Thursday, 5 January 2012

'Who hath known the ways of time..." Steampunk adventure with Mark Hodder

Finished my first read for the year!


Burton and & Swinburne in Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon.
by Mark Hodder


The final instalment in Mark Hodder's  steampunk, time travel trilogy featuring the larger than life duo of Richard Francis Burton, explorer, and  Algernon Swinburne poet.   Expedition to Mountains of the Moon  takes place in a fantastic re-imagining of the 19th century, where history has taken a somewhat different path and technology has developed at an  accelerated pace.
Steampunk is a remarkable development in genre fiction, and Mark Hodder's contribution is amongst the most remarkable displays of the genre. Essentially a romantic re-imagining of the past, specifically the Victorian age, steampunk runs the risk of escapist irrelevance and dangerous, romantic glorification of the past  including its negative aspects. Hodder's work has a self awareness that seems to transcend those dangers and in the process leave us with a rousing tale of adventure and some quite challenging thoughts on time, history and human development.   Hodder’s work has a heavy emphasis on the science fiction elements of steampunk with technology and  genetic  engineering featuring heavily within the story.   The punk element seems largely derived from his outrageous re-imagining of many of the iconic figures of the Victorian age.  In choosing to create a story that features characters based on very real historical figures Hodder has created quite a challenge for himself and his readers but then alternative history and steampunk lends itself to carrying off such scenarios.
<><><> <> <><><>  <><><> <>
Richard Francis Burton
Hodder's principal characters are of course based on the very real figures of Burton and Swinburne, quite remarkable figures from the 19th century, Burton was indeed a famous explorer, linguist and literary translator and Swinburne a poet of renown but in our less exciting reality neither man really fulfilled his potential or lead the outrageously adventurous lives that Hodder's novels give us. Fictionalising the lives of real figures is fraught with danger, not least of which is the danger of antagonising your readers by an unsatisfactory re-imagining of iconic individuals. I must admit that the portrayal of Oscar Wilde in Hodder's novels did initially present me with some problems, and yet Hodder's story did overcome my initial doubts, his Wilde is indeed very different but that is largely explained by the different trajectory of his alternate history and the re-naming of Wilde with the nickname Quips does alleviate some of the discordance. Other real figures are scattered across the pages of Hodder's steampunk fantasies, Florence Nightingale, and Isamard Kingdom Brunel to name two of the more well known and in this the concluding novel in the trilogy H.G. Wells features as yet another supporting character in the unfolding adventure.
<><><> <> <><><> 
Algernon Swinburne


In this novel Hodder presents us with a complex narrative split across three time periods from 1840 to 1918 and just as the first novel dealt with time travel this sees a return to the dilemmas that such an event precipitates. The bulk of the novel occurs in 1863 but another narrative set in a war torn early 20th century Africa runs parallel, making for a complex story that requires attentive reading. Scattered across the narrative landscape is a nightmare world of genetic manipulation and weaponry that make even the real horrors of the Great War look tame by comparison. In the portrayal of a world in which science has created monsters and sought to escalate destruction, Hodder has, as much, science fiction does, offered a critique of unrestrained scientific development. Science without consideration of wider social implications and the even harder to see implications of history, is a monstrous force that has the potential to enslave rather than free mankind. The early liberating developments of this steampunk universe are now transformed into bringers of death and destruction on a large scale. In the earlier novels Hodder scattered his story with appealing genetic developments like 'the broom cat' a genetically engineered long haired cat, in strolling round the house it attracted dust to its fur which it then cleaned off and metabolised into it's system, a perfect  cleaning and self cleaning tool, now Hodder's universe has plants that act as self-defensive modes of transport but when such plants turn on their drivers and cannibalise them they are turned into organisms that make Triffids look like daises. The development of steam powered transport also just further pollutes and restricts London and turns into a nightmare world where machines clog the streets, much like our own world.


Hodder began his trilogy in The Strange Affair of Spring heeled Jack by starting with the infamous incident where the two explorers Richard Francis Burton and John Henning Speke were due to debate  the source of the Nile issue, the debate was cancelled due to Speke falling prey to a shooting incident, here in The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon  Burton is compelled to re-enact his original expedition to find the source of the Nile this time in a race to the source against Speke and his now Prussian backers.   The real object of the expedition is to find a powerful and mysterious diamond.  The best elements, most compelling sequences of the novel involve the descriptions of that adventure and Hodder acknowledges that in that he owes much to the writings of Richard Burton himself: ‘His The Lake Regions of Central Africa (1860) is, in my opinion, by far the most fascinating journal of any of the Victorian explorers’.  Dramatic adventure may be what drives this narrative but it is also generously imbued with philosophical observation on the nature of mankind, time and our place within it.  In many respects this is quite a dense story, it is more than just escapist steampunk and it is rather a dark tale, Hodder does not hesitate in killing off established characters, often in brutal fashion. I must admit that having finished this novel and now the entire trilogy I am left feeling the need to re-read it from the beginning in order  to fully  understand and appreciate it  and it is a series I will very definitely re-read. It is original, inventive, compelling and entertaining.  It makes great use of real historical figures from the infamous, mysterious spring heeled Jack to Burton and Swinburne themselves both men that warrant further reading.  (This book concludes with an appendix containing one of Swinburne's poems.)  This novel does not I suspect stand well on its own but needs to read as a concluding volume in the larger work beginning with The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack followed by The Curious case of the Clockwork Man and finally concluding here with Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon.  As part of a trilogy this is steampunk at it's best. 
I have to admit that after reading The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack last year I did seek out a biography of Burton, he is a fascinating figure in 19th century history and by any standard a remarkable man.  One of the great virtues of Mark Hodder's wonderful trilogy is the way he has brought into the spotlight some truly fascinating figures from the age of Victoria and inspired further reading and exploration, (for me at least that is the case).  I should say that I have really enjoyed Mark Hodder's Burton and Swinburne novels.


For further insight into this title check out this post at Voyages Extordinaires: http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com/2012/01/expedition-to-mountains-of-moon-2011.html
And just in case this is of interest and use to someone I did review both the first novel in this series and a great biography of Richard and Isabel Burton on my old blog here: http://garlicandsapphires-sarah.blogspot.com/2011/09/rage-to-live.html

4 comments:

  1. Feel free to post future updates here http://sarcasticmuse.blogspot.com/2012/01/progress.html
    I do hope you are having lots of fun!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've got a copy of Mountains of the Moon, and can't wait to dive into it. Burton's Springheeled Jack knocked my socks off, and I've heard this third one in the series is better yet!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post! Now I've got a trilogy to go investigate!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I have yet to read any steampunk, but it sounds like a genre of fiction that I would adore. I need to check this trilogy out. Thanks for the great review!

    ReplyDelete