With the Night Mail (review)

With the Night Mail (review)

ood Steampunk is hard to find.

The thing is, when authors write Steampunk today, it still carries an aftertaste of digital computers, moon walks and plastics. It just isn’t good Steampunk. But take a top-shelf author (in this case, Rudyard Kipling) and let him imagine (in his age of doughy dirigibles and puttering heavier-than-air wobblers) the world of 2000AD and see what happens.

I mean, wow.

So our unnamed narrator is hopping a ride on the Night Mail (Postal Packet 162) from London to Quebec. It’s a very automated process, with the bags loaded into the removable gondola (at least I think that’s what was happening – Kipling relies on the trick of making up a lot of futuristic tosh as if it means anything) and the ship idling to go. And soon we’re aboard, rising into the night sky and watching as other grand ships come and go from London airspace and glimmering light beacons illuminate our way.

It’s grandiose, this vision of a world that actually became jumbo jets and radio guidance. Here men still stand on their open platform with their goggles tucked over their eyes, keeping a keen eye out for any danger to shipping. It’s a plausible world, a realistic one, and it’s very easy to settle into the ride and let this chrome-levered reality sweep you away.

Especially clever was the story inside the story, that of the Aerial Board of Control (the ABC), and their notices and announcements that follow the text. In this, it anchors what we have read, settling it firmly in its realism. I even noticed that the rescue the heroes were engaged in is referenced halfway down the listing of lost ships, without preamble or highlighting, just a footnote in the background color.

I’ll also note something about Kipling’s world I found interesting: the idea of a government/corporate controlling agency, the aforementioned ABC, who monitors all air travel and keeps the vast global transport net running. Twice in the story, Kipling makes references to the dismissal of “democracy” (once, humorously, in a writer (in the fake letter’s section) huffs about someone overflying an ABC official’s boat without asking permission. “For humanity’s sake,” the writer chides, “don’t try to be ‘democratic’ “). From my understanding of the time, the idea of socialism was new and bright; certainly H.G. Wells was bitten and seemingly Kipling as well. It seemed like the natural ‘next step’, that all would be solved by government expansion. Corporations were simply not “big enough” for the world-changing projects that would bring about utopia. But we know better, of course. Dollars are votes, corporations are citizens, and democracy (even those inclusive of slavery) is the end-all system.

Of course, people who know my pinko beliefs can sense the mockery here.

Regardless, a good read. I’ll note that the Project Gutenberg version left a little to be desired in its editing and presentation. Only afterwards did I find a truer form, here in Forgotten Futures (also contained is the followup story, As easy as A.B.C). Have a look – it’s worth a thumb-through if only to browse.