Saturday, 28 April 2001

K.W. Jeter: Infernal Devices (1987)

Edition: Grafton, 1988
Review number: 808

There are quite a few science fiction novels which use the same basic premise as Infernal Devices - that the Victorian period could have produced technology rivalling today's computers in complexity - enough to have earned the subgenre label "steampunk" in imitation of cyberpunk. The attractions of such novels for writers are clear; as well as allowing them to comment on contemporary life in a veiled way, as all alternative history does, it is possible to write in homage to the Victorian thrillers and early science fiction adventures which are still loved by many today. The tone of Infernal Devices is more reminiscent of Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger novels than H.G. Wells or Jules Verne (who are possibly more obvious models to follow - especially as one of Jeter's other novels is a sequel to The Time Machine). It is, however, rather knowing and pokes some fun at the way that many historical novels import modern language and morality unintentionally.

George Dower's father was a master inventor of clockwork devices, a talent unfortunately not inherited by his son, who makes a meagre living repairing watches and those creations of his father where the fault is obvious. One device, left with him by its owner, a man who seems to have a skin of brown leather, leads him into a strange adventure. This involves an unusual couple who talk in twentieth century slang, a church where the pew Bibles are replaced by Isaak Walton's Compleat Angler, a device which is meant to destroy the world, and a violin-playing automaton, the Paganinicon, which is also Dower's double.

Infernal Devices is much less repellent than Jeter's earlier work, but perhaps is less gripping as a result. Its message is less clear than that of Dr Adder. However, since it can be appreciated as an entertaining take on the Victorian adventure story, it probably remains Jeter's most accessible novel, even including the Bladerunner sequels.

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