Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man (2011)

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is the second in Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne series. This unlikely duo - being explorer extraordinaire Sir Richard Burton and debutante poet Algernon Swinburne - were introduced to readers in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, in which a time-traveller from the distant future goes back to 1837 to stop an ancestor from making a shameful attempt to assassinate Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, the time-traveller's meddling causes his ancestor to succeed. Desperately does the time-traveller attempt to correct his mistake, failing in every instance as history diverges further and further from what was written. Albert assumes the throne and a bid for absolute control is made the Technologist caste, who have remade London into an industrial nightmare of pollution and strange contraptions. The Technologists were thwarted by Burton, acting as the king's agent, and his partner, but there remains the lingering sense that this new path is fighting against route which destiny has laid.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack's ultimate theme was that of technique, the total way of life defined by machine efficiency as defined by French Catholic philosopher Jacques Ellul. Edward Oxford, the time-traveller who became Spring Heeled Jack, initially sought to use technology to right history. Consequently, history was rewritten by the Technologists, a cadre of Eugenicists and Engineers who sought to overwrite society with their ideas of efficiency. Humanity was the malleable clay to be shaped, against its will, to the dictatorship of the test tube.

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man analyses the opposite drive. Albertian England is spiralling out of control in the power vacuum left behind by the defeated Technologists. New technologies are being introduced without let or hindrance, such as giant insects raised by Eugenicists and gutted by Engineers, their organs replaced by steam engines. These vehicles, which also provide Hodder with a good groaner of a pun half-way through, reduce the streets of London to chaos. Meanwhile, an attempt to solve the Irish Famine by introducing genetically-altered crop strains have turned the Emerald Isles into a man-eating jungle unfit for habitation. Shamed, many Eugenicists have fled to Germany and are rumoured to be assisting the Kaiser in building up a biological army.

Into this mess is introduced a brassy mechanical man found abandoned in Trafalgar Square. This discovery puts Burton and Swinburne on the case of a jewel heist and into the lap of Charles Babbage. The analog computer expert tells the story of the Garnier Collection of black diamonds that resonate a peculiar frequency that can trap brainwaves. Babbage hopes that by dying in possession of the diamonds his consciousness can transfer into them, and that the diamonds can then be transferred into a delicate Difference Engine by which Babbage can live on, fulfilling the dreams of the Technologists to create an efficient society. Here, within the first chapters, Hodder makes his thematic break. Babbage wants Burton to kill him so that his consciousness can transfer, and Burton obliges... but not before informing the inventor that the diamonds are fakes.

The diamonds become the focal point of a plot surrounding the Tichborne Claimant. In Victorian England, the Tichborne Case was a media sensation: after missing for a decade, a man stepped forward claiming the identity of Sir Roger Tichborne, heir to the Tichborne Baronetcy. To the majority of those who knew the real Sir Roger Tichborne, the claimant was an obvious impostor. For one, the real Tichborne was mainly raised in France by his French mother and spoke English with a considerable French accent. The claimant could barely speak proper English at all, let alone French. Furthermore, the two looked little alike, with the claimant being uncharacteristically overweight. The final piece of damning evidence was the absence of tattoos Tichborne was known to have had. The claimant was sentenced to 14 years of hard labour for perjury. Nevertheless, the claimant - who was a butcher from Wagga Wagga, Australia, by the name of Arthur Orton - was considered a hero by the working classes. Charmed by the idea of an aristocrat having worked as a simple labourer, he was frequently portrayed as the victim of a conspiracy and wrongfully cheated of his inheritance.

In Hodder's Albertian England, the Tichborne Claimant emerges as a disgusting, corpulent, barely sentient variation of his Victorian self. Connected in some fashion to the Rake faction and the black diamonds - which themselves harbour some strange connection to Edward Oxford - this Tichborne Claimant also becomes a touchstone for class conflict. In this alternate reality, such class conflict erupts into full class warfare. Those formerly consigned to the constraints of hierarchical English society find their minds open to the overwhelming political, social, and moral possibilities available, reacting with panicked confusion and homicidal anger.

Clockwork Man explores the problems of the efficient society's antithesis, being libertarian chaos. With all possibilities open, everything screeches to a halt and is swallowed up in nihilistic conflagration. Yet, as any such system must, there is another power at work. Neither technique nor liberté are ends unto themselves, though their most devoted adherents may believe it to be so. They are both tools to be used for an end, chess-pieces in a game of control by those with the will to power.

However the movement of the Rakes, Tichborne and the ghosts who have mysteriously begun surfacing around London may bear out, the world around them is still losing definition. Even the laws of physics seem to be on their ear. Burton's mediumistic friend delves into the aether between worlds and realizes that in Victorian England, our own 19th century, psychic powers do not exist. The acts of clairvoyance, telekinesis and scientific imagination occurring in their London should not be possible. The actions of Edward Oxford have upset more than anyone can realize.

As the second chapter of a trilogy, Hodder follows the pattern with distinction. We have been treated to an essentially complete opening chapter that tests out the author's imagination. Now we have received the intermediary chapter in which the mechanics of world are more deeply explored and an ominous cliffhanger revealed that will carry us into the forthcoming climax. Hodder excitedly sets up his alternate 19th century and certainly left this reader filled with anticipation for how, and if, the machinations of Spring Heeled Jack will be undone.


ArtSnark said...


sinvokasha said...

Reading your description of this series (especially that bit about the diamonds) makes me wish that some random transhumanist would review it also, and/or discuss/debate its merits with you.

Cory Gross said...

Only a random one? ^_~

The books in themselves don't have a lot of deep commentary on issues of transhumanism, biotechnology and the efficient society. It's more of an implicit, latent theme given the characters and their goals. The only real rebuttals are the ugliness of the world they make and then Richard Burton killing them ^_^