As I mentioned previously, the author Juliet McKenna has written a wonderful critique of GIDEON SMITH and the MECHANICAL GIRL in the latest issue (number 43) of the excellent Irish spec-fic magazine ALBEDO ONE. Thanks to the generosity of editor Bob Neilson, I’ve been given permission to reproduce the Gideon Smith section of Juliet’s piece on new fiction in its entirety. I would urge you to go to the Albedo One website and purchase a copy of this magazine for yourself (you can get hard copy or a pdf). As well as excellent articles and reviews there is some great fiction in there by Michael Banker, Joe L. Murr, Francisco Mejia and others. Well worth your Euros. Check out the full table of contents here.
Without further ado, here’s Juliet’s exploration of Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl. There is a fairly in-depth look at the plot, but shouldn’t be too spoilery. If this whets your appetite, you can pre-order the book (released September 10) in the UK Snowbooks edition here and the US Tor Books edition here. Please note, these are both links to Amazon as Indiebound and others don’t yet have full pre-order details of the UK edition.
Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl (Tor US) by David Barnett takes us to the recent past rather than the far future. Victoria is on the throne, Walter Sickert is painting in Cleveland Street and Annie Crook, part-time prostitute, meets with more than her enigmatic, aristocratic lover. Yes, Jack the Ripper is at work. Granted this clearly isn’t history as we know it, with dirigible crashes in Birmingham and Texan rebels challenging British enclaves in Boston and New York, but does steampunk’s goggles and gears set-dressing still mask a fundamental lack of inspiration? Is this mere pastiche?
Barnett is evidently well-read in Victorian popular fiction, in so many ways a precursor to speculative fiction today. Our hero Gideon Smith escapes the tedium of a fisherman’s life in Whitby through reading the magazine ‘World Marvels & Wonders’ wherein loyal Doctor John Reed relates the heroic Captain Lucian Trigger’s adventures; a stalwart defender of Imperial interests who would make a fitting ally for Allan Quatermain or Professor Challenger. But Gideon cannot escape the harsh realities of life when his father’s trawler sinks with all hands in mysterious circumstances. Was there foul play? Gideon resolves to investigate and to enlist Lucian Trigger’s assistance if he can contrive it! So as the reader wonders if that is even possible, the story begins to explore relationships between fact and fiction, past and present. This is more than repackaging Haggard and Conan Doyle for a modern audience. Barnett references a different side of Victorian storytelling as Bram Stoker appears in Whitby. While Stoker sympathises with Gideon’s loss, he has more serious concerns, specifically hunting vampires. As this narrative strand develops with unexpected twists, we see Barnett weaving an inventive new tapestry from the multiple threads of legend, pulp-fiction and historical mythmaking.
He has a firm grasp of such material and he doesn’t only limit himself to Victorian melodramas. With allusions to fictions from H P Lovecraft through to Lucas and Spielberg, Barnett’s affection for popular culture is apparent. These references include wry asides and will prompt outright chuckles but the humour is always affectionate, never mocking. Crucially, the story will still make sense to anyone who doesn’t pick up all the jokes. Barnett’s deftness with narrative structure, pacing and characterisation are admirable and enjoyable.
The Clockwork Girl herself is an intriguing character; the creation of the mysterious and now vanished Professor Einstein. The tale of his experiments is a grisly one, highlighting the brutal arrogance of past scientific attitudes to animal experimentation. But before a modern reader congratulates our modern enlightenment, they must confront Maria’s current role as a proto-sexbot servicing Einstein’s caretaker. Barnett definitely doesn’t fall into the supposed steampunk trap of upholding unquestioned Victorian ideals of manly bewhiskered heroes and meekly submissive women. Gideon Smith is rightly appalled and rescues Maria. Taking her to London, his noble idealism promptly crashes into the foul-mouthed and blackly humorous cynicism of tabloid reporter Aloysius Bent. An editor’s nightmare gleefully woven from a thousand newsroom tall tales, Bent delights in shattering Gideon’s illusions. But once again, there’s more. The hack’s insights into the powerful who profit from blurring fact and fiction in the popular press will prompt nods from readers.
But Gideon really is on to something. Foul deeds and worse are afoot! Stoker’s ongoing quest brings the two of them back together and an airship carries them across Europe and the Mediterranean to confront an ancient evil. Lucian Trigger may not be the hero they had imagined but he has a role to play, along with Doctor Reed and the others so sensationally fictionalised in ‘World Marvels & Wonders’. Imagined technology adds a fantastical gloss as events unfold ever faster, ratcheting up the tension. The characters’ convincing humanity keeps the story just on the right side of melodrama as the ebb and flow of treachery and bravery reaches an explosive conclusion.
Barnett manages to write a thoroughly ripping yarn of derring-do while exploring key aspects of such fiction’s enduring appeal and without either undercutting the other. It’s the literary equivalent of those optical illusions the Victorians adored; where an ambiguous picture shows a beautiful girl and an old crone at the same time. How could the sequel possibly fail to prove just as entertaining?