Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (2010)

Our friends at Pyr/Prometheus Books were kind enough to send us a review copy of their American release of Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. According to the publisher's blurb:
London, 1861.

Sir Richard Francis Burton—explorer, linguist, scholar, and swordsman; his reputation tarnished; his career in tatters; his former partner missing and probably dead.

Algernon Charles Swinburne—unsuccessful poet and follower of de Sade; for whom pain is pleasure, and brandy is ruin!

They stand at a crossroads in their lives and are caught in the epicenter of an empire torn by conflicting forces: Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier, and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labor; Libertines oppose repressive laws and demand a society based on beauty and creativity; while the Rakes push the boundaries of human behavior to the limits with magic, drugs, and anarchy. The two men are sucked into the perilous depths of this moral and ethical vacuum when Lord Palmerston commissions Burton to investigate assaults on young women committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack, and to find out why werewolves are terrorizing London's East End.

Their investigations lead them to one of the defining events of the age, and the terrifying possibility that the world they inhabit shouldn't exist at all!

Michael Moorcock has cited Spring Heeled Jack as "the best debut novel I have read in ages", and Hodder certainly has impeccable credentials. Webmaster of Blakiana: The Sexton Blake Resource, he has a degree in cultural studies, has worked for the BBC as a writer, editor, and journalist, and has an avid interest in British history. It shows in this monumental league of historical figures.

Of course, it also leads to some of the novel's eye-rolling faults. When Sir Richard Burton sends off a quick-witted Irish paperboy off on a mission, he remarks to his companions that this little Oscar Wilde will be famous some day. Yes, we know. At times, Hodder's alternate 19th century reads like a prospectus for a new White Wolf role-playing game. The Eugenicists, Engineers, Libertines and Rakes are so neatly defined that they may as well be character classes.

What it lacks in subtleties it makes up for in heavy symbolism. From the beginning, the Rakes are simply obnoxious; the sort of faux-revolutionary hedonists whose high-sounding philosophy does not go deeper than the bottom of a bottle and broader than the novelty of idly contemplating murder because it's, like, so against The Man, man. True Libertines are mentioned but never really given the floor. They are aligned with the Pre-Raphaelites who temper their radical politics with a productive idea of the shape society should take. Then come the Engineers and Eugenicists, united under the flag of the Technologists as embodiments of Jacques Ellul's technique.

When the Technologists reveal themselves, in faces once familiar, they are the ultimate perversity of technique. Both their aims and means are disgusting, their bodies appallingly mutated, their centre of operations echoing Kenneth Strickfaden's laboratories and the chop-shops of Star Trek's Borg. They are so horrifying that one would not be blamed for seeing the Technologists as another of Science Fiction's near-hysterical caricatures of science. However it is not the technology in itself, not the scientific research in itself, that poses the problem.

When Ellul, a French Catholic philosopher and theological father to Christian Anarchism, coined technique, he was not speaking simply of technology. In fact, he warned against such a view. Jerry Mander, following suit, argued in The Absence of the Sacred that to view technology as neutral was itself not neutral, but rather served the interests of the whole technological system. For Ellul, technique is "the totality of methods rationally arrived at, and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity." Furthermore, "Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity."

In response to an article proposing a scientific utopia of food pills and eugenic breeding, Ellul asked,
how shall we force humanity to refrain from begetting children naturally? How shall we force them to submit to constant and rigorous hygienic controls? How shall man be persuaded to accept a radical transformation of his traditional modes of nutrition? How and where shall we relocate a billion and a half persons who today make their living from agriculture and who, in the promised ultrarapid conversion of the next forty years, will become utterly useless as cultivators of the soil?... There are many other "hows," but they are conveniently left unformulated... there is one and only one means to their solution, a world-wide totalitarian dictatorship which will allow technique its full scope and at the same time resolve the concomitant difficulties. It is not difficult to understand why the scientists and worshippers of technology prefer not to dwell on this solution, but rather to leap nimbly across the dull and uninteresting intermediary period and land squarely in the golden age... If we take a hard, unromantic look at the golden age itself, we are struck with the incredible naivete of these scientists. They say, for example, that they will be able to shape and reshape at will human emotions, desires, and thoughts and arrive scientifically at certain efficient, pre-established collective decisions. They claim they will be in a position to develop certain collective desires, to constitute certain homogeneous social units out of aggregates of individuals, to forbid men to raise their children, and even to persuade them to renounce having any. At the same time, they speak of assuring the triumph of freedom and the necessity of avoiding dictatorship at any price. They seem incapable of grasping the contradiction involved, of understanding that what they are proposing... is in fact the harshest of dictatorships. In comparison, Hitler's was a trifling affair. That is is to be a dictatorship of test tubes rather than of hobnailed boots will not make it any less a dictatorship.

This is what is at stake in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, what Sir Richard Burton and his hapless, poetical sidekick strive against. Hodder's Victorian Era is one reshaped by the power of technique three centuries ahead of itself. It is one of the oldest definitions given for Steampunk: how the past would look if the future happened sooner (hint: not good).

That also makes it something of a satire of the genre, very nearly an anti-Steampunk book. Hodder pokes and prods at it. There are motorized pennyfarthings ala. Artimus Gordon and flying armchairs and it is all quite cute. There is also the unromantic, unadorned poverty and Hodder's almost delerious delight in describing every foul stench permeating his toxic London waterfront. He lights on the insanity-inducing culture shock that a modern mind would feel being exposed to the alien 19th century. When the brass-encrusted cyborgs emerge from their cog-wheeled factories, it does not induce wonder so much as vomit. On the far side of the spectrum, the subcultural sexual fetishes and substance abuses of the Rakes, masquerading as liberality, offer absolutely nothing and therein simply play into the technique as so much bread and circuses. Just as John Clute lauded Gibson and Sterling for making Victorian London worse than it actually was in The Difference Engine, Hodder accomplishes the same in his Steampunk'd capital. As the past stops being what it used to be, the reader fervently hopes it gets put back.

Perhaps it will. Hodder has already been at work on a sequel, and it's safe to say that I'm actually looking forward to it amidst the glut of genre novels.


Anonymous said...

Okay, I need some advice. I read *about* steampunk, before I read any books. I was intrigued by the neo-Victorian aspects--exploration of new scenes and new ideas; how things worked, how the gears all fit together; the mix of the scientific and the fantastic. So I picked up Perdido Street Station and Whitechapel Gods--and find the books very well written, but about worlds that are ugly and cruel, like intense horror movies. Reviews and critiques don't mention that aspect--am I the only one freaked out? Are they other books I could read? I neither want nor expect pretty, I understand that these books examine struggles for power, the consequences of science used for evil. Or am I just in the wrong genre?

Cory Gross said...

I guess it depends on exactly what you're looking for. I would recommend just branching out from what you might find on a list of keyworded "Steampunk" books. The genre used to be very broad and include lots of things with expansive tones, but now it is pretty much reduced to gritty pseudo-Industrial urban fantasy. I'm interested in your assessment that it's ugly and cruel. That very much rings true, which may be a part of why I don't tend to read official Steampunk lit outside of what is sent to me to review.

I tend to be a multimedia sort, so my list of recommendations are all over the place. If you want lighter fare, which doesn't necessarily mean shallower, then I would recommend the Dinotopia series of books by James Gurney(mostly A Land Apart from Time, The World Beneath and Journey to Chandara) and the Larklight series by Philip Reeve. Mike "Steampunk Scholar" Perschon is more dedicated to the literature, so you might want to ask him. My first and best recommendation is to actually go back and read the original Victorian-Edwardian stuff.

In film, I highly recommend the works of Karel Zeman (particularly The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, The Stolen Airship and Baron Munchausen), The Anachronism short film, The Prestige and The Adventures of Mark Twain. Wild Wild West is admittedly braindead but attractive. In anime, Castle in the Sky, The Vision of Escaflowne, Simoun, the Read or Die OVA, and Galaxy Express 999 (which is more straightforward Sci-Fi, but with a flying steam train). A great multimedia franchise in Japan is Sakura Wars, with video games, anime and manga. In comics, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vol. 1 and 2 and Batman: Gotham by Gaslight.

I've actually been toying with the idea of posting a permanent list of my favorite genre productions. Maybe I should get around to it.

Cory Gross said...

Oh, I also forgot to mention the graphic novels Rapunzel's Revenge and Calamity Jack by the team of Hale, Hale and Hale. I picked them up recently, but they, like everything else, are packed away right now as I move into a new apartment. Well, new for me; the building itself dates to 1911.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for responding so quickly. I will investigate your suggestions for readings (Gotham by Gaslight!) and movies and will ask the Steampunk Scholar, too. He is writing about 20000 Leagues, and I've been reading the translation he recommends. Pretty terrific. I also like your idea of going back to the original Vic/Edw novels, like HG Wells and Dr J/Mr H; I'll look for more Verne too. Can you name others? I like the straight fiction from that period, interested in how writers show characters responding to change and crisis, which is what attracted me to the idea of steampunk. I thought it was interesting that you used the phrase "gritty pseudo-Industrial urban fantasy" because some of Perdido reminded me strongly of work by Iain M Banks, who writes gritty urban scifi, fabulously creative, great writing. Thanks again for your help and this interesting blog! KLR

Cory Gross said...

Handily enough, putting together a survey of the period literature is one of the main reasons I created the Voyages Extraordinaires Anthology. There is a year's worth of excerpts from novels and short stories ranging from the 1810's to the 1920's, organized according to how they reflect and address the concerns of the time period. About the only change I would make to it is that I should have added a chapter from A Princess of Mars under the heading of "Manifest Destiny".

Maybe someday I should try getting all of my online anthology cobbled together into a proper book?