Book Secrets

Baba Ali Research (Book Secrets): Which 1001 Nights?

Notes from my time writing “Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn” and fun tidbits.

So, I’m in the middle of writing a steampunk version of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. That sounds simple enough, yes?  Read the original, consider what points to keep and then build it into a steampunk frame.  The question becomes which Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves?  Over the years, there have been several versions of Kitab Alf Layla wa Layla (Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night), seven of them in English, and they all vary significantly.  And then, several of the English translations came from earlier French translations.  And of course, there is also the question of which “Arabian Nights” to translate from.  There are in fact, two “original” written versions:

  1. On the one hand, there’s the 14th-century Syrian Ms. Galland, which the Frenchman Antoine Galland used for his pioneering multi-volumed translation of 1704-1717. This was the form in which the collection first reached Europe, and the choices Galland made in making his rather free adaptation of the materials available to him have had a huge influence ever since. It was he, for example, who chose to incorporate Sinbad the Sailor (originally from a quite different text) into the Thousand and One Nights. It was he who, forced to supply the insatiable demand of his public for more volumes of stories (rather like an eighteenth-century J. K. Rowling), collected “Ali Baba,” “Aladdin” and various other stories from the oral recitations of a visiting Lebanese Christian (the Arabic texts of the stories discovered later turned out to have been adapted from Galland’s French, rather than the other way round).

  2. On the other hand, there’s Z.E.R. [Zotenberg’s Egyptian Recension – named for the French scholar who first identified this separate manuscript tradition in the late 1880s]. This forms the basis of most of the “complete” versions of the Nights – i.e. containing 1001 actual nights of storytelling. It was once thought to be the original from which Galland’s incomplete version was extracted, but unfortunately it turns out that the traffic was actually the other way. ZER arose in Egypt largely as a result of the demands of Westerners, brought up on Galland’s elegant fairy-tale version of the Arabic tales, for a fuller and more comprehensively “Oriental” version of the whole collection. The 1835 Bulaq edition (printed in Cairo), and the 1839-42 Macnaghten edition (printed in Calcutta by the British East India Company) are the two essential versions of this text. Opinions differ greatly on which of the two is preferable – Macnaghten is fuller, but also contains a lot more editorial interference (though probably not by William Hay Macnaghten himself, who was killed in the British retreat from Kabul in 1841).

Lots more great information like the above is available from Dr. Jack Ross’ page: He highlights the many definitive (if any one can be considered definitive) publications of 1001 Nights that are available as well as provides commentary on the translations and translators.  I particularly loved the quote: “Galland for the nursery; Lane for the library; Payne for the study; and Burton for the gutter.”

image description 1001Lane1001PayneCampbell





Just digging through my own collection, I found a Payne, two Burtons, and a Dawood (the Penguin 2-volume version). The Lyon’s edition is going on my Amazon Wishlist.

Baba Ali Research (Book Secrets): Himitsu-Bako

Notes from my time writing “Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn” and fun tidbits.

Puzzles, puzzles, and more puzzles.

Baba Ali receives a puzzle box from a mysterious mechanical falcon. I’ve read about puzzle boxes and secret boxes and this sounded like something great to include. However, the only one I’ve seen was “Lemarchand’s Box” from the Hellraiser movies. Yeah, not going to use that as a reference (though I will say it very clearly used the puzzle box and it’s solution to evoke some sort of magic).Himitsu-Bako 6 Sun

So I’m now exploring Japanese puzzle boxes, or Himitsu-Bako. Himitsu-Bako are designed keep important documents or secrets safe inside, and no one can open them unless they know the correct moves, in the correct order. There are a lot of different kinds I’m seeing online and they have a variety of difficulties ranging from 4 to 66 moves in the more traditional forms to ones that take over a hundred moves. Yikes!


The first Japanese Secret Puzzle Boxes were designed over 100 years ago in the late Edo period by Jinbei Ishikawa (1790-1850). Ishikawa was living at Hatajuku in the Kakone-cho in the Hakone-Odawara region of Japan. The Hakone Mountains are noted for their richness and great variety of trees. This abundance of high quality wood in the region and the expertise of three generations of master craftsmen have achieved and art form that is revered for it’s detail and ingenuity.

Those early “secret boxes” were small and flat and didn’t look quite the way later ones did. It was after 1870, that we see the development of a puzzle box that looks more like a box, and with the integration of Yosegi-Zaiku (the wood-based designs and patterns), create the first Himitsu-Bako as we know it today.

Although the box Ali receives is more traditional in shape (and slightly larger), this video shows someone actually opening a box and it really gives you a picture of how difficult it can be. And of course, the one in our book has magical responses to each movement.

The fact that Ali’s family had access to Himitsu-Bako from the Hakone region of Japan in the 1800s says much about how well-travelled his father and grandfather were and how truly impressive their trading. Another interesting point is how our use of Himitsu-Bako gives some hints as to what the world is like.

We have an England caught in an Industrial Revolution (a steam one), where folklore and magic is dismissed in the name of science. We built a Middle-East where magic is a preferred and powerful tool, though mechanical things aren’t unheard of. I would argue that has happened in part because the environmental conditions aren’t exactly friendly to mechanical devices. That is true even to this day. And through the introduction of Baba Ali’s Himitsu-Bako from the Far East and its rare combination of magic and mechanics, that tells us a little bit about what that part of the world’s culture will look like.

Wow, they are so beautiful, I can’t help but want one.  Anyone looking for a Christmas present for me

Baba Ali Research (Book Secrets): Aerostats, airships, and dirigibles

Notes from my time writing “Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn” and fun tidbits.

I love language. I love words. I love what they mean and where they come from and how they are used. And because of that, I want to be very specific about the words I use in Baba Ali.

One of the places where the use of particular words is especially important is with regard to the steampunk elements of the story. It is amazing to think about how words shape our world, so if we’re creating a “new” world, then there should be a vocabulary to match.

Yes, “airship” is the word that many people are familiar with in steampunk, or “zeppelins” for a specif type of conveyance. Instead, I picked “aerostat.” That may sound pretentious but there is actually some interesting etymology that played a role in that choice. To let you see why I chose “aerostat,” the definitions below are from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Definition of AEROSTAT: a lighter-than-air aircraft (as a balloon or blimp)
Origin of AEROSTAT: French aérostat, from aér- + -stat
First Known Use: 1784

Definition of AIRSHIP: a very large aircraft that does not have wings but that has a body filled with gas so that it floats and that is driven through the air by engines.
First Known Use: 1826

Definition of DIRIGIBLE: airship (See airship)
Origin of DIRIGIBLE: dirigible (shortened from the French “dirigible balloons”)
First Known Use: 1885

Definition of ZEPPELIN: a large aircraft without wings that floats because it is filled with gas and that has a rigid frame inside its body to help it keep its shape
Origin of ZEPPELIN: Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin
First Known Use: 1900

Granted, our “Thaddeus Lowe” is modeled off the Graf Zeppelin of the 1930s rather than earlier model balloons, but I still think “aerostat” is the winner!

Graf Zeppelin over Jerusalem

Graff Zeppelin over Jerusalem (1931)

Baba Ali Research (Book Secrets): Why I Love the Graf Zeppelin

Modified Stereoscope - "The Graf Zeppelin's Rendezvous with the Eternal Desert and the More than 4,000 Year-old Pyramids of Gizeh, Egypt (Library of Congress Image)

Modified Stereoscope – “The Graf Zeppelin’s Rendezvous with the Eternal Desert and the More than 4,000 Year-old Pyramids of Gizeh, Egypt (Library of Congress Image)

Notes from my time writing “Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn” and fun tidbits.

Of course this book is going to have amazing airships in it. And, of course, I have to do my homework on what I want our air conveyance to look like. The Hindenburg was the largest, the British R1o1 was the most luxurious, but the one that I fell in love with, that the whole world at the time fell in love with, was the Graf Zeppelin.

And I fully admit, I owe a lot of thanks to I cannot say enough about this great resource that introduces airships in all their beauty and complexity in a way that lets you really understand the impact they had on the world. The site was the first place I read about the Graf Zeppelin and fell in love with her. To quote

The most successful zeppelin ever built, LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin flew more than a million miles on 590 flights, carrying over 34,000 passengers without a single injury.

During its nine year career, Graf Zeppelin made the first commercial passenger flight across the Atlantic, the first commercial passenger flight around the world, flew a scientific mission over the North Pole, made the first regularly scheduled transatlantic passenger crossings by air, and aroused intense public enthusiasm around the globe.

Graf Zeppelin Sleeping Quarters - Image from

Graf Zeppelin Sleeping Quarters – Image from

That’s where I began my reading about this airship and then when I went looking, I discovered so much more.  Obviously, even today, there is significant interest in this specific zeppelin.  There are so many photos of her trips.  Many iconic airship photos that I have seen over the years from folks that love steampunk and airship history etc, I discovered were from journeys of the Graf - over the North Pole, with the pyramids in Egypt, by the mountain ranges in Japan, celebrated in New York City. The Graf Zeppelin was retired in 1937 and set up as a museum. Sadly, with the advent of World War II, on March 4, 1940, Hermann Goring, Germany’s Air Minister ordered her melted down for parts to feed the German military machine.

In addition to images of her exterior, there were shots (and video) of her interior; a goldmine of information.  A friend accused me of having a bit of a crush on the “Graf Zeppelin” and I can’t say that he’s wrong.

Graf Zeppelin Dining and Lounge (where our protagonist has a deadly encounter)

Graf Zeppelin Dining and Lounge (where our protagonist has a deadly encounter)

Looking at the images and history and descriptions from news clips, articles, and commentary from her passengers I can say that I built from her and in Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, the aerostat “Thaddeus Lowe” is more Graf Zeppelin than anything else.

You can find out more about the Graf Zeppelin’s history in the video below. The second video shows the excitement and full ticker-tape parade that New York City had for a zeppelin!  And as I said earlier, check out!

The Graf Zeppelin on her return to New York after her 1929 around the world tour.