In 1870s London, a city of contradictions and improbabilities, a dead man pilots an airship and living men are willing to risk all to steal a carp. Here, a night of bangers and ale at the local pub can result in an eternity at the Blood Pudding with the rest of the reanimated dead.
A comic science-fiction novel first published in 1986. It took the Philip K Dick award that year, and was the second book in Blaylock's loose steampunk trilogy, following The Digging Leviathan (1984) and preceding Lord Kelvin's Machine (1992).
©2012 James Blaylock (P)2012 Audible Ltd
I'm the managing editor of the Fantasy Literature blog. Life's too short to read bad books!
"Does the night seem uncommonly full of dead men and severed heads to you?"
Langdon St. Ives is a man of science and a member of the Royal Society. With the help of his dependable and discreet manservant, St. Ives prefers to spend his time secretly building a spaceship in his countryside silo. But currently he???s in London to help his friend Jack Owlesby recover a wooden box containing the huge emerald Jack???s father left him for an inheritance. Things get confusing when it???s discovered that there are several of these boxes that all look the same and all contain something somebody wants. Soon St. Ives, Jack, and a host of other friends and enemies become embroiled in a madcap adventure featuring a toymaker and his lovely daughter, a captain with a smokable peg leg, the scientists of the Royal Society, an evil millionaire, a dirigible steered by a skeleton, a tiny little man in a jar who may be an alien, a cult evangelist who wants to bring his mother back to life, a love-spurned alchemist who keeps trying home remedies to cure his acne, and a lot of carp and zombies.
As you may have guessed, Homunculus is zany and completely over-the-top in the right kind of way. The villains are meant to be caricatures ??? one of them is hunchbacked and another sneakily lurches around England with his head wrapped in unraveling bandages. They do stupid things such as leaving the curtains open while animating corpses for the evangelist to claim as converts, and tip-toeing up dark staircases carrying bombs with lit fuses. Blaylock???s bizarre but deadpan humor, in the absurdist British style (though Blaylock is American), was my favorite part of the novel. Even though Homunculus is packed with action and very funny when it???s in its farcical mode, the pace sometimes lags and the shallow characters can???t make up for it when that happens. Fortunately, that???s not often. The final scene is a screwball melee as all the heroes and villains, and thousands of London???s citizens, turn out to witness the story???s climax.
Nigel Carrington was a brilliant choice for narrator. There are a lot of similar characters in Homunculus, but Mr. Carrington made them distinguishable. He also hit exactly the right tone with the humor which ranged from deadpan to black comedy to zany farce. On my website, I've specifically recommended the audio version of Homunculus just because Nigel Carrington???s performance was a large factor in my enjoyment of the book.
If you???re in the mood for a surreal British comedy in the vein of Monty Python or Fawlty Towers, James P. Blaylock???s Homunculus will fit the bill nicely. Published in 1986, this is one of the earlier steampunk novels. In fact, Blaylock, along with friends K.W. Jeter and Tim Powers, all of whom studied with Philip K. Dick, are considered fathers of modern steampunk, and it was Jeter who coined the term to describe their work.
Homunculus won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1986.
I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
“Within the gondola, looking for all the world as if he were piloting the moon itself, was a rigid figure in a cocked hat, gripping the wheel, his legs planted widely as if set to counter an ocean swell. The wind tore at his tattered coat, whipping it out behind him and revealing the dark curve of a ribcage, empty of flesh, ivory moonlight glowing in the crescents of air between the bones. His wrists were manacled to the wheel, which itself was lashed to a strut between two glassless windows.”
That's the skeletal Dr. Birdlip (his eyes long since burned out by the sun or pecked out by seabirds) "piloting" his dirigible on its fixed and mysterious rounds. After fifteen years, the blimp may be about to land on Hampstead Heath in the London of 1875, an event of intense interest to two opposing groups. . .
First, the convivial members of the Trismegistus Club: scientist, inventor, and amateur detective Landon St. Ives, trying to put the finishing touches on his starship; his capable man Hasbro, reading the Peloponnesian Wars; ex-sea captain and current owner of the tobacco shop where the Club meets, Captain Powers, wearing a hollow ivory peg leg that doubles as both a flask for alcohol and a pipe (though he is loathe to smoke his leg in public); whimsical toymaker William Keeble, crafting eccentric "Keeble boxes" to hold oxygenators (for star craft), emeralds, and the like; efficient gentleman from Bohemia Theophilus Godal, adventuring and sleuthing, ever ready with a new disguise and never at a loss; a cloaked woman visiting the Captain after the other members have left; and ex-squid seller and current pea pot man Bill Kraken, alcoholic aficionado of metaphysics, dealing with his guilty past working for nefarious bosses.
Second, their villainous nemeses: hunchbacked Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, eater of live sparrows and reanimator of corpses of dubious vintage; "fat boy in curls" Willis Puel, pustulent student of alchemy and phrenology, resenting that a man of his genius should suffer from the boils on his face and the commands of Narbondo; Shiloh, aged and cracked counterfeiter and messiah with big plans for the blimp-heralding apocalypse, including the upgrade of his current converts from zombies to living humans and the revivification of his long deceased mother Joanna; Kelso Drake, millionaire owner of mills and brothels, using any underhanded means to get his hands on a Keeble perpetual motion engine.
And the homunculus? Shiloh believes that the imp is both his father and God, while the Club members figure he's a miniature alien of malign influence, now presumably being kept somewhere safe in a Keeble box (an imp in a bottle). St. Ives would like to find the homunculus' star craft to see how it works, said star craft being hidden in one of Drake's brothels.
The plot is full of memories and ambitions, triumphs and failures, breakthroughs and brainings. Blaylock puts his characters through strenuous and comical paces, as all of them, from the criminals to the Club members, are rather bumbling. Soon he has them juggling at least three different Keeble boxes, until it's hard for the players and the reader to tell which box is which, which may be the point. After all, the novel praises poetic impracticality (e.g., toymaker Keeble) and criticizes Benthamite utility (e.g., millionaire Drake): "Everything worth anything . . . was its own excuse."
Blaylock writes some spicy, funny, imaginative, and rich lines and passages.
--"His theories had declined from the scientific to the mystical and then into gibberish, and now he wrote papers still, sometimes in verse, from the confines of a comfortable, barred cellar in north Kent."
--"Darkened roof rafters angled sharply away overhead, stabilized by several great joists that spanned the twenty-foot width of the shop and provided avenues along which tramped any number of mice, hauling bits of debris and working among the timbers like elves. Hanging from the joists were no end of marvels: winged beasts, carved dinosaurs, papier-mache masks, odd paper kites and wooden rockets, the amazed and lopsided head of a rubber ape, an enormous glass orb filled with countless tiny carven people."
--"Even the farthest-fetched, vilest sort of religious cult could develop a sort of fallacious legitimacy through numbers."
--"Dogs are your man for tracking aliens of this sort."
If all that sounds appealing, it is--for the first half, when Blaylock writes some great descriptions and the characters are starting their picaresque paces, but as the second half progresses and the characters increasingly flail about (not unlike Narbondo's shambling zombies) without attaining their goals and the writing increasingly turns arch, I began longing for Dr. Birdlip's dirigible to hurry up and land to get the climax over with, and I stopped caring about the characters and events, doubting that it would all add up to anything very meaningful.
Thus the potent potential meaning of a passage from a book by Bill Kraken's metaphysical hero Ashbless in which mankind forms two camps ready to do battle, "the poets or wits on the one side, and the men of action or half-wits on the other," becomes lost in the noise of the good guys and bad guys chasing after each other and their goals like half-witted poetic men of action. When St. Ives wonders "What. . . did it all mean?" I wonder what meaning can such a farrago of ghoulish slapstick farce have?
Audiobook reader Nigel Carrington does a fine job with the rich writing and absurd antics: his gentleman voice for Godal, nasty voice for Narbondo, alcoholic voice for Kraken, crazed voice for Shiloh, etc., are all great, though sometimes in the heat of the action his voices may slip.
Finally, although its many absurdities began to cloy and smother its potentially interesting philosophical elements, I'm glad to have listened to Homunculus, and figure that fans of vintage steampunk set in London would probably enjoy it.
Swinging between cynical optimism and optimistic cynicism
Blaylock is one of the few writers I've read who can effectively combine so many contrasting effects, making the whole much greater than any one part. His scenes use horror and slapstick, (sometime together; for example, the resurrection scene with the peafowl and the piano), disappointment, joy, excitement, tenderness, mystery (with and without a capital M), wonder. There are moments where grotesque evil triumphs, moments where the outcome of choices are morally ambiguous, there are scenes filled with adventure, despair and, finally, a satisfying resolution that leaves the door open for new adventures. As I said in the headline, his writing is like watching someone juggling chainsaws and custard pies. You never know if the next page will bring tragedy or helpless laughter. As to plot, well, it's unusual, to say the least, and part of the pleasure is trying to determine exactly what it is. Blaylock does not write typical fantasy stories with simple words drawing clear lines from simple beginning A to simple ending B, with the obligatory 1000 pages in-between filled with vampire love, magic swords, bloody battles, and black-or-white choices. He includes lots of conflict, defeats and victories. Just not what you are expecting if your usual reading consists of Tolkien-knockoffs and 5000 page "epics." Try Blaylock, and keep a very open mind. Heed Coleridge, and employ "the willing suspension of disbelief" and so awaken " the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us." Fits Mr. Blaylock's stories to a T.
Two that stand out for me are Shiloh, the messiah, and Bill Kraken, sometime grave robber and squid monger. Blaylock writes great characters, if you approach him without preconceptions. His secondary characters are terrific; and they are all woven inextricably into the fabric of the tale. Blaylock writes very unique, large-than-life characters, such as Narbondo, the evil genius. But even better, he writes Everyman characters who, through their actions, show that greatness has always been within; that each person is unique and not a stock actor. Yet Blaylock never moralizes; he let's action and dialogue take their course without telling the reader "look how noble this person is."
He had the right feel for the story and the characters. He gave each character a clearly identifiable voice, but more than that, he incorporated the emotions and thoughts of each one into the narration. His voice trembles when someone feels strong emotion, sounding outraged, afraid, uncertain, or enlightened, as the situation requires. When people are bored, they sound bored. Carrington adds pauses, varies the tones and changes the pace to fit the action and situation. This was the first time I have heard him, and it will not be the last. A fine talent.
Again, it's hard to pick out just one moment. His scenes move from the informative to the horrifying to the comic to the thrilling. I don't want to describe any in detail, as I dislike spoilers.
Blaylock is under-appreciated. I would really like it if Audible offered his non-Narbondo/St. Ives books, such as "The Land of Dreams", "The Paper Grail", "The Elfin Ship" or "Night Relics."Finally, try his short stories. Many are wonderful. "Paper Dragons," which won a World Fantasy Award, is a good starting place to see how you like his style.
Writer for The MindHut, folk musician.
There is absolutely no momentum to the novel whatsover--- it just feels like a bunch of English people sitting aroudn being English-- and not even amusingly.
Everything-- More than two hours into the novel it felt as thought nothing at all had happened, and none of the characters were even remotely likable. I despised this novel.
His performance is fine-- It fits the tone of the novel, which is stuffy and English.
This is supposed to be one of the key novels in the development of steampunk. If this were the only novel to push steampunk into existance, I can't see how the genre would still exist. Why would anyone want to replicate this?
A plot in whic I cared about any of the characters.
The action was too often distracted with detailed world-descriptions.
I wanted the characters to just get on with it rather than spending so long on the rich descriptions.
Leave it as-is. It's just not my style.
Beautifully detailed world. I could easily see, smell and taste it!
"An epic to lose yourself in, brilliant narration"
I'll be honest, this is one of those books that takes a while to get into. But once you get past the introduction and prologue, and settle into the proper action (chapter 2 on your download), Homunculus is brilliant. I love Terry Gilliam films like Baron Munchausen and Doctor Parnassus, so this type of story is right up my street.
The story is epic and detailed, and maintains a deadpan humour throughout, painting crazy characters and absurd situations in whimsical situations. This book is categorically not for realists, but a delightful romp. Nigel Carrington's narration is perfect in communicating the surreal British humour that runs throughout the whole story, and I loved the almost Blackadder tones he maintained for Langdon St Ives' character. If you enjoy the alternative magical realities created in books like Aaronovitch's River of London trilogy, and Kim Newman's Anno Dracula books, give this a go!
"Good in parts"
If you’re eccentric, you’ll love this book. The characters are both funny and dark and believable. Some of the plot needed further development, but on the whole I enjoyed the story.
Yes. Recommend they read Skulls first.
Found myself skipping bits.
"Such a shame"
I so wanted to enjoy this - the subject sounds wonderful and there are great reviews all over the internet. However, to me it just reads like a third rate imitation of Douglas Adams. And why settle for an imitation when you can have the real thing? The humour just doesn't quite cut the mustard. Don't let me put you off, I realise I am in the minority due to the consensus otherwise on various websites, but I'd suggest thinking twice if you are a fan of Hitchhiker's Guide or Dirk Gently. Very disappointed.
"Complex and kind of dull"
Lovely prose, lots of it, but little in the way of plot that hooks you in. I ploughed on with it as I wanted to know what happened, but out of a sense of determination rather than enjoyment.
I've come back to this book time and again because I am always amazed by Blaylock's perfect capture of the texture and rhythms of the Victorian period of which he writes. Neither heavy-handed nor affected, his use of period sensibilities and language comes through not only in perfectly balanced dialogue, but also his sharply observed descriptions and well-paced narratives of action. His characters are at first an array of pantomime parodies (the baddie is a hunchback named Narbando? Seriously?), but they soon reveal their own personalities and unexpected complexities as the story unfolds. And we cannot ignore the story itself, of course. Throw a cast of characters like this into a landscape littered with all the possibilities of a twisted version of Victorian London, drop in the possibility of immortality, sprinkle with zombies, and of course you are going to get a good story, but Blaylock's weird and darkly humorous mind has made it a GREAT story. And the thing I love best about this book is how he treats both the characters and the landscapes: from the grand sweeping views of the London cityscape over which passes a dirigible flown by an animate corpse, to the intimate exchange between Langdon St Ives and the butler he believes he is fooling with a ridiculous disguise, Blaylock pulls it off with a perfect blend of warmth, detail, and style that would be intimidating if it wasn't so tongue in cheek.
I admit I began Homonculus reluctantly, with preconceived stereotypes of the whole steampunk thing, and very ready to dislike and mock the book. But I am ready to admit how wrong I was, and have gotten so much enjoyment not only from this book but other James P. Blaylock works in this and other series that I am grateful I took a chance on this all those years ago (still unsure about the steampunk scene, however).
"Complicated story ,...but?"
wasn't sure about this story at first although I was interrupted many times while I was listening. (I operate hydraulic a press).Anyway,before I passed judgement I listened again and enjoyed it. The story is bonkers but compelling James Blaylock has managed to merge sci fie, Dr Frankenstein and the age of Sherlock Holmes all in one book. Certifiable but fun!
"Highly entertaining and original !"
Nigel Carrington's performance was the driving force for this novel and eccentric story being so darned entertaining. He not only captures and differentiates the sometimes zany and off the wall characters with his talented voice... but the speed and delivery of the prose totally matches the mood of the moment. For example, there are many moments of slapstick bizarre goings on that would be under-appreciated without his delivery... Really quite brilliant.
So don't worry too much about deciphering the plot, particularly in the early stages, where characters and events are being established, just let Mr Carrington flow and enjoy it. It all comes together in the end...
Unusual, and highly recommended, and a great introduction to the next title, Lord Kelvin's Machine, which is even better.
"Fast moving, highly imaginative entertaining romp"
Never a dull moment in this fast moving imaginative fun steam punk novel, really enjoyed it, but sometimes struggled to keep pace, but maybe that is just me! Excellent characterisations and well read by Nigel Carrington.
"Escapism and intrigue"
Really enjoyed this, characters took a while to develop but the story carry's it along. Characterisation is well done and the multi-speaker scenes it is easy to follow who is who.
Will be exploring the series further.
"First Steampunk Novel"
This was my first excursion into the Steampunk genre and I have to say that it took me a little while to get into. Once I had got myself in the right frame of mind I really enjoyed the alternate reality. The characters were well written and described. In the end I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Report Inappropriate Content