Alan's Reviews > The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions

The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions by Robert Rankin
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's review
Jun 26, 2011

liked it
Recommended to Alan by: The Brightonomicon inter alia
Recommended for: Jolly good old-fashioned steam-punk aficionados
Read in June, 2011

I tend to put a hyphen in "steam-punk" for the same reason I don't put one in "email"—that is, because the Victorians would've done so. The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions is so self-consciously and comprehensively steam-punk, hyphenation and all, that it almost hurts to read it, and it's not nearly as funny a book as it thinks it is... but its very level of florid intensity makes the book a more deadpan recreation of the sort of Victorian prose it's parodying.

And it hangs together better than you might think. The defeat of H.G. Wells' Martian invaders at the flagellae of the lowly microbe is the starting point for a cascade of tremendous differences between this world's history and our own. Britain has successfully reverse-engineered captured Martian technology to become the Earth's first—and so far only—spacefaring empire; the Imperial counter-invasion of the Red Planet was a smashing success—so much so that the Martian race is essentially extinct—and there is a thriving British colony on Mars. The Royal London Spaceport is nearing completion, the great air-ship Empress of Mars prepares to circumnavigate the globe, and already emissaries from the hitherto-hidden Venusian and Jovian civilizations have made themselves known to humanity.

This is the panoramic backdrop against which George Fox enters as Our Hero—and it's no spoiler to say so, though we meet him as a lowly assistant in a traveling carnival act, exhibiting a pickled Martian to the rubes and acting as general dogsbody to the brilliant but amoral Professor Cagliostro Coffin. Then George runs into a young beauty who calls herself Ada Lovelace... whereupon complications, opportunities and adventures ensue.

To some extent, this novel suffers from the problem of "playing without a net"—when anything can happen, dramatic tension is reduced, and it takes a delicate touch at humor to manage as many zany elements as Rankin adds to the mix. This book is blatantly and cheerfully anachronistic as well; in our universe, the real Ada Lovelace passed away nearly 50 years prior to this novel's fin de siècle setting, and other historical figures who were by no means contemporaries are herein made to meet. But the strong central character arc of George's development and budding relationship with Ada helps keep things on track. In the end, I did come away from The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions with no small measure of satisfaction.

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