The plot of Fiendish Schemes reads like the scattered debris washed up along its rocky Scottish shores. Instead of bits of seaweed and driftwood, K.W. Jeter has gathered a selection of bizarre steampunk and transhuman elements and assembled them–like gears and springs–into an unusual new novel.
Twenty-eight years ago K. W. Jeter coined the term “steampunk” for the style of Victorian-era science fiction/alternative history adventures being written by himself and authors such as Tim Powers and James Blaylock. Although Jeter suggested the name, the genre has existed and evolved through the work of many authors, including H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and many others. The folks at The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences have a great overview.
This latest work, released by Tor Books in October 2013, is presented as a stand-alone sequel to Jeter’s earlier Steampunk novel, Infernal Devices. It picks up the story of George Dower, the son of the notorious inventor in Infernal Devices. Dower has retreated to a rural exile on the Scottish coast, his tail tucked between his legs in a state of depression and debt. When he attempts to parlay his father’s greatest invention– a walking, steam-powered lighthouse– into a source of potential revenue, he is pulled into an expanding series of outlandish and devious schemes for money and power. Dower gets a madcap education in the steamy, gadget-and-gear-driven world of London as he discovers the key to his father’s genius and his legacy.
I should’ve known I was in for a wild ride–and not just from the walking lighthouses–when Jeter tossed out Hamuel Stonebrake and his Mission to the Cetaceans. The maritime minister has this exchange with Dower:
“‘Do you know what a Cetacean is?’
‘No more than I care, sir.’ I drew myself upright. ‘I was not churched as a child; I am not versed in Bibles and Testaments and Prophets.’ “
Don’t be silly, Dower. Cetaceans are whales.
You see, folks–Dower is hoodwinked by a guy that claims to proselytize to whales. Which would be crazy, had Jeter not already established the notion that the sea’s currents and shipping lanes have become sentient and mobile, shattering reliable trade routes and raising the potential to destroy the British economy.
Never fear, Dear Readers! The blessed Empire of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, shall not fall to the whims of the water! We eventually learn that Stonebrake and his cronies believe that the whales can communicate to the sentient waters. His compatriots include lighthouse pilot Captain Crowcroft, his fiance Evangeline, and her father, Lord Fusible. They’ve affiliated themselves with a mobile lighthouse company (Phototrope Limited) in the hope of capitalizing on the whales’ ability to convey advance knowledge of the water’s mutable whims. There’s just a slight catch…that cetacean communication is being hindered by the lack of a certain device: the Vox Universalis. This amazing creation is the work of Dower’s deceased father and they need Dower’s assistance locating and operating the device. Stonebrake convinces Dower to join the scheme and the promise of riches lures him back to London. Once there, Dower discovers a city transformed by steam and debauchery…
Things Are Getting Steamy In Here
During Dower’s exile London has become a seamy and steamy den of pipes and corruption. The lower classes are held captive by the allure of steam, whether it’s working the laborers in the steam mines to the north, or the proletariats getting blown up daily by overburdened pipes and faulty equipment.
The upper classes, meanwhile, have been drawn into the alluring, dark fantasies of “ferric sex”, known as “Fex.” Erotic fantasies change with the times and in Fiendish Schemes, the humid clouds, pulsating pistons, and driving gearshafts of steam power are the next logical progression. To the prudish Dower’s horror, the obsession peaks with transhuman augmentations like those of Mrs. Fletcher, the Prime Minister, who has hybridized her physical form with the mechanical workings of a steam engine. This “Iron Lady” rules England with a power and visage Margaret Thatcher could have never imagined. Fortunately, my imagination supplied the incongruous mash-up of an old-fashioned Aunt Jemima syrup bottle with Thomas the Tank Engine.
Go ahead. I’ll wait for you to fix that image in your mind.
As the book unfolds, it becomes apparent that Dower is a pawn in two fantastic schemes competing for wealth and power. And just when the Dower (and the reader) thinks that his life can’t get any stranger, he runs into two time-traveling characters from his past. How will he ever extricate himself from the seedy and steamy power-plays of London?
The day is saved by a giant relic of Dower’s inheritance, towering over London in a epic battle that would do Transformers director Michael Bay proud. Dower eventually discovers the secrets of his father’s works and a little something about himself, too. By Jove, isn’t that smashing?
The formal Victorian tone became tedious and I found myself growing tired of Jeter’s well-developed vocabulary. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy a good “SAT word” like any other writer. But since my patience was already being tried by the outlandish plot, I found myself frequently wishing (basically every time Dover opened his mouth) that he would just hurry up and get to the point.
The story was also hampered by the smarmy romance of Evangeline Fusible and Captain Crowcroft; as a couple they faced over-the-top tribulations that, along with Evangeline’s naivete, invited parallels to Voltaire’s Candide and Cunegonde. Voltaire pulled off great social satire with his characters; Evangeline and Captain Crowcroft do not reach the same achievement. I sincerely doubt that was K.W. Jeter’s goal, so it all works out in the end.
The Last Word
Despite my snarky observations, the book works as wordier-than-average light entertainment. The pacing is fast and the plot, well, it’s certainly unpredictable. If you enjoyed Jeter’s Infernal Devices or other heavily-stylized steampunk novels, you’ll do just fine with this escapist romp.