lew shiner, elvis, and “steam engine time”

Es­ti­mated reading time is 7 minutes.

STEAM EN­GINE TIME is the name of a con­cept that many readers should be fa­miliar with. It’s also the title of a short story that most readers will not be fa­miliar with. This story was written by Lew Shiner, who might be known to some readers for novels like Glimpses and De­serted Cities Of The Heart.

The con­cept of “steam en­gine time” refers to the in­ven­tion of the first prac­tical, modern steam en­gine by James Watt in 1775. For the longest time, Watt was cred­ited in his­tory books as the sole in­ventor, a man who saw and did what others missed. Watt was justly cel­e­brated as an im­por­tant in­ventor and (un­wit­ting) con­trib­utor to the good and evil of the In­dus­trial Revolution.

But with time and the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of data, his­to­rians be­came aware that at the same time that Watt was working on his ma­chine, other sci­en­tists, en­gi­neers, and in­ven­tors in other coun­tries were working along the same lines. Watt just beat them all to the finish line!

Today the term steam en­gine time is used regularly—especially in the sci­ence fic­tion community—and gen­er­ally refers to a point in time where var­ious fac­tors (knowl­edge, tech­nology, cul­ture, even fi­nance) in­ter­sect in such a way as to allow a “mirac­u­lous” in­ven­tion or achieve­ment to occur that look all but in­evitable in hindsight.


JoeLansdale NewFrontier book 600

New Fron­tier – The Best of To­day’s Western Fic­tion was edited by Joe Lans­dale and pub­lished by Dou­bleday in 1989.

This time he liked what he saw

“Steam En­gine Time” was first pub­lished in New Fron­tier – The Best of To­day’s Western Fic­tion in 1989 and has be­come a cult fa­vorite of Elvis fans. That is if you’re a well-read Elvis fan. At 2,700 words, it will take up about ten min­utes of time for the av­erage reader. Un­less, of course, you stop oc­ca­sion­ally to ask your­self, “What the hell does he mean by that?” or “Is that about what I think it’s about?” 1

The story is set in Austin, Texas, during the last years of the 19th cen­tury. Ex­cept that things are just a little off—as though it’s an Austin in an al­ter­na­tive uni­verse. Like Clint East­wood’s char­acter in the spaghetti west­erns, the pro­tag­o­nist doesn’t have a name—he’s just the Kid. Here’s the opening:

“The Kid turned up the gaslight in his room. The pink linen wall­paper still looked a little dingy. Ever since J. L. Driskill had opened his new place in De­cember of ’86 the Av­enue Hotel had been going downhill.

There was a framed pic­ture on the wall and the Kid had been staring at it for an hour. It was an en­graving of a Pawnee In­dian. The In­di­an’s head was shaved ex­cept for a strip of hair down the middle. There were feathers in what hair he had, and it hung down over his forehead.

He com­pared it to what he saw in the mirror. He was pretty badly hung over from jimson weed and un­la­beled whiskey the night be­fore. His fine yellow hair went every which way and his eyes were mostly red. He got out his straight razor, stropped it a couple of times on his boot, and grabbed a hank of hair.

What the hell, he thought.

It was harder to do than he thought it would be, and he ended up with a lot of tiny cuts all over his head. When he was done he took the razor and used it to cut the bottom off his black leather duster coat. He hacked it off just below the waist. For a couple of sec­onds he won­dered why in hell he was doing it, won­dered if he’d lost his mind. Then he put it on and looked in the mirror again and this time he liked what he saw.

It was just right.

There’d been a sa­loon at the corner of Con­gress Av­enue and Pecan Street pretty much from the time Austin changed its name from Wa­terloo and be­came the cap­ital of Texas. These days it was called the Crystal Bar. There was an over­hang right the way round the building, with an ad­ver­tise­ment for Tom Moore’s 10 cent cigars painted on the bricks on the Pecan Street side. The fabric of the car­riages at the curb puffed out in the mild au­tumn breeze.

The mule cars were gone and the street cars were elec­tric now, thanks to the dam that opened in May of the year be­fore. They were calling Austin ‘the coming great man­u­fac­turing center of the South­west.’ It was the Kid’s first big city. The elec­tric and tele­graph wires strung all over down­town looked like the his­tory of the fu­ture, block-printed across the sky.

The Kid was a half-hour late for a two-o’clock ap­point­ment with the Crys­tal’s man­ager. The man­ager’s name was Matthews, and he wore a bow tie and a starched collar and a tai­lor­made suit. ‘Do you know Grand-Father’s Clock is Too Tall for the Shelf?’ Matthews asked the Kid.

The Kid had kept his hat on. ‘Why sure I do.’ He took his steel-string Martin guitar out of the case and played it quiet with his fin­gers. ‘It was bought on the morn of the day he was born/And was al­ways his trea­sure and pride/But it stopped—short—never to go again/When the old man died.’

I’m going to God-damned puke, the Kid thought.

‘Not much of a voice,’ Matthews said.

‘All I want is to pass the hat,’ the Kid said.”

Okay, at this point you’re sup­posed to be won­dering how in tar­na­tion a story that opens like that has any­thing to do with Elvis Presley and why is this ar­ticle ap­pearing in a blog all about Elvis. Let’s put it this way: I am an Elvis fan and I asked Lew Shiner if this story was about Elvis and—without re­course to a single ex­cla­ma­tion mark—he as­sured me it was!

The full story is 2,700 words long while the sec­tion above is only 560 words. To read Mys­tery Train in its en­tirety, click here.

Then come on back here. And now it’s spoiler alert time: read on here without first reading on over there and this read will spoil that read when you even­tu­ally do read what I rec­om­mended you read. 2


WildWestShow MojoPress 500

Shiner adapted his story for the Mojo Press an­thology of western-based sto­ries Wild West Show (1996, 96 pages). The art for Steam En­gine Time was done by Doug Potter.

Too far ahead of his time

If you’ve read the story, you know that the Kid meets an older man who tries to teach him some­thing about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of suc­cess and hap­pi­ness, and about life and timing:

“Well, they had all the pieces of that steam en­gine lyin’ around for hun­dreds of years. Wasn’t no­body knew what to do with ‘em. Then one day five, six people up and in­vent a steam en­gine, all at the same time. Ain’t no ex­pla­na­tion for it. It was just steam en­gine time.”

Okay, Shiner’s story is a clever rewriting of an Elvis-like pro­tag­o­nist, al­though you might not pick that upon first reading. The Kid’s styles, both mu­sical and sar­to­rial, are well ahead of their time, as was Elvis’s in the ’50s. As Shiner states:

“It’s about Elvis, of course, though I don’t know how many people got that. What if Elvis had been born fifty years too early? Growing up around black share­crop­pers, loving black music, but simply too far ahead of his time to have a chance?

The racism in US music around the turn of the 20th cen­tury was ap­palling; Stephen Foster, who was uni­ver­sally revered when I was growing up, was re­spon­sible for a slew of vile, con­de­scending mu­sical car­i­ca­tures.” 3

So I can not only rec­om­mend “Steam En­gine Time” to Elvis fans but to rock & roll fans in gen­eral but also to readers of science-fiction and spec­u­la­tive fiction.

lew shiner, elvis, and “steam en­gine time” Share on X

DancesWithWolves PawneeIndians 4 1500

FEA­TURED IMAGE: I could have gone looking for some­thing re­sem­bling a 19th-century en­graving of a Pawnee, but then I would have missed an op­por­tu­nity to plug one of my fav­er­avest movies, Dances With Wolves. Cherokee actor Wes Studi (above left) por­trayed a Pawnee war­rior who nei­ther ex­pected quarter from the white man nor was in a hurry to give it to the white man.

The un­ex­pected and un­prece­dented suc­cess of the movie along with Graham Greene’s being nom­i­nated for the Academy Award for Best Sup­porting Actor gave Na­tive Amer­ican ac­tors a huge boost! Ac­cording to the Screen Ac­tors Guild, the number of Na­tive Amer­i­cans in lead and sup­porting roles were less than a 100 in 1985, but grew to more than 400 a year fol­lowing the movie!





1   The an­swer to the first ques­tion varies but the an­swer to the second one is easy: Yes, it is.

2   Lew Shiner came to promi­nence in the sci­ence fic­tion field, when his novel Fron­tera (1984) be­came a prog­en­itor of the cy­ber­punk move­ment. Since then, he has written in many genres, in­cluding western and main­stream fic­tion. But he came to my at­ten­tion when I read two novels that defy easy cat­e­go­riza­tion: De­serted Cities Of The Heart (1988) and Glimpses (1993), both of which re­main among my fav­er­avest novels ever!

3   From cor­re­spon­dence with Lew Shiner.



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