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The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man

January 23rd, 2012 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man : (Burton & Swinburne In)
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man : (Burton & Swinburne In)
Mark Hodder, Mark Hodder; Prometheus Books 2011
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If you think you know what class warfare is, think again. A bit of perspective, let us take a look at that sensation of Victorian England, The Tichborne Affair. Roger Tichborne was the son of the baron, Sir James Tichborne, and heir to the estate. Roger was lost at sea in 1854 and presumed dead, save that his mother would not accept this. In 1862 (after Sir James’ death) Arthur Orton, a bankrupt butcher from Australia, came forward to claim the title . Never mind that Orton barely resembled Roger Tichborne or knew precious little of what one one expect Roger to know, the mother accepted him. Upon her death, Orton sued to be recognized as Roger (and lost) and then in turn was sued for fraud and perjury (and again lost). It was the most expensive set of trials to date and held that title for over a century. To top the expense is that the facts of the case seemed to be of little import to the public at large. The aristocracy would not believe that one of their own would ever sink to being a common butcher, and the working class saw the upper crust betraying one of their own simply because he had found an honest way to survive. Convictions were set in stone and facts be damned. A near riot ensued upon the conclusion of the second trial as it seemed the mob would attempt to rescue Orton from prison.

Mark Hodder uses this event to bring Sir Richard Burton and Alegernon Swinburne into another steampunk adventure. If you will recall from The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, what we would call the Victorian period has been dashed when a certain historian from the future intervened to foil a failed assassination attempt on the Queen and failed beyond his wildest nightmares with the death of Victoria. To compound matters, he planted the seeds for technology to run amok and for the development of social norms to spin wildly out of hand.

Although the historian is now dead and gone, he is still causing trouble. Not only is technology galloping at a laissez-faire pace but the very technology Spring Heeled Jack introduced is causing rifts in time. It seems that Sir James’ father brought back from South America and hid under his estate a fragment of what Burton knows to be the Eyes of Naga. Never heard of the Eyes of Naga? Well they are the stuff of myth and legend and won’t be unearthed from the Tichborne estate until sometime later this century—in this timeline. Jack, however, used these precious stones to power and control his time machine. His fragment is now (in the world Burton and Swinburne currently find themselves in) interacting with fragments across the world. The stones seems to have telekinetic powers and allow the past and future to interfere with each other.

This all makes life more difficult for Burton and Swinburne but far easier for Hodder, to the point where one might feel he is cheating. Things are harder for Burton and Swinburne because most of the stones are now embedded in the Tichborne Claimant. The stones magnify the near riot of history to a frenzy that would make the riots of Watts and Detroit and the confusion of New Orleans utterly inconsequential. Hodder also uses the stones to explain all the nightmare creature he could not possibly have included in his previous book. One could almost understand the werewolves of London in his last book as maybe a scientific possibility. However, having run out of the improbable, Hodder is left with the fantastic. Now there are ghosts and walking undead (the term “zombie” would be anachronistic here). There is even free-floating ectoplasm and fairies. Well, fairies don’t count. It seems that there are fairies, but the stones simply make them apparent. Now they don’t just torture Charles Doyle figuratively, but actually. It should also be mentioned that Hodder nicely insures that one cannot have zombies without ghosts.

As one might expect, the introduction of ghosts and the undead elevates the great riot to a zombie apocalypse. On the one hand this illustrates a problem often faced with sequels. The Clockwork Man is very much Spring Heeled Jack turned up and more contrived. On the other hand, Burton and Swinburne gel much better here. Oh, and while not quite Sean of the Dead, the undead are fairly entertaining.

One troubling theme that began weakly in Spring Heeled Jack but is much more prominent in The Clockwork Man is that of technological determinism. In the former, the social deviation of the Libertines and the Rakes seemed to have a life of their own until co-opted by the technological classes. Now these social movements are simply dominated by technology. It is also interesting that while Herbert Spencer plays a pivotal and favorable roll, Hodder provides a glimpse through to the early 20th century, one where Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche is ruler of Germany and Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin of Russia. Note only does this seem out of character for Nietzsche1, but Hodder seems to ignore the line of though and social development that runs from Kant to Hegel and then Marx. It is hard to believe that the time Hodder has created would be less hospitable to communist ideology than the one we know. The conceit here not only does technology shape ideology but that ideology has no affect on the technology we choose to pursue. The best he can come up with (as seen in the Eyes of Naga) is that there is something trumps mechanical determinism. He may, however, find himself trapped in the sort of quantum mysticism that some science fiction writer become prey to.

Hodder finishes The Clockwork Man with a promise of yet another tale (indeed it is already out). This volume suggests a collapse between this timeline and our own. Perhaps the third installment will deliver.

1Which makes his lament that Spencer is misunderstood galling, since this is exactly what he does to Nietzsche.