|Posted by Lee A. Farruga on November 19, 2013 at 11:15 AM|
Fiendish Schemes by K.W. Jeter
Reviewed by The Mechanic
Do you take your steampunk seriously? Do you like rules and boundaries and a sense of formality and propriety? If so then perhaps this book is not for you. If however you like your punk as much as your steam, pogo on reader pogo on.
Nearly 25 years ago, K.W. Jeter tossed out the word "steampunk" to describe his work Infernal Devices. Fiendish Schemes is the sequel to that book. Corsets, ornate pistols, giant steam driven ambulatory monstrosities - Jeter has worked a cornucopia of tropes into this work. Where some more recent authors of the genre have slapped these tropes onto the narrative like so many gears strung together with a hot glue gun, Jeter has grabbed them by the ear, bent them to his will and made them dance like monkeys for the reader's amusement.
Fiendish Schemes begins fairly conventionally. George Dower, the down and out son of the protagonist of Infernal Devices, has squandered his inheritance and has been eking a pittance selling his name on the strength of his father's reputation. Business has not been good. Bent on self-annihilation with a pistol of his father's he can't quite get to work, Dower is given a reprieve through an opportunity in mobile light houses. These events set up the story in a fairly conventional manner.
And then things start to go sideways. How quickly and how far to the side cannot be described in any detail without spoiling the trip. In true punk style, Jeter puts the boots to politics, morality, power, technology and self-important overweening fandoms. He creates a surrealist world where the reader is left guessing where the story is going too go next. Jeter skillfully stitches seemingly absurd events
together forward, back and sideways through the narrative preventing it from exploding into meaninglessness. Apart from puncturing many of the overinflated dirigibles of the genre, Jeter also puts in a couple of kicks at the origin of punk. While readers of a certain age will delight in some of the references and puns slid into the tale, there is much entertainment in the details for all astute readers.
Some of the themes are of an adult nature so those of the juvenile persuasion might want to hold off for a few years. For the rest, break out your Docs and settle in for a great read.
Patrick Gilliland (aka The Mechanic)
Patrick Gilliland is an unrepentant reader. He always has several small pyramids of books being read scattered about the house. While studying literature in university, he developed a like for Victorian novels and a dislike for Victorian poets. Currently his tastes run to 19th century history, traditional cookbooks and of course steampunk. When not reading or thinking about reading, he can be found in his man cave painting little lead martians. He denies responsibility for any pew pew or kerpow noises emanating form said edifice.
Review: K.W. Jeter’s Fiendish Schemes
If you haven’t heard of K.W. Jeter (http://www.kwjeter.com/), there’s a good reason why you should find out more about him: he invented the term “steampunk” in the 1980s to describe the Victorian-era fiction that he and his friends, Jim Blaylock and Tim Powers, were writing. Jeter’s latest book, Fiendish Schemes (published 2013 by Tor), is a sequel to Infernal Devices (originally published in 1987, and recently re-issued by Angry Robot Books with a new introduction by Jeter and an afterword by Jeff VanderMeer).
Both stories are set in Victorian Britain and told in the first person by George Dower, whose name rather suits his dour nature. A victim and observer in Fiendish Schemes more than an active protagonist, Dower is cursed with having had a brilliant inventor for a father. As a consequence, his misanthropic (or at least reserved) wish to be left alone is continually being thwarted by the desires of more ambitious persons to acquire and use Dower’s late father’s clockwork devices for nefarious purposes – purposes ranging from the demolition of the planet to the satisfaction of unnatural lusts. After having lived in rural seclusion for several years following the events of Infernal Devices, Dower is driven by penury to either find his fortune or end his misery. Contemplation of the latter option affords Dower scope for his dark humour: “There’s precious little opportunity to acquire practice at killing oneself, at least if one is serious about it.” The world has changed dramatically while Dower was in isolation, and as the story unfolds Dower is led through a diabolically altered England that is sinking into strange corruption and depravity, with one person after another trying to use him in schemes that Dower never fully understands until the end.
As is generally the case with steampunk literature, Fiendish Schemes involves anachronisms, typically of several types. The most obvious kind are those deliberately inserted as part of the world’s alternate history. In Fiendish Schemes, these include coal being supplanted by “steam mines” – a sort of geothermal energy that is superficially cleaner until one sees the effects on the landscape: the entire Lake District has been drained into the earth so that the water could be boiled on lava and sold as steam, leaving a despoiled wasteland behind. Steam conduits crisscross the country. The wealthy have begun to merge with machines to make mechanical cyborgs.
Another set of anachronisms, while part of the alternate history, is different in that they allude to the present day or our recent history; there are numerous examples of these in Fiendish Schemes. The Prime Minister, Mrs Agatha Fletcher, is an obvious reference to the late Mrs Margaret Thatcher, but while both are nick-named “The Iron Lady”, for the Victorian version the sobriquet is literal, she having had herself converted into a steam-powered monster that strikes terror in the hearts of other MPs, and who has had Parliament rejigged with steam tubes to supply her mechanical body – pipes whose leaking steam power (in a nice image) warps and rots the fabric of the building in the same way that corrupt power destroys the fabric of democracy. Fletcher’s determination to annihilate the steam miners’ union, too, has its parallel in Thatcher’s real crushing of the coal miners’ strike in the mid-1980s, a struggle that included a confrontation between miners and police called the Battle of Orgreave in Yorkshire, about which Dire Straits sang “That night they said it had even shocked the Queen.” There’s no mention in Fiendish Schemes of what Queen Victoria made of the advent of steam-powered corsets, Fex bordellos, and a Prime Minister surgically grafted onto a locomotive, but one imagines that she too was shocked. The chillingly contemporary euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” for “torture”, faked terrorist attacks, and the attitude to anarchists: “That’s what anarchists are good for – you can blame ’em for anything. Then you can crack down on whoever you want, ’long as you say they’re all hooked up together. Just standard operating procedure for the government” are all elements that speak of modern things to the modern reader more than they present a past world.
Lastly, there are the dreaded inadvertent anachronisms which, lacking some acknowledgement of irony within the story, or a revealed raison d’etre, seem to be slip-ups. Amongst these I’d include three that I think will strike many serious enthusiasts of Victorian life, starting with Dower’s travel from Cornwall to London. This is a world which knows of railway travel, and yet Dower inexplicably hires a horse-drawn carriage to take him from one end of England to the other, a journey which, in what was the most rail-covered nation on earth, would have been far faster, cheaper, and more comfortable, by train.
A frequently-used word jumps out as anachronistic, too: “gender”, used in place of “sex”. Despite their reputation for prudishness, the Victorians never carried prudery to the extent that we in the 21st century have, with our use of “gender” (a grammatical term) as a euphemism for a person’s sex.
The other seemingly accidental anachronism concerns Parliament. Dower’s period of isolation in the countryside included the year 1854, and the Crimean War. However, at one point in London he recollects that he used to set his watch by Big Ben, the clock in the north tower of the Palace of Westminster. The problem is that at the time of the Crimean War, that clock was still in the maker’s workshop – it wasn’t installed (indeed, the tower wasn’t even completed) until 1859, so it would have been impossible for Dower to have seen the clock when he used to live in London. I would guess that Jeter mistook the age of the Palace of Westminster (a.k.a. Parliament). Though Gothic in style, and seemingly immemorial, the edifice is actually Victorian Gothic, having been built in the 19th century after the original Palace of Westminster burned in 1834. Jeter refers to them as “ancient buildings” with “aged fixtures” and wood “hewn centuries ago” when in fact they would have been fresh and new (apart from all of the steam damage). Nothing in the story seems to offer an explanation, so it appears to be an oversight.
That said, I’ve rarely encountered historical fiction that didn’t include occasional historical errors, so don’t let these quibbles deter you from trying the book, because Jeter will take you on a weird and surprising journey with George Dower, and after all, even Shakespeare gave Julius Caesar a chiming clock.
While not essential preparation for starting in on Fiendish Schemes, reading Infernal Devices first will familiarize you with Dower and several other characters who reappear in the sequel, adding depth to your journey into Jeter’s Steam-transformed England, where Steam (with a capital ‘S’ is spoken of with almost religious awe and submission, the way some today regard the Internet as a god of progress – to be followed and adored, rather than regulated and steered towards good – “My allegiance to Steam,” says Miss Stromneth, “is, I confess, less apostle-like than that maintained by its more faithful adherents.” Along the way, you will be entertained by growing as baffled as Dower at the layers of fiendishly devious schemes, and Jeter even pokes fun at the word he created, with his Victorian version of the Palaeolithic Diet, Viscount Carnomere’s grain-free food-fad:
“I am greatly heartened by the advent of these meatpunks, as they are sometimes described.”
“Pardon me? ‘Meatpunks’ – did I hear that aright?”
“Amusing isn’t it? The coinage might be ill-educated – I would have preferred something derived from the classical tongues – but evidences a certain rude cleverness.”
As a final note – my own personal version of “Carthago delenda est”, only about e-book piracy – I’ll mention that K.W. Jeter moved last year to Ecuador. The reason? The man who coined the word “steampunk”, the author of 30+ books including Star Wars, Star Trek, and Blade Runner novels, could no longer afford to live in California. According to his wife Geri’s blog ( http://www.gerijeter.com/2012_03_01_archive.html )
“While we are choosing to look at this as a big adventure, it is based on some harsh realities. K. W. and I are in our 60s, Social Security will not support us very well in the U.S., medical care is getting more and more expensive, and we have no desire to eat the cheapest cat food for protein… Both our unemployment has run out. In six months in Las Vegas, I had one interview… Luckily for K. W., he has a writing career of some note. But we need to live somewhere that is far less expensive than the U. S., yet is still pleasant… We are selling or giving away almost everything.”
So, if you think that “sharing” a book online, or downloading pirated copies instead of buying them, doesn’t harm anyone because authors and publishers are all rolling in money anyway, please remember K.W. Jeter, think again, and be so kind as to dig a few dollars out of your wallet for the book that you want to enjoy reading – the book that the author put so much time and work into.
Chapter one of Fiendish Schemes can be read online at the publisher’s website:
Fiendish Schemes is available from:
and other bookshops.
Paul Marlowe ( paulmarlowe.com ) is the author of two YA steampunk novels, Sporeville and Knights of the Sea, and his latest book, Ether Frolics (a collection of nine steampunk stories), was short-listed for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for the best debut short story collection by a Canadian author.