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A comic science-fiction novel first published in 1986. It took the Philip K Dick award that year, and was the second book in Blaylock's loose steampunk trilogy, following The Digging Leviathan (1984) and preceding Lord Kelvin's Machine (1992).
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By Jefferson on 12-01-15
Ghoulish, Picaresque, London Steampunk Farce
“Within the gondola, looking for all the world as if he were piloting the moon itself, was a rigid figure in a cocked hat, gripping the wheel, his legs planted widely as if set to counter an ocean swell. The wind tore at his tattered coat, whipping it out behind him and revealing the dark curve of a ribcage, empty of flesh, ivory moonlight glowing in the crescents of air between the bones. His wrists were manacled to the wheel, which itself was lashed to a strut between two glassless windows.”
That's the skeletal Dr. Birdlip (his eyes long since burned out by the sun or pecked out by seabirds) "piloting" his dirigible on its fixed and mysterious rounds. After fifteen years, the blimp may be about to land on Hampstead Heath in the London of 1875, an event of intense interest to two opposing groups. . .
First, the convivial members of the Trismegistus Club: scientist, inventor, and amateur detective Landon St. Ives, trying to put the finishing touches on his starship; his capable man Hasbro, reading the Peloponnesian Wars; ex-sea captain and current owner of the tobacco shop where the Club meets, Captain Powers, wearing a hollow ivory peg leg that doubles as both a flask for alcohol and a pipe (though he is loathe to smoke his leg in public); whimsical toymaker William Keeble, crafting eccentric "Keeble boxes" to hold oxygenators (for star craft), emeralds, and the like; efficient gentleman from Bohemia Theophilus Godal, adventuring and sleuthing, ever ready with a new disguise and never at a loss; a cloaked woman visiting the Captain after the other members have left; and ex-squid seller and current pea pot man Bill Kraken, alcoholic aficionado of metaphysics, dealing with his guilty past working for nefarious bosses.
Second, their villainous nemeses: hunchbacked Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, eater of live sparrows and reanimator of corpses of dubious vintage; "fat boy in curls" Willis Puel, pustulent student of alchemy and phrenology, resenting that a man of his genius should suffer from the boils on his face and the commands of Narbondo; Shiloh, aged and cracked counterfeiter and messiah with big plans for the blimp-heralding apocalypse, including the upgrade of his current converts from zombies to living humans and the revivification of his long deceased mother Joanna; Kelso Drake, millionaire owner of mills and brothels, using any underhanded means to get his hands on a Keeble perpetual motion engine.
And the homunculus? Shiloh believes that the imp is both his father and God, while the Club members figure he's a miniature alien of malign influence, now presumably being kept somewhere safe in a Keeble box (an imp in a bottle). St. Ives would like to find the homunculus' star craft to see how it works, said star craft being hidden in one of Drake's brothels.
The plot is full of memories and ambitions, triumphs and failures, breakthroughs and brainings. Blaylock puts his characters through strenuous and comical paces, as all of them, from the criminals to the Club members, are rather bumbling. Soon he has them juggling at least three different Keeble boxes, until it's hard for the players and the reader to tell which box is which, which may be the point. After all, the novel praises poetic impracticality (e.g., toymaker Keeble) and criticizes Benthamite utility (e.g., millionaire Drake): "Everything worth anything . . . was its own excuse."
Blaylock writes some spicy, funny, imaginative, and rich lines and passages.
--"His theories had declined from the scientific to the mystical and then into gibberish, and now he wrote papers still, sometimes in verse, from the confines of a comfortable, barred cellar in north Kent."
--"Darkened roof rafters angled sharply away overhead, stabilized by several great joists that spanned the twenty-foot width of the shop and provided avenues along which tramped any number of mice, hauling bits of debris and working among the timbers like elves. Hanging from the joists were no end of marvels: winged beasts, carved dinosaurs, papier-mache masks, odd paper kites and wooden rockets, the amazed and lopsided head of a rubber ape, an enormous glass orb filled with countless tiny carven people."
--"Even the farthest-fetched, vilest sort of religious cult could develop a sort of fallacious legitimacy through numbers."
--"Dogs are your man for tracking aliens of this sort."
If all that sounds appealing, it is--for the first half, when Blaylock writes some great descriptions and the characters are starting their picaresque paces, but as the second half progresses and the characters increasingly flail about (not unlike Narbondo's shambling zombies) without attaining their goals and the writing increasingly turns arch, I began longing for Dr. Birdlip's dirigible to hurry up and land to get the climax over with, and I stopped caring about the characters and events, doubting that it would all add up to anything very meaningful.
Thus the potent potential meaning of a passage from a book by Bill Kraken's metaphysical hero Ashbless in which mankind forms two camps ready to do battle, "the poets or wits on the one side, and the men of action or half-wits on the other," becomes lost in the noise of the good guys and bad guys chasing after each other and their goals like half-witted poetic men of action. When St. Ives wonders "What. . . did it all mean?" I wonder what meaning can such a farrago of ghoulish slapstick farce have?
Audiobook reader Nigel Carrington does a fine job with the rich writing and absurd antics: his gentleman voice for Godal, nasty voice for Narbondo, alcoholic voice for Kraken, crazed voice for Shiloh, etc., are all great, though sometimes in the heat of the action his voices may slip.
Finally, although its many absurdities began to cloy and smother its potentially interesting philosophical elements, I'm glad to have listened to Homunculus, and figure that fans of vintage steampunk set in London would probably enjoy it.
2 of 3 people found this review helpful
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By Sara on 02-01-13
An epic to lose yourself in, brilliant narration
I'll be honest, this is one of those books that takes a while to get into. But once you get past the introduction and prologue, and settle into the proper action (chapter 2 on your download), Homunculus is brilliant. I love Terry Gilliam films like Baron Munchausen and Doctor Parnassus, so this type of story is right up my street.
The story is epic and detailed, and maintains a deadpan humour throughout, painting crazy characters and absurd situations in whimsical situations. This book is categorically not for realists, but a delightful romp. Nigel Carrington's narration is perfect in communicating the surreal British humour that runs throughout the whole story, and I loved the almost Blackadder tones he maintained for Langdon St Ives' character. If you enjoy the alternative magical realities created in books like Aaronovitch's River of London trilogy, and Kim Newman's Anno Dracula books, give this a go!
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
By Christopher on 04-09-16
Any additional comments?
I've come back to this book time and again because I am always amazed by Blaylock's perfect capture of the texture and rhythms of the Victorian period of which he writes. Neither heavy-handed nor affected, his use of period sensibilities and language comes through not only in perfectly balanced dialogue, but also his sharply observed descriptions and well-paced narratives of action. His characters are at first an array of pantomime parodies (the baddie is a hunchback named Narbando? Seriously?), but they soon reveal their own personalities and unexpected complexities as the story unfolds. And we cannot ignore the story itself, of course. Throw a cast of characters like this into a landscape littered with all the possibilities of a twisted version of Victorian London, drop in the possibility of immortality, sprinkle with zombies, and of course you are going to get a good story, but Blaylock's weird and darkly humorous mind has made it a GREAT story. And the thing I love best about this book is how he treats both the characters and the landscapes: from the grand sweeping views of the London cityscape over which passes a dirigible flown by an animate corpse, to the intimate exchange between Langdon St Ives and the butler he believes he is fooling with a ridiculous disguise, Blaylock pulls it off with a perfect blend of warmth, detail, and style that would be intimidating if it wasn't so tongue in cheek.
I admit I began Homonculus reluctantly, with preconceived stereotypes of the whole steampunk thing, and very ready to dislike and mock the book. But I am ready to admit how wrong I was, and have gotten so much enjoyment not only from this book but other James P. Blaylock works in this and other series that I am grateful I took a chance on this all those years ago (still unsure about the steampunk scene, however).
1 of 1 people found this review helpful