Baba Ali Research (Book Secrets): Coal vs. Oil in a #Steampunk World

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

Middle East Steampunk does not run on coal.

Coal-powered steampunk is something that I think (opinion here) would exist in Western countries where coal is more prevalent.  Granted, Persia at the time of our book would (and does) have massive coal reserves, but that isn’t the way the society and culture developed.  Not in “real life” and not in our book.  Thus, the camelids in Baba Ali do not run on coal, but oil.

Parts of the region where our novel takes place have always had easy access to crude oil/petroleum and the distillation of oil into other hydrocarbon compounds has been around since well before 9th century. In fact, the first streets of Baghdad were paved with tar.  Al-Rhazi, who first wrote about it, was something of an ancient polymath – physician, chemist, scholar, philosopher – and he wrote about this distillation process in his Kitab al-Asrar (Book of Secrets). Historical Alembics

This is done using an alembic.  If you look at the image at the right and think it looks like a distillation pot, you’d be right. Alembics are used today in distillation of some rather fancy cognacs and other perhaps less-legal alcohols *cough* moonshine *cough*.  Even the word Al-anbiq translates to “still,” as in “to distill.”

So what was Al-Rhazi making and what do our camelids run on?  Although it could be any number of distillated items, kerosene or a variant thereof would be most likely. In the book we use the generic term “oil” but I had to make sure that transportation and vehicles could operate using kerosene.  🙂 What followed was a merry chase on the Internet where I discovered:

  1. Early tractors used kerosene, as did the first Ford Model T and Model A,
  2. During World War II some cars were modified to run on kerosene (they couldn’t import the much more expensive gasoline),
  3. Several makes of motorboat use kerosene, and
  4. Jet engines use it as a fuel.

Kersene = rocket fuel?





Baba Ali Research (Book Secrets) – Morgiana

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

Most people remember the story of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves by the key elements:  Ali Baba, the 4o thieves, a cave of treasure, and sometimes a greedy brother, and the fact the thieves were killed by being boiled in jars of oil.  When reading the older variants, you realize that Ali Baba isn’t really the hero, or not the only hero.

Ali Baba’s brother Kassim’s slave girl is the one who recognizes the danger of the thieves and protects the household through her cleverness. She even discovers and dispatches the majority of the thieves by pouring boiling oil into the jars where they hid.  In fact, I had once heard the story referred to as “Clever Morgiana.”  With that in mind, it was easy to build upon the role of Morgiana and give her the place she deserves in our “Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn.”

Initially, my co-author wanted Ali to name our character Morgiana as a reference to a Western deity. Absolutely not. Morgiana is a character, a woman, and a hero within this Middle Eastern tale.  She had already been erased from the tale as far as most Westerners were concerned, to take away her name as well seemed a travesty. I just hope that in our variant readers will truly see her as the powerful woman we are trying to make her.

On a positive note, after a little poking about on the internet, I discovered that perhaps not everyone has forgotten her. Fans of the Magi - Labyrinth of Magic series by Shinobu Ohtaka (a 1001 Nights-themed manga, and now anime) will recognize the name Morgiana.

Guess what is next on my anime-watching list?!  🙂

Baba Ali Research (Book Secrets): Desert Glass

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

Tutankhamun Pectoral with Libyan Desert Glass

Tutankhamun’s pectoral with large scarab from Libyan Desert Glass

All right.  I’ll admit it.  This bit of research was so awesome I had to include desert glass in the book even though I know that geographically this phenomenon does not occur in the Arabian desert where my novel takes place. Also of note was that this form of desert glass wasn’t even discovered until 1932.  Of course, the nice thing about Steampunk is that this is re-written history, so at the very least, from a time perspective, I think I’m off the hook.

What I am talking about is generally known as Libyan Desert Glass (LDG).  It is something of a geological mystery.  In 1932, a desert survey expedition travelling in the corridors between the dunes (saifs) in the Sand Sea on the frontier between Egypt and Libya discovered, scattered about on sand, transparent to translucent pieces of a pale yellow-green glass.  It was dated at over 28.5 million years old.

So what is so strange about LDG that it excites so much intellectual curiosity? LDG is an amorphous glass of silicon dioxide, more commonly found in its crystalline form as quartz. Small pieces of silica glass are often found associated with lava flows which cool suddenly as they pour into the sea. The silicon in the lava freezes, forming an amorphous mass that resembles broken glass. These materials are about 75% silica, the rest being made up of crystals of quartz and oxides of aluminium and iron. Desert glass, by contrast, is 98% pure silica, the purest natural glass in the world.


How LDG was formed in the first place is a mystery. Why did it form here and nowhere else? The composition and structure of the glass is consistent with the scenario that is was formed from melted dune sand, and then cooled over a period greater than 24 hours in an earth atmosphere.

Pretty awesome mystery, yes?


Libyan Desert Glass

Desert Glass, An Enigma by John W. Olsen and James R. Underwood


Baba Ali Research (Book Secrets): Jerusalem in the 1800s

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

Ali is on an aerostat and headed to Jerusalem.  But what does the Holy City look like in the 1800s?


Jerusalem in 1800s Oil Painting


And, as our reluctant hero will be travelling through the city, this 1883 map should come in handy for knowing the different quadrants of the city, the various gates, and the general layout. It’s a start.  🙂