Lord Kelvin's Machine Hardcover – Nov 25 1993
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From Publishers Weekly
Blaylock ( The Paper Grail ) returns to the Victorian setting of his award-winning novel Homunculus in this tale of obsessive grief, time travel, mad scientists and gentlemanly adventure. The first of the three parts finds amateur scientist Langdon St. Ives despondent after a rainy chase of his nemesis, the evil Dr. Narbondo, ends with the death of his lady love, Alice. But St. Ives turns his grief to determination as he strives to thwart Narbondo's scheme to shift the earth into a collision with a passing comet. In the second part, an array of colorful, eccentric villains (including a revived Narbondo) compete to use Lord Kelvin's electromagnetic machine in an elaborate (and unlikely) blackmailing plot. In the novel's final section, St. Ives gives in to his private sorrow, using the machine to travel back in time in an attempt to kill a younger Narbondo and thus save Alice's life. Blaylock provides plenty of action--perhaps too much--and his characters are, if not realistic, entertaining, but this novel is not among his best work. The three episodes never cohere, and the driving force behind the plot (St. Ives's grief) is explored in detail only in the concluding section. Though St. Ives's journey through time is very well handled, at once playful and thoughtful, the sum of these three parts is less than a whole.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.
From Kirkus Reviews
Three-part ``steampunk''--Victorian fantasy--outing for the author of the noteworthy Land of Dreams and The Paper Grail. In part one, scientist Langdon St. Ives, despondent after the recent murder of his wife Alice by the diabolical hunchback Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, struggles to prevent said Narbondo from causing Earth to collide with a passing comet; simultaneously he must sabotage Lord Kelvin's superpowerful electromagnetic machine that, if used to repel the comet, would produce still another disaster. Part two sees St. Ives attempting to recover Kelvin's machine from beneath the English Channel while battling a cast of bad guys intent on revivifying the supposedly dead Narbondo. In part three, St. Ives seizes Kelvin's machine, which turns out to be a time machine, and sets off to make significant alterations to history- -not least, the prevention of Alice's murder. A neat enough idea, but the tone is wrong from the start, as broad comedy-adventure (part one) veers into farcical parody (part two) before subsiding into straightforward melodrama (part three). Neither is the scenario--as if Victorian America had invaded 1930's England--particularly convincing. All in all: a thumping disappointment. -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.See all Product Description
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James P. Blaylock returns to Victorian England in another steampunk adventure with scientist Langdon St. Ives and his nemesis, Dr. Ignacio Narbondo. Lord Kelvin’s Machine contains three related stories which each feature a fictional infernal device created by inventor Lord Kelvin. I listened to the excellent audio version which was produced by Audible Studios, is just over 8 hours long, and is narrated by Nigel Carrington.
In the prologue of Lord Kelvin’s Machine, Dr. Narbondo murders Langdon St. Ives’ beloved wife Alice which throws St. Ives into a funk. Part 1, titled “In the Days of the Comet” begins a year later. St. Ives has been depressed since Alice died and wonders if he’s bound for the madhouse like his father. Then he hears that Narbondo has hatched another devious plan which involves a comet that is coming toward Earth. Narbondo thinks he has a way to propel the entire Earth so that it will intersect the comet’s path and be destroyed. To do this, he must use a device created by Lord Kelvin which will reverse the polarity of the Earth. (Obviously this is absurd, but that’s part of what makes Blaylock’s stories so much fun.) Using some clever manipulations and some biscuit crumbs, St. Ives and his friends are able to foil Narbondo’s dastardly plot. At the end, Narbondo dies … temporarily.
The second story, “The Downed Ships,” is narrated in first person by Jack Owlesby, a friend and great admirer of St. Ives, who witnesses the explosion of a paper company’s warehouse. It seems a little too coincidental that the paper company shares a wall with the Royal Academy museum which is currently housing one of Lord Kelvin’s machines. Something is afoot and it seems to involve a rubber elephant, an ice house, an American sailor, a sadistic boy, a fruit basket, a bomb, and a carp. There’s also alchemy, vivisection, and necromancy. In the end, it turns out that Narbondo wasn’t quite as dead as had been hoped.
Jack Owlesby is a charming character with a wonderful voice, and Nigel Carrington performs him perfectly, which is why I enjoyed this section so much:
"That was it — the difference between us. He was a man with destinations; it was that which confounded me. I rarely had one, unless it was some trivial momentary destination — the pub, say … At the moment, though, both of us slipped along through the fog, and suddenly I was a conspirator again. A destination had been provided for me. I wished that Dorothy could see me, bound on this dangerous mission, slouching through the shadowy fog to save St. Ives from the most desperate criminals imaginable. I tripped over a curb and sprawled on my face in the grass of the square, but was up immediately, giving the treacherous curb a hard look and glancing around like a fool to see if anyone had been a witness to my ignominious tumble."
In the final section of the book, “The Time Traveler,” Langdon has managed to steal Lord Kelvin’s machine from the Royal Academy. He plans to use it to travel back in time to prevent his wife’s death. What follows is another madcap steampunk adventure, but this one is full of time paradoxes. I thought it was amusing in a preposterous way, but readers who hate these types of stories (I understand there are some) will probably not enjoy it as much as I did. You’ve really got to suspend disbelief for this one.
Lord Kelvin’s Machine is one of the more entertaining LANGDON ST. IVES adventures and it’s a fine place for new readers to start. I recommend the audio version because Carrington’s upper crust British accent adds to the experience.
This is what I imagined steampunk to be; real scientists from history working on impossible technology during the Victorian era with plenty of action and adventure. There really was a scientist named Lord Kelvin who developed the absolute temperature scale called the `Kelvin scale,' formulated the second law of thermodynamics, and worked to install telegraph cables under the Atlantic. Another real scientist mentioned the novel is Sir Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin. These aren't just science fiction stories they are also adventure stories. Professor St. Ives has a group of men, including his faithful valet Hasbro, who follow him as he tracks down the evil Narbondo and saves the day. I look forward to reading more books in this series.
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”