Fiendish Schemes by K W Jeter
As I move ever faster into advanced adulthood, I await with interest the supposed memory phenomenon which permits me to recall what happened thirty years ago as if it was yesterday. This would be very convenient for the purposes of this review. All those years ago, I was collecting the work of K J Jeter. He was considered very edgy, producing distinctly different novels upon which to feast. One of these published some twenty-five years ago, was Infernal Devices. This, you understand, was long before the label steampunk had been invented. The book was marketed as a “mad” Victorian style of adventure story in which various weird and rather wonderful things happened. As it is, I have no difficulty in remembering what I had for breakfast this morning (to eliminate doubt, I have eaten the same breakfast every morning for sixty years), but cannot remember clearly what the earlier book was actually about. All I know is that I read it. Fortunately the absence of symptoms of Alzheimer’s is not a problem for these purposes. The sequel, Fiendish Schemes (Tor, 2013), stands up well on its own.
First let’s resolve the problems of labels. The marketers would have you believe this is a return to steampunk as conceived by the prophet Jeter. In literal terms, this has some mild credibility given the majority of technology on display is either powered by clockwork or those machines have been converted to steam. Not out of concerns for the environment, you understand. This is not steam produced by the combustion of coal or other fossil fuels. For now, climate change is not rearing its head. Rather the Victorian entrepreneurs have hit upon geothermal power. Following the designs of Arthur Conan Doyle channelling Professor Challenger in “When the Earth Screamed”, they have driven deep shafts into the earth and now draw up magma to superheat water and distribute it by a complex network of pipes from the blasted landscape of northern areas to the sultry, steam-ravaged cities of the south. The result is an apparently inexhaustible supply of steam piped into every home which can afford to pay the going rate. Needless to say, the businesses investing their capital in this source of power have grown excessively rich.
If we had stayed at this level, we would probably have been willing to accept this as mere steampunk, but the actual book is rather more rooted in surreal or absurdist fantasy. Set in Victorian Britain, one fact is inescapable. Britain is an island that has, since recorded time began, depended on trade to survive. Secure logistics for shipping are therefore essential. This was achieved until the seas achieved sentience. Yes, large bodies of water are now intelligently watching what we do on the land. If they disapprove, they can raise or lower the water level in their area. This can rip the bottom out of ships plying routes normally full fathom five or flood low-lying farm land. To deal with the first, Victorian scientists have developed mobile lighthouses which can literally walk from one point to another as required to warn ships of changing conditions in the area. Of course, this movement is expensive, inconvenient and reactive. It would be so much better if we humans could negotiate treaties with the seas or at least predict where the shallows might move next. The answer is to talk with the whales. They can already converse with the seas. All we need do is find the notorious universal language machine built by a brilliant inventor before his death. To help us in our quest, we rely on his son. If anyone can find this machine and make it work it will be him. Unfortunately, he lacks the inventive brilliance of his father and, in many ways, is an innocent. This book therefore follows him as he moves through this alternate history Victorian England, observing his strange escapades with the steam-powered orangutan, his exposure to fex, his introduction to parliamentary debate, and his encounters with divers other strangenesses and oddities.
All this peregrination is described in a wonderfully antique first-person writing style which captures the rather dull and podding qualities of some Victorian prose while actually describing some completely extraordinary events. In general, this is a great success, producing smiles from the juxtaposition of our naive protagonist and completely surreal events, e.g. the coupling of a man and woman who have had their biological systems surgically attached to steam engines. The only problem lies in the sometimes quite extended dialogue between our innocent protagonist and the duplicitous antagonist who lures our hero into ever greater difficulty with promises of great wealth. Although these debates offer an opportunity for some satire and commentary on modern morals, they do go on. . . As to the schemes in which our hero becomes embroiled, they are genuinely fiendish in a surreal replay of future history (if you see what I mean). The resulting climactic dispute between two behemoths lurching over a burning London is an appropriate way of bringing much needed sanity to the proceedings. The only note of sadness is the essential determinism. The fate of the whales seems to be sealed no matter which version of the future comes to pass. So with the caveat that I think some of the debating goes on too long, I find myself impressed. The old master has not lost his flair for the absurdities of the world. Fiendish Schemes is recommended.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.