Disproportionate to its obscurity, The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward Ellis is one of the true classics of Victorian Scientific Romances. Sci-Fi critic John Clute, after the fact, applied the term "Edisonade" to the type of story which Ellis ushered in: dime novel adventures of technological and territorial conquest on the far frontier, named for the iconic American entrepreneur Thomas Edison. This story and its genre - which went on to include authors like Garrett P. Serviss and series like Frank Reade - is also a largely forgotten tradition of the Western.
Few Western authors tried to combine the genre with supernatural or technological themes. Louis L'Amour offered up a modern version in The Haunted Mesa, purporting to explain a connection between the Anasazi and the Bermuda Triangle, though it is hard to do better than Robert E. Howard's The Horror From the Mound. Likewise have relatively few directors. Clint Eastwood tried it out in his directorial debut, High Plains Drifter. It's too bad that this tradition has languished in relative obscurity for so long, save for the occasional foray into the Wild Wild West and whatever obscenities Joe Lansdale writes.
The Steam Man of the Prairies put it off to a grand start. Johnny Brainerd is an inventive child prodigy whose intellect is so active that his mother would make offhand suggests just to keep him busy for a while. One of those offhand remarks was to invent a steam-powered mechanical man. Though he tries to keep his invention under wraps (not easy when it accidentally walks through walls), it eventually comes to the attention of treasure-seeker and trapper Baldy Bicknell. Bickenll, unable to coerce Brainerd into selling the steam man, invites the two to his gold diggings in the American Rocky Mountains. Though Brainerd is hunchbacked and physically handicapped, his spirit of adventure is not and the offer is snatched up.
What follows is a high plains adventure with buffalo hunts, Native Americans, and a b-plot with the titular huge hunter that goes nowhere and seems to have either no place or was duly forgotten by the author, Edward S. Ellis. No stranger to boy's own adventures and tales of frontiersmen, Ellis touches on all the regular points, from tricky "savages" to savage wilderness to odd racial stereotypes. Bicknell's two companions are a Yankee and an Irishman, and everybody but Brainerd speaks in difficult-to-decipher accents.
It is specific to its time, which goes without saying for Edisonades as a whole. They are amongst the least self- or socially-critical Victorian adventures. Their road to success in their day was paved by reinforcing widely held cultural assumptions, be they about technology, society, economy or race. The Steam Man of the Prairies has the dubious distinction of being less offensive than it easily could have been. Nevertheless, some passages beg for a revisionist, Lansdale-like farce of a rewrite. Ellis describes the terrorizing effect that this mysterious, shrieking, puffing, clanking demon has on the superstitious Natives it chases down; it might be entertaining to read how the warriors knew it was just a bunch of crazy white men in a newfangled steam engine.
Its scant number of pages and archetypal character still lend itself to the claim made of it at the outset of this review. Though not as involved as Verne, Wells, or Twain, either narratively or philosophically, it is definitely an enjoyable, brisk read with an original concept and one of Victoriana's greatest fictional inventions.