James Blaylock
Lord Kelvin's Machine

It's steampunk again, another slightly zany Scientific Romance set in a Victorian age owing more to Dickens, Stevenson and, at a pinch, Chesterton than any mere history. Stevenson supplies the epigraph and a minor character, the erstwhile Prince Florizel of Bohemia (New Arabian Nights, The Dynamiter) – whose part is so small that he's scarcely worth mentioning except as a further reminder that practically the whole gang from Blaylock's earlier Homunculus is here. Eminent scientist Langdon St Ives, his eminent rivals (including of course Lord Kelvin himself), his eminently hissable hunchback enemy Dr Ignacio Narbondo, plus a variety of allies, henchmen and interlopers: Binger, Hasbro, Keeble, Kraken, Mrs Langley, Parsons, Pule, Owlesby....

Homunculus was a novel that kept stacking up new excesses as its crowd of Sternean eccentrics tripped over one another in a prolonged and quite remarkably daft chase through London's mean streets and pea-soupers, after a variety of often inter-confusible McGuffins. The finale wrapped things up with a surreal image (the long-sought and long-offstage Homunculus piloting the aeronaut Birdlip's skeletal body towards the stars) which delivered satisfaction without actually resolving anything. Never apologize, never explain.

Lord Kelvin's Machine takes place on a slightly different level of unreality, with 'alternate science' replacing the allusions to magic and alchemy. Here Maxwell's Equations are sixteen in number and form a unified field theory that includes gravity. Here Earth can be made to swerve in its orbit by simultaneously detonating an entire chain of volcanoes, the trigger devices including a Rawls-Hibbing Mechanical Bladder and the rhythmic tread of a marching army.

This is necessary in order for St Ives (having ceased frittering away his genius by inventing dehydrated coffee pills) to save the world from the expected impact of a giant comet. But first he must sabotage Lord Kelvin's misguided plan to save the world by cancelling its magnetic field, and Dr Narbondo's diabolical counter-plan to set off volcanoes on the wrong side of the planet....

It's all quite straight-faced, with the tongue scarcely distending the cheek even when we find Bill Kraken trying to nullify Lord Kelvin's machine by surreptitous insertion of fieldmice and snakes, or Narbondo plunging to his doom in an icy tarn whose awful cold he couldn't possibly survive – unless of course he had been dosed with a certain extract of carp glands! At one point we glimpse Narbondo in a cheerful mood:

'All in all it was a glorious day. Hargreaves had agreed to help him destroy the Earth without so much as a second thought.'

This is merely the first episode. In the second, Lord Kelvin's magnetic Machine – now stolen – is the focus of a vast blackmail plan whereby iron ships are dragged to the bottom of the sea by its deadly influence. St Ives neglects to enquire why the Machine, small enough to be hauled around on a horse-drawn wagon, should pull ships down rather than itself being pulled up; but I dare say he knows more about all those extra Maxwell equations than I. There is a great deal of running around at a seaport, rife with gunplay, exploding baskets of fruit, and the idiot psychopath Willis Pule eager to practise recreational vivisection on all and sundry.

The concluding segment is different again. St Ives, whose lady love was shot by Narbondo in the prologue, is apparently going mad from despair and frustration. His decline makes him genuinely sympathetic, but at the same time casts an odd light on much of the boys'-adventure-story material that has gone before. Can this really be the same book? But wait: in the great and implausible tradition of sf inventions, Lord Kelvin's machine (which St Ives himself has now pinched) has a third and unrelated use as the motive power for time travel – and some at least of our hero's fainting spells are merely the notorious side-effect of coexisting with one's future self. Pausing only to bolt the Machine into the bathyscaphe salvaged from the previous adventure, he....

At this stage everything naturally becomes a trifle complex and re-entrant. Timelines shift and overwrite one another. Narbondo is dealt with by means other than the obvious, involving a trip forward to acquire certain materials from Sir Alexander Fleming. There is a happy ending.

Steampunk, being traditionally written by Americans (for some reason Priest's The Space Machine doesn't seem to count), does not always sustain its supposedly Victorian English tone. Blaylock, a professor of English, does pretty well and no doubt has a terrifyingly authoritative justification for Englishmen of the period who judge distances in metres. But I did boggle somewhat at a mention of lager and lime ('An exit application from the human race if ever there was one' – Sir Kingsley Amis), and the repeated references in the final chapter to not only eating but growing, in a turn-of-the-century English garden, something called eggplant – an un-English name which all the English characters use.

Are there loose ends? Lots, but all swallowed up in that final rewrite job on history. Is it fun to read? Yes indeed, though rather less so than Homunculus, or for that matter Stevenson's New Arabian Nights. Lord Kelvin's Machine is entertainingly crazy but overall, perhaps – as Bohr said crushingly of one tentative theory in particle physics – not crazy enough.