Sunday, November 29, 2015

Infernal Devices

Infernal Devices
by K. W. Jeter
Recommended Ages: 13+

Back in print after many years, this book was an early example of the now thriving Steampunk genre. Its author, a specialist in "dark science fiction," was not only among the handful of writers who invented this semi-satirical blend of alternate history and gadget-propelled paranoia, he was actually the one who coined the word "Steampunk." Now that everybody who's anybody spins fantasies of clockwork automata, Victorian costumes with brass-studded leather accents, aircraft with flapping wings and ground craft with walking legs, this forgotten gem is suddenly important again.

It begins when a hapless, straight-arrow type named George Dower finds himself out of his depth trying to run the clockwork gadgetry business left to him by his remote father. Lacking his father's genius for that sort of thing has already gotten George into a few scrapes, notably an incident involving clerical automata in a church that resulted in mayhem, blasphemy and a close call with utter ruin. But now a visit from a stranger he comes to call "the brown leather man" starts him down a path of madcap adventure involving a couple of scoundrels who talk like denizens of a later age, an army of anti-clockwork puritans, a lost civilization from beneath the waves, and a mad secret society that wants to bring about the end of the world.

Most of the hallmarks of the genre are in place, including daft theories about the aether, an attempt to bring a dying race back from extinction, debates about the benefits and drawbacks of technological progress, an absurd flying machine and a wind-up doppelgänger who has a screw or two loose. It abounds in retro-futurism, juxtaposing could-have-beens that never were with larger-than-life splashes of what once was. It allows us to explore a speculative future branching out of a beloved literary period, an alternate yesteryear that is both whimsical and horrifying. It sets a fetish for Anglo-archaism against a sneering caricature of present-day Americanism. And with loopy high-jinks, spiced with sexual tension and genuine suspense, it sneaks a subversive commentary on modern society under the reader's radar.

This review is based on an audiobook narrated by Michael Page, which I bought at a truck stop (EDIT: I did not, after all, borrow it from the local library). This new edition includes a new introduction by the author and a scholarly afterword that explores the book's place in the Steampunk canon, and the genre's place in our culture. It leaves me intrigued by what else K. W. Jeter has to offer, such as the recent sequel to this book titled Fiendish Schemes. And it touches chords of fond memory strung from other Steampunk works I have enjoyed. I may have to explore that world a bit more.

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