Context, my friends, is everything.

So, I’m reading this book, (a romp through an alternate history, thoroughly steampunked Victorian England) and I was caught up short by the way my readerly expectations sometimes override my good sense. To those who might be loudly wondering what good sense that might be, I say only: thbbbbbbbpt.

There are a series of murders stretching back thirty years, all committed by what looks to be the same man – a figure with a strange, distinctive outfit and voice. However, he does not age in all this time. The level of technology and the frame of the novel (an alternate history, thoroughly steampunked Victorian England) already had my eyebrows raised as I read, because I knew what was coming. Let us all say it together now: Time travel!

Once I realized where it was going, the struggle of the characters to come to grips with it became boring. I admit, I was probably just tired of it. In the last week this is the fourth thing I’ve either read or watched where time travel was the centerpiece of the story. It is nearly impossible for time travel not to be the centerpiece of any story in which it’s used as a device. (One of the only places I’ve ever seen that successfully done was in a tie-in novel to the Star Trek: Voyager franchise, which is as bizarre as it is worrying.) So maybe I was a little quick out of the starting gate on that one. But the reactions are so predictable!

Person A: My word! This man appears over and over again in the same thirty-year period, but never seems to age!
Person B: There must be a bunch of him! No, he must have younger brothers!
Person A: Perhaps he’s twins!
Person B: No, that wouldn’t help.
Person A: Oh, right. So it’s a father and son!
Person B: Maybe, maybe not. But time is the key!
Person A: Yes! Time! Wait. What about time?
Person B: Perhaps he is traveling through time.
Person A: THE HELL YOU SAY!
Person B: IT WAS JUST A THOUGHT.

Miranda: Get on with it! Enough with these attempts at logical, rational arguments that make sense according to the known laws of our universe! …Maybe I need to rethink that complaint.

As a reader in the 21st century, I am privileged when compared to a character from the 19th in this situation, because I have read more speculative fiction than they have. At the time this book is set, H.G. Wells hadn’t written The Time Machine yet, and there was very little in the public perception that would prepare one to imagine that a man could jump through time. For these characters to come around to the conclusion that there is traveling through time going on, they need to expand their minds much farther than I would, in the same situation.

I’m not saying, for the record, that I would be so quick to come up with time travel as a solution, especially not in a 21st-century environment when the likelihood of several guys running around in the same far-fetched outfit is much more likely. (Dragon Con, anyone?) But it did prove something that I’d been thinking for a long time: everything depends on context. It makes me like the book more, in the end, that they aren’t jumping to what would be the easiest solution in the genre. Oh, they’re heading in that direction fast and furious. But they aren’t quite there yet. They are living in an alternate reality from what should be, even in the frame of their own world. At least one of the main characters feels there is something off about his life and behavior, although he doesn’t know what. The time traveler does; it’s his fault, in fact, that the whole of history changed. But they are all by god going to carry on. Even their personal helicopters (or “rotochairs”) have a handy holster for a gentleman’s walking stick.

This is why it’s 19th-century England that gets hit with steampunk. So many other cultures would actually adapt and change, when faced with technology. But not those wacky Victorians! No, they are going to have their afternoon teas and crumpets and colonial wars and balls. Victorian society stood up to a huge amount of change, which is what makes it such a potent ground for people looking to impose more. This book shows that off very nicely. It also has Oscar Wilde as a erudite paper boy.

I like this book. It isn’t holding my attention quite as well as the other one I read this week. That had a more openly philosophical focus, while this is a more forthright adventure. It’s a great bit of fun, and the writing is good.

Last week’s book: The Map of Time, Felix J. Palma.
This week’s book: The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, Mark Hodder.

See you next time!

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