Today we welcome author Dave Freer who’s new steampunk YA, Cuttlefish, releases in July from Pyr.
Dave Freer is the author of a bunch of sf/fantasy novels some of which blundered onto best-seller lists. He’s collaborated with Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey on various books. He lives with his wife Barbara and a selection of dogs , under the semi-benign rule of three cats on a remote island off the south coast of Australia. I think he calls what they do ‘an experiment in self-sufficiency.’ Other people call it ‘chaos and messing about in mud and small boats’. He was an ichthyologist, so they have plenty of fish. It’s supposed to be good for the brain. On the other hand diving – which he does a lot of – is supposed to be bad for it. Much about him is explained by this combination. He’s fond of adrenalin, books and strange food, not necessarily together or in that order. You can read more at http://davefreer.com/
The World of CUTTLEFISH
by Dave Freer
Tsss….p, clickety clack, tsss…p, clickety-clack, bang. Tsss… p.
Hello. I am Dave Freer. I am what you get when you find an eight year old trying to distill rust behind a garage full of Victorian-era tools and old chests full of the relics of Empire, and you do not do the wise and merciful thing. If I remember rightly my father, on discovering I planned to conquer the world (doesn’t everyone?) with this, gave me an elderly woodcut-illustrated encyclopaedia, on the grounds that I might as well do it properly. In doing this he made a terrible mistake because he unlocked the elderly green cupboard at the back of the garage, and forgot to lock it. Not only (cue evil cackle) had he handed me the key to early 20th century science and technology, but a trove of books which I guess belonged to my grandmother or great grandmother. Being an amoral little brat, who would rather read than breathe (yes, I do know what I speak of. No one sings hymns to breath until they can’t), I read them all quietly. Kipling to Bulldog Drummond to Jeffrey Farnol. I’d long since exhausted the inadequate books I was allowed at in the house, and my parents were of the barbaric kind that only went to the library once a week. Being hyperactive and sickly (the breathing part, remember) was a dreadful combination. It meant I had to do a lot in my head. It meant I got sent away to boarding school (Stalky and Co. would have felt just at home there) to a high altitude, dry climate and time travel back to 1890 as to how things were done. In a country where steam loco’s still pulled the rattling leather and teak carriages, and the train smoked and steamed and clickety-clacked its way up over the mountains. Where the attitudes, and the racial discrimination were still Victorian (it wasn’t all fancy mustachios and clockwork and brass-buttons). Soot stained everything and smuts would get in your eye if you undid the brass catches and lowered leather-strapped windows and looked out. Just a whiff of coal-smoke takes me right back there. And thus was born a love-hate relationship with steam, grafted onto a great deal too much Victorian/Edwardian swashbuckling and romantic reading, added to a scientist with an inborn touch of Heath Robinson in his odd inventive mind. The question is not why do I write steampunk, but why did it take me so long?
So more-than-thirty years on I still haven’t grown up a lot, but at least to point where I think conquering the world would be tedious (well, not so much the conquering part, but the bit that comes after, where you have to change its diapers), but I still love inventing strange machines… in a kind of alternate history powered by coal. With, naturally, a bit of swash, some buckle, and a little romance. The boarding school stuff did sort out the lungs in the greater part, helped the hyperactivity by letting me become a danger-sports nutter… but didn’t change the reading a bit. I come from a commercial fishing / diving background, so that was what I ended up doing at University. I am, technically speaking, an ichthyologist-turned-writer, and I still dive…
Only diving is incompatible with steam… isn’t it?
Which is where we come to the idea of a coal-fired submarine, and a story about it. One of the thins that always worried me about steam-punk is that big picture of what a world of steam-power would do to the ecology. If you’re worried about global warming in our world… well, given the huge amounts of soot also produced by a coal-fired world, and what happens when you put little black spots on nice white snow or ice, we’re well off. Black carbon (aka soot) is a major problem in our world (not in the first world so much as in the third world), and in any real steam punk scenario… the world will get warmer. And ice is going to melt. Methane will come bubbling out of the arctic seas, and the tundra.
And people will be just as stubborn as now in the face of disaster. CUTTLEFISH’s steampunk world has got a lot warmer. The British-German Empire not only survived this, but actually survived better, by going back to direct Imperial rule and having a strong military to deal with all. Of course that didn’t stop London flooding. Or the pride of the Empire not abandoning the capital, but making it into a new Venice, with canals where her streets once ran, and the basements, lower floors and myriad tunnels all flooded.
Or not. When the emergency was over, people thought life would go back to normal. To parliaments and elections. And when they didn’t, well, there was rebellion. And the rebels needed somewhere to be. To hide and to be safe. The tunnels weren’t all water-filled. There was air trapped down there. And some of those flooded could be pumped dry, with airlocks that could allow them to flood again if anyone came looking. They did need a way in and out though. A lifeline.
Submarines, in a world where oil is just not easily available.
I’m odd enough to like my story devices and machines to at least possibly work. On the face of it… coal as a submarine fuel about as stupid as you can get (hey, no wonder I liked it). Coal just isn’t a great calorific fuel compared to gasoline or even diesel. It uses a lot of oxygen to burn, and if there is one thing you don’t have spare on a submarine, it’s air to breath. It was quite well reported that when the snorkel on diesel submarines stopped (by a wave in the cut-off valve for example… the big diesels pulled so much oxygen out of the air as to burst ear-drums with the sudden pressure change. And it’s a lot harder to damp a coal fire as fast as you can switch of a diesel. So I thought about a coal dust diesel engine… one story I read somewhere had the snippet of information that Rudolf Diesel originally wanted to use coal-dust and not oil (which would work). Only – well coal dust burns, but is very abrasive. Your submarine would work as well as a diesel-oil one, but it would also need a lot more fuel and impossiblium liners for the cylinders… So I started looking for alternatives. Steam engines are quite inefficient and the one thing a submarine can’t be is that.
But Stirling engines are a lot more efficient. And there is no reason they can’t be coal-burning. Any source of heat will do for them. And… Stirling engines are quiet. And… it has been done. Not with coal, but with a Stirling engine. I’m not going to bore you with how they work — its an external combustion engine. I got around a lot of the other issues by running the air input through a compressor/buffer system for the snorkel, and then focussing on the next problem. Submarines are small. Not much room for coal…
That was the big issue – refuelling submarines – during WW1 and WW2. And they ran on a fuel that doesn’t take as much space. Now submarines had another problem, pre-nuclear submarine… A round torpedo shape is best for diving and pressure. But a V-shaped hull is what you need on the surface, which is where they had to be to run their diesel engines. So they had two hulls – an inner -torpedo shaped, and an outer giving the V shape for the surface.
So… what goes faster and uses less fuel to do so than a surface vessel, but is still a boat? A hydroplane — a essentially flying over water with as little ‘wet’ area as possible, with the hull (or foils) designed to create lift, not just buoyancy.
If you look at the cover to CUTTLEFISH – you’ll see that design in action, with the outer false hull pushed out on struts to make the submarine into a trimaran Hydrosailer. It’s a boat that can run underwater, steam on the surface, or hydrosail, skimming above the surface. It’s a real steampunk fantasy… and it might even work.
It’s a good vessel for sailing into a swashbuckling adventure with.