Saturday, July 19, 2014

Burton & Swinburne in The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man

So – what’s to be done about this whole ‘steampunk’ thing, then? It's got to be pretty crud, right - all that stuff about guys in goggles footling around in wind-up blimps and such, right? Surely it’s something I ought to have an opinion on, being as I love Victoriana - in particular, the kind of early Victorian science fiction that steampunk riffs on. I have long thought about expressing such an opinion. So here we go.
But first: some definitions.

The debate as to exactly what constitutes steampunk has inspired more angry words online than the finale of Lost, but I’m going to provide some fast-and-dirty clues to help any newbies out there to identify steampunk in the wild. The way I see it, it's like this. If you’ve got a Victorian or pseudo-Victorian world in your novel that differs from the real historical period because of the introduction of unusual technologies or sciences, then you’ve got steampunk. If you’ve got Victorian-style characters who spend a lot of their time swanning about in airships, steam-powered vehicles or robots, or similar 19th century tech pushed to its illogical conclusion, you’ve got steampunk. And most importantly, if your characters wear top hats and goggles with lots and lots of useless gears attached to them, you’ve got steampunk. If you’ve got alternate history where characters such as H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and other real-life historical personages play a vital part, then you’ve probably got steampunk as well. There’s been lots of debate about what separates steampunk from ‘historical fantasy’, ‘gaslight fantasy’ and lots of other silly subgenres, but really, I can’t be bothered with such hair-splitting. In short, as far as I’m concerned, if it clanks like steampunk, it probably is steampunk. So, yeah, this type of thing has been allowed to run riot by publishers recently, and it's become something of a bandwagon. A bandwagon that I usually approach with extreme caution.

No. I mean yes, obviously, but just no.

And on the whole, it’s not something I’ve been massively impressed with so far. What I’ve found, by and large, is that your average steam-powered scifi novel tends to be a grab-bag of the same old tropes, arranged each time in a slightly different order. It’s as if publishers believe that readers will be happy with just about anything as long as it features airships, goggles and giant robots duking it out in Dickensian London. And while these features often do make for a fun, pulpy read, steampunk books are usually not about anything. Beyond the admittedly fun trappings, there’s no heart. Writers focus on the surface but don’t see the potential of the genre for exploring the mores of Victorian society. Child labour, oppression of women, the wholesale rape of the non-European world by the colonial powers; there’s a whole lot to comment on. But nah, let’s just have engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel as a villain encased in a steam-powered survival suit like a Victorian Darth Vader, cackling as he ties women to train tracks. That’s what people want, right? So, overall, I feel that this new genre has done little to justify itself as being anything more than a source of cheap and nasty thrills. And because these trappings attract me so much, I keep coming back for more, hoping that the next book won’t disappoint.

From what I can tell, the Burton & Swinburne books don’t do a whole lot to buck this trend. But they are cleverer and more fun than 90% of steampunk I’ve read.

Clockwork Man is the second book in the series, and I’ve not read the first. But from what I can tell, the set-up is this: the allohistorical scenario in these books is set up when a time traveller from the future travels back to 1840 and accidentally causes Queen Victoria to be assassinated. From this point on, the timeline begins to drift more and more drastically from our own. This I quite liked, as it's unusual to have the steampunk elements of a novel explained as being a deviation from our own, ‘true’ timeline. The novels wisely focus on a character who was an already fascinating person in real life: the explorer Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton. I’ve written about Burton before as he’s one of my heroes, and I was delighted to find interesting use of him made in fiction. Author Hodder was off to a good start with me! One of the great decisions in the books was to have Burton be aware that the timeline has been twisted. He’s conscious that somewhere in the multiverse there is another Burton who is travelling the ‘true’ path. Clockwork Man hints that the relationship with the two Burtons is going to have big implications for the stability of the multiverse later on in the series. In other words, there’s some great Back To The Future-style time-travel frolics going on.

I say - you there, eating the paste!

Burton is paired with his real-life friend, poet Algernon Swinburne. Swinburne is portrayed as a foppish hedonist. His constant drunkenness and whoring are supposed to be funny, but they grated on me and I found him quite a thin character. He only really exists to set Burton up with a kind of Holmes-Watson relationship; a trope that’s very common with steampunk authors, who often credit their interest in Victoriana to a love of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories.

The world the two inhabit is definitely one of the more memorable variations of a steampunk London (once you’ve read a few steampunk books, their settings tends to become rather generic). Though it’s not exactly clear how these changes spiralled from the death of Queen Vic (perhaps the first book in the series details this), for some reason London has rival factions of Engineers, who have access to fantastic steam-powered technology, and Eugenicists, who have run riot with biological science. What this means is that Hodder’s London crawls with clockwork robot men, flying rotochairs, mechanical omnibuses, as well as semi-intelligent dogs, messenger parakeets and giant insects. It’s almost too much.

The plot of Clockwork Man concerns the arrival into London of a man who claims to be the heir to a rich family called the Tichbornes. In real life, this case stirred the imaginations of London’s populace, the supposed Tichborne’s previous life as an Australian butcher convincing England’s working-class that he was one of their own about to get one over on the ‘toffs.’ The case went to court, heightening the differences between the classes. In Clockwork Man, the Tichborne claimant is a grotesque, obese imbecile who somehow influences the opinions of all those around him, eventually inciting class warfare and riots in London. There’s some mild, questionable themes about classism here, but really, the book is too silly to take them seriously. This plot becomes tied to the history of three strange, powerful stones found in various tropical regions, and the effect that they may have played in originally creating Burton’s timeline. There’s even hints of an ancient reptilian race that existed on Earth in prehistory, and how they might be using the Tichborne claimant to restore their power. Burton slowly comes to realise the connection between these happenings, and finds himself pitted against an unexpected enemy.

Way ahead of you, David Icke.

If it sounds like there’s altogether too much going on in this novel, well, there might just be. There really are a whole lot of strands to the plot, and while they eventually fit together very well, it sometimes feels as though not enough time is given to any of them. As mentioned above, Hodder’s London already heaves with so many scifi anomalies, it’s almost too much to take, and the setting ceases to lose touch with any historical reality and becomes a Victorian-themed fantasy world where anything goes. Add to this the fact that the plot calls for the psychic claimant, David Icke-esque lizard people, and hordes of pseudo-zombies (for some reason steampunk almost always involves zombies. Yawn.), and things seem somewhat, well, busy.

The book also suffers from a surplus of characters. Hodder continues dropping new characters into the narrative right till the end, and expects us to care about them. I’m pretty sure that we’re given four or five redshirt policemen to identify with over the course of the book, and their only purpose is to bite it during the climax. And the revealing of the main villain comes as a revelation to us the reader only because we know who they were in real life, which to me is something of a botch. To Burton and the characters in the novel, this ‘revelation’ comes completely out of left field, as it’s nobody they could ever have heard of, and there is no foreshadowing whatsoever prior to their appearance. This is a problem sometimes in novels which include real historical personages: just because it’s someone famous or interesting to us doesn’t mean it works dramatically in the context of the novel.

The writing is sometimes irritating and adolescent. There is an unfortunate surplus of adverbs (sorry to get nit-picky, but a well-chosen verb almost always stands better on its own without an adverb), and while this is intrusive, it’s nowhere near as bad as it is in the very similarly-themed Newbury and Hobbes books. Hodder also has a bad habit of being afraid to name his characters multiple times, instead constantly referring to Burton in a slightly clunky fashion as ‘the famous explorer’ or ‘the King’s agent.’ It’s stuff like this that pulls me out of the story.

I’d be remiss, too not to mention the fact that there are some cringeworthy ‘comedy’ moments in the book, primarily involving swearing birds and overly-polite English zombies. This stuff really fell flat for me.

And yet, despite these cribs, I enjoyed the plot immensely. It’s sprawling, but comes together in a very satisfying way. To me the Indiana Jones artefact-hunt stuff was evocative and thrilling, the use of historical personages ticked all my boxes (even if, as mentioned above, it was sometimes a bit of a dramatical fudge), and I couldn’t wait to read more. I devoured the book like I have nothing since Ready Player One. Most of all, it rekindled my interest in all things Victorian. I can’t wait to read the previous and later books in the series.

And as for the most important question of all: does The Curious Case Of The Clockwork Man break out of the steampunk ghetto and actually manage to be about something? Well, almost. Despite not delving too deeply into how the steampunk changes to the timeline have affected Victorian society, there are enough hints given to satisfy me that Hodder is building up to some satirical statements about colonialism, probably in the next book, Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon. Can you imagine? I await future developments with trepidation.

Be a good chap and toddle off, what?

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