Jules Verne and the Steampunk RV
By Ron Fritze
Most people have read something by Jules Verne whether it be Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea or Around the World in Eighty Days. A lot of his novels have been made into movies, some more than once. Verne was an early contributor to the genre of science fiction when it was first blooming. He wrote during the late nineteenth century and shared its faith that Western Civilization had entered into a permanent age of progress. His fiction predicted various technological innovations such as the submarine (Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and Mysterious Island), the helicopter (Robur the Conqueror alt. title The Clipper of the Clouds), or a combination, submarine/airplane/automobile (The Master of the World). Little remarked upon is that Verne also envisioned the recreational vehicle.
Verne’s RV appeared in his novel The Steam House (1880). It is actually a two part novel with part one titled The Demon of Cawnpore and part two titled Tigers and Traitors. If you have never heard of these novels, that is not surprising. They are not commonly reprinted like some of Verne’s more famous titles. The only way that I know about them is from my childhood and the reading of Classics Illustrated comics which dates me to the geezer days of Leave it to Beaver (the first time around as opposed to the Nickelodean reprise of the series). Now I think Classics Illustrated were great for stimulating an interest in reading the actual classic books, at least for me, if not for Kelly Bundy. They did a version of Tigers and Traitors that I really enjoyed as a kid but I couldn’t find the actual book. Then Ace books brought out reprints of a bunch of rare Jules Verne novels but I was in college and never got around to buying them. Ever since I have been on the lookout and it finally paid off. On my last visit to Fort Wayne, I made my usual obligatory visit to Hyde Brother’s Books and lo and behold, Sam Hyde had the Ace edition of both The Demon of Cawnpore and Tigers and Traitors. So I snapped them up and read them.
The plot of the two novels goes like this. An English railway engineer in India has constructed a steam engine in the form of a gigantic elephant along with two elegant house travels using Indian architectural motifs. Originally, this “steam house” was paid for by an Indian rajah with more money than sense. The rajah dies and the engineer Banks gets to buy back his steam house on the cheap from the disinterested heir. The year is 1869 and Banks and his friends decide to go on road trip around the Indian sub-continent. One of the friends is a Colonel Munro. A veteran of the Great India Mutiny and he was widowed when his wife died in the terrible massacre at Cawnpore orchestrated by the treacherous Indian prince Nana Sahib. The two men seek revenge on each other. It’s your guess who survives.
Meanwhile the Steam House carried Banks and company from Calcutta to the Himalayas and on down to Bombay. Sadly the steam house is destroyed in phases by jealous elephants, Hindu insurrectionists, and finally the British blow it up taking Nana Sahib and his henchmen with it. As I read the account of the Steam House, I said to myself–this is just a steam punk RV with living room, bedrooms, kitchen, and bathrooms. So Jules Verne even anticipated that unique way to travel in an era without interstates.