Sunday, September 23, 2012

Steampunk in real time

Review: Angelmaker
By Nick Harkaway

     Nick Harkaway's second novel, Angelmaker, is clearly science fiction, but it's being marketed as a mystery/suspense/thriller. One reason, I suspect, is that Harkaway is the son of John Le Carre, a suspense thriller author of some note. Another reason is that it takes place in the present and on Earth, not in the future and on an alien planet. Nevertheless, I argue that it's science fiction at least, and possibly steampunk. Why does a label matter? Because if someone picks this fine book up expecting it to be a spy thriller such as Harkaway's dad writes and wrote, they're going to be very disappointed and write a scathingly negative review on Amazon.
The British, left, and American covers from Nick Harkaway's blog

     Look, the book features science beyond what we have today, and I daresay beyond what we may ever produce, beginning with the title device, which features mechanical bees that are part of a larger device that could possibly end the world as we know it by giving us too much truth. It also features a steampunkish cult named after art critic and socialist John Ruskin, who have built various super scientific but retro devices (lots of brass), and a Fu Manchu-ish villain who wants to destroy the world in order to become God; to this end, he has imprinted his personality and thoughts on other people so that he might survive his own death, sort of.
     Does that sound like a conventional suspense thriller?
     I mentioned the steampunkish cult. Clockwork devices also feature prominently, and the names of Brunel and Babbage are dropped. So, for those of us who care, is it steampunk?
     Yes and no.
     Arguing against, Angelmaker takes place in the present, with flashbacks to the early 20th century. Steampunk almost always takes place in the past, or in a present or future much altered by steampunk science in the 19th century. Steampunk science, if that is what is in Angelmaker, is a case of parallel technological evolution.All the usual technology also exists, and the steampunk tech is hidden.
     But that's esoterica, of interest to me and a few geeks. Is Angelmaker a good book?
     Yes, although I'd thought it was going to be a great book, on par with The Windup Girl or Perdido Street Station. It's not that good, and where it falters is in the end.
     The plot follows the travails of Joe Spork, a gangster's son who instead followed his grandfather into the clockwork gadget business. One day, a friend brings him a disassembled vintage clockwork device on commission, a sort of moving book that runs on punchcards, and he manages to put it back together. Then strange government thugs come looking for it and Joe, obstinately, tries to return it to the client's address. Then it's turned on, and all hell breaks loose.
     There are long flashbacks to the origins of the device, its purpose and what went wrong the first time it was turned on; to a young female secret agent who knew Spork's grandparents; and the aforementioned villain. These are entertaining and the most steampunkish parts of the book.
     Alas, in the end it turns into an action-packed battle to stop the villain. I was a little disappointed. But it was so incredible up until the last 50 to 100 pages that I'd still recommend it highly, and I'll still be looking for Harkaway's first book, The Gone Away World, which is post-apocalyptic. I haven't looked at it yet, but from the description, I'm going to call it science fiction as well.


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