In 1870s London, a city of contradictions and improbabilities, a dead man pilots an airship and living men are willing to risk all to steal a carp. Here, a night of bangers and ale at the local pub can result in an eternity at the Blood Pudding with the rest of the reanimated dead. 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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"Does the night seem uncommonly full of dead men and severed heads to you?"
Langdon St. Ives is a man of science and a member of the Royal Society. With the help of his dependable and discreet manservant, St. Ives prefers to spend his time secretly building a spaceship in his countryside silo. But currently he???s in London to help his friend Jack Owlesby recover a wooden box containing the huge emerald Jack???s father left him for an inheritance. Things get confusing when it???s discovered that there are several of these boxes that all look the same and all contain something somebody wants. Soon St. Ives, Jack, and a host of other friends and enemies become embroiled in a madcap adventure featuring a toymaker and his lovely daughter, a captain with a smokable peg leg, the scientists of the Royal Society, an evil millionaire, a dirigible steered by a skeleton, a tiny little man in a jar who may be an alien, a cult evangelist who wants to bring his mother back to life, a love-spurned alchemist who keeps trying home remedies to cure his acne, and a lot of carp and zombies.
As you may have guessed, Homunculus is zany and completely over-the-top in the right kind of way. The villains are meant to be caricatures ??? one of them is hunchbacked and another sneakily lurches around England with his head wrapped in unraveling bandages. They do stupid things such as leaving the curtains open while animating corpses for the evangelist to claim as converts, and tip-toeing up dark staircases carrying bombs with lit fuses. Blaylock???s bizarre but deadpan humor, in the absurdist British style (though Blaylock is American), was my favorite part of the novel. Even though Homunculus is packed with action and very funny when it???s in its farcical mode, the pace sometimes lags and the shallow characters can???t make up for it when that happens. Fortunately, that???s not often. The final scene is a screwball melee as all the heroes and villains, and thousands of London???s citizens, turn out to witness the story???s climax.
Nigel Carrington was a brilliant choice for narrator. There are a lot of similar characters in Homunculus, but Mr. Carrington made them distinguishable. He also hit exactly the right tone with the humor which ranged from deadpan to black comedy to zany farce. On my website, I've specifically recommended the audio version of Homunculus just because Nigel Carrington???s performance was a large factor in my enjoyment of the book.
If you???re in the mood for a surreal British comedy in the vein of Monty Python or Fawlty Towers, James P. Blaylock???s Homunculus will fit the bill nicely. Published in 1986, this is one of the earlier steampunk novels. In fact, Blaylock, along with friends K.W. Jeter and Tim Powers, all of whom studied with Philip K. Dick, are considered fathers of modern steampunk, and it was Jeter who coined the term to describe their work.
“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.