The best works of a sub-genre are most often those which come to light in hindsight. Unaware they were/are part of a groundswell, there is no overt implementation of particular tropes or themes in order to be part of a specific literary or cultural movement. Steampunk stories, for example, while billowing in popularity after 2009-2010, have not since seen as many truly unique works as the decades prior. The best novels and stories produced before it became a cultural phenomenon, James Blaylock’s Homunculus (1986) is one such novel, and indeed one of the sub-genre’s charming, capering, and unwitting cornerstones.
A strange dirigible circling the rainy gray skies of England, the inventor Langdon St. Ives works oblivious on his space rocket at the outset of Homunculus. But a late night burglary attempt on a perpetual motion device brings St. Ives closer to the gyres of the dirigible’s haunting significance. Snagging him and dragging him into the proverbial machine, however, is his possession of the memoirs of Sebastien Owlesby and its account of a magical little man trapped in a box. With the dirigible’s orbit decaying toward London, it isn’t long before it’s up to St. Ives and his Royal Society fellows to attempt to bring down a scheme that no one seem to have a firm handle on, right down to the very men perpetuating the scheme.
Graveyard robberies, carp livers, animate skeletons, street corner religions, malevolent indutrialists, train chases, vivisection, mysterious blue-enamel boxes, and a series of misfortunate incidents propel Homunculus precariously from one scene to another. Starting slow, the novel builds to a cartwheeling conclusion. Yes, there is a dirigible, the setting is Victorian England, and technology exists that doesn’t in reality, but the steampunk of Homunculus remains background to “larger” bumblings. Whipping around the room like a loosed balloon, the story flits from person to place, and takes its time building coherence. But once it’s got the reader’s brain moving in rhythm, the story picks up steam (har!) to an uproarious ending. Robbing, scheming, chasing, preaching, escaping, and otherwise being caught in a scenario nobody has control of, its picaresque story done well.
But it’s the characters which lie at the novel’s heart. Blaylock’s later stories do a better job of defining personalities, but what’s in Homunculus remains a delight; they bounce on and off one another trying to effect ideas, steal them, or stop them—like a clown demolition derby. From Langdon St. Ives and his nemesis Ignacio Narbondo to the myriad of eccentric characters who fill the gap between, the story is a full on caper. Rendered in Blaylock’s unaffected, direct prose, it would even have to be deadpan caper...
In the end, Homunculus is Dr. Jekyl & Mr. Hyde, Sherlock Holmes, and anything by P.G. Wodehouse rolled into one—wearing a propeller beanie. Not as refined as later Blaylock works, there are moments the quantity of description threatens to take over a scene. But what takes time to come together, resolves itself in a satisfying clatter that gives the title its meaning. We call it steampunk today, but at the time the book was published it was just damn original fiction. (And I can’t help but think Ted Chiang read Homunculus before writing “Seventy-two Letters.”)