Last weekend, I was at Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, Arizona. One of the people I was on a panel with was K.W. Jeter. In 1987, Jeter sent a copy of his novel Morlock Night to Locus Magazine along with a letter that suggested there should be a collective term for “gonzo-historical” speculative fiction like his novel and the works of Tim Powers and James Blaylock. Given the popularity of cyberpunk at the time, he made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the three of them were “steam-punks.” Since that time, assorted authors have tried their hands at Victorian-inspired science fiction and fantasy including yours truly. However, in the early 2000s, steampunk became more than a literary subgenre. It became a whole movement of makers, musicians, and costumers. As I put the finishing touches on a batch of gonzo-historical stories for eSpec Books recently, I realized I’d never actually read any of the works by the man who coined the term Steampunk. I decided to dive into the novel Infernal Devices, which Jeter published the same year as his famous letter in Locus.
Infernal Devices opens when a mysterious man appears at the shop and residence of one George Dower. George’s father was a brilliant clockmaker who was also known for creating automata. When the famous clockmaker died, the younger Dower inherited the family business. Although George was capable of some basic work on watches and clocks, he lacked his father’s genius. The mysterious stranger, who George refers to as “the Brown Leather Man,” leaves a mysterious machine reportedly built by George’s father. Later, two more strangers appear at the shop. One is a man in blue-tinted glasses called Scape and the other is a woman named Miss McThane. They indicate their interest in devices built by George’s father. They also prove to be anachronisms, speaking more like people of the late twentieth century than people of the nineteenth. Later, George’s servant, Cref, catches them breaking into the house. It soon becomes clear they’re searching for the device left behind by the Brown Leather Man. This leads George on a quest to find out what the box is. His only clue is a coin depicting a fish-headed man left behind by the Brown Leather Man.
George eventually finds himself in a neighborhood of fish-headed people and meets the person who made the coin. When he returns to talk to the man who made the coin, George finds the man dead and is nearly killed himself. Escaping that fate, he comes across Scape and Miss McThane again and finds them in a church where George’s father had installed an automata choir and priest. They’re setting up a service for the fish-headed people. The man leading the service for the fish-headed people is a mysterious Lord Bendray. Eventually, George learns that Lord Bendray once was a patron of his father’s. Among the devices George’s father built for Lord Bendray was a machine that could destroy the world.
Over the course of Infernal Devices, George Dower is shuffled from one adventure and set of colorful characters to another. As it turns out, George himself is rather drab and really just wants to get back to his own quiet life, but finds himself learning more than he wanted about his father’s legacy. One interesting element in the novel was that Jeter introduces a way for certain characters to glimpse possibilities from the future. I also gave characters a glimpse into the future in my Clockwork Legion series. Neither Jeter nor I give our characters a perfect view. In my case the characters only know possibilities might work. In Jeter’s, some characters have caught rapid-fire glimpses of the future. In both cases, seeing the possibilities has a profound effect on the relevant characters.
All in all, I found Infernal Devices a fascinating read. You can find a copy wherever fine books or ebooks are sold.
In the meantime, you can learn about my Clockwork Legions series at: http://davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion