Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Infernal Devices

K.W. Jeter Infernal Devices (1979)
I sometimes prepare myself for a book by taking a look at its online reviews, a habit which isn't always as useful as it might be, given that the worst aspect of any cultural trend will almost always be its stupid fucking fans; and so it transpires that the details we need to recall here are that K.W. Jeter invented steampunk, and Infernal Devices is the very first steampunk novel because it's written by the man who invented it, and steampunk is Victorian science-fiction and H.G. Wells is the most famous steampunk man, and Infernal Devices isn't very good because it isn't proper steampunk and doesn't have a description of a polished brass computer every five fucking pages.

Whilst Jeter certainly coined the term steampunk, I suppose Infernal Devices as where it all started makes sense if one indubitably finds one's probiscis applied as though with some fixative to the surface of that most delightfully steampunky diversion, the screen of the zoetrope upon which one may view really brilliant shows about steampunk on the Discovery Channel, or perhaps even Mr, Zuckerberg's most marvellous internet, as opposed to, you know - reading a sodding book. Even without invoking the mighty pen of Moorcock, there was even a fucking steampunk comic strip published prior to this, namely Bryan Talbot's eminently readable Luther Arkwright, but never mind because oooh look, a steampunk Dalek, cogs, brass and pistons, handlebar moustachioed computers named Montague tee hee...

Anyway, I've always sort of wondered about Jeter, what with him being so much a buddy of Philip K. Dick as to end up as one of the characters in VALIS; whilst at the same time being put off by the knowledge of his having written sequels to Blade Runner, presumably meaning the shit film rather than the superior novel from which it was crudely rendered.

I can see why Infernal Devices wasn't such a hit with at least the more picky representatives of the aviator goggle wearing tosspot community, being as it doesn't do much in the way of ticking those steampunk boxes which have apparently since become a requirement. This, I would suggest, is in its favour, at least placing it alongside the works of Michael Moorcock and Mark Hodder in being a period piece written by someone who was actually trying to write a novel, if you'll excuse my possibly acerbic tone. In sharp focus, the composition of said novel is lovingly upholstered, rich in texture, and tending to the sort of digressions one might expect from the literature of the era to which it eludes, and as an American author writing about Victorian England, Jeter has done exceptionally well to capture a certain mood and to avoid incongruous Transatlantic slips of any sort.

On the other hand Infernal Devices sits at the halfway point between a sort of Platonic ideal of H.G. Wells, and Lovecraft's Shadow over Innsmouth with all its fishy halfbreeds, and as such it romps along nicely at the pace of something read on the beach, and accordingly works better if you don't make too close an inspection. The narrative seems a little incoherent, with one scrape resolved and replaced by another seemingly for the sake of keeping it moving whilst we await the conclusion. Certain elements don't quite go anywhere, and others seem a little flimsy, notably the time travellers who aren't really time travellers so much as individuals who have found a means by which to study the future, and who have studied the future to such an extent that they now sound like extras from a Guy Richie film; and while I suppose the idea works up to a point, what this place needs is a goddamn enchilada stand and similar exclamations just seem to suggest that not much real thought has gone into these particular characters or their story. At certain intervals the narrative feels improvised, but, as I say, he sort of gets away with it by telling the story by means which give you a reason to keep on reading.

Unlike the novels of Moorcock or Mark Hodder, this really is just a romp with no justification for its setting beyond why the hell not? This edition features one of those afterwords explaining how much you enjoyed the classic you've just read, mumbling some incoherent crap about audience hankering for that which is obviously constructed by human hand, as opposed to the dehumanising curved forms of current technology; which isn't really the same as Infernal Devices actually being about anything. Still - pretty good nevertheless, and I've definitely read worse.

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