Today's Guest Post is by Jeff Provine, who will be talking about his new book, Hellfire and the setting for it and the POD's invovled. So enjoy!
Hellfire is my latest alternate history ebook, releasing June 8 from Tirgearr Publishing. Its setting is Gloriana, the state founded by Aaron Burr after he colonized west of the Mississippi with the purchase of the Bastrop Tract in 1806. In our own timeline, Burr was arrested for treason for conspiring to spark a war with Spain, and the colony fell apart. In Hellfire, Burr successfully planted his colony, which grew into an economic powerhouse by 1856 through importing the miraculous Newton’s Catalyst.
One of the issues that plagues steampunk, and science fiction overall, is generating energy. Mechs and hovercars create gripping images in our mind’s eye, but when we actually look at the energy required to move such a thing, we run into the problem of having to carry fuel to make it work. This is especially problematic in steampunk with steam engines getting 5-8% fuel efficiency, a far cry from even the internal combustion engine’s 25-28% efficiency.
For Hellfire, I wanted to explore a world with much more efficient steam engines, extra heat supplied by a “thermal catalyst” discovered by Isaac Newton. Newton is certainly famous today for his work with calculus and physics, but those are just the tip of the iceberg of his life’s work. It’s said that Newton wrote more than 1.3 million words on theology, in addition to serving as Warden of the Royal Mint and teaching at Cambridge. For the background point of departure in Hellfire, I dove into his work in chemistry, work which John Maynard Keyes called Newton “last of the magicians.” According to legend, much of Newton’s writing on chemistry was accidentally burned, but for Hellfire he reveals a yellow-colored crystal that causes fire to burn hotter than it should with the fuel present.
Such a discovery might be big little more than a parlor trick circa 1700. The immediate application for it would be saving on fuel, heating drafty stone houses with less wood thanks to a sprinkling of the catalyst. After the fire goes out, penny-pinchers could sift through the ashes, pull the catalyst free, and start the process over again.
As the industrial revolution began to rev up in the latter eighteenth century, things certainly become more interesting. Metallurgy skyrockets in important, and hotter, more efficient fires would revolutionize smelting just as replacing charcoal with coke did. Even more important, the catalyst would be a boon to the invention of the modern steam engine in 1781 by James Watt. Real mechanical work becomes possible with much less fuel fed into the endless maw of the fire. With less fuel necessary to be on hand, transport becomes much more feasible, causing locomotives and steamships to begin their explosive growth even earlier in the timeline.
The airship is another aspect of travel that would be impacted by Newton’s Catalyst and is featured in Hellfire. Principles of buoyancy go all the way back to Archimedes, and Jesuits like Francesco Lana De Terzi proposed lift via copper vacuum spheres and Bartolomeu de Gusmão using a candle to drive a paper balloon both within Newton’s lifetime. With a more efficient fire, lighter-than-air craft could easily heat up enough ambient air to lift not just a basket but a whole vessel. With a hot enough burn, one could even imagine a turbine lifting itself and a passenger strictly on the power of the engine.
Of course, with every great discovery, there are likely to be some drawbacks. For Newton’s Catalyst, there is certainly the issue of the Law of Conservation of Energy. Newton himself discussed it as part of momentum in his laws written in the Principia (1687). He certainly would have been suspicious about his own discovery of the catalyst: the extra heat has to come from somewhere. With alchemy under legal suspicion (turning lead to gold would devastate the economy, after all), the catalyst would be manufactured under a royal charter and its industrial secrets guarded with cult-like tightness.
In addition to its physical mystery, the catalyst makes fires notoriously stinky, reeking of rot and sulfur. Some who come close to it say that they can hear voices whispering from the roar of the flames, saying awful things and truths no one dares mention. Those who spend a good deal of time near fires using catalyst go mad, often violently. Over the course of generations, this “Stoker’s Madness” is accepted as a part of life, a trade for having trains, factories, and airships. New mental institutions are put up near industrial centers like the North of England, Pennsylvania, and Gloriana. Superstitious folk say that the catalyst is a gateway to hell, leaching its fire and letting slip words of the damned.
With these technological marvels and the sinister side of Newton’s Catalyst, there would certainly be impacts on the timeline. In Hellfire, the changes are largely magnifiers of the principle events, keeping our timeline and theirs nearly the same. The American Revolution happens on schedule, perhaps with the tea party in Boston driven on by fervent voices from the Pit. The Mexican-American War occurs in 1846, but in horrifically even bloodier, with steam-driven bullwagons (today’s tanks, but without artillery) pounding across the border and leveling whole villages while airships rain down kerosene firebombs. The most visible change would be Gloriana and is sprawling capital Lake Providence, an industrial center on the western banks of the Mississippi.
Even with the gushing hot wind from the furnace, Nate shivered. He lifted his boot from the pedal and let the doors swing shut again.
“Everything all right?” Jones called.
Nate shook his head slowly. “No. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not right. There’s something in the fire.”
“Can you dump it with the ashpan?”
Nate kept shaking his head. “I don’t think so.”
A jarring bang rang from the firebox doors. Nate jumped back and held up his shovel like a weapon.
The doors rattled again, and then the one on the right shifted open just a crack. A fresh sound of wailing poured into the cab. Something not quite black and not quite gray slithered out like a headless snake.
“What is that?” Jones screamed.
Nate swung at it with the shovel, whacking it with the dull side. A roar like the wind out of a cave came from the firebox.
Jones screamed louder, “What was that?”
The tendril grew longer and pushed back the firebox door. Steadily, fighting the weight of the heavy door, the thing climbed out of the firebox. The tendril was like a tail reaching from a shoulder. Its five other legs were segmented like a spider’s, but its body was fat and grotesque like nothing Nate had ever seen. It had eyes, shining, black eyes that blinked all over its bulbous body.
It cleared the door and fell to the metal plate floor of the cab. Sounds came off it: gurgling, whining, and guttural spitting. Nate stood frozen, watching the horror as it squirmed.
Jones jumped forward and stomped it with his boot.
The thing squealed and wrapped its legs around Jones’s boot, somehow bending them backward by twisting its own knees out of socket. Jones gave a horrified shriek. He stomped again and again, but the thing didn’t seem to get hurt.
Nate shot forward with his shovel. “Hold still!”
Jones froze with his leg in midair. The thing held tight around his boot.
Nate whacked it with his shovel again. It gave another unholy rumbling scream. Several of its legs came loose and wagged in the air.
Nate lifted his shovel and stabbed downward with the blade, running it just underneath Jones’s sole. It caught the thing on its belly or back, Nate didn’t know if he could call it either of those, and the force was enough to shove it off.
The thing fell to the floor again and writhed.
“Throw it back in!” Jones shouted. He had pushed himself against the side of the cab as far as he could.
Nate whacked it again with his shovel and then scooped it up. Its legs wriggled, but they didn’t seem able to grab hold of the blade. He stomped on the pedal to open the firebox.
The heat and wailing of the flames leaped out at him. Nate fought past and shoved the thing back inside. He stomped the release and sealed the doors again with a clang.