Fire and Steam by Christian Wolmar

August 24, 2009

This has nothing to do with either Robots or Accordions, but it was one of the books I took on holiday with me, and I thought it worth a mention here.

Now, there is nothing quite like the sight of an SF author lying on the beach reading a history of Britain’s railways to get the pulse racing, but let’s stick to the matter in hand…

Fire and Steam traces the history of the railways from the Liverpool to Manchester railway to the present day. (Wolmar doesn’t count the Stockton to Darlington line as a proper railway.  One reason for this is that the line was intended to be leased to any operator who cared to run a vehicle across it, in the manner of a turnpike.  As someone who grew up within the vicinity of the S&D route  I felt a little aggrieved by this, but I follow Wolmar’s reasoning).  The book is a polemic in the best sense, championing the railways and questioning the orthodoxy that they were badly run, particularly in the days of British Rail.  It’s a fascinating history, peppered with interesting facts (for example, the plan to surround London with  a circle of railway lines around which armed trains would run to defend the Capital.  If I’d known that at the time of writing, I’d have included a similar scheme in Twisted Metal for defending Artemis City)

I’d recommend the book to anyone with even a passing interest in railways, but that’s too obvious.  There seems to be a real interest for this sort of thing within the SF genre and beyond.  Think of the popularityof Steam Punk, for example.   There is something comforting about technology that we can all understand, something very satisfying at looking at a machine and knowing how it works from start to finish.  This book treats the entire railway network as just such a machine, and you might want to give it a look even if you think you don’t like trains…