The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, by Mark Hodder

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NB this includes spoilers.

The figure of Spring-Heeled Jack has a burgeoning literature, and Mark Hodder’s novel is an intriguing twist on the theme, marrying that peculiar folkloric creature to a steampunk time-travel epic.  This 1861 is a strange distorted place in which Queen Victoria was assassinated in 1840, and the monarch, through some constitutional sleight of hand, is King Albert.  That’s not the only difference to the world we know, though.  People ride on steam-powered Ordinary bicycles, or travel by flying armchairs (“rotochairs”).  Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s pneumatic railway actually works.  Genetically engineered dogs are born knowing every address within fifty miles, a perfect messenger service as they really do only work for food.  Verbal messages are delivered by genetically modified parakeets which have the power of speech (and a more retentive memory than the term ‘bird brain’ would indicate), though their communications are larded with insults that make them an unsuitable medium for ladies’ delicate ears.

So this is the nineteenth century, but not as we know it.  Society is divided into factions.  There are Technologists, responsible for new marvels designed to make life easier, but which often have unintended consequences.  There are geneticists (confusing known as Eugenicists) who would give Dr Moreau a run for his serum engaging in weird medical experiments, fusing humans with animals and human consciousness with machines.  These left-brain (so to speak) factions are balanced by the right-brain Libertines, essentially aesthetes, and their radical wing, the Rakes, who disdain the conventions of Society in their pursuit of hedonistic self-determination.  It’s Jekyll and Hyde on a national, or at least London-wide, scale.  Peopling this strange society is a mix of well-known real individuals – Brunel, Darwin, Galton, Nightingale, Palmerston – mixed with obscure real and fictional ones.  But the real ones bear little relationship, in character and often, startlingly, in physical appearance, to Hodder’s version, and people we consider icons are depicted as having a much darker side.

Even the heroes in this world are ambiguous in one way or another.  Strictly speaking the full title of the novel is Burton & Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack.  Burton is Sir Richard, “Ruffian Dick”, explorer and adventurer, an outsider in his own land, a controversial character feuding with John Hanning Speke over the source of the Nile.  In this version of reality he becomes a government agent tasked to uncover the truth about Spring-Heeled Jack, as well as mysterious reports of werewolves plaguing the East End (as if the place didn’t have enough problems) and the abduction of chimney sweeps.  Swinburne is, well, Algernon Swindburne, diminutive poet, masochist (though at that date using De Sade as his reference), and a terrible shot with a pistol.  Together they delve into the dark underbelly, a decidedly large underbelly, of the metropolis to find the solution to problems which, the reader is not amazed to discover, are intimately linked.

The depiction of the horrible side of nineteenth century London is laid on as thickly as its atmosphere, this version demonstrating, even more than the one we know about, the downside of unregulated industrialisation, so that there is a perpetual smog enveloping the city caused by its coal-powered technologisation.  What is clever is that while steampunk is usually assumed to be a parallel universe obeying its own arbitrary logic, this world has been created by the meddling of a person from the future who inhabits, or rather will inhabit in a couple of centuries, the reader’s universe.  It is thus one of those time-travel stories in which a character creates the very situation he is trying to prevent, and his frantic efforts to make things better succeed only in making them worse.   It transpires that the time traveller’s indiscreet description of his own time given while bouncing around the 1830s has inspired technological advances to go down different routes to those they would have, had he not interfered.  It presumably means that as the reader inhabits the time-traveller’s universe rather than an extrapolation of the one he accidentally creates by his interference, that the novel supports the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Hodder creates a scenario to account for the various stories of Spring-Heeled Jack’s appearance since the early nineteenth century which is as plausible as any, though the reader may think Jack’s reason for intervening in his far-distant past a trivial one, and his reliance on the laws of probability to prevent mishap unduly optimistic.  Time travel is difficult to do with aplomb, and perhaps The Time Traveler’s Wife (also a debut novel) is the template of how to juggle complex sequences in which story and plot are out of synch.  Maintaining coherence, with a character’s linear time being different from that of everybody else, is a hard trick, and Hodder manages it well, though his structure is not as complicated as Audrey Niffenegger’s.  Apart from a clunky scene where Burton eavesdrops on a group of plotters, and they conveniently discuss details which enable him – and the reader – to learn what is going on, and some awkward point-of-view transitions, the narrative progression is sound enough (it could be argued that the threads are tied up rather too early), culminating in a rip-roaring climax in which the participants slug it out.

As the appearance of the protagonists’ names in the title implies, this is the first of a series, and it actually won the Philip K. Dick Award in 2010.  A couple more B&S novels have followed, with another on the way.  That’s fine, but while Burton is a well-drawn complex character, Swinburne is most peculiar, and it does Burton credit that he can see past the poet’s affectations to his sterling qualities.  But really, Swinburne is an annoying two-dimensional tyke who never ‘speaks’ but only ‘screeches’ and ‘squeals’, and dances around.  He reminded me of an alcoholic version of Basil Fotherington-Thomas as drawn by Ronald Searle.  While it is “Welcome back Hodder” for further instalments of Burton’s adventures, I think I would prefer it if young Swinburne remained in the capable hands of his favourite dominatrix.  Then we would all be happy.

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