Friday, December 9, 2016

Review of Lord Kelvin's Machine by James Blaylock

Between the mid 70s and early 80s, James Blaylock occasionally played in a Victorian England sandbox of his own creation.  A short story here and short story there, the scientist cum adventurer Langdon St. Ives was having himself a variety of steampunk (before there was Steampunk) escapades around the globe.  The stories paving the way for a novel, Homunculus appeared in 1986.  A success, Blaylock looked to develop lengthier material in St. Ives’ world, and in 1992 extended the short story “Lord Kelvin’s Machine” into a novel of the same name.

A different approach to storytelling than Homunculus, Lord Kelvin’s Machine shifts away from the picaresque, and closer to the darker, more dramatic.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and other such stories of the late 19th and early 20th century whispering from the wings, Blaylock digs deeper into Langdon St. Ives’ head while expanding established material in highly adventurous, world-wheeling form.  From world destroying comets to time machines, volcano chases to doppelgangers, storytelling remains front and center even as mood darkens.

Lord Kelvin’s Machine opens on a tense scene that has repercussions throughout the novel.  Riding horse and carriage, St. Ives is in hot pursuit of Narbondo through the English countryside at night.  For no obvious reason he begins hallucinating: he sees his own self appear from the dark beside the road.  Collapsing into unconsciousness, he awakens a short time later, still on the carriage, still in chase.  Around a corner and Narbondo appears.  A crash occurring, St. Ives finds Narbando holding his wife Alice hostage with a gun in the chaotic aftermath.  But before St. Ives can get a bullet in the evil man’s head, Narbondo has pulled his own trigger, and Alice is dead.  St. Ives bent on revenge thereafter, his quest takes him around the world, Norway to South America, and even backwards in time to get what he desires most.  But by the time he’s in position to exact it, well, things have changed…

From a few perspectives Lord Kelvin’s Machine is different than Homunculus (not to mention the rather standard groove later St. Ives stories would fall into).  Along with the aforementioned divergence in tone, Blaylock likewise experiments with narrative structure, changes narrator perspective, and gets deeper into St. Ives’ psyche than any of the other stories that had come or would come.  The novel broken into three parts that are almost (almost!) able to be read independently, the first is only a slightly re-worked version of the original novelette “Lord Kelvin’s Machine”, the second a first-person story told from the perspective of  Jack Owlesby about the theft of Lord Kelvin’s machine, and the third a time travel story returning to St. Ives’ point of view that also has its share of adventure but predominantly serves to expose the underlayers of St. Ives’ character, all the while resolving the tension created in the prologue.  Blaylock never letting pace flag, action is abound as St. Ives and his friends bounce from place to place, settling intrigue and stopping nefarious criminals from dastardly deeds.

Another way of putting this is, Lord Kelvin’s Machine the novel (1992) is a richer, extended rendering of the original short story of the same name (1978).  Rather than expanding and adding detail to the existing storyline, Blaylock instead chooses to make it an opening salvo, with two additional salvos, coupled with a framing device, necessary to resolve all the issues brought into play.  Where Homunculus was a full-on caper rendered off-kilter by Blaylock’s canny prose and sense of timing, Lord Kelvin’s Machine is not as light or airy.  There is a real sense of danger lurking behind the key scenes, not to mention the dark psychological undercurrents flowing through the final third of the novel as St. Ives’ confronts the object of his desire. 

In the end, Lord Kelvin’s Machine is an interesting addition to the St. Ives’ world that will agree or disagree with the reader’s tastes depending what kind of narrative they expect.  Superficially fragmented into three main parts, there are some who will see the novel as a collection, the parts satisfying to varying degrees, but individual.  Others able to read a little deeper (but not too deep, it isn’t Joyce or Proust) will appreciate how Blaylock has tied matters together into a whole.  Taking a very long arc of story and refining it to three components, Blaylock gives the reader more pulp-ish adventure in the St. Ives world, but adds a layer of darkness and subtlety one does not often find in stories of such type.  One of my complaints about later St. Ives’ stories is, in fact, how bland St. Ives is sometimes portrayed.   In Lord Kelvin’s Machine, at least, Blaylock makes him something more, and dare I say upon the conclusion, something human.  In short, it is not your standard revenge story, and remains unique in the St. Ives world for it.

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