Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter

Reviewed by Brendan Byrne

Infernal Devices cover

Infernal Devices is not the first steampunk novel, though it's doubtful if that matters much. The term was coined by Jeter in 1987, the year in which Infernal Devices was published. The word "steampunks" was first used in a letter to Locus Magazine by Jeter to describe himself, along with Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock. Moreover, Infernal Devices prominently features the tropes of a now wearingly over-familiar subgenre: Victorian England reimagined with spectacular technology distinguished by "mad inventor" Vernian flourishes coupled with a narrative driven by a deliberately outdated adventure storyline. Such power chords are the basis of a currently very popular subgenre criticized for ossification, fetishization of design over content, and, by Charles Stross most notably, celebration of empire, at the expense of the historical reality of Victorian England.

However, Jeter, unlike so many of steampunk's current scribes, is an author extremely difficult to pin down. A friend of Philip K. Dick's, the author of three authorized Blade Runner sequels, he has been credited by Rudy Rucker with helping cyberpunk to form and recommended by the likes of Simon Sellars, who doubles as a Ballardian. Jeter's 1998 novel Noir is the singularly blistering and deeply odd story of a capitalistic dystopia as seen by a detective who has had his eyes surgically altered to show the world as if it were a 50s noir film; the novel could have, in an alternate reality, gestated its own subgenre, noirpunk or something like that. Therefore, Infernal Devices, now reprinted by Angry Robot, deserves some consideration outside of its status as a genitor of steampunk.

Almost immediately, Jeter attempts to generate context for, if not justify, the project, by having his narrator note, "Amateur scientific pursuits had long been a preoccupation with serious-minded gentlemen of property and leisure . . .” (p. 28). One of these serious-minded gentlemen is father to our narrator, George Dwyer, who, since his orphaning, has been in charge of his progenitor's clockwork shop. He knows little and is stymied when a device of his father’s creation is brought to him for repair. The first description of the tech sets the tone: "Under the glass I discovered the floating escapement with ratcheted countervalences . . . linked in parallel to a train of duplicates disappearing into the brass innards . . . One section, brighter than the rest, appeared to be made of finely hammered gold leaf, the sheets of which were folded upon themselves in various asymmetrical patterns" (p. 30). Here's a deep ambivalence: lovingly detailed and deliberately frustrating, both to narrator and reader. Clockwork gadgets are not here part of the fabric of everyday life; they are William Gibson's unequally distributed future, as emphasized as they were in, say, Dickens.

The device in question has been brought to Dwyer by a strange character he dubs "The Brown Leather Man" (and here we already begin to see Jeter amusing himself with Victorian racial tropes). Here begin the narrative convulsions, which are far and away the most appealing thing about the novel. Like a bored child, constantly picking up and putting down his toys, Jeter changes the surface under which the plot sits nearly constantly, while throwing every major SF power chord available (time travel, undersea civilization, other dimensions) at us with delightful relish. This is not to compensate for lack of psychological understanding, or anything at all like deep motivation or human emotion; these are not, really, even minor considerations of the novel.

Not to say that Jeter isn't interested in taking the piss out of the Victorians, or out of us (or rather our 1987 counterparts). The Brown Leather Man is first thought to be an "Ethiope," and we are meant to sigh with liberal relief when he is revealed as non-human, to laugh at characters who cannot tell him apart from an African. However, when The Brown Leather Man's true race is revealed, he becomes a powerful metaphor for all those colonized whose civilizations were wrecked by the British Empire. Doubles abound (the leader of a anti-brothel society is a madam, etc.), but most importantly, the narrator's own rather plodding, boring nature (he is referred to as "stolid" almost constantly in the book’s second half) is integral to the story. It is this very stolidness which is used to kickstart (via brain wave patterns, of course) his father's creations, and, ultimately, it is the disruptions of these patterns, through the loss of innocence, which leads the saving of the human race. Then there are the throwaway bits: Lord Bendray, preparing his destruction of the world, describes the hermetically sealed cabin which will keep him safe. It will, of course, have space for his servants as, "A gentleman couldn't very well travel without them, could he?" (p. 201)

Infernal Devices is decidedly, and deliberately, a minor novel, though a clever and mean-spirited one, which offers as much jeering as it does romping. One of Jeter's characters who has glimpsed the (our) future says, "Hey, it's gonna be a gas . . . If you're into machines and stuff—like I am—you'd go for it. People are gonna have all kinds of shit" (p. 294). This points the way toward what Jeter is getting at. Jeter, along with Powers and Blaylock, were all Americans, writing stories of rampant gadget obsession in the decline of a great, vicious empire. Victorian England, reimagined by Jeter, is nothing more than twentieth century America. What we see in Infernal Devices is not just the presager of what steampunk is, but what it could have been, a marvelously self-aware and inventive attack on the obsessions and degradations of the present.

The original version of this review incorrectly identified Infernal Devices's year of publication as 1979 instead of 1987

Comments

Posted by Chris at June 21, 2011 3:48 AM:

I believe Infernal Devices was actually published in 1987; I read it in hardback when it first came out. Jeter's 1979 novel was Morlock Night.

Posted by Abigail at June 21, 2011 8:06 AM:

Thanks for the correction, Chris. I've made the relevant change in the review.

Posted by Brendan at June 21, 2011 9:04 AM:

Chris,

Hi there. You're absolutely right that Infernal Devices first came out in 1987, which is why I was surprised to learn, via the copyright page of Angry Robot's new edition, that it was copyrighted in 1979. Instead of going into the tangle and twist of when it was written vs. when it came out, I concentrated upon the date of its origin, rather than publication. But thanks for the close read.

Best,

Brendan

Posted by Abigail at June 21, 2011 9:36 AM:

And corrected again. This is proving to be a busy morning...

Posted by Kevin J. Maroney at June 21, 2011 6:57 PM:

What we see in Infernal Devices is not just the presager of what steampunk is, but what it could have been, a marvelously self-aware and inventive attack on the obsessions and degradations of the present.

But as we all know, the street finds its own uses for critiques of technology.

Posted by Nick H. at June 22, 2011 12:12 AM:

"which is why I was surprised to learn, via the copyright page of Angry Robot's new edition, that it was copyrighted in 1979"

It could simply be a typo or some other form of error. Have you tried contacting Angry Robot for confirmation? Or (possibly trickier) searching out a copy of the first edition to see what that says?

Posted by Brendan at June 22, 2011 5:41 AM:

No one has offered any evidence that the copyright is not 1979. Plenty of novels have sat in drawers for longer than eight years. If someone wishes to dig up a first edition or contact the publisher and suggest an error, they are more than welcome to do so. I am comfortable taking the copyright page at face value.

Posted by Lee Harris at June 22, 2011 2:32 PM:

Just checked - it's a typo on the US edition. The copyright is 1987 (correct on the UK edition).

Posted by Jeff VanderMeer at June 22, 2011 6:27 PM:

It's a bit lazy to reference Stross (god love 'im, but no steampunk expert) without also referencing Moorcock's anti-Imperialism in his proto-steampunk novels, referencing numerous articles on Beyond Victoriana that recognize how much non-escapist Steampunk is being created. Steampunk Reloaded, our second volume of steampunk stories, includes feminist Steampunk and all kinds of non-escapist stuff. Even Wells, the precursor to steampunk, was often looking at things from a progressive stance.

In actual fact, the elements you praise in Infernal along these lines are being explored by modern steampunk. All it takes is not engaging in generalities and a bit of research to provide a more balanced and truthful view of what's out there.

Nice analysis of the novel itself, though. And it was published in 1987. Even a short google search makes that clear.

JeffV

Posted by Brendan at June 22, 2011 10:09 PM:

JeffV: the confusion isn't what the publication date was, but what the copyright date was. After seeing Lee Harris' comment, I wrote to Angry Robot. Hopefully they will clear the matter up. As to our divergent views on steampunk, we'll just have to disagree.

Posted by Brendan at June 22, 2011 10:12 PM:

...and Lee Harris is an editor at Angry Robot books. Emailing Abigail to make necessary changes.

Posted by Lee Harris at June 22, 2011 10:15 PM:

I got your email, Brendan. The copyright is 1987, as I mentioned a couple of posts up.

Posted by Jeff VanderMeer at June 24, 2011 6:08 PM:

Brendan: It's easy to say views diverge but it's not adequate to bridge ignoring facts or having apparently not done the requisite background reading before reaching your conclusions. All I can conclude is that you're a sloppy reviewer who decided it would be nice to end with a statement that sounds nice but isn't particularly factual.

What is tiresome about this is, again, there is no close reading of texts going on, there is simply received ideas--Stross made a blog post, so you take the blog post at face value and that becomes your stance. You read a book and you like it but you decide it isn't really evidence of interesting things being done in a subgenre, but the exception, even though it's quite clear you haven't read hardly anything in that field.

Your response to criticism of your ignorance is to say we have a difference of opinion. Consider me unimpressed.

JeffV

JeffV

Posted by Brendan at November 16, 2011 4:25 PM:

JeffV: I just noticed your comment now. I don't debate in the comments section of reviews I write. I've been so active here simply because I wanted to clear up the copyright date. If you want to take this policy for ignorance, you're more than welcome to.

Best,

Brendan


Brendan Byrne's fiction appears in FLURB, and his criticism in The Brooklyn Rail. He's also the editor of the webzine The Orphan. You can follow him on Twitter @BrendanCByrne.