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K. W. Jeter’s “Infernal Devices”

On this blog, I have endeavored to review books by as many different authors as possible, mostly avoiding doing more than one by the same person. Now, however, I’m discovering favorite writers which I feel deserve additional attention. One of these is KW Jeter, the actual inventor of the word “steampunk.” His first novel in that vein, Morlock Night, is fun but is also quite short and rather simplistic. His later book Infernal Devices, published in 1987, is another thing altogether.

Though the book’s original cover art is unremarkable, that of the 2011 edition, which features gears and a mechanical man in a top hat, is a perfect representation. The story is as complex and interesting as the cover, full of machinations, schemes, and conspiracies. It takes place in Victorian London and follows the hapless George Dower, the proprietor of the clock repair business established by his late father. As he has inherited none of his father’s mechanical genius, he barely gets by. His sole attempt to complete one of his father’s projects – a clockwork church choir – ended in a disaster which still shames him long after the incident.

The first edition cover. Is it my imagination, or does this rendition of George resemble Michael Palin?

Then one day a dark-skinned stranger appears at his shop with a wooden box containing a mysterious clockwork device that needs repairing. Because the customer refuses to give his name, Dower designates him as “The Brown Leather Man.” Though he has no idea what the box does, he accepts the job anyway, being desperate for business. As a down payment, the stranger gives him an odd coin, a silver crown that bears, not the face of Queen Victoria, but the likeness of a hideous fish-man which it designates as “Saint Monkfish.”

Shortly thereafter, a mysterious couple, Mr. Scape and Miss Thane, appear at Dower’s shop. They dress oddly and speak in 1970’s-type slang, which Dower finds quite baffling. They demand the Brown Leather Man’s box, attempting to take it by force, but Dower and his assistant drive them off. Despite these and other troubles besetting him, Dower becomes obsessed with learning the origin of the Leather Man’s mysterious coin. His quest leads him to an obscure borough of London called Wetwick, whose denizens resemble the fish-man engraving and regard him with a kind of ignorant hostility.

All these weird characters and events give Infernal Devices a kind of absurdist Monty-Pythonesque humor. Some of the funny moments are due to Dower’s slow-witted assistant Creff, who for example mistakes the Brown Leather Man as an “Ethiope.” This is another thing I love about the book, its wonderfully arcane language.

A series of increasingly bizarre events leads Dower and Creff to the rural village of Dampford, whose people are like those of Wetwick. The exception is the local aristocrat Lord Bendray, who appears to be quite mad. In Dampford, Dower runs afoul of the sinister Royal Anti-Society, the anti-technology fanatics of the Godly Army, and the puritanical Ladies Union for the Suppression of Carnal Vice. He also discovers that he has a clockwork double. Being mistaken for this automaton leads him into even more trouble. He makes numerous narrow escapes and had repeated encounters with Scape, Thane, and the Brown Leather Man. Eventually, Dower discovers the secret of the dark man’s identity and the strange couple’s anachronistic behavior.

All in all, Infernal Devices is one of the best examples I’ve seen of the alternate-history type of steampunk, with practically all the tropes falling in place. The Victorian language is an absolute delight, to which Scape’s “mod” slang provides a hilarious contrast. The plot may be a bit over-complicated, but Jeter brings everything together in a satisfying way. Thus it may not be the best choice for the steampunk novice. Nonetheless, I still highly recommend it and give it a score of five out of five gears.

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