Friday, October 29, 2010

1986 Philip K. Dick Award - HOMUNCULUS by James Blaylock

I don't plan on reviewing a lot of Philip K. Dick award winners - to their credit, they tend to nominate very different books from the general pool of a half-dozen-or-so books that all of the other awards seem to draw from (Neuromancer being an obvious exception). This fits in very nicely with Dick's avant garde writing, but many of the winners are not the widely-read, acknowledged classics that I'm focusing on for the moment. Blaylock, however, is a writer that has been on my to read list for a few years now. As I've mentioned before, I'm very interested in the steampunk aesthetic, and Blaylock, with this novel in particular, is among the subgenre's founding fathers (along with Moorcock, K. W. Jeter, and Tim Powers*).

Homunculus takes place in London in 1870 and follows a series of mad scientists led by Langdon St. Ives called the Trismigestus Club who hang out in a tobacco shop and contend with, well, even madder scientists like Dr Ignancio Narbono, who can revive the dead. An alchemist named Birdlove mastered perpetual motion and incorporated it into the engine of a blimp, which has circled the world for years since. The blimp's orbit has been slowly decaying, and since it contains all sorts of curiosities, including a small alien who may or may not be the father of an evangelist named Shiloh, the scientists attempt to unravel its mysteries and intercept it's landing.

Well, that's part of the plot. There are many more characters and there's quite a bit more going on. Too much, to be honest. As I've said before, steampunk is more an aesthetic than anything else, and many of the steampunk novels I've read are more interested in throwing out weird devices and comic anachronisms than developing plot or character. That's certainly the case here. The plot consists of a lot of scientists and their henchmen running around, spying on and stealing important items from each other. The characters are all very interchangeable - they have mechanistic motivations ("I need to get item x" or "speak with character y"), but no real emotions. Honestly, I had a hard time keeping track of them. I enjoyed a lot of the ideas here, but most of the novel left me cold, and I was glad it was a short one.

*I considered reviewing the first PKD winner, Powers' Anubis Gates. I read the novel in high school. I remember it, but not well enough to review it, and I enjoyed it, but not enough to reread it, so I'm skipped it in favor of Blaylock.

Grade: B-

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