Darker Shades of Brown – Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll (Well, Opera) in Steampunk and Victorian History

This is a guest post by author Victoria L. Szulc

A couple of years ago I was a little bit stunned to have a reader tell me that my first book, a steampunk western, “triggered” some bad emotions for her. For those who don’t know or haven’t heard that phrase, in very simple terms, a trigger refers to the effect, like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that something has on someone. For example a pop of a cork can sound like a gunshot, and for someone that’s been affected by gun violence, this can be rattling.

This article isn’t to argue whether triggers exist or that people are being overly sensitive by darker works of fiction, rather these comments reminded me that my steampunk books are not sweetness and light. On Amazon they’re marked for adults and I tell buyers at book signings that they’re not YA (Young Adult) or for children. I don’t sugar coat my themes. Most of my characters are spies and spies need to thrive in any environment, including the underbelly of society.

Like their gothic novel cousins and authors like Poe, there are many steampunk tales that have dark sides. Authors like China Mieville and Cherie Priest use underworld themes. And there is plenty of inspiration in the real past to provide gritty fiction. The gilded age wasn’t all gold and progress, manners and etiquette. Let’s examine some of these darker shades of brown. And if you’re easily offended or grossed out, now is the time to stop reading. There now, you’ve been warned, we shall continue, starting with a few basics.

Unlike most bodice rippers, life (and death) in the 1800’s was rough. Watch Victorian House to see a pretty accurate depiction of the following:

  • Most people were poor and diseases were rampant.
  • They didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity.
  • Children worked alongside their parents, often up to sixteen hours a day.
  • Not everyone could be educated, many were illiterate.
  • Corruption was rampant.
  • Even death was hard. Many were buried in pauper’s graves. A death in the family was the only event important enough to get a picture of the family for most people. So they would scrape money together, keep the body cool, and then take pictures with other living relatives. Sometimes they painted “eyes” over the eyelids to make it look like the loved one was still “there” or put the body in a relaxed position.

I used one such occasion like number 6, in one of my own books. As a young character steps off a train into the Wild West, the first thing she sees in town is a man in a coffin getting his last “good side” taken. Creepy, I know.

So a further delving into the dark side…

Drugs-Down the Rabbit Hole

During Victorian times in London, one could walk into a chemist’s shop and walk out with cocaine, laudanum, arsenic, cannabis, and several other toxic concoctions that could knock out an elephant, let alone cure what ailed them. By the 1840’s, hypodermic needles were invented, so morphine and heroin could be injected. So much for the “new” opioid crisis, eh?

Because the sun never set on the British Empire, including parts of Asia, drugs were plentiful and easily accessed. Coca Cola really did have cocaine (direct from cocoa leaves) from its development in 1886 until 1929. No wonder all those Victorians smiled in those early soda pop ads. Many enjoyed a visit from the “green fairy” or absinthe. Remember, that during these times, there weren’t many filtering or buffering processes for drugs or liquors, making them particularly deadly.

Just like people today, Victorians got hooked and suffered the consequences. Ada Lovelace was known to be addicted to laudanum (tincture of opium mixed with water or wine) that she took to treat her asthma. Writers from Charlotte Bronte to Charles Dickens, to Oscar Wilde, and of course Lewis Carroll used. Carroll’s trippy images still inspire imbibing youth today. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock indulged as did Doyle himself. He wrote of one addict, “when the fit was on him, made use of an opium den in the farthest East of the city.”

Poor addicts turned to crime and slums were filled with lives ruined by repeated use. Fatal overdoses, especially of small children, were common.

Fashion Victims and Industrial Nightmares

Even those who led clean lives could not escape some of the perils of living in the 1800’s. Clothing and makeup was made from arsenic and lead. The much desired hues of bright green paint and dye were both flammable and toxic. One of the first models for arsenic facial powder died of an arsenic overdose. Green foam poured from her mouth and the whites of her eyes also turned green as she died.

Crinolines and dresses were incredibly hazardous. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lost his wife as she perished from burns the day after her dress caught fire from a lit match or lighting paper. He wrote, “How I am alive after what my eyes have seen, I know not.”

Nine ballerinas died after one of them brushed against a lit candle on stage at the Continental Theatre in Philadelphia. She was close enough to the other dancers and their flammable mohair crinolines, that they were combustible within seconds.

Large ladies hoops were also hazardous for various reasons. Southern preachers warned their flock that the hoops were sinful, especially since a hefty breeze or sitting down too quickly could cause exposure of their undergarments. Scores of women were sucked under train wheels or caught in carriage wheels by oversized skirts. One of my own great aunts was run over by a trolley car. During the Civil War, many a southern belle hid guns, ammunition, and supplies under their immense garments.

Men didn’t have it much easier. Cravats and ties caught fire from cigars and pipes and often ignited men’s facial hair. Top hats used a mercury sealant to preserve the fur which seeped directly into the skull and brain of the wearers, and especially the millinery workers, who became shaky and delusional at work, which coined the phrase mad hatter.

Other production workers suffered. Combs were made of flammable celluloid. Women’s hair would catch fire if those combs became too hot. Men who used heated razors were warned not to use celluloid combs. A whole celluloid comb factory in Brooklyn exploded when the building overheated.

Max Blanck and Isaac Harris owned many garment factories. Two of those, the Diamond Waistshirt Company, were believed to be burned to the ground for the insurance money. But the real tragedy was when their last company, Triangle Waistshirt , caught fire on March 25, 1911. The building was not up to code. A laundry hamper caught fire. The fire hose on that floor was rotted and the valve rusted. There were only four elevators and two fire escapes. One fire escape was blocked off and the other could only support 4-5 people. 145 women died. Many threw themselves down the elevator shafts when the lifts stopped working, or jumped out windows and crushed firemen and equipment below.

Gruesome. So on a lighter note:

Entertainment and the Devil’s Opera

Opera could seem to be stuffy, especially when only wealthier people could afford it.  But in reality, Giuseppe Verdi wrote “Stiffelio” in 1850, about adulterous German Protestants. It was censored. And one his most famous pieces “La Traviata” was about a fallen woman, a courtesan named Violetta Valery. Sounds pretty saucy.

So if listening to music was sinful, dancing was far worse. Waltzes were “morally decadent” due to how the women flung themselves around in scant attire with men allowed to hold them at the waist. “Only Pagans danced like that”, according to one stick-in-the-mud minister.

He probably would have completely lost it if he’d seen any of the Can Can ladies at the Moulin Rouge. The Can Can was originally performed by French courtesans to encourage the finest suitors and first performed at the Rouge in 1889. Dancing mixed with champagne parties during the Belle Époque drew the ire of many a preacher man. But then again, worse things did happen…


The Skin Trade

Sex in the Victorian and Wild West eras was far from “lie still and think of England”. Anxious women suffering from “hysteria” were given treatment in the form of newfangled mechanical vibrators, because of all things, male doctors were complaining that their hands were getting tired from “manual stimulation”.

Unfortunately, slavery was legal for much of the century and so was prostitution.  In the mid 1800’s, there were approximately 80,000 working girls in London. Some of them were literally girls because the age of consent was 13. It wasn’t until 1885 that the legal age was raised to 16. There were even “sporting guides” that gentlemen could order a lady of the evening or have a “quick hand at it”, like a Victorian version of Playboy. In my own works, I have many a prostitute that act as spies, as pillow talk provides some of the best intelligence.

On the other side of the pond, St. Louis, Missouri was the first city to legalize prostitution in 1870. There were said to be over 5,000 ladies that earned a living helping men with their desires. Even Mark Twain commented on “the immemorial mile of cheap foul doggeries” just north of downtown in a slum area known as the Wild Cat Chute. Officials who’d tried to stop it on the state level ended up sleeping with many of the local entertaining inhabitants.

The new cemetery entrance, built shortly after Eliza Haycraft’s death (Photo taken from http://bellefontainecemetery.org/destination/history/)

It was a very good living for those ladies who were attractive or worked for Madams like Eliza Haycraft. Eliza was said to be worth $250,000 (4.7 million in today’s money) when she passed away and 5,000 people attended her funeral. She purchased a premium plot in the famous Bellefontaine Cemetery; enough space to hold twenty bodies. However, because of her oldest profession, she was told she could not be buried there. But after Eliza spoke of the possibility of having conversations with the cemetery directors’ wives, she was sold the plot, later to be marked “Civil War 27”. However, the grave could not have a formal tombstone and it was to be located in the back portion of the grounds. But, as fate would have it, due to modernization of roads in the 1930’s, the entrance to the cemetery was moved—to where the back used to be. So in death, even Eliza made it to the front.

Eliza inspired me. Prostitutes make some of the best interlopers. The things men say in and outside of the act…but to carry on…

Still by 1879, legal prostitution had failed. The licensing was corrupt and social diseases among the military were so bad that men had been considered not fit for battle (on both sides of the pond). The poorest women were also addicts and slums were ripe with VD. So The Social Evil Hospital was started to take in the wayward women.

However, some light did come out of all this darkness (as oftentimes happens in my own novels). The name of the Evil institution was changed to St. Louis Female Hospital, where on June 3, 1906, a poor African American washer woman, Carrie McDonald, gave birth to Freda Josephine. Freda would soon go by her middle name, and became Josephine Baker, one of the most famous women in the world.

I hope you enjoyed this foray into deeper shades of brown. For myself, without the bleak undertones, there cannot be light or redemption. There cannot be a hero without a villain.  And heroes are not heroes until they are tested and make their way through the darkness.


-Victorian Slum House/BBC/PBS
-British Museum
-Missouri Historical Society
-St. Louis Magazine/Harper Barnes
-Bellefountaine Cemetery
-Mental Floss/Bess Lovejoy

About the Author

Author Photo by Lori Peterson

Victoria L. Szulc is a multi-media steampunk artist/writer who regularly displays her work at 1900 Park Creative Space in the historic Victorian neighborhood of Lafayette Square in St. Louis, MO. She spearheaded and curated the first Steampunk Broken Hearts Ball Masquerade and Art Show in St. Louis and directed the first Steampunk Fashion Show at the Big River Steampunk Festival Masquerade in Hannibal, MO in 2017. Victoria’s third steampunk novel, “A Long Reign” was in competition for the 2017 Amazon UK Storytellers contest and was an Amazon/kindle bestseller. Victoria is currently working on the third part of the Society Trilogy, “Lafayette to London”.

Find Victoria:

Nikola Tesla and the End of the World

Nikola Tesla and the End of the World

Review by Chris Pavesic


When physicist Sophie Clarke builds a strange machine from long-lost scientific plans she unwittingly transports Nikola Tesla to modern-day London. Unfortunately Tesla brings another historical figure along with him: an autocratic automaton.

Two brilliant scientists. A slightly unhinged enemy from the future.

This could lead to the end of the world.

Review (Potential Spoilers)

Nikola Tesla and the End of the World is an entertaining series of short films based on the premise that the historical Tesla left blueprints behind after his death to create machine that generates a Tesla Wave. Dr. Sophie Clarke, a teaching fellow at London University, discovers the blueprints and assembles one of the inventions. This pulls Tesla from his own time period into modern-day London. It also displaces another figure from history—one with a very bad French accent.

Humor and history mix in this short series. A viewer who might not be aware of Nikola Tesla’s achievements will learn a great deal about the man who designed the alternating-current (AC) electric system that is still used worldwide to this day. Viewers will learn about the Tesla coil, which is still used in radio-technology. And the theory about Tesla waves.

Tesla: Above certain frequencies the ether is no longer bound by inverse-square laws. One need only find the threshold values to erect a transmitter emitting a wave-complex of special characteristics, and then incorporate my unique method of telephonic control over any amount of energy.

Sophie: Actually, the ‘ether’ as you seem to understand it was disproved in your own time. We know there’s no such thing as a pure Newtonian vacuum, but…

Tesla: Without the ether a Tesla wave would not be possible.

Sophie: A Tesla wave is not possible. Particles do not travel faster than light. Your system has to work using relativistic principles, we just need to figure out…

Tesla: I have constructed a functioning special magnifying transmission system. You can speak all you wish of your theories.

But humor is also evident throughout the short films. As Tesla and Sophie scramble to save the world, she suggests that he ally himself with the British Prime Minister or the professors at her college. Tesla scoffs at this. Politicians and bureaucrats do not have the necessary vision. He needs entrepreneurs who can understand what needs to be done and act quickly. After researching the current state of society on Sophie’s tablet, Tesla decides that the only hope to prevent the destruction of the world rests with the Kardashian family.

The films, which are set in London, remind me a bit of Doctor Who with a dash of both Sherlock and Torchwood thrown in for good measure. Tesla, as the time-traveler, knows far more about his inventions than Sophie. However, she knows more about modern technology and the way that science has progressed since Tesla’s era. And they are both working to solve the mystery of Tesla’s fellow time traveler. Why does he want to destroy the world? And why is his French accent so bad?

Ian Strang, creator and producer of the series, explains in an interview for First Glance Film Festivals:

“I love science fiction and I knew that I could make something amazing—amazingly geeky” (http://bit.ly/2jb8sN9).

The film stars Ben Keenan, Gillian MacGregor, and Paul O’Neill. It has won several awards, including:

Valencia International Film Festival

Best Actress (Gillian MacGregor)

TO Web Fest
Best Sci-Fi & Fantasy

NYC Web Fest
Outstanding Achievement in Editing

Geek Film Fest at Fan Expo Dallas
Best Web Series

The full series is available to watch on Amazon. It is free if you have a Prime account. It is also available on YouTube. Check it out if you have about 22 minutes to spare. If you are a fan of steampunk and alternative histories, you won’t be disappointed.


Steampunk and the Dark Side of the Victorian Age

While steampunk and the Victorian age aren’t synonymous, they are obviously  very much intertwined. The Victorian age in Britain was a time of great change in almost every aspect of life. Industrialization and urbanization transformed the lives of the lower and emerging middle classes while science and technology transformed communication, transportation, and society itself. It’s easy to see to the appeal of envisioning an alternate future from this dynamic period of history.

However, there was a dark side to the Victorian age. As the rural population migrated into urban areas, wages for the lower classes fell sparking poverty, child labor, long work hours, and dangerous conditions.  Outside of England, the British army committed atrocities to maintain the empire, and the slave trade continued despite the successes of the British abolitionists back home. A rigid patriarchy ruled the day, limiting the options for women and girls despite Britain’s monarchy being led by a Queen.

When I set about to write a steampunk novel, I largely sidestepped the darkness. I was targeting a middle-grade readership and had set the story in an alternative world. There are a couple of hints of social and economic injustice, but nothing that really plays into the story. If, make that when, I get the time to get to the next novel I think I’ll have to dig into it a bit more. It may be an alternative world, but it still borrows from the same Victorian heritage as so much of steampunk does.

Something I wonder about is to what extent writers of Steampunk fiction should expose the dark side of the Victorian world. Maybe ‘should’ is the wrong word. I don’t want the writer of a fun, escapist steampunk story to feel guilty over not delving into the injustices of that world. However, I do feel like it does a disservice if the darker aspects never come up. I guess I’d say I think it’s something to keep in mind when writing. That’s a lot that history has glorified during the Victorian age, but history also stepped on a lot of people during that same period and some care should be taken to not sweep it all under the rug.

With the darker aspects of Victorian culture, there comes a certain optimism. The Victorian age was also an age of reform. While the British slave trade didn’t cease entirely, slavery had been outlawed by Britain as the age started. As the Victorian age continued, laws were established to limit child labor and the working hours of adults. The patriarchy wasn’t challenged, but more opportunities did appear for women. Leisure time increased even among the lower classes and the middle class grew.  Perhaps the spirit of reform and justice can inspire stories told from the lower levels of society instead of the frequent focus on the aristocracy and military.

What do you think is the responsibility of steampunk writers to remember darker aspects of the age?

Erik Larson was born in Manhattan — the Kansas one — and raised mostly in Topeka Kansas. He went to college in San Antonio at Trinity University where he earned a degree in Physics. After the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider, he decided to seek his fortune with software engineering instead. He has worked as a software engineer at a variety of companies, carefully avoiding ones that have a big IPO that makes all the employees rich.

Eventually, he gained an interest in writing his own fantastical tales and has written three fantasy novels. Cog and the Steel Tower is the first one ready for public consumption.

My First Steampunk Experience by Felicity Banks

Today’s article is part of a series called “My First Steampunk”. To learn more about the series – and apply to be featured – scroll to the bottom of this article.

Love, like steampunk itself, is not a static thing. It grows and changes over time, as the object of love also grows and changes. If you’re lucky, the love grows more beautiful instead of fading.

My friends Will and Jason liked steampunk, way back when we were all in our twenties. It was a natural obsession for two history nerds. They danced historic dances and started shaving with straight razors after seeing the 2007 Sweeney Todd movie. Both men had sideburns (and, I presume, a steady hand). Because of Will and Jason I was vaguely aware of the steampunk scene: clothes and cogs and marvellous machines.

Continue reading “My First Steampunk Experience by Felicity Banks”

Heir of Thunder

  •  Author: Karissa Laurel

Release: 2016

Genre: Steampunk | Fantasy

Series: Stormbourne Chronicles

Edition: Kindle

Publisher: Evolved Publishing, LLC


The Lord of Thunder has passed, leaving daughter Evelyn Stormbourne to overcome her kingdom’s greatest enemies, but first she must embrace her dominion over the sky.

The Lord of Thunder’s sudden death leaves his daughter, Evelyn Stormbourne, unprepared to rule Inselgrau in his place. Weeks before Evie’s ascension to the throne, revolutionaries attack and destroy her home. She conceals her identity and escapes under the protection of her father’s young horse master, Gideon Faust. Together they flee Inselgrau and set sail for the Continent, but they’re separated when a brutal storm washes Evie overboard.

In her efforts to reunite with her protector and reach allies on the Continent, Evie befriends a band of nomads who roam the world in airships fueled by lightning. She also confronts a cabal of dark Magicians plotting to use her powers to create a new divine being, and she clashes with an ancient family who insists her birthright belongs to them.

If she’s to prevail and defeat her enemies, Evie must claim her heritage, embrace her dominion over the sky, and define what it means to be Heir of Thunder.


Evie Stormbourne is the last in a long line of rulers who can control the weather, especially thunder and lightning, to a devastating effect. Throughout the generations the power has weakened, though, and when the story begins Evie’s powers are only a pale shadow of her ancestor’s abilities.

When her father is killed Evie manages to escape with the help of her father’s master of the horse, a young man named Gideon. Although Evie travels incognito, she is in constant danger of discovery because she is being hunted. There are multiple forces at play, and there are those who want to steal her birthright.

Complications arise and Evie is separated from her protector. She is forced to face certain truths about her situation. Why was her father overthrown? Will she avoid the fate others have plotted for her? Does she want to conquer the land her family ruled for centuries? Will she take control of her own destiny?

Evie is an easy character to like. She starts as a very pampered, innocent young woman who has never ventured far beyond the bounds of her father’s estate. She has no idea why her father has been killed and her family home is under siege. She has limited basic survival skills. But she cannot remain in the role of “damsel in distress” and hope to survive. She learns about life iduring her travels, she experiences the world, and she becomes a force to be reckoned with by the end of the novel. (Although, as Laurel hints in the narrative, Evie has a long way to go before developing her full Stormbourne potential.)

The world contains a mixture of historically accurate devices and steampunk inventions. The amount of technology available seems to depend upon a character’s station in life. For instance, most of the characters travel by horse or sailing ships, but more fortunate others travel in dirigibles. It is a distinctive way to divide the classes.

When Fallstaff, the traditional seat of power for the Stormbourne rulers, is under attack, the steam-driven machines are protected by regular army troops:

One of my father’s war manuals showed illustrations of that vicious machine, but I had never seen one in reality. Someone with a brain for engineering had rigged this one with a system of levers, pulleys, and gears. A steam engine automated its processes, and every few seconds a conveyer belt fed another iron missile into a waiting bucket attached to a long wooden arm. From this distance, the trebuchet looked like an assemblage of toothpicks and hungry metal teeth, yet its ammunition tore holes through Fallstaff’s stone and mortar like a moth devours a wool sweater. A group of men stood around its base, guarding the machine with rifles and crossbows.

This genre mixture can be seen throughout the novel and adds just the right touch of reality. Infantry soldiers protect the high-tech steam mechanism that is needed to tear down the fortress. The machine is costly; the men are cheaply armed and more easily replaceable.

Another divide occurs with magic. Very few have access to the forces and knowledge to work spells and only the Stormbourne line can control lightning and thunder. That level of magical ability is priceless and guarantees Evie will have a price on her head unless she overcomes her enemies.

This is a wonderful steampunk/fantasy series. It creates a very in-depth story world and a cast of compelling characters. I highly recommend the novel.

Breaking News: The second novel in the series, Quest of Thunder, has just been released!

Evie must restore her divine abilities, or be enslaved by her enemy’s dark Magic.

Evelyn Stormbourne has overcome revolutionaries, pirates, devious relatives, and powerful Magicians to claim her birthright as Lady of Thunder, but before she can embrace her dominion over the skies, her powers falter, leaving her impotent and adrift. Under the protection of her stalwart companion, Gideon Faust, Evie hides in anonymity and searches for news of the Fantazikes who had once promised to help her master her divine abilities.

Without her capacity to control the storms, Evie wonders how she’ll ever reclaim her throne—a legacy she’s not convinced she deserves. But when a fearsome nemesis from her past reemerges, she embarks on desperate quest to find the Fantazikes and restore her powers. If she fails, her enemy’s dark Magic will enslave her, forcing her to destroy everything and everyone she loves.



Airships are Awesome

Modern airship
A modern day airship.

When I was a kid, back in the long ago, I would scour the elementary school library for any and every book on aircraft. One of my third-grade art projects featured a construction-paper airplane with a proper airfoil. In other words, I was into flying machines of every variety in a very serious way. However, nothing quite filled my nerdy heart like airships.

Let’s face it, while airplanes are remarkable machines, the experience of traveling in those fixed-wing speedsters of the skies isn’t that much different than traveling by bus. There’s something about the idea of traveling in a machine more akin to a floating hotel that sounds simply spectacular. It’s no wonder they are a staple of the steampunk universe.

There was little doubt that I would include an airship in my first steampunk story, but I had to think about how a steampunk airship would actually work. The story was aimed toward middle-grade readers and the airship is merely a backdrop for a small part of it, so I had no intention to include lots of details, but I wanted what did show up to make at least some sense.

The first item to figure out was what type of airship it would be. Airships basically fall into three categories: blimps which hold their shape purely with air pressure, semi-rigid airships which also hold their shape with air pressure and include some metal structure to distribute forces, and rigid airships whose shape is defined by its metal structure (sometimes called Zeppelins even though the Zeppelin company wasn’t the only manufacturer of such machines). Weight is everything with airships so the less of that heavy structure the better. However, as size increases more structure is needed to deal with the loads the airship has to carry. This means that when we look toward history, all the truly large airships have been of the rigid variety. If large airships were produced today, advances in engineering would likely result in the use of a semi-rigid design to reduce weight. My airship needed to be big, so a rigid design was the only possible choice.

That led me to the tricky part. How do you propel a huge airship? In the real world, airships were powered with internal combustion engines rather than the external combustion engines that powered the age of steam. External combustion means burning fuel to heat water in a boiler to produce the steam pressure that powers the engine. That means a heavy engine and plenty of hot flame. Heavy is always bad in an airship and flames… well, everyone knows about the Hindenburg.

USS Macon
The USS Macon with a 747 jumbo jet and a school bus to give an idea of scale.

As far as weight goes, I think it means that steampunk airships need to be big. A huge airship can carry enough lifting gas to support the structure needed for a powerful steam engine and boilers. The airship would need to carry water as well, but that is historically the case anyhow. In order to control altitude an airship needs to be able to change either the amount of lifting gas or its weight by adding or removing ballast and that ballast was generally water. Removing water for an airship is easy enough, you just release it. Adding water is less obvious, but it can be added by capturing engine exhaust and condensing the steam in the exhaust back into water. A lot of engine exhaust is water vapor. The United States Navy had some large airships for a short period of time (like the USS Macon that served as a flying aircraft carrier) and they relied on capturing water from exhaust to manage altitude.  So a steam-powered cousin of those big U.S. Navy airships would probably be larger and slower to carry the same load, but it seems plausible.

Now about the whole flame thing. The best lifting gas for an airship is hydrogen–it’s the lightest element after all. Unfortunately, hydrogen really likes to burn which makes the airship a fireball waiting to happen. There’s a reason that the big airships that used hydrogen for lift mounted their engines outside of the hull.

Well, the obvious solution is to use helium–the second lightest element–as the lifting gas. Unlike hydrogen, helium doesn’t burn and is quite effective at smothering fires. Unfortunately, there’s a problem with helium. Now, helium is about twice as heavy as hydrogen for a given volume, but that’s less of an issue then you might think. Lift in an airship is produced by displacing air and air is so much heavier than either helium or hydrogen that the difference between the two doesn’t have a huge impact. The real problem with helium is the supply. Hydrogen is easy to produce from water so there’s no problem filling the vast volume of an airship. In fact, hydrogen airships would just vent off hydrogen as it consumed fuel and became lighter during a journey. Nobody had to worry about replacing that hydrogen before the next trip. Helium, on the other hand, can’t be produced unless you happen to have a fusion reactor handy. The only significant source of helium is as a by-product of drilling for natural gas. In current times, there’s actually a fair amount of concern about the helium supply. There might not be a lot of airships around, but helium is an important coolant for superconductors.

The infamous Hindenburg was originally intended to use helium rather than hydrogen, but the Germans didn’t have access to enough of it. They also considered surrounding a central section of hydrogen gasbags with helium, but the supply was too short to make that work as well. When the U.S. Navy deployed its large airships, helium was used since the United States had a much greater helium supply than Germany. Maybe the Germans couldn’t make the idea of a hybrid airship work because of their helium shortage, but the idea could work for my imagined steampunk vessel.

With a hybrid design, my airship started to make sense. It would be bulky and slow compared to its real-world counterparts, but using helium to provide a protective layer around its dangerous load of hydrogen meant that the flame and boilers could be used with a plausible degree of safety. Even if hydrogen leaks, it goes up keeping it away from the engine mounted below.

Carrying all that hydrogen meant that it doesn’t even need to carry a separate supply of fuel. It can burn its hydrogen to heat the boilers and power the ship. As I mentioned earlier, Airships normally carried water for ballast and the steam from powering the engines can be captured or released to help control altitude. Since most of the lifting gas would be hydrogen, I can better hand-wave around where all the helium comes from to support fleets of such machines.

With a bit of thought and research, I felt I could justify my steampunk airship. That’s a very good thing since airships are awesome.





  • Author: M. John Harrison
  • Release: December 18, 2007
  • Genre: Steampunk | Cyberpunk | Fantasy | Dark Fantasy | Sci-Fi
  • Edition: Kindle
  • Publisher: Random House LLC



A magnificent city existing on the ringes of the past, and on the brink of destruction, Viriconium • With a foreword by Neil Gaiman

Available to American readers for the first time, this landmark collection gathers four groundbreaking fantasy classics from the acclaimed author of Light. Set in the imagined city of Viriconium, here are the masterworks that revolutionized a genre and enthralled a generation of readers: The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium, and Viriconium Nights. Back in print after a long absence, these singular tales of a timeless realm and its enigmatic inhabitants are now reborn and compiled to captivate a whole new generation.

Review (Spoiler Free)

I would like to start with the recommendation, which I usually place at the end of the review. I enjoy this work, which is actually a collection of novels and short stories, and would recommend it for anyone who enjoys steampunk, cyberpunk, fantasy, sci-fi, and dark fantasy blended together in a unique genre of its own. Viriconium collects Harrison’s stories about the great city Viriconium, the empire that rose to prominence after the fall of the Afternoon Cultures. In the Kindle edition, Neil Gaiman writes the forward, which is a selling-point all on its own.

This is not a typical series. In fact, the only element that binds the stories together is the city/empire. The collection starts with two queens, Methvet Nian and Canna Moidart, battling to rule the empire; Lord Tegeus-Cromis and the last survivors of his order fight for Methvet Nian against the rapacious Northerners and the frightening Geteit Chemosit, leftovers from the Afternoon Empires. Airman Benedict Paucemanly returns from the moon followed by an invasion of locust-like creatures who come from the stars and threaten to destroy humanity. And finally, Viriconium connects to our world through mirrors. These portals allow people to travel between the realms and their adventures are told through a collection of loosely related short stories.

The writing style is vivid. For example, near the start of the collection Harrison describes the crash of an airship:

When it came close enough to make out detail, Cromis saw that its faceted crystal hull had been blackened by fire, and that a great rift ran the full length of its starboard side. Its power plant (the secret of which, like many other things, had been lost a thousand years before the rise of Viriconium, so that Cromis and his contemporaries lived on the corpse of an ancient science, dependent on the enduring relics of a dead race) ran with a dreary insectile humming where it should have been silent. A pale halo of St. Elmo’s fire crackled from its bow to its stern, coruscating. Behind the shattered glass of its canopy, Cromis could see no pilot, and its flight was erratic: it yawed and pitched aimlessly, like a waterbird on a quiet current.

Cromis’s knuckles stood out white against the sweat-darkened leather of his sword hilt as the vehicle dived, spun wildly, and lost a hundred feet in less than a second. It scraped the tops of the rowans, shuddered like a dying animal, gained a few precious, hopeless feet. It ploughed into the wood, discharging enormous sparks, its motors wailing. A smell of ozone was in the air.

The air ships, as well as many of the other inventions, fall under the genre of steampunk. The people who live in the current era, though, have little understanding of how the inventions work. Their society is more feudal, or high fantasy, in nature like the worlds created by George R.R. Martin. There are blends of sci fi, reminiscent of H.G. Wells, fairy-tale tropes, and so much more. This collection really seems determined to invent its own genre!

I found it very helpful to read Gaiman’s forward. Please do not skip this if you pick up the collection. Otherwise a person could get lost looking for a common thread or repeating characters in the novels. But the connection is not through the characters, or even in the style of writing. The relationship is with the world that Harrison creates. And the world is as vivid as other fantasy creations, like Discworld, Middle-Earth, or Pern. Again–I highly recommend it as long as you are not looking for “pure” steampunk but are willing to go along for the ride.

Steam Highwayman

Want to play an RPG but without those pesky things called friends? Enter Steam Highwayman, a steampunk choose your own adventure gamebook. Take to the roads as a highwayman whose only possessions are the clothes upon their back, gun and sabre at their side, and a Velosteam bike under their feet. Right off the bat your choices determine starting skillset and direction of travel. With only a set of dice and your wits to determine your fate, be careful. As you speed through the world you decide what type of highwayman you wish to be: Punisher or Robin Hood. Seek out codewords and other secrets that can be carried over volume to volume.


If this sounds like the kind of experience for you, check out the Kickstarter where you  can purchase the first gamebook volume for £15.00. Because this is a gamebook there aren’t any “kickstarter extras.” Unless of course, you count the £200.00 6 hour 1-1 session with the game maker where he will reveal all his secrets and help you create your own gamebook.


Steam Highwayman is also utilizing social media to release content. Instead of just setting Kickstarter funded goals, which are exclusively about illustrations. Steam Highwayman is setting social goals as well, the first 100 Likes on Facebook has earned a PDF document about the design aspects of the character with illustrations by Ben May. More will be added as the campaign started to pick up speed.

Unlike other game kickstarters, Steam Highwayman actually has a small demo to give you the feel for how the game plays and what you can expect from Steam Highwayman. I played the demo, I won’t spoil anything for you though as this is a game best experienced.


I did enjoy flipping through pages and your choices do make a very different game. Instructions are a little unclear if you have never played a game this way before but once you pick it up it’s extremely understandable. While the game does rely on die rolls, combat does give you the chance to not die because RNG is not in your favour.

Steam Highwayman is created by Martin Barnabus Noutch who got a job in the Marlow area and while riding his motorcycle through the countryside came to realize why this area was known in the past a highwayman’s dream.

Sneak Peek at Sunless Skies: A LitRPG Victorian Steampunk Game

cover-imageAfter playing and reviewing Fallen London (read the review here) I eagerly awaited the next Steampunk LitRPG game from Failbetter Games. Sunless Skies launched on Steam Early Access on August 30, 2017. Until September 8th the game will be available for 10% off its full price of £18.99 / $24.99, so act soon if you want to grab it at a discount.

Sunless Skies is a top-down literary RPG set amongst the stars. Explore a universe steeped in celestial horror and ravaged by Victorian ambition in this game of exploration, corruption and jeopardy for PC, Mac and Linux.

Players will initially be able to explore one of the four regions of the High Wilderness—the Reach. “We chose the Reach specifically because it’s the region players start in when they begin the game. It’s also more user-friendly than some of the later regions, which get properly strange,” says producer Lottie Bevan.

avidhorizonOn the 30th, players can expect to explore the Reach in their locomotive, scout for nearby ports, dock at any of the 11 diverse ports available, interact with stories, engage in combat and of course, experience Terror and Hunger.

“The current state of the Reach is set up to give players a small taste of what the final game will be like rather than a big taste of an emptier, less representational world,” says CEO and Art Director Paul Arendt, “We wanted to focus on a more contained area, a space where we can test mood, story and mechanics.”

windwardcompanyThe feedback Failbetter received in Early Access for Sunless Sea was absolutely essential to its development, and the team are eager to see what fans think of Sunless Skies. “Early Access provides us with that pivotal indication on whether the direction we’ve set for the game is the right one. It gives us early warning on what people don’t like, what people would like to see more of, and what could use further development,” explains Director of Development, Liam Welton.

Over the past three months 900 alpha testers have been pioneering Sunless Skies to catch the first bugs and help Failbetter prepare the game for Early Access. “Perhaps our Kickstarter should have given us a sign, but we were totally floored when nearly 10,000 people signed up to our alpha list!” says Marketing Manager Haley Uyrus, “We had very specific aims for the alpha so we kept the number of participants low, but it’s going to be exhilarating to open the gates for Early Access.”

giant-space-monster“We’re excited to open the heavens to the first major wave of explorers. Player feedback is crucial to us, and we’ll be watching, learning, and amending our own course accordingly. Because there’s much more to come,” alludes Narrative Director Chris Gardiner, “As Early Access progresses we’ll be adding more regions, more ports, more discoveries, more stories, more secrets, more nightmares, and more unwise decisions that sensible captains will avoid at all costs.”

In celebration of the Early Access launch, Sunless Sea for iPad will also be on sale for $6.99 from 30th August – 3rd September. The game will also be available to play at this year’s EGX in the Rezzed section.

Here is a sneak peek at their trailer:

Who are Failbetter Games?
Failbetter Games are an independent games studio based in London, UK, who specialise in narrative-driven, darkly funny 2D and text-based games. Any allegations of cannibalism remain unsubstantiated.

What is Sunless Skies?
Sunless Skies is a top-down literary RPG set amongst the stars. Explore a universe steeped in celestial horror and ravaged by Victorian ambition in Failbetter’s spiritual sequel to Sunless Sea.

It is the dawn of the 20th century, and London has taken to the stars! As the captain of a spacefaring locomotive you’ll behold wonders and battle cosmic abominations in the furthest heavens. Stake your claim. Fight to survive. Speak to storms. Murder a sun. Face judgement.

The Sunless Skies Kickstarter raised £377,952 of its funding £100,000 goal – the goal itself having been raised in the first four hours of the Kickstarter.

What is Sunless Sea?
Sunless Sea was released in 2015, receiving an Essential rating from Eurogamer, and went on to sell over 200,000 copies in its first year. It was named among the best games of 2015 by the New Yorker, the Onion AV Club, Vice, Kotaku, PCGamesN, The Mirror, Forbes, Develop Online and Killscreen.

Sunless Sea is available for Mac, Linux and Windows, and will be released for iPad in spring 2018.

Review: The Cog and the Steel Tower by W.E. Larson

This month I’d actually like to review a book I read several months ago, Cog and the Steel TowerThe lovely W.E. Larson sent me a free copy in exchange for my honest review, and after several months of thought, I’m ready to share that review with the world.

Let’s start with the blurb!


Thirteen-year-old Cog loved getting her hands greasy in her Uncle’s workshop and building the occasional mud-cannon before the return of her mother knocked her life completely off its rails. Before long she’s stowing away on a royal airship and tricking her way into a dream apprenticeship with the Queen’s master engineer by pretending to be a boy. But her situation takes a dangerous turn when she discovers a plot to assassinate the Queen and throw the kingdom into war.

If she can keep her identity a secret despite her best friend developing a crush on her alter ego, unravel the deadly conspiracy, and keep the demanding master engineer happy, then maybe she can have the future she’s always wanted. Keeping hidden identities and saving kingdoms may not be the same as fixing a steam wagon or an auto-mechanical potion mixer, but Cog has a set of precision screwdrivers and she isn’t afraid to use them.

Follow Cog’s rollicking adventure as she uses her wits and ingenuity to find friendship, trust, and justice in a colorful but sometimes unforgiving steampunk world full of mechanical mayhem.


Cog and the Steel Tower features several of my favourite steampunk tropes: the tomboyish girl tinkerer, the young woman who wants to avoid arranged marriage at all costs, airship stowaways, and educational apprenticeships that serve as the perfect way to show off all the steampunk-y goodness in the author’s world.

All of these tropes combined to make Cog and the Steel Tower a fun, often rambunctious adventure. If you’re looking for a light read to take your mind off all the awfulness in the world, Cog and the Steel Tower is perfect.

That said, I personally found Cog and the Steel Tower disappointing. Its use of archetypes and familiar tropes was brilliant, but it missed several opportunities to deeply explore and challenge those tropes. Cog herself–and, we later find out, the Queen–challenges the awful restrictions on women, but fails to actually create change. She becomes an exception, rather than a reason for a new rule.

I’ve written before about how I long to see more punk in steampunk, and Cog and the Steel Tower was very much the opposite. Cog did rig up awesome devices from found parts in a very punk way, but that was about it. Her only reason to challenge or even question the strict gender and class rules of her world was because she personally wanted to be an engineer and wasn’t allowed. And the Queen, who challenged gender norms to get into her position, has failed to champion other women’s rights.

This is at least partially because Cog and the Steel Tower is middle grade, and people assume kids aren’t interested in the deeper political realities of Victorian-based worlds. I think this does a massive disservice to kids, who are quite capable of understanding and tackling those challenges. It assumes they can’t think deeper rather than encouraging them to develop those thinking skills. And I think we need to do better by our kids.

But it does also bring up another problem I’ve had recently: virtually all the steampunk I’ve found has either been middle grade or YA. Where are all the adult protagonists? Specifically, where are all the adult woman who have already–and permanently–rejected their roles in their society and built new ones? Are we to assume that all these badass little girls grow up to be perfect Victorian women? Based on the lack of badass woman role models in these books, I’m pretty sure those are the assumptions.

So, my review in one sentence: Cog and the Steel Tower was a lot of fun, but it brought my biggest issues with the steampunk genre as a whole to the forefront in a big way. To be honest, it’s kind of put me off the genre for a little while. But I know steampunk can do much better, and I’m excited to find stories that break the mold.

Does Cog and the Steel Tower sound awesome to you? Do you know any steampunk books that really challenge the tropes I talk about here? Please let me know in the comments section below!