I didn’t know that Rudyard Kipling wrote steampunk, especially since that moniker didn’t exist during his lifetime. Kipling’s novellas “With the Night Mail” and “Easy as A.B.C.” have airships, vaguely defined etheric power sources and more energy weapons than you can hit with a stick. He may not have written steampunk, but he might be one of its literary grandfathers.
Written in 1905, “With the Night Mail,” narrated in the first person by a young journalist, chronicles the flight of Postal Packet 162, the dirigible charged with delivering the mail from London to Quebec. Crossing the ocean, Packet 162 encounters a super-storm that tests the strength of the airship and the capabilities of its crew.
The Aerial Board of Control, a “semi-elected, semi-nominated body of a few score persons of both sexes,” manages transportation, and there is no other government of any kind. “Theoretically, we do as we please as long as we do not interfere with the traffic and all that implies.” (Italics are Kipling’s.) In “As Easy as A.B.C.,” the Board is called to quell an uprising in North America, specifically Chicago, where a group of dangerous seditionists is demanding the right to (gasp! Shudder!) vote.
“With the Night Mail” is more of an exercise in world-building than an actual story. There is crisis after crisis, but these are episodic in nature, caused by the storm, not by the actions of the characters. Still, Kipling’s descriptions are highly imaginative:
The turbines whistle reflectively. From the low-arched expansion-tanks on either side the valves descend pillarwise to the turbine-chests, and thence the obedient gas whirls through the spirals of blades with a force that would whip the teeth out of a power-saw. Behind, is its own pressure held in leash or spurred on by the lift-shunts; before it, the vacuum where Fleury’s Ray dances in violet-green bands and whirled turbillions of flame. The jointed U-tubes of the vacuum-chamber are pressure-tempered colloid (no glass would endure the strain for an instant) and a junior engineer with tinted spectacles watches the Ray intently. It is the very heart of the machine – a mystery to this day. (The Ray is the fuel source, converting a fluid to a gas to lift the ship. The gas condenses and the process begins again.)
Using the convention of the First Person Experience Article, Kipling provides a little bit of information about the technology and politics of this world in 2000, when the story is set. The more sinister nature of this glittering technological world is addressed in the “adverts” and Letters to the Editor which follow the story, in which the reader discovers that “democracy” is a very dirty word in this global society. People want to be left alone; the A.B.C is expected to take care of things — oh, and airplanes never really caught on as a mode of transport.
When it comes to alternate worlds, I think that other writers of the period, most notably H. Rider Haggard, surpass Kipling, but there is an exuberance to “With the Night Mail” that makes it a pleasure to read. Anyone who ever plans to write an alt-Victorian work should read this, to see how the vocabulary is employed — how real Victorians/Edwardians regarded technology and science.
“As Easy as A.B.C,” first published in 1912, provides more explanation of the rise of the Aerial Board of Control, when a group from the Board and its official Recorder are called to deal with a disturbing event in Chicago. Traveling with a fleet of military airships, the Board members address the problem. Through a lot of exposition, both narrative and dialogue, we learn that a plague swept through the human population, reducing it sharply, and apparently the birth rate, or survival rate, has not recovered. This engendered a fear of crowds, which somehow led to a fear of voting. This in turn led to the complete surrender of rights and any participation in government. Most people see being asked to vote, or contribute an opinion, as an “invasion of privacy.” The world is content to let the A.B.C. run things. Periodically, groups of radicals spring up who want to give speeches (Eek! Crowds!) and vote.
This world-building has a few cracks. The ABC is “semi-elected, semi-nominated.” If voting is such an evil act, who “elects” the Board? Or is “elect” used in the sense of “chosen” in a different sense here? This is never explained.
Once in Chicago, the A.B.C. has to save the group of rebels from an angry mob. Kipling is well aware that a mob is a lot like a crowd, and plays it for laughs:
At that moment the sun rose clear, and revealed the blinking assembly to itself. As soon as it realized it was a crowd we saw the shiver of horror and revulsion shoot across it precisely as the steely flaws shot across the lake outside. Nothing was said, and being half-blind, of course it moved slowly. Yet within fifteen minutes most of that vast multitude — three thousand at the lowest count — melted away like frost on autumn leaves.
The “Serviles” who want to “make Xs on paper” are swept up, unharmed, and delivered to a London impresario, where they will live out their days having town meetings, speechifying, and voting, for the entertainment of modern Londoners. The Board members seems quite smug about this bloodless solution, but there are sinister undertones throughout this tale. For a group who has been handed responsibility for running the whole planet, presumably by the people themselves, the A.B.C. has a large military fleet that they can deploy almost instantaneously.
When Admiral Arnott uses a riot-suppression weapon on the mob, one of the Board Members, Dragomiroff from Russia, collapses into hysteria.
“Pardon!” Dragomiroff moaned. “I have never seen Death. I have never seen the Board take action. Shall we go down and burn them alive, or is that already done?” Once he realizes that no lasting harm was done to the assembly, he recovers, saying, “I am a fool – an old fool!… We reason with them in Little Russia!”
It’s probable that Kipling means this as satire, or proof of a changed world. In 1905, the Czar’s troops fired on starving workers who came to the Winter Palace pleading to speak to the Czar. That’s hardly “reasoning with them.” Presumably, the Russia of the A.B.C. is kinder and gentler. Still, it seems strange that Dragomiroff would assume the worst, and somewhat telling that he says, “I have never seen the Board take action.” “As Easy as A.B.C.” might be social satire, or even Kipling’s own weird idea of utopia, but the sense of global brainwashing is inescapable.
The story seems internally contradictory; it opens with the notice that Illinois has “riotously cut itself out of all systems and would remain disconnected,” and it is asking for “direct administration.” (“What do we want? Tyranny! When do we want it? Now!”) There is no government beyond the A.B.C., and no elections, but Chicago has a mayor and a chief of police. The world depicted in both these tales is full of such contradictions, but they make the stories interesting, as we watch Kipling wrestle with his own creation (the same way 3,000 people suddenly recognize that they are a crowd).
The book ends with an insightful essay by Bruce Sterling, who is clearly a fan of Kipling’s but doesn’t admire him blindly.
HiLo Books issued these two novellas as With the Night Mail: Two Yarns About the Aerial Board of Control under its Radium Age imprint, where it is publishing science fiction from 1900-1933. These two Kipling discoveries were new to me. (Be aware; in “As Easy as A.B.C.” Kipling depicts Americans as racist bigots and uses the “N-word.” It didn’t bother me because of the context and the time it was written, but I want people to know.) I recommend these stories to writers, Kipling fans, and anyone interested in the history of science fiction.