The steampunk series continues because I can’t seem to get to writing any new stuff lately.
Raw Feed (2002): Homunculus, James P. Blaylock, 1986.
I can see, after reading this book, why Tim Powers says many of the funny bits of his books are just notes from his talks with his friend Blaylock.
Blaylock is funny. He gives many of his characters endearing quirks. Captain Powers, no doubt named for Tim Powers who, in his The Anubis Gates, had a ship named the Blaylock, has a fondness for objects which double as flasks, including his peg leg. His friend William Keeble, a toymaker, despises the Utilitarian notions of philosopher Jeremy Benthem, in marked contrast to evil industrialist Drake, symbol of rapacious practicality. Langdon St. Ives is a brilliant scientist with a rocket ship in his silo. However, he can’t get into the Royal Academy of Sciences and likes the whimsy of poetry over the stiff requirements of science. Hasbro is his unflappable, practical gentleman’s gentleman. Bill Kraken is a lowborn man of a criminal past who now helps the Trismegistus Club, and he is sort of self-educated though his readings in science and philosophy, including a work by William Ashbless which stops a bullet from killing him, has left him with some strange notions. Willis Pule is a hapless, acne plagued villain who harbors constant fantasies of revenge and destruction against those who offend his dignity though none of his plans come out right. Hunchback Ignacio Narbondo is his boss. Shiloh the New Messiah is the putative son of Joanna Southcote, a real religious figure of the late 18th and early 19th century who, when she died, claimed she was pregnant with Shiloh who would rule nations with a rod of iron. (The modern Panacea Society, according to the Fortean Times, continues her teachings.)
I liked some of the plot elements of this novel: stealing carps from a public aquarium to use their glands in immortality and reanimation experiments; reanimating the dead and using them as followers for Shiloh, the attempted reanimation of Joanna Southcote’s skeleton, feeding the resurrected dead with literal blood pudding, Maxwell’s Demon turning out not to be an analogy but a literal being — in this case the stranded alien homunculus.
The novel is funny in parts — Blaylock even works in a playful reference to Samuel Delany with St. Ives’ thought experiments on time as a corridor viewed through translucent doors: “Time Considered as a Succession of Semi-closed Doors”.
I liked the Victorian gentlemanliness that inhibits all the heroes from resorting to lethal violence. Indeed, at novel’s end, villains Pule and Drake and Narbondo are still alive. I liked St. Ives stealing the alien spaceship out of a London brothel of Drake’s. I liked the mysteriousness and playful macabre imagery of the skeletal Birdlip aloft in his dirigible for years and how, at novel’s end, his animated skeleton goes off in the spaceship with the alien homunculus, its desire, and life, and the nature of its decade long aerial quest unrevealed.
I did not like the rather screwball comedy aspects of the novel’s end with a giant emerald, the homunculus, an oxygenator for St. Ives’ rocket, an entropy-reversing engine all hidden in identical toy boxes built by Keeble. I don’t think screwball comedy plots work well on the page, and this one specifically reminded me of the identical suitcases in the movie What’s Up, Doc?.