You’ve been steampunked!
By Adam Sell
The Bot Book Review is an occasional series of short reviews of robot-themed books as written by White Ops team members.
My last review spoke of the play that brought the word “robot” into the English language. I gave the piece a fairly flattering review, in no small part based on its potential for adaptation and creative interpretation. This new review will focus on a book written by the author who introduced the word “steampunk” to English. My review, however, will not be so flattering, as there are several key aspects of this story that are troubling.
Do me a favor, dear reader, and punch “steampunk” into your Google machine. Now switch over to the Images tab, and have a gander at this aesthetic. It’s Victorian, with a heavy dash or seven of brass, leather, glass, and gears with too many teeth. It’s “retrofuturistic”, which is a fancy way of saying what people thought the future was going to look like if our timeline had branched off at some point and continued linearly based on the prevailing technology of the age.
Which, fine. I like The Jetsons. I like Back to the Future. I like i, Robot (the movie, anyway - haven’t made it to the book yet).
What K.W. Jeter wrote in Infernal Devices is steampunk in so far as it’s got a lot of the hallmarks of a retrofuturistic Victorian mystery. It’s also wildly misogynistic, vaguely racist, and shows a troubling lack of concern for the concept of consent. In short, while Jeter is personally responsible for the introduction of the word steampunk, if Infernal Devices were to be emblematic of the genre, it should have been killed in the cradle. (Gratefully, it is an outlier.)
Spoiler alert for the rest of this review, though I can’t recommend indulging in the source material.
Our hero—such as he is—in the novel is the second-generation owner of a watch and clock repair shop in London. He’s marginally inept, not sharing the enthusiasm for the work that the shop’s progenitor did. One day, a person described as having dark, leathery skin (later referred to as the Brown Leather Man, in a turn of phrase matched only by “it is what it says on the tin”) comes to the shop with a device that our hero doesn’t recognize. This delivery sets off a lengthy chain of dominos for the protagonist, including:
Repeated attempts at robbery by people who have witnessed the future.
A church with a mechanical choir and a fish-hybrid congregation.
A genuine mad scientist with aims on destroying the world. Literally.
The vice squad, which is led by a Carrie Nation-type who turns out to be a Madam for fish-hybrid prostitutes.
Multiple close escapes from said vice squad, said fish-hybrid figures, and said mad scientist.
Hidden parts of London where the fish-hybrid folks live, and which can only be located with the help of preternaturally-gifted dogs.
Where do robots figure into this, you might ask? Great question - it turns out that our hero’s father was something of a visionary inventor, who developed several doppelganger automatons whose artificial brains gain function only when placed in proximity to their original counterparts. And our hero meets his own twin, who plans to make a career out of violin virtuosity despite his mechanical nature. That’s really as far as the robot stuff goes, despite a book cover that would imply more.
At any rate, the world is saved in the climax of the book by a—and I can’t believe I’m writing this—literal climax. Our hero has been fending off the advances of a woman involved in the aforementioned robbery attempts for a hundred or so pages now, only for the energy waves associated with lovemaking to be required to foil the mad scientist’s plan to dismantle the planet.
There are some reviews of Infernal Devices on Goodreads that explore better than I could just how problematic these themes are: women are either insatiable in their lust, frumpy, or lying about one or the other; all people of other races are described using animalistic adjectives or terms that likely were out of fashion even in 1986 when this book was written; and I can’t fail to resurface that the hero literally saves the world through sex.
This book is not worth your time. I debated giving a star back to my rating to acknowledge that at no point could I realistically predict what was coming next. But no, I don’t think I can do that. The protagonist saves the day through having dubiously consensual sex. I will not give this book any credit.
So, yeah. Thank you Jeter for the word “steampunk”, and thank you for another flavor of retrofuturism, I suppose. But no thanks on this ostensibly seminal work of the genre.
By K.W. Jeter
Bot Book Review Rating: 1/5 stars