If you’re a fan of the steampunk subgenre of SF/F and you haven't read Homunculus or Lord Kelvin's Machine, then why not remedy this dire situation immediately with new Titan Books editions such as this one? James Blaylock is one of the originators of steampunk (look it up), along with Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter (who coined the term in the mid-80s). You should read these works because they form, in part, a fair portion of steampunk’s source material. Homunculus comes first, and you'll find Blaylock's The Digging Leviathan also fitting your agenda. Add Powers's The Anubis Gates, and Jeter's Morlock Night and Infernal Devices, and you'll be in at the ground floor, so to speak. A portion of Lord Kelvin’s Machine was first published in Asimov’s in the mid-80s, but this expanded version appeared in the 90s. I’ve just reread it as part of my campaign to revisit works that influenced my own writing in some way.
Loosely defined, steampunk is Victorian science fiction, the sort of thing Verne and Wells wrote, but with a modern spin and occasionally anachronistic elements. Generally steampunk at its roots did not involve fantasy elements (i.e. magic) although the whole might itself be labeled fantasy. Some of us who were there at the beginning, reading most of these original seminal works in their first printings when there was no handy label to hang on them, marvel at how the genre has spread, and how more expansive fantasy elements have become part of the mix.
In Lord Kelvin's Machine, which is actually a series of connected narratives, Blaylock again involves the protagonists of Homunculus: the scientist-adventurer Langdon St. Ives and his group of comrades, including his “gentleman’s gentleman” Hasbro, Jack Owlesby, and Bill Kraken, once again facing his foes: the buffoonish Professor Parsons of the stodgy Royal Academy of Sciences, and the abominable Doctor Ignacio Narbondo (who puts me in mind of the original TV steampunk supervillain, Doctor Miguelito Loveless on the famed Wild Wild West series, which is now amusingly retro-defined as steampunk, and perhaps obviously so). St. Ives seems a sort of cross between the hyperlogical, single-minded Sherlock Holmes and Jules Verne’s pragmatic adventurer, Phileas Fogg, albeit much more romantic in nature than both.
After the Homunculus adventure, at the start of LKM a terrible tragedy befalls St. Ives and he sinks into despondency and a lust for revenge against the villainous Narbondo, who is up to several insane schemes, including diverting the earth’s orbit so as to collide with a close-call asteroid, as well as other super-villainy, such as a return from the dead (or near-dead) state resulting from the asteroid affair. Most of the rest of the book involves St. Ives’s interest in the titular machine, a powerful electromagnet created by his neighbor, the scientist Lord Kelvin for the rival Royal Academy of Sciences. Now stolen, it’s responsible for the sinking of several ships. Plus the electromagnet may or may not also be a time machine, and a desperate St. Ives has set his sights on it, hoping to employ it to alter the tragic, villainous event that is the source of his despondence. But can he salvage the machine from the bottom of the sea before his rivals? Will it allow him to travel in time? Will he be able to face his demons and not lose his soul? Will he become a murderer?
LKM may not have the breakneck pace of “modern” steampunk, but Blaylock’s whimsical action set pieces helped lay the groundwork for what would come later. The elements are in place: an odious supervillain or three and assorted deranged minions, a band of stalwart comrades, a dirigible and bathyscaph both, a time-travel machine in the Wells vein, and missing notebooks sought for a suppressed resurrection process. Separate accounts are interconnected and a particularly entertaining one is narrated by the loyal but sometime-cowardly Jack Owlesby, while the others follow various adventures that all lead to Langdon St. Ives’s efforts to thwart and bring to justice – or possibly execute – the murderous Narbondo (aka Dr. Frost), while reversing the greatest sadness of his life. Of course there are complications, as St. Ives learns when he checks in on his nemesis during his troubled childhood. Faced with options such as premeditated murder, St. Ives must determine whether he is a better man than one who would choose such a course.
Lord Kelvin’s Machine predictably explores some of the usual time travel anomalies and paradoxes, but does so on its own terms, and convincingly. While often narratively whimsical, especially the portions told by Jack, by the climax a certain melancholy, sentimental tone creeps in and lends a new dimension by sprinkling a dash of between-the-lines philosophy before the wholly satisfying conclusion. If you want to see steampunk in its nascent state, Blaylock’s work is essential. This new Titan edition looks great on your shelf, and don’t forget to add Homunculus and The Aylesford Skull.
--W.D. Gagliani, author of “The Great Belzoni and the Gait of Anubis”