Upon completing Robert Rankin’s The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions I was beset by the kind of malaise one would normally associate with the onset of Lyme disease. Back in the distant and murky past, a book with the name "Robert Rankin" on it was a book guaranteed to have a surreal and irreverent wit. At a time when genre boundaries were fixed and inviolate, Rankin blended SF and fantasy with urban legends and a defiantly postmodern sensibility to create works that were quite unlike anything else out there.
But that was then. This is now.
It is difficult to know quite what to make of The Japanese Devil Fish Girl as it is a book that hemorrhages both quality and ambition as it goes along. This means that each time you select a yardstick by which to judge the novel, you wind up having to cast it aside and go searching for something a little bit more humble and a little bit less flattering. It is difficult to be fair to a book like The Japanese Devil Fish Girl because The Japanese Devil Fish Girl is a book that systematically fails to live up to its own expectations.
For example, the book’s two opening chapters are a brilliant example of what steampunk can achieve when it has its head properly bolted on. In these chapters, we learn that the book takes place in the glory days of the British Empire. A British Empire that not only survived the events described in H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898) but went on to stage a successful counter-attack that wiped out the entire Martian race and extended the boundaries of the Empire all the way to the red planet itself. This counter-attack is prompted not only by the trauma of the Martian invasion but also a growing sense that the Empire must do something. The sense of psychological urgency animating the shadowy meeting of Rankin’s Imperial political class is eerily reminiscent of the sense of desperate, unthinking urgency that was in the air prior to the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The parallels between the War of the Worlds and the War on Terror are also reinforced by the revelation that the commander of Earth’s forces will be none other than a young Winston Churchill. Churchill is a fascinating choice as not only was his rejection of Chamberlain’s policy of "appeasement" frequently cited as a historical precedent by supporters of the invasion of Iraq but his use of military force against Malaya during his second term as Prime Minister is widely seen as one of the nails in the coffin of British colonial rule. A nail that could just as easily fit the coffin of US post-Cold War hegemony.
'British troops,' said Mr Gladstone, proudly. 'The finest in the world.'
'In this world,' said Mr Churchill. 'But untrained to fight in the unknown conditions of another.'
'Highly adaptable,' said Mr Gladstone. 'At present we have several thousand men serving in Afghanistan. Soon that errant nation will be brought to book and no more trouble will this world know from it.' (p. 10-11)
These opening chapters set the bar very high indeed. They announce The Japanese Devil Fish Girl as a spirited satire of US foreign policy using a war fought by the British Empire against Wells's Martian invaders. However, having completed the novel’s conceptual groundwork, Rankin promptly turns his back on politics and alternative history in order to settle down into a much more traditional and lightweight comedy adventure story that plays out in three different acts.
George Fox is a zany. A zany is someone who wears colorful suits and makes colorful speeches in order to lure the punters into a carnival side-show. In this case, Professor Cagliostro Coffin’s Most Meritorious Unnatural Attraction. Or, to put it another way, a dead Martian in a vat. Because of his low and undignified station in Victorian society, George Fox dreams of success and wealth. Dreams that seem destined to lead nowhere other than a series of pompous declarations that someday he SHALL own a restaurant/travel on an airship/become a member of the nobility. However, these dreams come one step closer to reality when George ducks into a rival carnival side-show only to be confronted by a real-life prophet. A prophet who announces that it is George Fox’s destiny to save the solar system by discovering the Japanese Devil Fish Girl. The Japanese Devil Fish Girl is the name given by humans to a goddess who, somehow, manages to underpin all of the myths and legends of the solar system thereby making her the single most sacred thing in existence. Smelling an avenue of advancement, Professor Coffin sells off his side-show and uses the money to buy tickets on the Empress of Mars, the largest and most luxurious airship on Earth. George and the professor board the airship, encounter Ada Lovelace, P.T. Barnum, and a number of other historical personages and promptly crash on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. On this island, George, Ada, and the Professor discover a bunch of live Martians and the temple of the Japanese Devil Fish Girl. After fighting off flying monkeys and battling with the Martians, George and Ada fall in love and escape onboard a captured spaceship. Upon returning to London they discover that the Professor has used a statue of the goddess to build himself a new carnival show. This act of universal blasphemy so enrages the solar system’s other sentient species that they all declare war on the British Empire prompting George to step into the fray and accomplish his destiny by saving the worlds.
The book’s opening act, taking place in London and aboard a steampunk-style airship, provides Rankin with the opportunity to engage both with the facts of the Victorian period and with the tropes associated with the steampunk genre. Initially, these engagements bear fruit as Rankin has Fox and the Professor boldly bluff their way into high society while making joking asides about people wearing "evening goggles" to dinner. However, as this section wears on, the thinness of Rankin's material starts to become apparent. Jokes about evening goggles get made a number of times, as do puerile references to Oscar Wilde’s sexuality and the fact that history clearly got it wrong when they said that such-and-such a celebrity died before the book supposedly takes place. There is also a sense that Rankin is simply going through the motions and ticking the boxes as names get dropped only for nothing to be done with them :
Oscar Wilde was aboard, of course. And so too were Bram Stoker, Dame Nellie Melba, who had been engaged to provide entertainment in the Grand Salon, Mr Babbage, Nikola Tesla, Little Tich, who was traveling to New York, the first port of call, to take up a six-month residency at Carnegie Hall, and a host of other London glitterati. (p. 86)
The problem is that other than providing a bit of local color, none of these names really add anything to the story. Rankin is not interested in speculating about what Bram Stoker's career might have been like had H.G. Wells been an embedded war reporter instead of a science fiction writer. In fact, he is not interested in speculating about any of the people he mentions. He just uses familiar names as set dressing. Set dressing that conveys an impression of a particular time or place but without ever really engaging with those times and places. This is not just bad historical tourism, it is the historical equivalent of going to the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas and then claiming to have visited Ancient Egypt. It is lazy, it is shallow, and it is utterly generic.
Unfortunately, things only get worse as we move into the book’s second act. Indeed, although not particularly well researched or thought out Rankin's lazy historical tourism does at least provide The Japanese Devil Fish Girl with a kind of intellectual fig leaf: Yes, the book is rubbish steampunk but at least it is steampunk. However, by deciding to relocate the action to a desert island, Rankin moves the story from a high-context setting to a low-context one meaning that he can no longer keep us amused by name-dropping and making weak jokes about Oscar Wilde’s sexuality. As a result he has to rely upon his characters and his plot to sustain the reader’s interest.
To describe George Fox as a thinly-drawn character would be to imply that Rankin actually bothered to draw him in the first place. But this is simply not the case as George never acquires any characteristics beyond being ambitious, blandly sympathetic, and in love with Ada Lovelace. Ada Lovelace, of course, is an actual historical figure. Widely hailed as the first computer programmer, Lovelace spent a large chunk of her childhood paralyzed in bed allowing her to acquire a degree of mathematical skill and education uncommon in women of her age and class. Rankin presents her as a glamorous lady thief. Why? presumably because glamorous lady thieves make for better love interests than large, ruddy-skinned aristocratic women who would have been over seventy years of age at the time the book is set.
Because Rankin devotes so little effort to fleshing out either his setting or his characters, he is effectively putting all of his eggs in the plot-basket by expecting the book’s narrative to carry the novel on its own. Obviously, this is not an impossible task to achieve and airport book shops are filled with novels that do precisely this. Indeed, Matthew Reilly’s Shane Schofield series—including books such as Ice Station (1998) and Area 7 (2001)—contains almost no characterization or world-building but it has built up a large audience because Reilly intuitively understands how to build tension and when to release it. Unfortunately, Robert Rankin seems to lack this intuitive understanding as not only does The Japanese Devil Fish Girl read like a procession of lifeless chase sequences and limp set-pieces but it even fails to resolve properly as Rankin banishes all outstanding plot difficulties using the magic of schmaltz:
'The sacred word,' cried Ada Fox. 'I know the sacred word. The sacred word is LOVE.'
And in the midst of Hell’s own mouth, the fury in the sky and all about, that silent moment came once more. That sacred silence born of the sacred word. (p. 368)
Gag me with the proverbial steam-powered spoon.
What is most depressing about The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions is not that it is smug, unfunny, weakly-characterized, ill-conceived, poorly written, or lazily researched but that it bears the name Robert Rankin. The man who once produced works like the Cornelius Murphy and Brentford Trilogy series should be perfectly placed to provide us with the kind of dynamic genre-blending material that steampunk is crying out for ... but instead he gives us precisely the sort of lazy, bandwagon-jumping dross that is giving steampunk a bad name.
To read The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions is to see the most vibrant and culturally important SFnal sub-genre since cyberpunk being broken on the wheels of me-too economics.
To read The Japanese Devil Fish Girl is to see a venerable and much-loved author slide into unpalatable mediocrity.
To read The Japanese Devil Fish Girl is to be beset by the kind of malaise one would normally associate with the onset of Lyme disease.
It is an utterly lamentable piece of writing and Robert Rankin should be thoroughly ashamed of himself.
Jonathan McCalmont lives in the United Kingdom, where he writes, teaches, and edits Fruitless Recursion.