This book’s commonly touted as one of the precursors of the steampunk movement. It dates from 1967 and though I’d been keen to read it, I hadn’t found a copy. Having an interest in steampunk – the literature, not the habit of sticking cogs onto anything and wearing goggles down the shops – I figured that a three-ish buck version on Kindle was a safe enough bet.
Turns out my cash and my hopes weren’t misplaced. For a couple of dollars, I read something which suggested atomic weaponry was developed in the 1850s, and tracked the life of its inventor as he attempted to dodge government and military obligation in an effort to make such destructiveness a sober warning rather than bloodthirsty arse-kicking delivery system.
The book is probably more correctly considered an alternate history (or even a secret history) rather than specifically steampunk. There’s only a cursory mention of zeppelins, for fuck’s sake, so its credentials are already suspect. However, what we do get instead of a clockwork potboiler is a meditation on the responsibilities of science, and of inventors. What would you do if you alone knew the secret of how to create a world-fracturing weapon so advanced that teams of the bright and beautiful (including Florence Nightingale, at one point) can’t fathom its effects?
This approach – long on consideration and short on clanking butlers – has met with a bit of distaste in other reviewers, who presumably want some more sci-fi with their sci-fi and crumpets. But I enjoyed it – it was a mild, subtle thing, more about the evocation of time and place than about stirring the pot too wildly. It’s more than competent, and successfully humanises Queen Victoria. (Which, upon reflection, I probably knew from the title.)
Is it great? Nope. But then, a lot of steampunk isn’t, either. It’s a fairly charming tale which is worth a look if you’re into alternate history and thoughtful, presumably mustachioed men who may exist just like this in some other timeline. Give it a whirl.