NOVEMBER 16, 2013
K. W. Jeter introduced the term “steampunk” into the generic and critical terminology of science fiction in a letter published in the April 1987 issue of Locus magazine. While he may have been the first to apply the term, Jeter was hardly working in a vacuum. Infernal Devices, published that same year, was the latest addition to an ongoing literary exchange Jeter was having with contemporaries James P. Blaylock and Tim Powers, whose novels from the early- to mid-80s did much to establish the imagistic and narrative protocols of the emerging sub-genre. One can go back farther, certainly to Jeter’s own Morlock Night (1979) and the novels of Michael Moorcock – The Warlord of the Air (1971) is an example, but there are others.
1987 was something of a watershed year for steampunk: There was enough of a literary history – while perhaps obscured by the larger sf movements of the 70s – that Jeter could track a recurring narrative strategy and affix a label; at the same time, there was a contemporaneous and percolating creative activity that was clearly not cyberpunk – which was enjoying an intense moment of popular and academic credibility, much of which was in hindsight perhaps undeserved. There was something happening, what with a steady trickle of stories set in a reimagined Victorian-age Britain dominated by a variety of steam-driven contraptions set against the backdrop of an industrialized and increasingly congested urban landscape. Pipes, gauges, metal, and a variety of devices recognizable yet skewed, all of which belched steam, contributed to an emerging speculative landscape that writers, most of whom wereAmerican, were drawn towards.
More than twenty-five years after Jeter provided us the term, steampunk is no longer a minor sub-genre within the larger movements of sf publishing. Steampunk has spilled over into mass culture, most notably fandom, fashion, film, and sculpture, even as it has further embedded itself into sf sub-sub-genres, like the many permutations of the paranormal/historical/detective/romance novels that populate bookstore shelves, physical and virtual. Jeter reflects on steampunk in the current moment in his Introduction to the 2010 e-edition of Infernal Devices:
A fascination with Victorian tech is at its heart a salutary acceptance of the machine-ness of machines – and correspondingly an acceptance of the humanity of human beings. There’s something nauseatingly predigested about the look of late 20th and early 21st century industrial design, all those Steve Jobs-approved rounded edges like cough lozenges sucked on for a minute or so before being spat out into your hand. Whereas Victorian machines, with the precision-cut gears and spurred mantis armatures, are unabashedly themselves rather than trying to smoothly cozen their way into your life. Thus we similarly perceive flesh & blood Victorians – even the fictional ones – as being more genuine that ourselves. They had lives; we have marketing. Even unto our souls; drama and ruin were possible to those who guarded their secrets and shame, as pre-digital clocks held their tightly coiled mainsprings inside themselves. . .That’s what makes this last fully human epoch so interesting for writers and readers alike.
Jeter’s comments conclude with a paean to the steampunk faithful who he believes “are engaged, however unknowingly, in nobler fun than mere mental cosplay. May God bless and increase their tribe; human beings might yearn for lost things, but never unreal things.”. I quote at length here because Jeter’s take on steampunk, Fiendish Schemes (2013), provides great insight into both his latest contribution to the genre he named, and into what steampunk is generally thought of as doing, namely returning us to a past that is just tech-heavy enough to provide us the comforts we are accustomed to, but not so tech-saturated that it erodes what we refer to (yet rarely define) as our humanity.
Setting aside the irony that steampunk takes as its setting a period that saw the rapid growth of industrial processes that helped initiate modernity and that conflict with the pastoralism and romanticism that characterized so much of the thought and art of the early to mid-nineteenth century, Jeter’s humanist version of steampunk uncritically embraces aesthetics and fannish sensibilities at the expense of interrogating the more complex cultural interplay that has resulted in steampunk’s popularity. Jeter’s eliding of this analysis mirrors that of the seemingly always hapless and very often helpless George Dower, the main character of Fiendish Schemes and its predecessor Infernal Devices.
It is not necessary to read Infernal Devices before Fiendish Schemes, but those who do will be re-introduced to George Dower. An insecure, repressed and rigid man, Dower is the bachelor son of a deceased mad-inventor whose steam-driven creations, which range in size from the miniscule to the large-scale, reveal a remarkable, if corrupt, genius. The father’s talents have not been passed down to the son, alas, who is often befuddled by the various mechanisms which find their way back to him and of which he is rarely able to discern their original purpose. The novel opens with Dower aboard a travelling lighthouse, which is modeled on the late Dower’s work. Immediately at the novel’s opening, then, the reader is given a preview of what is to come: the confused Dower victimized by the legacy of his father’s vision and by those who would use that vision for their gain at his expense. The entertaining aspect of Fiendish Schemes is that this dynamic is played out in a series of misadventures showcasing an array of ever more outlandish steam-driven contraptions, from walking lighthouses to a clockwork orangutan in heat, from high-end prostitutes whose modified valveitalia attract a certain type of customer to a British prime-minister who has transformed herself into a steam-driven railroad engine before opting for an even more extreme upgrade. Present as well are some characters who were first introduced in Infernal Devices, and their inclusion in the events here make for a more effective novel as it helps bring a sense of completeness to George Dower’s life story, which these two works so effectively relate. The plot of Fiendish Schemes echoes that of its 80s predecessor: Dower is recruited by a mysterious agent working for an even more mysterious agency. Many adventures are had from which Dower is fortunate to escape intact, betrayals ensue, innocence is lost, but the world is nevertheless saved. This story, as trite as it may sound when reduced to its most basic formulae, is effective and endearing in Jeter’s professional hands. Fiendish Schemes is a solid novel bound to please steampunk aficionados as well as those with merely a passing knowledge of the movement. Perhaps the greatest strength of the novel and its predecessor is Dower’s voice, which Jeter so adeptly deploys. All the Victorian stuffiness that American audiences expect from a late nineteenth-century gentleman prude is consistently delivered through ironic understatement and witty euphemism. Even at his bleakest moments, George Dower is very funny.
But there is an intellectual lightness in Fiendish Schemes that makes the novel more of a yarn than a substantive addition to the steampunk and sf canon. Its shortcomings can perhaps be explained by Jeter’s self-conscious desire to write the novel according to what he argues is steampunk’s greatest virtue: to remind us of our humanity. In the steampunk imaginary of convoluted and tailored networks of pipes, Jeter perhaps expects us to find a metaphor for American individuality, or at least a way of being that resists marketing trends and the Apple-ization of our lives. There is a disconcerting Luddism in Jeter’s measure of steampunk today. The easy dichotomy he establishes—which ultimately comes down to the most conservative of views that life in the past was better than it is today because we were more human back then— undercuts any kind of intellectual rigor that he might be able to establish. He is certainly capable of much better. Dr. Adder (1984), The Glass Hammer (1985) and, to a lesser degree, Death Arms (1987) demonstrate his sharp mind and his conscious attempts to interrogate the world through the conventions of genre. I would include as well Farewell Horizontal (1989), a novel that is uniquely Jeter in that it is unlike anything anyone else would write. Fiendish Schemes is not the equal of these works, but that does not mean it should not be read and enjoyed. I suggest starting with Infernal Devices, however, a better book that is perhaps better thought of as weird fiction rather than science fiction or steampunk.
Fiendish Schemes is perhaps too much like the steam-driven contraptions that are found in its pages. These automations gain ground with each moment, their metal connections stressed to the point of breaking, great bouts of steam escaping as they are plunged at increasingly breakneck speeds toward their eventual denouement. It’s all good fun and it makes for great show, but the audience cannot help but feel that an opportunity has been lost. Jeter is too good a writer to not provide us a more substantive performance and he is too smart a writer to explain steampunk as merely a vehicle that returns us to those halcyon days of a past that are more imagined than real.