Some months ago at work, a friend of mine and I got to talking about steampunk as a sub-genre of science fiction, and, long story short, he recently lent me his copy of Mark Hodder’s 2010 novel The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack: A Burton and Swinburne Adventure.
Basically, Hodder takes real places (London specifically) and actual historical figures, such as Sir Richard Burton, poet Algernon Swinburne, Charles Darwin (yes, that Charles Darwin), and Florence Nightingale, and transforms them into bizarre, distorted, “steampunkish” versions of themselves in a much larger than life adventure set against a highly improbable background.
The result is an amazing romp that could never have happened (time travel notwithstanding) but is nevertheless, is a lot of fun.
Recently, I said that I’d be making a concerted effort to read more recently produced science fiction novels and stories as defined by those having been published within the last ten years or so. Mr. Hodder’s novel certainly qualifies, so here we go.
Here There Be Spoilers
The adventure begins with our hero (or anti-hero) Captain Sir Richard Burton about to debate the source of the Nile River with his once friend and now competitor John Hanning Speke. Then he learns that Speke was accidentally shot in the face (or was it a suicide attempt?) and immediately returns to London to ascertain Speke’s condition. The problem here is, history records the debate occurred in 1865, and the current year as the book begins is 1861, but that’s only the first peculiarity.
As the story progresses, the reader is introduced to a London of both fabulous inventions and horrible circumstances. We see steam-powered creations such as a monorail train, crab-like machines that act as street cleaners, as well as parakeets and greyhounds that deliver messages on command (with odd side effects), and manned box-kites pulled through the sky by enormous swans. We also discover a London that possesses a population of the most impoverished, destitute, degenerate humans imaginable against a backdrop of ghastly air pollution so severe that even in broad daylight, it’s almost impossible, at least on certain days, to see your hand in front of your face.
Amid all of that, Captain Burton encounters an impossible being, the fabled “Spring Heeled Jack,” a man on stilts who can hop twenty feet in the air, shoot blue lightning bolts at random, and vanish into thin air. He’s also the only character who seems to be aware that something is wrong with history.
Oh, there’s more. An albino who has been crossed with a snow leopard, werewolves that spontaneously combust, and the mystery of why Jack has been accosting teenage girls, ripping their clothes off and sexually assaulting them across the span of several decades.
As the saga continues to unfold, sometimes a bit too slowly, we finally discover (and what was strongly hinted at earlier in the tale) that Jack is really a time traveler named Edward Oxford from the early 23rd century. His history and ours says that in 1840, his ancestor, also named Edward Oxford, attempted to assassinate the young Queen Victoria. He missed with both pistols, was subsequently incarcerated in a mental asylum, and after his release, eventually emigrated to Australia, married, and had a child.
The time traveler Oxford, believing this criminal act caused an everlasting stain on his family’s reputation, traveled back in time to stop the event. Unfortunately, he made it worse by changing his ancestor’s aim so that one of the bullets strikes and kills the Queen, and in the process, accidentally kills his ancestor. Oops.
What makes matters worse still, is that his time controller is damaged and he ends up traveling three years into the past and meeting a young and decadent aristocrat named Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford who acts as his ally, giving him shelter and the means to temporarily repair his time machine. However, their interactions result in Henry starting a new social movement of anarchists, plus he communicates advanced technical knowledge to a noted engineer of the day Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who then begins a new technological revolution resulting in the world of Richard Burton in 1861.
There are two ways to read this book.
The first is to ignore all of the continuity flaws (though Hodder obviously had well mapped Oxford’s various leaps back and forth in time) and just enjoy this fanciful adventure, taking it on its own terms. In that sense, it’s a fun ride which sets the stage for several sequels.
The second is to consider whether or not Oxford’s influence really would have resulted in the world Hodder crafted. My answer to this is “no.” Oh, it’s certainly credible that Oxford could have ended up changing the future by killing his ancestor, thus making it impossible to return to his future, but no matter what he could have told his friend the Mad Marquis, it wouldn’t have been specific enough to have radically changed London and the world in a mere 20 to 25 years.
How Darwin altered himself, the creation of werewolves and other human-animal hybrids required advanced medical and genetic knowledge, which Oxford never communicated in any sense, thus this part of the story would have been impossible. Also, although Oxford mentioned “geothermal power” to Henry, and then Henry passed the information along, even if the genius inventor Brunel in the mid-19th century pondered the idea, it would be highly unlikely that steam-driven carriages and flying manned drones would have been the result.
Also, it’s strongly suggested that the future Oxford, in trying to dissuade his 15-year-old ancestor not to be at the place and time required to assassinate the Queen actually put the idea in his head, but if that were true, then why in the original history, which did not include a “Spring Heeled Jack,” did he do so anyway?
There’s only a partial resolution at the novel’s end, but then that could merely be the setup for the second novel in the series.
So reader, the choice is yours as to how you want to receive this novel. However, even if, like me, you are bothered about issues of continuity and causality, it’s still a fun story, though a bit of a slog at times.
Oh, I recently read at article at Quartz that suggested anyone writing a science fiction novel set in the present or beyond and who didn’t include climate change as part (or all) of the environment was merely writing fantasy. Well, I suppose Hodder is writing fantasy to a large degree, or climate change simply didn’t figure into his plot.
I’ll subsequently post this review on Amazon, and as of this writing, the novel enjoys 73% of its reviews in the four and five star range, so not too bad.
Oh, and don’t forget to take a look at my other reviews of books, TV shows, and films.