Steampunk, as we all know, is a cultural juggernaut, crushing all in its path and showing no signs of decelerating. Steampunk architecture, steampunk clothing, steampunk music, steampunk artifacts, steampunk artwork, steampunk movies and television—the steampunk template is like Phil Dick’s spraycan of Ubik: apply it to anything for a radical transfiguration and freshness, to stave off twenty-first-century existential bit rot.
Of course, the medium where it all began—literature, stories, books—is now the least important aspect of the juggernaut. Unlike monthly pamphlet comics, which at least remain as the “R&D lab” for films, steampunk prose, mostly lost in the marketplace noise, doesn’t even function as a source and conduit of new concepts. The fiction is hermetically sealed off from the rest of the scene. What once was the body of the dog is now being wagged by the hypertrophied tail.
But that doesn’t stop those odd, old-fashioned people who like writing and reading it from having their own small, quiet corner of fun. And now that corner is considerably brightened by the return of the man who coined the neologism, K. W. Jeter, and who codified much of the essential form of steampunk. Jeter arrives with a reputedly standalone but undeniably improved-by-foreknowledge sequel to his landmark work from 1987, Infernal Devices.
Infernal Devices concerns George Dower, heir to all the crazy schemes and remarkable gadgets of his deceased father’s mad genius. The plot finds the hapless Dower meeting a crazed British Lord intent on destroying the planet; a remnant selkie wishing to restore his race; selkie-human hybrid whores; a roguish man and woman whose minds had been altered by peering into the future; his own clockwork double, who shares Dower’s very brainwaves; and a host of other incredible actors involved in numerous conspiracies. The whole bustling plot machinery was narrated in pitch-perfect, archaic-yet-natural language by Dower, whose naïve, somewhat Aspergerish nature recalled the hero of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, a generally unacknowledged ancestor of modern steampunk.
All the apparatus and attitudes and touchstones of the subgenre were crystallized in brilliant form, laying the foundation for much of what was to follow. Looking at my copy of the first paperback edition, I am struck by the tagline of “a mad Victorian fantasy” used instead of the nascent term “steampunk” and by the dedication to Tim Powers and James Blaylock. The three men pretty much constituted the entire subgenre back then! The Difference Engine would not appear until three years later, and my own “Victoria” a year after that.
The interesting question now, concerning Fiendish Schemes, released some twenty-five years of steampunkishness onward, is whether Jeter can offer advances on the form, or merely reprise his past achievements, which by itself would not be an inconsiderable or ignoble thing.
I’m happy to report a triumph. This is state-of-the-art “mad Victorian fantasy.”
We open the book some years after the events of the first. Tainted by infamy, Dower has elected to live quietly and inconspicuously in the country on money secured by selling off his father’s gadgets. But he’s recently gambled away his patrimony in a very peculiar futures market, and is at the point of suicide. The book’s opening scene is a bravura one, Dower desperately attending the inauguration of a walking lighthouse. Why, the reader instantly wonders, should a lighthouse be mobile? Jeter tantalizes for a while before explaining: the Earth’s oceans have become sentient, and nowadays coastline conditions shift and alter unpredictably, demanding swift response from the fleet of walking beacons.
With this bold move, Jeter firmly inserts his novel into the sub-subgenre of steampunk which posits a fully alternate timeline, not just forgotten or overlooked events hidden in our consensus history, a classification that Infernal Devices could have fit..
Dower is saved from killing himself (with an ineffectual steampunk gun whose depiction I take as satirical commentary on gimcrack Maker-type artifacts) by the arrival of one Hamuel Stonebrake, mercenary self-styled missionary to the whales. Stonebrake offers to cut Dower in on a get-rich-quick scheme if Dower will contribute his mechanical aptitudes. And with that deliciously ludicrous setup—including the MacGuffin of the Vox Universalis, a perfect speaking machine—we are off to the races!
Jeter uses the steampunk mode in a fashion that harks back to its roots, but which is generally slighted today in favor of sheer mindless fun and adventure: that is, as commentary, often satirical, on our real present era. His England is run off geothermal steam, rather than coalpower. Nice and clean and environmentally sound, right? Wrong, it’s a toxic mess, illustrating how easily the best intentions go wrong. And here’s some meta-commentary: just as steampunk fans today are almost fetishistically fixated on the archaic tech, so are Jeter’s citizens—at least the rich and powerful—hooked on “fex” or “ferric sex,” turning themselves into steam cyborgs. In fact, there’s a certain Prime Minister known as “the Iron Lady—” Well, I will not spoil the fun.
Along the way are many smaller entertaining riffs, such as the Neanderthal Diet mania of a certain Viscount Carnomere, the fascination of young ladies with dystopias, and the absurd inequities of capitalism and the excesses of the one percent. But Jeter’s book never neglects the unpredictably thrilling storyline for the message, as it clatters in its hugger-mugger manner toward a stirring apocalyptic ending.
Surely one of Jeter’s more formidable achievements is his language. Avoiding both clotted fustian verbiage and anachronistic modernisms, he writes a mannered and hilarious prose that captures the uniqueness of his world. Like that Barth book cited earlier, half the fun comes from seeing things through Dower’s fussy sensibilities. “Reader, let me assure you that George Dower, originally of London’s Clerkenwell district, is not unacquainted with the more unseemly aspect of matters biological. Though I possess an Englishman’s proper reticence toward activities best done with the lantern extinguished and without an audience attending.”
Jeter’s sequel, too long delayed, proves well worth the wait, and sets a new high bar for that ever-evolving style of speculative fiction whose Frankensteinian form he first galvanically jolted into life.