In his introduction to this novel, K.W. Jeter discusses the steampunk phenomenon. Distilled to its essence, Jeter's explanation is: If you name it, they will come. Jeter coined the word steampunk; readers wanted this new thing called steampunk; writers filled the demand for steampunk. Although I'm not a big follower of steampunk, I am a fan of K.W. Jeter, and so I seized the opportunity to read Infernal Devices, first published in 1987 and now reissued by Angry Robot. I quickly found myself drawn into Jeter's sumptuous Nineteenth Century prose, which may have been modeled upon early H.G. Wells but brought to mind Arthur Conan Doyle.
The story follows the hapless George Dower, son of a famous maker of timepieces and other intricate gadgetry, who inherited none of his father's talent but nonetheless keeps his shop open, eking out a living by making simple repairs to his father's mechanical creations. Dower is visited by the Brown Leather Man, who wants him to repair a mysterious device, and then by two people with odd speech patterns who seem intent on stealing the device. Dower's adventure takes him into a red light district whose inhabitants resemble fish and to an estate where he finds more of his father's gadgetry, including a machine that threatens the world.
Infernal Devices succeeds as comedy (consistently amusing but rarely laugh out loud funny) and as a simple adventure story. It clearly isn't meant to be taken too seriously and that's the spirit in which I read and enjoyed it. As is often true of steampunk, the novel isn't straightforward science fiction. Some aspects of Infernal Devices border on fantasy; color me skeptical, but I doubt a lamp that sees into the future can be manufactured from the steampunk technology of springs and cogs (Jeter uses two characters who have seen the future to good comedic effect, contrasting the sensibilities of the Victorian era with the considerably more relaxed moral standards of the Twentieth Century). And then there's the member of an amphibious race who keeps turning up to give Dower an assist. It's all a bit odd and not to my usual taste, but it kept me smiling. If you enjoy steampunk and the elements of fantasy that are often associated with it, this novel should be a treat for you. If you prefer more conventional (but nonetheless outside-the-mainstream) science fiction, I'd recommend Jeter's The Glass Hammer.