Published August 12, 2012
“Cuttlefish,” by David Freer, Pyr, 300 pages, $16.95.
Clara Calland hoped for a break in the dull school day. In “Cuttlefish,” a science-fiction novel by David Freer, Clara gets more than she wished. Her mother’s unexpected visit results in an abrupt departure from school and an adventure halfway around the world.
“Cuttlefish” is a steampunk tale for young adult readers. The year is 1976. Coal is still king, and the 20th century is Britain’s. The Haber-Bosch process was never invented, leading to Germany’s defeat in World War I. But Clara’s mother thinks she has a process to create artificial ammonia.
Everyone wants it, especially the British government. Clara’s mother fears they will use it for other than the lofty and noble purposes to which she feels it should be put.
With Imperial soldiers and Mensheviks in pursuit, the only escape from England for mother and daughter is aboard Cuttlefish — a smuggling submarine powered by a Stirling engine fueled with coal dust. Based in a London flooded during the Great Melt, the submarine escapes aided by teenage Tim Barnabas. One of London’s underpeople, he joins the adventure as the sub flees for the United States. When blocked by Imperial airships, they go to independent Westralia.
As alternative history, “Cuttlefish” has problems. Freer’s alternate history requires marginalization of petroleum and the United States. Coal was being superseded by petroleum before the historical break Freer introduces. By 1911, the United States’ economy was nearly twice the size of Great Britain’s and Germany’s combined, and as fully industrialized.
Had Britain successfully suppressed petroleum within its realm, it would have fallen increasingly behind the U.S. economically and industrially. If Britain ignored the Monroe Doctrine (as it does in “Cuttlefish”), a second world war would have resulted — between the U.S. and the British Empire. The special relationship between the two nations grew from American participation in WWI, something that does not occur in Freer’s world. A technologically superior U.S. unhobbled by a commitment to coal would probably have won.
Yet you cannot write a steampunk story if history had followed this more probable course. Coal-dust fueled Stirling-engined submarines and airships cannot compete with petroleum-fueled counterparts.
Nor does any of this reduce the quality of Freer’s storytelling. “Cuttlefish” is a ripping good adventure tale. Its two youthful protagonists are captivating. Steampunk fans, particularly will enjoy the “Cuttlefish.” It delivers as light entertainment.
Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.
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Article source: http://galvestondailynews.com/story/333698