Tuesday, 26 June 2007

The British Steam Car Challenge

by Charles Pooter

“A flying machine, you mean?” Mallory paused. “You're not trying to tell me this vehicle of yours can fly, are you?”

The mechanics laughed politely. “No,” Godwin said, “and I can't say that all that airy Engine-spinning has come to much, directly. But we now understand certain matters having to do with the behavior of air in motion, the principles of atmospheric resistance. New principles, little-known as yet.”

“But we mechanics,” said Mr. Chesterton proudly, “ 'ave put 'em to practical use, sir, in the shaping of our Zephyr.”

“ ‘Line-streaming,’ we call it,” Tom said.

“So you've ‘line-streamed’ this gurney of yours, eh? That's why it looks so much like, er…”

“Like a fish,” Tom said.

“Exactly,” said Godwin. “A fish! It's all to do with the action of fluids, you see. Water. Air. Chaos and turbulence! It's all in the calculations.”
- from The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
In Gibson and Sterling's flawed vision of an alternative Victorian England, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace helpded usher in an early information revolution. As in the real world, steam reigns supreme, but in the novel analytical engines have allowed engineers to create steam-powered automobiles. These “gurneys” are driven by the well-healed and the fastest models are entered into races.

150 years later, fiction is becoming reality:
The British Steam Car Challenge was conceived with the twofold aim of breaking the Land Speed Record for steam powered vehicles as well as creating excitement in the arena of alternate fuels.

Motive power is from a two-stage steam turbine, fed by a boiler fired on LPG. The turbine drives a gear train with a 5:1 ratio for a wheel speed of 3000 RPM at 200 MPH
More from Wired here.

This post has elicited a significant number of hits from science fiction fans, if you want more SF content please read our most recent article here:


Anonymous said...

Why "...flawed vision..." ?

TwiliteMinotaur said...


Tired Always said...

Ahhh go easy on the poor guy. His last name's "Pooter" for chrissakes.

Anonymous said...

The last attempt was made by this gentleman


Much cheaper than a telsa

Charles Pooter said...

anonymous 4:28 AM:

The Difference Engine is a "flawed vision" because it isn't actually a very good novel despite containing some very cool and interesting ideas.

David Moles said...

Is it the structure you don't like?

Charles Pooter said...

david moles,

I didn't care about the characters or the McGuffin, but I liked the novel's setting, the technology and some of the descriptive passages. In some ways it reminded me of a RPG source book.

I think a "flawed vision" is accurate.

hball said...


Pritchard Buckminster said...

Interesting that this got hijacked by Gibson fans - I thought the steam car was the interesting bit myself!

Steam-punk novels have been done better and DE is all idea and no character. Personally I would rather have seen a made up auto-biography of Babbage that explored these ideas rather than this rather lacklustre version.

Some of the imagery of London is fantastic and obviously the victorian infonet concept is brilliantly rendered but I agree with Mr Pooter, it reads like the groundwork from which someone else would write a novel.

(PS Neuromancer is one of my all time favourites; I'm not Gibson bashing!)

Edwin Hesselthwite said...

Little Man, What Now? has a bit of a fondness for SF... It's one of our things and there's a number of us who are fans...

Pritchard over there is a big fan of the action-sf novel, Charles Pooter is something of an expert on Alan Moore's work (heavily influenced by this novel), and my patch is Golden Age SF...

That said, I really couldn't get into the Difference Engine either. It's rare for me to hammer my way through half a novel and then just give up in the middle, but that is exactly what I did with the DE. I loved all the Palaeontology content, I loved the setting, and I loved the world they constructed... But then when they starting banging about in the East End I got bored.

But the story was completely disposable. I have to admit I often have this problem with Gibson, I couldn't really stomach Burning Chrome, Neuromancer or Virtual Light. As pointed out by Pooter, this was yet another McGuffin story (as all of them are) where there is action, Mcguffin, action, setting... No real soul to the story.

The setting is magnificent, and the concepts are great.. So I stand this one up for ambition, but still, "flawed" is bang on.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure to draw heat, if not steam, from suggesting that the problems with DE stemmed from Mr. Sterling and not Mr. Gibson...

Anonymous said...

I concur with the anonymous post above mine. Having read both Gibson and Sterling, and having given up on DE only part-way through for the same reasons as those listed by others here, my gut and my brain both tell me that the novel's failing is likely due more to Mr. Sterling's influence than Gibson's. Sorry Bruce.

Julian said...

I think the issue is distinguishing between the "flawed vision of an alternative Victorian England" and the "flawed vision" that was the story. I found the vision of Victorian England quite compelling, but the synthesis of the two writers less so.