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The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the WorldsThis is the third in Robert Rankin’s steampunk trilogy (the fourth and fifth books of which will be published later this year and next year) featuring Darwin, the talking monkey butler – upgraded to eponymity for this volume (although the conflation of apes and monkeys is quite annoying). As with The Mechanical Messiah and Other Marvels of the Modern Age, the detective Cameron Bell is, in truth, the main character.

The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the Worlds expands on the universe developed in the other two books. Ernest Rutherford joins Tesla and Babbage as minor characters, but his creation of a time machine has a profound effect on the story (it also turns out that he has created a Large Hadron Collider under London – during the day it is disguised as the Circle Line). The narrative takes Bell to Mars, where he meets Princess Pamela – Victoria’s secret twin sister and spare queen.

Pamela is just one of several strong female characters – one of the best developments in Rankin’s writing in these most recent books. There are two good girls and two bad girls, most of whom have interesting stories, but not much page time as viewpoint characters (if any).

As I tend to expect from Rankin, this book is very entertaining – especially in the first two-thirds; it started to drag a tiny bit towards the end – it’s full of silliness and strange covolutions of plot; it has some heart-warming moments and some tragedy; overall, it’s not too challenging, but it is a lot of fun.

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This novel (published last year, but only recently obtained by me) is the sequel to 2010’s The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions; it’s own sequel, The Educated Ape and Other Wonders of the Worlds comes out in a few weeks.

Only one character is reprised from that earlier story – Darwin the monkey butler – otherwise, the only thing they share is the setting: an extravagant fin de siècle steampunk universe where, in retaliation for the War of the Worlds, the British Empire has destroyed the Martian civilisation by sending sick people to Mars on back-engineered spaceships; where the three powers of the solar system are the British, the Venusians and the Jupiterians; where horse-drawn carts share the streets with electric vehicles powered by Tesla’s wireless transmission of electricity.

The story starts with quite an effective chapter with baroque descriptions of a London music hall, the Electric Alhambra, that, while cheery and full of doggerel, nonetheless have a sinister undertone. And then there’s a dramatic murder. The story – at least from the point of view of one of the main characters, Cameron Bell, a man with the mind of Sherlock Holmes and the appearance of Samuel Pickwick – begins there. Colonel Katterfelto, however, has been planning for years to put together a mechanical messiah based on the plans of the mysterious but knowledgeable Herr Döktor; for the time being he’s at the bottom of the nightly bill at the Electric Alhambra displaying a mechanical minstrel – which is really a monkey butler in a tin man suit. And Alice Lovell, Bell’s unrequitable love-interest – also performs – with her acrobatic (and quite violent) kiwi birds. Meanwhile, the villain of the piece is making himself powerful enough to start a Third Worlds War.

In retrospect, all these elements don’t really work all that well together and the story would seem to be a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster. Who is Herr Döktor and how did he get to have so much influence on the characters and events? How did the bad guy get to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Why is it only now that Colonel Katterfelto’s plans start to come together? What is the nature of Alice Lovell’s trippy guardian rabbit/kiwi bird? What happened to Aleister Crowley after Cameron shot him in the foot with a ray gun? Was the huge redding herring (the nature of which I will say nothing) really necessary to the plot?

Nevertheless, it all works quite well. In fact, this book and its predecessor represent a bit of change of style for Robert Rankin. The storytelling is a little more mature (while still being full of immature silliness), stylish and confident. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: his later work is not as laugh-out-loud funny as his earlier stuff, but it’s still a great pleasure to read.

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While, in broad terms, The Japanese Devil Fish Girl is much the same as any other Robert Rankin novel – a plucky but unlikely hero must save the world from the forces of darkness – it has a different feel to any of the author’s books. I put this down to two things: the Victorian setting and the presence of a strong female protagonist.

The setting is key to the story. The novel takes place in a post-War of the Worlds era where Britain has conquered Mars and has been welcomed into the solar system’s family of space-faring races – which include the jolly Burghers of Jupiter and the aloof Ecclesiastics of Venus. This is much more of a science fictional setting than many of Rankin’s other books – although the story does concern a race to find and control the über-goddess, Sayito, also known as the Japanese Devil Fish Girl, source of all religions in the universe.

George Fox and his employer, Professor Cagliostro Coffin, display a pickled Martian at fairs around the land until George receives a prophecy that the fate of worlds hangs upon his shoulders, whereupon they formulate a much grander plan, although the details of this plan often strike George as somewhat untoward. Ada Lovelace is a stowaway on the luxurious airship, the Empress of Mars, with whom George strikes up a friendship – and who may or may not be more than she appears.

The narrative is as polished as you’d expect from a man whose stories are all variations on a theme. It moves along at a rapid pace and is full of all the quirky incidents and rewritings of history that you would expect – a series of footnotes explain that the recorded death dates of the personages appearing in the novel – Babbage and Tesla, for instance – are woefully inaccurate.

As with many of Rankin’s later novels, there were far fewer laugh-out-loud moments than I remember from his earlier books, but reading this volume was still a pleasure.

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