Friday, 12 February 2010

Book review: The Affinity Bridge by George Mann

Something to read whilst snowed in on a sub-Arctic Winter's day ...

The Affinity Bridge
by George Mann

Snowbooks 2008
Paperback
350 pages

The 'steampunk' genre seems to have been quietly gaining - ahem - steam in literature, artwork, film (think Robert Downey Jnr as Sherlock Holmes), fashion, and even music.

If you are not familiar with it, 'steampunk' is set in a late-nineteenth century world where Victorian era technology has been taken to its ultimate levels, an idealised British Empire still rules a quarter of the world, and London is still swathed with pea-soupers in which Jack The Ripper creatures prey on the vulnerable. Sort of Dickens meets Jules Verne meets J.M.W.Turner meets Fritz Lang meets Vivian Westwood. It would be interesting to eavesdrop on that meeting.

'The Affinity Bridge' is firmly set in the steampunk world and introduces us to Sir Maurice Newbury; with emerald eyes and night-black hair swept back, he is an anthropologist at the British Museum, expert on the supernatural in prehistoric cultures, laudanum addict, and one of Queen Victoria's secret agents. Also introduced is his new personal assistant; the petite, dainty, proto-feminist Veronica Hobbes who also happens to have a sister in the Wandsworth lunatic asylum who can see the future. Together they investigate a case involving the crash of a robot-driven airship, zombie-plague ridden 'revenants', and a ghostly glowing policeman. So far, all so much Mulder and Scully, albeit in top-hat and tails and crinoline dresses. But Mann is a much better writer than that, and incorporates knowing nods to other classics of detective novels (even Columbo!), sci-fi (checkout his fellow agent Sir Charles Bainbridge's light-sabre!), and horror (especially 'Night of the Living Dead').

The obvious comparison is with Sherlock Holmes, particularly because the language of 'The Affinity Bridge' is a parody of Conan Doyle's (I say a parody, because it includes modern circumnavigations such as 'economical with the truth'), and Sir Maurice is very much an advocate of deductive logic and objective facts. He also has more London fog to struggle through than in the whole of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'. But whilst Holmes might have been hinted as being a cocaine, I don't think he was ever found by Mrs Hudson collapsed inside a pentacle after a night of laudanum self-medication. Homes didn't eschew horse-drawn Hansom cabs for steam-engine driven ones either (though I suspect that he might have done if they existed).

A more modern comparison I thought was of The Avengers, though it must be said that whilst Sir Maurice Newbury is a natty dresser, he never dons a bowler hat or carries an umbrella. And whilst Miss Veronica Hobbes is as dependable with a red-hot poker as Mrs Peel, she certainly doesn't wear a leather cat-suit or demonstrates martial arts. Still, there is an air in the novel of a similar sexual chemistry going on between the two, and a mix of Steed/Newbury upper-class debonairism with Peel/Hobbes intelligence and independence (hardly a damsel in distress).

The date is November 1901. It's still the Victorian era because the Queen is being kept alive with artificial lung-bellows that make her appear menacingly from the shadows like an asthmatic Darth Vadar figure. The 'punk' element of 'steampunk' comes because the protagonists are usually idealistic individuals assured of their separateness from the mainstream, and idealism for change for a better future. Newbury is an outsider in this mould; very much a Byronic hero. But it is Hobbes who comes across as the most 'kick against the pricks', feisty, independent challenger to Victorian values about women.

The 'steampunk' genre very much presents us with a world where everything could have been possible at the turn of the twentieth century: social, technological, gender, and psycho-nautical revolutions. Of course in reality history didn't realise these potentials, but we can dream of what might have been (if Industrial Revolution pollution, Colonial and Empire-building Militarism, and crises in Capitalism hadn't dashed those visionary ideals).

'The Affinity Bridge' rattles along (and steam-piston hisses) at a fast pace, throwing up startling images at each turn. It has one of the best zombie-battle scenes ever (sorry, 'revenant' battle), and lots of 'action movie' set-pieces that are creatively subverted (the clichéd struggle between protagonist and antagonist on a moving train for example - except the 'train' is a steam-powered 'street train' rattling along the streets of Kensington). The denouement might be a bit disappointing if you have any passing knowledge of Dr Who and the Cybermen, but that is a minor quibble. Overall, 'The Affinity Bridge' is a well-crafted (from brass and clock-work wheels no doubt) entry-point into 'steampunk', or just a good detective/action thriller novel with a twist for those who don't wish to buy into the whole genre.

Some books I read, and it is as if I can see 'The Movie' playing in my head. Others I can hear only the voice of the narrator and the images they conjure up. With 'The Affinity Bridge' I saw everything as if it was vividly drawn in a graphic novel, perhaps by Alan Moore. That's no bad thing!

More details and purchasing options here (Amazon.com): The Affinity Bridge (Newbury & Hobbes Investigations)

Or try here for Amazon.co.uk: The Affinity Bridge