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The Original Steampunk: The pre-retrofuturist science fiction of Rudyard Kipling

George Edward Challenger By George Edward Challenger Published on May 4, 2017
This article was updated on August 2, 2017
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In his own way, Kipling even looked like a dashing future engineer.

When it comes to renowned literary talents who dabbled in science fiction during the genre’s rise in the 19th century, there are a few authors people generally tend to think of. Even now, if asked to name some of those all-time-greats of early science fiction, most will immediately call to mind Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Some few might mention Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. Somehow, despite his enduring popularity, Rudyard Kipling never seems to make the list.

This seems a particular shame, because Kipling’s science fiction brings to bear much of the natural style and poetry as his better-remembered work. There is something endearing about the fact that the best of Kipling’s sci-fi begins with the postal service; it’s oddly charming that something as mundane and everyday as the post should be the the basis of our introduction to the world of the future, but that is the case with one of Kipling’s best science fiction stories, With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 AD.

Set in a world dominated by airships, With the Night Mail describes the adventure of a postal worker on a dirigible over the Atlantic, delivering packets to Canada. In the course of this journey, the reader is introduced to the technical workings of the far-future airships. Indeed, where authors like Wells tend to be light on the details of the workings of their fanciful technologies, Kipling’s writing is surprisingly detailed, hewing very close to the “science” side of “science fiction.”

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Long paragraphs are spent in description of the engineering that keeps airships afloat, including details on the lift-providing gases and the expense of the bearings involved, as well as the mechanisms governing the “Fleury Ray,” which is vital for the liquefaction of the gas (for reasons not entirely clear).

That “the Ray” can never be allowed to go out is established early on, when an alarm sounds and sends the crew to their stations, all except the engineer watching the Ray, of whom it says,

Suddenly a bell thrills; the engineers run to the turbine-valves and stand by; but the spectacled slave of the Ray in the U-tube never lifts his head. He must watch where he is.

If there had ever been any doubt, that line should tell you that there is a core of romance running through Kipling’s science fiction that feels very much in line with his other work. This makes these stories a particular pleasure for those of us who fell in love with his writing in Just So Stories or his descriptions of Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. Here though, that strange sense of almost lyrical prose is used to describe things entirely alien to our experience. No matter the immediacy of the danger to an airship, Kipling invariably takes time to mention the fact that the “slave of the Ray” remains rooted to the spot, regardless of the panic and chaos unfolding around him.

Indeed, the one time we see a ship’s engineer taken away from his watch, it is as his airship is going down, and even in the midst of being rescued from the failing ship his crew must reassure him that they have found him a new Ray to keep watch over. This might seem strange, but it gives a hint of the strange tension where technology leaves humanity in untenable positions, a theme that recurs throughout Kipling’s science fiction. Drawing alongside a failing ship that has drifted too high, we’re told that,

Captain Purnall wrenches open the colloid to talk with him man to man. There are times when Science does not satisfy.

Of course, if you typically find it difficult to read Kipling because of his colonial sentiment, then you might have better luck with his science fiction than his other stories, but even in the distant future of 2000 there are hints of it. Sometimes, those are references to the ways in which “savages” deal with problems, where in others they’re offhand references to the ease with which people and governments defer responsibility to the “Aerial Board of Control” (or the A. B. C.).

In With the Night Mail, the A. B. C. is something of a nebulous presence, though they come into their own in the follow up story, Easy as A. B. C. in which the A. B. C. has been left effectively in charge of the entire world while other power structures recede. We are told that the world of the 21st century is one of peace, though not necessarily one of security. Indeed, when the A. B. C. fleet is introduced, it is in terms that make this abundantly clear,

One knows vaguely that there is such a thing as a Fleet somewhere on the Planet, and that, theoretically, it exists for the purposes of what used to be known as “war.”

What follows, as well you might imagine, is more sci-fi adventure in the vein of With the Night Mail. Curiously, Easy as A. B. C. is also deeply concerned with questions of privacy. If nothing else, it’s fascinating to read a work by a public figure like Kipling in a pre-internet age that considers issues of privacy so closely, particularly given that the issues around privacy are brought about by the breakneck pace of technological change (a theme Kipling examined from another angle in The Eye of Allah).

Truth be told, the biggest disadvantage to reading Kipling’s science fiction now is not that it shows its age, but that there is so much that echoes it. For many science fiction fans, zeppelin-themed steampunk already carries a low-level negative connotation. In a genre mired with airships, both With the Night Mail and Easy as A. B. C. stand out.

For all that, it’s seldom less than staggering. When the airship is sailing west at its top speed, it almost keeps pace with the dawn’s slow spread across the earth beneath. Kipling renders the scene beautifully, having described already the skill, artifice, and technology involved in getting and keeping the airships aloft.

Yes, that is our dream: to turn all earth into the Vale of Ajalon at our pleasure. So far, we can drag out the dawn to twice its normal length in these latitudes. But some day — even on the Equator — we shall hold the Sun level in his full stride.

To those of us reading without ready access to Kipling’s clear head for biblical references, the Vale of Ajalon here refers to a story in which, “... the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand you still on Gibeon; and you, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.” The text is littered with similar poetic descriptions of Kipling’s future.

Kipling posits a future beyond war, whose night sky is strobed by shafts of light, forming corridors down which the aeronauts drift to find their way home. By the time we are introduced to the men who pilot these airships, they are already lamenting the more dangerous days when those lamps failed to light above three hundred feet, when a pilot needed to be brave find their way home. Even in the then-distant future, there is a sense that a more daring and romantic age has just been left behind.

Indeed, this may be the most interesting thing about reading With the Night Mail, we are given an insight into just how little science fiction has changed since Kipling's first ventures into the genre. Sci-fi stories still overwhelmingly address issues of technoscientific progress and its effects not only on the world around it, but on the social orders of people living in those worlds. Even now, great science fiction is almost always more about people than it is about imagined futures or technologies.

With measurements in knots, feet, and fathoms, With the Night Mail and Easy as A. B. C. preserve a sense of old-world charm that’s hard not to get swept up in, but at the same time tell stories of fantastic adventure in the far future. This combination of the antique and the advanced produces strange and beautiful sentences like, 

If one intrudes on the Heavens when they are balancing their volt-accounts; if one disturbs the High Gods’ market-rates by hurling steel hulls at ninety knots across tremblingly adjusted electric tensions, one must not complain of any rudeness in the reception. 

It is this odd juxtaposition that makes so much of Kipling’s science fiction so fascinating to read. These are stories written about our near future in our more distant passed, based on technologies that have since failed to deliver on the promise of the science-fiction-future, drawing on methods and terminologies that now seem entirely outdated.

These are the futures of the never-was, informed by the terms of the once-long-ago.

For the sake of that romance and that sense of near-tragic poetry, we’ll leave you with Elsinore, which our narrator describes as “the oldest of our chanteys,”

“Mother Rugen’s tea-house on the Baltic—
Forty couple waltzing on the floor!
And you can watch my Ray,
For I must go away
And dance with Ella Sweyn at Elsinore!

Then, while they sweated home the covering-plates:

West from Sourabaya to the Baltic—
Ninety knot an hour to the Skaw!
Mother Rugen’s tea-house on the Baltic
And a dance with Ella Sweyn at Elsinore!”


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