Michael's Reviews > Infernal Devices: A Mad Victorian Fantasy

Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter
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Nov 10, 2010

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bookshelves: sci-fi
Read from November 10 to 17, 2010

Infernal Devices is the first novel I've read in the now well-defined steampunk genre. Steampunk, as I understand it, is set exclusively in a Victorian setting, but contains many of the tropes of standard science fiction, including advanced technologies (though most rely on steam for energy, as opposed to electricity), time travel, alien beings, mysterious plot twists, and juvenile sexuality. While it has its roots in classic proto-sci-fi writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, it was refined in the 1980s by William Gibson, Tim Powers, James Blaylock, and K.W. Jeter. Jeter coined the term steampunk as a lighthearted response to the growing popularity of certain works outside of the more prevalent cyberpunk movement.

Infernal Devices deals with the bumbling adventures of George Dower, the son of a brilliant watchmaker and developer of advanced automatons. Dower has no specific will in the story, and the outrageous characters he meets and the outlandish events unfolding around him throughout the novel seem more of a brief and frightening interlude to an otherwise purposeless existence. Dower is visited in his father's shop by the mysterious Brown Leather Man who drops off a mechanical device and a strange coin that send Dower down a path leading him to strange piscine boroughs of London and the alien landscape of the Scottish Hebrides. He meets a coin forger, a pair of hustlers with strange futuristic accents, fishmen, elderly mad villains, temperance leaguers, whores, the Godly Army, and real-life selkies. There are several sudden reveals throughout the novel which change our perspective of all the prior events. None of these reveals seems earned by Dower, but only forced on him by a manipulative secondary character. Dower might be the key to destroying the earth, or he might be the key to saving it. The reader is not sure until the last ten pages.

Jeter's greatest strength is his deftness with the Victorian setting. He uses a breezy writing style which is eminently readable, but manages to imbue each scene with the grit and smoke of Dickens or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When Dower walks through Wetwick, we see the shadowy alleys and the lurching denizens. We smell the rot swept into the gutters. Also, concerning the mechanical automatons, Jeter writes with verve. The Paganinicon, which resembles Dower in all ways except for his skill with a violin and another important tool (where lies Jeter's juvenile treatment of sexuality), enforces the fantastic and comedic tone of the novel.

While Infernal Devices is a greatly entertaining read, I feel it's maybe not the best introduction to the steampunk genres. Jeter hits all of the superficial cues. There's magical mechanical technology, flying machines, weird underclasses, secret societies, myths come to life. But one of the most important aspects of the genre, as I understand it, is the punk spirit underneath its most important works. We see no liberating of non-western individuals from the obscurity the Victorians doomed them to. Jeter only briefly addresses the perils of the technologies of the future. I'm not suggesting every novel should involve these themes, but Jeter's novel seems to be on the lighter end of the spectrum of this genre. It's still a pleasant read. I'd just call it more steamgentry than steampunk.
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