James P. Blaylock is widely credited with being one of the progenitors of modern literary steampunk. As a sub-genre of Science Fiction, steampunk has deeper roots than Blaylock’s writing taking, as it does, cues from Victorian era writers such as Verne and Wells. However, they are different. The proto-Science Fiction of Verne and Wells was, in spite of their many undoubted assumptions about the time in which they were writing, somewhat forward looking. Present day steampunk, as it tends to be a form of alternative history, looks back. Though I have read several steampunk novels and a number of short stories which do attempt to go beyond mere fetish, there is a tendency for steampunk to ignore the problems inherent in admiration for an era in which fewer people had rights than now.
So, while my expectations for enjoyment of this novella weren’t high, I was interested in reading it, given my unfamiliarity with Blaylock’s place in Science Fiction history. It’s a slender volume and at 176 sparsely printed pages, a quick read. I’d also like to note that there are a number of mood setting illustrations, all of which contributes to quite a handsome little volume.
‘The Affair Of The Chalk Cliffs’ is set in Blaylock’s ‘Langdon St. Ives’ universe. The story opens with an outbreak of madness at the Explorer’s Club. The men there are all suddenly lose control, only to just as quickly regain their faculties to discover they have been behaving badly. There is no lasting damage and certainly no death from this. However, this is the opening of an adventure for Professor St. Ives and his companions. It appears the temporary madness is brought on by a mysterious fog. St Ives wishes to discover the cause and possibly rescue his wife, Alice, whom he fears may be affected. He is joined by Jack Owlesby, Tubby Frobisher and Hasbro in his adventure. That’s pretty much it. They meet St Ives’ nemesis, Dr. Ignacio Narbondo who must, of course, be thwarted though not defeated.
They find out, as the story progresses that there is a great threat to the country and one which links a number of seemingly unconnected events.
Steampunk and general science are more or less incidental to this then. Though it is undoubtedly steampunk, it’s a flavour, rather than anything more substantial. This means we do avoid empty fetishisation of technology, but it does owe a great deal to the likes of Conan Doyle. St. Ives is more than just a little Holmes-like.
Since reading this, I’ve started some earlier of Blaylock’s work, which I think helps give an idea of the intentions he has for his characters. Though this is a standalone novella, it does leave quite a lot to be desired. The characters are basically archetypes, not necessarily a bad thing, but I would urge caution before reading. There is little examination of characters motives, no development of them or any kind of arc. Rather we are treated to a pastiche of Victorian detective fiction in a steampunk universe.
On the plus side, the lack of depth to the plot or the population of the novel does keep this incredibly lean and you’ll read it quickly.
It’s probably one for completest fans of Blaylock’s work. Not awful, but nothing to particularly outstanding or memorable about this.
(pub: Subterranean Press. 173 page illustrated deluxe hardback. Price: $35.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-365-5)
check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com