Far-fetched fiction, with a side order of steampunk
Robert Rankin’s been flirting with steampunk for a while - fiendish inventions of Victorian vintage crop up in his work every now and then, and he can increasingly be spied sporting “the look” - but this is a full-on steampunk adventure, Rankin-style.
The events of HG Wells’s The War Of The Worlds are a decade past, and Britain, with a command of the Martians’ technology, effectively rules two planets. Our hero is George Fox, fairground worker, shuffling round the country with his employer, the showman Professor Coffin, exhibiting a pickled Martian that’s slowly disintegrating in its formaldehyde. But fate has great things in store for George, and soon he, Coffin and the ravishing Ada Lovelace find themselves on a quest for the legendary Japanese Devil Fish Girl, who is not Japanese, nor a fish, nor a devil (although she is female).
Freakshows, airships, chortling Jovians, pygmy cannibals, lost Lemuria, ancient gods and a monkey butler jump in and out of the story as Rankin delivers one of his trademark yarns. He might lack the satirical insight of Terry Pratchett, but no-one tells a tall tale as well as Rankin does, and this one belts along with as much good cheer as a Christmas pub crawl. As always, you feel he’s telling the story to you . It’s personal. The story reflects Rankin’s own eclectic interests in Forteana and Victoriana, while at its heart is the author’s favoured pairing of aged impresario and young yet resourceful naïf. As usual, much of the book’s humour comes from the pair bantering, bickering and talking toot.
The book is nominally set in the same looniverse as the majority of Rankin’s other books: Hugo Rune puts in an appearance, as does the Elephant Man, but generally the story is shorn of the intertextual references that can make some of his stories baffling to the neophyte - there are no time-travelling sprouts popping up to deliver punchlines to jokes that have been running for five volumes. It also lacks the intense, sometimes disorienting jig-like beat that characterises some of his other novels. This may disappoint the man’s vocal fanbase, but it does make the book highly accessible if you’ve not read a Rankin before, and is sure to earn him new readers.
Reverential steampunk fans make no mistake, this does not take the subgenre at all seriously - the world is a joke for Mr Rankin, no matter the era. But as The Japanese Devil Fish Girl reaffirms, it’s a joke he’s got exceedingly good at telling.