The Time Machine has spawned entire franchises of time-travel novels, films, and indeed, sequels to Wells' scientific romance of the 19th century.  Jeter's is amongst the last category, and also one of the progenitor-novels of the steampunk subgenre that has become so hugely popular in the last few years.  It is also, perhaps unlike his other progenitor of the genre Infernal Devices, a fantastic novel.

Hocker and Tafe, the two main characters, are a nice juxtaposition of humanity: a brash American woman, powerful in her own right and willing to stand up for herself, with Hocker, the uptight British man of the Nineteenth century, unfailingly rationalist, unthinkingly prejudiced, and very much pleased with civilisation and his own place within it.  Hocker grows over the course of the novel incredibly well, and comes into the role revealed by the final twist of the story brilliantly; indeed, Jeter's ability to make Hocker's slow transformation believable and smooth without making it too neat is one of the best aspects of this novel.  The other characters - especially Dr Ambrose and Merdenne, with their chess-playing and polite rivalry - are also well-drawn and neatly portrayed, perhaps a little more cardboard (especially the Morlocks) but still interesting figures, and Dr. Ambrose perhaps owes a debt to T. H. White.

The plot is neatly written and fast-paced; it doesn't have much complexity in it - though a final twist at the end really throws the whole previous novel into a new light and sharp relief - but it does have action, intrigue, brilliant imagery and some nice ideas encapsulated.  Jeter makes sure the high stakes are never far from our mind, and Hocker and Tafe's attempts to save the world from the joint menaces of the Morlocks and of the space-time continuum are fascinating and, whilst often broken by a little humour or a pause for breath, brilliantly written and well-handled.  The one problematic note is that occasionally Jeter throws some elements in that really don't strike true - his characterisations of Victorian London have some stark anachronisms, and his use of the Atlanteans is, to say the least, a little annoying.

These are minor problems, however, in an overall excellent novel that well deserves a place in the classic canon of steampunk literature.
Jeter is regarded as a part of the steampunk foundational trinity, alongside Blaylock and Powers, and in the spirit of the steamy zeitgeist flying round the genre - one I fully buy into - Angry Robot Press have re-released Jeter's two steampunk novels, on of which is Infernal Devices.  As is sadly the case with much of steampunk literature, the concepts are funny and interesting but the novel itself is problematic - reflected just as much in its descendants as in this forerunner of the modern movement.

The characters of the novel are its first stumbling block: not one is likeable, plausible or believable.  Dower, our narrator, is stiff, stupid and completely uninspiring; the Brown Leather Man is Yoda-like in his speech and completely implausible as a character, only growing more so - and more like a deus ex machina - as the novel goes on; Scape is a caricature of himself, strange and annoying and brash, without any real virtues; McThane, sex-obsessed and silly (oh dear, we're caricaturing women now!); and so on, throughout the cast.  The problem is that there's no character development to offset these original impressions, even when there are opportunities for it - Scape has revelations about his background that could change how we see him, but they're deployed to no such end, for example.

The plot is... ridiculous, and silly to boot.  It has so many plots and counterplots, double, triple and quadruple agents, confusion and obscurity, interlinking and junk science said with a straight face that it really does read like a boy's own adventure on LSD; whilst there are some wonderful ideas, they're mixed in with some really weird ones - some of the science could be ripped from the pages of Verne and Wells, and that seems to be part of some of the best elements of the novel, those parts that could come from the scientific romance tradition straight off.

Jeter's novel is, it seems to me, an updating and comic version of scientific romance of the 19th century; whilst it defintiely has its virtues and is eminently readable, it's hardly high literature.  A fun, light and frothy read, but Infernal Devices isn't much more than that... so, for the father of a genre, somewhat disappointing.

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February 2012

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