Title: Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl
Author: David Barnett
Published: 10 September 2013
Genre: steampunk, alternate history, adventure, metafiction
Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl takes place in a steampunky alternate world: the America lost its War of Independence and remained a part of the British Empire, where the sun has not yet set and airships fly between continents.
In the tiny fishing village of Sandsend, Gideon Smith dreams of a more exciting life than one spent fishing. His imagination goes on exciting travels and adventures with World Marvels and Wonders, a penny dreadful magazine that publishes the tales of Captain Trigger, the Hero of the Empire. “Lucian Trigger was an agent of the Crown, charged by Queen Victoria herself with tackling the more unusual threats to her globe-spanning empire” and he’s aided by a band of adventurous friends. Gideon has read, re-read and memorised all of Trigger’s stories and at the age of 24, Gideon believes in Trigger like a 5-year-old believes in Father Christmas.
So when the entire crew of his father’s fishing boat vanishes and Gideon suspects a supernatural cause, he actually calls the magazine and asks to speak to Captain Lucian Trigger about “a most urgent matter!”, “an emergency!”. Obviously Gideon just gets laughed at, but he finds an ally in the author Bram Stoker, who happens to be in a nearby town doing research for his next book. Stoker however, is looking for vampires and inspiration. Gideon believes that he’s chasing the wrong monster, so he packs up and leaves for London to find Captain Trigger.
On the way he finds the house of Albert Einstein’s father, an amazing inventor. Einstein has disappeared, but he left behind a beautiful automaton named Maria. Maria is being sexually abused by Einstein’s servant, so Gideon takes her with him to London, a city that she’s dreamt about even though she’s never seen it.
When Gideon finds Captain Trigger, he’s disappointed – Trigger is a sickly old man who stays at home writing about the exploits of the real adventurer, his lover Dr John Reed. But Reed has disappeared on a journey related to the Gideon’s own mystery, and Trigger is now inspired to join Gideon on a quest to find him. Soon they find themselves embarking on an adventure that would suit Gideon’s beloved penny dreadfuls – a crazy caper with a motley crew of companions fighting a horde of ancient monsters. They travel to exotic locations and encounter great danger as a mission of love and revenge turns into a desperate plight to save the world.
Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl is a rollicking old-fashioned adventure with lots of mystery and action, full of tropes like ancient artefacts with incredible power, monsters awakened from a centuries’ long slumber, beautiful women, sinister villains and a dashing hero. According to author David Barnett in an interview with My Bookish Ways:
It was inspired, really, by a love of old-fashioned adventure, both the Victorian type and the pulp-ish Indiana Jones-style escapades. I wanted to write something like that but with modern sensibilities – explore the nature of heroism
By modern sensibilities I assume Barnett is referring to inclusive things like the fact that Trigger is gay and the hero of the magazine stories is his lover. Two of the women in the novel – the dirigible pilot Rowena Fanshawe and Countess Dracula – are capable, independent and sexually liberal, possessing strengths that make them equal to or more powerful than their male counterparts. Dracula’s wife Elizabeth actually goes around liberating other women from their social and physical constraints in a decidedly unconventional manner. There is also some criticism of the power of the British Empire and the practice of slavery.
However, what stands out most of me in Barnett’s quote is the word “pulp-ish”. Because pulpy is a word that frequently came to mind as I was reading. To say the novel “was inspired […] by a love of old-fashioned adventure” is a very inviting way of describing it. I thought of it as more of a homage to the penny dreadful, falling on the sillier side of sensational. This style just didn’t work for me the way it did in, say, the equally ludicrous The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton. It’s supposed to be fun, but it takes itself a little too seriously and still has old-fashioned tropes that could have been ‘modernised’.
The characters travel to Egypt where they meet a Ugandan guide who plays the funny, jolly foreigner with an odd way of speaking English. The female characters Fanshawe and Elizabeth might be independent, but too much emphasis is placed on their sex appeal. One of the male characters, a crude, overweight journalist named Bent, seems incapable of talking about any of the female characters without some reference to sex or their bodies. Maria, meanwhile, is a terribly pathetic damsel in distress (more on her later). And there’s Gideon, the traditional hero – a young man of humble origins, driven to heroism by the desire to avenge his father and save a girl.
I found it difficult to like Gideon. It’s possible to see him as adorably naïve but I just thought he was a twit. In fact the author wrote him as “a bit of an idiot” or at least “naïve and a dreamer” at the start, who will hopefully become “a bit more likeable and appealing as the story progresses” (My Bookish Ways). I don’t know if Barnett is referring to just this story or Gideon’s progression across forthcoming books, but I never warmed to him. A 24-year-old man who believes that his favourite adventure stories are the absolute truth just because they claim to be so? What a dope. It’s fine at the beginning of the book (after all, Gideon comes from a tiny village), but towards the end Gideon still can’t believe how much of Captain Trigger’s adventures are fictionalised despite many of the lies being revealed. Not that it really matters, because the story supports a more sensational view of the world. Gideon is deluded, but it’s his delusions that allow him to be a hero, as if this story were his own personal fantasy.
His greatest skill is memorising Captain Trigger’s adventures. Often, when he and his companions are in trouble, he thinks of a comparable situation from one of the stories, and employs whatever escape plan the characters used. And it works. Fiction serves reality, and because Gideon can quote or enact the fiction, because he’s so determined to live out his hero fantasy, the other characters start to look to him for guidance even though almost all of them are more experienced than he is.
And to be a true hero Gideon needs Maria – a suitably pathetic female character. The title suggests she is little more than a thing, and this is appropriate. When Gideon finds her, she’s being sexually abused by Crowe, a man who sees her as a mindless automaton. Crowe is a pervert, but you can’t blame him for not recognising Maria’s intelligence; she pretended to be mindless with him, never speaking because she “would not waste words on that scoundrel” who “would have merely heaped more insults upon me and enjoyed my pain yet further if he thought I […] could feel”. This sounds a bit thin to me, and as we later learn, Maria didn’t have to put up with Crowe at all – physically, she’s extremely strong. But somehow, she never knew this about herself so she’s in dire need of rescue.
When Gideon escapes with her, Crowe accuses him of theft. Gideon rightly points out that he’s liberating Maria, but Crowe has no reason to see it this way. Maria could easily prove her sentience at this moment and leave her abuser with a cutting remark, but she remains silent, which is her tendency for much of the novel. Entire scenes go by where Maria is present but never speaks. As one character states, “She’s a pretty little thing, but barely says a word and doesn’t even know her own name.”
And the plot treats her as a thing too. She was made using an artefact that the monsters seek for their secret plot, and until this is discovered she’s like a toy following Gideon around. Later she is abducted then rescued, but after her return no one asks her about her experience. It’s like they saved an artefact rather than a person. One character says to Gideon, “Hey, what’s a hero without a damsel in distress?” and that basically describes the rest of Maria’s role. Besides being an object within the plot, she’s there to be rescued by Gideon so he can be a proper hero, and to be beautiful so he can fall in love with her, which in turn serves to drive him to action.
I didn’t particularly enjoy reading about these two, but luckily they’re not really the main characters. The novel has a fantastic title but it’s a bit misleading because the narrative frequently switches its point of view between the many other major characters, particularly Bram Stoker and the misanthropic journalist Bent. It becomes a bit overwhelming at the end though, with frantic switches in POV to see various aspects of the action. I also have to add that Bent’s swearing gets extremely irritating. Not because he swears all the time – I don’t mind that – but because at some point he stops saying “fuck” and uses “eff!” and “effing” in almost every sentence. Drove me batshit.
A few remarks on world building. Steampunk Victorian England is always fun and I happily accept clockwork women who are almost indistinguishable from real women and dirigibles that can fly from one continent to another. There are some other issues that bugged me though. Because America’s revolution failed, France never gave them the Statue of Liberty. Instead they gave it to Britain “to celebrate the defeat of the Yankee rebels in 1775”. Which doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. No one was liberated so the statue (known as “The Lady of Liberty”) is pointless. In addition, France had freed itself from its own tyrannical monarchs, so why would they honour the monarch whose empire prevented America from doing the same? Then, for no reason other than sheer hubris, the Taj Mahal has been dismantled and is being rebuilt in England. This gargantuan task acts as a display of Victoria’s indomitable power, but I find it both unnecessary and bizarre.
At times, the novel is critical of this kind of power, but its overall stance is ambiguous, if not supportive of the British Empire. While a few characters rail against its unethical practices, the majority work to preserve its world dominance. Gideon’s determination to become a hero becomes a rather unthinking endeavour to protect Queen and… Empire.
If this book really does “explore the nature of heroism” as Barnett claims, then it makes some discomfiting observations. Firstly there’s something deluded and deceptive about heroism. There are heroes performing heroic acts, but this always involves lies and fiction in some way. It also needs a weakling like Maria to be threatened so the hero has an opportunity to be heroic. And at the end of the day, what heroism does – or at least the sort of heroism found in this novel – is preserve an imperious status quo. On the bright side, a few things suggest the the second and third books will have a more rebellious kind of heroism, which could make them more interesting than this one.
There are things I liked. Bram Stoker was an enjoyable character, and I liked seeing him find inspiration for Dracula, only to learn the ‘truth’ about vampires and take an alternate path. While I criticised the way Fanshawe and Elizabeth are oversexed, I have to admit that I do like how sexy they are while also being skilful and powerful. And at times the absurdity of the plot really was just as fun as intended. If you enjoy this sort of old-fashioned, penny-dreadful, Indiana-Jonesy sort of caper, you could have a lot of fun with this. I think maybe it’s just a little too old-fashioned for me.