The novel “Infernal Devices” by K.W. Jeter was published for the first time in 1987.
George Downer inherited from his father a store of mechanical devices but some of them are automata far more sophisticated than those usually found in Victorian London. One day, a strange man brings a machine built by his father asking him to fix it. George has never learned his father’s secrets but accepts only trying to earn something.
That event is only the beginning of a series of misadventures for George, who gets involved in the machinations of various factions that include automata and strange fish-human hybrids. The more he tries to stay out of business that area clearly illegal the more he’s forced to have more to do with the machines built by his father and with people who want to exploit them for less-than clear goals.
K.W. Jeter was one of the first authors to write steampunk stories and invented the name of this subgenre proposing it in a letter to the magazine “Locus”. It’s a playful variation of the term cyberpunk but eventually it got commonly adopted. It’s a subgenre born in the ’80s, still it’s influenced by the fathers of science fiction.
“Infernal Devices” is in many ways a comedy that chronicles the misadventures of George Downer, the son of a brilliant inventor of machines and mechanical automata who is facing the consequences of the work done by his father. George is basically the opposite of his father: he has a phlegmatic character and is devoid of curiosity, probably also influenced by the Victorian society in which he grew up, but above all he understands very little about his father’s works though he inherited the shop from him.
In short, George is a bit of a sucker and when he gets involved in an affair he doesn’t understand anything, he struggles even to react to events. Despite his intellectual and personaly shortcomings, sometimes he has a bit of initiative but generally some of the strange characters he has to deal whith tells him to do this and that and everything will be explained later because at the moment there’s no time.
Poor George is wanted by more and more people with purposes not necessarily positive for him in a story that at several points shows Lovecraftian influences. The style used by K.W. Jeter, however, is lighthearted, helped by the fact that the story is told in the first person by George with a very Victorian affected language that makes it sound funny.
This mix in my opinion isn’t completely successful. The Lovecraftian elements work in a dramatic horror story, in “Infernal Devices” I have the doubt that K.W. Jeter wants to make a parody of them. I think that the comedy works best along with the steampunk elements of the novel, with George overwhelmed by the events and from dealing with strange machines and automata he doesn’t understand.
George’s struggling to understand the intrigue in which got involved isn’t only due to his limits but also to the fact that it’s objectively complex. There are various factions involved with agendas that are revealed much later in the novel and no one is exactly what he appears.
Because of the way it’s told, “Infernal Devices” has a very high pace for much of the story, with George who tries to escape a number of dangers. Since it’s told in first person by the protagonist, the reader can only know what he knows. To explain some of the obscure elements of the plot, towards the end K.W. Jeter uses the narrative trick to have other characters explaining them to George. This allows the reader to understand many things but for a while the pace drops.
Inevitably, George is the most developed while character while the others are described from his point of view. Aside Creff, his servant, their development is meant in the sense that throughout the story occasionally George discovers something about them and generally that upsets him.
In my opinion, “Infernal Devices” is overall funny and since it’s one of the first steampunk novels I recommend it especially to those interested in learning about this science fiction sub-genre.