Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Some thoughts on making starships and steam engines play well together...

In all honesty, the Tales From the Long Night setting can’t accurately be categorized as “Steampunk” any more than it is “Post-Apocalyptic” or “Dystopian.”  (Emerging Civilization is more accurate.)  The steampunk genre is typically more about alternate history where steam and clockwork technology never went out of style and frequently relies on a fantasy element or Victorian era scientific theories that didn’t pan out, like “the luminiferous aether.”  (If you’re into steampunk and wonder where the term “Aether” came from in terms of historical scientific theory, check this article out… 

Overall, I try to keep the science in these stories as hard as possible, although I do allow some Space Opera conventions such as “artificial gravity” and anthropomorphic aliens (I do take steps to ensure that the Imps aren’t just “people with things on their foreheads.”)  So while there are airships, steam engines, and clockwork technology, those are based on existing technologies rather than mystical Aether Crystals and suchlike.  Basically, old technologies that the Gentle Walkers blew the dust off of so folks could get things done without generating the electromagnetic noise that could get those old blockade drones riled up.

The first limitation Ayeden’s surviving communities face is energy.  Thanks to the “Damocles” blockade drones, the colonists can’t exactly start building oil refineries or fusion power plants.  Wood, peat, and biogas are their main fuel sources.  While biogas would work fine for internal combustion engines, those require electrical systems that bring us back to the sort of electromagnetic noise that would give Damocles a tickle.  A two-stroke engine might not rise above the targeting thresholds, but those don’t provide the horses to do any heavy moving.  Diesel-style engines are also a no-go because the colonists really can’t produce petroleum distillates in a meaningful quantity and no community can spare the crops bio-diesel would require.

That leaves us with steam power.

Historically, the problem with steam power was that by the time materials and metallurgy had improved enough to make steam safer and more efficient, internal combustion had come along and provided a better power source.  While the colonists can’t fabricate high-end alloys, composites, or ceramics on a large scale, they can reshape and repurpose salvaged materials.  Given that they’re from a civilization that had interstellar travel, it’s not much of a stretch to assume that their tech base had developed polymers, alloys, and composites that would be to our modern day tech base what foamed alloys, titanium or tungsten carbide goods would be to a Bronze Age society.  So Ayeden’s boilers and steam engines are not only efficient and safe, but are also quite superior to anything we could produce today.

So where’d they get the equipment to work those materials?  The fact that underground maglev network that became Greenline Town has such capabilities is the result of two factors.

The first is a cultural issue at play there.  In this storyverse, humanity has lost its homeworld and damn near caught the Darwin Express to Buh-Bye centuries before Ayeden Prime was even colonized.  After the Fall of Terra, it was considered in imperative that every community on every colony had to be as self-sufficient as possible.  Every community had to have the tools to make tools, rather than rely on external sources for basic survival.  While they didn’t have Star Trek style replicators, it seemed reasonable that any machine shop, motor pool or equipment bay would have on hand the high-tech, nano-bot based equivalent of a 3-D printer.  Feed in the base materials and elements, and fabricate whatever parts you need.  All that needed shipping was whatever base elements that couldn’t be produced locally.  They couldn’t lay a starship’s keel outside a proper spaceyard, but they could produce maglev cars and engines for example.

Ok… then why was that maglev network underground in the first place?

That’s the second factor.  Ayeden’s on the chilly edge of its system’s liquid water zone.  The equatorial regions where what we’d call “temperate” rather than “tropical.”  Throw in a more pronounced axial tilt and a longer day/night cycle, and winter really, really, sucked.  There were open-air cities near the equator, but communities farther from the equator were typically underground or arcologies.  Those all fetched rocks in the initial bombardment.  (The old Mutual Prosperity Coalition was big on making examples, and was fine with scorching whatever earth they failed to take.  They intended Ayeden to be an “example”….)

The old maglev tunnels had been built underground because of Ayeden’s environmental conditions.  Originally, they carried raw materials and passengers from the spaceports to the outlying arcologies and cities.  They were just full of maintenance bays and depots, where parts and equipment could be fabricated as needed.  The concourses and terminals also had basic medical facilities and shops which had their own light production capacity for small scale consumer goods.

Most of Ayeden’s current population is descended from people who were already in that system or were close enough to shelter there when the attack started.  There are some exceptions, like the refugees who made it there because of the Watchful Mother’s broadcasts and the Pridesmen who originated in the southern equatorial plains which were spared the ashfall.  Not to mention the odd Foundling here and there who constantly acted as a source of fresh genetic material… but you’ll have to read the forthcoming Valorous Daughter for more on that…

The Terror of Twelvety Town is now available on Kindle

And Nook

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