Steampunk/Radium Age Science Fiction written by Rudyard Kipling

The A.B.C., that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of a few score persons, controls the Planet. Transportation is Civilisation, our motto runs. Theoretically we do what we please, so long as we do not interfere with the traffic and all it implies. Practically, the A.B.C. confirms or annuls all international arrangements, and, to judge from its last report, finds our tolerant, humorous, lazy little Planet only too ready to shift the whole burden of public administration on its shoulders. — With the Night Mail, 2000 AD


As Adam was a-working outside of Eden-Wall,

He used the Earth, he used the Seas, he used the Air and all;

          And out of black disaster

          He arose to be the master

              Of Earth and Water, Air and Fire,

              But never reached his heart’s desire!

                  (The Apple Tree’s cut down!) – Excerpt of a poem from With the Night Mail.

Jules Verne and H G Wells are associated with the origins Steampunk, but I would argue that Rudyard Kipling was also one of the godfathers of the Steampunk Literary genre. He wrote both With the Night Mail and As Easy As A. B. C., both set in his alternative 21st century world with the Aerial Board of Control. Both these books could be classified as ‘hard’ science fiction, as they were based around the economic use of airships.

The central story of With the Night Mail is narrated by an unnamed reporter. The journalist is accompanying an intercontinental Night Mail run from London to Quebec by the mail courier, the airship ‘162’. In the course of the trip they encounter more than just the normal dangers of flying an airship, with the ‘162’ and its crew meeting up with a soon-to-be derelict airship; and then having a hairy time of its own when caught up in an electrical storm with unpredictable wind gusts and air currents. Underneath the ‘news story’ is a series of articles, an obituary, an advice column, and advertisements from the same ‘magazine’. This extra material gives some insights into the structure of the planet-wide Aerial Board of Control and how the organisation enforces its technocratic – and rather parochial – philosophy upon this alternative world.

BEGINNER — On still days the air above a large inhabited city being slightly warmer — i.e., thinner — than the atmosphere of the surrounding country, a plane drops a little on entering the rarefied area, precisely as a ship sinks a little in fresh water. Hence the phenomena of ‘jolt’ and your ‘inexplicable collisions’ with factory chimneys. In air, as on earth, it is safest to fly high. – Excerpt from the advice column from With the Night Mail.

The construction of this short story is genius. The excitement of the story sucks you in, and then you remain to learn more details about this world where airships dominate although planes exist.

Planes are swift — so is Death

Planes are cheap — so is Life

– Excerpt of an advertisement from With the Night Mail.

As Easy As A. B. C, a tale of 2150 A.D. was written seven years after With the Night Mail. It was a straightforward tale of the revolt of the American District of Northern Illinois against the restraints of the Aerial Board of Control, the de facto world government. Again, it is narrated by a reporter, but there is no accompanying magazine excerpts (which I thought was a real pity).

All in all, I found the scientific details of dirigible aeronautics behind these stories to be fascinating in both breadth and detail. Truly an inspiration for Steampunk writers and enthusiasts. These books were Kipling’s only forays into the Science Fiction genre. More the pity.



Filed under Historical Personage, Steampunk, Steampunk Aesthetic, Steampunk Genre

2 responses to “Steampunk/Radium Age Science Fiction written by Rudyard Kipling

  1. Science Fiction didn’t really become a distinctive genre until the 1920s American pulps. But Kipling can be seen to to have written a great deal that uses ideas that have become commonplaces of SF. This sort of arbitrary back-application of the label risks missing a lot. Isn’t Kim essentially an alien-world story? The average British reader of his day wouldn’t have noticed that much difference. India, or the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs? Why isn’t The Eye of Allah classed as SF?

    • It depends on how you define Science Fiction. Generally, I am an inclusionist. However, India exists while Burrough’s Mars does not, so I wouldn’t call a story set in India as Science Fiction unless there was actual science and innovation mentioned somewhere in the narrative. Steampunk is another genre that can be considered to be making arbitrarily back-application to stories written before the name was coined.
      I prefer to use the classifications as I understand them, and as I can explain them. This may be simplistic, but easier in the long run.

      I must admit, though, the concept of ‘Kim’ as an alien-world adventure has a lot of merit. It isn’t such a stretch to see where the narrative could be set in an alien culture on another world.

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