Monday, November 18, 2013

Review: 'Fiendish Schemes'

Tor Books
Fiendish Schemes
by K. W. Jeter
(Tor Books, 2013)

Infernal Devices
by K.W. Jeter
(Angry Robots, 2011)

     Recently asked me to review my recent purchase, Fiendish Schemes by K. W. Jeter. I was planning to review here on my blog, but the book was fresh in my mind so I took a few minutes to cobble together some quotes. I was later alerted that my  review had gone live, but checking the website today, I saw no trace of it. So here's a longer review.

     K.W. Jeter, as the book copy endlessly and repetitively tells us, coined the term steampunk to describe some books of Victorian science fiction/fantasy that he and some friends were writing. His contributions to the genre were 1979's Morlock Night, a semi-sequel to H.G. Wells' The Time Machine by way of the legend of King Arthur, 1987's Infernal Devices (which despite being the first steampunk book he wrote after coining the term and seeing it taken seriously, is instead called a "mad Victorian fantasy") and now the belated sequel Fiendish Schemes.
Angry Robot Books
     I didn't like Morlock Night because it had more to do with Arthur than The Time Machine. I might have liked it better if it had been more appropriately titled so I wasn't expecting one thing and getting another. I loved Infernal Devices however and wished he had written more along the same vein.

     So when I heard that Jeter was writing a sequel to Infernal Devices, I was pleased and expected great things. As I said above however, expectations can be a problem.  I don't think I would have liked Fiendish Schemes better if I hadn't read Infernal Devices first -- it has many other problems -- but I might not be as disappointed.

     In Infernal Devices, George Dower is the not-very-talented son of a clockwork inventor who made, among other things, clockwork automatons that could pass for human. Dower makes a precarious living selling and servicing the leftover devices his father made until he is approached by several people with an interest in these leftover devices. First, an individual he dubs the Brown Leather Man brings one such device to repair, then other people come looking for the same device. Dower also uncovers a race of half-fish people who worship a Saint Monkfish, an automaton with the personality and talent of Paganini and Dower's face, a couple of con artists who have distorted their minds by injudicious study of the future using another of Dower's father's devices, and a nobleman who wants to contact extraterrestrials by blowing up the Earth.

     While Morlock Night had lots of fantasy, Infernal Devices was straight-forward science fiction. While the fish people could have come out of Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories, they were explained science fictionally as opposed to mystically. Besides, Lovecraft considered his Cthulhu stories to be science fiction about inimitable other dimensional beings who humans worshipped as gods, but not actual gods or demons. Thus far, Fiendish Schemes is the equal of Infernal Devices. Despite a suggestion early on that a wholly fantasy-based phenomenon is occurring, this is later revealed to be a hoax. 

     But back up to the titles. While Fiendish Schemes sounds like a similar title to Infernal Devices. it's actually far inferior. There is wordplay in Infernal Devices, but none to Fiendish Schemes. It just means what it says.

     Missing also is the sense of fun. While George Dower is the narrator/protagonist of each book, information necessary to understanding his actions and motives is deliberately withheld in the sequel. Also, the plot is bassackward. In Infernal Devices, we start with a mystery regarding one of Dower's father's devices. The byzantine plot strays from the topic but eventually gets there, throwing in other obstacles/distractions, antagonists and devices along the way. Above all, the action keeps moving and is amusing. In Fiendish Schemes, we never really fins out what is going on, what is the central mystery, until m,ore than halfway through the book, and it is far less interesting and amusing.

     Alas, the new book has nothing as interesting as the first book's Brown Leather Man or the cult of St. Monkfish, or the device that can destroy the world with vibrations. Instead we have steam mines, walking lighthouses and android prime ministers and prostitutes. Big deal.

     Even the return of two amusing characters from, the first book, a couple of con artists who have had their minds warped by viewing the future on another of Dower's father's devices, is wasted because they have now become altruists. The device which is the central maguffin this time comes to naught. Its purpose is never very clear, and it is destroyed before it can be put to use.

     The only virtue the book possesses is that it looks at the increased use of steam power as a negative, with consequences for pollution and complication that makes it inferior to the forms of energy that were actually used. That's more realistic, but at the same time it's a buzzkill for a steampunk novel. It would have been better developed in a book that wasn't connected to an earlier, lighter book.

     I haven't read any new Jeter since Infernal Devices until now, though I have noticed that a great many of his books have been authorized sequels to other writers' works, including a couple of Star Trek Novels and three sequels to the film Blade Runner. I know it's difficult for a mid-list writer to make a living,  but I wonder if he's suffered a loss of creativity that has resulted in his being unable to write anything but sequels. Or maybe after writing so many sequels to other people's work, he decided he ought to be able to write a sequel to his own. Whatever, the reason, while I hope the new book directs new readers to the earlier book, I can't recommend Fiendish Schemes as a standalone novel or a sequel.

     I don't know if this is a misfire by K.W. Jeter or if he's lost his writing ability, but this is a major disappointment.


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