Last year's Gaslight Steampunk Expo in San Diego featured Tim Powers as a Guest of Honor. This year, they brought out another of the triumvirate that forged the genre of steampunk in the form of James P. Blaylock. I couldn't have been happier and, while one of the Apocalypse Later film sets that I presented at Gaslight turned out to be scheduled right opposite his spotlight panel, I did get the chance to chat with him during the weekend. He was my favourite of the three founding fathers (the third being K. W. Jeter) for no better reason that I knew his work better, it being easier to find on market stalls in England in the eighties.
I've always delved into Blaylock's career, reading books as I found them rather than where they fit into series. It therefore seems appropriate to prepare for his Guest of Honor slot at Gaslight by delving back into his career and plucking out a title I haven't got round to yet: 'Lord Kelvin's Machine'. It turns out that this is the third in a series that's become known not for its hero but for its villain, a hunchbacked rogue vivisectionist called Ignacio Narbondo. It was written as a novelette, first published in 1985, therefore after the first full book, 'The Digging Leviathan', but was expanded into novel form in 1992, after 'Homunculus' had also been published. These three books initially formed a trilogy until Blaylock returned to Narbondo in 2012, publishing three more novels over the last few years.
Oddly, we don't actually spend much time with Narbondo here, if indeed the series follows him and his deeds. This is a novel about Langdon St. Ives, who is the Holmes to Narbondo's Moriarty. The novel begins with this gentleman scientist and explorer unable to save the life of his wife, Alice, a failure that drives him throughout the rest of the book. Narbondo had kidnapped her and St. Ives had given chase, but, one rain-drenched night at the Seven Dials, Narbondo's cabriolet overturned, pinning Alice underneath it and the villain fired a bullet into her skull.
Two years later, St. Ives still hasn't got over this. He's still on the edge and he's still on the hunt. As he tells his companions early in the book, "Our only real enemy now is time." These are regular companions, by the way: Hasbro, his invaluable gentleman's gentleman; and his assistants, Bill Kraken and Jack Owlsby. All of them are well aware of how dastardly their foil is, but they're about to discover that there are more extreme lengths to which he's very willing to go.
You see, a comet is approaching the Earth and it's going to come very close indeed. Narbondo realises that our planet's magnetic field might entice it into our atmosphere to wreak havoc on our world and, in so realising, decides to set up a bizarre blackmail scheme. If his demands are not met, he'll nudge the planet directly into the path of the comet using 'volcanic manipulation', setting off eruptions like the one he's just triggered inside the Arctic Circle, but carefully organised eruptions to literally move a world. You have to admit, when it comes to the schemes of mad scientists, the threat of global destruction is a pretty powerful one.
Well, if that brand of mad science is to your liking and it's perfect for an early steampunk novel, St. Ives wants to save the world by doing the exact opposite and the Royal Academy of Sciences plans to reverse the polarity of the Earth or switch off our magnetic field entirely. Lord Kelvin (a real scientist who's fictionalised here) has been building a machine to take care of that. The Victorian era was the perfect time to conjure up this type of insanity because scientists like Kelvin were achieving things on a regular basis that must have seemed, at the time, just as wild and impossible. The real Kelvin, for instance, was knighted for his work on the transatlantic telegraph and he helped to formulate some of the laws of thermodynamics.
Of course, these fantastic ideas are merely the grounding for a grand adventure that's told in three very distinct parts. The first has St. Ives hunt down Narbondo, finally vanquishing his foe and leaving him dead in a lake in Norway. No, it doesn't last; what were you thinking? The second, which is a lot more approachable because it's told in the first person by Jack Owlsby rather than the more impersonal third person, deepens the story from an impending threat and a tale of nemeses to a real mystery. Lord Kelvin's machine has been stolen and it seems that a third party is using it to take down ships at sea. The third, which is appropriately hallucinatory, given what goes on, involves the recovery of the machine and the discovery of a new use for it; the cover of my Ace paperback mentions 'time machine' so I guess that can't be a spoiler.
There's much to like here, though it doesn't really kick into gear until the second part. It's a wild and wonderful romp through the Victorian era in which science was changing everything. As fantastic as this seems to us nowand Blaylock is a fabulist at heart, someone who brings the fantastic into the everydaythe great unwashed masses during the late 19th century were used to wild and wonderful and they ate up adventures like this in the magazines of the time. In fact, some of the ideas here have come to fruition, though none of the ones mentioned thus far, of course! My favourite paragraph, about an icthyologist named Leopold Higgins, is a superb example:
'Parsons nodded wearily. "Oxford man. Renegade academician. They're a dangerous breed when they go feral, academics are. Higgins was a chemist, too. Came back from the Orient with insane notions about carp. Insisted that they could be frozen and thawed out, months later, years. You could keep them in a deep freeze, he said. Some sort of glandular excretion, as I understand it, that drained water out of the cells, kept them from bursting when they froze. He was either an expert in cryogenics or a lunatic. It's your choice. He was clearly off his head, though. I think it was opium that did it. He claimed to dream these things."'
If that one paragraph, most of it dialogue, doesn't sum up the entire genre of Victorian adventure, I don't know what does. Maybe if it included a lost city. But hey, it does include mad science, lunacy, opium, the exotic Orient, the power of dreams and that fantastic pair of words, 'renegade academician'. I think I need to put that onto my steampunk business card: Henry, Count Chaos. Renegade Academician.
For more titles by James P. Blaylock click hereAnd that's really what Blaylock does here and the groundbreaking trio of which he was a third did throughout that era of their writing: they took what had become regarded as boring old Victorian literature and made it the backdrop of fantastic pulp fantasy adventure, inventing steampunk in the process. This is a great example and it's the definitive Langdon St. Ives novel, because he has a glorious and highly driven story arc. Narbondo, on the other hand, gets little to do except float around as the insane nemesis, so it's increasingly misleading to see the series as his. Next up for me: 'Homunculus', the prior Narbondo and the other Blaylock I never got round to back in the day. ~~ Hal C F Astell