Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review of The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives by James P. Blaylock

James Blaylock’s Langdon St. Ives has quietly become of one the greatest fictional adventurers of all time.  Since 1978 his globe-trotting escapades featuring dirigibles and nefarious clockwork devices, time travel and giant kraken, space rockets and uncanny carp, have appeared in print in one form or another.  From short story to novel, fourteen different stories have appeared as of 2016, and likely more to come.  Subterranean bringing together the first set of adventures into an omnibus edition and adding a plethora of complementary artwork from J.K. Potter, The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives (2008) collects the stories that introduced the gentleman scientist and his trusty comrades to the fictional world.

Collecting two novels and four short stories, The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives opens with the first-ever story published featuring Langdon St Ives.  “The Ape-Box Affair” (1978) has many of the trademarks of Golden Age fantastika yet bears a modern sensibility—an awareness of of what it’s doing.  An eccentric gentleman scientist, Langdon St. Ives, has built a rocket ship, and his test pilot is an orangutan named Newton.  Forgetting to fill the food box before lighting the fuse, however, has dire circumstances, as the ape, cheated of his vittles mid-flight, sets to pushing buttons, sending the ship careening back to London.  Emerging from the wreckage a smoldering, alien visage, London may never be the same as Newton wanders the city.  Quite simple a story that may define the word ‘uproarious’… 

Told from the perspective of Jack Owlesby, “The Hole in Space” begins with a ruse at Mr. Owlesby’s expense, but one coordinated by St. Ives himself to throw hunters off the scent.  Hodgson’s House on the Borderland lingering in the background even as the guys end up in a rocket ship cruising through space, it is one of the funniest and best stylized pieces in the collection.  An origins story, “The Idol’s Eye” tells of how St. Ives’ greatest nemesis Narbando came to be.  Starting innocently enough in the jungles of Java, one wild umbrella stab later, and the world is a different place.  St. Ives’ gang getting up to their typical antics, this story has a dark fate for one of them even as one evil genius comes to life.

A careening, capering affair, the first novel in the collection Homunculus begins with a dirigible flying high above London, spiraling slowly earthward.  Containing secrets many are guessing at and desire to have, St. Ives works on his rocket ship, oblivious.  But a late night burglary and St. Ives coming into the possession of certain arcane memoirs serve to turn the tide.  Graveyard robberies, carp livers, animate skeletons, street corner religions, malevolent industrialists, train chases, vivisection, mysterious blue-enamel boxes, and a series of unfortunate incidents propel the gentleman scientist and his Royal Club comrades to a spicy conclusion, and learn, indeed, what is in the dirigible. The most offhand, picaresque story in the collection, it is the novel that triggered further St. Ives novels.  (A full review can be found here.)

A look at the butterfly effect as only St. Ives/Blaylock can, “Two Views of a Cave Painting” starts with St. Ives’ discovery of a small, overlooked cave in the Surrey countryside.  Entering the cave, he finds an ancient painting, as well as the fact the cave is a time traveling portal—the painting, in fact being created in real-time by a mysterious Neanderthal from ages past.  Naturally, St. Ives and his companions go exploring in the past.  But to what effect?

A novel-length reworking of one of the earliest St. Ives’ stories, Lord Kelvin’s Machine takes the original novelette, adds a frame, and extends the story significantly.  The evil Narbondo killing St. Ives’ wife Alice in the prologue, the scientist-adventurer wants revenge.  From the volcano’s of Norway to the rough edges of South America, St. Ives pursues his course, a fact with added meaning with Lord Kelvin’s time machine in play.  Much darker than Homunculus, the second novel in the St. Ives universe looks at the man from a new perspective, and is certainly the story which digs deepest into the man’s character and psyche. (A full review can be found here.)

Perhaps the biggest advantage of the St. Ives stories is Blaylock’s focus on variance.  Switching narrators and story types, what could have been rote adventure, one similar story after another, becomes something more with the differing approaches to character, viewpoint, and plot device.  Adventure for certain exists in each is, but by constantly shifting gears, Blaylock makes something more of the sum.  Another way of putting this is, The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives is a worthwhile if only uniquely entertaining reading experience, an idea complemented by J.K. Potter’s art.

Originally published between 1978 and 2002, the following is the table of contents of The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives:

“The Ape-Box Affair”
“The Hole in Space”
“The Idol's Eye”
“Two Views of a Cave Painting”
Lord Kelvin's Machine

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