattern entwined with the *Your Friends in Funny Clothes* flaw. It’s the anachronism of assumption, like “There have always been houseplants” or “Nice people were never racists, let alone classists.”

This is most likely to show up in Near History settings, but sometimes the 19th century. Someone wants to transfer an activity or a personality type (the friend, being re-dressed) back from the present. Rather than researching what people were like or what they did, the inept research-avoider grabs what they think applies, based on wrong assumptions. Which is usually based on lack of knowledge of the target time, or anything in between.

Take — the Internet.

What, before WW2, would have been the equivalent of the person who lives on social sites, forums, and chat rooms?

I don’t have to make up this answer. On one forum thread, a group decided “of course” that the equivalent, before radio, of the Internet, must have been telegraphy.

It’s so obvious! It’s electrical/electronic, and reaches all over the world, and so those kinds of people must have learned Morse and chattered to strangers on the wires all the time.

No. Just no. It’s not even wrong.

See, they had jumped some gaps in their knowledge, and landed in nonsense up to their earrings.
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Battleships on Stilts

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Dieselpunk realities!

I never saw these before so I’m betting you haven’t either. From the 1944 pages of Popular Science Monthly comes one of several newly revealed war machines, now that VE Day approaches and there’s no reason to keep them secret. (OMG, VW Beetles, too, and the Thing version that the Germans used as the equivalent of the Jeep.) Read the rest of this entry

Journey to the Center of the Snowbank

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… or how failed railroad tech inspired scientific romance.

Railroads on a large scale only date back to the 1830s, but they ran into the problem of snow on the tracks the first winter. The earliest solution was the snow plow. Often called a Bucker (or bucker), it just relied on speed and plowing action to clear the tracks. If the snow got too deep, though, there was nothing to do but bring up crew cars with 200 men for several days of shoveling.

1884 brought a new high-tech solution: the Jull rotary snow plow, whose auger and blades chewed its way into the face of ten feet of snow and threw the result a hundred feet to either side, first going up thirty feet to clear the telegraph wires. Imagine a ten or eleven foot wheel spinning at 90 rpm, and you get an idea of the speed. (You can find way too many YouTube vids of North American rotaries in action. Really, the Europeans don’t seem to know how to really use them.)

Now, thanks to Mr. Orange Jull having secured good patent rights everywhere he could, and sold them to the Leslie brothers who built his first rotary (and knew a good thing when they saw it), nobody else could get in on the business.

(Fanfare, maestro!)

Enter the glorious failures, the screw-front snow plows.

Formally called augers, these ran into the basic problem that, however well they fed snow back to a blower, or cut into an iced bank, the horizontal pressures on the central shaft created insurmountable mechanical problems.

This “Cyclone Steam Snowplow” by E.P. Caldwell, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was constructed in 1889. (This is just a patent drawing of the lubrication system.)

The Cyclone Steam Plow, progenitor of the Cyclotram.

The Cyclone Steam Plow, progenitor of the Cyclotram.

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Iron Elephants and Electric Bicycles

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ElecBikeSmMy Early Dreamers reading is getting past the easy stuff. In the category of Invasion Literature, I am not only getting out of English language works or translations to English, I’m getting down to the nasty stuff: racism and genocide. What else can you call it when Jack London heroically describes the annihilation by bio-warfare of the entire Chinese race, and the hunting down of the few survivors?

Elsewhere, we have “Capt. Danrit” with his “thousands of white pages soiled day after day by a national hero of France” (he was killed early in WW1, 21 February 1916), who cranked out more patriotic victory before the war than anyone else from 1888 to his death in battle. His novels are just huge, and he dumped them out like some Franco-military Barbara Cartland. Read the rest of this entry

Japanese Time

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OldJpnsTime

On some levels, I love history for the same reason I love speculative fiction: those wonderful moments that make the brain go “tilt.”

Working on the new Names book, I was going through Koop and Inada, or Japanese names and how to read them: a manual for art-collectors and students, being a concise and comprehensive guide to the reading and interpretation of Japanese proper names both geographical and personal as well as of dates and other formal expressions (1922) Now, when you think about it, this ought to be obvious, but who ever stops to think that the Japanese had their own means of telling time, and it wasn’t a 12/24 hour thing.

So for those of you writing in Old Japan, here’s the reference you desperately needed, whether you knew it or not. And just so it’s all in one place, here’s the page on measures used, too.

OldJpnsMeasure