The creature stalked forward, bent, its talon like hands flexing, and Burton saw that his first impression was accurate: the thing walked on two-foot-high stilts.
Its lanky body was clad in a skintight white scaly suit that glittered in the dim light of the single guttering gas lamp. Something circular glowed on its chest and emitted bursts of sparks and ribbons of lightning that snaked over the thing’s long limbs.
“Burton!” the apparition croaked. “Richard Francis Bloody Burton!”
One of the weaknesses that I perceive in some Steampunk novels that are set ostensibly in a version of our own Earth is a matter of the point of divergence. Namely, why did the Earth in that world go down such a bizarre and odd technological path? Steampunk technology is often a bizarre affectation, with funhouse mirror versions of things we have today. How would technological development get that way, eschewing the path we took in favor of more bizarre steam-powered tech? Explaining how technology went down such a path without it being an infodump is a rare thing indeed.
Next, take the curious life of Sir Richard Francis Burton. He is a man whose real life was more fantastic than anything in the imagination of many a fantasy writer. Among his exploits, Burton was an explorer, cartographer, diplomat, author, first non-Muslim to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and translator of many books including the Kama Sutra and the One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights).
And then there is Spring Heeled Jack. You might think of him as the “Mothman” of the 19th century in England. Numerous sightings and reports of appearances and attacks by him ranged from London to Liverpool and beyond, for several decades. Always, his ability to leap prodigious distances and heights allowed him to escape capture time and again. And like the more well-known and more bloodthirsty Jack the Ripper, Spring Heeled Jack’s identity and true nature have never been settled.
Marry these ideas together, mix in time travel, an alternate Monarch for England, and you get The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, by Mark Hodder. The novel features Sir Richard Francis Burton as its main protagonist, although he soon acquires the poet Algernon Swinburne as his aide and accomplice.
The first chapter of the novel is particularly interesting and helps show off Hodder’s skill with the source material. It starts off with a planned debate between Burton and his friend/rival John Speke, who in our history and here fell out with Burton over trying to find the source of the Nile River. All through this first chapter, there is nothing to suggest that the world is different—unless you know a fair amount about British history and realize that the date of the debate is off by several years from our own world. It is only at the end of the chapter that Hodder starts to show his cards to all readers, a casual conversation revealing a piece of Steampunk technology that firmly grounds us in an alternate history.
Throughout the book, mixed in with the real history, Hodder has done meticulous research on the real life people who inhabit the changed world. An appendix at the end of the book helpfully shows what really happened in our world and when, but this should not be read first. And even there, Hodder only shows off a portion of the real life connections. He doesn’t even mention some of the minor characters who have real-world connections.
In the course of the book, in addition to the strange Steampunk technology on display, we learn just why technology went in this direction, and how the technological divergence happened. I think Hodder has picked the perfect historical person to make a Steampunk revolution possible. Although that Steampunk (and biopunk) technology has an element of the fantastic and impossible to it (much like as in Scott Westerfeld’s trilogy), I have come to expect that in Steampunk novels.
Lest you fear that with all of these real life history mixed in that this is not a science fiction novel, your mind will be put at ease. There is strange and inventive Steampunk technology, time travel, a tangled timeline meticulously worked out in the course of the pages, and rollicking action in a Steampunk world. Burton is a great character who, to my recollection, has only been used as a character in one other series of SF novels before—Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld saga. The Burton here and in those novels are very much alike, showing both authors deep affection and research on the character.
It’s tricky to talk about the book’s plot without spoiling it, since Hodder has gone to such efforts to make an experience for the reader to develop. Richard Burton, in an alternate 19th century with strange Steampunk technology, and his own personal history twisted from our own, gains a commission from King Albert to investigate a plague of werewolves. As he gets deeper into that mystery, Burton encounters the mysterious titular character, gains an assistant, uncovers factions plotting to twist the world even further, and ultimately discovers that the strange world he lives in may be an accident to be corrected.
There are only a few minor things I disliked in an otherwise spectacular book. I think that Swinburne is not quite as well developed as a character as Burton. It could be that he suffers from being near a character who is larger-than-life. Also, I am not convinced that Burton gives a crucial choice at the climax of the novel as much thought as is implied. Perhaps I was insufficiently convinced as to why he makes the choice he does.
As my opening quote shows, Hodder has a good and evocative grasp of language. He puts this to excellent use in his twisted setting, convincingly bringing the alternate London, with its polluted skies, strange oversized horses, and foul mouthed messenger parrots to life. It was easy with his words to imagine oneself trying to escape the miasma of foul air, the terror of facing off against werewolves, or flying through the air in a Steampunk helicopter.
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack recently won the 2010 Philip K Dick Award for science fiction published in paperback. Now that I have read the novel, I can see and agree that this is a most worthy winner. The book takes the Steampunk genre and instead of ringing on changes already overplayed, fuses Steampunk with British history, time travel, alternate history and more into a novel that is a joy to read.