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technology distinguished by "mad inventor" Vernian flourishes coupled with a narrative driven by a deliberately outdated adventure storyline.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
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.