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Classic Steampunk :: Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter

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“An innate trust was an element of my nature that had been dissolved through harsh experience.”

The sepia tone-inspired cover of Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter typifies the sub-genre of science fiction to which it belongs. The image of a man, mouth made of metal, face half covered in leather, wearing a top hat and tux, the background a layering of gears, industrial-sized screws, shiny pipes, and a pressure gauge all scream steampunk.

Steampunk, as it’s often described, takes elements of Victorian-era Britain—its fashion, culture, architecture, art, and the advent of steam-powered technology—and combines them with elements from science fiction and fantasy. Authors, filmmakers, and other artists find inspiration in what was the historic rise of communication and travel and infuse world domination, mass destruction, and conspiracy.

Early influences are Jule Vernes’ Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, published in 1870, and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, published in 1895. Steampunk novels, as we think of them today, were published as early as the late 1960s but ascended to popularity in the 1980s and 90s with authors such as Tim Powers and James Blaylock—in addition to Jeter who published his first steampunk novel, Morlock Night, in 1979.

In an attempt to explain what he and his fellow writers were doing, Jeter coined the term “steampunk” in a letter to the editor of Locus magazine, printed in their April 1987 issue. In it he says, “Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks’, perhaps…”.

Jeter’s second steampunk novel, Infernal Devices, published in 1987, is a surrealist mystery set in Victorian London. The story begins with George Dower, the son of a deceased watchmaker left in charge of the family business. One night, George is visited by an unknown creature who he names, because of his deep brown skin, Brown Leather Man. Having been a client of his father’s, the man brings with him a mechanical regulator in need of repair. Though George protests, having been estranged from his father and never trained in the ways of the trade, Brown Leather Man insists on leaving it with him. As partial payment he hands George a silver coin embossed with the face of a Saint Monkfish, a holy man previously unknown to the unwitting heir. The object is met with mixed results throughout the story: at one point leading George directly to the person he’s looking for and yet at another nearly causing his death.

By accepting the device, George enters into a clandestine conflict between warring factions—the Royal Anti-Society, the Godly Army, and the Ladies Union for the Suppression of Carnal Vice—finding himself in murky waters, often not knowing which of these questionable characters is friend and which is foe. As intentions unfold so does the depth of George’s father’s skills and the story grow darker.

Full of fantastical elements, gear-driven gadgets, elegant language, and rich descriptions, Infernal Devices is a twisting tale that reads like classic literature.

The gentleman ignored my forays towards his name, and produced a paper-wrapped parcel from the crook of one arm. Placing it on the counter between us, the Brown Leather Man (as I had already begun  to identify him in my thoughts) undid the knotted cord and pushed aside the paper with his dark hands. “I was a client of your late father,” he said. “For me he built this, upon my commission. Some elements of disorder has entered its workings, and I seek to employ you in the setting right of it.”

The last of the wrappings fell away. “What is it?” I asked. My eyes turned upward at the Brown Leather Man’s silence, and found the narrow slits studying me with an unnerving intensity.

In relief I looked back down to what lay before me. A mahogany box a little over a foot in length, half that in its other dimensions; a pair of brass hinges faced me. With one finger I attempted to swivel the box around, but the surprising weight of it kept it motionless upon the counter. I was forced to grasp it with both hands in order to turn it about.

I unlatched the simple brass hasp and tilted the box’s lid open. My heart sank within me as I looked down at the intricate anatomy of the device.

This feeling of despair was not unfamiliar to me; it often welled up at the sight of one of my father’s creations. His genius had not been limited to the production of the packet watches and larger time-pieces whose subtlety of design and intricacy of execution had established his name among admirers of the horological art. Since his death and my inadequate assumption of his place, I had become acquainted with facets of his work that are still little known, having been undertaken at the behest of a select arid discreet clientele. Scientific and astronomical apparatus of every description, ranging from simple barometers, though of a fineness of calibration rarely if ever equalled, to elaborate astrolabes and orreries, the latter distinguished by a set of reciprocating eccentric cams in the clockwork drive mechanism capable of showing the true elliptical orbits of heavenly bodies rather than the simplified circular motions employed in other such mechanical representations of the universe — all of these and more were my father’s children. More so than my own self, I would often think as I gazed at some intricate intermeshing of gears and cogs such as the one revealed inside the Brown Leather Man’s mahogany casket. The bits of finely turned and crafted brass showed the care and attention that had been absent in the creation and assembly of my own personal manhood.

The purpose and function of some of the devices brought to me were unfathomable, and an odd secretiveness prevailed among my father’s former clients. Amateur scientific pursuits had long been a preoccupation with serious-minded gentlemen of property and leisure, but the ones who came to me were often as uncommunicative as the devices they wished to be repaired. Sextants that devided the sky into angles not found in the usual geometries, microscopes whose hermetically sealed lenses distorted the viewed object into shimmering rainbow images, other instruments whose complexity and manifold adjustments quite overwhelmed my powers of speculation as to their use — all of these had in time been brought into the shop.

—copyright: K.W. Jeter / 1979

Infernal Devices on the Angry Robot website


Written by Gabrielle

July 12, 2011 at 6:11 am

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