B.G. Hilton – Writer

Fantasy, Reality and Research

Champagne Charlie and the Amazing Gladys and its upcoming sequel are fantasy novels. They are made up without regard to whether what was happening in the story was consistent with real life.

But, like all fantasy novels, there’s something real beneath the nonsense. In the case of Charlie and Gladys, being a Steampunk novel, that is industrial world of the Nineteenth Century. In particular, it’s based on Victorian London, with an overlay of science fictional craziness. And this is where the sequel gets weird:

Let’s start with the Great Exhibition. This was a massive event, showcasing new technology from around the world. This Exhibition showed off everything from telegraphs to Daguerreotypes, revolvers to leech-powered barometers (no, really). This was all housed in the Crystal Palace, an enormous – and I mean enormous – iron-and-glass structure built in Hyde Park. After the Exhibition, the Palace was sold off and rebuilt (in a very modified way) at Sydenham, where it remained in use until it burned down in the 1930s.

However, in my story the Palace remains intact at the Hyde Park location as late as the 1860s. It’s described as having been largely shut down, and partly turned into a proto-shopping centre. It’s a little down-at-heel, but about to get a boost from the addition of a subway line running beneath Hyde Park, with a station at the Palace.

Now, this subway line is a pneumatic subway line. Pneumatic or atmospheric railway was a little like the self-driving car of the 19th Century – an obvious dead end that people put a bunch of money into, regardless. The idea is that instead of an engine on each train, there would be pumping stations that would create pneumatic pressure in a tube. A piston in said tube would push/pull the train. A few demonstration lines were built here and there, but the last practical version was the South Devon Atmospheric Railway, widely considered the least successful project of the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. A failed attempt to build another such system underground in New York was imortalised by Canadian band Klaatu in their song Sub Rosa Subway.

Now, here’s where the research gets weird. Having decided, against all I know about history, that there is a working pneumatic railway under the Crystal Palace. On a whim, I Googled ‘Crystal Palace pneumatic’ and … Holy crap!

There was an actual Pneumatic Railway under the Crystal Palace!

In 1864, an experimental line was set up in Crystal Palace Park, running a single carriage from one entrance to another. I presume the location was chosen to get Palace attendees to buy tickets as a novelty. They whole thing ran for about two months, before closing down.

Obviously, my story isn’t exactly the same. A key trope of Steampunk is that the dead-ends of Victorian technology work, and work well. My Crystal Palace pneumatic is a success, rather than a failed experiment/novelty.

But in spite of those differences, my key takeaway was that the thing that I thought I made up was, in a very broad sense, real. I started with what I knew about reality, added Fantasy, and somehow ended back around at reality again.

And that’s pretty damn awesome, when it comes right down to it.

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